The Saturday Evening Post – September 23, 1916
LONDON brooded under a gray sky. There had been rain in the night, and the trees were still dripping. Presently, however, there appeared in the leaden haze a watery patch of blue; and through this crevice in the clouds the sun, diffidently at first but with gradually increasing confidence, peeped down on the fashionable and exclusive turf of Grosvenor Square. Stealing across the square its rays reached the massive stone walls of Drexdale House, until recently the London residence of the earl of that name; then, passing through the window of the breakfast room, played lightly on the partially bald head of Mr. Bingley Crocker, late of New York, in the United States of America, as he bent over his morning paper. Mrs. Bingley Crocker, busy across the table reading her mail, the rays did not touch. Had they done so she would have rung for Bayliss, the butler, to come and lower the shade, for she endured liberties neither from man nor from Nature.
Mr. Crocker was about fifty years of age, clean shaven and of a comfortable stoutness. He was frowning as he read. His smooth, good-humored face wore an expression that might have been disgust, perplexity, or a blend of both. His wife, on the other hand, was looking happy. She extracted the substance from her correspondence with swift glances of her compelling eyes, just as she would have extracted guilty secrets from Bingley, if he had had any. This was a woman who, like her sister Nesta, had been able all her life to accomplish more with a glance than other women with recrimination and threat. It had been a popular belief among his friends that her late husband, the well-known Pittsburgh millionaire, G. G. van Brunt, had been in the habit of automatically confessing all if he merely caught the eye of her photograph.
From the growing pile of opened envelopes Mrs. Crocker looked up, a smile softening the firm line of her lips.
“A card from Lady Corstorphine, Bingley, for her at-home on the twenty-ninth.”
Mr. Crocker, still absorbed, snorted absently.
“One of the most exclusive hostesses in England. She has influence with the right sort of people. Her brother, the Duke of Devizes, is the Premier’s oldest friend.”
“The Duchess of Axminster has written to ask me to look after a stall at her bazaar for the Indigent Daughters of the Clergy.”
“Bingley, you aren’t listening! What is that you are reading?”
Mr. Crocker tore himself from the paper.
“This? Oh, I was looking at a report of that cricket game you made me go and see yesterday.”
“Oh, I am glad you have begun to take an interest in cricket. It is simply a social necessity in England. Why you ever made such a fuss about taking it up I can’t think. You used to be so fond of watching baseball, and cricket is just the same thing.”
A close observer would have marked a deepening of the look of pain on Mr. Crocker’s face. Women say this sort of thing carelessly, with no wish to wound; but that makes it none the less hard to bear.
From the hall outside came faintly the sound of the telephone, then the measured tones of Bayliss answering it. Mr. Crocker returned to his paper. Bayliss entered.
“Lady Corstorphine desires to speak to you on the telephone, madam.”
Halfway to the door Mrs. Crocker paused, as if recalling something that had slipped her memory.
“Is Mr. James getting up, Bayliss?”
“I believe not, madam. I am informed by one of the housemaids who passed his door a short time back that there were no sounds.”
Mrs. Crocker left the room. Bayliss, preparing to follow her example, was arrested by an exclamation from the table.
“Say!” His master’s voice. “Say, Bayliss, come here a minute. Want to ask you something.”
The butler approached the table. It seemed to him that his employer was not looking quite himself this morning. There was something a trifle wild, a little haggard, about his expression. He had remarked on it earlier in the morning in the servants’ hall.
As a matter of fact, Mr. Crocker’s ailment was a perfectly simple one. He was suffering from one of those acute spasms of homesickness which invariably racked him in the earlier summer months. Ever since his marriage, five years previously, and his simultaneous removal from his native land, he had been a chronic victim to the complaint. The symptoms grew less acute in winter and spring, but from May onward he suffered severely.
Poets have dealt feelingly with the emotions of practically every variety except one. They have sung of Ruth, of Israel in bondage, of slaves pining for their native Africa, and of the miner’s dream of home. But the sorrows of the baseball bug, compelled by fate to live three thousand miles away from the Polo Grounds, have been neglected in song. Bingley Crocker was such a one, and in summer his agonies were awful. He pined away in a country where they said “Well played, sir!” when they meant “At-a-boy!”
“Bayliss, do you play cricket?”
“I am a little past the age, sir. In my younger days ——”
“Do you understand it?”
“Yes, sir. I frequently spend an afternoon at Lord’s or the Oval when there is a good match.”
Many who enjoyed a merely casual acquaintance with the butler would have looked on this as an astonishingly unexpected revelation of humanity in Bayliss, but Mr. Crocker was not surprised. To him, from the very beginning, Bayliss had been a man and a brother, who was always willing to suspend his duties in order to answer questions dealing with the thousand and one problems which the social life of England presented. Mr. Crocker’s mind had adjusted itself with difficulty to the niceties of class distinction, and though he had cured himself of his early tendency to address the butler as “Bill,” he never failed to consult him as man to man in his moments of perplexity. Bayliss was always eager to be of assistance. He liked Mr. Crocker. True, his manner might have struck a more sensitive man than his employer as resembling that of an indulgent father toward a son who was not quite right in the head; but it had genuine affection in it.
Mr. Crocker picked up his paper and folded it back at the sporting page, pointing with a stubby forefinger:
“Well, what does all this mean? I’ve kept out of watching cricket since I landed in England, but yesterday they got the poison needle to work and took me off to see Surrey play Kent at that place, Lord’s, where you say you go sometimes.”
“I was there yesterday, sir. A very exciting game.”
“Exciting? How do you make that out? I sat in the bleachers all afternoon, waiting for something to break loose. Doesn’t anything ever happen at cricket?’’
