The Saturday Evening Post – October 21, 1916
MR. PETT and Jimmy Crocker left the subway at Ninety-sixth Street and walked up the Drive. Jimmy, like everyone else who saw it for the first time, experienced a slight shock at the sight of the Pett mansion, but, rallying, followed his uncle up the flagged path to the front door.
“Your aunt will be in the drawing-room, I guess,” said Mr. Pett, opening the door with his key.
Jimmy was looking round him appreciatively. Mr. Pett’s house might be an eyesore from without, but inside it had had the benefit of the skill of the best interior decorator in New York.
“A man could be very happy in a house like this, if he didn’t have to poison his days with work,” said Jimmy.
Mr. Pett looked alarmed.
“Don’t go saying anything like that to your aunt!” he urged. “She thinks you have come to settle down.”
“So I have. I’m going to settle down like a limpet. I hope I shall be living in luxury on you twenty years from now. Is this the room?”
Mr. Pett opened the drawing-room door. A small hairy object sprang from a basket and stood yapping in the middle of the room. This was Aïda, Mrs. Pett’s Pomeranian. Mr. Pett, avoiding the animal coldly, for he disliked it, ushered Jimmy into the room.
“Here’s Jimmy Crocker, Nesta.”
Jimmy was aware of a handsome woman of middle age, so like his stepmother that for an instant his self-possession left him and he stammered:
“How—how do you do?”
His demeanor made a favorable impression on Mrs. Pett. She took it for the decent confusion of remorse.
“I was very surprised when your uncle telephoned me,” she said. “I had not the slightest idea that you were coming over. I am very glad to see you.”
“This is your cousin Ogden.”
Jimmy perceived a fat boy lying on a settee. He had not risen on Jimmy’s entrance, and he did not rise now. He did not even lower the book he was reading.
“Hello,” he said.
Jimmy crossed over to the settee and looked down on him. He had got over his momentary embarrassment, and, as usual with him, the reaction led to a fatal breeziness. He prodded Ogden in his well-covered ribs, producing a yelp of protest from that astounded youth.
“So this is Ogden! Well, well, well! You don’t grow up, Ogden, but you do grow out. What are you—a perfect sixty-six?”
The favorable impression which Mrs. Pett had formed of her nephew waned.
She was shocked by this disrespectful attitude toward the child she worshiped.
“Please do not disturb Ogden, James,” she said stiffly. “He is not feeling very well to-day. His stomach is weak.”
“Been eating too much?” said Jimmy cheerfully. “I was just the same at his age. What he wants is half rations and plenty of exercise.”
“Say!” protested Ogden.
“Just look at this,” proceeded Jimmy, grasping a handful of superfluous tissue round the boy’s ribs. “All that ought to come off. I’ll tell you what I’ll do: I’ll buy a pair of flannel trousers and a sweater and some sneakers, and I’ll take him for a run up Riverside Drive this evening. Do him no end of good. And a good skipping-rope too. Nothing like it. In a couple of weeks I’ll have him as fit as a ——”
“Ogden’s case,” said Mrs. Pett coldly, “which is very complicated, is in the hands of Doctor Briginshaw, in whom we have every confidence.”
There was a silence, the paralyzing effects of which Mr. Pett vainly tried to mitigate by shuffling his feet and coughing. Mrs. Pett spoke:
“I hope that, now that you are here, James, you intend to settle down and work hard.”
“Indubitably. Like a beaver,” said Jimmy, mindful of Mr. Pett’s recent warning. “The only trouble is that there seems to be a little uncertainty as to what I am best fitted for. We talked it over in Uncle Pete’s office and arrived at no conclusion.”
“Can’t you think of anything?” said Mr. Pett.
“I looked right through the telephone classified directory the other day ——”
“The other day? But you only landed this morning.”
“I mean this morning. When I was looking up your address so that I could go and see you,” said Jimmy glibly. “It seems a long time ago. I think the sight of all those fellows in your office has aged me. I think the best plan would be for me to settle down here and learn how to be an electrical engineer or something by mail. I was reading an advertisement in a magazine as we came up on the subway. I see they guarantee to teach you anything, from sheet-metal working to poultry raising. The thing began: ‘You are standing still because you lack training.’ It seemed to me to apply to my case exactly. I had better drop them a line to-night asking for a few simple facts about chickens.”
Whatever comment Mrs. Pett might have made on this suggestion was checked by the entrance of Ann. From the window of her room Ann had observed the arrival of Jimmy and her uncle, and now, having allowed sufficient time to elapse for the former to make Mrs. Pett’s acquaintance, she came down to see how things were going.
She was well satisfied with what she saw. A slight strain which she perceived in the atmosphere she attributed to embarrassment natural to the situation.
She looked at Jimmy inquiringly. Mrs. Pett had not informed her of Mr. Pett’s telephone call, so Jimmy, she realized, had to be explained to her. She waited for some one to say something.
Mr. Pett undertook the introduction:
“Jimmy, this is my niece, Ann Chester. This is Jimmy Crocker, Ann.”
Jimmy could not admire sufficiently the start of surprise which she gave. It was artistic and convincing.
