The Saturday Evening Post, July 10, 1915
THE four-fifteen express slid softly out of Paddington Station and Ashe Marson settled himself in the corner seat of his second-class compartment. Opposite him Joan Valentine had begun to read a magazine. Along the corridor, in a first-class smoking compartment, Mr. Peters was lighting a big black cigar. Still farther along the corridor, in a first-class nonsmoking compartment, Aline Peters looked through the window and thought of many things.
In English trains the tipping classes travel first; valets, lady’s maids, footmen, nurses, and head stillroom maids, second; and housemaids, grooms, and minor and inferior stillroom maids, third. But for these social distinctions the whole fabric of society would collapse and anarchy stalk naked through the land, as in the United States.
Ashe was feeling remarkably light-hearted. He wished he had not bought Joan that magazine and thus deprived himself temporarily of the pleasure of her conversation; but that was the only flaw in his happiness. With the starting of the train, which might be considered the formal and official beginning of the delicate and dangerous enterprise on which he had embarked, he had definitely come to the conclusion that the life adventurous was the life for him. He had frequently suspected this to be the case, but it had required the actual experiment to bring certainty.
Almost more than physical courage, the ideal adventurer needs a certain lively inquisitiveness, the quality of not being content to mind his own affairs; and in Ashe this quality was highly developed. From boyhood up he had always been interested in things that were none of his business. And it is just that attribute which the modern young man, as a rule, so sadly lacks.
The modern young man may do adventurous things if they are thrust on him; but left to himself he will edge away uncomfortably and look in the other direction when the goddess of adventure smiles at him. Training and tradition alike pluck at his sleeve and urge him not to risk making himself ridiculous. And from sheer horror of laying himself open to the charge of not minding his own business he falls into a stolid disregard of all that is out of the ordinary and exciting. He tells himself that the shriek from the lonely house he passed just now was only the high note of some amateur songstress, and that the maiden in distress whom he saw pursued by the ruffian with a knife was merely earning the salary paid her by some motion-picture firm. And so he proceeds on his way.
Ashe had none of this degenerate coyness toward adventure. Though born within easy distance of Boston and deposited by circumstances in London, he possessed, nevertheless, to a remarkable degree, that quality so essentially the property of the New Yorker—the quality known, for want of a more polished word, as “rubber.” It is true that it had needed the eloquence of Joan Valentine to stir him from his groove; but that was because he was also lazy. He loved new sights and new experiences.
Yes; he was happy. The rattle of the train shaped itself into a lively march. He told himself that he had found the right occupation for a young man in the spring.
Joan, meantime, intrenched behind her magazine, was also busy with her thoughts. She was not reading the magazine; she held it before her as a protection, knowing that if she laid it down Ashe would begin to talk. And just at present she had no desire for conversation. She, like Ashe, was contemplating the immediate future, but, unlike him, was not doing so with much pleasure. She was regretting heartily that she had not resisted the temptation to uplift this young man and wishing that she had left him to wallow in the slothful peace in which she had found him.
It is curious how frequently in this world our attempts to stimulate and uplift swoop back on us and smite us like boomerangs. Ashe’s presence was the direct outcome of her lecture on enterprise, and it added a complication to an already complicated venture.
She did her best to be fair to Ashe. It was not his fault that he was about to try to deprive her of five thousand dollars, which she looked on as her personal property; but illogically she found herself feeling a little hostile.
She glanced furtively at him over the magazine, choosing by ill chance a moment when he had just directed his gaze at her. Their eyes met and there was nothing for it but to talk; so she tucked away her hostility in a corner of her mind, where she could find it again when she wanted it, and prepared for the time being to be friendly. After all, except for the fact that he was her rival this was a pleasant and amusing young man, and one for whom, until he made the announcement that had changed her whole attitude toward him, she had entertained a distinct feeling of friendship—nothing warmer.
There was something about him that made her feel that she would like to stroke his hair in a motherly way and straighten his tie, and have cozy chats with him in darkened rooms by the light of open fires, and make him tell her his inmost thoughts, and stimulate him to do something really worth while with his life; but this, she held, was merely the instinct of a generous nature to be kind and helpful even to a comparative stranger.
“Well, Mr. Marson,” she said, “here we are!”
“Exactly what I was thinking,” said Ashe.
He was conscious of a marked increase in the exhilaration the starting of the expedition had brought to him. At the back of his mind he realized there had been all along a kind of wistful resentment at the change in this girl’s manner toward him. During the brief conversation when he had told her of his having secured his present situation, and later, only a few minutes back, on the platform of Paddington Station, he had sensed a coldness, a certain hostility—so different from her pleasant friendliness at their first meeting.
She had returned now to her earlier manner and he was surprised at the difference it made. He felt somehow younger, more alive. The lilt of the train’s rattle changed to a gay ragtime. This was curious, because Joan was nothing more than a friend. He was not in love with her. One does not fall in love with a girl whom one has met only three times. One is attracted—yes; but one does not fall in love.
A moment’s reflection enabled him to diagnose his sensations correctly. This odd impulse to leap across the compartment and kiss Joan was not love. It was merely the natural desire of a good-hearted young man to be decently chummy with his species.
“Well, what do you think of it all, Mr. Marson?” said Joan. “Are you sorry or glad that you let me persuade you to do this perfectly mad thing? I feel responsible for you, you know. If it had not been for me you would have been comfortably in Arundel Street, writing your Wand of Death.”
“You don’t feel any misgivings now that you are actually committed to domestic service?”
