The Saturday Evening Post, June 21, 1924
MR. COOLEY PARADENE’S pleasant domain at Westbury, Long Island, dozed in the April sunshine. It was the sort of day when any ordinary man would have been out in God’s air; but Mr. Paradene, being a book collector, was spending the afternoon in his library.
In front of him, as he sat at his desk, lay the most recent additions to his collection. The necessity of glancing at, dipping into, blowing spots of dust off and fondling these was interfering very much with the task he had on hand at the moment—to wit, the writing of a letter to his old friend Sinclair Hammond, of Holly House, Wimbledon, England. At the point where we discover him he had, indeed, got no further than the words, “My dear Hammond.”
He now assumed an expression of resolution, and dipping his pen in the inkpot, began to tackle his task squarely:
My Dear Hammond: Thank you for your letter, which reached me a week ago, and many thanks for again inviting me to pay you a visit. I am glad to say that at last I am able to accept your very kind hospitality. Unless something occurs to alter my plans, I propose to sail for England about the middle of next month. I am looking forward with the greatest eagerness to seeing you again.
I shall have one or two nice little things to show you. At the sale of the Mortimer collection I was lucky enough to secure quite cheap—only eight thousand dollars—Browning’s own copy of Pauline (Saunders and Ottley, 1833), also Browning’s own copy of Paracelsus (E. Wilson, 1835) and of Strafford (Longmans, 1837). I am sure, too, you will appreciate another capture of mine, the autograph manuscript of Don Juan, Canto Nine. This is entirely in Byron’s handwriting and is the only canto lacking in Pierpont Morgan’s collection. I would not take twenty thousand dollars for it. I have also a few other good things which I will show you when we meet.
Since writing to you last I have, you may be interested to hear, adopted a son—a splendid little fellow——
A knock at the door interrupted his writing. Mr. Paradene looked up.
The English language is so nicely adapted to the expression of delicate shades of meaning that it is perhaps slovenly to be satisfied with describing the noise that had broken in on Mr. Paradene’s composition as a knock. The word “bang” more nearly fits it. And Mr. Paradene frowned with quick displeasure. He was not accustomed to having his hermit’s cell battered upon in this fashion. His surprise when the opening door revealed Roberts the butler was extreme.
If there is one class of the community that has reduced knocking on doors to a nice art it is butlers. Roberts’ discreet tap had been until this moment a thing that blended with rather than disturbed the thoughts. Only some great emotion, felt Mr. Paradene, could have caused him to slam the panel with such vehement impetuosity; and the next moment the sunlight, falling on the butler’s face as he moved forward, showed that his suspicion had been correct. Roberts was foaming at the mouth.
The expression “foaming at the mouth” is so often used to suggest a merely mental condition that it must be stated that in the present instance it is employed perfectly literally. A bubbly yellowish-white froth covered the lower part of the butler’s face; and when he removed this with a vicious dab of his handkerchief other bubbles immediately presented themselves. Had Roberts been a dog Mr. Paradene would undoubtedly have been justified in shooting him on sight. As he was a man, and a trusted employe at that, he simply stared dumbly.
“Might I speak to you, sir?” said Roberts thickly.
“What on earth——” began Mr. Paradene.
“I would like to be informed, sir, if Master Horace is to be a permanency in this household.”
Mr. Paradene, hearing these words, felt like one who sees looming above the horizon a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand. They struck him as significant and sinister. For there was that in the butler’s tone that suggested disapproval of that splendid little fellow, his adopted son.
Mr. Paradene’s mouth tightened. He was an obstinate man. Disapproval of Horace affected him personally. It implied criticism of his action in bringing him into the home, and he resented criticism of his actions, whether implied or spoken.
“He most certainly is,” he replied curtly.
“Then,” said the butler, blowing bubbles, “I must ask you to accept my resignation, sir.”
It speaks well for the benevolence of Mr. Paradene’s domestic rule that this kind of announcement was an astonishing rarity in his life. Once in his house, servants were as a rule only too glad to stay. He had had only two cooks in fourteen years; while as for Roberts, that excellent man had joined up nearly eight summers ago and had looked until this moment as solid a fixture as the pillars that upheld the front porch. To see this devoted retainer blowing bubbles at him and talking of resigning his position afflicted Mr. Paradene with a horrible sense of being in the toils of some disordered dream.
“What?” was all he could find to say.
The sadness of this parting after so long and happy a union seemed to affect the butler too. His manner became less severe and his voice took on a tone of pathos.
“I regret this, sir, deeply,” he said. “Nobody could have been more comfortable in a situation than I have been in your service, sir. But remain in the house if Master Horace is to continue here I cannot and will not.”
The hasty and imperious side of Mr. Paradene’s nature urged him to close this interview at once by withering the man with a few well-chosen words and sending him about his business. But curiosity was too strong for him. If he allowed Roberts to leave him without explaining the bubbles, he would worry himself into a premature grave. The thing would become one of those great historic mysteries which fret the souls of men through the ages.
“What’s your objection to Master Horace?” he inquired.
Roberts plied his handkerchief daintily for a few moments.
“My objection, sir, is both general and particular.”
“What the devil do you mean by that?” demanded Mr. Paradene, bewildered.
“If I might explain, sir.”
“Downstairs, sir, we do not like Master Horace’s manner. One of the lower servants summed it up in a happy phrase not many days ago when he described the young gentleman as too darned fresh. We have so much affection—if I may take the liberty of saying so—for yourself, sir, that we have endeavored hitherto to bear this without complaint. But now things have gone too far.”
Mr. Paradene leaned forward in his chair. Imperiousness had vanished and curiosity occupied his mind to the exclusion of every other emotion. At last, he felt, Roberts was about to speak freely of the bubbles.
“A few days ago I refused to permit Master Horace to raid the larder for food.”
“Quite right,” agreed Mr. Paradene. “Makes him fat.”
“He appeared at the time to take this in a mutinous spirit. He called me one or two names which,” said Roberts, brooding coldly, “I have not forgotten. But this afternoon, just before he went out for his walk with Mr. Bastable, he approached me with an apology so amiable and apparently sincere that I had no alternative but to accept it. He then offered me an attractive-looking piece of candy, sir. This I also accepted. I have a sweet tooth. I did not immediately eat it, partly because I had only recently finished a hearty meal and partly because Master Horace specifically urged me to save it up. But when I——”
Mr. Paradene was an oldish man, but he had been a boy once. A dazzling light shone on his darkness.
