The Saturday Evening Post - May 17, 1919
GEORGE hid her. He did it, too, without wasting precious time by asking questions. In a situation which might well have thrown the quickest witted of men off his balance he acted with promptitude, intelligence and dispatch. The fact is, George had for years been an assiduous golfer; and there is no finer school for teaching concentration and a strict attention to the matter in hand. Few crises, however unexpected, have the power to disturb a man who has so conquered the weakness of the flesh as to have trained himself to bend his left knee, raise his left heel, swing his arms well out from the body, twist himself into the shape of a corkscrew, and use the muscles of the wrist, at the same time keeping his head still and his eye on the ball. It is estimated that there are twenty-three important points to be borne in mind simultaneously while making a drive at golf; and to the man who has mastered the art of remembering them all the task of hiding girls in taxicabs is mere child’s play. To pull down the blinds on the side of the vehicle nearest the curb was with George the work of a moment. Then he leaned out of the center window in such a manner as completely to screen the interior of the cab from public view.
“Thank you so much,” murmured a voice behind him. It seemed to come from the floor.
“Not at all,” said George, trying a sort of vocal chip-shot out of the corner of his mouth, designed to loft his voice backward and lay it dead inside the cab.
He gazed upon Piccadilly with eyes from which the scales had fallen. Reason told him that he was still in Piccadilly. Otherwise it would have seemed incredible to him that this could be the same street which a moment before he had passed judgment upon and found flat and uninteresting. True, in its salient features it had altered little. The same number of stodgy-looking people moved up and down. The buildings retained their air of not having had a bath since the days of the Tudors. The east wind still blew. But, though superficially the same, in reality Piccadilly had altered completely. Before it had been just Piccadilly. Now it was a golden street in the City of Romance, a main thoroughfare of Bagdad, one of the principal arteries of the capital of Fairyland. A rose-colored mist swam before George’s eyes. His spirits, so low but a few moments back, soared like a good niblick shot out of the bunker of gloom. The years fell away from him, till in an instant, from being a rather poorly preserved, liverish graybeard of sixty-five or so, he became a sprightly lad of twenty-one in a world of springtime and flowers and laughing brooks. In other words, taking it by and large, George felt pretty good. The impossible had happened; heaven had sent him an adventure; and he didn’t care if it snowed.
It was possibly the rose-colored mist before his eyes that prevented him from observing the hurried approach of a faultlessly attired young man, aged about twenty-one, who during George’s preparations for insuring privacy in his cab had been galloping in pursuit in a resolute manner that suggested a well-dressed bloodhound somewhat overfed and out of condition. Only when this person stopped and began to pant within a few inches of his face did he become aware of his existence.
“You, sir!” said the bloodhound, removing a gleaming silk hat, mopping a pink forehead, and replacing the luminous superstructure once more in position. “You, sir!”
Whatever may be said of the possibility of love at first sight, in which theory George was now a confirmed believer, there can be no doubt that an exactly opposite phenomenon is of frequent occurrence. After one look at some people even friendship is impossible. Such a one, in George’s opinion, was this gurgling excrescence underneath the silk hat. He comprised in his single person practically all the qualities which George disliked most. He was, for a young man, extraordinarily obese. Already a second edition of his chin had been published, and the perfectly cut morning coat which incased his upper section bulged out in an opulent semicircle. He wore a little mustache, which to George’s prejudiced eye seemed more a complaint than a mustache. His face was red, his manner dictatorial and he was touched in the wind. Take him for all in all, he looked like a bit of bad news.
George had been educated at Lawrenceville and Harvard, and had subsequently had the privilege of mixing socially with many of New York’s most prominent theatrical managers; so he knew how to behave himself. No Vere de Vere could have exhibited greater repose of manner.
“And what,” he inquired suavely, leaning a little farther out of the cab, “is eating you, Bill?”
A messenger boy, two shabby men engaged in nonessential industries, and a shopgirl paused to observe the scene. Time was not of the essence to these confirmed sightseers. The shopgirl was late already, so it didn’t matter if she was any later; the messenger boy had nothing on hand except a message marked “Important: Rush”; and as for the two shabby men, their only immediate plans consisted of a vague intention of getting to some public house and leaning against the wall; so George’s time was their time. One of the pair put his head on one side and said “What ho!”; the other picked up a cigar stub from the gutter and began to smoke.
“A young lady just got into your cab,” said the stout young man.
“Surely not,” said George.
“What the devil do you mean?”
“I’ve been in the cab all the time, and I should have noticed it.”
At this juncture the block in the traffic was relieved and the cab bowled smartly on for some fifty yards, when it was again halted. George, protruding from the window like a snail, was entertained by the spectacle of the pursuit. The hunt was up. Short of throwing his head up and baying, the stout young man behaved exactly as a bloodhound in similar circumstances would have conducted itself. He broke into a jerky gallop, attended by his self-appointed associates; and, considering that the young man was so stout, that the messenger boy considered it unprofessional to hurry, that the shopgirl had doubts as to whether sprinting was quite ladylike, and that the two Bohemians were moving at a quicker gait than a shuffle for the first occasion in eleven years, the cavalcade made good time. The cab was still stationary when they arrived in a body.
“Here he is, guv’nor,” said the messenger boy, removing a bead of perspiration with the rush message.
“Here he is, guv’nor,” said the nonsmoking Bohemian. “What ho!”
“Here I am!” agreed George affably. “And what can I do for you?”
The smoker spat appreciatively at a passing dog. The point seemed to him well taken. Not for many a day had he so enjoyed himself. In an arid world containing too few goes of gin and too many policemen, a world in which the poor were oppressed and could seldom enjoy even a quiet cigar without having their fingers trodden upon, he found himself for the moment contented, happy and expectant. This looked like a row between toffs, and of all things which most intrigued him a row between toffs ranked highest.
“R!” he said approvingly. “Now you’re torkin’!”
The shopgirl had espied an acquaintance in the crowd. She gave tongue:
“Mordee! Cummere! Cummere quick! Sumfin’ hap’nin’!”
Maudie, accompanied by perhaps a dozen more of London’s millions, added herself to the audience. These all belonged to the class which will gather round and watch silently while a motorist mends a tire. They are not impatient. They do not call for rapid and continuous action. A mere hole in the ground, which of all sights is perhaps the least vivid and dramatic, is enough to grip their attention for hours at a time. They stared at George and George’s cab with unblinking gaze. They did not know what would happen or when it would happen, but they intended to wait till something did happen. It might be for years or it might be forever, but they meant to be there when things began to occur.
Speculations became audible.
“Wot is it? ’Naccident?”
“Nah! Gent ’ad ’is pocket picked!”
“Two toffs ’ad a scrap!”
“Feller bilked the cabman!”
A skeptic made a cynical suggestion.
“They’re doin’ of it for the pictures.”
The idea gained instant popularity.
“ ’Jear that? It’s a fillum!”
“Wot o’, Charlie?”
“The kemerer’s ’idden in the keb.”
“Wot’ll they be up to next?”
A red-nosed spectator, with a tray of collar studs harnessed to his stomach, started another school of thought. He spoke with decision, as one having authority:
“Nothin’ of the blinkin’ kind! The fat un’s bin ’avin’ one or two round the corner, and it’s gorn and got into ’is ’ead!”
