The Strand Magazine, May 1917
SENSE of something incongruous jarred upon Bill. Something seemed to be interfering with the supreme romance of that golden moment. It baffled him at first. Then he realized that he was still holding Eustace by the tail.
Dudley Pickering had watched these proceedings—as well as the fact that it was extremely dark and that he was endeavouring to hide a portly form behind a slender bush would permit him—with a sense of bewilderment. A comic artist drawing Mr. Pickering at that moment would no doubt have placed above his head one of those large marks of interrogation which lend vigour and snap to modern comic art. Certainly such a mark of interrogation would have summed up his feelings exactly. Of what was taking place he had not the remotest notion. All he knew was that for some inexplicable reason his quarry had come to a halt and seemed to have settled down for an indefinite stay. Voices came to him in an indistinguishable murmur, intensely irritating to a conscientious tracker. One of Fenimore Cooper’s Indians—notably Chingachgook, if, which seemed incredible, that was really the man’s name—would have crept up without a sound and heard what was being said and got in on the ground floor of whatever plot was being hatched. But experience had taught Mr. Pickering that, superior as he was to Chingachgook and his friends in many ways, as a creeper he was not in their class. He weighed thirty or forty pounds more than a first-class creeper should. Besides, creeping is like golf. You can’t take it up in the middle forties and expect to compete with those who have been at it from infancy.
He had resigned himself to an all-night vigil behind the bush, when to his great delight he perceived that things had begun to move again. There was a rustling of feet in the undergrowth, and he could just see two indistinct forms making their way among the bushes. He came out of his hiding-place and followed stealthily, or as stealthily as the fact that he had not even taken a correspondence course in creeping allowed. And profiting by earlier mistakes, he did succeed in making far less noise than before. In place of his former somewhat elephantine method of progression he adopted a species of shuffle which had excellent results, for it enabled him to brush twigs away instead of stepping flatfootedly on them. The new method was slow, but it had no other disadvantages.
Because it was slow, Mr. Pickering was obliged to follow his prey almost entirely by ear. It was easy at first, for they seemed to be hurrying on regardless of noise. Then unexpectedly the sounds of their passage ceased.
He halted. In his boyish way the first thing he thought was that it was an ambush. He had a vision of that large man suspecting his presence and lying in wait for him with a revolver. This was not a comforting thought. Of course, if a man is going to fire a revolver at you it makes little difference whether he is a giant or a pygmy, but Mr. Pickering was in no frame of mind for nice reasoning. It was the thought of Bill’s physique which kept him standing there irresolute.
What would Chingachgook—assuming, for purposes of argument, that any sane godfather could really have given a helpless child a name like that—have done? He would, Mr. Pickering considered, after giving the matter his earnest attention, have made a détour and outflanked the enemy. An excellent solution of the difficulty. Mr. Pickering turned to the left and began to advance circuitously, with the result that, before he knew what he was doing, he came out into a clearing and understood the meaning of the sudden silence which had perplexed him. Footsteps made no sound on this mossy turf.
He knew where he was now; the clearing was familiar. This was where Lord Wetherby’s shack-studio stood; and there it was, right in front of him, black and clear in the moonlight. And the two dark figures were going into it.
Mr. Pickering retreated into the shelter of the bushes and mused upon this thing. It seemed to him that for centuries he had been doing nothing but retreat into bushes for this purpose. His perplexity had returned. He could imagine no reason why burglars should want to visit Lord Wetherby’s studio. He had taken it for granted, when he had tracked them to the clearing, that they were on their way to the house, which was quite close to the shack, separated from it only by a thin belt of trees and a lawn.
They had certainly gone in. He had seen them with his own eyes—first the man; then very close behind him, apparently holding to his coat, the girl. But why?
Creep up and watch them? Would Chingachgook have taken a risk like that? Hardly, unless insured with some good company. Then what? He was still undecided when he perceived the objects of his attention emerging. He backed a little farther into the bushes.
They stood for an instant, listening apparently. The man no longer carried the sack. They exchanged a few inaudible words. Then they crossed the clearing and entered the wood a few yards to his right. He could hear the crackling of their footsteps diminishing in the direction of the road.