“You don’t mean there was soap in it!” he exclaimed.
“Exactly, sir,” foamed the butler.
There was a pregnant silence. For a moment Mr. Paradene was, curiously enough, not so much shocked and horrified as filled with a sort of subtle melancholy, the feeling which the ancient Romans used to call desiderium.
“It must be fifty years,” he murmured wistfully, “since I played that trick on anyone.”
“I,” said the butler with austerity, “have never played it, nor had it played on me. It came as a complete surprise.”
“Too bad,” said Mr. Paradene, returning from the past and overcoming with some difficulty a desire to give way to a mirth which would obviously be ill-timed. “Too bad. Young rascal! I’ll have a talk with him. Of course, one can see the thing from his viewpoint.”
“I fear I am unable to do so, sir,” said Roberts stiffly.
“I mean, boys will be boys.”
The butler expressed his disapproval of this too tolerant philosophy with a lift of the eyebrow so chilling that Mr. Paradene continued hastily:
“Don’t think I’m excusing him. Nothing of the kind. Can’t have that sort of thing. Certainly not! But, good gracious, Roberts, you don’t want to throw up an excellent situation simply because——”
“I am leaving with the greatest regret, sir, I assure you.”
“Nonsense, nonsense! You aren’t leaving at all. Of course you aren’t! I couldn’t get on for a day without you.”
“It is very kind of you to say so, sir,” said the butler, beginning to melt.
“I’ll see the boy and make him apologize—apologize humbly. That will make everything all right, eh?”
“And you’ll give up all this nonsense about leaving?”
“Well—if you wish it, sir.”
“Wish it? Of course I wish it. Good heavens, you’ve been with me eight years! You go back to the pantry and get yourself a good drink.”
“You’re very kind, sir.”
“And listen, Roberts. It’s only fair that I should pay some sort of indemnity—like a nation does when one of its subjects starts something in another country, eh? There’ll be an extra ten dollars in the monthly envelope from now on. Leave me, indeed! I never heard such nonsense!”
The butler, who, like the month of March, had come in like a lion, went out like a lamb, leaving his employer chewing his pen. Mr. Paradene was worried. He hated to confess it even in the privacy of self-communion, but he was disappointed in Horace. He had not yet actually adopted the boy with full formality of legal papers, but the fact that he had proclaimed him as his adopted son made it impossible for a man of his obstinacy to draw back; and it was beginning to come home to him that the whole business had been a blunder. A magnificent gesture, true, and one that had most satisfactorily stunned brother-in-law Jasper and the rest of those grasping sycophants; but nevertheless a blunder. Yes, he feared he had been too impulsive. Impulsiveness had always been his besetting fault from boyhood up. He was trying to divert his thoughts from this unpleasant matter by finishing his letter to Sinclair Hammond when they were jerked back to their original channel by the sight through the open window of Horace himself, returning from his afternoon walk with Mr. Sherman Bastable, his tutor.
He watched the couple cross the lawn and disappear round the corner of the house. Horace, he noted, had a weary and sullen mien, in marked contrast to Mr. Bastable’s buoyant freshness. The tutor was a lean and enthusiastic young man, just out of college, who preferred brisk walking to any other method of locomotion. Horace, to judge from his expression and his drooping slouch, did not share his views.
It had frequently annoyed Mr. Paradene that his son by adoption, though of a chunky and athletic build, seemed to like to spend his time lolling in easy-chairs. This, he felt, was not the spirit that makes supermen, and quick irritation gripped him once more.
He was still brooding fretfully on the boy’s shortcomings when there was a sudden rushing noise without and Mr. Bastable burst into the room.
“Mr. Paradene!” shouted the tutor in a high, impassioned tenor. “I will not put up with it!”
Mr. Paradene was dumbfounded. Hitherto he had always found Sherman Bastable an exceptionally civil and soft-spoken young fellow, but now the man was transformed. His tone was one that would have excited comment in the foc’sle if used by the second mate of a tramp steamer. His face was flushed and contorted, and as he spoke he thumped the desk violently.
“I’ve had enough of it!” he bellowed.
Mr. Paradene stared at him; and staring, became aware of something which in his first astonishment he had overlooked. He had felt vaguely right from the start that there was an oddness about the tutor’s appearance, and now he realized what had given him this impression. Sherman Bastable in his employer’s private and sacred library was wearing his hat! The spectacle brought Mr. Paradene, already simmering, to the boiling point.
“It has got to stop!” cried the tutor.
“Take off your hat!” said Mr. Paradene.
The words, designed to bring the young man to himself in a rush of shamed embarrassment, had the odd effect of amusing him. At least, he laughed. But it was a hideous, hollow laugh that seemed wrenched from his very vitals.
“I like that!” he cried. “That’s good! Take off my hat? Yes, that’s rich!”
“You’re drunk,” said Mr. Paradene, purpling.
“You must be. You rush in here with your hat on——”
“Yes,” said Mr. Bastable bitterly, “I do. And perhaps you’d like to know why. Because I can’t get the damned thing off without skinning my forehead. That little brute of a boy has gone and rubbed glue all round the inside band, and now it’s melted. And I want to tell you, Mr. Paradene——”
The things Mr. Bastable wanted to—and did—tell his employer were so numerous and couched in language so harsh and unguarded that one is forced to omit them. His final utterance, spoken a brief instant before he slammed the door, is the only one that need be recorded.
“I’m through!” said Mr. Bastable. “You can accept my resignation. I wouldn’t stay here another day if you paid me a million dollars.”
The bang of the door died away, leaving a quivering silence. Mr. Paradene stood for a moment plunged in thought. Then, going to a closet, he took out a long, slim cane; and, having swished this musically through the air once or twice, strode rapidly from the room.
OUT in the garden, meanwhile, in the shade of a large locust tree that stood near a handsome shrubbery of rhododendrons, the cause of all these upheavals in the home was relaxing after the fatigues of his afternoon walk. His young body at ease in a deck chair and his feet restfully supported by a small rustic table, the boy Horace lay with closed eyes, restoring his tissues. Beside him on the turf a glass, empty except for a fragment of ice, spoke pleasantly of past lemonade, and a close observer might have detected cake crumbs on the lad’s waistcoat. Everything was jake with Horace.