The butler winced a little, but managed to smile a tolerant smile. This man, he reflected, was but an American, and as such more to be pitied than censured. He endeavored to explain.
“It was a sticky wicket yesterday, sir, owing to the rain.”
“The wicket was sticky, sir.”
“I mean that the reason why the game yesterday struck you as slow was that the wicket—I should say the turf—was sticky—that is to say, wet. Sticky is the technical term, sir. When the wicket is sticky the batsmen are obliged to exercise a great deal of caution, as the stickiness of the wicket enables the bowlers to make the ball turn more sharply in either direction as it strikes the turf than when the wicket is not sticky.”
“That’s it, is it?”
“Thanks for telling me.”
“Not at all, sir.”
Mr. Crocker pointed to the paper.
“Well, now, this seems to be the boxscore of the game we saw yesterday. If you can make sense out of that, go to it.”
The passage on which his finger rested was headed Final Score, and ran as follows:
Bayliss inspected the cipher gravely.
“What is it you wish me to explain, sir?”
“Why, the whole thing. What’s it all about?”
“It’s perfectly simple, sir. Surrey won the toss and took first knock. Hayward and Hobbs were the opening pair. Hayward called Hobbs for a short run, but the latter was unable to get across and was thrown out by mid-on. Hayes was the next man in. He went out of his ground and was stumped. Ducat and Hayward made a capital stand considering the stickiness of the wicket, until Ducat was bowled by a good length off-break and Hayward caught at second slip off a googly. Then Harrison and Sandham played out time.”
Mr. Crocker breathed heavily through his nose.
“Yes!” he said. “Yes! I had an idea that was it. But I think I’d like to have it once again slowly. Start with these figures. What does that sixty-seven mean, opposite Hayward’s name?”
“He made sixty-seven runs, sir.”
“Sixty-seven! In one game?”
“Why, Home-Run Baker couldn’t do it!”
“I am not familiar with Mr. Baker, sir.”
“I suppose you’ve never seen a ball game?”
“Ball game, sir?”
“A baseball game?”
“Then, Bill,” said Mr. Crocker, reverting in his emotion to the bad habit of his early London days, “you haven’t lived. See here!”
Whatever vestige of respect for class distinctions Mr. Crocker had managed to preserve during the opening stages of the interview now definitely disappeared. His eyes shone wildly and he snorted like a warhorse. He clutched the butler by the sleeve and drew him closer to the table, then began to move forks, spoons, cups, and even the contents of his plate, about the cloth with an energy little short of feverish.
“Watch!” said Mr. Crocker, with the air of an excitable high priest about to initiate a novice into the mysteries.
He removed a roll from the basket.
“You see this roll? That’s the home plate. This spoon is first base. Where I’m putting this cup is second. This piece of bacon is third. There’s your diamond for you. Very well then. These lumps of sugar are the infielders and the outfielders. Now we’re ready. Batter up! He stands here. Catcher behind him. Umps behind catcher.”
“Umps, I take it, sir, is what we would call the umpire?”
“Call him anything you like. It’s part of the game. Now here’s the box, where I’ve put this dab of marmalade, and here’s the pitcher winding up.”
“The pitcher would be equivalent to our bowler?”
“I guess so, though why you should call him a bowler gets past me.”
“The box, then, is the bowler’s wicket?”
“Have it your own way. Now pay attention. Play ball! Pitcher’s winding up. Put it over, Mike, put it over! Some speed, kid! Here it comes right in the groove. Bing! Batter slams it and streaks for first. Outfielder—this lump of sugar—boots it. Bonehead! Batter touches second. Third? No! Get back! Can’t be done. Play it safe. Stick round the sack, old pal. Second batter up. Pitcher getting something on the ball now besides the cover. Whiffs him. Back to the bench, Cyril! Third batter up. See him rub his hands in the dirt. Watch this kid. He’s good! Lets two alone, then slams the next right on the nose. Whizzes round to second. First guy, the one we left on second, comes home for one run. That’s a game! Take it from me, Bill, that’s a game!”
Somewhat overcome by the energy with which he had flung himself into his lecture, Mr. Crocker sat down and refreshed himself with a cup of cold coffee.
“Quite an interesting game,” said Bayliss. “But I find, now that you have explained it, sir, that it is familiar to me, though I have always known it under another name. It is played a great deal in this country.”
Mr. Crocker started to his feet.
“It is? And I’ve been five years here without finding it out! When’s the next game scheduled?”
“It is known in England as rounders, sir. Children play it with a soft ball and a racket, and derive considerable enjoyment from it. I have never heard of it before as a pastime for adults.”
Two shocked eyes stared into the butler’s face.
“Children?” The word came in a whisper. “A soft ball and a racket?”
“You—you didn’t say a soft ball?”
A sort of spasm seemed to convulse Mr. Crocker. He had lived five years in England, but not till this moment had he realized to the full how utterly alone he was in an alien land.
Fate had placed Bingley Crocker, bound and helpless, in a country where they called baseball rounders and played it with a soft ball.
He sank back into his chair, staring before him. And as he sat the wall seemed to melt and he was gazing upon a green field, in the center of which a man in a gray uniform was beginning a Salome dance. Watching this person with a cold and suspicious eye stood another uniformed man, holding poised above his shoulder a sturdy club. Two Masked Marvels crouched behind him in attitudes of watchful waiting. On wooden seats all round sat a vast multitude of shirt-sleeved spectators, and the air was full of voices. One voice detached itself from the din: “Pea-nuts! Get y’r pea-nuts!”
Something that was almost a sob shook Bingley Crocker’s ample frame.
Bayliss, the sympathetic butler, gazed down upon him with concern. He was sure the master was unwell.