The driver of the cab, who till now had been ostentatiously unaware that there was any sort of disturbance among the lower orders, suddenly became humanly inquisitive.
“What’s it all about?” he asked, swinging round and addressing George’s head.
“Exactly what I want to know,” said George. He indicated the collar-stud merchant. “The gentleman over there with the portable bargain counter seems to me to have the best theory.”
The stout young man, whose peculiar behavior had drawn all this flattering attention from the many-headed and who appeared considerably ruffled by the publicity, had been puffing noisily during the foregoing conversation. Now, having recovered sufficient breath to resume the attack, he addressed himself to George once more:
“Damn it, sir, will you let me look inside that cab?”
“Leave me,” said George; “I would be alone.”
“There is a young lady in that cab. I saw her get in, and I have been watching ever since and she has not got out, so she is there now.” George nodded approval of this close reasoning.
“Your argument seems to be without a flaw. But what then? We applaud the Man of Logic, but what of the Man of Action? What are you going to do about it?”
“Get out of my way!”
“Then I’ll force my way in!”
“If you try it I shall infallibly bust you one on the jaw.”
The stout young man drew back a pace.
“You can’t do that sort of thing, you know.”
“I know I can’t,” said George, “but I shall. In this life, my dear sir, we must be prepared for every emergency. We must distinguish between the unusual and the impossible. It would be unusual for a comparative stranger to lean out of a cab window and soak you one, but you appear to have laid your plans on the assumption that it would be impossible. Let this be a lesson to you!”
“I tell you what it is ——”
“The advice I give to every young man starting life is ‘Never confuse the unusual with the impossible!’ Take the present case, for instance. If you had only realized the possibility of somebody some day busting you on the jaw when you tried to get into a cab, you might have thought out dozens of crafty schemes for dealing with the matter. As it is you are unprepared. The thing comes on you as a surprise. The whisper flies round the clubs: ‘Poor old What’s-His-Name has been taken unawares. He cannot cope with the situation!’ ”
The man with the collar studs made another diagnosis. He was seeing clearer and clearer into the thing every minute.
“Looney!” he decided. “This ’ere one’s bin moppin’ of it up, and the one in the keb’s orf ’is bloomin’ onion. That’s why ’e’s standin’ up instead of settin’. ’E won’t set down ’cept you bring ’im a bit o’ toast, ’cos he thinks ’e’s a poached egg.”
George beamed upon the intelligent fellow.
“Your reasoning is admirable, but ——”
He broke off here, not because he had not more to say but for the reason that the stout young man, now in quite a berserk frame of mind, made a sudden spring at the cab door and clutched the handle, which he was about to wrench when George acted with all the promptitude and decision which had marked his behavior from the start.
It was a situation which called for the nicest judgment. To allow the assailant free play with the handle, or even to wrestle with him for its possession, entailed the risk that the door might open and reveal the girl. To bust the young man on the jaw as promised, on the other hand, was not in George’s eyes a practical policy. Excellent a deterrent as the threat of such a proceeding might be, its actual accomplishment was not to be thought of. Jails yawn and actions for assault lie in wait for those who go about the place busting their fellows on the jaw. No; something swift, something decided was indicated, but something that stopped short of technical battery.
George brought his hand round with a sweep and knocked the stout young man’s silk hat off.
The effect was magical. We all of us have our Achilles heel, and—paradoxically enough—in the case of the stout young man that heel was his hat. Superbly built by the only hatter in London who can construct a silk hat that is a silk hat, and freshly ironed by loving hands but a brief hour before at the only shaving-parlor in London where ironing is ironing and not a brutal attack, it was his pride and joy. To lose it was like losing his trousers. It made him feel insufficiently clad. With a passionate cry like that of some wild creature deprived of its young, the erstwhile berserk released the handle and sprang in pursuit. At the same moment the traffic moved on again.
The last George saw was a group scene with the stout young man in the middle of it. The hat had been popped up into the infield, where it had been caught by the messenger boy. The stout young man was bending over it and stroking it with soothing fingers. It was too far off for anything to be audible, but he seemed to George to be murmuring words of endearment to it. Then, placing it on his head, he darted out into the road and George saw him no more.
The audience remained motionless, staring at the spot where the incident had happened. They would continue to do this till the next policeman came along and moved them on.
With a pleasant wave of farewell, in case any of them might be glancing in his direction, George drew in his body and sat down.
The girl in brown had risen from the floor, if she had ever been there, and was now seated composedly at the farther end of the cab.
“WELL, that’s that!” said George.
“I’m so much obliged,” said the girl.
“It was a pleasure,” said George.
He was enabled now to get a closer, more leisurely, and much more satisfactory view of this distressed damsel than had been his good fortune up to the present. Small details which, when he had first caught sight of her, distance had hidden from his view, now presented themselves. Her eyes, he discovered, which he had supposed brown, were only brown in their general color scheme. They were shot with attractive little flecks of gold, matching perfectly the little streaks of gold which the sun, coming out again on one of his flying visits and now shining benignantly once more on the world, revealed in her hair. Her chin was square and determined, but its resoluteness was contradicted by a dimple and by the pleasant good humor of the mouth; and a further softening of the face was effected by the nose, which seemed to have started out with the intention of being dignified and aristocratic, but had defeated its purpose by tilting very slightly at the tip. This was a girl who would take chances, but would take them with a smile and laugh when she lost.
George was but an amateur physiognomist, but he could read what was obvious in the faces he encountered; and the more he looked at this girl the less was he able to understand the scene which had just occurred. The thing mystified him completely. For all her good humor, there was an air, a manner, a something capable and defensive about this girl with which he could not imagine any man venturing to take liberties. The gold-brown eyes, as they met his now, were friendly and smiling, but he could imagine them freezing into a stare baleful enough and haughty enough to quell such a person as the silk-hatted young man with a single glance. Why then had that superfatted individual been able to demoralize her to the extent of flying to the shelter of strange cabs? She was composed enough now, it was true, but it had been quite plain that at the moment when she entered the taxi her nerve had momentarily forsaken her. There were mysteries here beyond George.
The girl looked steadily at George and George looked steadily at her for the space of perhaps ten seconds. She seemed to George to be summing him up, weighing him. That the inspection proved satisfactory was shown by the fact that at the end of this period she smiled. Then she laughed, a clear, pealing laugh which to George was far more musical than the most popular song hit he had ever written.
“I suppose you are wondering what it’s all about?” she said. This was precisely what George was wondering most consumedly.
“No, no,” he said, “not at all. It’s not my business.”
“And of course you’re much too well bred to be inquisitive about other people’s business?”
“Of course I am. What was it all about?”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you.”
“But what am I to say to the cabman?”
“I don’t know. What do men usually say to cabmen?”
“I mean, he will feel very hurt if I don’t give him a full explanation of all this. He stooped from his pedestal to make inquiries just now. Condescension like that surely deserves some recognition.”
“Give him a nice big tip.”
George was reminded of his reason for being in the cab.
“I ought to have asked you before,” he said. “Where can I drive you?”
“Oh, I mustn’t steal your cab. Where were you going?”
“I was going back to my hotel. I came out without any money, so I shall have to go there first to get some.”
The girl started.
“What’s the matter?” asked George.
“I’ve lost my purse!”