The warm sunshine invited slumber, and it was not immediately that the soft whistling from the shrubbery succeeded in penetrating to his consciousness. For some time the boy had attributed the sound to one of the birds that ranged the garden, but presently it became so persistent as to interfere with sleep. He opened his eyes and gazed drowsily in the direction from which it seemed to proceed. Having done this, he became aware of a face peering at him out of the rhododendrons.
One uses the word “face” in a loose sense. What met Horace’s eyes was a mere congeries of features apparently carelessly assembled by an inexpert hand, few of them making any pretense of matching one another.
The nose appeared to have been designed for a far smaller man, whereas the chin, which jutted out like the cowcatcher of a train, would have caught the eye if attached to the body of a giant. The forehead, a narrow strip of territory separating the eyebrows from the fringe, was flanked by enormous ears that stood out at a majestic right angle.
To see this strange facial hash protruding from a rhododendron bush might have startled many people. Horace bore the spectacle with calm, almost with indifference. He yawned.
“Hello, Joe,” he said. “It’s you, is it?”
“Yes, it’s me,” replied the other in a voice of marked surliness. “I’ve come to find out what you’re doin’, and I find you doin’ what I might have expected I’d find you doin’—doin’ nothing.”
“I’m concentratin’,” said Horace casually.
Joe the Dip—for the visitor was none other—looked up and down the quiet garden and, satisfied that it was empty, emerged cautiously from his bush. Now that the whole of him had become visible, his social status was even more obvious than before. A criminal, evidently—and belonging, one would have said, to the executive rather than the organizing branch of his particular gang. If you wanted a man to scheme out some subtle confidence game you would pass over Joe. Not only was his head not the right shape for that kind of thing but in the circles in which he moved it was reputed to be constructed of solid bonzoline. But if, on the other hand, the task on the program involved the sandbagging of somebody down a dark alley, then you would beckon to Joe with an immediate “Eureka!” In build, he was a solid man of medium height, with thick and stooping shoulders. His feet were large and flat.
“Concentratin’, eh?” he observed bitterly. “Dat’s about the best thing you do, ain’t it? See here, kid, I’ve made a long trip out to this joint to get next to youse, and what I want to know is, how about it? The boss is gettin’ worried.”
“Yeah?” said Horace.
“We’re all gettin’ worried. You’ve got it soft, ain’t you, sittin’ pretty in this swell home, livin’ off the fat of the land?”
“I don’t eat fat.”
“It’s about all you don’t eat. I know youse. Lazy, dat’s what you are. If I’d been here instead of you I’d have got action long ago.”
“You would, eh?”
“Yes, I would. What’s keepin’ youse? What’s de snag?”
Horace settled down more deeply into his deck chair and eyed his interrogator calmly.
“I been thinkin’,” he said.
“You got no time for that sort of thing,” said Joe the Dip reprovingly. “We got to get a move on.”
“Thinkin’,” proceeded Horace, “whether we really want to rob Mr. Paradene.”
“Wot?” gasped Joe. “Thinkin’ wot?”
“I’ve been going to the movie house down in the village, and it seems to me it don’t pay to be a crook. No, sir! Every crook that reforms always turns up in a dress suit in the last reel.”
Joe licked his lips feverishly. He seemed to be feeling that a stricter censorship was needed for the motion-picture industry.
“There was one I saw last night,” continued Horace dreamily, “where an ugly bad-tempered crook puts a kid up to stealing from an old gentleman. Kind of a coincidence, wasn’t it?”
“Well, the fellow he’s robbin’ catches him an’ says that he’s a big crook himself an’ he wants the kid to go to some town an’ get the reputation of being the honestest young man in the place and then he’ll come and spring somethin’ really big. An’ the kid goes and he does, an’ the big crook comes and says, ‘Now’s the time!’ An’ the kid says, ‘No! I’m honest an’ I like it, because I’m president of the bank an’ everythin’.’ And the big crook says, ‘Thank God, I only did the whole thing to try and make you an honest man!’ What do you think of that?”
“I think it’s terrible,” said Joe with emotion.
He stared at his young friend, breathing heavily.
“Well, if you really want to know,” said Horace, chuckling unfeelingly, “I was only kidding when I said that was why I didn’t want to rob old Paradene.”
Joe heaved a sigh of relief.
“Oh, if you was only kiddin’——”
“The real reason why I’m not going to——”
“Eh?” cried Joe, starting violently.
“I say the real reason why I’m not going to is what you said yourself just now. You said I was sittin’ pretty, and so I am. Gee! I should be a fine chump, I should, doin’ anything that ’ud make me have to duck out of a swell joint like this. This is my dish! You’ve got me adopted by this rich millionaire, and I’m goin’ to stay adopted. Why, you poor simp, you’ve got about as much chance of havin’ me sneak those books for you as—well, I don’t know what. I’m here and I’m going to stay here. And if you want those books you come and break in and pinch them for yourself. As far as I’m concerned, the thing’s cold.”
Joe the Dip, as has been pointed out, was not a man of swift intelligence. The problems created by this appalling treachery on the part of his young ally were altogether too much for him. The situation made him dizzy. He was still wondering how this news was to be broken to the boss and what the boss, a man who disliked having his schemes go wrong, would say about it, when the sight of a figure coming out of the house drove him quickly back into the shelter of the rhododendrons. He crouched there, an unhappy man.
THE figure that had interrupted Joe the Dip’s train of thought was that of Mr. Paradene, with cane complete. The walk down the stairs and out into the garden had served only to intensify the wrath of that injured man. His eyes as he stalked along the lawn were gleaming fiercely and his mouth was tightly clamped. Mr. Paradene was on the warpath.
Horace, snuggling contentedly in his deck chair, watched his approach without qualms. No sense of coming peril disturbed his peace. The conscience of youth is not tender, and Horace’s spoke no word of warning now.
“Hello, pop,” he said amiably.
Mr. Paradene was a man of action.