Mr. Pett was on the point of mentioning that this was not the first time Ann had met Jimmy, but refrained. After all, that interview had happened five years ago. Jimmy had almost certainly forgotten all about it. There was no use in making him feel unnecessarily awkward. It was up to Ann. If she wanted to disinter the ancient grievance let her. It was no business of his.
“I thought you weren’t coming over!” said Ann.
“I changed my mind.”
Mr. Pett, who had been gazing attentively at them, uttered an exclamation:
“I’ve got it! I’ve been trying to think where it was that I saw you before. It was on the Atlantic!”
Ann caught Jimmy’s eye. She was relieved to see that he was not disturbed by this sudden development.
“Did you come over on the Atlantic, Mr. Crocker?” she said. “Surely not? We crossed on her ourselves. We should have met.”
“Don’t call me Mr. Crocker,” said Jimmy. “Call me Jimmy. Your mother’s brother’s wife’s sister’s second husband is my father. Blood is thicker than water. No, I came over on the Caronia. We docked this morning.”
“Well, there was a fellow just like you on the Atlantic,” persisted Mr. Pett.
Mrs. Pett was watching Jimmy with a suspicious eye.
“I suppose I’m a common type,” said Jimmy.
“You remember the man I mean?” said Mr. Pett, innocently unconscious of the unfriendly thoughts he was encouraging in two of his hearers. “He sat two tables away from us at meals. You remember him, Nesta?”
“As I was too unwell to come to meals, I do not.”
“Why, I thought I saw you talking to him on deck, Ann.”
“Really?” said Ann. “I don’t remember anyone who looked at all like Jimmy.”
“Well,” said Mr. Pett, puzzled, “it’s very strange. I guess I’m wrong.” He looked at his watch. “Well, I’ll have to be getting back to the office.”
“I’ll come with you part of the way, Uncle Pete,” said Jimmy. “I have to go and arrange for my things to be expressed here.”
“Why not phone to the hotel?” said Mr. Pett. It seemed to Jimmy and Ann that he was doing this sort of thing on purpose. “Which hotel did you leave them at?”
“No, I shall have to go there. I have some packing to do.”
“You will be back to lunch?” said Ann.
“Thanks; I shan’t be gone more than half an hour.”
For a moment after they had gone Ann relaxed, happy and relieved. Everything had gone splendidly. Then a shock ran through her whole system as Mrs. Pett spoke. She spoke excitedly, in a lowered voice, leaning over to Ann:
“Ann, did you notice anything? Did you suspect anything?”
Ann mastered her emotion with an effort.
“Whatever do you mean, Aunt Nesta?”
“About that young man who calls himself Jimmy Crocker.”
Ann clutched the side of the chair.
“Who calls himself Jimmy Crocker? I don’t understand.”
Ann tried to laugh. It seemed to her an age before she produced any sound at all, and when it came it was quite unlike a laugh.
“What put that idea into your head? Surely if he says he is Jimmy Crocker, it’s rather absurd to doubt him, isn’t it? How could anybody except Jimmy Crocker know that you were anxious to get Jimmy Crocker over here? You didn’t tell anyone, did you?”
This reasoning shook Mrs. Pett a little, but she did not intend to abandon a perfectly good suspicion merely because it began to seem unreasonable.
“They have their spies everywhere,” she said doggedly.
“The Secret Service people from other countries. Lord Wisbeach was telling me about it yesterday. He said that I ought to suspect everybody. He said that an attempt might be made on Willie’s invention at any moment now.”
“He was joking.”
“He was not. I have never seen anyone so serious. He said that I ought to regard every fresh person who came into the house as a possible criminal.”
“Well, that guy’s fresh enough,” muttered Ogden from the settee.
Mrs. Pett started.
“Ogden! I had forgotten that you were there.” She uttered a cry of horror, as the fact of his presence started a new train of thought. “Why, this man may have come to kidnap you! I never thought of that.”
Ann felt it time to intervene. Mrs. Pett was hovering much too near the truth for comfort.
“You mustn’t imagine things, Aunt Nesta. I believe it comes from writing the sort of stories you do. Surely it is impossible for this man to be an impostor. How would he dare take such a risk? He must know that you could detect him at any moment by cabling over to Mrs. Crocker to ask if her stepson was really in America.”
It was a bold stroke, for it suggested a plan of action which, if followed, would mean ruin for her schemes, but Ann could not refrain from chancing it. She wanted to know whether her aunt had any intention of asking Mrs. Crocker for information, or whether the feud was too bitter for her pride to allow her to communicate with her sister in any way. She breathed again as Mrs. Pett stiffened grimly in her chair.
“I should not dream of cabling to Eugenia.”
“I quite understand that,” said Ann. “But an impostor would not know that you felt like that, would he?”
“I see what you mean.”
Ann relaxed again. The relief was, however, only momentary.
“I cannot understand, though,” said Mrs. Pett, “why your uncle should have been so positive that he saw this young man on the Atlantic.”
“Just a chance resemblance, I suppose. Why Uncle Peter said he saw the man who he imagined was like Jimmy Crocker talking to me. If there had been any real resemblance, shouldn’t I have seen it before Uncle Peter?”
Assistance came from an unexpected quarter.
“I know the chap Uncle Peter meant,” said Ogden. “He wasn’t like this guy at all.”