The case of Mr. Bingley Crocker was one that would have provided an admirable instance for a preacher seeking to instill into an impecunious and skeptical flock the lesson that money does not of necessity bring with it happiness. And poetry has crystallized his position in the following stanza:
An exile from home splendor dazzles in vain,
Oh give me my lowly thatched cottage again;
The birds singing gayly, that came at my call,
Give me them, and that peace of mind dearer than all.
Mr. Crocker had never lived in a thatched cottage, nor had his relations with the birds of his native land ever reached the stage of intimacy indicated by the poet; but substitute “Lambs Club” for the former and “members” for the latter, and the parallel becomes complete.
Until the time of his second marriage Bingley Crocker had been an actor, a snapper-up of whatever small character parts the gods provided. He had an excellent disposition, no money, and one son, a young man of twenty-one. For forty-five years he had lived a hand-to-mouth existence in which his next meal had generally come as a pleasant surprise; and then, on an Atlantic liner, he met the widow of G. G. van Brunt, the sole heiress to that magnate’s immense fortune.
What Mrs. van Brunt could have seen in Bingley Crocker to cause her to single him out from all the world passes comprehension; but the eccentricities of Cupid are commonplace. It were best to shun examination into first causes and stick to results. The swift romance began and reached its climax in the ten days which it took one of the smaller Atlantic liners to sail from Liverpool to New York. Mr. Crocker was on board because he was returning with a theatrical company from a failure in London, Mrs. van Brunt because she had been told that the slow boats were the steadiest. They began the voyage as strangers and ended it as an engaged couple—the affair being expedited, no doubt, by the fact that, even if it ever occurred to Bingley to resist the onslaught on his bachelor peace, he soon realized the futility of doing so, for the cramped conditions of shipboard intensified the always overwhelming effects of his future bride’s determined nature.
The engagement was received in a widely differing spirit by the only surviving blood relations of the two principals. Jimmy, Mr. Crocker’s son, on being informed that his father had plighted his troth to the widow of a prominent millionaire, displayed the utmost gratification and enthusiasm, and at a little supper, which he gave by way of farewell to a few of his newspaper comrades, and which lasted till six in the morning, when it was broken up by the flying wedge of waiters for which the selected restaurant is justly famous, joyfully announced that work and he would from then on be total strangers. He alluded in feeling terms to the Providence that watches over good young men and saves them from the blighting necessity of offering themselves in the flower of their golden youth as human sacrifices to the Moloch of capitalistic greed; and, having commiserated with his guests in that a similar stroke of luck had not happened to each of them, advised them to drown their sorrows in drink. Which they did.
Far different was the attitude of Mrs. Crocker’s sister, Nesta Pett. She entirely disapproved of the proposed match. At least, the fact that in her final interview with her sister she described the bridegroom-to-be as a wretched mummer, a despicable fortune hunter, a broken-down tramp, and a sneaking, grafting confidence trickster, lends color to the supposition that she was not a warm supporter of it. She agreed whole-heartedly with Mrs. Crocker’s suggestion that they should never speak to each other again as long as they lived; and it was immediately after this that the latter removed husband Bingley, stepson Jimmy, and all her other goods and chattels to London, where they had remained ever since. Whenever Mrs. Crocker spoke of America now it was in tones of the deepest dislike and contempt. Her friends were English, and every year more exclusively of England’s aristocracy. She intended to become a leading figure in London society, and already her progress had been astonishing. She knew the right people, lived in the right square, said the right things and thought the right thoughts; and in the spring of her third year had succeeded in curing Bingley of his habit of beginning his remarks with the words “Say, lemme tell ya something!” Her progress, in short, was beginning to assume the aspect of a walk-over.
Against her complete contentment and satisfaction only one thing militated—that was the behavior of her stepson, Jimmy.
It was of Jimmy that she spoke when, having hung the receiver on its hook, she returned to the breakfast room. Bayliss had silently withdrawn, and Mr. Crocker was sitting in somber silence at the table.
“A most fortunate thing has happened, Bingley,” she said. “It was most kind of dear Lady Corstorphine to ring me up. It seems that her nephew, Lord Percy Whipple, is back in England. He has been in Ireland for the past three years, on the staff of the Lord Lieutenant, and only arrived in London yesterday afternoon. Lady Corstorphine has promised to arrange a meeting between him and James. I particularly want them to be friends.”
“Eugenia,” said Mr. Crocker in a hollow voice, “do you know they call baseball rounders over here, and children play it with a soft ball.”
“James is becoming a serious problem. It is absolutely necessary that he should make friends with the right kind of young men.”
“And a racket,” said Mr. Crocker.
“Please listen to what I am saying, Bingley. I am talking about James. There is a crude American strain in him that seems to grow worse instead of better. I was lunching with the Delafields at the Carlton yesterday, and there, only a few tables away, was James with an impossible young man in appalling clothes. It was outrageous that James should have been seen in public at all with such a person. The man had a broken nose and talked through it. He was saying in a loud voice that made everybody turn round something about his half-scissors hook—whatever that may have been. I discovered later that he was a low professional pugilist from New York—a man named Spike Dillon, I think Captain Wroxton said. And Jimmy was giving him lunch—at the Carlton!”
Mr. Crocker said nothing.
Constant practice had made him an adept at saying nothing when his wife was talking.