“I’ll teach you to feed my butler soap and put glue in your tutor’s hat!” he said, and with this brief preamble embarked forthwith on the lesson.
It was not a simple task to try to inject sweetness and light into a boy of Horace’s hard-boiled temperament, but what one man armed with a springy whangee could do Mr. Paradene did. A stranger, passing Cooley Paradene with a casual glance in the street, might have thought his physique too slight for any violent muscular effort. Horace, after the first few moments, could have corrected this impression. But then he was getting first-hand information.
“There!” said Mr. Paradene, at length desisting.
It shows how diametrically opposed two persons’ views can be on any given point that Horace’s new father was dissatisfied with his work. He chafed at the inroads made by advancing years on a once wiry frame, and considered that heaviness of arm and scantness of breath had caused him to stop much too soon. Horace was not seeing eye to eye with him in this matter. Whatever his views on Mr. Paradene’s lesson in deportment—and he had many—he certainly did not think that there had not been enough of it.
“There!” said Mr. Paradene again, breathing heavily; and turning on his heel, he stalked back to the house.
Not until he was out of sight did Joe the Dip venture to leave the shelter of the rhododendrons. But when it was plain that the intruder had definitely withdrawn he came out of his retirement, his face wreathed in unwonted smiles. His young friend’s yelps of anguish had been music to the ears of Joe the Dip. He had only regretted that the social convenances should have rendered it inadvisable for him to emerge and lend a hand in the good work. He surveyed Horace contentedly.
“Laugh that off!” observed Joe with quiet relish. “Serves you right for bein’ a little double-crosser.”
Horace gritted his teeth. He was still somewhat stunned by the dreadful unexpectedness of the recent massacre. Deceived by the benevolent exterior of Mr. Paradene, he had not suspected the existence of these hidden fires beneath the surface.
“Who’s a double-crosser?” he demanded warmly.
“You are,” said Joe the Dip. “And, say, listen, if it had of been me behind that stick you wouldn’t have got off with a few taps like that. If there’s one bozo in this world I got no use for it’s a little squirt that double-crosses his pals.”
Horace glared. This censure stung him, for now he felt that it was unjust. In the last few minutes his views on existence in the Paradene home had undergone a striking alteration. He had mistaken it after a too superficial inspection for an earthly paradise; he now realized that there were attached to it drawbacks of the most pronounced kind.
“Double-cross nothin’!” he exclaimed heatedly. “You can go back and tell the boss that I’ll have those books he’s so crazy about if I have to dig ’em out with a chisel. Leave it to me! I’m in this game now to get action!”
“At-a-boy!” cried Joe the Dip enthusiastically. “ ’At’s the way I like to hear youse talk!”
IT IS one of the delightful features of the English spring that days occur in it—in fact it is almost entirely composed of days on which, as evening draws in, the temperature is such as to render an open fire agreeable, even necessary. The one that blazed in the grate of the sitting room of Bill’s flat in Marmont Mansions, Battersea, some ten days after Flick’s impulsive departure from Holly House, was large and cheerful. It threw warm beams of golden light on the Sealyham, sleeping on the rug; on Bill, smoking in an armchair; on Flick, snug on the settee, her fair head bent over a pair of Bill’s socks, which she was darning. Bill, his pipe drawing nicely, had fallen into a pleasant train of thought.
After that hectic night in the gardens of Holly House life had settled down to a smooth placidity. Flick was comfortably established now in a bed-sitting room round the corner, having stumbled by good fortune on a house whose landlady, so far from objecting to dogs, had welcomed Bob with a motherly warmth and was now conducting a campaign of systematic overfeeding which had already begun to have grave effects on his figure. This admirable woman could also cook in a manner rare among her kind. So that Flick, though after the magnificence of Holly House she could hardly hope to find a bed-sitting room luxurious, had no complaints to make. Except for an occasional spasm of remorse brought on by remembrance of her Uncle Sinclair, she was enjoying life hugely. She liked the novel feeling of freedom. She liked the sense of adventure, and she particularly liked these daily visits to the home of Bill and Judson. The only phenomena in her new world which she did not like were those twelve photographs of Alice Coker, which seemed to stare at her with a hostile disdain every time she entered this room. She had now come definitely to the conclusion that she detested Alice Coker.
To Bill, also, the present trend of life seemed wholly excellent. In a vague way he realized that things could not go on like this forever, but he did not allow the thought to diminish his happiness. Being at an age when one does not look very piercingly into the future, he was satisfied to enjoy the moment, soothed by this atmosphere of quiet and sputtering fires and sock mending. He could not remember a time when anyone had ever darned socks for him. In the days of his careless prosperity he had simply worn the things until the holes became too vast even for his uncritical tolerance, and then had thrown them away. He lay back in his armchair, watching Flick’s busy fingers, and told himself that this was life as it should be lived.
Flick’s fingers stopped their rhythmic movement. She looked up.
“What has become of Mr. Coker?” she asked.
She was fond of Judson. He had at last got over his embarrassing habit of gaping at her like a fish, as if the sight of her in his sitting room made his senses reel, and there existed between them a firm and growing friendship. Their relations were those of a modified Desdemona and Othello. She liked him for the hardships he was undergoing, and he liked her that she did pity them. Judson had never met a girl more sweetly disposed to listen to his troubles. In a black world Flick restored his faith in human nature.
“He told me he was going to look up Slingsby,” said Bill, and felt the faint pricking of conscience which always came to him when the name of the London manager of the Paradene Pulp and Paper Company was mentioned. Recently he had rather permitted the dynamic Mr. Slingsby to pass out of his life, and the thought sometimes made him uncomfortable. He had achieved, he realized, absolutely nothing in the direction of fulfilling the mission which his Uncle Cooley had intrusted to him; and more and more this visit of his to London was beginning to take on the aspect of a pleasant vacation. This was all wrong, of course; but on the other hand, what could he do? As his uncle had justly remarked, if Wilfrid Slingsby was baffled by the problem of why the profits had fallen off, what chance had a novice like himself to solve it?
“I didn’t know he knew Mr. Slingsby,” said Flick.
“Oh, yes; I took him round to the office the other day and introduced him.”
Flick resumed work on the sock.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said. “I don’t like what you told me about Mr. Slingsby.”
