The Saturday Evening Post - June 14, 1919
THE gift of hiding private emotion and keeping up appearances before strangers is not, as many suppose, entirely a product of our modern civilization. Centuries before we were born or thought of there was a widely press-agented boy in Sparta, who even went so far as to let a fox gnaw his tender young stomach without permitting the discomfort inseparable from such a proceeding to interfere with either his facial expression or his flow of small talk. Historians have handed it down that, even in the later stages of the meal, the polite lad continued to be the life and soul of the party. But though this feat may be said to have established a record never subsequently lowered, there is no doubt that almost every day in modern times men and women are performing similar and scarcely less impressive miracles of self-restraint. Of all the qualities which belong exclusively to man and are not shared by the lower animals, this surely is the one which marks him off most sharply from the beasts of the field.
Animals care nothing about keeping up appearances. Observe Bertram the Bull when things are not going just as he could wish. He stamps. He snorts. He paws the ground. He throws back his head and bellows. He is upset, and he doesn’t care who knows it. Instances could be readily multiplied. Deposit a charge of shot in some outlying section of Thomas the Tiger, and note the effect. Irritate Wilfred the Wasp, or stand behind Maud the Mule and prod her with a pin. There is not an animal on the list who has even a rudimentary sense of the social amenities; and it is this more than anything else which should make us proud that we are human beings on a loftier plane of development.
In the days which followed Lord Marshmoreton’s visit to George at the cottage, not a few of the occupants of Belpher Castle had their mettle sternly tested in this respect; and it is a pleasure to be able to record that not one of them failed to come through the ordeal with success. The general public, as represented by the uncles, cousins and aunts who had descended on the place to help Lord Belpher celebrate his coming of age, had not a notion that turmoil lurked behind the smooth fronts of at least a half dozen of those whom they met in the course of the daily round.
Lord Belpher, for example, though he limped rather painfully, showed nothing of the baffled fury which was reducing his weight at the rate of ounces a day. His uncle Francis, the bishop, when he tackled him in the garden on the subject of intemperance—for Uncle Francis, like thousands of others, had taken it for granted, on reading the report of the encounter with the policeman and Percy’s subsequent arrest, that the affair had been the result of a drunken outburst—had no inkling of the volcanic emotions that seethed in his nephew’s bosom. He came away from the interview, indeed, feeling that the boy had listened attentively and with a becoming regret, and that there was hope for him after all, provided that he fought the impulse. He little knew that, but for the conventions, which frown on the practice of murdering bishops, Percy would gladly have strangled him with his bare hands and jumped upon the remains.
Lord Belpher’s case, inasmuch as he took himself extremely seriously and was not one of those who can extract humor even from their own misfortunes, was perhaps the hardest which comes under our notice; but his sister Maud was also experiencing mental disquietude of no mean order. Everything had gone wrong with Maud. Barely a mile separated her from George, that essential link in her chain of communication with Geoffrey Raymond; but so thickly did it bristle with obstacles and dangers that it might have been a mile of no man’s land. Twice, since the occasion when the discovery of Lord Marshmoreton at the cottage had caused her to abandon her purpose of going in and explaining everything to George, had she attempted to make the journey; and each time some trifling, maddening accident had brought about failure. Once, just as she was starting, her Aunt Augusta had insisted on joining her for what she described as “a nice long walk”; and the second time, when she was within a bare hundred yards of her objective, some sort of a cousin popped out from nowhere and forced his loathsome company on her. Foiled in this fashion, she had fallen back in desperation on her second line of attack. She had written a note to George, explaining the whole situation in good, clear phrases and begging him as a man of proved chivalry to help her. It had taken up much of one afternoon, this note, for it was not easy to write; and it had resulted in nothing. She had given it to Albert to deliver, and Albert had returned empty-handed.
“The gentleman said there was no answer, m’lady!”
“No answer! But there must be an answer!”
“No answer, m’lady. Those was his very words,” stoutly maintained the black-souled boy, who had destroyed the letter within two minutes after it had been handed to him. He had not even bothered to read it. A deep, dangerous, dastardly stripling, this, who fought to win and only to win. The ticket marked “R. Byng” was in his pocket, and in his ruthless heart a firm resolve that R. Byng and no other should have the benefit of his assistance.
Maud could not understand it. That is to say, she resolutely kept herself from accepting the only explanation of the episode that seemed possible. In black and white she had asked George to go to London and see Geoffrey and arrange for the passage—through himself as a sort of clearing house—of letters between Geoffrey and herself. She had felt from the first that such a request should be made by her in person and not through the medium of writing; but surely it was incredible that a man like George, who had been through so much for her and whose only reason for being in the neighborhood was to help her, could have coldly refused without even a word. And yet what else was she to think? Now more than ever she felt alone in a hostile world. Yet to her guests she was bright and entertaining. Not one of them had a suspicion that her life was not one of pure sunshine.