“James must be made to realize his responsibilities. I shall have to speak to him. I was hearing only the other day of a most deserving man, extremely rich and lavishly generous in his contributions to the party funds, who was given only a knighthood, simply because he had a son who had behaved in a manner that could not possibly be overlooked. The present Court is extraordinarily strict in its views. James cannot be too careful. A certain amount of wildness in a young man is quite proper in the best set, provided that he is wild in the right company. Everyone knows that young Lord Datchet was ejected from the Empire Music Hall on boat-race night every year during his residence at Oxford University; but nobody minds. The family treat it as a joke. But James has such low tastes. Professional pugilists! I believe that many years ago it was not unfashionable for young men in society to be seen about with such persons, but those days are over. I shall certainly speak to James. He cannot afford to call attention to himself in any way. That breach-of-promise case of his three years ago is, I hope and trust, forgotten, but the slightest slip on his part might start the papers talking about it again, and that would be fatal. The eventual successor to a title must be quite as careful as ——”
It was not, as has been hinted above, the usual practice of Mr. Crocker to interrupt his wife when she was speaking, but he did it now.
Mrs. Crocker frowned.
“I wish, Bingley—and I have told you so often—that you would not begin your sentences with the word ‘Say!’ It is such a revolting Americanism. Suppose some day when you are addressing the House of Lords you should make a slip like that! The papers would never let you hear the end of it.”
Mr. Crocker was swallowing convulsively, as if testing his larynx with a view to speech. Like Saul of Tarsus, he had been stricken by the sudden bright light which his wife’s words had caused to flash upon him. Frequently during his sojourn in London he had wondered just why Eugenia had settled there in preference to her own country. It was not her wont to do things without an object, yet until this moment he had been unable to fathom her motives.
Even now it seemed almost incredible. And yet what meaning would her words have other than the monstrous one which had smitten him as a blackjack?
“Say—I mean, Eugenia—you don’t want—you aren’t trying—you aren’t working to—you haven’t any idea of trying to get them to make me a lord, have you?”
“It is what I have been working for all these years!”
“But—but why? Why? That’s what I want to know. Why?”
Mrs. Crocker’s fine eyes glittered.
“I will tell you why, Bingley. Just before we were married I had a talk with my sister Nesta. She was insufferably offensive. She referred to you in terms which I shall never forgive. She affected to look down on you, to think that I was marrying beneath me. So I am going to make you an English peer and send Nesta a newspaper clipping of the Birthday Honors with your name in it, if I have to keep working till I die! Now you know!”
Silence fell. Mr. Crocker drank cold coffee. His wife stared with gleaming eyes into the glorious future.
“Do you mean that I shall have to stop on here till they make me a lord?” said Mr. Crocker limply.
“Never go back to America?”
“Not till we have succeeded.”
“Oh, gee! Oh, gosh! Oh, hell!” said Mr. Crocker, bursting the bonds of years.
Mrs. Crocker, though resolute, was not unkindly. She made allowances for her husband’s state of mind. She was willing to permit even American expletives during the sinking-in process of her great idea, much as a broad-minded cowboy might listen indulgently to the squealing of a mustang during the branding process. Docility and obedience would be demanded of him later, but not till the first agony had abated. She spoke soothingly to him.
“I am glad we have had this talk, Bingley. It is best that you should know. It will help you to realize your responsibilities. And that brings me back to James. Thank goodness, Lord Percy Whipple is in town. He is about James’ age, and from what Lady Corstorphine tells me will be an ideal friend for him. You understand who he is, of course—the second son of the Duke of Devizes, the Premier’s closest friend, the man who can practically dictate the Birthday Honors. If James and Lord Percy can only form a close friendship our battle will be as good as won. It will mean everything. Lady Corstorphine has promised to arrange a meeting. In the meantime I will speak to James and warn him to be more careful.”
Mr. Crocker had produced a stump of pencil from his pocket and was writing on the tablecloth:
Lord Bingley Crocker
Lord Crocker of Crocker
The Marquis of Crocker
Bingley, first Viscount Crocker
He blanched as he read the frightful words. A sudden thought stung him.
“What will the boys at the Lambs say?”
“I am not interested,” replied his wife, “in the boys at the Lambs.”
“I thought you wouldn’t be,” said the future baron gloomily.
IT IS a peculiarity of the human mind that, with whatever apprehension it may be regarding the distant future, it must return after a while to face the minor troubles of the future that is immediate. The prospect of a visit to the dentist this afternoon causes us to forget for the moment the prospect of total ruin next year. Mr. Crocker, therefore, having tortured himself for about a quarter of an hour with his meditations on the subject of titles, was jerked back to a more imminent calamity than the appearance of his name in the Birthday Honors—the fact that in all probability he would be taken again this morning to watch the continuation of that infernal cricket match, and would be compelled to spend the greater part of to-day, as he had spent the greater part of yesterday, bored to the verge of dissolution in the pavilion at Lord’s. One gleam of hope alone presented itself. Like baseball, this pastime of cricket was apparently affected by rain if there had been enough of it. He had an idea that there had been a good deal of rain in the night, but had there been sufficient to cause the teams of Surrey and Kent to postpone the second installment of their serial struggle? He rose from the table and went out into the hall. It was his purpose to sally out into Grosvenor Square and examine the turf in its center with the heel of his shoe, in order to determine the stickiness or nonstickiness of the wicket. He moved toward the front door, hoping for the best, and just as he reached it the bell rang.
One of the bad habits of which his wife had cured Mr. Crocker in the course of the years was the habit of going and answering doors. He had been brought up in surroundings where every man was his own doorkeeper, and it had been among his hardest tasks to learn the lesson that the perfect gentleman does not open doors, but waits for the appropriate menial to come along and do it for him. He had succeeded at length in mastering this great truth, and nowadays seldom offended. But this morning his mind was clouded by his troubles, and instinct, allying itself with opportunity, was too much for him. His fingers had been on the handle when the ring came, so he turned it.