A devouring curiosity seized upon Mr. Pickering. He wanted, more than he had wanted almost anything before in his life, to find out what the dickens they had been up to in there. He listened. The footsteps were no longer audible. He ran across the clearing and into the shack. It was then that he discovered that he had no matches.
This needless infliction, coming upon him at the crisis of an adventurous night, infuriated Mr. Pickering. He swore softly. He groped round the walls for an electric-light switch, but the shack had no electric-light switch. When there was need to illuminate it an oil lamp performed the duty. This occurred to Mr. Pickering after he had been round the place three times, and he ceased to grope for a switch and began to seek for a match-box. He was still seeking it when he was frozen in his tracks by the sound of footsteps, muffled but by their nearness audible, just outside the door. He pulled out his pistol, which he had replaced in his pocket, backed against the wall and stood there, prepared to sell his life dearly.
The door opened.
One reads of desperate experiences ageing people in a single night. His present predicament aged Mr. Pickering in a single minute. In the brief interval of time between the opening of the door and the moment when a voice outside began to speak he became a full thirty years older. His boyish ardour slipped from him, and he was once more the Dudley Pickering whom the world knew, the staid and respectable middle-aged man of affairs, who would have given a thousand pounds not to have got himself mixed up in this deplorable business.
And then the voice spoke.
“I’ll light the lamp,” it said; and with an overpowering feeling of relief Mr. Pickering recognized it as Lord Wetherby’s. A moment later the temperamental peer’s dapper figure became visible in silhouette against a background of pale light.
“Ah-hum!” said Mr. Pickering.
The effect on Lord Wetherby was remarkable. To hear someone clear his throat at the back of a dark room, where there should rightfully be no throat to be cleared, would cause even your man of stolid habit a passing thrill. The thing got right in among Lord Wetherby’s highly sensitive ganglions like an earthquake. He uttered a strangled cry, then dashed out and slammed the door behind him.
“There’s someone in there!”
Lady Wetherby’s tranquil voice made itself heard.
“Nonsense; who could be in there?”
“I heard him, I tell you. He growled at me!”
It seemed to Mr. Pickering that the time had come to relieve the mental distress which he was causing his host. He raised his voice.
“It’s all right!” he called.
“There!” said Lord Wetherby.
“Who’s that?” asked Lady Wetherby, through the door.
“It’s all right. It’s me—Pickering.”
The door was opened a few inches by a cautious hand.
“Is that you, Pickering?”
“Yes. It’s all right.”
“Don’t keep saying it’s all right,” said Lord Wetherby, irritably. “It isn’t all right. What do you mean by hiding in the dark and popping out and barking at a man? You made me bite my tongue. I’ve never had such a shock in my life.”
Mr. Pickering left his lair and came out into the open. Lord Wetherby was looking aggrieved, Lady Wetherby peacefully inquisitive. For the first time Mr. Pickering discovered that Claire was present. She was standing behind Lady Wetherby with a floating white something over her head, looking very beautiful.
“For the love of Mike!” said Lady Wetherby.
Mr. Pickering became aware that he was still holding the revolver.
“Oh, ah!” he said, and pocketed the weapon.
“Barking at people!” muttered Lord Wetherby in a querulous undertone.
“What on earth are you doing, Dudley?” said Claire.
There was a note in her voice which both puzzled and pained Mr. Pickering, a note that seemed to suggest that she found herself in imperfect sympathy with him. Her expression deepened the suggestion. It was a cold expression, unfriendly, as if it was not so keen a pleasure to Claire to look at him as it should be for a girl to look at the man whom she is engaged to marry. He had noticed the same note in her voice and the same hostile look in her eye earlier in the evening. He had found her alone, reading a letter which, as the stamp on the envelope showed, had come from England. She had seemed so upset that he had asked her if it contained bad news, and she had replied in the negative with so much irritation that he had desisted from inquiries. But his own idea was that she had had bad news from home. Mr. Pickering still clung to his early impression that her little brother Percy was consumptive, and he thought the child must have taken a turn for the worse. It was odd that she should have looked and spoken like that then, and it was odd that she should look and speak like that now. He had been vaguely disturbed then and he was vaguely disturbed now. He had the feeling that all was not well.
“Yes,” said Lady Wetherby. “What on earth are you doing, Dudley?”
“Popping out!” grumbled Lord Wetherby.