Albert, I am happy to say, was thoroughly miserable. The little brute was suffering torments. He was showering anonymous advice to the lovelorn on Reggie Byng—excellent stuff, culled from the pages of weekly papers, of which there was a pile in the housekeeper’s room, the property of a sentimental lady’s maid—and nothing seemed to come of it. Every day, sometimes twice and thrice a day, he would leave on Reggie’s dressing table significant notes similar in tone to the one which he had placed there on the night of the ball; but, for all the effect they appeared to exercise on their recipient, they might have been blank pages. The choicest quotations from the works of such established writers as Aunt Charlotte of Forget-Me-Not, and Doctor Cupid, the heart expert of Home Chat, expended themselves fruitlessly on Reggie. As far as Albert could ascertain—and he was one of those boys who ascertain practically everything within a radius of miles—Reggie positively avoided Maud’s society. And this after reading Doctor Cupid’s invaluable tip about “Seeking her company on all occasions,” and the dictum of Aunt Charlotte to the effect that “Many a wooer has won his lady by being persistent”—Albert spelled it “persistuent,” but the effect is the same—“and rendering himself indispensable by constant little attentions.” So far from rendering himself indispensable to Maud by constant little attentions, Reggie, to the disgust of his backer and supporter, seemed to spend most of his time with Alice Faraday. On three separate occasions had Albert been revolted by the sight of his protégé in close association with the Faraday girl, once in a boat on the lake and twice in his gray car. It was enough to break a boy’s heart, and it completely spoiled Albert’s appetite—a phenomenon attributed, I am glad to say, in the servants’ hall to reaction from recent excesses. The moment when Keggs, the butler, called him a greedy little pig, and hoped it would be a lesson to him not to stuff himself at all hours with stolen cakes, was a bitter moment for Albert.
It is a relief to turn from the contemplation of these tortured souls to the pleasanter picture presented by Lord Marshmoreton. Here, undeniably, we have a man without a secret sorrow, a man at peace with this best of all possible worlds. Since his visit to George, a second youth seems to have come upon Lord Marshmoreton. He works in his rose garden with a new vim, singing to himself stray gay snatches of melodies popular in the ’eighties.
Hear him now, as he toils. He has a long garden implement in his hand, and he is sending up the death rate in slug circles with a devastating rapidity.
Ta-ra-ra BOOM . . .
And the boom is a death knell. As it rings softly out on the pleasant spring air, another stout slug has made the Great Change.
It is peculiar, this gayety. It gives one to think. Others have noticed it; his lordship’s valet among them.
“I give you my honest word, Mr. Keggs,” says the valet, awed, “this very morning I ’eard the old devil a-singin’ in ’is barth, chirrupin’ away like a blooming linnet!”
“Lor!” says Keggs, properly impressed.
“And only last night ’e give me ’arf a box of cigars and said I was a good, faithful feller! I tell you, there’s somethin’ happened to the old buster, you mark my words!”
OVER this complex situation the mind of Keggs, the butler, played like a searchlight. Keggs was a man of discernment and sagacity. He had instinct and reasoning power. Instinct told him that Maud, all unsuspecting the change that had taken place in Albert’s attitude toward her romance, would have continued to use the boy as a link between herself and George; and reason, added to an intimate knowledge of Albert, enabled him to see that the latter must inevitably have betrayed her trust. He was prepared to bet a hundred pounds that Albert had been given letters to deliver and had destroyed them. So much was clear to Keggs. It only remained to settle on some plan of action which would reëstablish the broken connection. Keggs did not conceal a tender heart beneath a rugged exterior; he did not mourn over the picture of two loving fellow human beings separated by a misunderstanding; but he did want to win that sweepstake.
His position, of course, was delicate. He could not go to Maud and beg her to confide in him. Maud would not understand his motives, and might leap to the not unjustifiable conclusion that he had been at the sherry. No, men were easier to handle than women. As soon as his duties would permit—and in the present crowded condition of the house they were arduous—he set out for George’s cottage.
“I trust I do not disturb or interrupt you, sir,” he said, beaming in the doorway like a benevolent high priest. He had doffed his professional manner of austere disapproval, as was his custom in moments of leisure.
“Not at all,” replied George, puzzled. “Was there anything ——”
“There was, sir!”
“Come along in and sit down.”
“I would not take the liberty, if it is all the same to you, sir. I would prefer to remain standing.”
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence—uncomfortable, that is to say, on the part of George, who was wondering if the butler remembered having engaged him as a waiter only a few nights back. Keggs himself was at his ease. Few things ruffled this man.
“Fine day,” said George.
“Extremely, sir, but for the rain.”
“Oh, is it raining?”
“A sharp downpour, sir.”
“Good for the crops,” said George.
“So one would be disposed to imagine, sir.”
Silence fell again. The rain dripped from the eaves.
“If I might speak freely, sir?” said Keggs.
“I beg your pardon, sir?”
“I mean, yes, go ahead!”
The butler cleared his throat.
“Might I begin by remarking that your little affair of the ’eart, if I may use the expression, is no secret in the servants’ ’all? I ’ave no wish to seem to be taking a liberty or to presume, but I should like to intimate that the servants’ ’all is aware of the facts.”
“You don’t have to tell me that,” said George coldly. “I know all about the sweepstake!”
A flicker of embarrassment passed over the butler’s large, smooth face—passed and was gone.
“I did not know that you ’ad been apprised of that little matter, sir. But you will doubtless understand and appreciate our point of view. A little sporting flutter—nothing more—designed to alleviate the monotony of life in the country.”
“Oh, don’t apologize!” said George, and was reminded of a point which had exercised him a little from time to time since his vigil on the balcony. “By the way, if it isn’t giving away secrets, who drew Plummer?”