At the top of the steps which connect the main entrance of Drexdale House with the sidewalk three persons were standing. One was a tall and formidably handsome woman in the early forties, whose appearance seemed somehow oddly familiar. The second was a small, fat, blobby, bulging boy who was chewing something. The third, lurking diffidently in the rear, was a little man of about Mr. Crocker’s own age, gray-haired and thin, with brown eyes that gazed meekly through rimless glasses.
Nobody could have been less obtrusive than this person, yet it was he who gripped Mr. Crocker’s attention and caused that homesick sufferer’s heart to give an almost painful leap. For he was clothed in one of those roomy suits with square shoulders which to the seeing eye are as republican as the Stars and Stripes. His blunt-toed yellow shoes sang gayly of home. And his hat was not so much a hat as an effusive greeting from Gotham. A long time had passed since Mr. Crocker had set eyes upon a biped so exhilaratingly American, and rapture held him speechless, as one who after long exile beholds some landmark of his childhood.
The female member of the party took advantage of his dumbness—which, as she had not unnaturally mistaken him for the butler, she took for a silent and respectful query as to her business and wishes—to open the conversation.
“Is Mrs. Crocker at home? Please tell her that Mrs. Pett wishes to see her.”
There was a rush and scurry in the corridors of Mr. Crocker’s brain, as about six different thoughts tried to squash simultaneously into that main chamber where there is room for only one at a time. He understood now why this woman’s appearance had seemed familiar. She was his wife’s sister, and that same Nesta who was some day to be pulverized by the sight of his name in the Birthday Honors. He was profoundly thankful that she had mistaken him for the butler. A chill passed through him as he pictured what would have been Eugenia’s reception of the information that he had committed such a bourgeois solecism as opening the front door to Mrs. Pett of all people, who already despised him as a low vulgarian. There had been trouble enough when she had found him opening it a few weeks before to a mere collector of subscriptions for a charity. He perceived, with a clarity remarkable in view of the fact that the discovery of her identity had given him a feeling of physical dizziness, that at all costs he must foster this misapprehension on his sister-in-law’s part.
Fortunately he was in a position to do so. He knew all about what butlers did and what they said on these occasions, for in his innocently curious way he had often pumped Bayliss on the subject. He bowed silently and led the way to the morning room, followed by the drove of Petts; then, opening the door, stood aside to allow the procession to march past the given point.
“I will inform Mrs. Crocker that you are here, madam.”
Mrs. Pett, shepherding the chewing child before her, passed into the room. In the light of her outspoken sentiments regarding her brother-in-law, it is curious to reflect that his manner at this, their first meeting, had deeply impressed her. After many months of smoldering revolt she had dismissed her own butler a day or so before sailing for England, and for the first time envy of her sister Eugenia gripped her. She did not covet Eugenia’s other worldly possessions, but she did grudge her this supreme butler.
Mr. Pett, meanwhile, had been trailing in the rear with a hunted expression on his face. He wore the unmistakable look of a man about to be present at a row between women, and only a wet cat in a strange back yard bears itself with less jauntiness than a man faced by such a prospect. A millionaire several times over, Mr. Pett would cheerfully have given much of his wealth to have been elsewhere at that moment. Such was the agitated state of his mind that, when a hand was laid lightly upon his arm as he was about to follow his wife into the room, he started so violently that his hat flew out of his hand. He turned to meet the eyes of the butler who had admitted him to the house fixed on his in an appealing stare.
“Who’s leading in the pennant race?” said this strange butler in a feverish whisper.
It was a question, coming from such a source, which in another than Mr. Pett might well have provoked a blank stare of amazement. Such, however, is the almost superhuman intelligence and quickness of mind engendered by the study of America’s national game, that he answered without the slightest hesitation:
“Wow!” said the butler.
No sense of anything strange or untoward about the situation came to mar the perfect joy of Mr. Pett, the overmastering joy of the baseball fan who in a strange land unexpectedly encounters a brother. He thrilled with a happiness which he had never hoped to feel that morning.
“No signs of them slumping?” inquired the butler.
“No; but you never can tell. It’s early yet. I’ve seen those boys lead the league till the end of August and then be nosed out.”
“True enough,” said the butler sadly.
“Matty’s in shape.”
“He is? The old souper working well?”
“Like a machine. He shut out the Cubs the day before I sailed!”
At this point an appreciation of the unusualness of the proceedings began to steal upon Mr. Pett. He gaped at this surprising servitor.
“How on earth do you know anything about baseball?” he demanded.
The other seemed to stiffen. A change came over his whole appearance. He had the air of an actor who has remembered his part.
“I beg your pardon, sir. I trust I have not taken a liberty. I was at one time in the employment of a gentleman in New York, and during my stay I became extremely interested in the national game. I picked up a few of the American idioms while in the country.” He smiled apologetically. “They sometimes slip out.”
“Let ’em slip!” said Mr. Pett with enthusiasm. “You’re the first thing that’s reminded me of home since I left. Say!”
“Got a good place here?”
“Er—oh, yes, sir.”
“Well, here’s my card. If you ever feel like making a change there’s a job waiting for you at that address.”
“Thank you, sir.” Mr. Crocker stooped. “Your hat, sir!”
He held it out, gazing fondly at it the while. It was like being home again to see a hat like that. He followed Mr. Pett with an affectionate eye as he went into the morning room.
Bayliss was coming along the hall, hurrying more than his wont. The ring at the front door had found him deep in an extremely interesting piece of news in his halfpenny morning paper, and he was guiltily aware of having delayed in answering it.
“Bayliss,” said Mr. Crocker in a cautious undertone, “go and tell Mrs. Crocker that Mrs. Pett is waiting to see her. She’s in the morning room. If you’re asked say you let her in. Get me?”
