McClure’s Magazine, October 1914
SIR GODFREY TANNER, K.C.M.G., was dining alone in his chambers at the Albany. Before him, a plate of soup so clear and serene that it seemed wrong to ruffle its surface relieved the snowy whiteness of the table-cloth. Subdued lights shone on costly and tasteful furniture. Behind him, Jevons, for the last fifteen years his faithful servant, wrestled decorously with a bottle of hock.
A peaceful scene.
The thought passed through Sir Godfrey’s mind, as he allowed his spoon to volplane slowly down into the golden lake, that life was very pleasant. He had ample means. As a Colonial governor, he had had just that taste of power and authority which is enough for the sensible man: more might have spoiled him for the simpler pleasures of life; less would have left him restless and unsatisfied. He had had exactly enough, and was now ready to dream away the rest of his life in this exceedingly comfortable hermit’s cell, supported by an excellent digestion, ministered to by the faithful Jevons.
A muffled pop behind him occurred here, almost as if there had been a stage direction for it. The sound seemed to emphasize the faithfulness of Jevons, working unseen in his master’s interests. It filled Sir Godfrey with a genial glow of kindliness. What a treasure Jevons was! What a model of all that a gentleman’s valet should be! Existence without Jevons would be unthinkable.
As he mused, Jevons silently manifested himself, bottle in hand. He filled Sir Godfrey’s glass.
“A little ice, Jevons.”
“Very good, Sir Godfrey.”
Sir Godfrey addressed himself once more to his soup. He glowed with benevolence. What an admirable fellow Jevons was! How long was it that they had been together? Fifteen years? And in all that time——
“Wow!” shrieked Sir Godfrey, and leaped from his chair with an agility highly creditable in one who strained his tailor’s tact almost to the breaking-point every time he had to submit himself to the tape-measure.
For one moment he doubted his senses. It was incredible that that should have happened which had happened. Jevons was Jevons. An archbishop might have done this thing, but not Jevons.
But the evidence was incontrovertible. It was—at present—solid, not to be brushed aside.
Facts were facts, even if they seemed to outrage the fundamental laws of nature.
Jevons, for fifteen years a paragon of every possible virtue, had put a piece of ice down the back of his master’s neck.
If this were one of those psychological novels, I should set apart five chapters here for an analysis of Sir Godfrey’s emotions. I should show fury, astonishment, and fear chasing one another through his mind. Above all, I should dwell on his incredulity. For, even with a lump of ice slowly dissolving at the base of his collar and distributing chilly moisture down his spine, he could only just bring himself to believe that it was Jevons who had done this thing.
Sir Godfrey turned like a wounded lion. There was a terrible pause.
Jevons was certainly wonderful. He met his employer’s gaze with grave solicitude.
“I think it would be wise, Sir Godfrey,” he said, “if you were to change your upper garments. The night is mild, but it is unwise to risk a chill. I will go and lay out another shirt.”
He disappeared silently into the bedroom, leaving Sir Godfrey staring at the spot where he had been. From the other side of the door came the sound of a drawer opening and the rustle of linen.
Sir Godfrey received the clean shirt from his hands without a word. Already the thaw had set in in earnest, and his back was both clammy and cold. At his age, it was highly imprudent to remain in this condition for any length of time. He had a thousand things that he wished to say all at once, but they must keep.
In fearful silence, he changed his clothes. Then he wheeled round upon his companion of fifteen years.
“Now, then!” he snorted.
“I am extremely sorry that this should have happened, Sir Godfrey. I regret it exceedingly.”
There was something in the man’s imperturbability that ruined the speech which the ex-Governor had intended to deliver. He had meant, when he once began, to go on for about ten minutes. But, somehow, Jevons’ attitude made it impossible to begin.
He condensed the meaning of the proposed speech into a question:
“What did you do it for? What—the—devil did you do it for?”
“I am extremely sorry, Sir Godfrey, but I just felt I had to. It sort of came over me. It is difficult to explain myself.”
“It was a kind of what I may describe as an impulse, sir. I was just coming from behind with the piece of ice in the tongs, thinking of nothing except to put it in the glass, when it suddenly crossed my mind that I’d been doing the same thing night in and night out for fifteen years, and it came over me what a long time it was, and all. And then you leaned forward to drink the soup. And, somehow, I just couldn’t resist it. I now regret it exceedingly.”
