The Saturday Evening Post - May 31, 1919
YOUR true golfer is a man who, knowing that life is short and perfection hard to attain, neglects no opportunity of practicing his chosen sport, allowing neither wind nor weather nor any external influence to keep him from it. There is a story, with an excellent moral lesson, of a golfer whose wife had determined to leave him forever. “Will nothing alter your decision?” he says. “Will nothing induce you to stay? Well, then, while you’re packing I think I’ll go out on the lawn and rub up my putting a bit.”
George Bevan was of this turn of mind. He might be in love; Romance might have sealed him for her own; but that was no reason for blinding himself to the fact that his long game was bound to suffer if he neglected to keep himself up to the mark. His first act on arriving at Belpher Village had been to ascertain whether there was a links in the neighborhood; and thither, on the morning after his visit to the castle and the delivery of the two notes, he repaired.
At the hour of the day which he had selected the clubhouse was empty and he had just resigned himself to a solitary game when, with a whirr and a rattle, a gray racing-car drove up and from it emerged the same long young man whom, a couple of days earlier, he had seen wriggle out from underneath the same machine. It was Reggie Byng’s habit, also, not to allow anything, even love, to interfere with golf; and not even the prospect of hanging about the castle grounds in the hope of catching a glimpse of Alice Faraday and exchanging timorous words with her had been enough to keep him from the links.
Reggie surveyed George with a friendly eye. He had a dim recollection of having seen him before somewhere at some time or other, and Reggie had the pleasing disposition which caused him to rank anybody whom he had seen somewhere at some time or other as a bosom friend.
“Hullo! Hullo! Hullo!” he observed.
“Good morning,” said George.
“Waiting for somebody?”
“How about it, then? Shall we stagger forth?”
George found himself speculating upon Reggie. He was unable to place him. That he was a friend of Maud he knew, and guessed that he was also a resident of the castle. He would have liked to question Reggie, to probe him, to collect from him inside information as to the progress of events within the castle walls; but it is a peculiarity of golf, as of love, that it temporarily changes the natures of its victims; and Reggie, a confirmed babbler off the links, became while in action a stern, silent, intent person, his whole being centered on the game. With the exception of a casual remark of a technical nature when he met George on the various tees and an occasional expletive when things went wrong with his ball, he eschewed conversation. It was not till the end of the round that he became himself again.
“If I’d known you were such hot stuff,” he declared as George holed his eighteenth putt from a distance of ten feet, “I’d have got you to give me a stroke or two.”
“I was on my game to-day,” said George modestly. “Sometimes I slice as if I were cutting bread and can’t putt to hit a haystack.”
“Let me know when one of those times comes along, and I’ll take you on again. I don’t know when I’ve seen anything fruitier than the way you got out of the bunker at the fifteenth. It reminded me of a match I saw between . . . ” Reggie became technical. At the end of his observations he climbed into the gray car.
“Can I drop you anywhere?”
“Thanks,” said George, “if it’s not taking you out of your way.”
“I’m staying at Belpher Castle.”
“I live quite near there. Perhaps you’d care to come in and have a drink on your way?”
“A ripe scheme!” agreed Reggie. Ten minutes in the gray car ate up the distance between the links and George’s cottage. Reggie Byng passed these minutes, in the intervals of eluding carts and foiling the apparently suicidal intentions of some stray fowls, in jerky conversation on the subject of his iron-shots, with which he expressed a deep dissatisfaction.
“Topping little place! Absolutely!” was the verdict he pronounced on the exterior of the cottage, as he followed George in. “I’ve often thought it would be a rather sound scheme to settle down in this sort of shanty and keep chickens and grow a honey-colored beard and have soup and jelly brought to you by the vicar’s wife, and so forth. Nothing to worry you then! Do you live all alone here?”
George was busy squirting seltzer into his guest’s glass.
“Yes. Mrs. Platt comes in and cooks for me—the farmer’s wife next door.”
An exclamation from the other caused him to look up. Reggie Byng was staring at him, wide-eyed.
“Great Scott—Mrs. Platt! Then you’re the chappie!”
George found himself unequal to the intellectual pressure of the conversation.
“The chappie there’s all the row about. The mater was just telling me that you lived here.”
“Is there a row about me?”
“Is there what!” Reggie’s manner became solicitous. “I say, my dear old sportsman, I don’t want to be the bearer of bad tidings and what not, if you know what I mean, but didn’t you know there was a certain amount of angry passions rising and so forth because of you? At the castle, I mean? I don’t want to seem to be discussing your private affairs, and all that sort of thing, but what I mean is—well, you don’t expect you can come charging in the way you have without touching the family on the raw a bit. The daughter of the house falls in love with you; the son of the house languishes in chokey because he has a row with you in Piccadilly; and on top of all that you come here and camp out at the castle gates! Naturally the family are a bit peeved. Only natural, eh? I mean to say, what?”
George listened to this address in bewilderment. Maud in love with him! It sounded incredible. That he should love her after their one meeting was a different thing altogether. That was perfectly natural and in order. But that he should have had the incredible luck to win her affection—the thing struck him as grotesque and ridiculous.
“In love with me?” he cried. “What on earth do you mean?”
Reggie’s bewilderment equaled his own.