“Which of you drew a man named Plummer in the sweep?”
“I rather fancy, sir”—Keggs’ brow wrinkled in thought—“I rather fancy it was one of the visiting gentlemen’s gentlemen. I gave the point but slight attention at the time. I did not fancy Mr. Plummer’s chances. It seemed to me that Mr. Plummer was a negligible quantity.”
“Your knowledge of form was sound. Plummer’s out!”
“Indeed, sir! An amiable young gentleman, but lacking in many of the essential qualities. Perhaps he struck you that way, sir?”
“I never met him. Nearly, but not quite!”
“It entered my mind that you might possibly have encountered Mr. Plummer on the night of the ball, sir.”
“Ah! I was wondering if you remembered me!”
“I remember you perfectly, sir, and it was the fact that we had already met in what one might almost term a social way that emboldened me to come ’ere to-day and offer you my services as a intermediary, should you feel disposed to avail yourself of them.”
George was puzzled.
“Precisely, sir. I fancy I am in a position to lend you what might be termed an ’elping ’and.”
“But that’s remarkably altruistic of you, isn’t it?”
“I say, that is very generous of you. Aren’t you forgetting that you drew Mr. Byng?”
The butler smiled indulgently.
“You are not quite abreast of the progress of events, sir. Since the original drawing of names there ’as been a trifling adjustment. The boy Albert now ’as Mr. Byng, and I ’ave you, sir. A little amicable rearrangement informally conducted in the scullery on the night of the ball.”
“On my part, entirely so.”
George began to understand certain things that had been perplexing to him.
“Then all this while . . .”
“Precisely, sir. All this while ’er ladyship, under the impression that the boy Albert was devoted to ’er cause, has no doubt been placing a misguided confidence in ’im, the little blighter!” said Keggs, abandoning for a moment his company manners and permitting vehemence to take the place of polish. “I beg your pardon for the expression, sir,” he added gracefully. “It escaped me inadvertently.”
“You think that Lady Maud gave Albert a letter to give to me, and that he destroyed it?”
“Such, I should imagine, must undoubtedly have been the case. The boy ’as no scruples, no scruples whatsoever.”
“I appreciate your consternation, sir.”
“That must be exactly what has happened.”
“To my way of thinking there is no doubt of it. It was for that reason that I ventured to come ’ere—in the ’ope that I might be instrumental in arranging a meeting.”
The strong distaste which George had had for plotting with this overfed menial began to wane. It might be undignified, he told himself, but it was undeniably practical. And, after all, a man who has plotted with page boys has little dignity to lose by plotting with butlers. He brightened up. If it meant seeing Maud again he was prepared to waive the decencies.
“What do you suggest?” he said.
“It being a rainy evening and everyone indoors, playing games and what not”—Keggs was amiably tolerant of the recreations of the aristocracy—“you would experience little chance of a interruption were you to proceed to the lane outside the east entrance of the castle grounds and wait there. You will find in the field at the roadside a small disused barn only a short way from the gates, where you would be sheltered from the rain. In the meantime, I would inform ’er ladyship of your movements, and no doubt it would be possible for ’er to slip off.”
“It sounds all right.”
“It is all right, sir. The chances of a interruption may be said to be reduced to a minimum. Shall we say in one hour’s time?”
“Then I will wish you good evening, sir. Thank you, sir. I am glad to ’ave been of assistance.”
He withdrew, as he had come, with a large impressiveness. The room seemed very empty without him. George, with trembling fingers, began to put on a pair of thick boots.
For some minutes after he had set foot outside the door of the cottage George was inclined to revile the weather for having played him false. On this evening of all evenings, he felt, the elements should, so to speak, have rallied round and done their bit. The air should have been soft and clear and scented; there should have been an afterglow of sunset in the sky to light him on his way. Instead, the air was full of that peculiar smell of hopeless dampness which comes at the end of a wet English day. The sky was leaden. The rain hissed down in a steady flow, whispering of mud and desolation, making a dreary morass of the lane through which he tramped. A curious sense of foreboding came upon George. It was as if some voice of the night had murmured maliciously in his ear a hint of troubles to come. He felt oddly nervous as he entered the barn.
The barn was both dark and dismal. In one of the dark corners an intermittent dripping betrayed the presence of a gap in its ancient roof. A rat scurried across the floor. The dripping stopped and began again. George struck a match and looked at his watch. He was early. Another ten minutes must elapse before he could hope for her arrival. He sat down on a broken wagon which lay on its side against one of the walls.
Depression returned. It was impossible to fight against it in this beast of a barn. The place was like a sepulcher. No one but a fool of a butler would have suggested it as a trysting place. He wondered irritably why places like this were allowed to get into this condition. If people wanted a barn earnestly enough to take the trouble of building one, why was it not worth while to keep the thing in proper repair? Waste and futility, that was what it was! That was what everything was, if you came down to it. Sitting here, for instance, was a futile waste of time. She wouldn’t come. There were a dozen reasons why she should not come. So what was the use of his courting rheumatism by waiting in this morgue of dead agricultural ambitions? None whatever. George went on waiting.
