The Saturday Evening Post, June 7, 1924
THERE is something about the manner in which spring comes to England that reminds one of the overtures of a diffident puppy trying to make friends. It takes a deprecating step forward, scuttles away in a panic, steals timorously back and finally, gaining confidence, makes a tumultuous and joyful rush. The pleasant afternoon that had lured Mr. Sinclair Hammond out to sit in his garden had been followed by a series of those discouraging April days when the sun shines feebly and spasmodically, easily discouraged by any blustering cloud that swaggers across its path, and chilly showers lie in wait for those who venture out without an umbrella. But now, two weeks later, a morning had arrived that might have belonged to June. A warm breeze blew languidly from the west and the sun shone royally on a grateful world; so that even Wimbledon Common, though still retaining something of that brooding air that never completely leaves large spaces of public ground on which the proletariat may at any moment scatter paper bags, achieved quite a cheerful aspect; and the garden of Holly House, across the road from the common, was practically a paradise.
So, at least, it seemed to Flick, strolling on the lawn. The trees that fringed the wall were a green mist of young leaves; a snow of apple blossoms covered the turf of the little orchard; daffodils nodded their golden heads on every side. There was a heartening smell of new-turned earth and the air was filled with mingled noises, ranging from the silver bubbling of a thrush in the shrubbery to the distant contralto of Mrs. Frances Hammond taking a singing lesson in the drawing-room. And such was the magic of the day that not even this last manifestation of spring fever could quell Flick’s mood of ecstasy.
She was trying now to analyze her feelings. Why was every nerve in her body vibrating with a sort of rapturous excitement? Certainly not because at 4:30 that afternoon she was to call at Roderick’s office in Tilbury House and be taken by him to tea at Claridge’s. She was fond of Roderick; but whatever his merits, the thought of seeing him was not enough to intoxicate any girl, even though she and he might be engaged to be married. No, what was thrilling her, she decided, was just that vague feeling of something nice about to happen that comes to the young at this season of the year. We graybeards, who have been deceived so often by the whisper of spring, are proof against the wheedlings of an April morning. We know that there is nothing wonderful lurking round the corner and consequently decline to be lured into false anticipations of joy. But at twenty-one it is different, and Flick Sheridan had that feeling.
She paused in her walk to watch the goldfish in their cement-bottomed pool. The breeze was stronger now, and it ruffled the surface of the water, so that the goldfish had for the moment a sort of syncopated appearance. The breeze became stronger still, and shifted from west to east; and as if spring had repented of its effusiveness, the air grew chilly.
The white clouds that had been flitting across the face of the sun began to bank themselves. Flick turned toward the house to get a wrap; and as she did so there came through the open window of Mr. Hammond’s study on the ground floor a cry suggestive of dismay and wrath, followed instantly by the appearance of papers, which took to themselves wings and fluttered sportively about Flick’s head. Mr. Hammond came into sight, framed in the window, his hair ruffled and a splash of ink on his forehead.
“Ass of a maid opened the door and started a draft. Pick ’em up, there’s a good girl.”
Flick collected the papers. She handed them in through the window. Mr. Hammond vanished, and simultaneously the weather did another of its lightning changes. The wind dropped, the sun shone out stronger than ever; and Flick, abandoning all ideas of wraps, returned to her stroll. She had just reached the lawn again when she became aware of a derelict piece of paper, overlooked in her recent gleaning. It was gamboling over the turf in the direction of the pool, hotly pursued by Bob, the Sealyham terrier, who was obviously under the impression that he had before him one of the birds that he spent his life in chasing.
The paper dodged and doubled like a live thing. It paused till Bob was almost on it, then playfully skipped away. Finally, finding that Bob stuck to the chase, it took the only way out and dived into the pool. Bob, hovering uncertainly on the brink, decided to let the matter rest. He turned and trotted off into the bushes. A last puff of wind from the expiring breeze attached the paper to a lily pad; and Flick, angling with a rake, was enabled to retrieve it. She was just reaching down to lift it ashore when her eyes fell on the opening words—“Sir: If you would save a human life——”
Flick, who had nice views about the sanctity of other people’s letters, read no further. But her heart was beating quickly as she raced across the lawn toward Mr. Hammond’s study.
There was an exclamation of patient anguish on the other side of the window, such as Prometheus might have uttered when his torment became almost too hard to bear. Mr. Hammond was having a little difficulty with his article for the Fortnightly on Crashaw and Francis Thompson, a Comparison and a Contrast; and this was the third time he had been interrupted.
“Well?” The window framed him once more, and his severity diminished. “Oh, it’s you, Flick! Will you kindly get right out of here, young woman, and give a man a chance to work? Go and make daisy chains.”
“But, Uncle Sinclair, it’s frightfully important.” She held up the letter. “I couldn’t help reading the first line. It says something about saving a human life. I thought you ought to have it at once.”
Mr. Hammond reached behind him cautiously. The next moment a flannel penwiper sailed through the air and hit Flick between her earnest eyes.
“Good shot!” crowed Mr. Hammond exultantly. “That’ll teach you to come interrupting me about begging letters in the middle of my work!”
“I remember the letter. I get dozens of them. They all say that the bed will be sold from under some poor dying woman unless one pound seven shillings and threepence is sent by return of post, and they are all written by nasty, grubby men who need a shave. Incidentally, if you ever set up in the begging-letter business, Flick, never ask for any round sum like five pounds. Nobody ever gives five pounds; but the world is full of asses who will tumble over themselves to send one pound seven and three or two pounds eleven and fivepence.”
“But, Uncle Sinclair, how do you know?” persisted Flick with the resolute perseverance of her sex.
“Because I’ve looked into the thing. When I have leisure—which, may I say politely but firmly, at the moment I have not—I will give you some statistics that prove that nine-tenths of the begging letters are written by professionals, who make an excellent living at it. Now leave me, child, first restoring to me that penwiper. If I hear from you again before lunch I will brain you with the poker.”
“But this may be one of the really genuine——”
“How do you know?”
“Instinct. Away with you to your childish pastimes!”
“Do you mind if I read it?”
“Frame it if you like. And don’t forget what I said about that poker. I am a desperate man.”
