The Saturday Evening Post, June 20, 1925
IT IS not given to every girl who makes prophecies to find those prophecies fulfilled within a few short hours of their utterance; and the emotions of Claire Lippett, as she confronted Sam in the hall of San Rafael, were akin to those of one who sees the long shot romp in ahead of the field or who unexpectedly solves the cross-word puzzle. Only that evening she had predicted that burglars would invade the house, and here one was, as large as life.
Mixed, therefore, with her disapproval of this midnight marauder, was a feeling almost of gratitude to him for being there. Of fear she felt no trace. She presented the pistol with a firm hand.
One calls it a pistol for the sake of technical accuracy. To Sam’s startled senses it appeared like a young cannon, and so deeply did he feel regarding it that he made it the subject of his opening remark—which, by all the laws of etiquette, should have been a graceful apology for and explanation of his intrusion.
“Steady with the gat!” he urged.
“What say?” said Claire coldly.
“The lethal weapon—be careful with it. It’s pointing at me.”
“I know it’s pointing at you.”
“Oh, well, so long as it only points,” said Sam.
He felt a good deal reassured by the level firmness of her tone. This was plainly not one of those neurotic, fluttering females whose fingers cannot safely be permitted within a foot of a pistol trigger.
There was a pause. Claire, still keeping the weapon poised, turned the gas up. Upon which, Sam, rightly feeling that the ball of conversation should be set rolling by himself, spoke again.
“You are doubtless surprised,” he said, plagiarizing the literary style of Mr. Todhunter, “to see me here.”
“No, I’m not.”
“No. You keep those hands of yours up.”
“You wouldn’t speak to me in that harsh tone,” he said, “if you knew all I had been through. It is not too much to say that I have been persecuted this night.”
“Well, you shouldn’t come breaking into people’s houses,” said Claire primly.
“You are laboring under a natural error,” said Sam. “I did not break into this charming little house. My presence, Mrs. Braddock, strange as it may seem, is easily explained.”
“Who are you calling Mrs. Braddock?”
“Aren’t you Mrs. Braddock?”
“You aren’t married to Mr. Braddock?”
“No, I’m not.”
Sam was a broad-minded young man.
“Ah, well,” he said, “in the sight of God, no doubt ——”
“I’m the cook.”
“Oh,” said Sam, relieved, “that explains it.”
“Well, you know, it seemed a trifle odd for a moment that you should be popping about here at this time of night with your hair in curlers and your little white ankles peeping out from under a dressing gown.”
“Coo!” said Claire in a modest flutter. She performed a swift adjustment of the garment’s folds.
“But if you’re Mr. Braddock’s cook ——”
“Who said I was Mr. Braddock’s cook?”
“I didn’t any such thing. I’m Mr. Wrenn’s cook.”
This was a complication which Sam had not anticipated.
“Let us get this thing straight,” he said. “Am I to understand that this house does not belong to Mr. Braddock?”
“Yes, you are. It belongs to Mr. Wrenn.”
“But Mr. Braddock had a latchkey.”
“He’s staying here.”
“What do you mean—ah?”
“I intended to convey that things are not so bad as I thought they were. I was afraid for a moment that I had got into the wrong house. But it’s all right. You see, I met Mr. Braddock a short while ago and he brought me back here to spend the night.”
“Oh?” said Claire. “Did he? Ho! Oh, indeed?”
Sam looked at her anxiously. He did not like her manner.
“You believe me, don’t you?”
“No, I don’t.”
“But surely ——”
“If Mr. Braddock brought you here, where is he?”
“He went away. He was, I regret to say, quite considerably squiffed. Immediately after letting me in he dashed off, banging the door behind him.”
“But listen, my dear little girl ——”
“Less of it!” said Claire austerely. “It’s a bit thick if a girl can’t catch a burglar without having him start to flirt with her.”
“You wrong me!” said Sam. “You wrong me! I was only saying ——”
“But this is absurd. Good heavens, use your intelligence! If my story wasn’t true, how could I know anything about Mr. Braddock?”
“You could easily have asked around. What I say is if you were all right and you really knew Mr. Braddock you wouldn’t be going about in a suit of clothes like that. You look like a tramp.”
“Well, I’ve just come off a tramp steamer. You mustn’t go judging people by appearance. I should have thought they would have taught you that at school.”
“Never you mind what they taught me at school.”
“You have got me all wrong. I’m a millionaire—or rather, my uncle is.”
“Mine’s the Shah of Persia.”
“And a few weeks ago he sent me over to England, the idea being that I was to sail on the Mauretania. But that would have involved sharing a suite with a certain Lord Tilbury and the scheme didn’t appeal to me. So I missed the ship and came over on a cargo boat instead.”
He paused. He had an uncomfortable feeling that the story sounded thin. He passed it in a swift review before his mind. Yes, thin.
And it was quite plain from her expression that the resolute young lady before him shared this opinion.
She wrinkled her small nose skeptically, and, having finished wrinkling it, sniffed.
“I don’t believe a word of it,” she said.
“I was afraid you wouldn’t,” said Sam. “True though it is, it has a phony ring. Really to digest that story, you have to know Lord Tilbury. If you had the doubtful pleasure of the acquaintance of that king of bores, you would see that I acted in the only possible way. However, if it’s too much for you, let it go, and we will approach the matter from a new angle. The whole trouble seems to be my clothes, so I will make you a sporting offer. Overlook them for the moment, give me your womanly trust and allow me to sleep on the drawing-room sofa for the rest of the night, and not only will blessings reward you but I will promise you—right here and now—that in a day or two I will call at this house and let you see me in the niftiest rig-out that ever man wore. Imagine it! A brand-new suit, custom-made, silk serge linings, hand sewed, scallops on the pocket flaps—and me inside! Is it a bet?”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Think well! When you first see that suit you will say to yourself that the coat doesn’t seem to sit exactly right. You will be correct. The coat will not sit exactly right. And why? Because there will be in the side pocket a large box of the very finest mixed chocolates, a present for a good girl. Come now! The use of the drawing-room for the few remaining hours of the night. It is not much to ask.”
Claire shook her head inflexibly.
“I’m not going to risk it,” she said. “By rights I ought to march you out into the street and hand you over to the policeman.”
“And have him see you in curling-pins? No, no!”
“What’s wrong with my curling pins?” demanded Claire fiercely.
“Nothing, nothing,” said Sam hastily. “I admire them. It only occurred to me as a passing thought ——”
“The reason I don’t do it is because I’m tender-hearted and don’t want to be too hard on a feller.”
“It is a spirit I appreciate,” said Sam. “And would that there had been more of it abroad in London this night.”
“So out you go, and don’t let me hear no more of you. Just buzz off, that’s all I ask. And be quick about it, because I need my sleep.”
“I was wrong about those chocolates,” said Sam. “Silly mistake to make. What will really be in that side pocket will be a lovely diamond brooch.”
“And a motor car and a ruby ring and a new dress and a house in the country, I suppose. Outside!”
He accepted defeat. The manly spirit of the Shotters was considerable, but it could be broken.
“Oh, all right, I’ll go. One of these days. when my limousine splashes you with mud, you will be sorry for this.”
“And don’t bang the door behind you,” counseled the ruthless girl.
STANDING on the steps and gazing out into the blackness, Sam now perceived that in the interval between his entrance into San Rafael and his exit therefrom, the night, in addition to being black, had become wet. A fine rain had begun to fall, complicating the situation to no small extent.
For some minutes he remained where he was, hoping for Mr. Braddock’s return. But the moments passed and no sound of footsteps, however distant, broke the stillness; so, after going through a brief commination service in which the names of Hash Todhunter, Claude Bates and Willoughby Braddock were prominently featured, he decided to make a move. And it was as he came down from the steps onto the little strip of gravel that he saw a board leaning drunkenly toward him a few paces to his left, and read on that board the words “To Let, Furnished.”
This opened up an entirely new train of thought. It revealed to him what he had not previously suspected, that the house outside which he stood was not one house but two houses. It suggested, moreover, that the one to which the board alluded was unoccupied, and the effect of this was extraordinarily stimulating.