Ann was too grateful for the help to feel astonished at it. Her mind, dwelling for a mere instant on the matter, decided that Ogden must have seen her on deck with somebody else than Jimmy. She had certainly not lacked during the voyage for those who sought her society.
Mrs. Pett seemed to be impressed.
“I may be letting my imagination run away with me,” she said.
“Of course you are, Aunt Nesta,” said Ann thankfully. “You don’t realize what a vivid imagination you have got. When I was typing that last story of yours I was simply astounded at the ideas you had thought of. I remember saying so to Uncle Peter. You can’t expect to have a wonderful imagination like yours and not imagine things, can you?”
Mrs. Pett smiled demurely. She looked hopefully at her niece, waiting for more, but Ann had said her say.
“You are perfectly right, my dear child,” she said, when she was quite sure the eulogy was not to be resumed. “No doubt I have been foolish to suspect this young man. But Lord Wisbeach’s words naturally acted more strongly on a mind like mine than they would have done in the case of another woman.”
“Of course,” said Ann.
She was feeling quite happy now. It had been tense while it had lasted, but everything was all right now.
“And fortunately,” said Mrs. Pett, “there is a way by which we can find out for certain if the young man is really James Crocker.”
Ann became rigid again.
“A way? What way?”
“Why, don’t you remember, my dear, that Skinner has known James Crocker for years.”
The name sounded familiar, but in the stress of the moment Ann could not identify it.
“My new butler. He came to me straight from Eugenia. It was he who let us in when we called at her house. Nobody could know better than he whether this person is really James Crocker or not.”
Ann felt as if she had struggled to the limit of her endurance. She was not prepared to cope with this unexpected blow. She had not the strength to rally under it. Dully she perceived that her schemes must be dismissed as a failure before they had had a chance of success. Her accomplice must not return to the house to be exposed. She saw that clearly enough. If he came back he would walk straight into a trap.
She rose quickly. She must warn him. She must intercept him before he arrived—and he might arrive at any moment now.
“Of course,” she said, steadying herself with an effort, “I never thought of that. That makes it all simple—I hope lunch won’t be late. I’m hungry.”
She sauntered to the door, but directly she had closed it behind her ran to her room, snatched up a hat, and rushed downstairs and out into Riverside Drive. Just as she reached the street Jimmy turned the corner. She ran toward him, holding up her hands.
JIMMY halted in his tracks. The apparition had startled him. He had been thinking of Ann, but he had not expected her to bound out at him, waving her arms.
“What’s the matter?” he inquired.
Ann pulled him toward a side street.
“You mustn’t go to the house. Everything has gone wrong.”
“Everything gone wrong? I thought I had made a hit. I have with your uncle, anyway. We parted on the friendliest terms. We have arranged to go to the ball game together to-morrow. He is going to tell them at the office that Carnegie wants to see him.”
“It isn’t Uncle Peter. It’s Aunt Nesta.”
“Ah, there you touch my conscience. I was a little tactless, I’m afraid, with Ogden. It happened before you came into the room. I suppose that is the trouble?”
“It has nothing to do with that,” said Ann impatiently. “It’s much worse. Aunt Nesta is suspicious. She has guessed that you aren’t really Jimmy Crocker.”
“Great Scott! How?”
“I tried to calm her down, but she still suspects. So now she decided to wait and see if Skinner, the butler, knows you. If he doesn’t, she will know that she was right.”
Jimmy was frankly puzzled.
“I don’t quite follow the reasoning. Surely it’s a peculiar kind of test. Why should she think a man cannot be honest and true unless her butler knows him? There must be hundreds of worthy citizens whom he does not know.”
“Skinner arrived from England a few days ago. Until then he was employed by Mrs. Crocker. Now do you understand?”
Jimmy stopped. She had spoken slowly and distinctly, and there could be no possibility that he had misunderstood her, yet he scarcely believed that he had heard her aright. How could a man named Skinner have been his stepmother’s butler? Bayliss had been with the family ever since they had arrived in London.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course, of course I’m sure. Aunt Nesta told me herself. There can’t possibly be a mistake, because it was Skinner who let her in when she called on Mrs. Crocker. Uncle Peter told me about it. He had a talk with the man in the hall and found that he was a baseball enthusiast ——”
A wild, impossible idea flashed upon Jimmy. It was so absurd that he felt ashamed of entertaining it even for a moment. But strange things were happening these times, and it might be ——
“What sort of looking man is Skinner?”
“Oh, stout, clean-shaven. I like him. He’s much more human than I thought butlers ever were. Why?”
“Of course you can’t go back to the house. You see that? He would say that you aren’t Jimmy Crocker and then you would be arrested.”
“I don’t see that. If I am sufficiently like Crocker for his friends to mistake me for him in restaurants, why shouldn’t this butler mistake me too?”
“And, consider. In any case, there’s no harm done. If he fails to recognize me when he opens the door to us, we shall know that the game is up, and I shall have plenty of time to disappear. If the likeness deceives him all will be well. I propose that we go to the house, ring the bell, and when he appears I will say ‘Ah, Skinner! Honest fellow!’ or words to that effect. He will either stare blankly at me or fawn on me like a faithful watchdog. We will base our further actions on which way the butler jumps.”
The sound of the bell died away. Footsteps were heard. Ann reached for Jimmy’s arm and clutched it.
“Now!” she whispered.