Joan, against her will, smiled approval on this uncompromising attitude. This young man might be her rival, but his demeanor on the eve of perilous times appealed to her. That was the spirit she liked and admired—that reckless acceptance of whatever might come. It was the spirit in which she herself had gone into the affair and she was pleased to find that it animated Ashe also—though, to be sure, it had its drawbacks. It made his rivalry the more dangerous. This reflection injected a touch of the old hostility into her manner.
“I wonder whether you will continue to feel so brave.”
“What do you mean?”
Joan perceived that she was in danger of going too far. She had no wish to unmask Ashe at the expense of revealing her own secret. She must resist the temptation to hint that she had discovered his.
“I meant,” she said quickly, “that from what I have seen of him Mr. Peters seems likely to be a rather trying man to work for.”
Ashe’s face cleared. For a moment he had almost suspected that she had guessed his errand.
“Yes. I imagine he will be. He is what you might call quick-tempered. He has dyspepsia, you know.”
“What he wants is plenty of fresh air and no cigars, and a regular course of those Petersen Exercises that amused you so much.”
“Are you going to try and persuade Mr. Peters to twist himself about like that? Do let me see it if you do.”
“I wish I could.”
“Do suggest it to him.”
“Don’t you think he would resent it from a valet?”
“I keep forgetting that you are a valet. You look so unlike one.”
“Old Peters didn’t think so. He rather complimented me on my appearance. He said I was ordinary-looking.”
“I shouldn’t have called you that. You look so very strong and fit.”
“Surely there are muscular valets?”
“Well, yes; I suppose there are.”
Ashe looked at her. He was thinking that never in his life had he seen a girl so amazingly pretty. What it was that she had done to herself was beyond him; but something, some trick of dress, had given her a touch of the demure that made her irresistible. She was dressed in sober black, the ideal background for her fairness.
“While on the subject,” he said, “I suppose you know you don’t look in the least like a lady’s maid? You look like a disguised princess.”
“That’s very nice of you, Mr. Marson, but you are quite wrong. Anyone could tell I was a lady’s maid, a mile away. You aren’t criticizing the dress, surely?”
“The dress is all right. It’s the general effect. I don’t think your expression is right. It’s—it’s—there’s too much attack in it. You aren’t meek enough.”
Joan’s eyes opened wide.
“Meek! Have you ever seen an English lady’s maid, Mr. Marson?”
“Why, no; now that I come to think of it, I don’t believe I have.”
“Well, let me tell you that meekness is her last quality. Why should she be meek? Doesn’t she go in after the groom of the chambers?”
“Go in? Go in where?”
“In to dinner.” She smiled at the sight of his bewildered face. “I’m afraid you don’t know much about the etiquette of the new world you have entered so rashly. Didn’t you know that the rules of precedence among the servants of a big house in England are more rigid and complicated than in English society?”
“I’m not joking. You try going in to dinner out of your proper place when we get to Blandings and see what happens. A public rebuke from the butler is the least you could expect.”
A bead of perspiration appeared on Ashe’s forehead.
“Heavens!” he whispered. “If a butler publicly rebuked me I think I should commit suicide. I couldn’t survive it.”
He contemplated, with fallen jaw, the abyss of horror into which he had leaped so light-heartedly. The servant problem, on this large scale, had been nonexistent for him until now. In the days of his youth, at Hayling, Massachusetts, his needs had been ministered to by a muscular Swede. Later, at Oxford, there had been his “scout” and his bed maker, harmless persons both, provided you locked up your whisky. And in London, his last phase, a succession of servitors of the type of the disheveled maid at Number Seven had tended him.
That, dotted about the land of his adoption, there were houses in which larger staffs of domestics were maintained, he had been vaguely aware. Indeed, in Gridley Quayle, Investigator; the Adventure of the Missing Marquis—Number Four of the series—he had drawn a picture of the home life of a duke, in which a butler and two powdered footmen had played their parts; but he had had no idea that rigid and complicated rules of etiquette swayed the private lives of these individuals. If he had given the matter a thought he had supposed that when the dinner hour arrived the butler and the two footmen would troop into the kitchen and sit wherever they found room.
“Tell me,” he said. “Tell me all you know. I feel as though I had escaped a frightful disaster.”
“You probably have. I don’t suppose there is anything so terrible as a snub from a butler.”
“If there is I can’t think of it. When I was at Oxford I used to go and stay with a friend of mine who had a butler that looked like a Roman emperor in swallowtails. He terrified me. I used to grovel to the man. Please give me all the pointers you can.”
“Well, as Mr. Peters’ valet, I suppose you will be rather a big man.”
“I shan’t feel it.”
“However large the house party is, Mr. Peters is sure to be the principal guest; so your standing will be correspondingly magnificent. You come after the butler, the housekeeper, the groom of the chambers, Lord Emsworth’s valet, Lady Ann Warblington’s lady’s maid——”
“Who is she?”
“Lady Ann? Lord Emsworth’s sister. She has lived with him since his wife died. What was I saying? Oh, yes! After them come the Honorable Frederick Threepwood’s valet and myself—and then you.”
“I’m not so high up, then, after all?”
“Yes, you are. There’s a whole crowd who come after you. It all depends on how many other guests there are besides Mr. Peters.”
“I suppose I charge in at the head of a drove of housemaids and scullery maids?”
“My dear Mr. Marson, if a housemaid or a scullery maid tried to get into the steward’s room and have her meals with us, she would be——”
“Rebuked by the butler?”