He hurried along the gravel; and rounding the angle of the building, saw dimly through the darkness a structure attached to its side which looked like a conservatory. He bolted in; and with a pleasant feeling of having circumvented Fate, sat down on a wooden shelf intended as a resting place for potted geraniums.
But Fate is not so easily outmaneuvered. Fate, for its own inscrutable reasons, had decided that Sam was to be thoroughly persecuted tonight, and it took up the attack again without delay. There was a sharp cracking sound and the wooden shelf collapsed in ruin. Sam had many excellent qualities, but he did not in the least resemble a potted geranium, and he went through the woodwork as if it had been paper. And Fate, which observes no rules of the ring and has no hesitation about hitting a man when he is down, immediately proceeded to pour water down his neck through a hole in the broken roof.
Sam rose painfully. He saw now that he had been mistaken in supposing that this conservatory was a home from home. He turned up his coat collar and strode wrathfully out into the darkness. He went round to the back of the house with the object of ascertaining if there was an outside coal cellar where a man might achieve dryness, if not positive comfort. And it was as he stumbled along that he saw the open window.
It was a sight which in the blackness of the night he might well have missed; but suffering had sharpened his senses, and he saw it plainly—an open window only a few feet above the ground. Until this moment the idea of actually breaking into the house had not occurred to him; but now, regardless of all the laws which discourage such behavior, he put his hand on the sill and scrambled through. The rain, as if furious at the escape of its prey, came lashing down like a shower bath.
Sam moved carefully on. Groping his way, he found himself at the foot of a flight of stairs. He climbed these cautiously and became aware of doors to left and right.
The room to the right was empty, but the other one contained a bed. It was a bed, however, that had been reduced to such a mere scenario that he decided to leave it and try his luck downstairs. The board outside had said “To Let, Furnished,” which suggested the possibility of a drawing-room sofa. He left the room and started to walk down the stairs.
At first, as he began the descent, the regions below had been in complete darkness. But now a little beam of light suddenly pierced the gloom—a light that might have been that of an electric torch. It was wavering uncertainly, as if whoever was behind it was in the grip of a strong emotion of some kind.
Sam also was in the grip of a strong emotion. He stopped and held his breath. For the space of some seconds there was silence. Then he breathed again.
Perfect control of the breathing apparatus is hard to acquire. Singers spend years learning it. Sam’s skill in that direction was rudimentary. It had been his intention to let his present supply of breath gently out and then, very cautiously, to take another supply gently in. Instead of which he gave vent to a sound so loud and mournful that it made his flesh creep. It was half a snort and half a groan, and it echoed through the empty house like a voice from the tomb.
This, he felt, was the end. Further concealment was obviously out of the question. Dully resentful of the curse that seemed to be on him tonight, he stood waiting for the inevitable challenge from below.
No challenge came. Instead there was a sharp clatter of feet, followed by a distant scrabbling sound. The man behind the torch had made a rapid exit through the open window.
For a moment Sam stood perplexed. Then the reasonable explanation came to him. It was no caretaker who had stood there, but an intruder with as little right to be on the premises as he himself. And having reached this conclusion, he gave no further thought to the matter. He was feeling extraordinarily sleepy now and speculations as to the identity of burglars had no interest for him. His mind was occupied entirely by the question of whether or not there was a sofa in the drawing-room.
There was, and a reasonably comfortable sofa too. Sam had reached the stage where he could have slept on spikes, and this sofa seemed to him as inviting as the last word in beds, with all the latest modern springs and box mattresses. He lay down and sleep poured over him like a healing wave.
IT WAS broad daylight when he woke. Splashes of sunlight were on the floor, and outside a cart clattered cheerfully. Rising stiffly, he was aware of a crick in the neck and of that unpleasant sensation of semi-suffocation which comes to those who spend the night in a disused room with the windows closed. More even than a bath and a shave, he desired fresh air. He made his way down the passage to the window by which he had entered. Outside, glimpses of a garden were visible. He climbed through and drew a deep breath.
The rain of the night had left the world sweet and clean. The ragged grass was all jeweled in the sunshine, and birds were singing in the trees. Sam stood drinking in the freshness of it all, feeling better every instant.
Finally, having performed a few of those bending and stretching exercises which form such an admirable corrective to the effects of a disturbed night, he strolled down the garden path, wishing he could somehow and at no very distant date connect with a little breakfast.
“For goodness sake!”
He looked up. Over the fence which divided the garden from the one next door a familiar face was peering. It was his hostess of last night. But, whereas then she had been curling-pinned and dressing-gowned, she was now neatly clad in print and wore on her head a becoming cap. Her face, moreover, which had been hard and hostile, was softened by a friendly grin.
“Good morning,” said Sam.
“How did you get there?”
“When you turned me out into the night,” said Sam reproachfully, “I took refuge next door.”
“I say, I’m sorry about that,” said the girl remorsefully. “But how was I to know that you were telling the truth?” She giggled happily. “Mr. Braddock came back half an hour after you had left. He made such a rare old row that I came down again ——”
“And shot him, I hope. No? A mistake, I think.”
“Well, then he asked where you were. He said your name was Evans.”
“He was a little confused. My name is Shotter. I warned you that he was not quite himself. What became of him then?”
“He went up to bed. I’ve just taken him up a tray, but all he did was to look at it and moan and shut his eyes again. I say, have you had any breakfast?”
“Don’t torture me.”
“Well, hop over the fence then. I’ll get you some in two ticks.”
Sam hopped. The sun seemed very bright now, and the birds were singing with a singular sweetness.
“Would it also run to a shave and a bath?” he asked, as they walked toward the house.
“You’ll find Mr. Wrenn’s shaving things in the bathroom.”
“Is this heaven?” said Sam. “Shall I also find Mr. Wrenn by any chance?”
“Oh, no; him and Miss Kay have been gone half an hour.”
“Excellent! Where is this bathroom?”
“Up those stairs, first door to the left. When you come down, go into that room there and I’ll bring the tray in. It’s the drawing-room, but the dining-room table isn’t cleared yet.”
“I shall enjoy seeing your drawing-room, of which I have heard so much.”
“Do you like eggs?”
“I do—and plenty of them. Also bacon—a good deal of bacon. Oh, and by the way ——” added Sam, leaning over the banisters.
“—— toast—lots and lots of toast.”
“I’ll get you all you can eat.”
“You will? Tell me,” said Sam, “it has been puzzling me greatly. How do you manage to get that dress on over your wings?”
SAM, when he came downstairs some twenty minutes later, was definitely in what Mr. Hash Todhunter would have described as the pink. The night had been bad, but joy had certainly come in the morning. The sight of the breakfast tray on a small table by the window set the seal on his mood of well-being; and for a long, luxurious space he had eyes for nothing else. It was only after he had consumed the eggs, the bacon, the toast, the coffee and the marmalade that he yielded to what is usually the first impulse of a man who finds himself in a strange room and began to explore.
It was some half minute later that Claire Lippett, clearing the dining-room table, was startled to the extent of dropping a butter dish by a loud shout or cry that seemed to proceed from the room where she had left her guest.
Hurrying thither, she found him behaving in a strange manner. He was pointing at a photograph on the mantelpiece and gesticulating wildly.
“Who’s that?” he cried as she entered. He seemed to have difficulty with his vocal cords.
“Who the devil’s that?”
“Who is it? That girl—who is she? What’s her name?”
“You needn’t shout,” said Claire, annoyed.
The photograph which had so excited this young man was the large one that stood in the center of the mantelpiece. It represented a girl in hunting costume, standing beside her horse, and it was Claire’s favorite. A dashing and vigorous duster, with an impressive record of smashed china and broken glass to her name, she always handled this particular work of art with a gentle tenderness.
“That?” she said. “Why, that’s Miss Kay, of course.”
She came forward and flicked a speck of dust off the glass.
“Taken at Midways, that was,” she said, “two or three years ago, before the old colonel lost his money. I was Miss Kay’s maid then—personal maid,” she added with pride. She regarded the photograph wistfully, for it stood to her for all the pomps and glories of a vanished yesterday, for the brave days when there had been horses and hunting costumes and old red chimneys against a blue sky and rabbits in the park and sunlight on the lake and all the rest of the things that made up Midways and prosperity. “I remember the day that photograph was took. It was printed in the papers, that photograph was.”