“Good Lord! Had it much in it?”
“Not very much. But enough to buy a ticket home.”
“Any use my asking where that is?”
“None, I’m afraid.”
“I wasn’t going to, of course.”
“Of course not. That’s what I admire so much in you. You aren’t inquisitive.” George reflected.
“There’s only one thing to be done: You will have to wait in the cab at the hotel while I go and get some money. Then, if you’ll let me, I can lend you what you require.”
“It’s much too kind of you. Could you manage eleven shillings?”
“Easily. I’ve just had a legacy.”
“Of course, if you think I ought to be economical I’ll go third class. That would be only five shillings. Ten and six is the first-class fare. So you see the place I want to get to is two hours from London.”
“Well, that’s something to know.”
“But not much, is it?”
“I think I had better lend you a sovereign. Then you’ll be able to buy a lunch basket.”
“You think of everything. And you’re perfectly right. I shall be starving. But how do you know you will get the money back?”
“I’ll risk it.”
“Well, then, I shall have to be inquisitive and ask your name. Otherwise I shan’t know where to send the money.”
“Oh, there’s no mystery about me. I’m an open book.”
“You needn’t be horrid about it. I can’t help being mysterious.”
“I didn’t mean that.”
“It sounded as if you did. Well, who is my benefactor?”
“My name is George Bevan. I am staying at the Carlton at present.”
The taxi moved slowly down the Haymarket. The girl laughed.
“Yes?” said George.
“I was only thinking of back there. You know, I haven’t thanked you nearly enough for all you did. You were wonderful!”
“I’m very glad I was able to be of any help.”
“What did happen? You must remember I couldn’t see a thing except your back, and I could only hear indistinctly.”
“Well, it started by a man galloping up and insisting that you had got into the cab. He was a fellow with the appearance of a before-using advertisement of an antifat medicine and the manners of a ring-tailed chimpanzee.”
The girl nodded.
“Then it was Percy! I knew I wasn’t mistaken.”
“That is his name.”
“It would be! I could have bet on it.”
“What happened then?”
“I reasoned with the man, but didn’t seem to soothe him, and finally he made a grab for the door handle, so I knocked off his hat, and while he was retrieving it we moved on and escaped.”
The girl gave another silver peal of laughter.
“Oh, what a shame I couldn’t see it! But how resourceful of you! How did you happen to think of it?”
“It just came to me,” said George modestly.
A serious look came into the girl’s face. The smile died out of her eyes. She shivered. “When I think how some men might have behaved in your place!”
“Oh, no. Any man would have done just what I did. Surely, knocking off Percy’s hat was an act of simple courtesy which anyone would have performed automatically!”
“You might have been some awful bounder! Or, what would have been almost worse, a slow-witted idiot who would have stopped to ask questions before doing anything! To think I should have had the luck to pick you out of all London!”
“I’ve been looking on it as a piece of luck—but entirely from my viewpoint.”
She put a small hand on his arm and spoke earnestly:
“Mr. Bevan, you mustn’t think that because I’ve been laughing a good deal and have seemed to treat all this as a joke you haven’t saved me from real trouble. If you hadn’t been there and hadn’t acted with such presence of mind, it would have been terrible!”
“But surely, if that fellow was annoying you you could have called a policeman?”
“Oh, it wasn’t anything like that. It was much, much worse. But I mustn’t go on like this. It isn’t fair to you.” Her eyes lit up again with the old shining smile. “I know you have no curiosity about me, but still there’s no knowing whether I might not arouse some if I went on piling up the mystery. And the silly part is that really there’s no mystery at all. It’s just that I can’t tell anyone about it.”
“That very fact seems to me to constitute the makings of a pretty fair mystery.”
“Well, what I mean is, I’m not a princess in disguise trying to escape from anarchists, or anything like those things you read about in books. I’m just in a perfectly simple piece of trouble. You would be bored to death if I told you about it.”
She shook her head.
“No! Besides, here we are.” The cab had stopped at the hotel, and a commissionaire was already opening the door. “Now, if you haven’t repented of your rash offer and really are going to be so awfully kind as to let me have that money, would you mind rushing off and getting it, because I must hurry. I can just catch a good train, and it’s hours to the next.”
“Will you wait here? I’ll be back in a moment.”
The last George saw of her was another of those exhilarating smiles of hers. It was literally the last he saw of her, for when he returned not more than two minutes later, the cab had gone, the girl had gone, and the world was empty.
To him, gaping at this wholly unforeseen calamity, the commissionaire vouchsafed information.
“The young lady took the cab on, sir.”
“Took the cab on?”
“Almost immediately after you had gone, sir, she got in again and told the man to drive to Waterloo.”
George could make nothing of it. He stood there in silent perplexity, and might have continued to stand indefinitely, had not his mind been distracted by a dictatorial voice at his elbow.
A second taxicab had pulled up, and from it a stout, scarlet-faced young man had sprung. One glance told George all. The hunt was up once more. The bloodhound had picked up the trail. Percy was in again!
For the first time since he had become aware of her flight, George was thankful that the girl had disappeared. He perceived that he had too quickly eliminated Percy from the list of the Things That Matter. Engrossed with his own affairs, and having regarded their late skirmish as a decisive battle from which there would be no rallying, he had overlooked the possibility of this annoying and unnecessary person following them in another cab, a task which, in the congested, slow-moving traffic, must have been a perfectly simple one. Well, here he was, his soul manifestly all stirred up and his blood pressure at a far higher figure than his doctor would have approved of, and the matter would have to be opened all over again.
“Now then!” said the stout young man.
George regarded him with a critical and unfriendly eye. He disliked this fatty degeneration excessively. Looking him up and down he could find no point about him that gave him the least pleasure, with the single exception of the state of his hat, in the side of which he was rejoiced to perceive there was a large and unshapely dent.
“You thought you had shaken me off! You thought you’d given me the slip! Well, you’re wrong!”
George eyed him coldly.
“I know what’s the matter with you,” he said. “Someone’s been feeding you meat!”
The young man bubbled with fury. His face turned a deeper scarlet. He gesticulated.
“You blackguard! Where’s my sister?”
At this extraordinary remark the world rocked about George dizzily. The words upset his entire diagnosis of the situation. Until that moment he had looked upon this man as a Lothario, a pursuer of damsels. That the other could possibly have any right on his side had never occurred to him. He felt unmanned by the shock. It seemed to cut the ground from under his feet.
“You heard what I said! Where is she?”
George was still endeavoring to adjust his scattered faculties. He felt foolish and apologetic. He had imagined himself unassailably in the right, and it now appeared that he was in the wrong.
For a moment he was about to become conciliatory. Then the recollection of the girl’s panic and her hints at some trouble which threatened her—presumably through the medium of this man, brother or no brother—checked him. He did not know what it was all about, but the one thing that did stand out clearly in the welter of confused happenings was the girl’s need for his assistance. Whatever might be the rights of the case, he was her accomplice and must behave as such.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
The young man shook a large gloved fist in his face.
A rich, deep, soft, soothing voice slid into the heated scene. “What’s all this?”
A vast policeman had materialized from nowhere. He stood beside them, a living statue of vigilant authority. One thumb rested easily in his broad belt. The fingers of the other hand caressed lightly a mustache that had caused more heartburnings among the gentler sex than any other two mustaches in the C Division. The eyes above the mustache were stern and questioning.