“Yes, sir,” said Bayliss, grateful for this happy solution.
“Is the wicket at Lord’s likely to be too sticky for them to go on with that game to-day?”
“I hardly think it probable that there will be play, sir. There was a great deal of rain in the night.”
Mr. Crocker passed on to his den with a lighter heart.
It was Mrs. Crocker’s habit, acquired after years of practice and a sedulous study of the best models, to conceal beneath a mask of well-bred indifference any emotion which she might chance to feel. Her dealings with the aristocracy of England had shown her that. Though the men occasionally permitted themselves an outburst, the women never did, and she had schooled herself so rigorously that nowadays she seldom even raised her voice. Her bearing, as she approached the morning room, was calm and serene, but inwardly curiosity consumed her. It was unbelievable that Nesta could have come to try to effect a reconciliation, yet she could think of no other reason for her visit.
She was surprised to find three persons in the morning room. Bayliss, delivering his message, had mentioned only Mrs. Pett. To Mrs. Crocker the assemblage had the appearance of being a sort of Old Home Week of Petts, a kind of Pett family mob scene. Her sister’s second marriage having taken place after their quarrel, she had never seen her new brother-in-law, but she assumed that the little man lurking in the background was Mr. Pett. The guess was confirmed.
“Good morning, Eugenia,” said Mrs. Pett. “Peter, this is my sister, Eugenia. My husband.”
Mrs. Crocker bowed stiffly. She was thinking how hopelessly American Mr. Pett was; how baggy his clothes looked; what absurdly shaped shoes he wore; how appalling his hat was; how little hair he had; and how deplorably he lacked all those graces of repose, culture, physical beauty, refinement, dignity and mental alertness which raise men above the level of the common cockroach.
Mr. Pett, on his side, receiving her cold glance squarely between the eyes, felt as if he were being disemboweled by a clumsy amateur. He could not help wondering what sort of man this fellow Crocker was whom this sister-in-law of his had married. He pictured him as a handsome, powerful, robust individual, with a strong jaw and a loud voice, for he could imagine no lesser type of man consenting to link his lot with such a woman. He sidled in a circuitous manner toward a distant chair and, having lowered himself into it, kept perfectly still, pretending to be dead, like an opossum. He wished to take no part whatever in the coming interview.
“Ogden, of course, you know,” said Mrs. Pett.
She was sitting so stiffly upright on a hard chair, and had so much the appearance of having been hewn from the living rock, that every time she opened her mouth it was as if a statue had spoken.
“I know Ogden,” said Mrs. Crocker shortly. “Will you please stop him fidgeting with that vase? It is valuable.”
She directed at little Ogden, who was juggling aimlessly with a handsome objet d’art of an early Chinese dynasty, a glance similar to that which had just disposed of his stepfather. But Ogden required more than a glance to divert him from any pursuit in which he was interested. He shifted a deposit of candy from his right cheek to his left cheek, inspected Mrs. Crocker for a moment with a pale eye, and resumed his juggling. Mrs. Crocker meant nothing in his young life.
“Ogden, come and sit down,” said Mrs. Pett.
“Don’t want to sit down.”
“Are you making a long stay in England, Nesta?” asked Mrs. Crocker coldly.
“I don’t know. We have made no plans.”
She broke off. Ogden, who had possessed himself of a bronze paperknife, had begun to tap the vase with it. The ringing note thus produced appeared to please him.
“If Ogden really wishes to break that vase,” said Mrs. Crocker in a detached voice, “let me ring for the butler to bring him a hammer.”
“Ogden!” said Mrs. Pett.
“Oh, gee! A fellow can’t do a thing!” muttered Ogden, and walked to the window. He stood looking out into the square, a slight twitching of the ears indicating that he still made progress with the candy.
“Still the same engaging child!” murmured Mrs. Crocker.
“I did not come here to discuss Ogden!” said Mrs. Pett.
Mrs. Crocker raised her eyebrows. Not even Mrs. Otho Lanners, from whom she had learned the art, could do it more effectively.
“I am still waiting to find out why you did come, Nesta!”
“I came here to talk to you about your stepson, James Crocker.”
The discipline to which Mrs. Crocker had subjected herself in the matter of the display of emotion saved her from the humiliation of showing surprise. She waved her hand graciously—in the manner of the Duchess of Axminster, a supreme handwaver—to indicate that she was all attention.
“Your stepson, James Crocker,” repeated Mrs. Pett. “What is it the New York papers call him, Peter?”
Mr. Pett, the human opossum, came to life. He had contrived to create about himself such a defensive atmosphere of nonexistence that now that he reëntered the conversation it was as if a corpse had popped out of its tomb like a jack-in-the-box. Obeying the voice of authority he pushed the tombstone to one side and poked his head out of the sepulcher.
“Piccadilly Jim!” he murmured apologetically.
“Piccadilly Jim!” said Mrs. Crocker. “It is extremely impertinent of them!”
In spite of his misery, a wan smile appeared on Mr. Pett’s death mask at this remark.
“They should worry about ——”
Mr. Pett died again, greatly respected.
“Why should the New York papers refer to James at all?” said Mrs. Crocker.
Mr. Pett emerged reluctantly from the cerements. He had supposed that Nesta would do the talking.
“Well, he’s a news item.”
“Well, here’s a boy that’s been a regular fellow—raised in America—done work on a newspaper—suddenly taken off to England to become a London dude, mixing with all the dukes, playing pinochle with the King. Naturally they’re interested in him.”
A more agreeable expression came over Mrs. Crocker’s face.