“Oh, he’s all right,” said Bill with the tolerance bred of physical well-being.
“I can’t help feeling he may be crooked.”
Bill smiled indulgently. This, he supposed, was what they called feminine intuition. The only trouble with it was that it didn’t work. Common sense had long since caused him to abandon the doubts he had once entertained of Mr. Slingsby’s honesty.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I liked the man, but I don’t suspect him of anything like that. It’s true he has let the profits fall off——”
“And yet you said he was such a capable man.”
“Yes; but he explained the whole thing to me the day I lunched with him. I couldn’t quite follow all of it, but it seemed straight enough. Business conditions and all that sort of thing, you know.”
“I see,” said Flick, and there was a brief silence. Bill changed the subject.
“I’ve been thinking too.”
“Wondering,” said Bill, “what your people are saying about your running away. It seems odd there hasn’t been anything in the papers.”
“Uncle George would never allow anything to get into the papers. He would be much too afraid of the scandal.”
“They never put any reply to your letter in the personal column of the Mail. It begins to look as if they intended to stick it out.”
“What will you do if they don’t climb down?”
Flick looked up with a quick flash of her cornflower eyes. That sudden, impish way she had of jerking up her head always fascinated Bill. It reminded him of a startled kitten.
“I shall get a job somewhere. I’m pretty good at typing and I can do a sort of shorthand. I used to work with Uncle Sinclair a lot at one time. At any rate, I’m not going back to marry Roderick.”
“I should say not! Anything,” said Bill sententiously, “is better than marrying someone you don’t love. Love is worth waiting for. One of these days you’re bound to find a man you’ll fall in love with.”
“Absolutely bound to. It comes over you like a flash, you know—quite suddenly.”
“I remember when I first met Alice——”
“What sort of a girl is Miss Coker?” Flick interrupted.
“What sort of a——” Bill found himself at something of a loss for words. It is a tough job describing goddesses. “Why she’s—— But I’ve told you all about her a lot of times.”
“So you have,” said Flick demurely, returning to the sock.
“It’s been wonderful having somebody like you to talk to about Alice,” said Bill. “Judson isn’t much use in that way. But you’re different. You’re a real pal. I can——”
“Would she mend your socks?” asked Flick.
The question seemed to disconcert Bill. He had recently come to regard sock mending as one of the noblest pursuits of woman, and it pained him to discover anything even remotely resembling a flaw in Miss Coker’s perfection. But the fact had to be faced. Try as he might to envisage Alice mending socks, he could not do it.
“She’s rather the dashing sort of society type of girl, you know,” he said, and was aghast to find himself speaking quite apologetically.
There was a silence. From the fire a few glowing fragments of coal dribbled into the grate. The Sealyham on the rug gave a little whine as he chased rats through dreamland.
“Don’t you usually write to her on Tuesdays?” said Flick carelessly.
“Good Lord!” Bill dropped his pipe and stared at her with fallen jaw. “I’d clean forgotten.”
“You’d better go and do it now or you’ll miss the mail.”
Bill was conscious of a peculiar sensation. Analyzing this, he was horrified to realize that for an instant what he had been feeling was a reluctance to get out of his chair; a strange, evil shrinking from the delightful task of writing a long letter to the girl he loved. For one ghastly moment the thing had seemed a bore. Letters at Number 9, Marmont Mansions, Battersea, had to be written in the dining room, it happening to contain the only table in the flat that did not sway like a lily if leaned upon. And somehow the thought of leaving this cozy fireside and going into the dining room depressed Bill.
His better nature asserted itself. He heaved himself up and left the room. Flick, laying down the half-mended sock, sat gazing into the fire. Then, with a little impatient wriggle, she started sewing again.
She had been sewing for some minutes when the door opened and Judson came in.
“Hullo!” said Flick. “We were wondering where you were. Is anything the matter?”
Judson had flung himself moodily into the chair which Bill had vacated, disillusionment and dejection written plainly on his speaking countenance. He was not proof against this womanly sympathy.
“Look here,” he said. “I’ll tell you all about it. You’ve got a kind heart. You’re not the sort who would simply kid a fellow.”
“I should hope not!”
“Well then, look here. You know as well as I do that there are moments, especially in this beastly country, where the wind always seems to be blowing from the east, when a fellow just has to have a nip of the right stuff to keep the cold out. It’s a simple matter of health—medicinal. Ask any doctor. You admit that, don’t you?”
“If it makes you any happier.”
“Well, with Bill West behaving like a darned policeman, I’m pretty much up against it in this direction.”
“He says he’s only doing it for your good.”
“Oh, I’ve no doubt he has some story to explain his behavior,” said Judson coldly.
“Besides, he promised your sister to look after you.”
“There is only one word,” said Judson with asperity, “to describe Bill’s attitude of groveling servility to my sister Alice, and that word is ‘sickening.’ It isn’t as if she cared a hang about him.”
“Not a whoop.”
“But I thought they were engaged.”
“Perhaps they are. But be that as it may, you can take it from me that she’s just using him. I’m very fond of her, as a matter of fact, and she has always been decent to me; but a girl may be all right as far as her brother’s concerned and still be a rough citizen when it comes to other men. Much as I like Alice, it’s no use kidding myself that she’s not a flirt. Ever since I’ve known her she’s always had a dozen fellows on a string. Mark my words, she’ll let Bill down. Yes, sir! One of those days that boy is slated to get a jar that’ll shake his back teeth out.”
Flick, though she felt she would have liked to hear more on this theme, reluctantly decided at this point that she had no business to be encouraging these revelations. With a strong effort, therefore, she changed the subject.
“That’s too bad, isn’t it?” she said. “But what were you going to tell me? When you came in, you know. You said I had a kind heart and wouldn’t make fun of you.”
“Oh, yes.” The animation with which Judson had been discussing his sister left him. His moodiness returned. He spoke in a minor key, as befitted a painful story. “I was saying that in this beastly raw, windy weather a fellow has simply got to have a drink now and then or his health gets undermined. And the trouble, as far as I’m concerned, is that it’s a darned tough proposition to know which way to turn. This afternoon I thought I would try an outside chance.”
“What did you do?” asked Flick, wondering. She had visions of Judson counterfeiting spectacular fainting fits in the middle of the street in the hope of getting restored with brandy.