Flick returned to the lawn. She read the letter as she walked; and the sun, though it was doing its honest best now to pretend that midsummer had arrived, seemed to fade out of the sky. A chill desolation stalked through the pleasant garden. It was all very well for Uncle Sinclair to talk like that, but how could he know? This was the first begging letter that had ever come Flick’s way, and she drank it in with that agonized sinking of the heart that begging-letter writers hope for so earnestly in their clients and so rarely bring out. To Flick, every word of it rang true, and she shivered with sheer misery at the thought that such things could be on a planet which ten minutes before had seemed filled to overflowing with pure happiness.
The letter was not that of a stylist, but it told a story. Written by a Mrs. Matilda Pawle, of Number 9, Marmont Mansions, Battersea, it raised the curtain on a world of whose very existence Flick had until now been but dimly aware—a world of sickness and despair, of rent overdue, of wolves and landlords howling about the door. Flick, as she read it, sickened with sympathetic horror, and the gong for lunch, which reached her as she paced the lawn in agony of spirit, seemed like the cry of a mocking fiend. Lunch! Hot, well-cooked meats—toothsome salads—fruit—potatoes—all the bread you wanted—and Mrs. Matilda Pawle, of No. 9, Marmont Mansions, Battersea, so reduced by fate that only three pounds sixteen and fourpence, sent promptly, could save her from the abyss!
Suddenly, as if a voice—that of Mrs. Pawle, possibly—had spoken in her ear, Flick remembered that in her bedroom upstairs she had certain gewgaws—rings, necklaces, a brooch——
She walked to the house, and halfway there espied the corduroy trousers seat of John the gardener. He was bending over a flower bed, a worthy and amiable fellow with whom she had become almost chummy in February in connection with a matter of bulbs.
“Them tulips,” observed John, not without a certain paternal pride, hoisting himself up at her approach, “ ’ll be out now before you know where you are, miss.”
An hour ago Flick would have plunged light-heartedly into chatter about tulips. But not now. Tulips, once of absorbing interest to her, had ceased to grip. Mrs. Pawle’s pneumonia had put them where they belonged, among the lesser things of life.
“John,” said Flick, “have you ever pawned anything?”
John’s manner took on a certain wariness. His story about that missing pair of shears back in July had been well received and he had assumed that the matter was closed. But you never knew in this world, for the world is full of scandalmongers who spread tales about honest men. To gain time he hitched up his corduroys and gazed woodenly at an aëroplane that purred in the blue like a distant cat. He was about to secure a further respite by stating that there had been none of them things when he was a boy, but Flick spared him the necessity.
“I was reading in a book about somebody pawning something, and I wondered how they did it.”
John was relieved. Now that he was assured that the subject was purely academic, he could approach it with an expert’s ease. He proceeded to do so, and a few minutes later Flick was able to go in to lunch a mistress of the procedure of what Gardener John described as putting up the spout or, more briefly, popping.
The lunch was just as well cooked and appetizing as Flick had supposed it would be. But it did not turn to ashes in her mouth. She had found a way.
SOMETHING of the effervescing happiness that—until the intrusion of Mrs. Matilda Pawle—had animated Flick in her garden at Wimbledon was making life a thing of joy and hope for Bill West at the hour of one that same afternoon as he strode buoyantly along Piccadilly—for who would ride in cabs or busses on such a day?—to keep a tryst at Mario’s Restaurant with Mr. Wilfrid Slingsby, the London manager of the Paradene Pulp and Paper Company of New York. It was not only the weather that seemed to Bill to have lost its bleakness, but life itself. This morning, for the first time since their departure from America two weeks ago, Judson Coker had emerged from his black cloud of gloom and shown a disposition to amiability. And in a small furnished flat it is amazing what a difference a touch of cheerfulness can make in the atmosphere.
Judson, there is no disguising, had taken Bill’s disciplinary measures hardly. From a point coinciding with the passing of the three-mile limit by the steamship Aquitania he had run through the gamut of the emotions, from blank incredulity to stunned despair. The negativing of his suggestion—made almost before the Aquitania had got her stern across that vital spot in the ocean—that Bill and he should adjourn to the smoking room for a small one had struck him at first as rich comedy. Bill, he had felt, was ever a kidder. Whimsical of him to keep up with a perfectly straight face that farce of not letting a fellow have money or liquid nourishment. But toward the middle of the afternoon Judson’s view began to be that, though a joke was a joke and he as fond of a laugh as anyone, there was such a thing as overdoing a jest, running it to death; and when Bill firmly declined to collaborate with him in that antedinner cocktail without which, as everybody knows, food can hardly be taken into the system, tragedy definitely reared its ugly head. From that moment shades of the prison house began to close about the growing boy, so to speak, and our gentle pen must decline to pursue the subject in detail. It is enough to say that Judson Coker had arrived in London a soured man, and it had required many a glance at Alice’s photographs to console Bill for having to pass the days in the sufferer’s society. Apart from anything else, Judson’s piteous appeals for even the smallest sum of money would have wrung the toughest heart; and life had been but a dreary affair in the flat which Bill, after two days’ experience of expensive hotels, had rented furnished for three months.
But today things seemed different. Whether it was the influence of spring, or whether Judson’s abused liver had at last begun to pick up a bit, Bill could not say; but the fact remained that the teetotaler appeared noticeably more cheery. Twice Bill had caught him smiling to himself, and at breakfast that morning, for the first time in thirteen days, he had actually laughed. A short, sad, rasping laugh, to evoke which it had been necessary for the maid of all work to trip over the carpet and spill a pint of coffee down Bill’s legs—but still a laugh. This, thought Bill, was encouraging; and he spurned the pavement of Piccadilly as buoyantly as one of Mr. Marlowe’s satyrs treading the antic hay. Things, he felt, were looking up.
This lunch with Mr. Slingsby was the outcome of one visit to the office and two telephone conversations. Mr. Slingsby may have been letting the profits of the business fall off, but he certainly appeared to be no loafer. Time was money with him, and it was only now, five days after Bill had presented himself and announced his identity, that he had been able to find leisure for a sustained conversation.