“Lynched, I should think. Kitchen maids and scullery maids eat in the kitchen. Chauffeurs, footmen, under-butler, pantry boys, hall boy, odd man and steward’s-room footman take their meals in the servants’ hall, waited on by the hall boy. The stillroom maids have breakfast and tea in the stillroom, and dinner and supper in the hall. The housemaids and nursery maids have breakfast and tea in the housemaids’ sitting room, and dinner and supper in the hall. The head housemaid ranks next to the head stillroom maid. The laundry maids have a place of their own near the laundry, and the head laundry maid ranks above the head housemaid. The chef has his meals in a room of his own near the kitchen. . . . Is there anything else I can tell you, Mr. Marson?”
Ashe was staring at her with vacant eyes. He shook his head dumbly.
“We stop at Swindon in half an hour,” said Joan softly. “Don’t you think you would be wise to get out there and go straight back to London, Mr. Marson? Think of all you would avoid!”
Ashe found speech.
“It’s a nightmare!”
“You would be far happier in Arundel Street. Why don’t you get out at Swindon and go back?”
Ashe shook his head.
“I can’t. There’s—there’s a reason.”
Joan picked up her magazine again. Hostility had come out from the corner into which she had tucked it away and was once more filling her mind. She knew it was illogical, but she could not help it. For a moment, during her revelations of servants’ etiquette, she had allowed herself to hope that she had frightened her rival out of the field, and the disappointment made her feel irritable. She buried herself in a short story, and countered Ashe’s attempts at renewing the conversation, with cold monosyllables, until he ceased his efforts and fell into a moody silence.
He was feeling hurt and angry. Her sudden coldness, following on the friendliness with which she had talked so long, puzzled and infuriated him. He felt as though he had been snubbed, and for no reason.
He resented the defensive magazine, though he had bought it for her himself. He resented her attitude of having ceased to recognize his existence. A sadness, a filmy melancholy, crept over him. He brooded on the unutterable silliness of humanity, especially the female portion of it, in erecting artificial barriers to friendship. It was so unreasonable.
At their first meeting, when she might have been excused for showing defensiveness, she had treated him with unaffected ease. When that meeting had ended there was a tacit understanding between them that all the preliminary awkwardnesses of the first stages of acquaintanceship were to be considered as having been passed; and that when they met again, if they ever did, it would be as friends. And here she was, luring him on with apparent friendliness, and then withdrawing into herself as though he had presumed!
A rebellious spirit took possession of him. He didn’t care! Let her be cold and distant. He would show her that she had no monopoly of those qualities. He would not speak to her until she spoke to him; and when she spoke to him he would freeze her with his courteous but bleakly aloof indifference.
The train rattled on. Joan read her magazine. Silence reigned in the second-class compartment. Swindon was reached and passed. Darkness fell on the land. The journey began to seem interminable to Ashe; but presently there came a creaking of brakes and the train jerked itself to another stop. A voice on the platform made itself heard, calling:
“Market Blandings! Market Blandings Station!”
The village of Market Blandings is one of those sleepy English hamlets that modern progress has failed to touch, except by the addition of a railroad station and a room over the grocer’s shop where moving pictures are on view on Tuesdays and Fridays. The church is Norman and the intelligence of the majority of the natives Paleozoic. To alight at Market Blandings Station in the dusk of a rather chilly spring day, when the southwest wind has shifted to due east and the thrifty inhabitants have not yet lit their windows, is to be smitten with the feeling that one is at the edge of the world with no friends near.
Ashe, as he stood beside Mr. Peters’ baggage and raked the unsympathetic darkness with a dreary eye, gave himself up to melancholy. Above him an oil lamp shed a meager light. Along the platform a small but sturdy porter was juggling with a milk can. The east wind explored Ashe’s system with chilly fingers.
Somewhere out in the darkness, into which Mr. Peters and Aline had already vanished in a large automobile, lay the castle, with its butler and its fearful code of etiquette. Soon the cart that was to convey him and the trunks thither would be arriving. He shivered.
Out of the gloom and into the feeble rays of the oil lamp came Joan Valentine. She had been away, tucking Aline into the car. She looked warm and cheerful. She was smiling in the old friendly way.
If girls realized their responsibilities they would be so careful when they smiled that they would probably abandon the practice altogether. There are moments in a man’s life when a girl’s smile can have as important results as an explosion of dynamite.
In the course of their brief acquaintance Joan had smiled at Ashe many times, but the conditions governing those occasions had not been such as to permit him to be seriously affected. He had been pleased on such occasions; he had admired her smile in a detached and critical spirit; but he had not been overwhelmed by it. The frame of mind necessary for that result had been lacking.
Now, however, after five minutes of solitude on the depressing platform of Market Blandings Station, he was what the spiritualists call a sensitive subject. He had reached that depth of gloom and bodily discomfort when a sudden smile has all the effect of strong liquor and good news administered simultaneously, warming the blood and comforting the soul, and generally turning the world from a bleak desert into a land flowing with milk and honey.
It is not too much to say that he reeled before Joan’s smile. It was so entirely unexpected. He clutched Mr. Peters’ steamer trunk in his emotion. All his resolutions to be cold and distant were swept away. He had the feeling that in a friendless universe here was somebody who was fond of him and glad to see him.
A smile of such importance demands analysis, and in this case repays it; for many things lay behind this smile of Joan Valentine’s on the platform of Market Blandings Station.
In the first place, she had had another of her swift changes of mood, and had once again tucked away hostility into its corner. She had thought it over and had come to the conclusion that as she had no logical grievance against Ashe for anything he had done to be distant to him was the behavior of a cat. Consequently she resolved, when they should meet again, to resume her attitude of good-fellowship. That in itself would have been enough to make her smile.