“I went to see if I could touch that man Slingsby.”
“Mr. Slingsby! Whatever made you go to him?”
“Well, he’s old Paradene’s London manager, and Bill is old Paradene’s nephew and I’m Bill’s best pal. It isn’t as if there wasn’t a sort of moral obligation. Anyway, I called on him at about four this afternoon. I can see now that I didn’t choose a particularly good time for my visit. The man was in a thoroughly nasty temper—having, I discovered, just fired his stenographer.”
“Why was that?”
“I didn’t find out, though I sat there all ready to be confided in if he wanted to slip me an earful. He isn’t what you would call a very cordial sort of bird, that fellow. In fact, the whole atmosphere seemed to get so strained after I’d been there about an hour and a quarter that I was in two minds about going away and leaving him flat. Only I wanted that drink, you understand. So I stuck around, and eventually he decided to close the office and put the cat out for the night and call it a day. It was then getting on for six and he said he was going home. I said I hadn’t anything to do for a while, so I would come along with him.”
“He must have got very fond of you by this time,” said Flick.
“Well, I don’t know,” said Judson doubtfully. “He seemed to me a trifle grouchy.”
“That’s strange. How do you account for that?”
“It beat me,” said Judson. “But, mind you, I wasn’t worrying a whole lot about it. What I was thinking about was that drink.”
“By the way,” said Flick, “is this story going to end happily?”
“I mean, does it end with you getting a drink?”
Judson laughed a gruesome laugh.
“Oh, I got a drink all right.” He scowled darkly at the fire. “I’m coming to that. We left the office and got into the man’s car——”
“Has he a car? What sort?”
“I forget. He did tell me. Winch-something.”
“That’s right. Big gray limousine.”
“Looked as if it had cost the earth. And that’s what makes it all so infernally despicable. Here’s this man rolling in money and I gave him every opportunity to invite me to dinner, but he wouldn’t bite. This was after we had got to his house.”
“Oh, he has a house, has he, as well as a big car? Where does he live?”
“Burton Street? No, Bruton Street. It’s off that square—what’s its name?—by Devonshire House.”
“That’s it—Berkeley Square. You turn to the right. He lives halfway down in a biggish house on the left side. Well, we got out and he opened the door with his latchkey and stood there looking at me in a sort of expectant way, so I came in. And after a bit I came straight out with it as man to man and asked him if I could have a drink. And he said certainly.”
“It’s very curious,” said Flick meditatively, “that he should have this expensive car and live in a place like Bruton Street.”
“And when it came, what do you think it was?”
“It costs a lot living anywhere round there.”
“It was cocoa,” said Judson somberly; “a cup of cocoa on a tray. And when I looked at it in a sort of stupor, if you understand what I mean, he said that Bill had told him that I was a strict teetotaler. Bill, mind you, who has been my friend for more than fifteen years! I explained to this Slingsby bird that he had got the facts all wrong, and hadn’t he a drop of Scotch about the place; and the man, with a beastly mocking smile, said that cocoa was much better for me than Scotch, as in addition to being warming it contained nourishing fats. And then he said would I excuse him, as he had to dress for dinner.”
“I can’t understand it,” said Flick. “If he lives in Bruton Street and has an expensive car he must be quite rich.”
“Crawling with money. And that’s what makes it all the more——”
“But he can’t get such a big salary as manager for Mr. Paradene. I wonder how much the London manager of a firm like Mr. Paradene’s would get a year.”
Judson was impressed.
“I see what you’re driving at,” he said. “You mean the fellow’s a crook. I can well believe it.”
“Of course, he might have private means.”
“That’s true,” said Judson, damped.
“But if he had he would hardly go on being just manager for someone else. He would be in business on his own account. A man in his position wouldn’t be paid much more than a thousand pounds a year.”
“I don’t see how he does it. . . . I want to think this out. You see, as far as I can make out from Bill, old Mr. Paradene has not paid very much attention to his business for the last few years. He is wrapped up in his old books and has just left things alone. It would be a splendid opportunity for a man in Mr. Slingsby’s position to do something underhand.”
“And he’s just the man who would do it.”
“He’s so clever, you mean?”
“I wasn’t thinking of that so much,” said Judson. “What I feel is that there must be practically nothing to which a fellow who would offer another fellow cocoa on an evening like this wouldn’t stoop. That’s the way I look at it. And laughing nastily, mind you, while doing so!”
FLICK SHERIDAN and Judson Coker were not the only two people in London who were taking an interest in the affairs of Mr. Wilfrid Slingsby. Such are the ramifications of this complex civilization of ours that the movements of the manager of the Paradene Pulp and Paper Company had also come under the observation of no less a person than young Pilbeam, the real power behind that entertaining weekly, Society Spice, of which Roderick Pyke was the nominal and unwilling editor.
The morning after the conversation between Flick and Judson recorded in the last chapter, Roderick sat at the editorial desk of Society Spice gazing wanly at the galley proof of an article by his impetuous assistant which dealt with the nefarious activities of the race of turf commission agents—an article in the course of which, he pallidly noted, the name of Mr. Isaac Bullett was mentioned no fewer than three times, and not once in a spirit of genial praise. This series on Bookmakers’ Swindling Methods, initiated by Pilbeam, discontinued by Roderick, and resumed at the express orders of Sir George, had always reached a fair level of zippiness; but never, its reluctant sponsor felt, had it so outzipped itself as in the present installment. Young Pilbeam, dealing with the swindling methods of bookmakers, and using as his leading instance the laxness of the commercial code of Ike Bullett, made Juvenal seem like a tactful pacifist.
The pallor on Roderick’s brow would seem to have been caused entirely by the perusal of this inflammatory piece of prose, and not at all by anxiety as to the safety and whereabouts of his vanished bride-to-be. Flick’s departure, though it had acted like an earthquake on others of the family group, had apparently left Roderick unperturbed. On his arrival at the office, ten minutes ago, he had been in a noticeably cheerful frame of mind. He had even been whistling. But at the sight of the very first paragraph of Pilbeam’s philippic the whistle had died away and, like Flick, had not been heard of since.