Sam continued to be feverish.
“Miss Kay? Who’s Miss Kay?”
“Miss Kay Derrick, Mr. Wrenn’s niece.”
“The man who lives here, do you mean?”
“Yes. He gave Miss Kay a home when everything went smash. That’s how I come to be here. I could have stopped at Midways if I’d of liked,” she said. “The new people who took the place would have kept me on if I’d of wanted. But I said ‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m going with Miss Kay,’ I said. ‘I’m not going to desert her in her mis-for-chewn,’ I said.”
Sam started violently.
“You don’t mean—you can’t mean—you don’t mean she lives here?”
“Of course she does.”
“Not actually lives here—not in this very house?”
Sam quivered from head to foot. A stupendous idea had come to him.
“My gosh!” he cried again with bulging eyes. Then, with no more words—for it was a time not for words but for action—he bounded from the room.
To leap out of the front door and clatter down the steps to the board which stood against the fence was with Sam the work of a moment. Beneath the large letters of the To Let, Furnished, he now perceived other smaller letters informing all who might be interested that applications for the tenancy of that desirable semidetached residence, Mon Repos, should be made to Messrs. Matters & Cornelius, House Agents, of Ogilvy Street, Valley Fields, S. E. He galloped up the steps again and beat wildly upon the door.
“Now what?” inquired Claire.
“Where is Ogilvy Street?”
“Up the road, first turning to the left.”
Out on the gravel he paused, pondered and returned.
“Back again?” said Claire.
“Did you say left or right?”
“Don’t mention it,” said Claire.
This time Sam performed the descent of the steps in a single leap. But reaching the gate, he was struck by a thought.
“Fond of exercise, aren’t you?” said Claire patiently.
“Suddenly occurred to me,” explained Sam, “that I’d got no money.”
“What do you want me to do about it?”
“These house-agent people would expect a bit of money down in advance, wouldn’t they?”
“Sounds possible. Are you going to take a house?”
“I’m going to take Mon Repos,” said Sam. “And I must have money. Where’s Mr. Braddock?”
“Where’s his room?”
“Top floor back.”
“Dee-lighted,” said Claire.
Her statement that the guest of the house was in bed proved accurate. Sam, entering the apartment indicated, found his old school friend lying on his back with open mouth and matted hair. He was snoring rhythmically. On a chair at his side stood a tray containing a teapot, toast and a cold poached egg of such raffish and leering aspect that Sam, moving swiftly to the dressing table, averted his eyes as he passed.
The dressing table presented an altogether more pleasing picture. Heaped beside Mr. Braddock’s collar box and hair-brushes was a small mountain of notes and silver—a fascinating spectacle with the morning sunshine playing on them. With twitching fingers, Sam scooped them up; and finding pencil and paper, paused for a moment, seeking for words.
It is foolish to attempt to improve on the style of a master. Hash Todhunter had shown himself in a class of his own at this kind of literary composition, and Sam was content to take him as a model. He wrote:
“Dear Bradder: You will doubtless be surprised to learn that I have borrowed your money. I will return it in God’s good time. Meanwhile, as Sir Philip Sidney said to the wounded soldier, my need is greater than yours.
“Trusting this finds you in the pink,
Then, having propped the note against the collar box, he left the room.
A sense of something omitted, some little kindly act forgotten, arrested him at the head of the stairs. He returned; and taking the poached egg, placed it gently on the pillow beside his friend’s head. This done, he went downstairs again, and so out on the broad trail that led to the premises of Messrs. Matters & Cornelius, House Agents, of Ogilvy Street.
WHAT Mr. Matters would have thought of Sam as he charged breezily into the office a few minutes later we shall never know, for Mr. Matters died in the year 1910. Mr. Cornelius thought him perfectly foul. After one swift, appraising stare through his gold-rimmed spectacles, he went so far as to share this opinion with his visitor.
“I never give to beggars,” he said. He was a venerable old man with a white beard and bushy eyebrows, and he spoke with something of the intonation of a druid priest chanting at the altar previous to sticking the knife into the human sacrifice. “I do not believe in indiscriminate charity.”
“I will fill in your confession book some other time,” said Sam. “For the moment, let us speak of houses. I want to take Mon Repos in Burberry Road.”
The druid was about to recite that ancient rune which consists of the solemn invocation to a policeman, when he observed with considerable surprise that his young visitor was spraying currency in great quantities over the table. He gulped. It was unusual for clients at his office to conduct business transactions in a manner more suitable to the Bagdad of the Arabian Nights than to a respectable modern suburb. He could hardly have been more surprised if camels laden with jewels and spices had paraded down Ogilvy Street.
“What is all this?” he asked, blinking.
“Money,” said Sam.
“Where did you get it?”
He eyed Sam askance. And Sam, who, as the heady result of a bath, shave, breakfast and the possession of cash, had once more forgotten that there was anything noticeable about his appearance, gathered that here was another of the long line of critics who had failed to recognize his true worth at first sight.
“Do not judge me by the outer crust,” he said. “I am shabby because I have been through much. When I stepped aboard the boat at New York I was as natty a looking young fellow as you could wish to see. People nudged one another as I passed along the pier and said, ‘Who is he?’ ”
“You come from America?”
“Ah!” said Mr. Cornelius, as if that explained everything.
“My uncle,” said Sam, sensing the change in the atmosphere and pursuing his advantage, “is Mr. John B. Pynsent, the well-to-do millionaire of whom you have doubtless heard. . . . You haven’t? One of our greatest captains of industry. He made a vast fortune in fur.”
“In fur? Really?”
“Got the concession for providing the snakes at the Bronx Zoo with earmuffs, and from that moment never looked back.”
“You surprise me,” said Mr. Cornelius. “Most interesting.”
“A romance of commerce,” agreed Sam. “And now, returning to this matter of the house ——”
“Ah, yes,” said Mr. Cornelius. His voice, as he eyed the money on the table, was soft and gentle. He still looked like a druid priest, but a druid priest on his afternoon off. “For how long a period did you wish to rent Mon Repos, Mr.—er ——”
“Shotter is the name. . . . Indefinitely.”
“Shall we say three months rent in advance?”
“Let us say just those very words.”
“And as to references ——”
Sam was on the point of giving Mr. Wrenn’s name, until he recollected that he had not yet met that gentleman. Using his shaving brush and razor and eating food from his larder seemed to bring them very close together. He reflected.
“Lord Tilbury,” he said. “That’s the baby.”
“Lord Tilbury, of the Mammoth Publishing Company?” said Mr. Cornelius, plainly awed. “Do you know him?”
“Know him? We’re more like brothers than anything. There’s precious little Lord Tilbury ever does without consulting me. It might be a good idea to call him up on the phone now. I ought to let him know that I’ve arrived.”
Mr. Cornelius turned to the telephone, succeeded after an interval in getting the number, and after speaking with various unseen underlings, tottered reverently as he found himself talking to the great man in person. He handed the instrument to Sam.
“His Lordship would like to speak to you, Mr. Shotter.”
“I knew it, I knew it,” said Sam. “Hello! Lord Tilbury? This is Sam. How are you? I’ve just arrived. I came over in a tramp steamer, and I’ve been having all sorts of adventures. Give you a good laugh. I’m down at Valley Fields at the moment, taking a house. I’ve given your name as a reference. You don’t mind? Splendid! Lunch? Delighted. I’ll be along as soon as I can. Got to get a new suit first. I slept in my clothes last night. . . . Well, good-by. It’s all right about the references,” he said, turning to Mr. Cornelius. “Carry on.”
“I will draw up the lease immediately, Mr. Shotter. If you will tell me where I am to send it ——”
“Send it?” said Sam, surprised. “Why, to Mon Repos, of course.”
“Can’t I move in at once?”
“I suppose so, if you wish it. But I fancy the house is hardly ready for immediate tenancy. You will need linen.”
“That’s all right. A couple of hours shopping will fix that.”