“What’s all this?”
George liked policemen. He knew the way to treat them. His voice, when he replied, had precisely the correct note of respectful deference which the force likes to hear.
“I really couldn’t say, officer,” he said with just that air of having in a time of trouble found a kind elder brother to help him out of his difficulties, which made the constable his ally on the spot. “I was standing here, when this man suddenly made his extraordinary attack on me. I wish you would ask him to go away.”
The policeman tapped the stout young man on the shoulder.
“This won’t do, you know!” he said austerely. “This sort o’ thing won’t do ’ere, you know!”
“Take your hands off me!” snorted Percy.
A frown appeared on the Olympian brow. Jove reached for his thunderbolts.
“ ’Ullo! ’Ullo! ’Ullo!” he said in a shocked voice, as of a god defied by a mortal. “ ’Ullo! ’Ullo! ’Ul-lo!”
His fingers fell on Percy’s shoulder again, but this time not in a mere warning tap. They rested where they fell, in an iron clutch.
“It won’t do, you know!” he said. “This sort o’ thing won’t do!”
Madness came upon the stout young man. Common prudence and the lessons of a carefully taught youth fell from him like a garment. With an incoherent howl he wriggled round and punched the policeman smartly in the stomach.
“Ho!” quoth the outraged officer, suddenly becoming human. His left hand removed itself from the belt, and he got a businesslike grip on his adversary’s collar. “Well, you come along with me!”
It was amazing. The thing had happened in such an incredibly brief space of time. One moment, it seemed to George, he was the center of a nasty row in one of the most public spots in London; the next, the focus had shifted; he had ceased to matter, and the entire attention of the metropolis was focused on his late assailant, as, urged by the arm of the law, he made that journey to Vine Street Police Station which so many a better man than he had trod.
George watched the pair as they moved up the Haymarket, followed by a growing and increasingly absorbed crowd; then he turned into the hotel.
“This,” he said to himself, “is the middle of a perfect day! And I thought London dull!”
GEORGE awoke next morning with a misty sense that somehow the world had changed. As the last remnants of sleep left him he was aware of a vague excitement. Then he sat up in bed with a jerk. He had remembered that he was in love.
There was no doubt about it. A curious happiness pervaded his entire being. He felt young and active. Everything was emphatically for the best in this best of all possible worlds. The sun was shining. Even the sound of someone in the street below whistling one of his old compositions, of which he had heartily sickened twelve months before, was pleasant to his ears; and this in spite of the fact that the unseen whistler only touched the key in odd spots and had a poor memory for tunes. George sprang lightly out of bed and turned on the cold tap in the bathroom. While he lathered his face for its morning shave he beamed at himself in the mirror.
It had come at last. The Real Thing.
George had never been in love before—not really in love. True, from the age of fifteen, he had been in varying degrees of intensity attracted sentimentally by the opposite sex. Indeed, at that period of life of which Mr. Booth Tarkington has written so searchingly—the age of seventeen—he had been in love with practically every female he met and with dozens whom he had only seen in the distance; but ripening years had mellowed his taste and robbed him of that fine romantic catholicity. During the last five years women had left him more or less cold. It was the nature of his profession that had largely brought about this cooling of the emotions. To a man who, like George, has worked year in and year out at the composition of musical comedies, woman comes to lose many of those attractive qualities which ensnare the ordinary male. To George, of late years, it had begun to seem that the salient feature of woman as a sex was her disposition to kick. For five years he had been wandering in a world of women, many of them beautiful, all of them superficially attractive, who had left no other impress on his memory except the vigor and frequency with which they had kicked. Some had kicked about their musical numbers, some about their love scenes, some had grumbled about their exit lines, others about the lines of their second-act frocks. They had kicked in a myriad differing ways—wrathfully, sweetly, noisily, softly, smilingly, tearfully, pathetically and patronizingly; but they had all kicked, with the result that woman had now become to George not so much a flaming inspiration or a tender goddess as something to be dodged—tactfully if possible, but if not possible, by open flight. For years he had dreaded to be left alone with a woman, and had developed a habit of gliding swiftly away when he saw one bearing down on him.
The psychological effect of such a state of things is not difficult to realize. Take a man of naturally quixotic temperament, a man of chivalrous instincts and a feeling for romance, and cut him off for five years from the exercise of those qualities, and you get an accumulated store of foolishness only comparable to an escape of gas in a sealed room or a cellarful of dynamite. A flicker of a match, and there is an explosion.
This girl’s tempestuous irruption into his life had supplied the flame for George. Her bright eyes, looking into his, had touched off the spiritual trinitrotoluol which he had been storing up for so long. Up in the air in a million pieces had gone the prudence and self-restraint of a lifetime. And there he was, as desperately in love as any troubadour of the Middle Ages.
It was not till he had finished shaving and was testing the temperature of his bath with a shrinking toe that the realization came over him in a wave that, though he might be in love, the fairway of love was dotted with more bunkers than any golf course he had ever played on in his life. In the first place, he did not know the girl’s name. In the second place, it seemed practically impossible that he would ever see her again. Even in the midst of his optimism George could not deny that these facts might reasonably be considered in the nature of obstacles.
He went back into his bedroom and sat on the bed. This thing wanted thinking over.
He was not depressed, only a little thoughtful. His faith in his luck sustained him. He was, he realized, in the position of a man who has made a supreme drive from the tee and finds his ball near the green but in a cuppy lie. He had gained much; it now remained for him to push his success to the happy conclusion. The driver of luck must be replaced by the spoon—or possibly the niblick—of ingenuity. To fail now, to allow this girl to pass out of his life merely because he did not know who she was or where she was, would stamp him a feeble adventurer. A fellow could not expect luck to do everything for him. He must supplement its assistance with his own efforts.
What had he to go on? Well, nothing much, if it came to that, except the knowledge that she lived some two hours by train out of London and that her journey started from Waterloo Station. What would Sherlock Holmes have done? Concentrated thought supplied no answer to the question; and it was at this point that the cheery optimism with which he had begun the day left George and gave place to a gray gloom. A dreadful phrase, haunting in its pathos, crept into his mind. Ships that pass in the night! It might easily turn out that way. Indeed, thinking over the affair in all its aspects as he dried himself after his tub, George could not see how it could possibly turn out any other way.
He dressed moodily, and left the room to go down to breakfast. Breakfast would at least alleviate this sinking feeling which was unmanning him. And he could think more briskly after a cup or two of coffee.
He opened the door. On the mat outside lay a letter. The handwriting was feminine. It was also in pencil and strange to him. He opened the envelope.
“Dear Mr. Bevan,” it began.
With a sudden leap of the heart he looked at the signature.
The letter was signed “The Girl in the Cab.”
“Dear Mr. Bevan: I hope you won’t think me very rude, running off without waiting to say good-by. I had to. I saw Percy driving up in a cab, and knew that he must have followed us. He did not see me, so I got away all right. I managed splendidly about the money, for I remembered that I was wearing a nice brooch, and stopped on the way to the station to pawn it.
“Thank you ever so much again for all your wonderful kindness.
“The Girl in the Cab.”
George read the note twice on the way down to the breakfast room and three times more during the meal; then, having committed its contents to memory down to the last comma, he gave himself up to glowing thoughts.