Even in their brief acquaintance, Mr. Slingsby had rather overpowered Bill. In the few moments the manager had been able to give over to casual chat his personality had made a deep impression on the young man. Wilfrid Slingsby was one of those shiny, breezy, forceful, nattily tailored men of any age from forty to fifty, who always look as if they had just had a shave and would be needing another in the next few hours. A dark jowl was Mr. Slingsby’s, perfectly setting off his flashing smile.
His smile flashed out as Bill entered the lobby of the restaurant. He came forward with outstretched hand, radiating efficiency and good will, and once more Bill had the feeling that this man’s personality was something out of the common. He felt in his presence like a child—and what is more, like a child with flat feet and one lobe of its brain missing.
Mr. Slingsby led the way into the restaurant, sat down at his reserved table, urged Bill into another chair, straightened his tie and called for the waiter. And it then became apparent that he was one of those dominant men who have a short way with waiters. He addressed the waiter in a strong, carrying voice. He heckled the waiter. He bullied the waiter—until finally another waiter suddenly appeared and the first one flickered away and was seen no more. Next morning, one felt, a body in dress clothes with a spot on the shirt front would be taken out of the Thames. Banished from Mr. Slingsby’s presence, the man had seemed to feel his disgrace acutely.
“Yes-sir?” said the second waiter briskly.
He had a pencil and a notebook, which the other had lacked. In fact the more one thinks the thing over the more convinced one becomes that the first waiter was—in the truer and deeper meaning of the word—no waiter at all, but merely one of those underlings whose bolt is shot when they have breathed down your neck and put a plate of rolls on the table. This new arrival was made of sterner stuff altogether; and Mr. Slingsby, seeming to recognize a kindred spirit, became more cordial. He even deigned to ask the newcomer’s advice. In short, by the time the ordering was concluded and the hors d’œuvres on the table a delightful spirit of camaraderie prevailed, and Mr. Slingsby had so far relaxed from his early austerity as to tell a funny story about an Irishman. The fish having arrived, he embarked on genial conversation.
“So you’re the old man’s nephew, eh?” said Mr. Slingsby. “Great old boy. And what have you been doing with yourself since you arrived?”
Bill related the simple annals of his first week in London, touched on Judson, mentioned two theatrical performances of a musical nature which he had attended.
“Oh, so you’ve seen The Girl in Pink Pajamas?” said Mr. Slingsby, interested. “How did you like it? Think it would go in New York? I own part of that show, you know.”
Bill’s feeling of belonging to a lesser order of creation became more marked. He had not Judson’s airy familiarity with the theatrical world, and men who owned parts of shows were personages to him.
“Really?” he said.
“Oh, yes,” said Mr. Slingsby carelessly. “I do quite a lot of that sort of thing.” He nodded in friendly fashion at a passing exquisite. “Renfrew,” he explained. “He’s starring in It Pays to Flirt at the Regent. You ought to go and see that. Good show. I’m sorry I didn’t take a part of it when they offered it to me. But somehow or other the script didn’t seem to read right. One misses these chances.”
Bill was perplexed. For a manager of the London branch of one of the largest firms in America, pulp paper seemed to mean very little in Mr. Slingsby’s life. He began to think that the solution of the mystery of the fallen-off profits might be simpler than Uncle Cooley had supposed. Something akin to dislike of this splendid person crept over him. Mr. Slingsby made him feel inferior, and Bill was not fond of feeling inferior. And what right, Bill asked himself with some warmth, had fellows to make fellows feel inferior when fellows—the first fellows—couldn’t handle an excellent business in such a manner as to make it show a decent profit? He looked critically across the table at Mr. Slingsby. Yes, he disliked the man. And if the four-flusher continued trying to impress him with his beastly theatrical ventures and his rotten theatrical friends he ran a grave risk of being told precisely where he got off.
In fact, decided Bill—no time like the present—he would give him this information now. True, he was the man’s guest and full of his hors d’œuvres and meat; but as these doubtless would be charged up to the office, no nice scruples need restrain him.
“Uncle Cooley,” he said, changing the subject with an abruptness perhaps a trifle brusque, for Mr. Slingsby had just been commenting—apropos of a spectacular young lady who had recently passed the table—on chorus girls, their morals and the opportunities a man financially interested in the theater had of enjoying their stimulating society—“Uncle Cooley,” said Bill coldly, now thoroughly convinced that his dislike amounted to positive loathing, “asked me while I was over here to try and find out why the profits on the London end of the business had fallen off so badly. He’s very worried about it.”
There was a pause. The introduction of the cold business note seemed to have stunned Mr. Slingsby. He looked surprised, hurt, astonished, wounded, pained, amazed and cut to the quick.
“What?” he cried, and his demeanor was that of one who has been stabbed in the back by a trusted friend. For half an hour he had been honoring Bill with his cordial geniality, and now this had happened. You could see that Wilfrid Slingsby was shaken. But he pulled himself together. He laughed. He laughed nastily.
“Profits fallen off?” he said, regarding Bill unfavorably. He did not try to conceal his opinion that Bill, a brief while before the companion of his revels, now ranked in his esteem about on a level with the first waiter. “If you ask me I should say your uncle ought to be glad there are any profits at all. Let me tell you that there aren’t many men in my position who could show such a good balance sheet. Not many, believe me!” He glowered darkly at Bill. “You understand the pulp-and-paper business thoroughly, of course?”
“No,” said Bill shortly.
It was just the sort of question this sort of man would ask. Bitter regret for a misspent youth surged through him. If only he had employed those wasted hours in learning all about pulp paper—and what more entertaining subject could a young man in the springtime of life find for his attention?—he would now be in a position to cope with this Slingsby. As it was, he feared that Slingsby was going to trample on him. His surmise was correct. Mr. Slingsby trampled all over him.
“Ah,” said that gentleman with odious superiority, “in that case it is hardly worth while for me to go into the matter. Still, I will try to put it in the simplest nursery language.”