The door opened. Next moment Jimmy’s suspicion was confirmed. Gaping at them from the open doorway, wonderfully respectable and butlerlike in swallow-tails, stood his father. How he came to be there and why he was there Jimmy did not know. But there he was.
Jimmy had little faith in his father’s talents as a man of discretion. The elder Crocker was one of those simple, straightforward people who, when surprised, do not conceal their surprise, and who, not understanding any situation in which they find themselves, demand explanation on the spot. Swift and immediate action was indicated on his part before his amazed parent, finding him on the steps of the one house in New York where he was least likely to be, should utter words that would undo everything. He could see the name “Jimmy” trembling on Mr. Crocker’s lips.
He waved his hand cheerily.
“Ah, Skinner, there you are!” he said breezily. “Miss Chester was telling me that you had left my stepmother. I suppose you sailed on the boat before mine. I came over on the Caronia. I suppose you didn’t expect to see me again so soon, eh?”
A spasm seemed to pass over Mr. Crocker’s face, leaving it calm and serene. He had been thrown his cue, and like the old actor he was he took it easily and without confusion. He smiled a respectful smile.
“No, indeed, sir.”
He stepped aside to allow them to enter. Jimmy caught Ann’s eye as she passed him. It shone with relief and admiration, and it exhilarated Jimmy like wine. As she moved toward the stairs he gave expression to his satisfaction by slapping his father on the back with a report that rang out like a pistol shot.
“What was that?” said Ann, turning.
“Something out on the Drive, I think,” said Jimmy. “A car back-firing, I fancy, Skinner.”
“Very probably, sir.”
He followed Ann to the stairs. As he started to mount them a faint whisper reached his ears: “ ’At-a-boy!”
It was Mr. Crocker’s way of bestowing a father’s blessing.
Ann walked into the drawing-room, her head high, triumph in the glance which she cast upon her unconscious aunt.
“Quite an interesting little scene downstairs, Aunt Nesta,” she said. “The meeting of the faithful old retainer and the young master. Skinner was almost overcome with surprise and joy when he saw Jimmy!”
Mrs. Pett could not check an incautious exclamation.
“Did Skinner recognize ——” she began, then stopped herself abruptly. Ann laughed.
“Did he recognize Jimmy? Of course! He was hardly likely to have forgotten him surely? It isn’t much more than a week since he was waiting on him in London.”
“It was a very impressive meeting,” said Jimmy. “Rather like the reunion of Ulysses and the hound Argos, of which this bright-eyed child here”—he patted Ogden on the head, a proceeding violently resented by that youth—“has no doubt read in the course of his researches into the classics. I was Ulysses, Skinner enacted the rôle of the exuberant dog.”
Mrs. Pett was not sure whether she was relieved or disappointed at this evidence that her suspicions had been without foundation. On the whole, relief may be said to have preponderated. “I have no doubt he was pleased to see you again. He must have been astonished.”
“You will be meeting another old friend in a minute or two,” said Mrs. Pett.
Jimmy had been sinking into a chair. This remark stopped him in mid-descent.
Mrs. Pett glanced at the clock.
“Lord Wisbeach is coming to lunch.”
“Lord Wisbeach!” cried Ann. “He doesn’t know Jimmy.”
“Eugenia informed me in London that he was one of your best friends, James.”
Ann looked helplessly at Jimmy. She was conscious again of that feeling of not being able to cope with Fate’s blows, of not having the strength to go on climbing over the barriers which Fate placed in her path.
Jimmy, for his part, was cursing the ill fortune that had brought Lord Wisbeach across his path. He saw clearly that it only needed recognition by one or two more intimates of Jimmy Crocker to make Ann suspect his real identity. The fact that she had seen him with Bayliss in Paddington Station and had fallen into the error of supposing Bayliss to be his father had kept her from suspecting until now, but this could not last forever. He remembered Lord Wisbeach well as a garrulous, irrepressible chatterer who would probably talk about old times to such an extent as to cause Ann to realize the truth in the first five minutes.
The door opened.
“Lord Wisbeach,” announced Mr. Crocker.
“I’m afraid I’m late, Mrs. Pett,” said his lordship.
“No, you’re quite punctual. Lord Wisbeach, here is an old friend of yours, James Crocker.”
There was an almost imperceptible pause. Then Jimmy stepped forward and held out his hand.
“Hello, Wizzy, old man!”
Their eyes met. In his lordship’s there was an expression of unmistakable relief, mingled with astonishment. His face, which had turned a sickly white, flushed as the blood poured back into it. Jimmy, eying him curiously, was not surprised at his emotion. What the man’s game might be he could not say, but of one thing he was sure, which was that this was not Lord Wisbeach, but someone he had never seen before.
“Luncheon is served, madam!” said Mr. Crocker sonorously from the doorway.
IT WAS not often that Ann found occasion to rejoice at the presence in her uncle’s house of the six geniuses whom Mrs. Pett had installed therein. As a rule, she disliked them individually and collectively. But to-day their company was extraordinarily welcome to her. They might have their faults, but at least their presence tended to keep the conversation general and prevent its becoming a duologue between Lord Wisbeach and Jimmy on the subject of old times. She was still feeling weak from the reaction consequent upon the slackening of the tension of her emotions on seeing Lord Wisbeach greet Jimmy as an old acquaintance.