What a girl! He had never in his life before met a woman who could write a letter without a postscript, and this was but the smallest of her unusual gifts. The resource of her, to think of pawning that brooch! The sweetness of her to bother to send him a note! More than ever before was he convinced that he had met his ideal, and more than ever before was he determined that a triviality like being unaware of her name and address should not keep him from her. It was not as if he had no clew to go upon. He knew that she lived two hours from London and started home from Waterloo. It narrowed the thing down absurdly. There were only about three counties in which she could possibly live; and a man must be a poor fellow who is incapable of searching through a few small counties for the girl he loves. Especially a man with luck like his.
Luck is a goddess not to be coerced and forcibly wooed by those who seek her favors. From such masterful spirits she turns away. But it happens sometimes that, if we put our hand in hers with the humble trust of a little child, she will have pity on us and not fail us in our hour of need. On George, hopefully waiting for something to turn up, she smiled almost immediately.
It was George’s practice, when he lunched alone, to relieve the tedium of the meal with the assistance of reading matter in the shape of one or more of the evening papers. To-day, sitting down to a solitary repast at the Piccadilly Grillroom, he had brought with him an early edition of the Evening News. And one of the first items which met his eye was the following, embodied in a column on one of the inner pages devoted to humorous comments in prose and verse on the happenings of the day. This particular happening the writer had apparently considered worthy of being dignified by rime. It was headed:
The Peer and the Policeman
“Outside the Carlton, ’tis averred, these stirring happenings occurred. The hour, ’tis said—and no one doubts—was half-past two, or thereabouts. The day was fair, the sky was blue, and everything was peaceful, too, when suddenly a well-dressed gent engaged in heated argument and roundly to abuse began another well-dressed gentleman. His suède-gloved fist he raised on high to dot the other in the eye. Who knows what horrors might have been, had there not come upon the scene old London city’s favorite son, Policeman C-231? ‘What means this conduct? Prithee stop!’ exclaimed that admirable slop. With which he placed a warning hand upon the brawler’s collar band. We simply hate to tell the rest. No subject here for flippant jest. The mere remembrance of the tale has made our ink turn deadly pale. Let us be brief. Some demon sent stark madness on the well-dressed gent. He gave the constable a punch just where the latter kept his lunch. The constable said: ‘Well! Well! Well!’ and marched him to a dungeon cell. At Vine Street Station out it came—Lord Belpher was the culprit’s name. But British justice is severe alike on pauper and on peer; with even hand she holds the scale; a thumping fine, in lieu of jail, induced Lord B. to feel remorse and learn he mustn’t punch the force.”
George’s mutton chop congealed on the plate untouched. The French-fried potatoes cooled off, unnoticed. This was no time for food. Rightly indeed had he relied upon his luck. It had stood by him nobly. With this clew all was over except getting to the nearest free library and consulting Burke’s Peerage. He paid his check and left the restaurant.
Ten minutes later he was drinking in the pregnant information that Belpher was the family name of the Earl of Marshmoreton, and that the present earl had one son, Percy Wilbraham Marsh, educ Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, and what the book with its customary curtness called one d—Patricia Maud. The family seat, said Burke, was Belpher Castle, Belpher, Hants.
Some hours later, seated in a first-class compartment of a train that moved slowly out of Waterloo Station, George watched London vanish behind him. In the pocket closest to his throbbing heart was a one-way ticket to Belpher.
AT ABOUT the time that George Bevan’s train was leaving Waterloo, a gray racing car drew up with a grinding of brakes and a sputter of gravel in front of the main entrance of Belpher Castle. The slim and elegant young man at the wheel removed his goggles, pulled out a watch, and addressed the stout young man at his side:
“Two hours and eighteen minutes from Hyde Park Corner, Boots. Not so dusty, what?”
His companion made no reply. He appeared to be plunged in thought. He, too, removed his goggles, revealing a florid and gloomy face, equipped, in addition to the usual features, with a small mustache and an extra chin. He scowled forbiddingly at the charming scene which the goggles had hidden from him.
Before him, a symmetrical mass of gray-stone and green ivy, Belpher Castle towered against a light-blue sky. On either side rolling park land spread as far as the eye could see, carpeted here and there with violets, dotted with great oaks and ashes and Spanish chestnuts, orderly, peaceful and English. Nearer, on his left, were rose gardens, in the center of which, tilted at a sharp angle, appeared the seat of a pair of corduroy trousers, whose wearer seemed to be engaged in hunting for snails. Thrushes sang in the green shrubberies; rooks cawed in the elms. Somewhere in the distance sounded the tinkle of sheep bells and the lowing of cows. It was, in fact, a scene which, lit by the evening sun of a perfect spring day and fanned by a gentle westerly wind, should have brought balm and soothing meditations to one who was the sole heir to all this paradise.
But Percy, Lord Belpher, remained uncomforted by the notable coöperation of man and Nature, and drew no solace from the reflection that all these pleasant things would one day be his own. His mind was occupied at the moment, to the exclusion of all other thoughts, by the recollection of that painful scene in Bow Street Police Court. The magistrate’s remarks, which had been tactless and unsympathetic, still echoed in his ears. And that infernal night in Vine Street Police Station . . . the darkness . . . the hard bed . . . the discordant vocalizing of the drunk and disorderly in the next cell! Time might soften these memories, might lessen the sharp agony of them; but nothing could remove them altogether.
Percy had been shaken to the core of his being. Physically, he was still stiff and sore from the plank bed. Mentally, he was a volcano. He had been marched up the Haymarket in the full sight of all London by a bounder of a policeman. He had been talked to like an erring child by a magistrate whom nothing could convince that he had not been under the influence of alcohol at the moment of his arrest. The man had said things about his liver, kindly be-warned-in-time-and-pull-up-before-it-is-too-late things, which would have seemed to Percy indecently frank if spoken by his medical adviser in the privacy of the sick chamber. It is, perhaps, not to be wondered at that Belpher Castle, for all its beauty of scenery and architecture, should have left Lord Belpher a little cold. He was seething with a fury which the conversation of Reggie Byng had done nothing to allay in the course of the journey from London. Reggie was the last person he would willingly have chosen as a companion in his hour of darkness. Reggie was not soothing. He would insist on addressing him by his old Eton nickname of Boots, which Percy detested. And all the way down he had been breaking out at intervals into ribald comments on the recent unfortunate occurrence which were very hard to hear.
He resumed this vein as they alighted and rang the bell.
“This,” said Reggie, “is rather like a bit out of a melodrama. Convict son totters up the steps of the old home and punches the bell. What awaits him beyond? Forgiveness? Or the raspberry? True, the white-haired butler, who knew him as a child, will sob on his neck, but what of the old dad? How will dad take the blot on the family escutcheon?”
Lord Belpher’s scowl deepened. “It’s not a joking matter,” he said coldly.
“Great heavens, I’m not joking! How could I have the heart to joke at a moment like this, when the friend of my youth has suddenly become a social leper ——”
“I wish to goodness you would stop.”
“Do you think it is any pleasure to me to be seen about with a man who is now known in criminal circles as Percy, the Piccadilly Policeman Puncher? I keep a brave face before the world, but inwardly I burn with shame and agony and what not.”