There was another reason, however, which had nothing to do with Ashe. While she had been tucking Aline into the automobile she met the eye of the driver of that vehicle and perceived a curious look in it—a look of amazement and sheer terror. A moment later, when Aline called the driver Freddie, she had understood. No wonder the Honorable Freddie had looked as though he had seen a ghost.
It would be a relief to the poor fellow when, as he undoubtedly would do in the course of the drive, he inquired of Aline the name of her maid and was told that it was Simpson. He would mutter something about “Reminds me of a girl I used to know,” and would brood on the remarkable way in which Nature produces doubles. But he had had a bad moment, and it was partly at the recollection of his face that Joan smiled.
A third reason was that the sight of the Honorable Freddie had reminded her that R. Jones had said he had written her poetry. That thought, too, had contributed toward the smile which so dazzled Ashe.
Ashe, not being miraculously intuitive, accepted the easier explanation that she smiled because she was glad to be in his company; and this thought, coming on top of his mood of despair and general dissatisfaction with everything mundane, acted on him like some powerful chemical.
In every man’s life there is generally one moment to which in later years he can look back and say: “In this moment I fell in love!” Such a moment came to Ashe now.
the stirrup and the ground,
Mercy I ask’d; mercy I found.
So sings the poet and so it was with Ashe.
In the almost incredibly brief time it took the small but sturdy porter to roll a milk can across the platform and bump it, with a clang, against other milk cans similarly treated a moment before, Ashe fell in love.
The word is so loosely used, to cover a thousand varying shades of emotion—from the volcanic passion of an Antony for a Cleopatra to the tepid preference of a grocer’s assistant for the Irish maid at the second house on Main Street, as opposed to the Norwegian maid at the first house past the post office—the mere statement that Ashe fell in love is not a sufficient description of his feelings as he stood grasping Mr. Peters’ steamer trunk. We must expand. We must analyze.
From his fourteenth year onward Ashe had been in love many times. His sensations in the case of Joan were neither the terrific upheaval that had caused him, in his fifteenth year, to collect twenty-eight photographs of the heroine of the road company of a musical comedy which had visited the Hayling Opera House, nor the milder flame that had caused him, when at college, to give up smoking for a week and try to read the complete works of Ella Wheeler Wilcox.
His love was something that lay between these two poles.
He did not wish the station platform of Market Blandings to become suddenly congested with red Indians so that he might save Joan’s life; and he did not wish to give up anything at all. But he was conscious—to the very depths of his being—that a future in which Joan did not figure would be so insupportable as not to bear considering; and in the immediate present he very strongly favored the idea of clasping Joan in his arms and kissing her until further notice.
Mingled with these feelings was an excited gratitude to her for coming to him like this, with that electric smile on her face; a stunned realization that she was a thousand times prettier than he had ever imagined; and a humility that threatened to make him loose his clutch on the steamer trunk and roll about at her feet, yapping like a dog.
Gratitude, so far as he could dissect his tangled emotions, was the predominating ingredient of his mood. Only once in his life had he felt so passionately grateful to any human being. On that occasion, too, the object of his gratitude had been feminine.
Years before, when a boy in his father’s home in distant Hayling, Massachusetts, those in authority had commanded that he—in his eleventh year and as shy as one can be only at that interesting age—should rise in the presence of a roomful of strangers, adult guests, and recite The Wreck of the Hesperus.
He had risen. He had blushed. He had stammered. He had contrived to whisper: “It was the schooner Hesperus.” And then, in a corner of the room, a little girl, for no properly explained reason, had burst out crying. She had yelled, she had bellowed, and would not be comforted; and in the ensuing confusion Ashe had escaped to the woodpile at the bottom of the garden, saved by a miracle.
All his life he had remembered the gratitude he had felt for that little timely girl, and never until now had he experienced any other similar spasm. But as he looked at Joan he found himself renewing that emotion of fifteen years ago.
She was about to speak. In a sort of trance he watched her lips part. He waited almost reverently for the first words she should speak to him in her new rôle of the only authentic goddess.
“Isn’t it a shame?” she said. “I’ve just put a penny in the chocolate slot machine—and it’s empty! I’ve a good mind to write to the company.”
Ashe felt as though he were listening to the strains of some grand sweet anthem.
The small but sturdy porter, weary of his work among the milk cans, or perhaps—let us not do him an injustice even in thought—having finished it, approached them.
“The cart from the castle’s here.”
In the gloom beyond him there gleamed a light which had not been there before. The meditative snort of a horse supported his statement. He began to deal as authoritatively with Mr. Peters’ steamer trunk as he had dealt with the milk cans.
“At last!” said Joan. “I hope it’s a covered cart. I’m frozen. Let’s go and see.”
Ashe followed her with the rigid gait of an automaton.
Cold is the ogre that drives all beautiful things into hiding. Below the surface of a frost-bound garden there lurk hidden bulbs, which are only biding their time to burst forth in a riot of laughing color; but shivering Nature dare not put forth her flowers until the ogre has gone. Not otherwise does cold suppress love. A man in an open cart on an English spring night may continue to be in love; but love is not the emotion uppermost in his bosom. It shrinks within him and waits for better times.
The cart was not a covered cart. It was open to the four winds of heaven, of which the one at present active proceeded from the bleak east. To this fact may be attributed Ashe’s swift recovery from the exalted mood into which Joan’s smile had thrown him, his almost instant emergence from the trance. Deep down in him he was aware that his attitude toward Joan had not changed, but his conscious self was too fully occupied with the almost hopeless task of keeping his blood circulating to permit of thoughts of love. Before the cart had traveled twenty yards he was a mere chunk of frozen misery.