To him, shrinking quivering in his chair, there now entered young Pilbeam in person, striding into the room with shining morning face, all pep, ginger, efficiency and alertness. This youth with a future was about twenty-three years of age, diminutive in stature and shinily black of hair. He wore a lively young check suit, and his upper lip was disfigured by a small fungoid growth of mustache.
He accosted his chief genially. A tactful man, he had never shown any disposition to rub his recent victory into Roderick. Roderick was still technically his superior officer and he always treated him as such.
“Ah,” said Pilbeam, having passed the time of day, “I see you’re reading that little thing.”
Roderick, coming to himself with a start, dropped the little thing as if it had been an adder.
“How do you like it?” added the second in command; and without waiting for an answer proceeded, “I say, I’ve had a great stroke of luck. Happened by pure chance to stumble over something last night that looks pretty bubbly. We shall just be able to bung it into this week’s issue.”
Roderick licked his lips—not with relish, but because they felt dry and cracked. The thought of bunging into this or any other week’s issue anything which a critic of Pilbeam’s exacting standards considered pretty bubbly gave him a dull, aching sensation in the pit of the stomach.
“What is it?” he asked hollowly.
Young Pilbeam removed his coat, hung it on a peg, donned a faded blazer bearing the colors of the cricket club which enjoyed his support on Saturdays, and, wielding a skillful pair of scissors, shaped from the cover of an old number of Society Spice the paper cuffs which it was his prudent habit to wear when in the office.
“I happened to go and have a bit of supper last night at Mario’s,” said Pilbeam, “and there was a man a couple of tables off with a girl in pink. I didn’t know the girl, but she looked chorus-girlish. I suppose she came from one of the theaters. The man was a chap I’ve seen around the place, named Slingsby. Know him?”
Roderick said he did not.
“Wilfrid Slingsby. Does a good deal of putting up money for shows, and so on,” explained Pilbeam. “Sort of man you’re always seeing at Romano’s and that sort of place. Well, that’s who he is, and he was sitting there having supper with this girl. And suddenly—— Ever meet a girl named Prudence Stryker?”
Roderick said he had not had that pleasure either, and endeavored somewhat austerely to make it clear to Pilbeam that his knowledge of the more roystering strata of London society was not so extensive and peculiar as he seemed to imagine.
“American girl,” said Pilbeam. “Was in the Follies in New York for a long time, but came over last January to join the chorus at the Alhambra. Big, dark, Spanish-looking girl with black hair and large flashing eyes.”
Roderick shuddered. Miss Stryker appeared to be the exact type of girl he disliked most, and he hoped that the story was not leading up to the information that his young assistant proposed to bring her to the office with a view to securing her reminiscences.
“Well, Prudence Stryker suddenly came in with a chap, and no sooner did she see this fellow Slingsby having supper with this girl in pink than she gave a yell, rushed across the room, swept all the plates and glasses off the table, and then swung her right and plugged Slingsby a perfect beauty in the eye. How’s that, eh?” said Pilbeam with the honest enthusiasm of a good scandal-sheet conductor. “Not so bad, what? The only trouble is that the poor girl was so instantly chucked out by the management that I didn’t get a chance to have a talk with her and find out what it was all about.”
Why Pilbeam should allude to the muscular Miss Stryker, who had apparently acted so dramatically in accordance with her second name and with so lamentably little consideration for her first, as the poor girl, Roderick could not understand.
“So what I thought I would do,” said Pilbeam, “was to go and interview this fellow Slingsby and bring back a nice story for this week’s issue. I find he’s got an office in St. Mary Axe. I can pop down, get a statement from him and have the article in type by lunch time. I’ll be off there as soon as I’ve cleaned up these proofs.”
Roderick looked at the enthusiast with a growing horror. It seemed to him as if fate was going out of its way to make life difficult. An article such as that envisaged by Pilbeam must infallibly lead to his incurring in his editorial capacity the enmity of this Miss Stryker, who would naturally be sensitive about the matter and disinclined to see it exposed to the myriad eyes of London in the staring nudity of print. And last night’s drama showed with a hideous clearness what happened to those whom Prudence regarded with disfavor. A vision of himself being plugged a perfect beauty in the eye came to Roderick as vividly as if he had seen it in a crystal.
“I don’t think we want that story,” he said tremulously. “I can’t use it.”
Pilbeam stared at him, aghast.
“But it’s a corker,” he urged. “Everybody who reads Spice knows Slingsby.”
Roderick in his desperation snatched at the suggestion offered by this statement.
“If he’s as well known as that,” he said, “he may be a friend of my father’s.”
“No, no; not a chance of the boss knowing him.”
“There is,” persisted Roderick. “Why shouldn’t there be? The man may be his closest friend for all you know. And you remember how furious he was the time you put in that story about Sir Claude Molesey and the Brighton bungalow. I shouldn’t run the risk of having that sort of thing happen again if I were you.”
Pilbeam looked thoughtful. Roderick’s words had given him pause. The incident to which he had alluded was the only existing blot on the Pilbeam escutcheon. As nice a little Things We Want to Know, Don’t You Know paragraph as he had ever written, and then it had turned out that the victim at whom it was directed was one of Sir George’s most intimate cronies. Most certainly he did not want that sort of thing to happen again. A way out of the difficulty came to him.
“I’ll go up and see the boss,” he said, “and ask him.”
He removed the paper cuffs, changed the blazer for his check coat, and thus suitably attired left the room.
Up in his office on the fourth floor meanwhile Sir George Pyke was in conference with his sister Frances, and had been for the last half hour. The subject before the meeting was, as usual, the total disappearance of Flick.
“Just think how long it has been since she ran away,” Mrs. Hammond was saying, “and how little we’ve done. Why, we’re no nearer finding her than we were two weeks ago.”
“I know,” sighed Sir George, “I know.”
The proprietor of the Mammoth Publishing Company was looking more like a stuffed frog than ever. This matter of Flick’s mutiny was weighing hardly upon him.
“You surely do not suggest, I hope,” he said, having taken a couple of Napoleonic turns up and down the room, “that we should give in to her and insert that advertisement in the Daily Mail?”
The last two words escaped him in a sort of miniature explosion of pent-up disgust. If Flick had only known, the one thing in the whole unfortunate business that had smitten her uncle most sorely was her tactless request that the family capitulation should be announced in the alien Mail and not in the home-grown Daily Record.