“Well, dash it all, old top, it surely isn’t news to you? She must have told you. Why, she told me!”
“Told you? Am I going mad?”
“Absolutely! I mean, absolutely not! Look here.” Reggie hesitated. The subject was delicate. But, once started, it might as well be proceeded with to some conclusion. A fellow couldn’t go on talking about his iron-shots after this, just as if nothing had happened. This was a time for the laying down of cards, the opening of hearts. “I say, you know,” he went on, feeling his way, “you’ll probably think it deuced rummy of me talking like this—perfect stranger and what not—don’t even know each other’s names.”
“Mine’s Bevan, if that’ll be any help.”
“Thanks very much, old chap. Great help! Mine’s Byng. Reggie Byng. Well, as we’re all pals here and the meeting’s tiled and so forth, I’ll start by saying that the mater is most deucedly set on my marrying Lady Maud. Been pals all our lives, you know. Children together, and all that sort of rot. Now there’s nobody I think a more corking sportsman than Maud, if you know what I mean, but—this is where the catch comes in—I’m most frightfully in love with somebody else. Hopeless, and all that sort of thing, but still there it is. And all the while the mater behind me with a bradawl, sicking me on to propose to Maud, who wouldn’t have me if I were the only fellow on earth. You can’t imagine, my dear old chap, what a relief it was to both of us when she told me the other day that she was in love with you and wouldn’t dream of looking at anybody else. I tell you I went singing about the place!”
George felt inclined to imitate his excellent example. A burst of song was the only adequate expression of the mood of heavenly happiness which this young man’s revelations had brought upon him. The whole world seemed different. Wings seemed to sprout from Reggie’s shapely shoulders. The air was filled with soft music. Even the wall paper seemed moderately attractive.
He mixed himself a second highball. It was the next best thing to singing.
“I see,” he said. It was difficult to say anything. Reggie was regarding him enviously.
“I wish I knew how the deuce fellows set about making a girl fall in love with them. Other chappies seem to do it, but I can’t even start. She seems to sort of gaze through me, don’t you know. She kind of looks at me as if I were more to be pitied than censured, but as if she thought I really ought to do something about it. Of course she’s a devilish brainy girl and I’m a fearful chump. Makes it kind of hopeless, what?”
George, in his new-born happiness, found a pleasure in encouraging a less lucky mortal.
“Not a bit. You ought to ——”
“Yes?” said Reggie eagerly.
George shook his head.
“No, I don’t know,” he said.
“Nor do I, dash it!” said Reggie.
“It seems to me it’s purely a question of luck. Either you’re lucky or you’re not. Look at me, for instance. What is there about me to make a wonderful girl love me?”
“Nothing! I see what you mean. At least, what I mean to say is ——”
“No. You were right the first time. It’s all a question of luck. There’s nothing anyone can do.”
“I hang about a good deal and get in her way,” said Reggie. “She’s always tripping over me. I thought that might help a bit.”
“It might, of course.”
“But, on the other hand, when we do meet I can’t think of anything to say.”
“Deuced funny thing. I’m not what you’d call a silent sort of chappie by nature. But when I’m with her—I don’t know. It’s rum!” He drained his glass and rose. “Well, I suppose I may as well be staggering. Don’t get up. Have another game one of these days, what?”
“Splendid. Any time you like.”
“Well, so long.”
George gave himself up to glowing thoughts. For the first time in his life he seemed to be vividly aware of his own existence. It was as if he were some newly created thing. Everything around him and everything he did had taken on a strange and novel interest. He seemed to notice the ticking of the clock for the first time. When he raised his glass the action had a curious air of newness. All his senses were oddly alert. He could even ——
“How would it be,” inquired Reggie, appearing in the doorway like part of a conjuring trick, “if I gave her a flower or two every now and then? Just thought of it as I was starting the car. She’s fond of flowers.”
“Fine!” said George heartily. He had not heard a word. The alertness of sense which had come to him was accompanied by a strange inability to attend to other people’s speech. This would no doubt pass, but meanwhile it made him a poor listener.
“Well, it’s worth trying,” said Reggie. “I’ll give it a whirl. Toodleoo!”
Reggie withdrew, and presently came the noise of the car starting. George returned to his thoughts.
Time, as we understand it, ceases to exist for a man in such circumstances. Whether it was a minute later or several hours, George did not know; but presently he was aware of a small boy standing beside him, a golden-haired boy with blue eyes, who wore the uniform of a page. He came out of his trance. This, he recognized, was the boy to whom he had given the note for Maud. He was different from any other intruder. He meant something in George’s scheme of things.
“ ’Ullo!” said the youth.
“Hullo Alphonso!” said George.
“My name’s not Alphonso.”
“Well, you be very careful or it soon may be.”
“Got a note for yer from Lidy Mord.”
“You’ll find some cake and ginger ale in the kitchen,” said the grateful George. “Give it a trial.”
“Not ’arf!” said the stripling.
GEORGE opened the letter with trembling and reverent fingers.
Dear Mr. Bevan: Thank you ever so much for your note, which Albert gave to me. How very, very kind ——
George looked up testily. The boy Albert had reappeared.
“What’s the matter? Can’t you find the cake?”
“I’ve found the kike,” rejoined Albert, adducing proof of the statement in the shape of a massive slice, from which he took a substantial bite to assist thought. “But I can’t find the ginger ile.”