“We came here to see Algie’s picture, which has got something wrong with its eyes apparently, and we find you hiding in the dark with a gun. What’s the idea?”
“It’s a long story,” said Mr. Pickering.
“We have the night before us,” said Lady Wetherby.
“You remember The Man—the fellow I found looking in at the window, The Man who said he knew Claire?”
“You’ve got that man on the brain, Dudley. What’s he been doing to you now?”
“I tracked him here.”
“Tracked him? Where from?”
“From that bee-farm place where he’s living. He and that girl you spoke of went into these woods. I thought they were making for the house, but they went into the shack.”
“What did they do then?” asked Lady Wetherby
“They came out again.”
“That’s what I was trying to find out.”
Lord Wetherby uttered an exclamation.
“By Jove!” There was apprehension in his voice, but mingled with it a certain pleased surprise. “Perhaps they were after my picture. I’ll light the lamp. Good Lord, picture thieves—Romneys—missing Gainsboroughs——” His voice trailed off as he found the lamp and lit it. Relief and disappointment were nicely blended in his next words: “No, it’s still there.”
The soft light of the lamp filled the studio.
“Well, that’s a comfort,” said Lady Wetherby, sauntering in. “We couldn’t afford to lose—— Oh!”
Lord Wetherby spun round as her scream burst upon his already tortured nerve centres. Lady Wetherby was kneeling on the floor. Claire hurried in.
“What is it, Polly?”
Lady Wetherby rose to her feet, and pointed. Her face had lost its look of patient amusement. It was hard and set. She eyed Mr. Pickering in a menacing way.
Claire followed her finger.
“Good gracious! It’s Eustace!”
She was looking intently at Mr. Pickering. “Well, Dudley,” she said, coldly, “what about it?”
Mr. Pickering found that they were all looking at him—Lady Wetherby with glittering eyes, Claire with cool scorn, Lord Wetherby with a horror which he seemed to have achieved with something of an effort.
“Well!” said Claire.
“What about it, Dudley?” said Lady Wetherby.
“I must say, Pickering,” said Lord Wetherby, “much as I disliked the animal, it’s a bit thick!”
Mr. Pickering recoiled from their accusing gaze.
“Good heavens! Do you think I did it?”
In the midst of his anguish there flashed across his mind the recollection of having seen just this sort of situation in a moving picture, and of having thought it far-fetched.
Lady Wetherby’s good-tempered mouth, far from good-tempered now, curled in a devastating sneer. She was looking at him as Claire, in the old days when they had toured England together in road companies, had sometimes seen her look at recalcitrant landladies. The landladies, without exception, had wilted beneath that gaze, and Mr. Pickering wilted now.
“But—but—but——” was all he could contrive to say.
“Why should we think you did it?” said Lady Wetherby, bitterly. “You had a grudge against the poor brute for biting you. We find you hiding here with a pistol and a story about burglars which an infant couldn’t swallow. I suppose you thought that, if you planted the poor creature’s body here, it would be up to Algie to get rid of it, and that if he were found with it I should think that it was he who had killed the animal.”
The look of horror which Lord Wetherby had managed to assume became genuine at these words. The gratitude which he had been feeling toward Mr. Pickering for having removed one of the chief trials of his existence vanished.
“Great Scot!” he cried. “So that was the game, was it?”
Mr. Pickering struggled for speech. This was a nightmare.
“But I didn’t! I didn’t! I didn’t! I tell you I hadn’t the remotest notion the creature was there.”
“Oh, come, Pickering!” said Lord Wetherby. “Come, come, come!”
Mr. Pickering found that his accusers were ebbing away. Lady Wetherby had gone. Claire had gone. Only Lord Wetherby remained, looking at him like a pained groom. He dashed from the place and followed his hostess, speaking incoherently of burglars, outhouses, and misunderstandings. He even mentioned Chingachgook. But Lady Wetherby would not listen. Nobody would listen.
He found Lord Wetherby at his side, evidently prepared to go deeper into the subject. Lord Wetherby was looking now like a groom whose favourite horse has kicked him in the stomach.
“Wouldn’t have thought it of you, Pickering,” said Lord Wetherby. Mr. Pickering found no words. “Wouldn’t, honestly. Low trick!”