She had never hoped that that barrier would be surmounted. She had pictured Lord Wisbeach drawing back with a puzzled frown on his face and an astonished “But this is not Jimmy Crocker.” The strain had left her relieved but in no mood for conversation, and she replied absently to the remarks of Howard Bemis, the poet, who sat on her left. She looked round the table. Willie Partridge was talking to Mrs. Pett about the difference between picric acid and trinitrotoluene, than which a pleasanter topic for the luncheon table could hardly be selected, and the voice of Clarence Renshaw rose above all other competing noises as he spoke of the functions of the trochaic spondee. There was nothing outwardly to distinguish this meal from any other which she had shared of late in that house.
The only thing that prevented her relief being unmixed was the fact that she could see Lord Wisbeach casting furtive glances at Jimmy, who was eating with the quiet concentration of one who, after days of boarding-house fare, finds himself in the presence of the masterpieces of a chef. In the past few days Jimmy had consumed too much hash to worry now about anything like a furtive glance. He had perceived Lord Wisbeach’s roving eye, and had no doubt that at the conclusion of the meal he would find occasion for a little chat. Meanwhile, however, his duty was toward his tissues and their restoration. He helped himself liberally from a dish which his father offered him.
He became aware that Mrs. Pett was addressing him.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Quite like old times,” said Mrs. Pett genially. Her suspicions had vanished completely since Lord Wisbeach’s recognition of the visitor, and remorse that she should have suspected him made her unwontedly amiable. “Being with Skinner again,” she explained. “It must remind you of London.”
Jimmy caught his father’s expressionless eye.
“Skinner,” he said handsomely, “is a character one cannot help but respect. His nature expands before one like some beautiful flower.”
The dish rocked in Mr. Crocker’s hand, but his face remained impassive.
“There is no vice in Skinner,” proceeded Jimmy. “His heart is the heart of a little child.”
Mrs. Pett looked at this paragon of the virtues in rather a startled way. She had an uncomfortable feeling that she was being laughed at. She began to dislike Jimmy again.
“For many years Skinner has been a father to me,” said Jimmy. “Who ran to help me when I fell, And would some pretty story tell, Or kiss the place to make it well? Skinner!”
For all her suspense, Ann could not help warming toward an accomplice who carried off an unnerving situation with such a flourish. She had always regarded herself with a fair degree of complacency as possessed of no mean stock of courage and resource, but she could not have spoken then without betraying her anxiety. She thought highly of Jimmy, but all the same she could not help wishing that he would not make himself quite so conspicuous. Perhaps—the thought chilled her—perhaps he was creating quite a new Jimmy Crocker, a character which would cause Skinner and Lord Wisbeach to doubt the evidence of their eyes and begin to suspect the truth. She wished she could warn him to simmer down, but the table was a large one and he and she were at opposite ends of it.
Jimmy, meanwhile, was thoroughly enjoying himself. He felt that he was being the little ray of sunshine about the home and making a good impression. He was completely happy. He liked the food, he liked seeing his father buttle, and he liked these amazing freaks who were, it appeared, fellow inmates with him of this highly desirable residence. He wished that old Mr. Pett could have been present. He had conceived a great affection for Mr. Pett, and registered a mental resolve to lose no time in weaning him from his distressing habit of allowing the office to interfere with his pleasures. He was planning a little trip to the Polo Grounds, in which Mr. Pett, his father and a number of pop bottles were to be his companions, when his reverie was interrupted by a sudden cessation of the buzz of talk. He looked up from his plate to find the entire company regarding Willie Partridge open-mouthed. Willie, with gleaming eyes, was gazing at a small test tube which he had produced from his pocket and placed beside his plate.
“I have enough in this test tube,” said Willie airily, “to blow half New York to bits.”
The silence was broken by a crash in the background. Mr. Crocker had dropped a chafing-dish.
“If I were to drop this little tube like that,” said Willie, using the occurrence as a topical illustration, “we shouldn’t be here.”
“Don’t drop it,” advised Jimmy. “What is it?”
Mrs. Pett had risen from the table with blanched face.
“Willie, how can you bring that stuff here? What are you thinking of?”
Willie smiled a patronizing smile. “There is not the slightest danger, Aunt Nesta. It cannot explode without concussion. I have been carrying it about with me all the morning.”
He bestowed on the test tube the look a fond parent might give his favorite child. Mrs. Pett was not reassured.
“Go and put it in your uncle’s safe at once. Put it away.”
“I haven’t the combination.”
“Call your uncle up at once at the office and ask him.”
“Very well, if you wish it, Aunt Nesta. But there is no danger.”
“Don’t take that thing with you,” screamed Mrs. Pett as he rose. “You might drop it. Come back for it.”
Conversation flagged after Willie’s departure. The presence of the test tube seemed to act on the spirits of the company after the fashion of the corpse at the Egyptian banquet. Howard Bemis, who was sitting next to it, edged away imperceptibly till he nearly crowded Ann off her chair. Presently Willie returned. He picked up the test tube, put it in his pocket with a certain jauntiness, and left the room again.
“Now if you hear a sudden bang and find yourself disappearing through the roof,” said Jimmy, “that will be it.”