Mr. Cornelius smiled indulgently. He was thoroughly pro-Sam by now.
“True American hustle,” he observed, waggling his white beard. “Well, I see no objection, if you make a point of it. I will find the key for you. Tell me, Mr. Shotter,” he asked as he rummaged about in drawers, “what has caused this great desire on your part to settle in Valley Fields? Of course, as a patriotic inhabitant, I ought not to be surprised. I have lived in Valley Fields all my life, and would not live anywhere else if you offered me a million pounds.”
“I was born in Valley Fields, Mr. Shotter, and I love the place, and I am not ashamed to say so. ‘Breathes there the man with soul so dead,’ ” inquired Mr. Cornelius, “ ‘who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land! Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d as home his footsteps he hath turn’d from wandering on a foreign strand?’ ”
“Ah!” said Sam. “That’s what we’d all like to know, wouldn’t we?”
“ ‘If such there breathe,’ ” proceeded Mr. Cornelius, “ ‘go, mark him well! For him no minstrel raptures swell. High though his titles, proud his name, boundless his wealth as wish can claim, despite those titles, power and pelf, the wretch, concentered all in self ——’ ”
“I have a luncheon engagement at 1:30,” said Sam.
“ ‘—— Living, shall forfeit fair renown, and, doubly dying, shall go down to the vile dust from whence he sprung, unwept, unhonour’d and unsung.’ Those words, Mr. Shotter ——”
“A little thing of your own?”
“Those words, Mr. Shotter, will appear on the title page of the history of Valley Fields, which I am compiling—a history dealing not only with its historical associations, which are numerous, but also with those aspects of its life which my occupation as house agent has given me peculiar opportunities of examining. I get some queer clients, Mr. Shotter.”
Sam was on the point of saying that the clients got a queer house agent, thus making the thing symmetrical, but he refrained from doing so.
“It may interest you to know that a very well-known criminal, a man who might be described as a second Charles Peace, once resided in the very house which you are renting.”
“I shall raise the tone.”
“Like Charles Peace, he was a most respectable man to all outward appearances. His name was Finglass. Nobody seems to have had any suspicion of his real character until the police, acting on information received, endeavored to arrest him for the perpetration of a great bank robbery.”
“Catch him?” said Sam, only faintly interested.
“No; he escaped and fled the country. But I was asking you what made you settle on Valley Fields as a place of residence. You would seem to have made up your mind very quickly.”
“Well, the fact is, I happened to catch sight of my next-door neighbors, and it struck me that they would be pleasant people to live near.”
Mr. Cornelius nodded.
“Mr. Wrenn is greatly respected by all who know him.”
“I liked his razor,” said Sam.
“If you are going to Tilbury House it is possible that you may meet him. He is the editor of Pyke’s Home Companion.”
“Is that so?” said Sam. “Pyke’s Home Companion, eh?”
“I take it in regularly.”
“And Mr. Wrenn’s niece? A charming girl, I thought.”
“I scarcely know her,” said Mr. Cornelius indifferently. “Young women do not interest me.”
The proverb about casting pearls before swine occurred to Sam.
“I must be going,” he said coldly. “Speed up that lease, will you? And if anyone else blows in and wants to take the house, bat them over the head with your office ruler.”
“Mr. Wrenn and I frequently play a game of chess together,” said Mr. Cornelius.
Sam was not interested in his senile diversions.
“Good morning,” he said stiffly, and passed out into Ogilvy Street.
THE clocks of London were striking twelve when Sam, entering the Strand, turned to the left and made his way toward Fleet Street to keep his tryst with Lord Tilbury at the offices of the Mammoth Publishing Company.
In the interval which had elapsed since his parting from Mr. Cornelius a striking change had taken place in his appearance, for he had paid a visit to that fascinating shop near Covent Garden which displays on its door the legend, “Cohen Bros., Ready-Made Clothiers,” and is the Mecca of all who prefer to pluck their garments ripe off the bough instead of waiting for them to grow. The kindly brethren had fitted him out with a tweed suit of bold pattern, a shirt of quality, underclothing, socks, a collar, sock suspenders, a handkerchief, a tie pin and a hat with the same swift and unemotional efficiency with which, had he desired it, they would have provided the full costume of an Arctic explorer, a duke about to visit Buckingham Palace, or a big-game hunter bound for Eastern Africa. Nor had they failed him in the matter of new shoes and a wanghee. It was, in short, an edition de luxe of S. Pynsent Shotter, richly bound and profusely illustrated, that now presented itself to the notice of the public.
The tonic effect of new clothes is recognized by all students of human nature. Sam walked with a springy jauntiness, and his gay bearing, combined with the brightness of his exterior, drew many eyes upon him.
Two of these eyes belonged to a lean and stringy man of mournful countenance who was moving in the opposite direction, away from London’s newspaper land. For a moment they rested upon Sam in a stare that had something of dislike in it, as if their owner resented the intrusion upon his notice of so much cheerfulness. Then they suddenly widened into a stare of horror, and the man stopped, spellbound. A hurrying pedestrian, bumping into him from behind, propelled him forward, and Sam, coming up at four miles an hour, bumped into him in front. The result of the collision was a complicated embrace, from which Sam was extricating himself with apologies when he perceived that this person with whom he had become entangled was no stranger, but an old friend.
“Hash!” he cried.
There was nothing in Mr. Todhunter’s aspect to indicate pleasure at the encounter. He breathed heavily and spoke no word.
“Hash, you old devil!” said Sam joyfully.
Mr. Todhunter licked his lips uncomfortably. He cast a swift glance over his shoulder, as if debating the practicability of a dive into the traffic. He endeavored, without success, to loosen the grip of Sam’s hand on his coat sleeve.
“What are you wriggling for?” asked Sam, becoming aware of this.
“I’m not wriggling,” said Hash. He spoke huskily and in a tone that seemed timidly ingratiating. If the voice of Mr. Cornelius had resembled a druid priest’s, Clarence Todhunter’s might have been likened to that of the victim on the altar. “I’m not wriggling, Sam. What would I want to wriggle for?”
“Where did you spring from, Hash?”
Mr. Todhunter coughed.
“I was just coming from leaving a note for you, Sam, at that place Tilbury House, where you told me you’d be.”
“You’re a great letter writer, aren’t you?”
The allusion was not lost upon Mr. Todhunter. He gulped and his breathing became almost stertorous.
“I want to explain about that, Sam,” he said. “Explain, if I may use the term, fully. Sam,” said Mr. Todhunter thickly, “what I say and what I always have said is, when there’s been a little misunderstanding between pals—pals, if I may use the expression, what have stood together side by side through thick and through thin—pals what have shared and shared alike ——” He broke off. He was not a man of acute sensibility, but he could see that the phrase, in the circumstances, was an unhappy one. “What I say is, Sam, when it’s like that—well, there’s nothing like letting bygones be bygones and, so to speak, burying the dead past. As a man of the world, you bein’ one and me bein’ another ——”
“I take it,” said Sam, “from a certain something in your manner, that that moth-eaten whippet of yours did not win his race.”
“Sam,” said Mr. Todhunter, “I will not conceal it from you. I will be frank, open and aboveboard. That whippet did not win.”
“Your money then—and mine—is now going to support some bookie in the style to which he has been accustomed?”
“It’s gorn, Sam,” admitted Mr. Todhunter in a deathbed voice. “Yes, Sam, it’s gorn.”
“Then come and have a drink,” said Sam cordially.
He led the way to a hostelry that lurked coyly among shops and office buildings. Hash followed, marveling. The first stunned horror had passed, and his mind, such as it was, was wrestling with the insoluble problem of why Sam, with the facts of the whippet disaster plainly before him, was so astoundingly amiable.
The hour being early even for a perpetually thirsty community like that of Fleet Street, the saloon bar into which they made their way was free from the crowds which would have interfered with a quiet chat between old friends. Two men who looked like printers were drinking beer in a corner, while at the counter a haughty barmaid was mixing a cocktail for a solitary reveler in a velours hat. This individual had just made a remark about the weather in a rich and attractive voice, and his intonation was so unmistakably American that Sam glanced at him as he passed; and, glancing, half stopped, arrested by something strangely familiar about the man’s face.