After an eternity of winding roads, darkened cottages, and black fields and hedges, the cart turned in at a massive iron gate, which stood open, giving entrance to a smooth gravel drive. Here the way ran for nearly a mile through an open park of great trees and was then swallowed in the darkness of dense shrubberies. Presently to the left appeared lights, at first in ones and twos, shining out and vanishing again; then, as the shrubberies ended and the smooth lawns and terraces began, blazing down on the travelers from a score of windows, with the heartening effect of fires on a winter night.
Against the pale gray sky Blandings Castle stood out like a mountain. It was a noble pile, of Early Tudor building. Its history is recorded in England’s history books and Viollet-le-Duc has written of its architecture. It dominated the surrounding country.
The feature of it which impressed Ashe most at this moment, however, was the fact that it looked warm; and for the first time since the drive began he found himself in a mood that approximated cheerfulness. It was a little early to begin feeling cheerful, he discovered, for the journey was by no means over. Arrived within sight of the castle the cart began a detour, which, ten minutes later, brought it under an arch and over cobblestones to the rear of the building, where it eventually pulled up in front of a great door.
Ashe descended painfully and beat his feet against the cobbles. He helped Joan to climb down. Joan was apparently in a gentle glow. Women seem impervious to cold.
The door opened. Warm, kitcheny scents came through it. Strong men hurried out to take down the trunks, while fair women, in the shape of two nervous scullery maids, approached Joan and Ashe, and bobbed curtsies. This under more normal conditions would have been enough to unman Ashe; but in his frozen state a mere curtsying scullery maid expended herself harmlessly on him. He even acknowledged the greeting with a kindly nod.
The scullery maids, it seemed, were acting in much the same capacity as the attachés of royalty. One was there to conduct Joan to the presence of Mrs. Twemlow, the housekeeper; the other to lead Ashe to where Beach, the butler, waited to do honor to the valet of the castle’s most important guest.
After a short walk down a stone-flagged passage Joan and her escort turned to the right. Ashe’s objective appeared to be located to the left. He parted from Joan with regret. Her moral support would have been welcome.
Presently his scullery maid stopped at a door and tapped thereon. A fruity voice, like old tawny port made audible, said: “Come in!” Ashe’s guide opened the door.
“The gentleman, Mr. Beach,” said she, and scuttled away to the less rarefied atmosphere of the kitchen.
Ashe’s first impression of Beach, the butler, was one of tension. Other people, confronted for the first times with Beach, had felt the same. He had that strained air of being on the very point of bursting that one sees in bullfrogs and toy balloons. Nervous and imaginative men, meeting Beach, braced themselves involuntarily, stiffening their muscles for the explosion. Those who had the pleasure of more intimate acquaintance with him soon passed this stage, just as people whose homes are on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius become immune to fear of eruptions.
As far back as they could remember Beach had always looked as though an apoplectic fit were a matter of minutes; but he never had apoplexy and in time they came to ignore the possibility of it. Ashe, however, approaching him with a fresh eye, had the feeling that this strain could not possibly continue and that within a very short space of time the worst must happen. The prospect of this did much to rouse him from the coma into which he had been frozen by the rigors of the journey.
Butlers as a class seem to grow less and less like anything human in proportion to the magnificence of their surroundings. There is a type of butler employed in the comparatively modest homes of small country gentlemen who is practically a man and a brother; who hobnobs with the local tradesmen, sings a good comic song at the village inn, and in times of crisis will even turn to and work the pump when the water supply suddenly fails.
The greater the house the more does the butler diverge from this type. Blandings Castle was one of the more important of England’s show places, and Beach accordingly had acquired a dignified inertia that almost qualified him for inclusion in the vegetable kingdom. He moved—when he moved at all—slowly. He distilled speech with the air of one measuring out drops of some precious drug. His heavy-lidded eyes had the fixed expression of a statue’s.
With an almost imperceptible wave of a fat white hand he conveyed to Ashe that he desired him to sit down. With a stately movement of his other hand he picked up a kettle, which simmered on the hob. With an inclination of his head he called Ashe’s attention to a decanter on the table.
In another moment Ashe was sipping a hot toddy, with the feeling that he had been privileged to assist at some mystic rite. Mr. Beach, posting himself before the fire and placing his hands behind his back, permitted speech to drip from him.
“I have not the advantage of your name, Mr.——”
Ashe introduced himself. Beach acknowledged the information with a half bow.
“You must have had a cold ride, Mr. Marson. The wind is in the east.”
Ashe said yes; the ride had been cold.
“When the wind is in the east,” continued Mr. Beach, letting each syllable escape with apparent reluctance, “I suffer from my feet.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I suffer from my feet,” repeated the butler, measuring out the drops. “You are a young man, Mr. Marson. Probably you do not know what it is to suffer from your feet.” He surveyed Ashe, his toddy and the wall beyond him, with heavy-lidded inscrutability. “Corns!” he said.
Ashe said he was sorry.
“I suffer extremely from my feet—not only corns. I have but recently recovered from an ingrowing toenail. I suffered greatly from my ingrowing toenail. I suffer from swollen joints.”
Ashe regarded this martyr with increasing disfavor. It is the flaw in the character of many excessively healthy young men that, though kind-hearted enough in most respects, they listen with a regrettable feeling of impatience to the confessions of those less happily situated as regards the ills of the flesh. Rightly or wrongly, they hold that these statements should be reserved for the ear of the medical profession, and other and more general topics selected for conversation with laymen.
“I’m sorry,” he said hastily. “You must have had a bad time. Is there a large house party here just now?”
“We are expecting,” said Mr. Beach, “a number of guests. We shall in all probability sit down thirty or more to dinner.”