Mr. Slingsby’s idea of putting it in simple nursery language was to pour over Bill a flood of verbiage about labor conditions, rates of exchange and economic practicabilities that had his young friend gasping like a fish before he had spoken ten words. No wood that ever entered Mr. Paradene’s mill had ever been more well and truly reduced to pulp than was Bill at the end of fifteen minutes. And when, after taking a quick breath at the conclusion of this period, his host showed signs of beginning Chapter II, he could endure no more. He realized that he was retiring in disorder and leaving the field to the enemy, but that could not be helped. Glancing at his watch, he muttered an apology and rose. Mr. Slingsby, restored to his old cheery self by this triumph, became instantly cordial once more.
“Got to go?” he said. “Perhaps I ought to be moving myself.”
He called for the bill, signed it in a bold hand, hurled silver on the plate, nodded like a monarch in acknowledgment of the waiter’s charmed gratitude, and led the way out.
“Coming my way?”
“I think I’ll be getting back to my flat. I have some letters to write.”
“Why not go to your club?”
“I don’t belong to any clubs in London.”
“Hope you’re comfortable in this flat of yours. If you feel like moving mention my name at the Regal and they’ll treat you right.”
“I have taken the flat for three months,” said Bill, resolved that nothing would ever induce him to mention this man’s name anywhere.
“Where are you living?”
“Battersea. Marmont Mansions.”
Mr. Slingsby raised his black eyebrows.
“Battersea? Why on earth do you want to go and bury yourself in a hole like Battersea?”
“Because it’s cheap,” said Bill between set teeth.
“Taxi!” said Mr. Slingsby, scorning to plunge any deeper into the degrading subject, and bowled swiftly away like a Roman emperor going somewhere in his chariot.
So strangely is human nature constituted that it was this unconcealed contempt on the other’s part for his little nook that definitely set the seal on Bill’s dislike. The captain-of-industry manner, the theatrical swank, the lecture on pulp paper—all these things he might have forgiven. It would not have been easy, but he might have done it. But this was unpardonable. Be it never so merely rented furnished, a man’s little home is his little home; and if he is a man of spirit he resents fellows with blue chins sneering at it. By the time Bill put his latchkey in the door of Number 9, Marmont Mansions, he was in a state of such nervous hostility to Mr. Slingsby as only tobacco and the ungirt loin could soothe. He removed his coat, his collar, his tie and his shoes, lit a pipe and settled down on the sofa in the sitting room. He brooded sullenly.
“Darned gas bag!”
He brooded further.
“Pulling all that stuff!”
He brooded yet again.
“I believe the man’s a crook, and I’m going to keep an eye on him!”
He was still chewing on this stern resolve when the doorbell rang. He got up reluctantly. He assumed the ringer to be Judson, who had a habit of forgetting his latchkey. He went along the passage and opened the door.
It was not Judson. It was a girl.
THERE was a pause. It is always disconcerting for a young man of orthodox views on costume to discover, after going to the door to admit a male friend, and not having bothered to put on his coat, collar or shoes for the task, that he is face to face with a strange girl. And this was a distinctly attractive girl. Bill, as we know, was in love with Alice Coker. Nevertheless, his eyesight remained good and he was consequently quite able to see how distinctly attractive this girl was. Girls, of course, fell into two classes—Alice Coker and others; but there was no disguising the fact that his visitor came very high up in the ranks of the others. She was a slim, fair-haired girl, with a trim figure delightfully arrayed in a dress of some brown material—it was not really brown; it was beige; but Bill had not an eye for these niceties. He was particularly aware of her eyes. They were very blue and seemed unusually large. She was staring at him—and to his embarrassed thinking, staring with a sort of incredulous horror, as if he hurt her in some sensitive spot.
Bill blushed pinkly and endeavored to wriggle his feet under the mat. In the store on Forty-second Street where he had purchased them those socks had looked extremely pleasing; but now he would fain have hidden their gleaming pinks and greens from sight; and he reflected moodily how rash a young man is who in this world of sudden and unexpected crises takes off his shoes in the daytime. So that, taking one thing with another, Bill in that first instant contributed nothing toward the task of making this interview go off with a swing.
The girl was the first to speak.
“Good gracious!” she said.
Bill felt that this was getting worse and worse.
“Surely,” she went on, blinking those large blue eyes, “it’s Mr. West!”
To his other discomforts, Bill now became aware that a species of cold perspiration had added itself. It was bad enough to encounter this distinctly attractive girl in a shoeless, coatless, collarless and—as he now perceived—a hole-in-the-sockful condition; but to make it worse, she seemed to remember meeting him before and he couldn’t even begin to place her. It was not one of those cases of a mere name slipping from the mind, preventing the sufferer from applying a label to a remembered face. She was a complete stranger.
“You’ve forgotten me!”
“Forgotten you!” responded Bill stoutly, feeling the while as if some muscular person were stirring up his interior organs with a pole. “I should say not. Forgotten you!” He laughed metallically. “What an idea! It—it’s just—the fact is, I’m bad at names.”
Bill felt that his face must be turning gray.
“Felicia Sheridan!” he said. “Sheridan! Of course.”
“Well, considering that you once saved my life,” said Flick, “I should have been hurt if you had forgotten me altogether.”
One of the advantages of being sparing in one’s acts of heroism is that it makes them easy to remember.
Bill was in the happy position of having saved only one life in his whole career. A wave of the most poignant relief flooded over him.
“Good heavens, yes!” he ejaculated. He stared at her with an intensity that rivaled her own of a few moments back. “But you’ve altered so,” he said.
“Have you!” babbled Bill. “Why, when I saw you last you were a skinny kid, all legs and freckles. I mean——” He gave it up. “Won’t you come in?” he said.
They went into the sitting room. Bill hastily thrust his feet into the shoes that lay brazenly near the sofa and feverishly started to don his collar. All this took time, thereby enabling Flick, who had looked delicately away during the operation, to inspect the room. Inspecting the room, she could hardly fail to observe the photographs of Miss Alice Coker. If she had missed half a dozen of them, she was bound to see the other six. She observed them.
Something like a shadow seemed to fall upon Flick. She endeavored to be reasonable. It was hardly to be expected that a splendid fellow like Bill would have remained uncaught after five years. Besides, he had only met her about ten times when she was, as he had justly remarked, a skinny kid, all legs and freckles. Furthermore, she was engaged to be married to an estimable young man of whom, she told herself, she was very, very fond. Nevertheless, a shadow did fall upon her.