It was not a face which anyone would be likely to forget if they had seen it often; and the fact that it brought no memories back to him inclined Sam to think that he could never have met this rather striking-looking person, but must have seen him somewhere on the street or in a hotel lobby. He was a handsome, open-faced man of middle age, who reminded Sam of William Jennings Bryan as that great statesman must have been in his earlier days.
“I’ve seen that fellow before somewhere,” he said, as he sat with Hash at a table by the window.
“ ’Ave you?” said Hash, and there was such a manifest lack of interest in his tone that Sam, surprised at his curtness, awoke to the realization that he had not yet ordered refreshment. He repaired the omission and Hash’s drawn face relaxed.
“Hash,” said Sam, “I owe you a lot.”
“Me?” said Hash blankly.
“Yes. You remember that photograph I showed you?”
“Yes. Hash, I’ve found her, and purely owing to you. If you hadn’t taken that money it would never have happened.”
Mr. Todhunter, though he was far from understanding, endeavored to assume a simper of modest altruism. He listened attentively while Sam related the events of the night.
“And I’ve taken the house next door,” concluded Sam, “and I move in today. So, if you want a shore job, the post of cook in the Shotter household is open. How about it?”
A sort of spasm passed across Hash’s wooden features.
“You want me to come and cook?”
“I’ve got to get a cook somewhere. Can you leave the ship?”
“Can I leave the ship? Mister, you watch and see how quick I can leave that ruddy ocean-going steam kettle! I’ve been wanting a shore job ever since I was cloth-head enough to go to sea.”
“You surprise me,” said Sam. “I have always looked on you as one of those tough old salts who can’t be happy away from deep waters. I thought you sang chantey in your sleep. Well, that’s splendid. You had better go straight down to the house and start getting things fixed up. Here’s the key. Write the address down—Mon Repos, Burberry Road, Valley Fields.”
A sharp crash rang through the room. The man at the bar, who had finished his cocktail and was drinking a whisky and soda, had dropped his glass.
“ ’Ere!” exclaimed the barmaid, startled, a large hand on the left side of her silken bosom.
The man paid no attention to her cry. He was staring with marked agitation at Sam and his companion.
“How do I get there?” asked Hash.
“By train or bus—there’s any number of ways.”
“And I can go straight into the house?”
“Yes; I’ve taken it from this morning.”
Sam hurried out. Hash, pausing to write down the address, became aware that he was being spoken to.
“Say, pardon me,” said the fine-looking man, who was clutching at his sleeve. “Might I have a word with you, brother?”
“Well?” said Hash suspiciously. The last time an American had addressed him as brother it had cost him eleven dollars and seventy-five cents.
“Did I understand your pal who’s gone out to say that he had rented a house named Mon Repos down in Valley Fields?”
“Yes, you did. What of it?”
The man did not reply. Consternation was writ upon his face, and he passed a hand feebly across his broad forehead. The silence was broken by the cold voice of the barmaid.
“That’ll be threepence I’ll kindly ask you for, for that glass,” said the barmaid. “And if,” she added with asperity, “you ’ad to pay for the shock you give me, it ’ud cost you a tenner.”
“Girlie,” replied the man sadly, watching Hash as he shambled through the doorway, “you aren’t the only one that’s had a shock.”
While Sam was walking down Fleet Street on his way to Tilbury House, thrilled with the joy of existence and swishing the air jovially with his newly purchased wanghee, in Tilbury House itself the proprietor of the Mammoth Publishing Company was pacing the floor of his private office, his thumbs in the armholes of his waistcoat, his eyes staring bleakly before him.
Lord Tilbury was a short, stout, commanding-looking man, and practically everything he did had in it something of the Napoleonic quality. His demeanor now suggested Napoleon in captivity, striding the deck of the Bellerophon with vultures gnawing at his breast.
So striking was his attitude that his sister, Mrs. Frances Hammond, who had called to see him, as was her habit when business took her into the neighborhood of Tilbury House, paused aghast in the doorway, while the obsequious boy in buttons who was ushering her in frankly lost his nerve and bolted.
“Good gracious, Georgie!” she cried. “What’s the matter?”
His Lordship came to a standstill and something faintly resembling relief appeared in his square-cut face. Ever since the days when he had been plain George Pyke, starting in business with a small capital and a large ambition, his sister Frances had always been a rock of support. It might be that her advice would help him to cope with the problem which was vexing him now.
“Sit down, Francie,” he said. “Thank goodness you’ve come. Just the person I want to talk to.”
“I’m telling you. You remember that when I was in America I met a man named Pynsent?”
“This man Pynsent was the owner of an island off the coast of Maine.”
“Yes, I know. And you ——”
“An island,” continued Lord Tilbury, “densely covered with trees. He used it merely as a place of retirement, for the purpose of shooting and fishing; but when he invited me there to spend a week-end I saw its commercial possibilities in an instant.”
“Yes, you told me. You ——”
“I said to myself,” proceeded Lord Tilbury, one of whose less engaging peculiarities it was that he never permitted the fact that his audience was familiar with a story to keep him from telling it again, “I said to myself, ‘This island, properly developed, could supply all the paper the Mammoth needs and save me thousands a year!’ It was my intention to buy the place and start paper mills.”
“Yes, and ——”
“Paper mills,” said Lord Tilbury firmly. “I made an offer to Pynsent. He shilly-shallied. I increased my offer. Still he would give me no definite answer. Sometimes he seemed willing to sell, and then he would change his mind. And then, when I was compelled to leave and return to England, an idea struck me. He had been talking about his nephew and how he was anxious for him to settle down and do something ——”
“So you offered to take him over here and employ him in the Mammoth,” said Mrs. Hammond with a touch of impatience. She loved and revered her brother, but she could not conceal it from herself that he sometimes tended to be prolix. “You thought it would put him under an obligation.”
“Exactly. I imagined I was being shrewd. I supposed that I was introducing into the affair just that little human touch which sometimes makes all the difference. Well, it will be a bitter warning to me never again to be too clever. Half the business deals in this world are ruined by one side or the other trying to be too clever.”
“But, George, what has happened? What is wrong?”
Lord Tilbury resumed his patrol of the carpet.
“I’m telling you. It was all arranged that he should sail back with me on the Mauretania, but when the vessel left he was nowhere to be found. And then, about the second day out, I received a wireless message saying, ‘Sorry not to be with you. Coming Araminta. Love to all.’ I could not make head or tail of it.”
“No,” said Mrs. Hammond thoughtfully; “it is very puzzling. I think it may possibly have meant ——”
“I know what it meant—now. The solution,” said Lord Tilbury bitterly, “was vouchsafed to me only an hour ago by the boy himself.”
“Has he arrived then?”
“Yes, he has arrived. And he traveled on a tramp steamer.”
“A tramp steamer! But why?”
“Why? Why? How should I know why? Last night, he informed me, he slept in his clothes.”
“Slept in his clothes? Why?”
“How should I know why? Who am I to analyze the motives of a boy who appears to be a perfect imbecile?”
“But have you seen him?”
“No. He rang up on the telephone from the office of a house agent in Valley Fields. He has taken a house there and wished to give my name as a reference.”
“Valley Fields? Why Valley Fields?”
“Don’t keep on saying why,” cried Lord Tilbury tempestuously. “Haven’t I told you a dozen times that I don’t know why—that I haven’t the least idea why?”
“He does seem an eccentric boy.”
“Eccentric? I feel as if I had allowed myself to be saddled with the guardianship of a dancing dervish. And when I think that if this young idiot gets into any sort of trouble while he is under my charge, Pynsent is sure to hold me responsible, I could kick myself for ever having been fool enough to bring him over here.”
“You mustn’t blame yourself, Georgie.”
“It isn’t a question of blaming myself. It’s a question of Pynsent blaming me and getting annoyed and breaking off the deal about the island.”
And Lord Tilbury, having removed his thumbs from the armholes of his waistcoat in order the more freely to fling them heavenward, uttered a complicated sound which might be rendered phonetically by the word “Cor!” tenser and more dignified than the “Coo!” of the lower-class Londoner, but expressing much the same meaning.