“But I tell you——”
“Devilish low trick!” repeated Lord Wetherby, with a shake of the head. “Laws of hospitality—eaten our bread and salt, what!—all that sort of thing—kill valuable monkey—not done, you know—low, very low!”
And he followed his wife, now in full retreat, with scorn and repulsion written in her very walk.
It was Claire. She stood there, holding something toward him, something that glittered in the moonlight. Her voice was hard, and the expression on her face suggested that in her estimation he was a particularly low-grade worm, one of the submerged tenth of the worm world.
“Eh?” said Mr. Pickering, dazedly.
He looked at what she had in her hand, but it conveyed nothing to his overwrought mind.
“Very well,” she said.
She flung something on the ground before him—a small, sparkling object. Then she swept away, his eyes following her, and was lost in the darkness of the trees. Mechanically Mr. Pickering stooped to pick up what she had let fall. He recognized it now. It was her engagement ring.
Bill leaned his back against the gate that separated the grounds of the bee farm from the high road and mused pleasantly. He was alone. Elizabeth was walking up the drive on her way to the house to tell the news to Nutty. James, the cat, who had come down from the roof of the outhouse, was sharpening his claws on a neighbouring tree. After the whirl of excitement that had been his portion for the past few hours, the peace of it all appealed strongly to Bill. It suited the mood of quiet happiness which was upon him.
Quietly happy, that was how he felt now that it was all over. The white heat of emotion had subsided to a gentle glow of contentment conducive to thought. He thought tenderly of Elizabeth. She had turned to wave her hand before going into the house, and he was still smiling fatuously. Wonderful girl! Lucky chap he was! Rum, the way they had come together! Talk about Fate, what?
He stooped to tickle James, who had finished stropping his claws and was now enjoying a friction massage against his leg, and began to brood on the inscrutable ways of Fate.
Rum thing, Fate! Most extraordinary!
Suppose he had never gone down to Marvis Bay that time. He had wavered between half-a-dozen places; it was pure chance that he had chosen Marvis Bay. If he hadn’t he would never have met old Nutcombe. Probably old Nutcombe had wavered between half-a-dozen places too. If they hadn’t both happened to choose Marvis Bay they would never have met. And if they hadn’t been the only visitors there they might never have got to know each other. And if old Nutcombe hadn’t happened to slice his approach shots he would never have put him under an obligation. Queer old buster, old Nutcombe, leaving a fellow he hardly knew from Adam a cool million quid just because he cured him of slicing.
It was at this point in his meditations that it suddenly occurred to Bill that he had not yet given a thought to what was immeasurably the most important of any of the things that ought to be occupying his mind just now. What was he to do about this Lord Dawlish business?
Life at Brookport had so accustomed him to being plain Bill Chalmers that it had absolutely slipped his mind that he was really Lord Dawlish, the one man in the world whom Elizabeth looked on as an enemy. What on earth was he to do about that? Tell her? But if he told her, wouldn’t she chuck him on the spot?
This was awful. The dreamy sense of well-being left him. He straightened himself to face this problem, ignoring the hint of James, who was weaving circles about his legs expectant of more tickling. A man cannot spend his time tickling cats when he has to concentrate on a dilemma of this kind.
Suppose he didn’t tell her? How would that work out? Was a marriage legal if the cove who was being married went through it under a false name? He seemed to remember seeing a melodrama in his boyhood the plot of which turned on that very point. Yes, it began to come back to him. An unpleasant bargee with a black moustache had said, “This woman is not your wife!” and caused the dickens of a lot of unpleasantness; but there in its usual slipshod way memory failed. Had subsequent events proved the bargee right or wrong? It was a question for a lawyer to decide. Jerry Nichols would know. Well, there was plenty of time, thank goodness, to send Jerry Nichols a cable, asking for his professional opinion, and to get the straight tip long before the wedding day arrived.
Laying this part of it aside for the moment, and assuming that the thing could be worked, what about the money? Like a chump, he had told Elizabeth on the first day of his visit that he hadn’t any money except what he made out of his job as secretary of the club. He couldn’t suddenly spring a million pounds on her and pretend that he had forgotten all about it till then.
Of course, he could invent an imaginary uncle or something, and massacre him during the honeymoon. Something in that. He pictured the thing in his mind. Breakfast: Elizabeth doling out the scrambled eggs. “What’s the matter, Bill? Why did you exclaim like that? Is there some bad news in the letter you are reading?” “Oh, it’s nothing—only my Uncle John’s died and left me a million pounds.”