Bill, meanwhile, shod and no longer in the seminude, had leisure to speculate on the mystery of her visit. It puzzled him completely.
“I expect,” said Flick at this moment, “you are wondering how on earth I come to be here. The fact is I must have called at the wrong address. The policeman at the corner told me this was Marmont Mansions.”
“Marmont Mansions, Battersea?”
“Marmont Mansions, Battersea.”
“Then who,” demanded Flick, “is Mrs. Matilda Pawle?”
Bill could make nothing of the question.
“Pawle—Mrs. Matilda Pawle.”
Bill shook his head.
“I never heard of her.”
“But she lives here.”
The implied slur on the bachelor respectability of his little home drew from Bill a shocked denial.
“Well, that’s the address she gave in her letter,” said Flick, fumbling in her bag. “Look! This letter came for my uncle—you remember my uncle—it came this morning.”
Bill’s face as he took the letter expressed only bewilderment. This bewilderment as he started to read seemed to Flick to deepen. And then suddenly there came a startling change.
All his features appeared to dissolve in one enormous grin, and the next moment he had tottered to the sofa and was holding on to its friendly support, laughing helplessly.
“It’s Judson!” he moaned, meeting Flick’s astonished eyes and reading in them a demand for some clew to this strange behavior.
Bill’s hand swept round in a spacious wave of indication at the photographs.
“Man who lives with me. Judson Coker. Brother of the girl I’m engaged to.”
“Oh!” said Flick.
She spoke dully. Women are inexplicable. There was no reason why she should have spoken dully. She was engaged herself to an estimable young man of whom she was very, very fond, and she was even now on her way to pick him up at his office and be taken by him to tea at Claridge’s. What could it matter to her if a comparative stranger like Bill West was engaged too? Nevertheless, she spoke dully.
Bill was wiping his eyes.
“I brought Judson over from America with me. He had been cutting up a bit too freely and I’m acting as a sort of nursemaid to him. He isn’t allowed to have any money at all, and this is the way he’s trying to get it! I thought he looked more cheerful the last day or two. Can you beat it? I could expect almost anything of old Jud, but writing begging letters is a new one.”
Flick joined in his laughter, but a little wryly. No high-spirited girl likes to realize that she has been wrong and her elders right.
“Well, I wish I had known that before,” she said. “I pawned my brooch to get money for this Mrs. Pawle.”
Bill was touched. He had still quite a lot of unexpended laughter left inside him, but he decided that it would be best to keep it in.
“That was awfully kind of you. Don’t leave it here for Judson.”
“I won’t! And if you feel like hitting your friend Judson with something hard and heavy when he comes in,” said Flick forcefully, “don’t stop yourself because you think I may not approve. I’d like to be here to see you do it.”
“Why not? He’ll be back soon. Stay on.”
“I can’t, thanks. I’ve got to be in Fleet Street in half an hour. Good-by, Mr. West. How strange our meeting again like this! How is your uncle?”
“Oh, very fit. And yours?”
“Very well, thanks.”
Reassured as to the health of their respective uncles, they seemed to find difficulty in selecting a topic of conversation. Flick moved to the door.
“I’ll come down and put you into a cab,” said Bill.
“No, don’t bother,” said Flick. “It’s such a lovely day, I think I’ll walk as far as Sloane Square.”
Here, Bill perceived, was an opening for him to offer to accompany her. But a boat was sailing tomorrow, and he had not yet written his semiweekly letter to Alice. Alice’s claims were paramount.
“Well, good-by,” she said. “We shall meet again soon, I hope.”
“I hope so. Good-by.”
Bill, as the front door closed, suddenly realized that he had omitted to ascertain where she lived. For a moment he thought of running after her and inquiring. . . . No, he really must get on with that letter to Alice. He returned to the sitting room.
Flick, as she walked out into the sunshine, had an odd feeling that life, promising as it had seemed this morning, was in reality rather flat. And strangely—but women are strange—she found herself thinking a little unkindly of Roderick.
BILL had finished his letter to Alice—read, reread, sealed, stamped and addressed it—when a key clicked in the front door and presently there entered to him Judson Coker.
“Any mail for me?” inquired Judson.
Physically, enforced abstinence had done Judson good. His face had lost a certain unwholesome pallor that had characterized it a fortnight back and there had begun to steal into his cheeks quite a rosy pinkness. His eyes, moreover, were clear and bright, and he no longer indulged in that little trick of his of blinking and wriggling his neck round the edge of his collar. Against these corporeal gains must be set a gravity of demeanor that was entirely new. Judson’s habitual manner was now that of the man who has looked upon life and found it a washout.
“You’re always asking for mail this last day or two,” said Bill.
“Well, why not?” said Judson defensively. “Why shouldn’t a fellow ask for mail?”
“Anyway, there isn’t any,” said Bill. “You must be patient, my lad. You can’t expect people to answer by return of post.”
Judson started. The recently acquired pink left his face. He licked his lips.
“What do you mean?”
“I think it’s a shame!” said Bill vehemently. “If you’ve got pneumonia and are behind with the rent and haven’t tasted food for three days, why the devil doesn’t Mr. Pawle get busy and support you?”
Judson stared hideously. Through a mist he saw that his friend was giving way to unseemly mirth.
“How did you find out?” he choked.
Bill partially recovered himself. He sat back, feeling weak.
There had been moments since their departure from America when he had regretted having taken Judson along with him, but the sight of the other’s face now more than made up for all the trifling discomforts he had had to undergo.
“There was a girl in here just now,” he explained, “who was so touched by your letter that she had pawned her brooch to get money for you.”
Judson shook with emotion.
“Where is it?” he asked eagerly.
“The money the girl brought.” His face assumed a cold expression. “I need hardly remind you, West,” he said stiffly, “that that money belongs to me—legally, I shouldn’t wonder. So if you have pouched it I’ll thank you to hand it over immediately.”
“Good Lord, man, you don’t suppose I’ve got it, do you? Directly we found that it was you who had written the letter I told her to take the money away.”
Judson gave him one withering look.
“And you call yourself a friend!” he said.
Bill, undaunted by his attitude, followed him as he swung off and strode down the passage. He wanted to clear up further points that had perplexed him.