George waved him away. This interruption at such a moment was annoying.
“Look for it, child, look for it! Sniff for it! Bay on its trail! It’s somewhere about.”
“ ’Wri’!” mumbled Albert through the cake. He flicked a crumb off his cheek with a tongue which would have excited the interest of an ant-eater. “I like ginger ile.”
“Well, go and bathe in it.”
George returned to his letter.
Dear Mr. Bevan: Thank you ever so much for your note, which Albert gave me. How very, very kind of you to come here like this ——
“Good heavens!” George glared. “What’s the matter now? Haven’t you found that ginger ale yet?”
“I’ve found the ginger ile right enough, but I can’t find the thing.”
“The thing? What thing?”
“The thing. The thing wot you open ginger ile with.”
“Oh, you mean the thing? It’s in the middle drawer of the dresser. Use your eyes, my boy!”
George gave an overwrought sigh and began the letter again.
Dear Mr. Bevan: Thank you ever so much for your note, which Albert gave me. How very, very kind of you to come here like this and to say that you would help me. And how clever of you to find me after I was so secretive that day in the cab! You really can help me, if you are willing. It’s too long to explain in a note, but I am in great trouble, and there is nobody except you to help me. I will explain everything when I see you. The difficulty will be to slip away from home. They are watching me every moment, I’m afraid. But I will try my hardest to see you very soon.
Just for a moment, it must be confessed, the tone of the letter a little damped George. He could not have said just what he had expected, but certainly Reggie’s revelations had prepared him for something rather warmer, something more in the style in which a girl would write to the man she loved. The next moment, however, he saw how foolish any such expectation had been. How on earth could any reasonable man expect a girl to let herself go at this stage of the proceedings? It was for him to make the first move. Naturally she wasn’t going to reveal her feelings until he had revealed his. George raised the letter to his lips and kissed it vigorously.
George started guiltily. The blush of shame overspread his cheeks. The room seemed to echo with the sound of that fatuous kiss.
“Kitty, kitty, kitty!” he called, snapping his fingers and repeating the incriminating noise. “I was just calling my cat,” he explained with dignity. “You didn’t see her in there, did you?”
Albert’s blue eyes met his in a derisive stare. The lid of the left one fluttered. It was but too plain that Albert was not convinced.
“A little black cat with a white shirt front,” babbled George perseveringly. “She’s usually either here or there or—or somewhere. Kitty! kitty! kitty!”
The cupid’s bow of Albert’s mouth parted. He uttered one word:
There was a tense silence. What Albert was thinking one cannot say. The thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts. What George was thinking was that the late King Herod had been unjustly blamed for a policy which had been both statesmanlike and in the interests of the public. He was blaming the mawkish sentimentality of the modern legal system which ranks the evisceration and secret burial of small boys as a crime.
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I’ve a good mind to ——”
Albert waved a deprecating hand.
“It’s all right, mister. I’m yer friend.”
“You are, are you? Well, don’t let it get about. I’ve got a reputation to keep up.”
“I’m yer friend, I tell you. I can help yer. I want to help yer!”
George’s views on infanticide underwent a slight modification. After all, he felt, much must be excused to youth. Youth thinks it funny to see a man kissing a letter. It is not funny, of course, it is beautiful; but it’s no good arguing the point. Let youth have its snigger, provided, after it has finished sniggering, it intends to buckle to and be of practical assistance. Albert, as an ally, was not to be despised. George did not know what Albert’s duties as a page boy were, but they seemed to be of a nature that gave him plenty of leisure and freedom; and a friendly resident of the castle with leisure and freedom was just what he needed.
“That’s very good of you,” he said, twisting his reluctant features into a smile.
“I can ’elp!” persisted Albert. “Got a cigaroot?”
“Do you smoke, child?”
“When I get ’old of a cigaroot I do.”
“I’m sorry I can’t oblige you. I don’t smoke cigarettes.”
“Then I’ll ’ave to ’ave one of my own,” said Albert moodily.
He reached into the mysteries of his pocket and produced a piece of string, a knife, the wishbone of a fowl, two marbles, a crushed cigarette and a match. Replacing the string, the knife, the wishbone and the marbles he ignited the match against the tightest part of his person and lit the cigarette.
“I can ’elp yer. I know the ropes.”
“And smoke them,” said George, wincing.
Albert took an enjoyable whiff.
“I know all about yer.”
“You and Lidy Mord.”
“Oh, you do, do you?”
“I was listening at the key’ole while the row was goin’ on.”
“There was a row, was there?”
A faint smile of retrospective enjoyment lit up Albert’s face.
“An orful row! Shoutin’ and yellin’ and cussin’ all over the shop. About you and Lidy Mord.”
“And you drank it in, eh?”
“I say, you listened?”
“Not ’arf, I listened! Seein’ I’d just drawn you in the sweepstike, of course I listened—not ’arf!”
George did not follow him here.
“The sweepstike? What’s a sweepstike?”
“Why, a thing you put names in ’ats and draw ’em, and the one that gets the winning name wins the money.”
“Oh, you mean a sweepstake!”
“That’s wot I said—a sweepstike.”
George was still puzzled.