Sir Godfrey gulped.
“You’ll go to-morrow.”
Jevons bowed again.
“Shall I serve the fish, Sir Godfrey?”
He seemed to regard the incident as closed.
Dinner was resumed in silence. Sir Godfrey’s mind was still in a whirl. All he realized clearly was that the end of the world had come. He had dismissed Jevons, and without Jevons life was impossible. But he was not going to alter his decision. By Gad, no—not if he had to spend the rest of his existence in beastly hotels being maddened to distraction by a set of blanked incompetents who were probably foreign spies. And that seemed to him at the moment his only course, for the idea of engaging a successor to the victim of impulse was too bizarre to be grappled with yet. Better change his old habits entirely than try to struggle along with a hideous parody of them; better forgo valets altogether than endeavor to replace Jevons. There was only one Jevons, and he had put ice down his neck and must go. At whatever cost to himself, Jevons must go. That was settled and done with.
“I mean it,” he snapped over his shoulder, as the other filled his liqueur glass.
“I say I mean it. What I said. You must go.”
“Just so, Sir Godfrey.”
He placed the cigars on the table. Sir Godfrey selected one, cracked the end of it, and placed it in the flame which his still faithful servant held for him. It was a magnificent cigar, and the first puff almost softened him to the extent of changing his mind. But dignity jerked at the reins.
“Of course, I’ll give you a character.”
“Thank you, Sir Godfrey; but I do not feel as if I could take service with anybody but yourself. I have saved money. I shall retire.”
“Just so, Sir Godfrey.”
“Leave me your address.”
Sir Godfrey scowled. He was feeling nervous. More, there was a suggestion of a death-bed parting about this interview which he found strangely weakening. Fifteen years! As Jevons had said, it was a long time.
“Your address. You know perfectly well that I promised you a small—er— Confound it, the pension, man!”
“I had imagined that after what has occurred——”
“Don’t be a fool! That will be all. I am going to the club; I shall not want you any more to-night.”
“Very good, sir.”
He closed the door softly. Sir Godfrey sat on, chewing the end of his cigar.
A week later, Sir Godfrey sat in his private sitting-room at the Hotel Guelph, and kicked moodily at a foot-stool.
“This,” he said to himself, “is perfectly infernal.”
He got up and began to pace the floor.
“If I stop any longer in this pot-house, I shall go mad.”
Of course, he was doing the place an injustice. The Guelph is one of the three best hotels in London. The management pride themselves on making their guests as comfortable as modern ingenuity will allow. There was every possible convenience in this suite to which Sir Godfrey had fled from the Albany, which for him was now haunted. The bed was good; the food was admirable; the furniture had been chosen with taste, regardless of expense; in the bath-room there were about fifty-seven varieties of tap for the use of the luxurious bather.
And Sir Godfrey spoke of it as a pot-house. But then, the Hotel Guelph had one defect which outweighed all its merits. It could not supply him with a valet who had been with him for fifteen years.
Literature, which has dwelt so earnestly on almost every possible kind of bereavement, from the lost wife to the lost collar-stud, has been strangely silent on the subject of what is possibly the most poignant bereavement of any—the loss of the perfect valet. Sir Godfrey had never been married, but he felt at this moment as if he would have parted with the best of wives without one hundredth part of the pang that the loss of Jevons had caused him. Fifteen years had made Jevons a part of him. Losing Jevons was like losing a leg.
But he was not going to take him back. All his life he had been a victim of what his admirers called determination and his detractors pig-headedness, and he never reversed a decision.
“I’ll get out of here to-day,” he said to himself.
A thought struck him.
“I’ll go and spend a week or two with George.”
He wondered why he had not thought of it before. He saw now where his initial mistake had lain: he had tried to carry on, without Jevons, the sort of life with which Jevons had been so closely associated. It was all very well to leave the Albany and move to the Guelph, but that was not enough. He was still in the groove in which he had been in the days before Jevons had left him. He still spent his evenings at his club, rode in the Row, and so on—actions irretrievably connected with Jevons. What he must do, he decided, was to get temporarily into some entirely different milieu. He must go to the country. And it was the thought of the country that had suggested George.