“How did you come to think of this stunt?” he asked as Judson opened the front door. “It was the smoothest trick I ever heard of.”
“Father was always getting begging letters,” said Judson coldly. “I saw no reason why it shouldn’t work.”
“But how did you happen to pick on Miss Sheridan?”
“I never sent any letter to any Miss Sheridan. She must have a father or something whose name begins with an H. I wrote to all the H’s in Who’s Who.”
“Why the H’s?”
“Why not? That’s where the book happened to open.”
He withdrew his coat sleeve aloofly from Bill’s grasp and proceeded down the stairs. Bill leaned over the banisters, still curious. Another aspect of the matter had occurred to him.
“Half a second!” he called. “Where did you get the money to pay for the stamps?”
“I pawned a gold pencil.”
“You haven’t got a gold pencil.”
“You had,” said Judson, and clattered out into the great open spaces.
RAPIDITY of movement had never been congenial to Judson Coker. He disliked having to hurry. Finding, therefore, on reaching the end of the Prince of Wales Road, that he was not being pursued, he slowed down. At a leisurely walk he turned the corner into Queen’s Road and presently found himself on Chelsea Bridge. Here he decided to halt, for Judson had man’s work before him. He intended to count his money.
He took it out and arranged it in three little heaps on the palm of his left hand. Yes, there it was, just as it had been this morning, last night and the night before—thirteen shillings, two sixpences and five pennies. The view from Chelsea Bridge is one of the most stimulating in London, but Judson had no eyes for it. However picturesque, it could not hope to compete with the view afforded by the palm of his left hand. Thirteen shillings, two sixpences and five pennies—a noble sum. His business correspondence had entailed an expenditure that had eaten sadly into the original proceeds from the sale of Bill’s pencil, but he had no regrets. If you don’t speculate, Judson was well aware, you can’t accumulate. He gloated for a few minutes longer, then salted the treasure away in his pocket and resumed his walk.
Students of character who have been examining Judson Coker since his appearance in these pages may seem to detect at this point a flaw in the historian’s record—finding themselves unable to reconcile the fact that he had had the sum of fourteen shillings and fivepence in his possession two nights before with the statement that he had in his possession fourteen shillings and fivepence now. They are too hasty. They do not probe deeply enough. Judson was not one of your shallow fellows who will fritter away here a sixpence and there a penny until they wake up to find their capital gone and nothing to show for it. It was his intention, difficult though it might be, to hold off until he had the chance of shooting the entire works in one majestic orgy—a binge that he could look back to and live again in the lean days to come. And this was the first time he had managed to shake off his limpetlike guardian.
He walked on, luxuriating in the pleasurable anguish of a thirst that grew with every stride. He left Chelsea Barracks behind him, and the cozy little doll’s houses in Lower Sloane Street, where the respectable live in self-contained flats. The rattle of busy traffic greeted his ears. It was like some grand, sweet anthem, for it meant that he had arrived at that haven where he fain would be, the King’s Road, full from end to end of the finest public houses, practically one per inhabitant.
An admirable specimen of this type of building chancing to rear its hospitable façade almost in front of him, he made for it like a homing rabbit; and it was only when he reached its doors that he discovered that there lay between them and himself a securely padlocked iron gate.
As he stood there pawing in a feeble, bewildered fashion at this astonishing and unforeseen barrier, a passer-by stopped to gaze at him; a fellow of bohemian aspect clad in a frock-coat, flannel trousers and a pink cricket cap, and wearing upon his feet cloth bedroom slippers, out of one of which peeped coyly a sockless toe.
To him Judson appealed for an explanation of the ghastly state of things he had come upon. The man seemed like one who would know all that there was to be known about public houses.
“I can’t get in,” moaned Judson.
The other cleared his throat huskily.
“They don’t open till ar-par-six,” he replied. Amazed that in the heart of London, that hub of civilization, there could be walking the public streets a man ignorant of this cardinal fact of life, he groped for light. “Stranger round these parts, ain’t yer?” he hazarded.
Judson acknowledged that this was so.
“Foreigner, ain’t yer?”
“From Orsetrylier, ain’t yer?”
“R!” said the bohemian, nodding. He spat sagely. “I ’ear you can’t get a drop of no description or kind whatsoever in America.”
Judson was about to refute this monstrous slur on the land he loved by giving a list of the places in New York (a) where anybody could get the stuff and (b) the more select, where you could get it by mentioning his name, when his companion moved on, leaving him alone in the desert.
A hideous gloom came over Judson. He was now enduring the extremes of drought. Six-thirty seemed æons ahead, like some dim, distant date lost in the mists of the future.
The thought of passing the time till then weighed on his soul like a London fog. Eventually deciding that if the time had to be passed, it would be perhaps a little less dreary living it through up in the West End, he made for the Underground station at Sloane Square, bought a ticket for Charing Cross and descended to the platform.
A train was just leaving as he came down the stairs. He shuffled dully to the bookstall to see if there was anything there worth reading. The bright cover of Society Spice caught his eye. He knew little of the weekly papers of London, but its title seemed promising. He yielded up two of his pennies. A train came in. He sat down and began to turn the pages.
The twopence that Judson had spent on Society Spice proved an excellent investment. The Church Times or the Spectator he would not have enjoyed, but Society Spice might have been compiled for his especial benefit. It gripped him from the first page. Even though the issue in his hands was one of those on which Roderick had tried so hard to exercise a depressing influence, that craven’s coworker, young Pilbeam, had by no means failed in his efforts after zip. The vice-in-the-pulpit article, for instance, was full of body; nor was there any lack of fruitiness in the one on Night Clubs That are Living Hells. Judson began to feel happier.
And then, like an electric shock, a shudder ran through his entire frame. It was as if somebody had beaten him over the head with a sandbag. His heart seemed to stop, his scalp bristled, and there escaped from his twisted lips so sharp a yelp that it drew all eyes upon him. But Judson did not notice the eyes. His own were glued upon an article on Page Six.
It was not an article of which young Pilbeam had been particularly proud. He had had to dig it out of the archives in a hurry when Roderick’s veto of the bookmaker series had caused a gap on the make-up on the eve of press day. It was headed Profligate Youth, and it dealt with the behavior and habits of the idle offspring of American plutocrats.