“But I don’t understand. How do you mean you drew me in a sweepstike—I mean a sweepstake? What sweepstake?”
“Down in the servants’ ’all. Keggs, the butler, started it. I ’eard ’im say he always ’ad one every place ’e was in as a butler—leastways, whenever there was any dorters of the ’ouse. There’s always a chance, when there’s a ’ouse-party, of one of the dorters of the ’ouse gettin’ married to one of the gents in the party, so Keggs ’e puts all of the gents’ names in an ’at, and you pay five shillings for a chance, and the one that draws the winning name gets the money. And if the dorter of the ’ouse don’t get married that time, the money’s put away and added to the pool for the next ’ouse party.”
George gasped. This revelation of life below stairs in the stately homes of England took his breath away. Then astonishment gave way to indignation.
“Do you mean to tell me that you—you worms made Lady Maud the—the prize of a sweepstake!”
Albert was hurt.
“Who’re you calling worms?”
George perceived the need of diplomacy. After all much depended on this child’s good will.
“I was referring to the butler—what’s his name— Keggs.”
“ ’E ain’t a worm, e’s a serpint.” Albert drew at his cigarette. His brow darkened! “ ’E does the drawing, Keggs does, and I’d like to know ’ow it is ’e always manages to cop the fav’rit!”
Albert chuckled. “But this time I done him proper. ’E didn’t want me in the thing at all—said I was too young. Tried to do the drawin’ without me. ‘Clip that boy one side of the ’ead!’ ’e says, ‘and turn ’im out!’ ’e says. I says, ‘Yus, you will!’ I says. ‘And wot price me goin’ to ’is lordship and blowing the gaff?’ I says. ’E says, ‘Oh, orl right!’ ’e says. ‘ ’Ave it yer own way!’ ’e says. ‘Where’s yer five shillings?’ ’e says. ‘ ’Ere you are!’ I says. ‘Oh, very well,’ ’e says. ‘But you’ll ’ave to draw last,’ ’e says, ‘bein’ the youngest.’ Well, they started drawing the names, and of course Keggs ’as to draw Mr. Byng ——”
“Oh, he drew Mr. Byng, did he?”
“Yus. And everyone knew Reggie was the fav’rit. Smiled all over his fat face, the old serpint did! and when it come to my turn, ’e says to me; ‘Sorry, Elbert!’ ’e says, ‘but there ain’t no more names. They’ve give out!’ ‘Oh, they ’ave, ’ave they?’ I says. ‘Well, wot’s the matter with giving a fellow a sporting chance?’ I says. ‘ ’Ow do you mean?’ ’e says. ‘Why, write me out a ticket marked “Mr.X.”,’ I says. ‘Then if ’er lidyship marries anyone not in the ’ouse party, I cop!’ ‘Orl right,’ ’e says, ‘but you know the conditions of this ’ere sweep. Nothin’ don’t count, only wot tikes plice during the two weeks of the ’ouse party,’ ’e says. ‘Orl right,’ I says. ‘Write me ticket. It’s a fair sportin’ venture.’ So ’e writes me out me ticket, with ‘Mr. X.’ on it, and I says to them all, I say, ‘I’d like to ’ave witnesses,’ I says, ‘to this ’ere thing. Do all you gents agree that if anyone not in the ’ouse party, and whose name ain’t on one of the other tickets, marries ’er lidyship, I get the pool?’ I says. They all says that’s right, and then I says to ’em all straight out, I says, ‘I ’appen to know,’ I says, ‘that ’er lidyship is in love with a gent that’s not in the party at all—an American gent,’ I says. They wouldn’t believe it at first but, when Keggs ’ad put two and two together and thought of one or two things that ’ad ’appened, ’e turned as white as a sheet and said it was a swindle and wanted the drawin’ done over again, but the others say ‘No,’ they says, ‘it’s quite fair,’ they says, and one of ’em offered me ten bob slap out for my ticket. But I stuck to it, I did.
“And that,” concluded Albert, throwing the cigarette into the fireplace just in time to prevent a scorched finger—“that’s why I’m going to ’elp yer!”
There is probably no attitude of mind harder for the average man to maintain than that of aloof disapproval. George was an average man, and during the degrading recital just concluded he had found himself slipping. At first he had been revolted, then, in spite of himself, amused, and now, when all the facts were before him, he could induce his mind to think of nothing else than his good fortune in securing as an ally one who appeared to combine a precocious intelligence with a helpful lack of scruple. War is war and love is love, and in each the practical man inclines to demand from his fellow workers the punch rather than a lofty soul. A page boy replete with the finer feelings would have been useless in this crisis. Albert, who seemed on the evidence of a short but sufficient acquaintance to be a lad who would not recognize the finer feelings if they were handed to him on a plate with watercress round them, promised to be invaluable. Something in his manner told George that the child was bursting with schemes for his benefit.
“Have some more cake, Albert,” he said ingratiatingly. The boy shook his head.
“Do,” urged George. “Just a little slice.”
“There ain’t no little slice,” replied Albert with regret. “I’ve ate it all.” He sighed and resumed: “I gotta scheme!”
“Fine! What is it?”
Albert knitted his brows.
“It’s like this: You want to see ’er lidyship, but you can’t come to the castle and she can’t come to you, not with ’er fat brother doggin’ of ’er footsteps. That’s it, ain’t it? Or am I a liar?”