And what an awful place to expect her to come to—if by some miracle she did come—where she would be stifled by the smell of moldy hay, damped by raindrops, and—reflected George gloomily, as there was another scurry and scutter along the unseen floor—gnawed by rats. You could not expect a delicately nurtured girl, accustomed to all the comforts of home, to be bright and sunny with a platoon of rats crawling all over her.
The gray oblong that was the doorway suddenly darkened.
George sprang up. At the sound of her voice every nerve in his body danced in mad exhilaration. He was another man. Depression fell from him like a garment. He perceived that he had misjudged all sorts of things. The evening, for instance, was a splendid evening, not one of those awful dry, baking evenings which make you feel you can’t breathe, but pleasantly moist and full of a delightfully musical patter of rain. And the barn! He had been all wrong about the barn. It was a great little place, comfortable, airy and cheerful. What could be more invigorating than that smell of hay? Even the rats, he felt, must be pretty decent rats, when you came to know them.
Maud advanced quickly. His eyes had grown accustomed to the murk, and he could see her dimly. The smell of her damp raincoat came to him like a breath of ozone. He could even see her eyes shining in the darkness, so close was she to him.
“I hope you’ve not been waiting long?”
George’s heart was thundering against his ribs. He could scarcely speak. He contrived to emit a “No.”
“I didn’t think at first I could get away. I had to ——” She broke off with a cry. The rat, fond of exercise like all rats, had made another of its excitable sprints across the floor.
A hand clutched nervously at George’s arm, found it and held it. And at the touch the last small fragment of George’s self-control fled from him. The world became vague and unreal. There remained of it but one solid fact—the fact that Maud was in his arms, and that he was saying a number of things very rapidly in a voice that seemed to belong to somebody he had never met before.
WITH a shock of dismay so abrupt and overwhelming that it was like a physical injury, George became aware that something was wrong. Even as he gripped her, Maud had stiffened with a sharp cry; and now she was struggling, trying to wrench herself free. She broke away from him. He could hear her breathing hard.
“You—you ——” she gulped.
“How dare you!”
There was a pause that seemed to George to stretch on and on endlessly. The rain pattered on the leaky roof. Somewhere in the distance a dog howled dismally. The darkness pressed down like a blanket, stifling thought.
“Goodnight, Mr. Bevan.” Her voice was ice. “I didn’t think you were—that kind of man.”
She was moving toward the door; and, as she reached it, George’s stupor left him. He came back to life with a jerk, shaking from head to foot. All his varied emotions had become one emotion, a cold fury.
Maud stopped. Her chin was tilted, and she was wasting a baleful glare on the darkness.
“Well, what is it?”
Her tone increased George’s wrath. The injustice of it made him dizzy. At that moment he hated her. He was the injured party. It was he, not she, that had been deceived and made a fool of.
“I want to say something before you go.”
“I think we had better say no more about it!”
By the exercise of supreme self-control George kept himself from speaking until he could choose milder words than those that rushed to his lips.
“I think we will!” he said between his teeth.
Maud’s anger became tinged with surprise. Now that the first shock of the wretched episode was over, the calmer half of her mind was endeavoring to soothe the infuriated half by urging that George’s behavior had been but a momentary lapse, and that a man may lose his head for one wild instant and yet remain fundamentally a gentleman and a friend. She had begun to remind herself that this man had helped her once in trouble, and only a day or two before had actually risked his life to save her from embarrassment. When she heard him call to her to stop she supposed that his better feelings had reasserted themselves; and she had prepared herself to receive with dignity a broken, stammered apology. But the voice that had just spoken with a crisp, biting intensity was not the voice of remorse. It was a very angry man, not a penitent one, who was commanding—not begging—her to stop and listen to him.
“Well?” she said again, more coldly this time. She was quite unable to understand this attitude of his. She was the injured party. It was she, not he, who had trusted and been betrayed.
“I should like to explain.”
“Please do not apologize.”
George ground his teeth in the gloom.
“I haven’t the slightest intention of apologizing. I said I would like to explain. When I have finished explaining, you can go.”
“I shall go when I please,” flared Maud. This man was intolerable.
“There is nothing to be afraid of. There will be no repetition of the—incident.”
Maud was outraged by this monstrous misinterpretation of her words.
“I am not afraid!”
“Then perhaps you will be kind enough to listen. I won’t detain you long. My explanation is quite simple. I have been made a fool of. I seem to be in the position of the tinker in the play whom everybody conspired to delude into the belief that he was a king. First a friend of yours, Mr. Byng, came to me and told me that you had confided to him that you loved me.”
Maud gasped. Either this man was mad or Reggie Byng was. She chose the politer solution.
“Reggie Byng must have lost his senses.”
“So I supposed. At least, I imagined that he must be mistaken. But a man in love is an optimistic fool, of course, and I had loved you ever since you got into my cab that morning ——”
“So after a while,” proceeded George, ignoring the interruption, “I almost persuaded myself that miracles could still happen and that what Byng said was true. And when your father called on me and told me the very same thing, I was convinced. It seemed incredible, but I had to believe it. Now it seems that, for some inscrutable reason, both Byng and your father were making a fool of me. That’s all. Good night.”
Maud’s reply was the last which George or any man would have expected. There was a moment’s silence, and then she burst into a peal of laughter. It was the laughter of overstrained nerves, but to George’s ears it had the ring of genuine amusement.