In the hushed silence which followed, the buzzer on the desk sounded.
“Yes? Eh? Oh, send him up.” Lord Tilbury laid down the instrument and turned to his sister grimly. “Shotter is downstairs,” he said. “Now you will be able to see him for yourself.”
Mrs. Hammond’s first impression when she saw Sam for herself was that she had been abruptly confronted with something in between a cyclone and a large Newfoundland puppy dressed in bright tweeds. Sam’s mood of elation had grown steadily all the way down Fleet Street, and he burst into the presence of his future employer as if he had just been let off a chain.
“Well, how are you?” he cried, seizing Lord Tilbury’s hand in a grip that drew from him a sharp yelp of protest.
Then, perceiving for the first time the presence of a fair stranger, he moderated his exuberance somewhat and stared politely.
“My sister, Mrs. Hammond,” said Lord Tilbury, straightening his fingers.
Sam bowed. Mrs. Hammond bowed.
“Perhaps I had better leave you,” said Mrs. Hammond. “You will want to talk together.”
“Oh, don’t go,” said Sam hospitably.
“I have business in Lombard Street,” said Mrs. Hammond, discouraging with a cold look what seemed to her, rightly or wrongly, a disposition on the part of this young man to do the honors and behave generally as if he were trying to suggest that Tilbury House was his personal property but that any relative of Lord Tilbury was welcome there. “I have to visit my bank.”
“I shall have to visit mine pretty soon,” said Sam, “or the wolf will be scratching at the door.”
“If you are short of funds ——” began Lord Tilbury.
“Oh, I’m all right for the present, thanks. I pinched close on fifty pounds from a man this morning.”
“You did what?” said Lord Tilbury blankly.
“Pinched fifty pounds. Surprising he should have had so much on him. But lucky—for me.”
“Did he make any objection to your remarkable behavior?”
“He was asleep at the time, and I didn’t wake him. I just left a poached egg on his pillow and came away.”
Lord Tilbury swallowed convulsively and his eye sought that of Mrs. Hammond in a tortured glare.
“A poached egg?” he whispered.
“So that he would find it there when he woke,” explained Sam.
Mrs. Hammond had abandoned her intention of withdrawing and leaving the two men together for a cozy chat. Georgie, it seemed to her from his expression, needed a woman’s loving support. Sam appeared to have affected him like some unpleasant drug, causing starting of the eyes and twitching of the muscles.
“It is a pity you missed the Mauretania, Mr. Shotter,” she said. “My brother had hoped that you would travel with him so that you could have a good talk about what you were to do when you joined his staff.”
“Great pity,” said Sam, omitting to point out that it was for that very reason that he had allowed the Mauretania to depart without him. “However, it’s all right. I have found my niche.”
“You have done what?”
“I have selected my life work.” He pulled out of his pocket a crumpled paper. “I would like to attach myself to Pyke’s Home Companion. I bought a copy on my way here, and it is the goods. You aren’t reading the serial by any chance, are you—Hearts Aflame, by Cordelia Blair? A winner. I only had time to glance at the current installment, but it was enough to make me decide to dig up the back numbers at the earliest possible moment. In case you haven’t read it, it is Leslie Mordyke’s wedding day, and a veiled woman with a foreign accent has just risen in the body of the church and forbidden the banns. And,” said Sam warmly, “I don’t blame her. It appears that years ago ——”
Lord Tilbury was making motions of distress, and Mrs. Hammond bent solicitously, like one at a sick bed, to catch his fevered whisper.
“My brother,” she announced, “wishes ——”
“—— was hoping,” corrected Lord Tilbury.
“—— was hoping,” said Mrs. Hammond, accepting the emendation, “that you would join the staff of the Daily Record so that you might be under his personal eye.”
Sam caught Lord Tilbury’s personal eye, decided that he had no wish to be under it and shook his head.
“The Home Companion,” said Lord Tilbury, coming to life, “is a very minor unit of my group of papers.”
“Though it has a large circulation,” said Mrs. Hammond loyally.
“A very large circulation, of course,” said Lord Tilbury; “but it offers little scope for a young man in your position anxious to start on a journalistic career. It is not—how shall I put it?—it is not a vital paper, not a paper that really matters.”
“In comparison with my brother’s other papers,” said Mrs. Hammond.
“In comparison with my other papers, of course.”
“I think you are wrong,” said Sam. “I cannot imagine a nobler life work for any man than to help produce Pyke’s Home Companion. Talk about spreading sweetness and light, why, Pyke’s Home Companion is the paper that wrote the words and music. Listen to this: ‘A. M. B.—Brixton—You ask me for a simple and inexpensive method of curing corns. Get an ordinary swede, or turnip, cut and dig out a hole in the top, fill the hole with common salt and allow to stand till dissolved. Soften the corn morning and night with this liquid.’ ”
“Starting on the reportorial staff of the Daily Record,” said Lord Tilbury, “you would be in a position ——”
“Just try to realize what that means,” proceeded Sam. “What it amounts to is that the writer of that paragraph has with a stroke of the pen made the world a better place. He has brightened a home. Possibly he has averted serious trouble between man and wife. A. M. B. gets the ordinary swede, digs out the top, pushes in the salt, and a week later she has ceased to bully her husband and beat the baby and is a ray of sunshine about the house—and all through Pyke’s Home Companion.”
“What my brother means ——” said Mrs. Hammond.
“Similarly,” said Sam, “with G. D. H.—Tulse Hill—who wants to know how to improve the flavor of prunes. You or I would say that the flavor of prunes was past praying for, that the only thing to do when cornered by a prune was to set your teeth and get it over with. Not so Pyke’s ——”
“He means ——”
“—— Home Companion. ‘A little vinegar added to stewed prunes,’ says the writer, ‘greatly improves the flavor. And although it may seem strange, it causes less sugar to be used.’ What happens? What is the result? G. D. H.’s husband comes back tired and hungry after a day’s work. ‘Prunes for dinner again, I suppose?’ he says moodily. ‘Yes, dear,’ replies G. D. H., ‘but of a greatly improved flavor.’ Well, he doesn’t believe her, of course. He sits down sullenly. Then, as he deposits the first stone on his plate, a delighted smile comes into his face. ‘By Jove!’ he cries. ‘The flavor is greatly improved. They still taste like brown paper soaked in machine oil, but a much superior grade of brown paper. How did you manage it?’ ‘It was not I, dearest,’ says G. D. H., ‘but Pyke’s Home Companion. Acting on their advice, I added a little vinegar, with the result that not only is the flavor greatly improved but, strange though it may seem, I used less sugar.’ ‘Heaven bless Pyke’s Home Companion!’ cries the husband. With your permission then,” said Sam, “I will go straight to Mr. Wrenn and inform him that I have come to fight the good fight under his banner. ‘Mr. Wrenn,’ I shall say ——”
Lord Tilbury was perplexed.
“Do you know Wrenn? How do you know Wrenn?”
“I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting him, but we are next-door neighbors. I have taken the house adjoining his. Mon Repos, Burberry Road, is the address. You can see for yourself how convenient this will be. Not only shall we toil all day in the office to make Pyke’s Home Companion more and more of a force among the intelligentzia of Great Britain but in the evenings, as we till our radishes, I shall look over the fence and say, ‘Wrenn,’ and Wrenn will say, ‘Yes, Shotter?’ And I shall say, ‘Wrenn, how would it be to run a series on the eradication of pimples in canaries?’ ‘Shotter,’ he will reply, dropping his spade in his enthusiasm, ‘this is genius. ’Twas a lucky day, boy, for the old Home Companion when you came to us.’ But I am wasting time. I should be about my business. Good-by, Mrs. Hammond. Good-by, Lord Tilbury. Don’t trouble to come with me. I will find my way.”
He left the room with the purposeful step of the man of affairs, and Lord Tilbury uttered a sound which was almost a groan.
“Insane!” he ejaculated. “Perfectly insane!”
Mrs. Hammond, womanlike, was not satisfied with simple explanation.