The great door of the castle swung open, revealing Keggs, the butler. He was a man of reverend years, portly and dignified, with a respectfully benevolent face that beamed gravely on the young master and Mr. Byng, as if their coming had filled his cup of pleasure. His light, slightly protruding eyes expressed reverential good will. He gave just that touch of cosy humanity to the scene which the hall with its half lights and massive furniture needed to make it perfect to the returned wanderer. He seemed to be intimating that this was a moment to which he had looked forward long, and that from now on quiet happiness would reign supreme. It is distressing to have to reveal the jarring fact that, in his hours of privacy when off duty, this apparently ideal servitor was so far from being a respecter of persons that he was accustomed to speak of Lord Belpher as “Percy,” and even as “His Nibs.” It was, indeed, an open secret among the upper servants at the castle, and a fact hinted at with awe among the lower, that Keggs was at heart a socialist.
“Good evening, your lordship. Good evening, sir.”
Lord Belpher acknowledged the salutation with a grunt, but Reggie was more affable.
“How are you, Keggs? Now’s your time, if you’re going to do it.” He stepped a little to one side and indicated Lord Belpher’s crimson neck with an inviting gesture.
“I beg your pardon, sir?”
“Ah. You’d rather wait till you can do it a little more privately. Perhaps you’re right.”
The butler smiled indulgently. He did not understand what Reggie was talking about, but that did not worry him. He had long since come to the conclusion that Reggie was slightly mad, a theory supported by the latter’s valet, who was of the same opinion. Keggs did not dislike Reggie, but intellectually he considered him negligible.
“Send something to drink into the library, Keggs,” said Lord Belpher.
“Very good, your lordship.”
“A topping idea,” said Reggie. “I’ll just take the old car round to the garage, and then I’ll be with you.”
He climbed to the steering wheel and started the engine. Lord Belpher proceeded to the library, while Keggs melted away through the green-baize door at the end of the hall which divided the servants’ quarters from the rest of the house.
Reggie had hardly driven a dozen yards when he perceived his stepmother and Lord Marshmoreton coming toward him from the direction of the rose garden. He drew up to greet them.
“Hullo, mater! What ho, uncle! Back again at the old homestead, what?”
Beneath Lady Caroline’s aristocratic front agitation seemed to lurk.
“Reggie, where is Percy?”
“Old Boots? I think he’s gone to the library. I just decanted him out of the car.”
Lady Caroline turned to her brother.
“Let us go to the library, John.”
“All right. All right. All right,” said Lord Marshmoreton irritably. Something appeared to have ruffled his calm.
Reggie drove on. As he was strolling back after putting the car away he met Maud.
“Hullo, Maud, dear old thing.”
“Why, hullo, Reggie! I was expecting you back last night.”
“Couldn’t get back last night. Had to stick in town and rally round old Boots. Couldn’t desert the old boy in his hour of trial.” Reggie chuckled amusedly. “ ‘Hour of trial’ is rather good, what? What I mean to say is, that’s just what it was, don’t you know.”
“Why, what happened to Percy?”
“Do you mean to say you haven’t heard? Of course not. It wouldn’t have been in the morning papers. Why, Percy punched a policeman.”
“Percy did what?”
“Slugged a slop. Most dramatic thing. Sloshed him in the midriff. Absolutely. The cross marks the spot where the tragedy occurred.”
Maud caught her breath. Somehow, though she could not trace the connection, she felt that this extraordinary happening must be linked up with her escapade. Then her sense of humor got the better of apprehension. Her eyes twinkled delightedly.
“You don’t mean to say Percy did that?”
“Absolutely. The human tiger and what not. Menace to society and all that sort of thing. No holding him. For some unexplained reason the generous blood of the Belphers boiled over, and then—zing! They jerked him off to Vine Street. Like the poem, don’t you know. ‘And poor old Percy walked between with gyves upon his wrists.’ And this morning, bright and early, the beak parted him from ten quid. You know, Maud, old thing, our duty stares us plainly in the eyeball. We’ve got to train old Boots down to a reasonable weight and spring him on the National Sporting Club. We’ve been letting a champion middleweight blush unseen under our very roof-tree.”
Maud hesitated a moment.
“I suppose you don’t know,” she asked carelessly, “why he did it? I mean, did he tell you anything?”
“Couldn’t get a word out of him. Oysters garrulous and tombs chatty in comparison. Absolutely. All I know is that he popped one into the officer’s waistband. What led up to it is more than I can tell you. How would it be to stagger to the library and join the post mortem?”
“The post mortem?”
“Well, I met the mater and his lordship on their way to the library, and it looked to me very much as if the mater must have got hold of an evening paper on her journey from town. When did she arrive?”
“Only a short while ago.”
“Then that’s what’s happened. She would have bought an evening paper to read in the train. By Jove, I wonder if she got hold of the one that had the poem about it. One chappie was so carried away by the beauty of the episode that he treated it in verse. I think we ought to look in and see what’s happening.”
Maud hesitated again. But she was a girl of spirit. And she had an intuition that her best defense would be attack. Bluff was what was needed, wide-eyed, innocent wonder. After all, Percy couldn’t be certain he had seen her in Piccadilly.
“By the way, dear old girl,” inquired Reggie, “did your little business come out satisfactorily? I forgot to ask.”
“Not very. But it was awfully sweet of you to take me into town.”
“How would it be,” said Reggie nervously, “not to dwell too much on that part of it? What I mean to say is, for heaven’s sake don’t let the mater know I rallied round.”
“Don’t worry,” said Maud with a laugh. “I’m not going to talk about the thing at all.”
Lord Belpher, meanwhile, in the library, had begun with the aid of a whisky and soda to feel a little better. There was something about the library with its somber half tones that soothed his bruised spirit. The room held something of the peace of a deserted city. The world, with its violent adventures and tall policemen, did not enter here. There was balm in those rows and rows of books which nobody ever read, those vast writing tables at which nobody ever wrote. From the broad mantelpiece the bust of some unnamed ancient looked down almost sympathetically. Something remotely resembling peace had begun to steal into Percy’s soul, when it was expelled by the abrupt opening of the door and the entry of Lady Caroline Byng and his father. One glance at the face of the former was enough to tell Lord Belpher that she knew all. He rose defensively:
“Let me explain.”
Lady Caroline quivered with repressed emotion. This masterly woman had not lost control of herself, but her aristocratic calm had seldom been so severely tested. As Reggie had surmised, she had read the report of the proceedings in the evening paper in the train, and her world had been reeling ever since. Cæsar, stabbed by Brutus, could scarcely have experienced a greater shock. The other members of her family had disappointed her often. She had become inured to the spectacle of her brother working in the garden in corduroy trousers and in other ways behaving in a manner beneath the dignity of an Earl of Marshmoreton. She had resigned herself to the innate flaw in the character of Maud which had allowed her to fall in love with a nobody whom she had met without an introduction. Even Reggie had exhibited at times democratic traits of which she thoroughly disapproved. But of her nephew Percy she had always been sure. He was solid rock. He at least, she had always felt, would never do anything to injure the family prestige. And now, so to speak, “Lo, Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.” In other words, Percy was the worst of the lot.