“I’m glad you find my story entertaining,” he said dryly. He was convinced now that he loathed this girl, and that all he desired was to see her go out of his life forever. “Later, no doubt, the funny side of it will hit me. Just at present my sense of humor is rather dormant.”
Maud gave a little cry.
“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry, Mr. Bevan! It wasn’t that. It wasn’t that at all. Oh, I am so sorry! I don’t know why I laughed. It certainly wasn’t because I thought it funny. It’s tragic. There’s been a dreadful mistake!”
“I noticed that,” said George bitterly. The darkness began to afflict his nerves. “I wish to God we had some light.”
The glare of a pocket torch smote upon him.
“I brought it to see my way back with,” said Maud in a curious small voice. “It’s very dark across the fields. I didn’t light it before because I was afraid somebody might see.”
She came toward him, holding the torch over her head. The beam showed her face, troubled and sympathetic; and at the sight all George’s resentment left him. There were mysteries here beyond his unraveling, but of one thing he was certain—this girl was not to blame. She was a thoroughbred, as straight as a wand. She was pure gold.
“I came here to tell you everything,” she said. She placed the torch on the wagon wheel, so that its ray fell in a pool of light on the ground between them. “I’ll do it now. Only—only it isn’t so easy now. Mr. Bevan, there’s a man—there’s a man that father and Reggie Byng mistook—they thought—you see, they knew it was you that I was with that day in the cab, and so they naturally thought, when you came down here, that you were the man I had gone to meet that day, the man I—I ——”
“The man you love?”
“Yes,” said Maud in a small voice; and there was silence again.
George could feel nothing but sympathy. It mastered every other emotion in him, even the gray despair that had come with her words. He could feel all that she was feeling.
“Tell me all about it,” he said.
“I met him in Wales last year.” Maud’s voice was a whisper. “The family found out, and I was hurried back here and have been here ever since. That day when I met you I had managed to slip away from home. I had found out that he was in London, and I was going to meet him. Then I saw Percy, and got into your cab. It’s all been a horrible mistake. I’m sorry.”
“I see,” said George thoughtfully. “I see.” His heart ached like a living wound. She had told so little, and he could guess so much. This unknown man who had triumphed seemed to sneer scornfully at him from the shadows.
“I’m sorry,” said Maud again.
“You mustn’t feel like that. How can I help you? That’s the point. What is it you want me to do?”
“But I can’t ask you now.”
“Of course you can. Why not?”
“Why—oh, I couldn’t.”
George managed to laugh. It was a laugh that did not sound convincing even to himself, but it served.
“That’s morbid,” he said. “Be sensible! You need help, and I may be able to give it. Surely a man isn’t barred forever from doing you a service just because he happens to love you? Suppose you were drowning and Mr. Plummer was the only swimmer within call, wouldn’t you let him rescue you?”
“Mr. Plummer? What do you mean?”
“You’ve not forgotten that I was a reluctant earwitness to his recent proposal of marriage?”
Maud uttered an exclamation.
“I never asked! How terrible of me! Were you much hurt?”
“Hurt?” George could not follow her.
“That night. When you were on the balcony.”
“Oh!” George understood. “Oh, no, hardly at all. A few scratches.”
“It was a wonderful thing to do,” said Maud, her admiration glowing for a man who could treat such a leap so lightly. She had always had a private theory that Lord Leonard, after performing the same feat, had bragged about it for the rest of his life.
“No, no, nothing,” said George, who had since wondered why he had ever made such a to-do about climbing up a perfectly stout sheet.
“It was splendid!”
“We are wandering from the main theme,” he said. “I want to help you. I came here at enormous expense to help you. How can I do it?”
“I think you may be offended at my asking such a thing.”
“You see, the whole trouble is that I can’t get in touch with Geoffrey. He’s in London and I’m here. And any chance I might have of getting to London vanished that day I met you, when Percy saw me in Piccadilly.”
“How did your people find out it was you?”
“They asked me straight out.”
“And you owned up?”
“I had to. I couldn’t tell him a direct lie.”
George thrilled. This was the girl he had had doubts of.
“So then it was worse than ever,” continued Maud. “I daren’t risk writing to Geoffrey and having the letter intercepted. I was wondering—I had the idea almost as soon as I found that you had come here——”
“You want me to take a letter from you and see that it reaches him. And then he can write back to my address, and I can smuggle the letter to you?”
“That’s exactly what I do want; but I almost didn’t like to ask.”
“Why not? I’ll be delighted to do it.”
“I’m so grateful.”
“Why, it’s nothing. I thought you were going to ask me to look in on your brother and smash another of his hats.”
Maud laughed delightedly. The whole tension of the situation had been eased for her. She found herself liking George. Yet she realized with a pang that for him there had been no easing of the situation. She was sad for George. The Plummers she had consigned to what they declared would be perpetual sorrow with scarcely a twinge of regret. But George was different.
“Poor Percy!” she said. “I don’t suppose he’ll ever get over it. He will have other hats, but it won’t be the same.” She came back to the subject nearest her heart: “Mr. Bevan, I wonder if you would do just a little more for me?”
“If it isn’t criminal—or, for that matter, if it is.”
“Could you go to Geoffrey and see him, and tell him all about me and—and come back and tell me how he looks and what he said and—and so on?”
“Certainly. What is his name and where do I find him?”