“A responsibility for you,” said Ashe ingratiatingly, well pleased to be quit of the feet topic.
Mr. Beach nodded.
“You are right, Mr. Marson. Few persons realize the responsibilities of a man in my position. Sometimes, I can assure you, it preys on my mind, and I suffer from nervous headaches.”
Ashe began to feel like a man trying to put out a fire which, as fast as he checks it at one point, breaks out at another.
“Sometimes when I come off duty everything gets blurred. The outlines of objects grow misty. I have to sit down in a chair. The pain is excruciating.”
“But it helps you to forget the pain in your feet.”
“No, no. I suffer from my feet simultaneously.”
Ashe gave up the struggle.
“Tell me all about your feet,” he said.
And Mr. Beach told him all about his feet.
The pleasantest functions must come to an end, and the moment arrived when the final word on the subject of swollen joints was spoken. Ashe, who had resigned himself to a permanent contemplation of the subject, could hardly believe he heard correctly when, at the end of some ten minutes, his companion changed the conversation.
“You have been with Mr. Peters some time, Mr. Marson?”
“Eh? Oh! Oh, no—only since last Wednesday.”
“Indeed! Might I inquire whom you assisted before that?”
For a moment Ashe did what he would not have believed himself capable of doing—regretted that the topic of feet was no longer under discussion. The question placed him in an awkward position. If he lied, and credited himself with a lengthy experience as a valet, he risked exposing himself. If he told the truth, and confessed that this was his maiden effort in the capacity of gentleman’s gentleman, what would the butler think? There were objections to each course, but to tell the truth was the easier of the two; so he told it.
“Your first situation?” said Mr. Beach. “Indeed!”
“I was—er—doing something else before I met Mr. Peters,” said Ashe.
Mr. Beach was too well-bred to be inquisitive, but his eyebrows were not.
“Ah!” he said. “?” cried his eyebrows. “?—?—?”
Ashe ignored the eyebrows.
“Something different,” he said.
There was an awkward silence. Ashe appreciated its awkwardness. He was conscious of a grievance against Mr. Peters. Why could not Mr. Peters have brought him down here as his secretary? To be sure, he had advanced some objection to that course in their conversation at the offices of Mainprice, Mainprice & Boole; but merely a silly, far-fetched objection. He wished he had had the sense to fight the point while there was time; but at the moment when they were arranging plans he had been rather tickled by the thought of becoming a valet. The notion had a pleasing musical-comedy touch about it. Why had he not foreseen the complications that must ensue? He could tell by the look on his face that this confounded butler was waiting for him to give a full explanation. What would he think if he withheld it? He would probably suppose that Ashe had been in prison.
Well, there was nothing to be done about it. If Beach was suspicious he must remain suspicious. Fortunately the suspicions of a butler do not matter much.
Mr. Beach’s eyebrows were still mutely urging him to reveal all, but Ashe directed his gaze at that portion of the room which Mr. Beach did not fill. He would be hanged if he was going to let himself be hypnotized by a pair of eyebrows into incriminating himself! He glared stolidly at the wall.
The silence was growing oppressive. Somebody had to break it soon. And as Mr. Beach was still confining himself to the language of the eyebrow, and apparently intended to fight it out on that line if it took all summer, Ashe himself broke it.
It seemed to him as he reconstructed the scene in bed that night that Providence must have suggested the subject of Mr. Peters’ indigestion; for the mere mention of his employer’s sufferings acted like magic on the butler.
“I might have had better luck while I was looking for a place,” said Ashe. “I dare say you know how bad-tempered Mr. Peters is. He is dyspeptic.”
“So,” responded Mr. Beach, “I have been informed.” He brooded for a space. “I, too,” he proceeded, “suffer from my stomach. I have a weak stomach. The lining of my stomach is not what I could wish the lining of my stomach to be.”
“Tell me,” said Ashe gratefully, leaning forward in an attitude of attention, “all about the lining of your stomach.”
It was a quarter of an hour later when Mr. Beach was checked in his discourse by the chiming of the little clock on the mantelpiece. He turned round and gazed at it with surprise not unmixed with displeasure.
“So late?” he said. “I shall have to be going about my duties. And you, also, Mr. Marson, if I may make the suggestion. No doubt Mr. Peters will be wishing to have your assistance in preparing for dinner. If you go along the passage outside you will come to the door that separates our portion of the house from the other. I must beg you to excuse me. I have to go to the cellar.”
Following his directions Ashe came after a walk of a few yards to a green-baize door which, swinging at his push, gave him a view of what he correctly took to be the main hall of the castle—a wide, comfortable space, ringed with settees and warmed by a log fire burning in a mammoth fireplace. On the right a broad staircase led to the upper regions.
It was at this point that Ashe realized the incompleteness of Mr. Beach’s directions. Doubtless the broad staircase would take him to the floor on which were the bedrooms; but how was he to ascertain, without the tedious process of knocking and inquiring at each door, which was the one assigned to Mr. Peters?
It was too late to go back and ask the butler for further guidance; already he was on his way to the cellar in quest of the evening’s wine.
As he stood irresolute a door across the hall opened and a man of his own age came out. Through the doorway Ashe had a glimpse of glass-topped cases.
Could this be the museum—his goal? The next moment the door, opening a few inches more, revealed the outlying portions of an Egyptian mummy and brought certainty. It flashed across Ashe’s mind that the sooner he explored the museum and located Mr. Peters’ scarab, the better. He decided to ask Beach to take him there as soon as he had leisure.