Whatever indiscretions the rest had committed, at least they had never got the family name into the comic columns of the evening papers. Lord Marshmoreton might wear corduroy trousers and refuse to entertain the county at garden parties, and go to bed with a book when it was his duty to act the host at a formal ball; Maud might give her heart to an impossible person whom nobody had ever heard of; and Reggie might be seen at fashionable restaurants with pugilists; but at any rate evening-paper poets had never written facetious verses about their exploits. This crowning degradation had been reserved for the hitherto blameless Percy, who, of all the young men of Lady Caroline’s acquaintance, had till now appeared to have the most scrupulous sense of his position, the most rigid regard for the dignity of his great name. Yes, here he was, if the carefully considered reports in the daily press were to be believed, spending his time in the very springtide of his life running about London like a frenzied Hottentot, brutally assaulting the police. Lady Caroline felt as a bishop might feel if he suddenly discovered that some favorite curate had gone over to the worship of Mumbo Jumbo.
“Explain?” she cried. “How can you explain? You, my nephew, the heir to the title, behaving like a common rowdy in the streets of London . . . your name in the papers ——”
“If you knew the circumstances ——”
“The circumstances? They are in the evening paper. They are in print.”
“In verse,” added Lord Marshmoreton. He chuckled amiably at the recollection. He was an easily amused man. “You ought to read it, my boy. Some of it was capital.”
“But deplorable, of course,” added Lord Marshmoreton hastily, “very deplorable.” He endeavored to regain his sister’s esteem by a show of righteous indignation. “What do you mean by it, dammit? You’re my only son. I have watched you grow from child to boy, from boy to man, with tender solicitude. I have wanted to be proud of you. And all the time, dash it, you are prowling about London like a lion, seeking whom you may devour, terrorizing the metropolis, putting harmless policemen in fear of their lives ——”
“Will you listen to me for a moment?” shouted Percy. He began to speak rapidly, as one conscious of the necessity of saying his say while the saying was good. “The facts are these: I was walking along Piccadilly on my way to lunch at the club, when, near Burlington Arcade, I was amazed to see Maud.”
Lady Caroline uttered an exclamation.
“Maud? But Maud was here.”
“I can’t understand it,” went on Lord Marshmoreton, pursuing his remarks. Righteous indignation had, he felt, gone well. It might be judicious to continue in that vein, though privately he held the opinion that nothing in Percy’s life so became him as this assault on the force. Lord Marshmoreton, who in his time had committed all the follies of youth, had come to look on his blameless son as scarcely human. “It’s not as if you were wild. You’ve never got into any scrapes at Oxford. You’ve spent your time collecting old china and prayer rugs. You wear flannel next your skin ——”
“Will you please be quiet,” said Lady Caroline impatiently. “Go on, Percy.”
“Oh, very well,” said Lord Marshmoreton. “I only spoke. I merely made a remark.”
“You say you saw Maud in Piccadilly, Percy?”
“Precisely. I was on the point of putting it down to an extraordinary resemblance, when suddenly she got into a cab. Then I knew.”
Lord Marshmoreton could not permit this to pass in silence. He was a fair-minded man.
“Why shouldn’t the girl have got into a cab? Why must a girl walking along Piccadilly be my daughter Maud just because she got into a cab? London,” he proceeded, warming to the argument and thrilled by the clearness and coherence of his reasoning, “is full of girls who take cabs.”
“She didn’t take a cab.”
“You just said she did,” said Lord Marshmoreton cleverly.
“I said she got into a cab. There was somebody else already in the cab—a man. Aunt Caroline, it was the man.”
“Good gracious!” ejaculated Lady Caroline, falling into a chair as if she had been hamstrung.
“I am absolutely convinced of it,” proceeded Lord Belpher solemnly. “His behavior was enough to confirm my suspicions. The cab had stopped in a block of the traffic, and I went up and requested him in a perfectly civil manner to allow me to look at the lady who had just got in. He denied that there was a lady in the cab. And I had seen her jump in with my own eyes. Throughout the conversation he was leaning out of the window with the obvious intention of screening whoever was inside from my view. I followed him along Piccadilly in another cab, and tracked him to the Carlton. When I arrived there he was standing on the pavement outside. There were no signs of Maud. I demanded that he tell me her whereabouts ——”
“That reminds me,” said Lord Marshmoreton cheerfully, “of a story I read in one of the papers. I daresay it’s old. Stop me if you’ve heard it. A woman says to the maid: ‘Do you know anything of my husband’s whereabouts?’ And the maid replies ——”
“Do be quiet!” snapped Lady Caroline. “I should have thought that you would be interested in a matter affecting the vital welfare of your only daughter.”
“I am. I am,” said Lord Marshmoreton hastily. “The maid replies: ‘They’re at the wash.’ Of course I am. Go on, Percy! Don’t take all day telling us your story!”
“At that moment the fool of a policeman came up and wanted to know what the matter was. I lost my head, I admit it freely. The policeman grasped my shoulder and I struck him.”
“Where?” asked Lord Marshmoreton, a stickler for detail.
“What does that matter?” demanded Lady Caroline. “You did quite right, Percy. These insolent jacks in office ought not to be allowed to manhandle people. Tell me, what was this man like?”
“Extremely ordinary looking. In fact, all I can remember about him was that he was clean shaven. I cannot understand how Maud could have come to lose her head over such a man. He seemed to me to have no attraction whatever,” said Lord Belpher, a little unreasonably, for Apollo himself would hardly appear attractive when knocking one’s best hat off.
“It must have been the same man.”
“Precisely. If we wanted further proof, he was an American. You recollect that we heard that the man in Wales was American.”
There was a portentous silence. Percy stared at the floor. Lady Caroline breathed deeply. Lord Marshmoreton, feeling that something was expected of him, said “Good Gad!” and gazed seriously at a stuffed owl on a bracket. Maud and Reggie Byng came in.
“What ho, what ho, what ho!” said Reggie breezily. He always believed in starting a conversation well and putting people at their ease. “What ho! What ho!”
Maud braced herself for the encounter.
“Hullo, Percy dear,” she said, meeting her brother’s accusing eye with the perfect composure that comes only from a thoroughly guilty conscience. “What’s all this I hear about your being the scourge of London? Reggie says that policemen dive down manholes when they see you coming.”
The chill in the air would have daunted a less courageous girl. Lady Caroline had risen and was staring sternly. Percy was puffing the puffs of an overwrought soul. Lord Marshmoreton, whose thoughts had wandered off to the rose garden, pulled himself together and tried to look menacing. Maud went on without waiting for a reply. She was all bubbling gayety and insouciance, a charming picture of young English girlhood that nearly made her brother foam at the mouth.
“Father dear,” she said, attaching herself affectionately to his buttonhole, “I went round the links in eighty-three this morning. I did the long hole in four. One under par, a thing I’ve never done before in my life.”
“Bless my soul!” said Lord Marshmoreton weakly, as, with an apprehensive eye on his sister, he patted his daughter’s shoulder.
“First, I sent a screecher of a drive right down the middle of the fairway. Then I took my brassy and put the ball just on the edge of the green—a hundred and eighty yards if it was an inch. My approach putt ——”
Lady Caroline, who was no devotee of the royal and ancient game, interrupted the recital:
“Never mind what you did this morning. What did you do yesterday afternoon?”
“Yes,” said Lord Belpher. “Where were you yesterday afternoon?”