George hastened to reassure him.
“That is exactly it. What’s the answer?”
“I’ll tell yer wot you can do. There’s the big ball to-night ’cos of its bein’ ’Is Nibs’ coming of age to-morrow. All the county’ll be ’ere ——”
“You think I could slip in and be taken for a guest?”
Albert snorted contempt.
“No, I don’t think nothin’ of the kind, not bein’ a fathead.” George apologized. “But wot you could do’s this: I ’eard Keggs torkin’ to the ’ousekeeper about ’avin’ to get in a lot of temp’y waiters to ’elp out for the night.”
George reached forward and patted Albert on the head.
“Don’t muss my ’air now,” warned that youth coldly.
“Albert, you’re one of the great thinkers of the age. I could get into the castle as a waiter, and you could tell Lady Maud I was there, and we could arrange a meeting. Machiavelli couldn’t have thought of anything smoother.”
“One of your ancestors. Great schemer in his day. But one moment.”
“How am I to get engaged? How do I get the job?”
“That’s orl right. I’ll tell the ’ousekeeper you’re my cousin, been a waiter in America at the best restaurongs, ’ome for a ’oliday, but’ll come in for one night to oblige. They’ll pay yer a quid.”
“I’ll hand it over to you.”
“Just,” said Albert approvingly, “wot I was goin’ to suggest meself.”
“Then I’ll leave all the arrangements to you.”
“You’d better, if you don’t want to mike a mess of everything. All you’ve got to do is to come to the servants’ entrance at eight sharp to-night and say you’re my cousin.”
“That’s an awful thing to ask anyone to say.”
THE great ball in honor of Lord Belpher’s coming of age was at its height. The reporter of the Belpher Intelligencer and Farmers’ Guide, who was present in his official capacity and had been allowed by butler Keggs to take a peep at the scene through a side door, justly observed in his account of the proceedings next day that the “tout ensemble was fairylike,” and described the company as “a galaxy of fair women and brave men.” The floor was crowded with all that was best and noblest in the county; so that a half brick hurled at any given moment must infallibly have spilt blue blood. Peers stepped on the toes of knights; honorables bumped into the spines of baronets. Probably the only titled person in the whole of the surrounding country who was not playing his part in the glittering scene was Lord Marshmoreton, who, on discovering that his private study had been converted into a way station for coats and hats, had retired to bed with a pipe and a copy of Roses Red and Roses White by Emily Ann Mackintosh—Popgood, Crooly & Co.—which he was to discover—after he was between the sheets and it was too late to repair the error—was not, as he had supposed, a treatise on his favorite hobby, but a novel of stearine sentimentality dealing with the adventures of a pure young English girl and an artist named Claude.
George, from the shaded seclusion of a gallery, looked down upon the brilliant throng with impatience. It seemed to him that he had been doing this all his life. The novelty of the experience had long since ceased to divert him. It was all just like the second act of an old-fashioned musical comedy—Act Two: The Ballroom, Grantchester Towers: One Week Later—a resemblance which was heightened for him by the fact that the band had more than once played dead and buried melodies of his own composition, of which he had wearied a full eighteen months back.
A complete absence of obstacles had attended his intrusion into the castle. A brief interview with a motherly old lady, whom even Albert seemed to treat with respect, and who, it appeared, was Mrs. Digby, the housekeeper, followed by an even briefer encounter with Keggs, fussy and irritable with responsibility and, even while talking to George, carrying on two other conversations on topics of the moment, and he was past the censors and free for one night only to add his presence to the chosen inside the walls of Belpher. His duties were to stand in this gallery and with the assistance of one of the maids to minister to the comfort of such of the dancers as should use it as a sitting-out place. None had so far made their appearance, the superior attractions of the main floor having exercised a greater appeal, and for the past hour George had been alone with the maid and his thoughts. The maid, having asked George if he knew her cousin Frank, who had been in America nearly a year, and having received a reply in the negative, seemed to be disappointed in him and to lose interest, and had not spoken for twenty minutes. George scanned the approaches to the balcony for a sight of Albert as the shipwrecked mariner scans the horizon for the passing sail. It was inevitable, he supposed, this waiting. It would be difficult for Maud to slip away even for a moment on such a night.
“I say, laddie, would you mind getting me a lemonade?”
George was gazing over the balcony when the voice spoke behind him, and the muscles of his back stiffened as he recognized its genial note. This was one of the things he had prepared himself for, but, now that it had happened, he felt a wave of stage fright such as he had only once experienced before in his life—on the occasion when he had been young enough and inexperienced enough to take a curtain call on a first night. Reggie Byng was friendly and would not wilfully betray him; but Reggie was also a babbler, who could not be trusted to keep things to himself. It was necessary, he perceived, to take a strong line from the start and convince Reggie that any likeness which the latter might suppose he detected between his companion of that afternoon and the waiter of to-night existed only in his heated imagination.
As George turned, Reggie’s pleasant face, pink with healthful exercise and Lord Marshmoreton’s finest Bollinger, lost most of its color. His eyes and mouth opened wider. The fact is, Reggie was shaken. All through the earlier part of the evening he had been sedulously priming himself with stimulants with a view to amassing enough nerve to propose to Alice Faraday; and now that he had drawn her away from the throng to this secluded nook and was about to put his fortune to the test, a horrible fear swept over him that he had overdone it. He was having optical illusions.