“I never told you. How stupid of me! His name is Geoffrey Raymond, and he lives with his uncle, Mr. Wilbur Raymond, at 11a Belgrave Square.”
“I’ll go to him to-morrow.”
“Thank you ever so much.”
George got up. The movement seemed to put him in touch once more with the outer world. He noticed that the rain had stopped and that stars had climbed into the oblong of the doorway. He had an impression that he had been in the barn a very long time; and confirmed this with a glance at his watch, though the watch, he felt, understated the facts by the length of several centuries. He was abstaining from too close an examination of his emotions, from a prudent feeling that he was going to suffer soon enough without assistance from himself.
“I think you had better be getting back,” he said. “It’s rather late. They may be missing you.”
Maud laughed happily.
“I don’t mind now what they do. But I suppose dinners must be dressed for, whatever happens.” They moved together to the door. “What a lovely night after all! I never thought that rain would stop in this world. It’s like when you’re unhappy and think it’s going on forever.”
“Yes,” said George.
Maud held out her hand.
“Good night, Mr. Bevan.”
He wondered if there would be any allusion to the earlier passages of their interview. There was none. Maud was of the class whose education consists mainly of a training in the delicate ignoring of delicate situations.
“Then you will go and see Geoffrey?”
“Thank you ever so much.”
“Not at all.”
George admired her. The little touch of formality which she had contrived to impart to the conversation struck just the right note, created just the atmosphere which would enable them to part without weighing too heavily on the deeper aspect of that parting.
“You’re a real friend, Mr. Bevan.”
“Watch me prove it.”
“Well, I must rush, I suppose. Good night!”
She moved off quickly across the field. Darkness covered her. The dog in the distance had begun to howl again. He had his troubles too.
TROUBLE sharpens the vision. In our moments of distress we can see clearly that what is wrong with this world of ours is the fact that misery loves company and seldom gets it. Toothache is an unpleasant ailment; but if toothache were a natural condition of life, if all mankind were afflicted with toothache at birth, we should not notice it. It is the freedom from aching teeth of all those with whom we come in contact that emphasizes the agony. And as with toothache so with trouble. Until our private affairs go wrong, we never realize how bubbling over with happiness the bulk of mankind seems to be. Our aching heart is apparently nothing but a desert island in an ocean of joy.
George, waking next morning with a heavy heart, made this discovery before his day was an hour old. The sun was shining and birds sang merrily; but this did not disturb him. Nature is ever callous to human woes, laughing while we weep, and we grow to take her callousness for granted. What jarred upon George was the infernal cheerfulness of his fellow men. They seemed to be doing it on purpose, triumphing over him, glorying in the fact that, however fate might have shattered him, they were all right.
People were happy who had never been happy before—Mrs. Platt, for instance. A gray, depressed woman of middle age, she had seemed hitherto to have but few pleasures beyond breaking dishes and relating the symptoms of sick neighbors who were not expected to live through the week. She now sang. George could hear her as she prepared his breakfast in the kitchen. At first he had had a hope that she was moaning with pain; but this was dispelled when he had finished his toilet and proceeded downstairs. The sounds she emitted suggested anguish, but the words, when he was able to distinguish them, told another story. Incredible as it might seem, on this particular morning Mrs. Platt had elected to be light-hearted. What she was singing sounded like a dirge, but actually it was Stop your tickling, Jock! And later, when she brought George his coffee and eggs, she spent a full ten minutes prattling as he tried to read his paper, pointing out to him a number of merry murders and sprightly suicides which otherwise he might have missed. The woman went out of her way to show him that for her, if not for less fortunate people, God this morning was in his heaven and all right with the world.
Two tramps of supernatural exuberance called at the cottage shortly after breakfast to ask George, whom they had never even consulted about their marriages, to help support their wives and children. Nothing could have been more carefree and debonair than the demeanor of these men.
And then Reggie Byng arrived in his gray racing car, more cheerful than any of them. Fate could not have mocked George more subtly. A sorrow’s crown of sorrow is remembering happier things; and the sight of Reggie in that room reminded him that on the last occasion when they had talked together across this same table, it was he who had been in a fool’s paradise and Reggie who had borne a weight of care. Reggie this morning was brighter than the shining sun and gayer than the caroling birds.
“Hullo-ullo-ullo-ullo-ullo-ullo-ul-lo! Topping morning, isn’t it?” observed Reggie. “The sunshine! The birds! The absolute what-do-you-call-it of everything and so forth, and all that sort of thing, if you know what I mean! I feel like a two-year-old!”
George, who felt older than this by some ninety-eight years, groaned in spirit. This was more than man was meant to bear.
“I say,” continued Reggie, absently reaching out for a slice of bread and smearing it with marmalade, “this business of marriage, now, and all that species of rot! What I mean to say is, what about it? Not a bad scheme, taking it by and large. Or don’t you think so?”
George writhed. The knife twisted in the wound. Surely it was bad enough to see a happy man eating bread and marmalade without having to listen to him talking about marriage.
“Well anyhow, be that as it may,” said Reggie, biting jovially and speaking in a thick but joyous voice, “I’m getting married to-day, and chance it. This morning, this very morning, I leap off the dock!”
George was startled out of his despondency.
George remembered the conventions.
“I congratulate you.”
“Thanks, old man. And not without reason. I’m the luckiest fellow alive. I hardly knew I was alive till now.”