“There is something behind this, George!”
“And I can’t do a thing,” moaned His Lordship, chafing, as your strong man will, against the bonds of fate. “I simply must humor this boy, or the first thing I know he will be running off on some idiotic prank and Pynsent will be sending me cables asking why he has left me.”
“There is something behind this,” repeated Mrs. Hammond weightily. “It stands to reason. Even a boy like this young Shotter would not take a house next door to Mr. Wrenn the moment he landed unless he had some motive. George, there is a girl at the bottom of this.”
Lord Tilbury underwent a sort of minor convulsion. His eyes bulged and he grasped the arms of his chair.
“Good God, Francie! Don’t say that! Pynsent took me aside before I left and warned me most emphatically to be careful how I allowed this boy to come in contact with—er—members of the opposite sex.”
“Girls,” said Mrs. Hammond.
“Yes, girls,” said Lord Tilbury, as if pleasantly surprised at this neat way of putting it. “He said he had had trouble a year or so ago ——”
“Mr. Wrenn must have a daughter,” said Mrs. Hammond, pursuing her train of thought. “Has Mr. Wrenn a daughter?”
“How the devil should I know?” demanded His Lordship, not unnaturally irritated. “I don’t keep in touch with the home life of every man in this building.”
“Ring him up and ask him.”
“I won’t. I don’t want my staff to think I’ve gone off my head. Besides, you may be quite wrong.”
“I shall be extremely surprised if I am,” said Mrs. Hammond.
Lord Tilbury sat gazing at her pallidly. He knew that Francie had a sixth sense in these matters.
AT ABOUT the moment when Sam entered the luxuriously furnished office of the Mammoth Publishing Company’s proprietor and chief, in a smaller and less ornate room in the same building Mr. Matthew Wrenn, all unconscious of the good fortune about to descend upon him in the shape of the addition to his staff of a live and go-ahead young assistant, was seated at his desk, busily engaged in promoting the best interests of that widely read weekly, Pyke’s Home Companion. He was, in fact, correcting the proofs of an article—ably written, but too long to quote here—entitled What a Young Girl Can Do in Her Spare Time; Number 3, Bee Keeping.
He was interrupted in this task by the opening of the door, and looking up, was surprised to see his niece, Kay Derrick.
“Why, Kay!” said Mr. Wrenn. She had never visited him at his office so early as this, for Mrs. Winnington-Bates expected her serfs to remain on duty till at least four o’clock. In her blue eyes, moreover, there was a strange glitter that made him subtly uneasy. “Why, Kay, what are you doing here?”
Kay sat down on the desk. Having ruffled his grizzled hair with an affectionate hand, she remained for a while in silent meditation.
“I hate young men!” she observed at length. “Why isn’t everyone nice and old—I mean elderly, but frightfully well preserved, like you, darling?”
“Is anything the matter?” asked Mr. Wrenn anxiously.
“Nothing much. I’ve left Mrs. Bates.”
“I’m very glad to hear it, my dear. There is no earthly reason why you should have to waste your time slaving ——”
“You’re worse than Claire,” said Kay, her eyes ceasing to glitter. “You both conspire to coddle me. I’m young and strong, and I ought to be earning my living. But,” she went on, tapping his head with her finger to emphasize her words, “I will not continue in a job which involves being kissed by worms like Claude Bates. No, no, no, sir!”
Mr. Wrenn raised a shocked and wrathful face.
“He kissed you?”
“Yes. You had an article in the Home Companion last week, uncle, saying what a holy and beautiful thing the first kiss is. Well, Claude Bates’ wasn’t. He hadn’t shaved and he was wearing a dressing gown. Also, he was pallid and greenish, and looked as if he had been out all night. Anything less beautiful and holy I never saw.”
“He kissed you! What did you do?”
“I hit him very hard with a book which I was taking to read to Mrs. Bates. It was the Rev. Aubrey Jerningham’s Is There a Hell? and I’ll bet there was. Until then I had always rather disliked Mrs. Bates’ taste in literature, which shows how foolish I was. If she had preferred magazines, where would I have been? There were about six hundred pages of Aubrey Jerningham, bound in stiff cloth, and he blacked Claude’s eye like a scholar and a gentleman. And at that moment in came Mrs. Bates.”
“Yes?” said Mr. Wrenn, enthralled.
“Well, a boy’s best friend is his mother. Have you ever seen one of those cowboy films where there is trouble in the barroom? It was like that. Mrs. Bates started to dismiss me, but I got in first with my resignation, shooting from the hip, as it were. And then I came away, and here I am.”
“The fellow should be horsewhipped,” said Mr. Wrenn, breathing heavily.
“He isn’t worth bothering about,” said Kay.
The riot of emotion into which she had been plunged by the addresses of the unshaven Bates had puzzled her. But now she understood. It was galling to suppose so monstrous a thing, but the explanation was, she felt, that there had been condescension in his embrace. If she had been Miss Derrick of Midways, he would not have summoned up the nerve to kiss her in a million years; but his mother’s secretary and companion had no terrors for him. And at the thought a deep thrill of gratitude to the Rev. Aubrey Jerningham passed through Kay. How many a time, wearied by his duties about the parish, must that excellent clergyman have been tempted to scamp his work and shirk the labor of adding that extra couple of thousand words which just make all the difference to literature when considered in the light of a missile.
But he had been strong. He had completed his full six hundred pages and seen to it that his binding had been heavy and hard and sharp about the edges. For a moment, as she sat there, the Rev. Aubrey Jerningham seemed to Kay the one bright spot in a black world.
She was still meditating upon him when there was a hearty smack on the door and Sam came in.
“Good morning, good morning,” he said cheerily.
And then he saw Kay, and on the instant his eyes widened into a goggling stare, his mouth fell open, his fingers clutched wildly at nothing, and he stood there, gaping.
Kay met his stare with a defiant eye. In her present mood she disliked all young men, and there seemed nothing about this one to entitle him to exemption from her loathing. Rather, indeed, the reverse, for his appearance jarred upon her fastidious taste.
If the Cohen Bros., of Covent Garden, have a fault, it is that they sometimes allow their clients to select clothes that are a shade too prismatic for anyone who is not at the same time purchasing a banjo and a straw hat with a crimson ribbon. Fittings take place in a dimly lit interior, with the result that suits destined to make phlegmatic horses shy in the open street seem in the shop to possess merely a rather pleasing vivacity. One of these Sam had bought, and it had been a blunder on his part. If he had intended to sing comic songs from a punt at Henley Regatta, he would have been suitably, even admirably, attired. But as a private gentleman he was a little on the bright side. He looked, in fact, like a bookmaker who won billiard tournaments, and Kay gazed at him with repulsion.
He, on the other hand, gazed at her with a stunned admiration. That photograph should have prepared him for something notable in the way of feminine beauty; but it seemed to him, as he raked her with eyes like small dinner plates, that it had been a libel, an outrage, a gross caricature. This girl before him was marvelous. Helen of Troy could have been nothing to her. He loved her shining eyes, unaware that they shone with loathing. He worshiped her rose-flushed cheeks, not knowing that they were flushed because he had been staring at her for thirty-three seconds without blinking and she was growing restive beneath his gaze.
Mr. Wrenn was the first to speak.
“Did you want anything?” he asked.
“What?” said Sam.
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
Mr. Wrenn approached the matter from a fresh angle.
“This is the office of Pyke’s Home Companion. I am Mr. Wrenn, the editor. Did you wish to see me?”
“Who?” said Sam.
At this point Kay turned to the window, and the withdrawal of her eyes had the effect of releasing Sam from his trance. He became aware that a gray-haired man, whom he dimly remembered having seen on his entry into the room some hours before, was addressing him.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You wished to see me?”
“Yes,” said Sam; “yes, yes.”
“What about?” asked Mr. Wrenn patiently.
The directness and simplicity of the question seemed to clear Sam’s head. He recalled now what it was that had brought him here.
“I’ve come over from America to join the staff of Pyke’s Home Companion.”
“Lord Tilbury wants me to.”
“Yes; I’ve just been seeing him.”