“Certainly not,” said Mrs. Hammond decidedly. “Of course not. Nothing could be farther from my thoughts. I am only saying that we ought to take some definite step of some kind, and you, George, are our only hope. Sinclair is perfectly useless. Sometimes I am not sure that he does not in his heart of hearts secretly sympathize with the girl. You must do something, George, and at once.”
Sir George frowned thoughtfully.
“I did put the matter into the hands of a private detective, you know.”
“A private detective!”
“Using the utmost discretion, of course,” Sir George assured her. “I told him that Felicia was the daughter of an old friend of mine. Suggested that she must have been stricken with amnesia, which I thought rather a happy idea. But there have been no results. The fact is, these private detectives are no good—no good whatever. They exist only to take fees in advance and do no work to earn them.”
The telephone buzzed discreetly.
“Mr. Pilbeam would be glad if you could see him for a moment, Sir George.”
Sir George turned from the instrument with the air of one whose troubles have been divinely solved.
“What is it?”
“I never thought of him! What an amazing thing! The one man ideally fitted for—— Young Pilbeam wants to see me,” he explained. “You remember him? Does all the work on Spice. One of the brightest, keenest fellows in the place. A man in a million. The finest young chap for this sort of business in London.”
“Have him in at once!” cried Mrs. Hammond excitedly.
To Frances Hammond’s keen vision one glance at the assistant editor of Society Spice was enough to justify her brother’s eulogy. Percy Pilbeam was not an ornamental young man; æsthetic critics would have found much to cavil at in his check suit, and physiognomists might have clicked their tongues disapprovingly at the sight of his mean little eyes and the unpleasant smile on his badly shaped mouth; but for the task in hand his qualifications stuck out all over him. He looked what he was—a born noser-out of other people’s coyly hidden secrets. She bowed amiably as Sir George, with a brief word, made them officially known to each other.
“You wished to see me, Pilbeam?”
“Just a trifling matter, Sir George. I am on the track of rather a good story about a fellow named Slingsby—Wilfrid Slingsby. I just thought, before going any farther, that I would make certain that he did not happen to be a personal friend of yours.”
“Slingsby? Slingsby? Never heard of him. Who is he?”
“He has some sort of business in the city, and he is rather well known in theatrical and sporting circles about town. He has had a finger in backing one or two musical comedies.”
“Just the sort of man the readers of Spice are interested in.”
“Exactly what I thought, Sir George.”
“What has he been doing?”
“He was mixed up in a rather spectacular affair at one of the night clubs last night. I thought it might be worth following up.”
“Undoubtedly. Most decidedly. By all means follow it up.”
“Thank you, Sir George.”
“Oh, Pilbeam,” said the big chief as that promising young man turned to go, “one moment.” He went to his desk and took out the photograph of Flick which he had recovered from the Whitehall Detective Agency after dispensing with that organization’s disappointing services. “I want you just to glance at this.”
Pilbeam took the photograph and studied it deferentially.
“That,” said Sir George, thrusting his fingers into the armholes of the Pyke waistcoat and speaking in the loud, bluff, honest voice of the man who is about to do some hard lying, “is a photograph of a Miss—Miss——”
As is always the way on these occasions, he found himself utterly unable to think of a single name that sounded even remotely like the sort of name a girl would have. Mrs. Hammond stepped adroitly into the uncomfortable pause.
“Miss Faraday,” she said brightly.
“Exactly,” said Sir George, relieved. “Miss Angela Faraday.” The name pleased him and he repeated it. “I want you, Pilbeam, to find that girl for me. She is the only daughter of a very old friend of mine.”
“She left home recently,” said Mrs. Hammond.
“Just so,” said Sir George. “Disappeared.”
“In fact,” said Mrs. Hammond frankly, “ran away. You see, Mr. Pilbeam, the poor child had only just recovered from a severe attack of influenza. You know how it is when you are recovering from influenza.”
“Quite,” murmured Pilbeam; “quite.”
“One is not responsible for one’s actions.”
“We think,” said Sir George, feeling on solid ground once more, “that she must have got amnesia.”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Hammond, “there must be some reason like that to account for her staying away. There was no——”
“——trouble at home,” said Sir George. “None whatever. Don’t imagine that for an instant. The girl was quite happy; perfectly happy and contented.”
“Quite,” said Pilbeam.
He spoke with unruffled calm, but inwardly he was a tortured man. His memory for faces being excellent, he had recognized the photograph the moment it was handed to him as a very good likeness of Roderick’s fiancée, that pretty girl, the boss’ niece, who had called for Roderick at the Spice office a week or so ago. And the realization that he had stumbled upon the most gorgeous scandal of his whole career and that there was no hope of being allowed to use it in the paper was the bitterest thing that had ever happened to him. Not even on the occasion when, piqued by his persistent questioning as to the motives of his wife in suddenly removing herself to East Uganda, a large husband had kicked him down a full flight of stairs, had Percy Pilbeam felt sadder.
“You are a fellow who goes about a good deal,” said Sir George. “I know that you have a sharp pair of eyes. Take that photograph, Pilbeam, and see if you can’t find that girl. She must be somewhere. I must ask you, of course, to treat the matter as entirely confidential.”
“That is all then.”
“Very good, Sir George. I will do my best. And in regard to the other matter of which I spoke, I will call on this man Slingsby directly after lunch and see what I can find out.”
“Just so. And touching this business of Miss—er—Faraday, you will of course charge to the office any expense in which you may be involved.”
“Oh, quite,” said Pilbeam; “quite.”
There was a ring in his voice which told his employer that in that side of the affair at any rate he might rely on him implicitly.
This serial episode corresponds to Chapters VI through VIII in the book editions. Annotations to the book are elsewhere on this site.
Editorial and printer’s errors corrected above:
Magazine had “Imperiousness and curiosity occupied his mind”; all other versions have “Imperiousness had vanished and curiosity occupied his mind.” Since the omission reverses the intent of the mention of imperiousness, this must be erroneous, and so the transcription above has been corrected to Wodehouse’s intent.
Magazine had “Sir Claude Molescy”; this improbably-spelled surname has been corrected to “Molesey” as in all other versions.