“Isn’t this rather sudden?”
Reggie looked a trifle furtive. His manner became that of a conspirator.
“I should jolly well say it is sudden! It’s got to be sudden. Dashed sudden and deuced secret! If the mater were to hear of it, there’s no doubt whatever she would form a flying wedge and bust up the proceedings with no uncertain voice. You see, laddie, it’s Miss Faraday I’m marrying, and the mater—dear old soul—has other ideas for Reginald. Life’s a rummy thing, isn’t it? What I mean to say is, it’s rummy, don’t you know, and all that.”
“Very,” agreed George.
“Who’d have thought, a week ago, that I’d be sitting in this jolly old chair asking you to be my best man? Why, a week ago I didn’t know you, and if anybody had told me Alice Faraday was going to marry me, I’d have given one of those hollow, mirthless laughs.”
“Do you want me to be your best man?”
“Absolutely, if you don’t mind. You see,” said Reggie confidentially, “it’s like this: I’ve got lots of pals, of course, buzzing about all over London and its outskirts who’d be glad enough to rally round and join the execution squad; but you know how it is. Their maters are all pals of my mater’s, and I don’t want to get them into trouble for aiding and abetting my little show, if you understand what I mean. Now you’re different. You don’t know the mater, so it doesn’t matter to you if she rolls round and puts the curse of the Byngs on you, and all that sort of thing. Besides, I don’t know.” Reggie mused. “Of course this is the happiest day of my life,” he proceeded, “and I’m not saying it isn’t, but you know how it is—there’s absolutely no doubt that a chappie does not show at his best when he’s being married. What I mean to say is, he’s more or less bound to look a fearful ass. And I’m perfectly certain it would put me right off my stroke if I felt that some chump like Jack Ferris or Ronnie FitzGerald was trying not to giggle in the background. So, if you will be a sportsman and come and hold my hand till the thing’s over, I shall be eternally grateful.”
“Where are you going to be married?”
“In London. Alice sneaked off there last night. It was easy, as it happened, because by a bit of luck old Marshmoreton had gone to town yesterday morning—nobody knows why; he doesn’t go up to London more than a couple of times a year. She’s going to meet me at the Savoy, and then the scheme was to toddle round to the nearest registrar and request the lad to unleash the marriage service. I’m whizzing up in the car, and I’m hoping to be able to persuade you to come with me. Say the word, laddie!”
George reflected. He liked Reggie, and there was no practical reason in the world why he should not give him aid and comfort in this crisis. True, in his present frame of mind it would be torture to witness a wedding ceremony; but he ought not to let that stand in the way of helping a friend.
“All right,” he said.
“Stout fellow! I don’t know how to thank you. It isn’t putting you out or upsetting your plans, I hope, or anything on those lines?”
“Not at all. I had to go up to London to-day anyway.”
“Well, you can’t get there quicker than in my car. She’s a hummer! By the way, I forgot to ask—how is your little affair coming along? Everything going all right?”
“In a way,” said George. He was not equal to confiding his troubles to Reggie.
“Of course your trouble isn’t like mine was. What I mean is, Maud loves you, and all that, and all you’ve got to think out is a scheme for laying the jolly old family a stymie. It’s a pity—almost—that yours isn’t a case of having to win the girl, like me; because, by Jove, laddie,” said Reggie with solemn emphasis, “I could help you there. I’ve got the thing down fine. I’ve got the infallible dope!”
George smiled bleakly.
“You have? You’re a useful fellow to have round. I wish you would tell me what it is.”
“But you don’t need it.”
“No, of course not, I was forgetting.”
Reggie looked at his watch.
“We ought to be shifting in a quarter of an hour or so. I don’t want to be late. It appears that there’s a catch of some sort in this business of getting married. As far as I can make out, if you roll in after a certain hour, the Johnnie in charge of the proceedings gives you the miss-in-balk and you have to turn up again next day. However, we shall be all right unless we have a breakdown, and there’s not much chance of that. I’ve been tuning up the old car since seven this morning, and she’s sound in wind and limb, absolutely. Oil—petrol—water—air—nuts—bolts—sprockets—carburetor—all present and correct. I’ve been looking after them like a lot of baby sisters. . . . Well, as I was saying, I’ve got the dope. A week ago I was just one of the mugs—didn’t know a thing about it. But now —— Gaze on me, laddie! You see before you old Colonel Romeo, the Man Who Knows! It all started on the night of the ball. There was the dickens of a big ball, you know, to celebrate old Boots’ coming of age—to which, poor devil, he contributed nothing but the sunshine of his smile, never having learned to dance. On that occasion a most rummy and extraordinary thing happened. I got pickled to the eyebrows!” He laughed happily. “I don’t mean that that was a unique occurrence and so forth, because when I was a bachelor it was rather a habit of mine to get a trifle submerged every now and again on occasions of decent mirth and festivity. But the rummy thing that night was that I showed it. Up till then, I’ve been told by experts, I was a chappie in whom it was absolutely impossible to detect the symptoms. You might get a bit suspicious if you found I couldn’t move, but you could never be certain. On the night of the ball, however, I suppose I had been filling the radiator a trifle too enthusiastically. You see, I had deliberately tried to shove myself more or less below the surface in order to get enough nerve to propose to Alice. I don’t know what your experience has been, but mine is that proposing’s a thing that simply isn’t within the scope of a man who isn’t moderately woozled. I’ve often wondered how marriages ever occur in the dry states of America. Well, as I was saying, on the night of the ball a most rummy thing happened. I thought one of the waiters was you!”