Reggie loosened his collar and pulled himself together.
“Would you mind taking a glass of lemonade to the lady in blue sitting on the settee over there by the statue?” he said carefully.
He brightened up a little. Pretty good, that! Not absolutely a test sentence, perhaps, like “Truly rural” or “The intricacies of the British Constitution”; but, nevertheless, no mean feat.
“You haven’t ever seen me before by any chance, if you know what I mean, have you?”
“You haven’t a brother, or anything of that shape or order, have you, no?”
“No, sir. I have often wished I had. I ought to have spoken to father about it. Father could never deny me anything.”
Reggie blinked. His misgivings returned. Either his ears, like his eyes, were playing him tricks, or else this waiter chappie was talking pure drivel.
“What did you say?”
“I said, ‘No, sir, I have no brother.’ ”
“Didn’t you say something else?”
Reggie’s worst suspicions were confirmed.
“Then I am!” he muttered.
Miss Faraday, when he joined her on the settee, wanted an explanation.
“What were you talking to that man about, Mr. Byng? You seemed to be having a very interesting conversation.”
“I was asking him if he had a brother.”
Miss Faraday glanced quickly at him. She had had a feeling for some time during the evening that his manner had been strange.
“A brother? What made you ask him that?”
“He—I mean—that is to say—what I mean is, he looked the sort of chap who might have a brother. Lots of those fellows have!”
Alice Faraday’s face took on a motherly look. She was fonder of Reggie than that lovesick youth supposed, and by sheer accident he had stumbled on the right road to her consideration. Alice Faraday was one of those girls whose dream it is to be a ministering angel to some chosen man, to be a good influence to him and raise him to an appreciation of nobler things. Hitherto Reggie’s personality had seemed to her agreeable but negative. A positive vice like over-indulgence in alcohol altered him completely. It gave him a significance.
“I told him to get you a lemonade,” said Reggie. “He seems to be taking his time about it. Hi!”
George approached deferentially.
“Where’s that lemonade?”
“Didn’t I just ask you to bring this lady a glass of lemonade?”
“I did not understand you to do so, sir.”
“But, great Scott! What were we chatting about, then?”
“You were telling me a diverting story about an Irishman who landed in New York looking for work, sir. You would like a glass of lemonade, sir? Very good, sir.”
Alice placed a hand gently on Reggie’s arm.
“Don’t you think you had better lie down for a little and rest, Mr. Byng? I’m sure it would do you good.”
The solicitous note in her voice made Reggie quiver like a jelly. He had never heard her speak like that before. For a moment he was inclined to lay bare his soul; but his nerve was broken. He did not want her to mistake the outpouring of a strong man’s heart for the irresponsible ravings of a too hearty diner. It was one of life’s ironies. Here he was, for the first time all keyed up to go right ahead, and he couldn’t do it.
“It’s the heat of the room,” said Alice. “Shall we go and sit outside on the terrace? Never mind about the lemonade. I’m not really thirsty.”
Reggie followed her like a lamb. The prospect of the cool night air was grateful.
“That,” murmured George, as he watched them depart, “ought to hold you for a while!” He perceived Albert hastening toward him.
ALBERT was in a hurry. He skimmed over the carpet like a water beetle.
“Quick!” he said.
He cast a glance at the maid, George’s coworker. She was reading a novelette with her back turned.
“Tell ’er you’ll be back in five minutes,” said Albert, jerking a thumb.
“Unnecessary. She won’t notice my absence. Ever since she discovered that I had never met her cousin Frank in America, I have meant nothing in her life.”
“Then come on!”
“I’ll show you.”
That it was not the nearest and most direct route which they took to the trysting place, George became aware after he had followed his young guide through doors and upstairs and downstairs and had at last come to a halt in a room to which the sound of the music penetrated but faintly. He recognized the room. He had been in it before. It was the same room where he and Billie Dore had listened to Keggs telling the story of Lord Leonard and his Leap. That window there, he remembered now, opened onto the very balcony from which the historic Leonard had done his spectacular dive. That it should be the scene of this other secret meeting struck George as appropriate. The coincidence appealed to him.
Albert vanished. George took a deep breath. Now that the moment had arrived for which he had waited so long, he was aware of a return of that feeling of stage fright which had come upon him when he had heard Reggie Byng’s voice. This sort of thing, it must be remembered, was not in George’s usual line. His had been a quiet and uneventful life, and the only exciting thing which in his recollection had ever happened to him, previous to the dramatic entry of Lady Maud into his taxi-cab that day in Piccadilly, had occurred at college nearly ten years before, when a festive roommate, no doubt with the best motives, had placed a Mexican horned toad in his bed on the night of the Yale football game.
A light footstep sounded outside, and the room whirled round George in a manner which, if it had happened to Reggie Byng, would have caused that injudicious drinker to abandon the habits of a lifetime. When the furniture had returned to its place and the rug had ceased to spin, Maud was standing before him.