George Tanner kept a private school in Kent. What was more, he had started this school on money lent to him by Sir Godfrey. The money had since been returned, with interest, for George’s venture had proved a success; but Sir Godfrey considered that his nephew had cause to be grateful to him, and consequently saw no reason why he should not descend upon him in the middle of a term, demanding food and shelter. He did not even prepay the telegram in which he announced his visit, but arrived on the heels of it, sure of his welcome.
George received him with a rather worried geniality. He stood in awe of his uncle, as did most of those who knew him. Sir Godfrey, in years gone by, had spanked him with a hair-brush for breaking his bedroom window with a tennis-ball, and this and similar episodes of the stormy past colored George’s attitude toward him, even though he was now in the thirties and had begun to grow gray at the temples. Besides, in a school, even the most genial visitor is not an unmixed blessing.
It was a peculiarity of George’s school that there was no sharp division between the boys’ part of the house and that of the proprietor. The inhabitants of the rambling old mansion lived like a large family.
Sir Godfrey had not anticipated this, and in the early days of his visit it nearly drove him mad. There were boys everywhere, in the house and out of it—boys who yelled unexpectedly in a man’s ear; boys who shot out of doorways at incredible rates of speed within a hair’s-breadth of a man’s prominent and sensitive stomach; boys who, when their shyness had worn off, asked a man endless questions on every subject under the sun.
Sir Godfrey’s original idea had been that he would live the life of a recluse, wandering about the grounds by day and bullying nephew George in the evenings. He soon discovered that he had no more chance of being a recluse than if he had been a traffic policeman. A hundred times he was on the point of leaving; but every time the thought of solitude in a hotel kept him where he was. These boys were maddening, but hotel life was worse.
And then, one morning as he lay in bed, he achieved an attitude of mind which, he felt, would enable him to bear his present mode of life with fortitude, if not with enjoyment. For the rest of his life, as he sat in his lonely hotel sitting-room, he argued, he would not be mourning the fact that he was not at the Albany with Jevons: he would be thanking his stars that he was not at his nephew George’s school. It was the same process of thought which leads a philosopher suffering from a blend of toothache and earache to cheer himself up by reflecting how much worse off he would be if he had a combination of rheumatism and St. Vitus’ dance.
He had found the solution. It was simply wonderful, what a difference it made. His whole nervous system became miraculously soothed. Where, when a shouting boy whizzed past his waistcoat, he had puffed and trembled for minutes together in an ecstasy of fear and indignation, he now stood firm and calm, and sometimes even achieved an indulgent smile.
And, as the days passed, the indulgent smile became more and more frequent. The process was so subtle that he could not have said when it began; but a curious change had taken place in his outlook. It was with almost a shock that he realized, one day, that he was rather enjoying this strange life, and that these boys were not so utterly repulsive, after all.
Till now, he had lumped them together with all other existing small boys under the collective head of infernal nuisances. He was beginning to revise this view. With something of the thrill of a scientific discoverer, he awoke to the fact that boys were human beings, who did things for definite reasons and not purely from innate deviltry. The reason, for instance, why Thomas Billing, aged eleven, had eaten a slice of bread covered with brown boot polish was that Rupert Atkinson, aged fourteen, had dared him to. He had done it, in other words, not for the pleasure of making himself ill, but to preserve his self-respect. Nations have gone to war for reasons less compelling.
“It wouldn’t have mattered,” explained Thomas gravely to Sir Godfrey, “if I hadn’t said I could do it. But I did; and he said you couldn’t—you’d be afraid; and I said I bet you I wouldn’t; and he said, well, I dare you. So of course I had to.”
“Of course,” agreed Sir Godfrey, with equal gravity, and marveled at himself as he spoke. He had a curious feeling that he was growing younger, that he was renewing his boyhood. It amazed him, the clearness with which he saw Thomas Billing’s view-point.
But then, Thomas was a wonderfully engaging child. He was sympathetic and had tact.
“When you first came here,” he said to Sir Godfrey one day, “I thought you were P. P. Tanner.”
A week before, Sir Godfrey would have said, “And who the deuce may P. P. Tanner be?” Now this strange rejuvenating process made him aware that to ask who the deuce P. P. Tanner might be would be practically equivalent to striking Thomas Billing across the face and pouring cold water on him. From the way he had spoken, it was plain that Thomas’ reverence for P. P. Tanner was something to be respected.
“Oh?” he said.