“But he has said nothing to me about this, Mr. ——”
“—— Shotter. No, we only arranged it a moment ago.”
Mr. Wrenn was a courteous man, and though he was under the impression that his visitor was raving, he did not show it.
“Perhaps I had better see Lord Tilbury,” he suggested, rising. “By the way, my niece, Miss Derrick. Kay, my dear, Mr. Shotter.”
The departure of the third party and the sudden institution of the intimacies of a tête-à-tête had the usual effect of producing a momentary silence. Then Kay moved away from the window and came to the desk.
“Did you say you had come from America?” she asked, fiddling with Mr. Wrenn’s editorial pencil. She had no desire to know, but she supposed she must engage this person in conversation.
“From America, yes. Yes, from America.”
“Is this your first visit to England?” asked Kay, stifling a yawn.
“Oh, no. I was at school in England.”
Kay’s attitude of stiff aloofness relaxed. She became interested.
“Good gracious! Of course!” She looked upon him quite benevolently. “A friend of yours was talking to me about you only yesterday—Willoughby Braddock.”
“Do you know the Bradder?” gasped Sam, astounded.
“I’ve known him all my life.”
A most extraordinary sensation flooded over Sam. It was hard to analyze, but its effects were thoroughly definite. At the discovery that this wonderful girl knew the old Bradder and that he knew the old Bradder and that they could pave the way to a beautiful friendship by talking about the old Bradder, the office of Pyke’s Home Companion became all at once flooded with brilliant sunshine. Birds twittered from the ceiling, and blended with their notes was the soft music of violins and harps.
“You really know the Bradder?”
“We were children together.”
“What a splendid chap!”
“Yes, he’s a dear.”
“What a corker!”
“What an egg!”
“Yes. Tell me, Mr. Shotter,” said Kay, wearying of this eulogy, “do you remember a boy at your school named Bates?”
Sam’s face darkened. Time had softened the anguish of that moment outside the Angry Cheese, but the sting still remained.
“Yes, I do.”
“Willoughby Braddock told me that you once beat Bates with a walking stick.”
“A large walking stick?”
“Did you beat him hard?”
“Yes, as hard as ever I could lay it in.”
A little sigh of gratification escaped Kay.
“Ah!” she said.
In the course of the foregoing conversation the two had been diminishing inch by inch the gap which had separated them at its outset, so that they had come to be standing only a short distance apart; and now, as she heard those beautiful words, Kay looked up into Sam’s face with a cordial, congratulatory friendliness which caused him to quiver like a smitten blancmange. Then, while he was still reeling, she smiled. And it is at this point that the task of setting down the sequence of events becomes difficult for the historian. For, briefly, what happened next was that Sam, groping forward in a bemused fashion and gathering her clumsily into his arms, kissed Kay.
It might, of course, be possible to lay no stress upon this occurrence—to ignore it and pass on. In kissing, as kissing, there is nothing fundamentally reprehensible. The early Christians used to do it all the time to everyone they met. But the historian is too conscious of the raised eyebrows of his audience to attempt this attitude. Some explanation, he realizes, some argument to show why Sam is not to be condemned out of hand, is imperative.
In these circumstances the embarrassing nature of the historian’s position is readily intelligible. Only a short while back he was inviting the customers to shudder with loathing at the spectacle of Claude Bates kissing this girl, and now, all in a flash, he finds himself faced with the task of endeavoring to palliate the behavior of Sam Shotter in doing the very same thing.
Well, he must do the best he can. Let us marshal the facts.
In the first place, there stood on Mr. Wrenn’s desk, as on every other editorial desk in Tilbury House, a large framed card bearing the words, DO IT NOW! Who shall say whether this may not subconsciously have influenced the young man?
In the second place, when you have been carrying about a girl’s photograph in your breast pocket for four months and brooding over it several times a day with a beating heart, it is difficult for you to regard that girl, when you eventually meet her, as a perfect stranger.
And in the third place—and here we approach the very root of the matter—there was the smile.
Girls as pretty as Kay Derrick, especially if their faces are by nature a little grave, should be extremely careful how and when they smile. There was that about Kay’s face when in repose which, even when she was merely wondering what trimming to put on a hat, gave strangers the impression that here was a pure white soul musing wistfully on life’s sadness. The consequence was that when she smiled it was as if the sun had suddenly shone out through clouds. Her smile seemed to make the world on the instant a sweeter and a better place. Policemen, when she flashed it on them after being told the way somewhere, became of a sudden gayer, happier policemen and sang as they directed the traffic. Beggars, receiving it as a supplement to a small donation, perked up like magic and started to bite the ears of the passers-by with an abandon that made all the difference. And when they saw that smile, even babies in their perambulators stopped looking like peevish poached eggs and became almost human.
And it was this smile that she had bestowed upon Sam. And Sam, it will be remembered, had been waiting months and months for it.
We have made out, we fancy, a pretty good case for Samuel Shotter; and it was a pity that some kindly person was not present in Mr. Wrenn’s office at that moment to place these arguments before Kay. For not one of them occurred to her independently. She could see no excuse whatever for Sam’s conduct. She had wrenched herself from his grasp and moved to the other side of the desk, and across this she now regarded him with a blazing eye. Her fists were clenched and she was breathing quickly. She had the air of a girl who would have given a year’s pocket money for a copy of the Rev. Aubrey Jerningham’s Is There a Hell?
Gone was that delightful spirit of comradeship which, when he had been telling of his boyish dealings with Claude, had made him seem almost a kindred soul. Gone was that soft sensation of gratitude which had come to her on his assurance that he had not risked spoiling that repulsive youth by sparing the rod. All she felt now was that her first impressions of this young man had been right, and that she had been mauled and insulted by a black-hearted bounder whose very clothes should have warned her of his innate despicableness. It seems almost incredible that anyone should think such a thing of anybody, but it is a fact that in that instant Kay Derrick looked upon Sam as something even lower in the graduated scale of human subspecies than Claude Winnington-Bates.
As for Sam, he was still under the ether. Nothing is more difficult for both parties concerned than to know what to say immediately after an occurrence like this. An agitated silence was brooding over the room, when the necessity for speech was removed by the reëntry of Mr. Wrenn.
Mr. Wrenn was not an observant man. Nor was he sensitive to atmosphere. He saw nothing unusual in his niece’s aspect, nothing out of the way in Sam’s. The fact that the air inside the office of Pyke’s Home Companion was quivering with charged emotion escaped his notice altogether.
He addressed Sam genially.
“It is quite all right, Mr. Shotter. Lord Tilbury wishes you to start work on the Companion at once.”
Sam turned to him with the vague stare of the newly awakened sleepwalker.
“It will be nice having you in the office,” added Mr. Wrenn amiably. “I have been short-handed. By the way, Lord Tilbury asked me to send you along to him at once. He is just going out to lunch.”
“Lunch?” said Sam.
“He said you were lunching with him.”
“Oh, yes,” said Sam dully.
Mr. Wrenn watched him shamble out of the room with a benevolent eye.
“We’ll go and have a bite to eat, too, my dear,” he said, removing the alpaca coat which it was his custom to wear in the office. “Haven’t had lunch with you since I don’t know when.” He reached for the hook which held his other coat. “I shall like having this young Shotter in the office,” he said. “He seems a nice young fellow.”
“He is the most utterly loathsome creature I have ever met,” said Kay.
Mr. Wrenn, startled, dropped his hat.
“Eh? What do you mean?”
“Just what I say. He’s horrible.”
“But, my dear girl, you only met him five minutes ago.”
Mr. Wrenn stooped for his hat and smoothed it with some agitation.
“This is rather awkward,” he said.
“Your feeling like that about young Shotter.”
“I don’t see why. I don’t suppose I shall ever meet him again.”
“But you will. I don’t see how it can be prevented. Lord Tilbury tells me that this young man has taken a lease of Mon Repos.”
“Mon Repos!” Kay clutched at the desk. “You don’t mean Mon Repos next door to us?”
“Yes; and it is so difficult to avoid one’s next-door neighbors.”
Kay’s teeth met with a little click.
“It can be done,” she said.
(TO BE CONTINUED)