“Of course that is quite true. One cannot prevent the papers from printing what they wish. So they have published articles about James’ doings in English Society?”
“Doings,” said Mr. Pett, “is right!”
“Something has got to be done about it,” said Mrs. Pett.
Mr. Pett indorsed this.
“Nesta’s going to lose her health if these stories go on,” he said.
Mrs. Crocker raised her eyebrows, but she had hard work to keep a contented smile off her face.
“If you are not above petty jealousy, Nesta ——”
Mrs. Pett laughed a sharp, metallic laugh.
“It is the disgrace I object to!”
“What else would you call it, Eugenia? Wouldn’t you be ashamed if you opened your Sunday paper and came upon a full-page article about your nephew having got intoxicated at the races and fought a bookmaker, having broken up a political meeting, having been sued for breach-of-promise by a barmaid?”
Mrs. Crocker preserved her well-bred calm, but she was shaken. The episodes to which her sister had alluded were ancient history, horrors of the long dead past, but it seemed that they still lived in print. There and then she registered the resolve to talk to her stepson James, when she got hold of him, in such a manner as would scourge the offending Adam out of him for once and for all.
“And not only that,” continued Mrs. Pett. “That would be bad enough in itself, but somehow the papers have discovered that I am the boy’s aunt. Two weeks ago they printed my photograph with one of these articles. I suppose they will always do it now. That is why I have come to you. It must stop. And the only way it can be made to stop is by taking your stepson away from London, where he is running wild. Peter has most kindly consented to give the boy a position in his office. It is very good of him, for the boy cannot in the nature of things be of any use for a very long time, but we have talked it over and it seems the only course. I have come this morning to ask you to let us take James Crocker back to America with us and keep him out of mischief by giving him honest work. What do you say?”
Mrs. Crocker raised her eyebrows.
“What do you expect me to say? It is utterly preposterous. I have never heard anything so supremely absurd in my life.”
“Of course I refuse.”
“I think you are extremely foolish.”
Mr. Pett cowed in his chair. He was feeling rather like a nervous and peace-loving patron of a wild Western saloon who observes two cowboys reach for their hip pockets. Neither his wife nor his sister-in-law paid any attention to him. The concluding exercises of a duel of the eyes was in progress. After some silent, age-long moments Mrs. Crocker laughed a light laugh.
“Most extraordinary!” she murmured.
Mrs. Pett was in no mood for Anglicisms.
“You know perfectly well, Eugenia,” she said heatedly, “that James Crocker is being ruined here. For his sake, if not for mine ——”
Mrs. Crocker laughed another light laugh, one of those offensive, rippling things that cause so much annoyance.
“Don’t be so ridiculous, Nesta! Ruined! Really! It is quite true that a long while ago, when he was much younger and not quite used to the ways of London Society, James was a little wild, but all that sort of thing is over now. He knows”—she paused, setting herself as it were for the punch—“he knows that at any moment the government may decide to give his father a peerage ——”
The blow went home. A quite audible gasp escaped her stricken sister.
Mrs. Crocker placed two ringed fingers before her mouth in order not to hide a languid yawn.
“Yes. Didn’t you know? But, of course, you live so out of the world. Oh, yes, it is extremely probable that Mr. Crocker’s name will appear in the next Honors List. He is very highly thought of by the Powers. So naturally James is quite aware that he must behave in a suitable manner. He is a dear boy! He was handicapped at first by getting into the wrong set, but now his closest friend is Lord Percy Whipple, the second son of the Duke of Devizes, who is one of the most eminent men in the kingdom and a personal friend of the Premier.”
Mrs. Pett was in bad shape under this rain of titles, but she rallied herself to reply in kind.
“Indeed?” she said. “I should like to meet him. I have no doubt he knows our great friend, Lord Wisbeach.”
Mrs. Crocker was a little taken aback. She had not supposed that her sister had even this small shot in her locker.
“Do you know Lord Wisbeach?” she said.
“Oh, yes,” replied Mrs. Pett, beginning to feel a little better. “We have been seeing him every day. He always says that he looks on my house as quite a home. He knows so few people in New York. It has been a great comfort to him, I think, knowing us.”
Mrs. Crocker had had time now to recover her poise.
“Poor dear Wizzy!” she said languidly.
Mrs. Pett started.
“I suppose he is still the same dear, stupid, shiftless fellow? He left here with the intention of traveling round the world, and he has stopped in New York! How like him!”
“Do you know Lord Wisbeach?” demanded Mrs. Pett.
Mrs. Crocker raised her eyebrows.
“Know him? Why I suppose, after Lord Percy Whipple, he is James’ most intimate friend!”
Mrs. Pett rose. She was dignified even in defeat. She collected Ogden and Mr. Pett with an eye which even Ogden could see was not to be trifled with. She uttered no word.
“Must you really go?” said Mrs. Crocker. “It was sweet of you to bother to come all the way from America like this. So strange to meet anyone from America nowadays. Most extraordinary!”
The cortège left the room in silence. Mrs. Crocker had touched the bell, but the mourners did not wait for the arrival of Bayliss. They were in no mood for the formalities of polite Society. They wanted to be elsewhere, and they wanted to be there quick. The front door had closed behind them before the butler appeared.
“Bayliss,” said Mrs. Crocker with happy, shining face, “send for the car to come round at once.”
“Very good, madam.”
“Is Mr. James up yet?”
“I believe not, madam.”
Mrs. Crocker went upstairs to her room. If Bayliss had not been within earshot she would probably have sung a bar or two. Her amiability extended even to her stepson, though she had not altered her intention of speaking eloquently to him on certain matters when she could get hold of him. That, however, could wait. For the moment she felt in vein for a gentle drive in the park.