Nothing is harder to remember than a once-seen face. It had caused George a good deal of distress and inconvenience that, try as he might, he could not conjure up anything more than a vague vision of what the only girl in the world really looked like. He had carried away with him from their meeting in the cab only a confused recollection of eyes that shone and a mouth that curved in a smile; and the brief moment in which he was able to refresh his memory, when he found her in the lane with Reggie Byng and the broken-down car, had not been enough to add definiteness. The consequence was that Maud came upon him now with the stunning effect of beauty seen for the first time. He gasped.
In that dazzling ball dress, with the flush of dancing on her cheeks and the light of dancing in her eyes, she was so much more wonderful than any picture of her which memory had been able to produce for his inspection that it was as if he had never seen her before.
Even her brother Percy, a stern critic where his nearest and dearest were concerned, had admitted on meeting her in the drawing-room before dinner that that particular dress suited Maud. It was a shimmering dream thing of rose leaves and moonbeams.
That, at least, was how it struck George; a dressmaker would have found a longer and less romantic description for it. But that does not matter. Whoever wishes for a cold and technical catalogue of the stuffs which went to make up the picture that deprived George of speech may consult the files of the Belpher Intelligencer and Farmers’ Guide, and read the report of the editor’s wife, who “does” the dresses for the Intelligencer under the penname of Birdie Bright-Eye. As far as George was concerned, the thing was made of rose leaves and moonbeams.
George, as I say, was deprived of speech. That any girl could possibly look so beautiful was enough to paralyze his faculties; but that this ethereal being straight from Fairyland could have stooped to love him—him—an earthy brute who wore sock-suspenders and drank coffee for breakfast—that was what robbed George of the power to articulate. He could do nothing but look at her.
From the Hills of Fairyland soft music came. Or, if we must be exact, Maud spoke.
“I couldn’t get away before!” Then she stopped short and darted to the door, listening. “Was that somebody coming? I had to cut a dance with Mr. Plummer to get here, and I’m so afraid he may ——”
He had! A moment later it was only too evident that this was precisely what Mr. Plummer had done. There was a footstep on the stairs, a heavy footstep this time, and from outside the voice of the pursuer made itself heard:
“Oh, there you are, Lady Maud! I was looking for you. This is our dance.”
George did not know who Mr. Plummer was. He did not want to know. His only thought regarding Mr. Plummer was a passionate realization of the superfluity of his existence. It is the presence on the globe of these Plummers that delays the coming of the millennium.
His stunned mind leaped into sudden activity. He must not be found here, that was certain. Waiters who ramble at large about a feudal castle, and are discovered in conversation with the daughter of the house, excite comment. And, conversely, daughters of the house who talk in secluded rooms with waiters also find explanations necessary. He must withdraw. He must withdraw quickly. And, as a gesture from Maud indicated, the withdrawal must be effected through the French window opening on the balcony. Estimating the distance that separated him from the approaching Plummer at three stairs—the voice had come from below—and a landing, the space of time allotted to him by a hustling fate for disappearing was some four seconds. Inside two and a half the French window had opened and closed, and George was out under the stars, with the cool winds of the night playing on his heated forehead.
He had now time for meditation. There are few situations which provide more scope for meditation than that of the man penned up on a small balcony a considerable distance from the ground, with his only avenue of retreat cut off behind him. So George meditated. First, he mused on Plummer. He thought some hard thoughts about Plummer. Then he brooded on the unkindness of a fortune which had granted him the opportunity of this meeting with Maud, only to snatch it away almost before it had begun. He wondered how long the late Lord Leonard had been permitted to talk on that other occasion before he, too, had had to retire through this same window. There was no doubt about one thing—lovers who chose that room for their interviews seemed to have very little luck.
It had not occurred to George at first that there could be any further disadvantages attached to his position other than the obvious drawbacks which had already come to his notice. He was now to perceive that he had been mistaken. A voice was speaking in the room he had left, a plainly audible voice, deep and throaty; and within a minute George had become aware that he was to suffer the additional discomfort of being obliged to listen to a fellow man—one could call Plummer that by stretching the facts a little—proposing marriage. The gruesomeness of the situation became intensified. Of all moments when a man—and justice compelled George to admit that Plummer was technically human—of all moments when a man may by all the laws of decency demand to be alone without an audience of his own sex, the chiefest is the moment when he is asking a girl to marry him. George’s was a sensitive nature, and he writhed at the thought of playing the eavesdropper at such a time.
He looked frantically about him for a means of escape. Plummer had now reached the stage of saying at great length that he was not worthy of Maud. He said it over and over again in different ways. George was in hearty agreement with him, but he did not want to hear it. He wanted to get away. But how? Lord Leonard on a similar occasion had leaped. Some might argue, therefore, on the principle that what man had done man can do, that George should have imitated him. But men differ. There was a man attached to a circus who used to dive off the roof of Madison Square Garden onto a sloping board, strike it with his chest, turn a couple of somersaults, reach the ground, bow six times, and go off to lunch. That sort of thing is a gift. Some of us have it, some have not. George had not. Painful as it was to hear Plummer floundering through his proposal of marriage, instinct told him that it would be far more painful to hurl himself out into mid-air on the sporting chance of having his downward progress arrested by the branches of the big tree that had upheld Lord Leonard. No, there seemed nothing for it but to remain where he was.
Inside the room, Plummer was now saying how much the marriage would please his mother.