“But I expect you used to be awfully good at football, too,” said Thomas. “I expect you were as good as P. P. Tanner, really.”
Sir Godfrey modestly disclaimed any rivalry with his great namesake.
“No, no,” he said. “P. P. Tanner is one of the best players alive.”
Which was handsome of him, considering that until then he had been ignorant of the man’s existence. But what can a gentleman do but repay tact with tact?
In the third week of his uncle’s visit, nephew George, blinking with astonishment, came upon his guest playing a species of ball game in the stable-yard. He was playing unskilfully, but with extreme energy; and his face, when he joined George, was damp and purple.
A belated sense of his dignity awoke in Sir Godfrey. He felt that George must not get a wrong idea of what he had just witnessed.
“I have been doing my best to amuse these little fellows, George.”
“I was watching you.”
Sir Godfrey coughed a little self-consciously.
“They seemed to wish me to join in their game. I did not like to disappoint them. I suppose there was a time when one might really have enjoyed ridiculous foolery of that kind.”
“It’s a good game.”
“For children, possibly. Merely for children. However, it certainly appears to be capital exercise. My doctor strongly recommended me exercise. I—I have half a mind to play again to-morrow.”
“If you enjoy it——”
“ ‘Enjoy’ is altogether too strong a word. But a man of my build requires a certain amount of exercise. My doctor was emphatic. By Gad, I’ll do it every day.”
One morning, a few days later, Sir Godfrey, sunning himself after breakfast, came upon his young friend Thomas Billing, plainly depressed. That he should have noticed this depression at all is proof of the alteration in Sir Godfrey’s outlook. A week or so before he would simply have seen a small boy, with his hands in his pockets, kicking pebbles; and, if he had given the matter a second thought, would merely have felt relieved that the boy was not shouting or rushing about. Now, however, his sharpened faculties enabled him to see a friend in distress.
“What’s the matter, my boy?”
“It’s an air-rifle,” said Thomas, with a certain vagueness.
“Mine. He confiscated it.”
The pronoun “he,” used without reference to a foregoing substantive, indicated nephew George in the little world in which Sir Godfrey now moved.
“Confiscated it, by Gad? Did he really? Well, well!”
Quite a glow of indignation permeated him. Too bad of George, spoiling people’s pleasure like that. True, Thomas, armed with an air-rifle, might conceivably have done a certain amount of damage to the windows of the establishment, but that did not alter the fact that to confiscate his weapon was a high-handed action, by Gad!
And he made his way to his nephew’s study, with the idea of reasoning with him. It was absurd that George should go about the place, confiscating people’s air-rifles in this manner.
George was not there, but the rifle was. It lay on the window-sill, a harmless toy, with a box of ammunition beside it. Sir Godfrey picked it up and examined it curiously.
There is probably no action possible to man which so unfailingly restores his lost youth as the handling of an air-rifle. There is something in the feel of the wood and the gleam of the steel which rolls away the years as if by some magic spell. Toying with the confiscated rifle of Thomas Billing, Sir Godfrey was a boy again.
“By Gad,” he murmured, as he took imaginary aim, “I’ve shot sparrows with these things. By Gad, I have. It all comes back to me, by Gad!”
And at that moment he perceived, beside a flower-bed not twenty yards away, the broad back view of Herbert, the school gardener.
Sir Godfrey was in a dangerously excited mood. He was not himself. He was, indeed, at that moment a matter of fifty years younger than himself. No boy could have resisted the temptation, and in the last five minutes Sir Godfrey had become a boy.
One is reluctantly compelled to admit that he did not even hesitate. The only thought in his mind was that this was the chance of a life-time. Trembling with eagerness, he loaded the rifle, aimed, fired, and ducked behind the curtain.
It was stupendous. Herbert, a good two hundred pounds of solid flesh, leaped like a young gazel. With gleaming eyes Sir Godfrey saw him turn and turn again, scanning the world for the author of this outrage. For a full minute he looked accusingly at the house, while the house looked back at him with its empty windows. Then, his lips moving silently, he bent to his work again.
Sir Godfrey crept from his hiding-place, and dipped his fingers into the box of bullets. He thrilled with pride at the excellence of his aim and the Red Indian cunning with which he had secreted his portly form behind the curtain at just the right moment.