Willie returned and took his place at the table again, but the spirit had gone out of the gathering. The voice of Clarence Renshaw was hushed, and Howard Bemis spoke no more of the influence of Edgar Lee Masters on modern literature. Mrs. Pett left the room, followed by Ann. The geniuses drifted away one by one. Jimmy, having lighted a cigarette and finished his coffee, perceived that he was alone with his old friend, Lord Wisbeach, and that his old friend Lord Wisbeach was about to become confidential.
The fair-haired young man opened the proceedings by going to the door and looking out. This done he returned to his seat and gazed fixedly at Jimmy.
“What’s your game?” he asked.
Jimmy returned the young man’s gaze blandly.
“My game?” he said. “What do you mean?”
“Can the coy stuff,” urged his lordship brusquely. “Talk sense and talk it quick. We may be interrupted at any moment. What’s your game? What are you here for?”
Jimmy raised his eyebrows.
“I am a prodigal nephew returned to the fold.”
“Oh, quit your kidding. Are you one of Potter’s lot?”
“Who is Potter?”
“You know who Potter is.”
“On the contrary, my life has never been brightened by so much as a sight of Potter.”
“Is that true?”
“Are you working on your own, then?”
“I am not working at all at present. There is some talk of my learning to be an Asparagus Adjuster by mail later on.”
“You make me sick,” said Lord Wisbeach. “Where’s the sense of trying to pull this line of talk? Why not put your cards on the table? We’ve both got in here on the same lay, and there’s no use fighting and balling the thing up.”
“Do you wish me to understand,” said Jimmy, “that you are not my old friend, Lord Wisbeach?”
“No. And you’re not my old friend, Jimmy Crocker.”
“What makes you think that?”
“If you had been, would you have pretended to recognize me upstairs just now? I tell you, pal, I was all in for a second, till you gave me the high sign.”
“It would have been awkward for you if I really had been Crocker, wouldn’t it?”
“And it would have been awkward for you if I had really been Lord Wisbeach.”
“Who are you, by the way?”
“The boys call me Gentleman Jack.”
“Why?” asked Jimmy, surprised.
Lord Wisbeach ignored the question.
“I’m working with Burke’s lot just now. Say, let’s be sensible about this. I’ll be straight with you, straight as a string.”
“Did you say string or spring?”
“And I’ll expect you to be straight with me.”
“Are we to breathe confidences into each other’s ears?”
Lord Wisbeach went to the door again and submitted the passage to a second examination.
“You seem nervous,” said Jimmy.
“I don’t like that butler—he’s up to something.”
“Do you think he’s one of Potter’s lot?”
“Shouldn’t wonder. He isn’t on the level, anyway, or why did he pretend to recognize you as Jimmy Crocker?”
“Recognition of me as Jimmy Crocker seems to be the acid test of honesty.”
“He was in a tight place, same as I was,” said Lord Wisbeach. “He couldn’t know that you weren’t really Jimmy Crocker till you put him wise—same as you did me—by pretending to know him.” He looked at Jimmy with grudging admiration. “You’d got your nerve with you, pal, coming in here like this. You were taking big chances. You couldn’t have known you wouldn’t run up against someone who really knew Jimmy Crocker. What would you have done if this butler guy had really been on the level?”
“The risks of the profession!”
“When I think of the work I had to put in,” said Lord Wisbeach, “it makes me tired to think of someone else just walking in here as you did.”
“What made you choose Lord Wisbeach as your alias?”
“I knew I could get away with it. I came over on the boat with him, and I knew he was traveling round the world and wasn’t going to stay more than a day in New York. Even then I had to go some to get into this place. Burke told me to get hold of old Chester and get a letter of introduction from him. And here you come along and just stroll in and tell them you have come to stay!” He brooded for a moment on the injustice of things. “Well, what are you going to do about it, pal?”
“About us both being here? Are you going to be sensible and work in with me and divvy up later on, or are you going to risk spoiling everything by trying to nog the whole thing? I’ll be square with you. It isn’t as if there was any use in trying to bluff each other. We’re both here for the same thing. You want to get hold of that powder stuff, that Partridgite, and so do I.”
“You believe in Partridgite then?”
“Oh, can it!” said Lord Wisbeach disgustedly. “What’s the use? Of course I believe in it. Burke’s had his eye on the thing for a year. You’ve heard of Dwight Partridge, haven’t you? Well, this guy’s his son. Everyone knows that Dwight Partridge was working on an explosive when he died, and here his son comes along with a test tube full of stuff which he says could blow this city to bits. What’s the answer? The boy’s been working on the old man’s dope. From what I’ve seen of him, I guess there wasn’t much more to be done on it or he wouldn’t have done it. But that doesn’t alter the fact that he’s got the stuff and that you and I have got to get together and make a deal. If we don’t I’m not saying you mightn’t gum my game, just as I might gum yours, but where’s the sense in that? It only means taking extra chances. Whereas, if we sit in together there’s enough in it for both of us. You know as well as I do that there’s a dozen markets that’ll bid against one another for stuff like that Partridgite. If you’re worrying about Burke giving you a square deal, forget it. I’ll fix Burke. He’ll treat you nice, all right.”
Jimmy ground the butt of his cigarette against his plate.
“I’m no orator, as Brutus is; but, as you know me all, a plain blunt man. And, speaking in the capacity of a plain blunt man, I rise to reply—Nothing doing.”