George looked about him. It seemed to him that he had heard a voice. He listened. No. Except for the barking of a distant dog, the faint wailing of a waltz, the rustle of a roosting bird, and the sound of Plummer saying that if her refusal was due to anything she might have heard about that breach-of-promise case of his a couple of years ago, he would like to state that he was more sinned against than sinning, and that the girl had absolutely misunderstood him—all was still.
“Psst! Hey, mister!”
It was a voice. It came from above. Was it an angel’s voice? Not altogether. It was Albert’s. The boy was leaning out of a window some six feet higher up the castle wall. George, his eyes by now grown used to the darkness, perceived that the stripling gesticulated, as one having some message to impart. Then, glancing to one side, he saw that what looked like some kind of a rope swayed against the wall. He reached for it. The thing was not a rope; it was a knotted sheet.
From above came Albert’s hoarse whisper: “Look alive!”
This was precisely what George wanted to do, for at least another fifty years or so; and it seemed to him as he stood there in the starlight, gingerly fingering this flimsy linen thing, that, if he were to suspend his hundred and eighty pounds of bone and sinew at the end of it over the black gulf outside the balcony, he would look alive for about five seconds; and after that goodness only knew how he would look. He knew all about knotted sheets. He had read a hundred stories in which heroes, heroines, low-comedy friends, and even villains did all sorts of reckless things with their assistance. There was not much comfort to be derived from that. It was one thing to read about people doing silly things like that, quite another to do them yourself.
He gave Albert’s sheet a tentative shake. In all his experience he thought he had never come across anything so supremely unstable. One calls it Albert’s sheet for the sake of convenience. It was really Reggie Byng’s sheet. And when Reggie got to his room in the small hours of the morning and found the thing a mass of knots, he jumped to the conclusion—being a simple-hearted young man—that his bosom friend, Jack Ferris, who had come up from London to see Lord Belpher through the trying experiences of a coming-of-age party, had done it as a practical joke; and went and poured a jug of water over Jack’s bed. That is life! Just one long succession of misunderstandings and rash acts and what not. Absolutely!
Albert was becoming impatient. He was in the position of a great general who thinks out some wonderful piece of strategy and can’t get his army to carry it out. Many boys, seeing Plummer enter the room below and listening at the keyhole and realizing that George must have hidden somewhere and deducing that he must be out on the balcony, would have been baffled as to how to proceed. Not so Albert. To dash up to Reggie Byng’s room and strip his sheet off the bed and tie it to the bedpost and fashion a series of knots in it and lower it out of the window took Albert about three minutes. His part in the business had been performed without a hitch. And now George, who had nothing in the world to do but the childish task of climbing up the sheet, was jeopardizing the success of the whole scheme by delay. Albert gave the sheet an irritable jerk.
It was the worst thing he could have done. George had almost made up his mind to take a chance when the sheet was snatched from his grasp, as if it had been some live thing deliberately eluding his clutch. The thought of what would have happened had this occurred when he was in mid-air caused him to break out in a cold perspiration. He retired a pace and perched himself on the rail of the balcony.
“Psst!” said Albert.
“It’s no good saying ‘Psst!’ ” rejoined George in an annoyed undertone. “I could say ‘Psst!’ Any fool could say ‘Psst!’ ” Albert, he considered, in leaning out of the window and saying “Psst!” was merely touching the fringe of the subject.
It is probable that he would have remained seated on the balcony rail, regarding the sheet with cold aversion indefinitely, had not his hand been forced by the man Plummer. Plummer, during these last minutes, had shot his bolt. He had said everything that a man could say, much of it twice over; and now he was through. All was ended. The verdict was in. No wedding bells for Plummer.
“I think,” said Plummer gloomily, and the words smote on George’s ear like a knell, “I think I’d like a little air.”
George leaped from his rail like a hunted grasshopper. If Plummer was looking for air, it meant that he was going to come out on the balcony. There was only one thing to be done. It probably meant the abrupt conclusion of a promising career, but he could hesitate no longer.
George grasped the sheet—it felt like a rope of cobwebs—and swung himself out.
Maud looked out onto the balcony. Her heart, which had stood still when the rejected one opened the window and stepped forth to commune with the soothing stars, beat again. There was no one there, only emptiness and Plummer.
“This,” said Plummer somberly, gazing over the rail into the darkness, “is the place where that fellow what’s-his-name jumped off in the reign of thingummy, isn’t it?”
Maud understood now, and a thrill of the purest admiration for George’s heroism swept over her. So, rather than compromise her, he had done Leonard’s leap! How splendid of him! If George, now sitting on Reggie Byng’s bed taking a rueful census of the bits of skin remaining on his hands and knees after his climb, could have read her thoughts, he would have felt well rewarded for his abrasions.
“I’ve a jolly good mind,” said Plummer, “to do it myself!” He uttered a short, mirthless laugh. “Well, anyway,” he said recklessly, “I’ll jolly well go downstairs and have a brandy-and-soda!”
Albert finished untying the sheet from the bedpost and stuffed it under the pillow.
“And now,” said Albert, “for a quiet smoke in the scullery.”
These massive minds require their moments of relaxation.
(to be continued)
Note: Thanks to Neil Midkiff for providing the transcription and images for this story.