A few minutes after she had disappeared there was a sound of slow footsteps on the stairs, and a young man came down into the hall. Bayliss, who had finished telephoning to the garage for Mrs. Crocker’s limousine and was about to descend to those lower depths where he had his being, turned, and a grave smile of welcome played over his face.
“Good morning, Mr. James,” he said.
JIMMY CROCKER was a tall and well-knit young man, who later on in the day would no doubt be at least passably good-looking. At the moment an unbecoming pallor marred his face, and beneath his eyes were marks that suggested that he had slept little and ill.
He stood at the foot of the stairs, yawning cavernously.
“Bayliss,” he said, “have you been painting yourself yellow?”
“Strange! Your face looks a bright gamboge to me, and your outlines wabble. Bayliss, never mix your drinks. I say this to you as a friend. Is there anyone in the morning room?”
“No, Mr. James.”
“Speak softly, Bayliss, for I am not well. I am conscious of a strange weakness. Lead me to the morning room, then, and lay me gently on a sofa. These are the times that try men’s souls.”
The sun was now shining strongly through the windows of the morning room. Bayliss lowered the shades.
Jimmy Crocker sank on to the sofa and closed his eyes. “Bayliss.”
“A conviction is stealing over me that I am about to expire.”
“Shall I bring you a little breakfast, Mr. James?”
A strong shudder shook Jimmy.
“Don’t be flippant, Bayliss,” he protested. “Try to cure yourself of this passion for being funny at the wrong time. Your comedy is good, but tact is a finer quality than humor. Perhaps you think I have forgotten that morning when I was feeling just as I do to-day, and you came to my bedside and asked me if I would like a nice rasher of ham. I haven’t, and I never shall.
“You may bring me a brandy-and-soda. Not a large one. A couple of bathtubsful will be enough.”
“Very good, Mr. James.”
“And now leave me, Bayliss, for I would be alone. I have to make a series of difficult and exhaustive tests to ascertain whether I am still alive.”
When the butler had gone Jimmy adjusted the cushions, closed his eyes, and remained for a space in a state of coma. He was trying, as well as an exceedingly severe headache would permit, to recall the salient events of the previous night. At present his memories refused to solidify. They poured about in his brain in a fluid and formless condition, exasperating to one who sought for hard facts.
It seemed strange to Jimmy that the shadowy and inchoate vision of a combat, a fight, a brawl of some kind persisted in flitting about in the recesses of his mind, always just far enough away to elude capture. The absurdity of the thing annoyed him. A man has either indulged in a fight overnight or he has not indulged in a fight overnight. There can be no middle course. That he should be uncertain on the point was ridiculous. Yet try as he would he could not be sure. There were moments when he seemed on the very verge of settling the matter, and then some invisible person would meanly insert a red-hot corkscrew in the top of his head and begin to twist it, and this would interfere with calm thought.
He was still in a state of uncertainty when Bayliss returned, bearing healing liquids on a tray.
“Shall I set it beside you, sir?”
Jimmy opened one eye.
“Indubitably. No mean word that, Bayliss, for the morning after. Try it yourself next time. Bayliss, who let me in this morning?”
“Let you in, sir?”
“Precisely. I was out and now I am in. Obviously I must have passed the front door somehow. This is logic.”
“I fancy you let yourself in, Mr. James, with your key.”
“That would seem to indicate that I was in a state of icy sobriety. Yet, if such is the case, how is it that I can’t remember whether I murdered somebody or not last night?
“It isn’t the sort of thing your sober man would lightly forget. Have you ever murdered anybody, Bayliss?”
“Well, if you had, you would remember it next morning?”
“I imagine so, Mr. James.”
“Well, it’s a funny thing, but I can’t get rid of the impression that at some point in my researches into the night life of London yestreen I fell upon some person to whom I had never been introduced and committed mayhem upon his person.”
It seemed to Bayliss that the time had come to impart to Mr. James a piece of news which he had supposed would require no imparting. He looked down upon his young master’s recumbent form with a grave commiseration. It was true that he had never been able to tell with any certainty whether Mr. James intended the statements he made to be taken literally or not; but on the present occasion he seemed to have spoken seriously, and to be genuinely at a loss to recall an episode over the printed report of which the entire domestic staff had been gloating ever since the arrival of the halfpenny morning paper to which they subscribed.
“Do you really mean it, Mr. James?” he inquired cautiously.
“You have really forgotten that you were engaged in a fracas last night at the Six Hundred Club?”
Jimmy sat up with a jerk, staring at this omniscient man. Then the movement having caused a renewal of the operations of the red-hot corkscrew, he fell back again with a groan.
“Was I! How on earth did you know? Why should you know all about it when I can’t remember a thing? It was my fight, not yours.”
“There is quite a long report of it in today’s Daily Sun, Mr. James.”
“A report? In the Sun?”
“Half a column, Mr. James. Would you like me to fetch the paper? I have it in my pantry.”
“I should say so. Trot a quick heat back with it. This wants looking into.”
Bayliss retired, to return immediately with the paper. Jimmy took it, gazed at it and handed it back.
“I overestimated my powers. It can’t be done. Have you any important duties at the moment, Bayliss?”
“Perhaps you wouldn’t mind reading me the bright little excerpt then?”
“It will be good practice for you. I am convinced I am going to be a confirmed invalid for the rest of my life, and it will be part of your job to sit at my bedside and read to me. By the way, does the paper say who the party of the second part was? Who was the citizen with whom I went to the mat?”
“Lord Percy Whipple, Mr. James.”
“Lord Percy Whipple.”
“Never heard of him. Carry on, Bayliss.”
Jimmy composed himself to listen, yawning.