“What? You won’t come in?”
Jimmy shook his head.
“I’m sorry to disappoint you, Wizzy, if I may still call you that, but your offer fails to attract. I will not get together or sit in or anything else. On the contrary I am about to go to Mrs. Pett and inform her that there is a snake in her Eden.”
“You’re not going to squeal on me?”
“At the top of my voice.”
Lord Wisbeach laughed unpleasantly.
“Yes, you will!” he said. “How are you going to explain why you recognized me as an old pal before lunch if I’m a crook after lunch. You can’t give me away without giving yourself away. If I’m not Lord Wisbeach then you’re not Jimmy Crocker.”
Jimmy sighed. “I get you. Life is very complex, isn’t it?”
Lord Wisbeach rose.
“You’d better think it over, son,” he said. “You aren’t going to get anywhere by acting like a fool. You can’t stop me going after this stuff, and if you won’t come in and go fifty-fifty you’ll find yourself left. I’ll beat you to it.”
He left the room, and Jimmy, lighting a fresh cigarette, addressed himself to the contemplation of this new complication in his affairs. It was quite true what Gentleman Jack, or Joe, or whatever the “boys” called him, had said. To denounce him meant denouncing himself. Jimmy smoked thoughtfully. Not for the first time he wished that his record during the past few years had been of a snowier character. He began to appreciate what must have been the feelings of Dr. Jekyll under the handicap of his disreputable second self, Mr. Hyde.
MRS. PETT, on leaving the luncheon table, had returned to the drawing-room to sit beside the sick settee of her stricken child. She was troubled about Ogden. The poor lamb was not at all himself to-day. A bowl of clear soup, the midday meal prescribed by Doctor Briginshaw, lay untasted at his side.
She crossed the room softly and placed a cool hand on her son’s aching brow.
“Oh, gee!” said Ogden wearily.
“Are you feeling a little better, Oggie darling?”
“No,” said Ogden firmly, “I’m feeling a lot worse.”
“You haven’t drunk your nice soup.”
“Feed it to the cat.”
“Could you eat a nice bowl of bread and milk, precious?”
“Have a heart!” replied the sufferer.
Mrs. Pett returned to her seat sorrowfully. It struck her as an odd coincidence that the poor child was nearly always like this on the morning after she had been entertaining guests. She put it down to the reaction from the excitement working on a highly strung temperament. To his present collapse the brutal behavior of Jerry Mitchell had, of course, contributed. Every drop of her maternal blood boiled with rage and horror whenever she permitted herself to contemplate the excesses of the late Jerry. She had always mistrusted the man. She had never liked his face, not merely on æsthetic grounds but because she had seemed to detect in it a lurking savagery. How right events had proved this instinctive feeling! Mrs. Pett was not vulgar enough to describe the feeling, even to herself, as a hunch, but a hunch it had been, and, like everyone whose hunches have proved correct, she was conscious in the midst of her grief of a certain complacency. It seemed to her that hers must be an intelligence and insight above the ordinary.
The peace of the early afternoon settled upon the drawing-room. Mrs. Pett had taken up a book. Ogden, on the settee, breathed stertorously. Faint snores proceeded from the basket in the corner, where Aïda, the Pomeranian, lay curled in refreshing sleep. Through the open window floated sounds of warmth and summer. Yielding to the drowsy calm Mrs. Pett was just nodding into a pleasant nap, when the door opened and Lord Wisbeach came in.
Lord Wisbeach had been doing some rapid thinking. Rapid thought is one of the essentials in the composition of men who are known as Gentleman Jack to the boys, and whose livelihood is won only by a series of arduous struggles against the forces of society and the machinations of Potter and his gang. Condensed into capsule form, his lordship’s meditations during the minutes after he had left Jimmy in the dining room amounted to the realization that the best mode of defense is attack. It is your man who knows how to play the bold game on occasions who wins. A duller schemer than Lord Wisbeach might have been content to be inactive after such a conversation as had just taken place between himself and Jimmy. His lordship, giving the matter the concentrated attention of his trained mind, had hit on a better plan, and he had come to the drawing-room now to put it into effect.
His entrance shattered the peaceful atmosphere. Aïda, who had been gurgling apoplectically, sprang snarling from the basket and made for the intruder open-mouthed. Her shrill barking rang through the room.
Lord Wisbeach hated little dogs. He hated and feared them. Many men of action have these idiosyncrasies. He got behind a chair and said “There, there!” Aïda continued the demonstration from a safe distance till Mrs. Pett, swooping down, picked her up and held her in her lap, where she consented to remain, growling subdued defiance. Lord Wisbeach came out from behind his chair and sat down warily.
“Can I have a word with you, Mrs. Pett?”
“Certainly, Lord Wisbeach.”
His lordship looked meaningly at Ogden.
“In private, you know.”
He then looked meaningly at Mrs. Pett.
“Ogden darling,” said Mrs. Pett, “I think you had better go to your room and undress and go to bed. A little nice sleep might do you all the good in the world.”
With surprising docility the boy rose.
“All right,” he said.
“Poor Oggie is not at all well to-day,” said Mrs. Pett when he was gone. “He is very subject to these attacks. What do you want to tell me, Lord Wisbeach?”