Meantime the young man had closed the museum door and was crossing the hall. He was a wiry-haired, severe-looking young man, with a sharp nose and eyes that gleamed through rimless spectacles—none other, in fact, than Lord Emsworth’s private secretary, the Efficient Baxter. Ashe hailed him:
“I say, old man, would you mind telling me how I get to Mr. Peters’ room? I’ve lost my bearings.”
He did not reflect that this was hardly the way in which valets in the best society addressed their superiors. That is the worst of adopting what might be called a character part. One can manage the business well enough; it is the dialogue that provides the pitfalls.
Mr. Baxter would have accorded a hearty agreement to the statement that this was not the way in which a valet should have spoken to him; but at the moment he was not aware that Ashe was a valet. From his easy mode of address he assumed that he was one of the numerous guests who had been arriving at the castle all day. As he had asked for Mr. Peters, he fancied that Ashe must be the Honorable Freddie’s American friend, George Emerson, whom he had not yet met. Consequently he replied with much cordiality that Mr. Peters’ room was the second at the left on the second floor.
He said Ashe could not miss it. Ashe said he was much obliged.
“Awfully good of you,” said Ashe.
“Not at all,” said Mr. Baxter.
“You lose your way in a place like this,” said Ashe.
“You certainly do,” said Mr. Baxter.
Ashe went on his upward path and in a few moments was knocking at the door indicated. And sure enough it was Mr. Peters’ voice that invited him to enter.
Mr. Peters, partially arrayed in the correct garb for gentlemen about to dine, was standing in front of the mirror, wrestling with his evening tie. As Ashe entered he removed his fingers and anxiously examined his handiwork. It proved unsatisfactory. With a yelp and an oath he tore the offending linen from his neck.
“Damn the thing!”
It was plain to Ashe that his employer was in no sunny mood. There are few things less calculated to engender sunniness in a naturally bad-tempered man than a dress tie that will not let itself be pulled and twisted into the right shape. Even when things went well Mr. Peters hated dressing for dinner. Words cannot describe his feelings when they went wrong.
There is something to be said in excuse for this impatience: It is a hollow mockery to be obliged to deck one’s person as for a feast when that feast is to consist of a little asparagus and a few nuts.
Mr. Peters’ eye met Ashe’s in the mirror.
“Oh, it’s you, is it? Come in, then. Don’t stand staring. Close that door quick! Hustle! Don’t scrape your feet on the floor. Try to look intelligent. Don’t gape. Where have you been all this while? Why didn’t you come before? Can you tie a tie? All right, then—do it!”
Somewhat calmed by the snow-white butterfly-shaped creation that grew under Ashe’s fingers, he permitted himself to be helped into his coat. He picked up the remnant of a black cigar from the dressing table and relit it.
“I’ve been thinking about you,” he said.
“Yes?” said Ashe.
“Have you located the scarab yet?”
“What the devil have you been doing with yourself then? You’ve had time to collar it a dozen times.”
“I have been talking to the butler.”
“What the devil do you waste time talking to butlers for? I suppose you haven’t even located the museum yet?”
“Yes; I’ve done that.”
“Oh, you have, have you? Well, that’s something. And how do you propose setting about the job?”
“The best plan would be to go there very late at night.”
“Well, you didn’t propose to stroll in in the afternoon, did you? How are you going to find the scarab when you do get in?”
Ashe had not thought of that. The deeper he went into this business the more things did there seem to be in it of which he had not thought.
“I don’t know,” he confessed.
“You don’t know! Tell me, young man, are you considered pretty bright, as Englishmen go?”
“I am not English. I was born near Boston.”
“Oh, you were, were you? You blanked bone-headed, bean-eating boob!” cried Mr. Peters, frothing over quite unexpectedly and waving his arms in a sudden burst of fury. “Then if you are an American why don’t you show a little more enterprise? Why don’t you put something over? Why do you loaf about the place as though you were supposed to be an ornament? I want results—and I want them quick!
“I’ll tell you how you can recognize my scarab when you get into the museum. That shameless old green-goods man who sneaked it from me has had the gall, the nerve, to put it all by itself, with a notice as big as a circus poster alongside of it saying that it is a Cheops of the Fourth Dynasty, presented”—Mr. Peters choked—“presented by J. Preston Peters, Esquire! That’s how you’re going to recognize it.”
Ashe did not laugh, but he nearly dislocated a rib in his effort to refrain from doing so. It seemed to him that this act on Lord Emsworth’s part effectually disposed of the theory that Britons have no sense of humor. To rob a man of his choicest possession and then thank him publicly for letting you have it appealed to Ashe as excellent comedy.
“The thing isn’t even in a glass case,” continued Mr. Peters. “It’s lying on an open tray on top of a cabinet of Roman coins. Anybody who was left alone for two minutes in the place could take it! It’s criminal carelessness to leave a valuable scarab about like that. If Lord Jesse James was going to steal my Cheops he might at least have had the decency to treat it as though it was worth something.”
“But it makes it easier for me to get it,” said Ashe consolingly.
“It’s got to be made easy if you are to get it!” snapped Mr. Peters. “Here’s another thing: You say you are going to try for it late at night. Well, what are you going to do if anyone catches you prowling round at that time? Have you considered that?”
“You would have to say something, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t chat about the weather, would you? You wouldn’t discuss the latest play? You would have to think up some mighty good reason for being out of bed at that time, wouldn’t you?”
“I suppose so.”
“Oh, you do admit that, do you? Well, what you would say is this: You would explain that I had rung for you to come and read me to sleep. Do you understand?”
“You think that would be a satisfactory explanation of my being in the museum?”