Once more Herbert was scanning an unsympathetic world, while Sir Godfrey, behind the curtain, glowed with pride and satisfaction. It had been a credit to him, that last shot, for he had not been able to devote so much time to his aim. True, there was a good deal of Herbert. Still, it was no mean feat, hitting him with what was practically a snap-shot.
Sir Godfrey crept cautiously from his lair and reached for the bullet-box. This was certainly the life!
If it were not for the aftermath, crime would be the jolliest thing in the world. His actual crime gave Sir Godfrey the happiest five minutes he could recall in a long and not ill-spent life. During the brief engagement he had been quite drunk with sinful pride.
And then came the reaction. One moment he was a happy child, pumping lead into the lower section of a gardener; the next, a man of age, position, and respectability, acutely conscious of having committed an unpardonable assault on a harmless fellow citizen. He sank back into a convenient chair, his face a light mauve, the nearest approach nature would permit to an ashen pallor.
Ghastly thoughts raced through his brain. Discovery—action for assault—vindictive prosecutor—heavy fine—imprisonment—strong remarks from the Bench—ruined reputation—or, worse, verdict of insanity—evening of life spent in padded cell. . . .
He writhed in his chair.
At dinner that night nephew George appeared amused.
“It’s nothing to laugh at, really,” he said, “but you can’t help it. I was laughing when I licked him. Young Tom Billing. Apparently he spent a happy morning shooting at the gardener with an air-gun. With a confiscated air-gun, too! You never know what the little brutes——”
Sir Godfrey uttered a strangled gurgle.
“George! George, my dear boy! What are you saying?”
“Your friend Tom ——”
“The gardener came to me and made a complaint. I harangued the school, and invited the criminal to confess. The Billing child stepped forward.”
“He said that he did it?”
“Yes. Why, what’s the matter, uncle?”
Sir Godfrey drew a deep breath.
“Nothing, my boy; nothing at all,” he said.
Sir Godfrey writhed in his bed, a chastened man. Relief, shame, and a stunned admiration for the quixotic generosity of the younger generation forbade sleep. He understood the whole thing so clearly. This boy Billing must have seen the episode, realized the consequences if it were brought home to the real criminal, and, prompted by pure amiability, sacrificed himself to save his friend. Among the few pleasant thoughts that came to Sir Godfrey that night was the resolve to make Thomas Billing his sole heir, give him a pony, buy him everything he could suggest, and take him to the pantomime next Christmas.
He met the young hero next morning after breakfast. To his surprise, his benefactor seemed more than a little sheepish. He shuffled his feet. He even blushed.
Finally he spoke:
“I hope you aren’t frightfully angry about it, sir. It was such a splendid idea, and I know it was frightful cheek, my pretending I had done it, after you’d thought of it and all that; but I thought you wouldn’t mind. You don’t know what a difference it makes to a chap if chaps think he’s done a thing like that. It makes them look up to you frightfully. I only came here this term; and I’m too small to be much good at games just yet, so of course they don’t think much of me. But now, you see, it’s all right.”
Sir Godfrey was silent.
“You don’t really mind my saying it was me, do you?” said Thomas anxiously. “Of course, if you say I must, I’ll tell them that it was really you. Of course, you ought to have the credit of it. So, if you want me to——”
“By no means. By no means. By—ah—by no means!”
“Thanks awfully, sir,” said Thomas gratefully.
There was a pause.
“I expect you really think it was frightful cheek, don’t you, sir? I honestly didn’t mean to do it, because I’d seen the whole thing and I knew I’d no right to pretend it was me. But when he asked who had done it, it—it sort of came over me.”
Sir Godfrey uttered a startled cry:
“The impulse of the moment!”
Sir Godfrey had produced paper, and was writing.
“I want you to take a telegram for me at once to the village, my little man,” he said. “I will tell Mr. Tanner I sent you. It is most important. Here it is. Can you read it? My handwriting is shaky this morning. I am much disturbed, much disturbed.”
Thomas scanned the message.
“ ‘Jones, 193 Adelaide Street, Fulham Road, London.’ ”
“Jevons, Jevons, Jevons, my boy, not Jones. J-e-v-o-n-s.”
“ ‘Be prepared to rejoin me in—in——’ ”
“ ‘Instantly. Everything forgiven. Await letter. Godfrey Tanner.’ There, you have it now. Run with it at once. It is most—it is vitally important.”