His lordship drew his chair a little closer.
“Mrs. Pett, you remember what I told you yesterday?”
“Might I ask what you know of this man who has come here calling himself Jimmy Crocker?”
Mrs. Pett started.
“You have never seen your nephew, I believe?”
“Never. But ——”
“That man,” said Lord Wisbeach impressively, “is not your nephew.”
Mrs. Pett thrilled all down her spine. She had been right.
“But you ——”
“But I pretended to recognize him? Just so. For a purpose. I wanted to make him think that I suspected nothing.”
“Then you think ——”
“Remember what I said to you yesterday.”
“But Skinner, the butler, recognized him?”
“Exactly. It goes to prove that what I said about Skinner was correct. They are working together.”
“But why did you ——”
“I told you that I pretended to accept this man as the real Jimmy Crocker for a purpose. At present there is nothing that you can do. Mere impersonation is not a crime. If I had exposed him when we met you would have gained nothing beyond driving him from the house. Whereas, if we wait, if we pretend to suspect nothing, we shall undoubtedly catch him red-handed in an attempt on your nephew’s invention.”
“You are sure that that is why he has come?”
“What other reason could he have?”
“I thought he might be trying to kidnap Ogden.”
“It is possible,” said Lord Wisbeach.
“At one time,” said Mrs. Pett proudly, “there was not a child in America who had to be more closely guarded. Why, the kidnapers had a special nickname for Oggie. They called him the Little Nugget.”
“Of course, then, it is quite possible that that may be the man’s object. In any case, our course must be the same. We must watch every move he makes.” He paused. “I could help—pardon my suggesting it—I could help a great deal more if you were to invite me to live in the house. You were kind enough to ask me to visit you in the country, but it will be two weeks before you go to the country, and in those two weeks ——”
“You must come here at once, Lord Wisbeach. To-night. To-day.”
“I think that would be the best plan.”
“I cannot tell you how grateful I am for all you are doing.”
“You have been so kind to me, Mrs. Pett,” said Lord Wisbeach with feeling.
He held out his hand, drawing it back rapidly as the dog Aïda made a snap at it. Substituting a long-range leave-taking for the more intimate farewell, he left the room.
When he had gone Mrs. Pett remained for some minutes, thinking. She was aflame with excitement. She had a sensational mind, and it had absorbed Lord Wisbeach’s revelations eagerly. Her admiration for his lordship was intense, and she trusted him utterly. The only doubt that occurred to her was whether, with the best intentions in the world, he would be able unassisted to foil a pair of schemers so distant from each other geographically as the man who called himself Jimmy Crocker and the man who had called himself Skinner. That was a point on which they had not touched, the fact that one impostor was above stairs, the other below. It seemed to Mrs. Pett impossible that Lord Wisbeach, for all his zeal, could watch Skinner without neglecting Jimmy, or foil Jimmy without taking his attention off Skinner. It was manifestly a situation that called for allies. She felt that she must have further assistance.
To Mrs. Pett, doubtless owing to her hobby of writing sensational fiction, there was a magic in the word “detective” that was shared by no other word in the language. She loved detectives—their keen eyes, their quiet smiles, their derby hats. When they came on the stage she leaned forward in her orchestra chair, when they entered her own stories she always wrote with a greater zest. It is not too much to say that she had an almost spiritual attachment for detectives, and the idea of neglecting to employ one in real life, now that circumstances had combined to render his advent so necessary, struck her as both rash and inartistic. In the old days, when Ogden had been kidnaped, the only thing which had brought her balm had been the daily interviews with the detectives. She ached to telephone for one now.
The only consideration that kept her back was a regard for Lord Wisbeach’s feelings. He had been so kind and so shrewd that to suggest reënforcing him with outside assistance must infallibly wound him deeply. And yet the situation demanded the services of a trained specialist. Lord Wisbeach had borne himself during their recent conversation in such a manner as to leave no doubt that he considered himself adequate to deal with the matter single-handed; but admirable though he was, he was not a professional exponent of the art of espionage. He needed to be helped in spite of himself.
A happy solution struck Mrs. Pett. There was no need to tell him. She could combine the installation of a detective with the nicest respect for her ally’s feelings by the simple process of engaging one without telling Lord Wisbeach anything about it.
The telephone stood at her elbow, concealed—at the express request of the interior decorator who had designed the room—in the interior of what looked to the casual eye like a stuffed owl. On a table near at hand, handsomely bound in morocco to resemble a complete Works of Shakspere, was the telephone book. Mrs. Pett hesitated no longer. She had forgotten the address of the detective agency which she had employed on the occasion of the kidnaping of Ogden, but she remembered the name, and also the name of the delightfully sympathetic manager or proprietor or whatever he was who had listened to her troubles then.
She unhooked the receiver and gave a number.
“I want to speak to Mr. Sturgis,” she said.
“This is Mr. Sturgis,” said a voice.
“Oh, Mr. Sturgis,” said Mrs. Pett, “I wonder if you could possibly run up here—yes, now. This is Mrs. Peter Pett speaking. You remember we met some years ago, when I was Mrs. Ford. Yes, the mother of Ogden Ford. I want to consult —— You will come up at once? Thank you so much. Good-by.” Mrs. Pett hung up the receiver.