The passage that had so stunned Judson ran as follows:
Another instance which may be cited is that of the notorious Fifth Avenue Silks, as they were called—a club whose habit it was to parade up Fifth Avenue on Sunday mornings in silk hats, silk socks, silk pajamas and silk umbrellas. This was founded and led by the well-known Toddy van Riter, the recognized chief and guiding spirit of these young sparks.
Judson shook as with an ague. Not even on the morning after seeing in a New Year had he ever felt so thoroughly unstrung. Of all his great exploits, the one of which he was proudest, the one on which he relied most confidently to hand his name down to posterity, was the founding of the Fifth Avenue Silks; and to see that masterpiece of ingenious fancy attributed to another—and to Toddy van Riter, at that, his humble follower and henchman—was more, he felt, than a man should be called upon to bear. It seemed to steep the soul in abysmal blackness.
“ ‘The well-known Toddy van Riter!’ Ha! ‘The recognized chief and guiding spirit.’ ” Oh, ha-ha! It was monstrous, monstrous! These papers simply didn’t care what they said.
The train rattled on, bearing a raging Judson westward. Something tremendous, he felt, must be done, and done without delay. A sweeping and consummate vengeance for the outrage alone could satisfy him. But what to do? What to do?
He toyed with the idea of a libel action. But he had no funds for one. Then how insure that justice be done and the righteous given their due? There was only one way—he must see the editor and demand that a full apology and retraction appear in the earliest possible issue.
He searched the paper, but could find no editor’s name. All he learned was that the lying sheet was published by the Mammoth Publishing Company of Tilbury House, Tilbury Street, E. C. Well, that was enough to work on.
The train had stopped, and he got out, steely cold and filled with a great purpose. And the authorities of the Underground Railway increased his generous wrath by their pin-pricking policy of demanding from him another penny for having allowed his reverie to carry him on a couple of stations farther than the scope of his ticket. Having given them this with an awful look, he went up into the street and inquired the nearest way to Tilbury House.
IN ALIGHTING at Blackfriars instead of at Charing Cross, Judson had done better than he knew, for the policeman in the middle of the road outside the station informed him that to Tilbury House from where he stood was but a step. He strode off and was presently standing in a dingy alleyway before a large, gaunt building of discolored brick. That this was the object of his quest was hinted by the rumble of presses within and confirmed by the scent of printer’s ink and paper gallantly endeavoring to compete with that curious smell of boiling cabbage that always pervades any mean street in London. Nevertheless, Judson decided to make quite certain by verbal inquiry of the commissionaire in the doorway.
“Is this Tilbury House?” asked Judson.
“Ur,” said the commissionaire. He was a soured, moody-looking fellow with a ragged mustache, a man who seemed to have a secret sorrow which the spectacle of Judson did nothing to allay. He gazed at him with a bilious eye.
“Is this where Society Spice is published?”
“I want to see the editor.”
The commissionaire wrestled for a moment with his sorrow.
“D’you mean Mr. Pyke?”
“I don’t know his name.”
“Mr. Pyke’s the editor of Society Spice. If you want to see him you’ll ’ave to fill up your name and business.”
These formalities irked Judson. He resented this check. The spirit of Tilbury House had descended upon him and he wanted to Do It Now. He wrote his name on the form handed to him, fuming. A buttoned boy appeared from nowhere and regarded him with what seemed to Judson’s inflamed senses silent mockery. He did not like the boy. The boy looked as if he might be in this plot to exalt Toddy van Riter at the expense of better men.
“Take this,” he said haughtily, “to Mr. Pyke.”
“Gem’ wants to see Mr. Pyke,” added the commissionaire, with the air of one interpreting the ravings of a foreigner.
The boy glanced disparagingly at the document.
He had the trying manner of a schoolmaster examining a pupil’s exercise.
“You ain’t filled up your business,” he said superciliously.
Judson was in no mood for literary criticism from boys in buttons. He spoke no word, but he cut at the stripling viciously with his stick. The boy, dodging expertly, uttered a derisive cry and disappeared. The commissionaire picked up his evening paper.
“You’ll ’ave to wait,” he said.
He turned to the racing page and began to read.
Up on the third floor in the office of Society Spice, Roderick, a prey to a gloom which almost rivaled that of the commissionaire, was lugubriously watching young Pilbeam ginger up the next issue. There seemed to Roderick something utterly gruesome in the fellow’s cheerful industry. His emotions were not unlike those of a man shut up in a small room with a lunatic who has started juggling with sticks of dynamite. Sustained by the verdict of the court of appeal, the subeditor of Society Spice was giving the freest play to his ideas of what a paper that provided weekly scandal should be; and some of the choice items which he had read out from time to time had chilled Roderick to the marrow. To Roderick it seemed utterly inconceivable that even the mildest of these paragraphs should not bring about an immediate visit from indignant citizens with shotguns. And, when he remembered Mr. Isaac Bullett’s brief but pregnant remarks concerning the Lads, his heart turned to water within him.
A fairly frequent attendant at race meetings in the neighborhood of London, Roderick knew all about the Lads. They ranged the world in gangs, armed with hammers. Sandbags and knuckle-dusters were to them mere ordinary details of what the well-dressed man should wear. They lay in wait for those at whose actions they had taken offense and kicked them with heavy boots. In short, if there was one little group of thinkers in existence whose prejudices ought to be respected by a man with any consideration for the pocket of his life-insurance company, it was these same Lads. And here was Pilbeam going out of his way to jar their sensibilities.
Roderick groaned in spirit and turned absently to take the form which was being held out to him by the boy in buttons who had just entered.
“What’s this?” he asked, his eyes still on young Pilbeam, who was hammering away at a typewriter in the corner.
Pilbeam had just emitted a low chuckle of childlike pleasure at some happy phrase. To Roderick it had sounded ghoulish. He was torn between the desire to know what his young assistant had written and a strong presentiment that it was better not to know.
“Gem’ waiting to see you, sir.”
Roderick wrenched his mind away from the essayist in the corner and inspected the card. His attention was immediately enchained by the same omission which the boy had detected.