Maud’s gaze was the gaze of a young child who has never even attempted to put anything over in all its little life.
“Whatever do you mean?”
“What were you doing in Piccadilly yesterday afternoon?” said Lady Caroline.
“Piccadilly? The place where Percy fights policemen? I don’t understand.”
Lady Caroline was no sportsman. She put one of those direct questions, capable of being answered only by Yes or No, which ought not to be allowed in controversy. They are the verbal equivalent of shooting a sitting bird.
“Did you or did you not go to London yesterday, Maud?”
The monstrous unfairness of this method of attack pained Maud. From childhood up she had held the customary feminine views upon the lie direct. As long as it was a question of suppression of the true or suggestion of the false, she had no scruples. But she had a distaste for deliberate falsehood. Faced now with a choice between two evils, she chose the one which would at least leave her her self-respect.
“Yes, I did.”
Lady Caroline looked at Lord Belpher. Lord Belpher looked at Lady Caroline.
“You went to meet that American of yours?”
Reggie Byng slid softly from the room. He felt that he would be happier elsewhere. He had been an acutely embarrassed spectator of this distressing scene, and had been passing the time by shuffling his feet, playing with his coat buttons and perspiring.
“Don’t go, Reggie,” said Lord Belpher.
“Well, what I mean to say is . . . family row and what not . . . if you see what I mean . . . I’ve one or two things I ought to do.”
He vanished. Lord Belpher frowned a somber frown.
“Then it was that man who knocked my hat off.”
“What do you mean?” said Lady Caroline. “Knocked your hat off? You never told me he knocked your hat off.”
“It was when I was asking him to let me look inside the cab. I had grasped the handle of the door when he suddenly struck my hat, causing it to fly off. And while I was picking it up he drove away.”
“C’k,” exploded Lord Marshmoreton. “C’k, c’k, c’k.” He twisted his face by a supreme exertion of will power into a mask of indignation. “You ought to have had the scoundrel arrested,” he said vehemently. “It was a technical assault.”
“The man who knocked your hat off, Percy,” said Maud, “was not—he was a different man altogether, a stranger.”
“As if you would be in a cab with a stranger,” said Lady Caroline caustically. “There are limits, I hope, to even your indiscretions.”
Lord Marshmoreton cleared his throat. He was sorry for Maud, whom he loved.
“Now, looking at the matter broadly ——”
“Be quiet,” said Lady Caroline.
Lord Marshmoreton subsided.
“I wanted to avoid you,” said Maud, “so I jumped into the first cab I saw.”
“I don’t believe it,” said Percy.
“It’s the truth.”
“You are simply trying to put us off the scent.”
Lady Caroline turned to Maud. Her manner was plaintive. She looked like a martyr at the stake, who deprecatingly lodges a timid complaint, fearful the while lest she may be hurting the feelings of her persecutors by appearing even for a moment out of sympathy with their activities.
“My dear child, why will you not be reasonable in this matter? Why will you not let yourself be guided by those who are older and wiser than you?”
“Exactly,” said Lord Belpher.
“The whole thing is too absurd.”
“Precisely,” said Lord Belpher.
Lady Caroline turned on him irritably:
“Please do not interrupt, Percy. Now you’ve made me forget what I was going to say.”
“To my mind,” said Lord Marshmoreton, coming to the surface once more, “the proper attitude to adopt on occasions like the present ——”
“Please!” said Lady Caroline.
Lord Marshmoreton stopped, and resumed his silent communion with the stuffed bird,
“You can’t stop yourself being in love, Aunt Caroline,” said Maud.
“You can be stopped, if you’ve somebody with a level head looking after you.”
Lord Marshmoreton tore himself away from the bird.
“Why, when I was at Oxford in the year ’89,” he said chattily, “I fancied myself in love with the female assistant at a tobacconist shop. Desperately in love, dammit! Wanted to marry her. I recollect my poor father took me away from Oxford and kept me here at Belpher under lock and key. Lock and key, dammit! I was deucedly upset at the time, I remember.” His mind wandered off into the glorious past. “I wonder what that girl’s name was. Odd one can’t remember names. She had chestnut hair and a mole on the side of her chin. I used to kiss it, I recollect ——”
Lady Caroline, usually such an advocate of her brother’s researches into the family history, cut the reminiscences short.
“Never mind that now.”
“I don’t—I got over it. That’s the moral.”
“Well,” said Lady Caroline, “at any rate poor father acted with great good sense on that occasion. There seems nothing to do but to treat Maud in just the same way. You shall not stir a step from the castle till you have got over this dreadful infatuation. You will be watched.”
“I shall watch you,” said Lord Belpher solemnly. “I shall watch your every movement.”
A dreamy look came into Maud’s brown eyes.
“ ‘Stone walls do not a prison make nor iron bars a cage,’ ” she said softly.
“That wasn’t your experience, Percy, my boy,” said Lord Marshmoreton.
“They make a very good imitation,” said Lady Caroline coldly, ignoring the interruption.
Maud faced her defiantly. She looked like a princess in captivity, facing her jailers.
“I don’t care. I love him, and I always shall love him and nothing is ever going to stop me loving him—because I love him,” she concluded a little lamely.
“Nonsense,” said Lady Caroline. “In a year from now you will have forgotten his name. Don’t you agree with me, Percy?”
“Quite,” said Lord Belpher.
“Deuced hard things to remember, names,” said Lord Marshmoreton. “If I’ve tried once to remember that tobacconist girl’s name, I’ve tried a hundred times. I have an idea it began with an L. Muriel or Hilda or something.”
“Within a year,” said Lady Caroline, “you will be wondering how you ever came to be so foolish. Don’t you think so, Percy?”
“Quite,” said Lord Belpher.
Lord Marshmoreton turned on him irritably.
“Boy, can’t you answer a simple question with a plain affirmative? What do you mean—quite? If somebody came to me and pointed you out and said ‘Is that your son?’ do you suppose I should say ‘Quite’? I wish the devil you didn’t collect prayer rugs. It’s sapped your brain.”
“They say prison life often weakens the intellect, father,” said Maud. She moved toward the door and turned the handle. Albert, the page boy, who had been courting earache by listening at the keyhole, straightened his small body and scuttled away.
“Well, is that all, Aunt Caroline? May I go now?”
“Certainly. I have said all I wished to say.”
“Very well. I’m sorry to disobey you, but I can’t help it.”
“You’ll find you can help it after you’ve been cooped up here for a few more months,” said Percy.
A gentle smile played over Maud’s face.
“ ‘Love laughs at locksmiths,’ ” she murmured softly, and passed from the room.
“What did she say?” asked Lord Marshmoreton, interested. “Something about somebody laughing at a locksmith? I don’t understand. Why should anyone laugh at locksmiths? Most respectable men. Had one up here only the day before yesterday, forcing open the drawer of my desk. Watched him do it. Most interesting. He smelt rather strongly of a damned bad brand of tobacco. Fellow must have a throat of leather to be able to smoke the stuff. But he didn’t strike me as an object of derision. From first to last, I was never tempted to laugh once.”
Lord Belpher wandered moodily to the window and looked out into the gathering darkness.
“And this has to happen,” he said bitterly, “on the eve of my twenty-first birthday.”
(to be continued)
Note: Thanks to Neil Midkiff for providing the transcription and images for this story.