“Idiot! I don’t mean that you’re to say it if you’re caught actually in the museum. If you’re caught in the museum the best thing you can do is to say nothing, and hope that the judge will let you off lightly because it’s your first offense. You’re to say it if you’re found wandering about on your way there.”
“It sounds thin to me.”
“Does it? Well, let me tell you that it isn’t so thin as you suppose, for it’s what you will actually have to do most nights. Two nights out of three I have to be read to sleep. My indigestion gives me insomnia.” As though to push this fact home, Mr. Peters suddenly bent double. “Oof!” he said. “Wow!” He removed the cigar from his mouth and inserted a digestive tabloid. “The lining of my stomach is all wrong,” he added.
It is curious how trivial are the immediate causes that produce revolutions. If Mr. Peters had worded his complaint differently Ashe would in all probability have borne it without active protest. He had been growing more and more annoyed with this little person who buzzed and barked and bit at him, yet the idea of definite revolt had not occurred to him. But his sufferings at the hands of Beach, the butler, had reduced him to a state where he could endure no further mention of stomachic linings. There comes a time when our capacity for listening to detailed data about the linings of other people’s stomachs is exhausted.
He looked at Mr. Peters sternly. He had ceased to be intimidated by the fiery little man and regarded him simply as a hypochondriac, who needed to be told a few useful facts.
“How do you expect not to have indigestion? You take no exercise and you smoke all day long.”
The novel sensation of being criticized—and by a beardless youth at that—held Mr. Peters silent. He started convulsively, but he did not speak. Ashe, on his pet subject, became eloquent. In his opinion dyspeptics cumbered the earth. To his mind they had the choice between health and sickness, and they deliberately chose the latter.
“Your sort of man makes me angry. I know your type inside out. You overwork and shirk exercise, and let your temper run away with you, and smoke strong cigars on an empty stomach; and when you get indigestion as a natural result you look on yourself as a martyr, nourish a perpetual grouch, and make the lives of everybody you meet miserable. If you would put yourself into my hands for a month I would have you eating bricks and thriving on them. Up in the morning, Petersen Exercises, cold bath, a brisk rubdown, sharp walk——”
“Who the devil asked your opinion, you impertinent young hound?” inquired Mr. Peters.
“Don’t interrupt me—confound you!” shouted Ashe. “Now you have made me forget what I was going to say.”
There was a tense silence. Then Mr. Peters began to speak:
“Don’t talk to me like that!”
“I’ll talk to you just how——”
Ashe took a step toward the door.
“Very well, then,” he said. “I quit! I’m through. You can get somebody else to do this job of yours for you.”
The sudden sagging of Mr. Peters’ jaw, the look of consternation that flashed on his face, told Ashe he had found the right weapon—that the game was in his hands. He continued with a feeling of confidence:
“If I had known what being your valet involved I wouldn’t have undertaken the thing for a hundred thousand dollars. Just because you had some idiotic prejudice against letting me come down here as your secretary, which would have been the simple and obvious thing, I find myself in a position where at any moment I may be publicly rebuked by the butler and have the head stillroom maid looking at me as though I were something the cat had brought in.”
His voice trembled with self-pity.
“Do you realize a fraction of the awful things you have let me in for? How on earth am I to remember whether I go in before the chef or after the third footman? I shan’t have a peaceful minute while I’m in this place. I’ve got to sit and listen by the hour to a bore of a butler who seems to be a sort of walking hospital. I’ve got to steer my way through a complicated system of etiquette.
“And on top of all that you have the nerve, the insolence, to imagine that you can use me as a punching bag to work your bad temper off! You have the immortal rind to suppose that I will stand for being nagged and bullied by you whenever your suicidal way of living brings on an attack of indigestion! You have the supreme gall to fancy that you can talk as you please to me!
“Very well! I’ve had enough of it. I resign! If you want this scarab of yours recovered let somebody else do it. I’ve retired from business.”
He took another step toward the door. A shaking hand clutched at his sleeve.
“My boy—my dear boy—be reasonable!”
Ashe was intoxicated with his own oratory. The sensation of bullyragging a genuine millionaire was new and exhilarating. He expanded his chest and spread his feet like a colossus.
“That’s all very well,” he said, coldly disentangling himself from the hand. “You can’t get out of it like that. We have got to come to an understanding. The point is that if I am to be subjected to your—your senile malevolence every time you have a twinge of indigestion, no amount of money could pay me to stop on.”
“My dear boy, it shall not occur again. I was hasty.”
Mr. Peters, with agitated fingers, relit the stump of his cigar.
“Throw away that cigar!”
“Throw it away! You say you were hasty. Of course you were hasty; and as long as you abuse your digestion you will go on being hasty. I want something better than apologies. If I am to stop here we must get to the root of things. You must put yourself in my hands as though I were your doctor. No more cigars. Every morning regular exercises.”
“No; stop! Stop! What sort of exercises?”
“I’ll show you to-morrow morning. Brisk walks.”
“I hate walking.”
“No; stop! A cold bath would kill me at my age.”
“It would put new life into you. Do you consent to the cold baths? No? Very well!”
“Yes, yes, yes!”
“All right, then.”
The distant sound of the dinner gong floated in.
“We settled that just in time,” said Ashe.
Mr. Peters regarded him fixedly.
“Young man,” he said slowly, “if, after all this, you fail to recover my Cheops for me I’ll—I’ll—— By George, I’ll skin you!”
“Don’t talk like that,” said Ashe. “That’s another thing you have got to remember. If my treatment is to be successful you must not let yourself think in that way. You must exercise self-control mentally. You must think beautiful thoughts.”
“The idea of skinning you is a beautiful thought!” said Mr. Peters wistfully.
(TO BE CONTINUED)