“He doesn’t say what his business is.”
“Wouldn’t fill up his business, sir,” said the boy eagerly.
A sensationalist at heart, this fact now appealed to him as pleasingly sinister. It appealed in precisely the same way to Roderick.
“Why not?” he said uneasily.
“Dunno, sir. Just wouldn’t do it. I says to him, ‘You ain’t filled up your business,’ I says, and all he done was take a crack at me with his stick.”
“Crack at you with his stick!” echoed Roderick pallidly.
“Crack at me with his stick,” repeated the child with relish. “Dunno what’s the matter with ’im, but he seemed in a fair old rage, sir. Boilin’ over, ’e seemed to be.”
“Tell him I’m busy.”
“Busy, sir? Yes-sir. All right, sir.”
The boy disappeared. Roderick sat down at his desk and gazed before him with unseeing eyes. The clatter of young Pilbeam’s typewriter still rang through the room, but he did not hear it. At last, he felt, the blow had fallen and the avenger had arrived. Just which of the paragraphs printed during his editorship had brought this on him he could not say, but he was strongly of the opinion that almost any one of them might have done so. His nightmare had come true.
Roderick Pyke, as has perhaps been sufficiently indicated by the remarks of his Aunt Frances, was not of the stuff of which heroes are made. He was, as she had justly observed in her conversation with Sir George, a timid, feeble creature. There was once an editor of an organ of opinion catering to the literary wants of a Western mining camp who, sitting in his office one day, noticed a bullet crash through the glass of the window and flatten itself against the wall behind his head. Upon which a relieved and happy smile played over his face.
“There!” he exclaimed. “Didn’t I say so? I knew that personal column would be a success!”
Roderick Pyke was the exact antithesis of this stout-hearted man. He liked peace and quiet, and shrank from all turbulent forms of life. Where a sturdier fellow would have welcomed with joy the prospect of an interview with a boiling stranger who cracked at people with his stick, Roderick quailed. He sat huddled in his chair in a sort of catalepsy of panic.
This cataleptic condition had not passed when Flick arrived to be taken out to tea.
MARKED as Roderick’s air of gloom was, Flick did not observe it. She was feeling oddly preoccupied. Something strange seemed to have happened to her since she had parted from Bill, expressing itself in a vague and general discontent combined with a curious dreaminess. She greeted Roderick mechanically, and mechanically allowed herself to be introduced to young Pilbeam, who, ever a warm admirer of her sex, had ceased his writing and risen gallantly at her entrance. There was not much that went on in Tilbury House that Pilbeam did not get abreast of, and the news of Roderick’s engagement had long since reached him. So this was the boss’ niece. Niece by marriage, Pilbeam understood. A delectable girl, much too good for Roderick. He bowed genteelly, smiled, spoke a courteous word or two, opened the door. The young couple passed out. Pilbeam heaved a not unmanly sigh and returned to his writing. Much too good for Roderick, he was now certain. He held no high opinion of his superior officer.
Roderick escorted Flick downstairs. He led her by secret ways, for it was not his purpose to use the main stairway which ended in the vestibule guarded by the commissionaire. The information that he was busy had, he hoped, brought about the departure of the stick-cracking visitor, but he was taking no chances. He emerged with Flick from a small and insignificant door farther down the street; and looking apprehensively about him, saw with relief that no danger was in sight. Except for the usual fauna of localities in which printing houses are situated, shirt-sleeved men with blackened faces and the like, Tilbury Street was empty. Somewhat calmed, Roderick proceeded on his way.
Unfortunately it chanced that at this precise moment the commissionaire, who had finished the racing news, elected to step out for a brief breath of air; and still more unfortunately, Judson, tired of waiting, and realizing that the fortress was carefully guarded and that he was merely wasting time remaining in the vestibule, decided to get up and go home. The two came out almost simultaneously, and Judson was only a yard or so in the commissionaire’s rear when the latter, sighting Roderick and wishing to show zeal and possibly acquire a small tip, touched his hat and uttered these fateful words:
“Shall I call you a cab, Mr. Pyke?”
Judson, hearing the name, froze in his tracks.
“No, let’s walk along the Embankment,” said Flick, “and go to the Savoy instead of Claridge’s. It’s such a lovely day.”
The commissionaire, disappointed, but apparently feeling that in a world of sorrow this sort of thing was only to be expected, withdrew. Flick and Roderick turned down the street towards the Embankment. And Judson, recovering from his momentary trance, had just started off in hot pursuit, when he was delayed by the sudden arrival of a large truck, which drew up across his path and began to unload rolls of paper. By the time he had rounded this obstacle his quarry was out of sight.
But Judson had caught the word “Embankment.” He needed no further clew. He hurried in the direction of the river, and there sure enough, halted opposite a taxi-cab which had drawn up at the pavement, was the man he sought. He seemed to be trying to persuade the girl to ride, while the latter appeared to favor walking. Judson dashed feverishly up.
“Are you the editor of Society Spice?”
Roderick spun round. The voice sounded to him like the voice of Doom. He had had his back turned and so had been unaware of Judson’s approach until the latter spoke; and one may perhaps be permitted charitably to assume that it was the suddenness and unexpectedness of the onslaught that undid him. Some excuse, some theory in extenuation of his behavior, is, one cannot deny, urgently needed. For at the sound of these words Roderick disintegrated. His fatal timorousness, that disastrous legacy from “poor Lucy,” was too strong for him. He cast at Judson a single quick horrified look; then, jettisoning in one mad craving for self-preservation all thoughts of manhood and chivalry, he sprang from Flick’s side, leaped into the cab, hissed in the driver’s ear and was off.
His departure not unnaturally created in both Flick and Judson a certain astonishment. Judson was the first to recover. With an anguished cry he started to race after the receding taxi, leaving Flick standing on the pavement.
For some moments Flick stood there motionless, her gaze on the flying Judson. A dull flush had stolen into her cheeks, and an ominous steely light was turning the blue of her eyes to glazed stone. Then she beckoned to another taxi that was ambling up from the east and got in.
Notes on the text may be found elsewhere on this site. Note that this serial episode corresponds to chapter III and sections 1–3 of chapter IV of the book.