He paused impressively, to allow this startling statement to sink in.
“And was he?” said George.
“Absolutely not! That was the rummy part of it. He looked as like you as your twin brother.”
“I haven’t got a twin brother.”
“No, I know what you mean; but what I mean to say is he looked just like your twin brother would have looked if you had had a twin brother. Well, I had a word or two with this chappie, and after a brief conversation it was borne in upon me that I was up to the gills. Alice was with me at the time, and she noticed it too. Now, you’d have thought that that would have put a girl off a fellow, and all that. But no. Nobody could have been more sympathetic. And she has confided to me since that it was seeing me in my oiled condition that really turned the scale. What I mean is, she made up her mind to save me from myself. You know how some girls are. Angels absolutely! Always on the lookout to pluck brands from the burning, and what not. You may take it from me that the good seed was definitely sown that night.”
“Is that your recipe, then? You would advise the would-be bridegroom to buy a case of champagne and a wedding license and get to work? After that it would be all over except sending out the invitations?”
Reggie shook his head.
“Not at all. You need a lot more than that. That’s only the start. You’ve got to follow up the good work, you see. That’s where a number of chappies would slip up, and I’m pretty certain I should have slipped up myself, but for another singularly rummy occurrence. Have you ever had a what-do-you-call-it? What’s the word I want? One of those things fellows get sometimes.”
“Headaches?” hazarded George.
“No, no. Nothing like that. I don’t mean anything you get—I mean something you get, if you know what I mean.”
“Anonymous letter. That’s what I was trying to say. It’s a most extraordinary thing, and I can’t understand even now where the deuce they came from, but just about then I started to get a whole bunch of anonymous letters from some chappie unknown who didn’t sign his name.”
“What you mean is that the letters were anonymous,” said George.
“Absolutely. I used to get two or three a day sometimes. Whenever I went up to my room I’d find another waiting for me on the dressing table.”
“Were the letters offensive? Anonymous letters usually are.”
“These weren’t. Not at all and quite the reverse. They contained a series of perfectly topping tips on how a fellow should proceed who wants to get hold of a girl.”
“It sounds as though somebody had been teaching you jiujitsu by mail.”
“They were great! Real red-hot stuff straight from the stable. Priceless tips like ‘Make yourself indispensable to her in little ways,’ ‘Study her tastes,’ and so on and so forth. I tell you, laddie, I pretty soon stopped worrying about who was sending them to me, and concentrated the old bean on acting on them. They worked like magic. The last one came yesterday morning, and it was a topper! It was all about how a chappie who was nervous should propose. Technical stuff, you know, about holding her hand and telling her you’re lonely and being sincere and straightforward and letting your heart dictate the rest. Have you ever asked for one card when you wanted to fill a royal flush and happened to pick out the necessary ace? I did once, when I was up at Oxford, and, by Jove, this letter gave me just the same thrill. I didn’t hesitate. I just sailed in. I was cold sober, but I didn’t worry about that. Something told me I couldn’t lose. It was like having to hole out a three-inch putt. And . . . well, there you are, don’t you know.” Reggie became thoughtful. “Dash it all! I’d like to know who the fellow was who sent me those letters. I’d like to send him a wedding present or a bit of the cake or something. Though I suppose there won’t be any cake, seeing the thing’s taking place at a registrar’s.”
“You could buy a bun,” suggested George.
“Well, I shall never know, I suppose. And now how about trickling forth? I say, laddie, you don’t object if I sing slightly from time to time during the journey? I’m so dashed happy, you know.”
“Not at all, if it’s not against the traffic regulations.”
Reggie wandered aimlessly about the room in an ecstasy.
“It’s a rummy thing,” he said meditatively. “I’ve just remembered that, when I was at school, I used to sing a thing called the what’s-its-name’s wedding song. At house suppers, don’t you know, and what not. Jolly little thing. I dare say you know it? It starts ‘Ding dong! Ding dong!’ or words to that effect, ‘Hurry along! For it is my wedding morning!’ I remember you had to stretch out the ‘mor’ a bit. Deuced awkward, if you hadn’t laid in enough breath. The Yeoman’s Wedding Song. That was it. I knew it was some chappie or other’s. And it went on ‘And the bride in something or other is doing something I can’t recollect.’ Well, what I mean is, now it’s my wedding morning! Rummy, when you come to think of it, what? . . .
“Well, as it’s getting tolerably late, what about it? Shift ho?”
“I’m ready. Would you like me to bring some rice?”
“Thank you, laddie, no. Dashed dangerous stuff, rice! Worse than shrapnel. Got your hat? All set?”
“Then let the revels commence,” said Reggie. “Ding Dong! Ding Dong! Hurry along! For it is my wedding morning! And the bride. . . . Dash it, I wish I could remember what the bride was doing!”
“Probably writing you a note to say that she’s changed her mind and it’s all off!”
“Oh!” exclaimed Reggie. “Come on!”
(to be continued)
Note: Thanks to Neil Midkiff for providing the transcription and images for this story.