The scene worked out so well that his mind became a little above itself. It suggested developments of serpentine craftiness. Why not get Jerry Nichols to write him a letter about his Uncle John and the million pounds? Jerry liked doing that sort of thing. He would do it like a shot, and chuck in a lot of legal words to make it sound right. It began to be clear to Bill that any move he took—except full confession, at which he jibbed—was going to involve Jerry Nichols as an ally; and this discovery had a soothing effect on him. It made him feel that the responsibility had been shifted. He couldn’t do anything till he had consulted Jerry, so there was no use in worrying. And, being one of those rare persons who can cease worrying instantly when they have convinced themselves that it is useless, he dismissed the entire problem from his mind and returned to the more congenial occupation of thinking of Elizabeth.
It was a peculiar feature of his position that he found himself unable to think of Elizabeth without also thinking of Claire. He tried to, but failed. Every virtue in Elizabeth seemed to call up the recollection of a corresponding defect in Claire. It became almost mathematical. Elizabeth was so straight—on the level they called it over here. Claire was a corkscrew among women. Elizabeth was sunny and cheerful. Querulousness was Claire’s besetting sin. Elizabeth was such a pal. Claire had never been that. The effect that Claire had always had on him was to deepen the conviction, which never really left him, that he was a bit of an ass. Elizabeth, on the other hand, bucked him up and made him feel as if he really amounted to something.
How different they were! Their very voices—Elizabeth had a sort of quiet, soothing, pleasant voice, the kind of voice that somehow suggested that she thought a lot of a chap without her having to say it in so many words. Whereas Claire’s voice—he had noticed it right from the beginning—Claire’s voice——
While he was trying to make clear to himself just what it was about Claire’s voice that he had not liked he was granted the opportunity of analyzing by means of direct observation its failure to meet his vocal ideals, for at this moment it spoke behind him.
She was standing in the road, her head still covered with that white, filmy something which had commended itself to Mr. Pickering’s eye. She was looking at him in a way that seemed somehow to strike a note of appeal. She conveyed an atmosphere of softness and repentance, a general suggestion of prodigal daughters revisiting old homesteads.
“We seem always to be meeting at gates, don’t we?” she said, with a faint smile.
It was a deprecating smile, wistful.
“Bill!” she said again, and stopped. She laid her left hand lightly on the gate. Bill had a sort of impression that there was some meaning behind this action; that, if he were less of a chump than Nature had made him, he would at this point receive some sort of a revelation. But, being as Nature had made him, he did not get it.
He was one of those men to whom a girl’s left hand is simply a girl’s left hand, irrespective of whether it wears rings on its third finger or not.
This having become evident to Claire after a moment of silence, she withdrew her hand in rather a disappointed way and prepared to attack the situation from another angle.
“Bill, I’ve come to say something to you.”
Bill was looking at her curiously. He could not have believed that, even after what had happened, he could face her with such complete detachment; that she could so extraordinarily not matter. He felt no resentment toward her. It was simply that she had gone out of his life.
“Bill, I’ve been a fool.”
He made no reply to this for he could think of no reply that was sufficiently polite. “Yes?” sounded as if he meant to say that that was just what he had expected. “Really?” had a sarcastic ring. He fell back on facial expression, to imply that he was interested and that she might tell all.
Claire looked away down the road and began to speak in a low, quick voice:—
“I’ve been a fool all along. I lost you through being a fool. When I saw you dancing with that girl in the restaurant I didn’t stop to think. I was angry. I was jealous. I ought to have trusted you, but—— Oh, well, I was a fool.”
“My dear girl, you had a perfect right——”
“I hadn’t. I was an idiot. Bill, I’ve come to ask you if you can’t forgive me.”
“I wish you wouldn’t talk like that—there’s nothing to forgive.”
The look which Claire gave him in answer to this was meek and affectionate, but inwardly she was wishing that she could bang his head against the gate. His slowness was maddening. Long before this he should have leaped into the road in order to fold her in his arms. Her voice shook with the effort she had to make to keep it from sharpness.
“I mean, is it too late? I mean, can you really forgive me? Oh, Bill”—she stopped herself by the fraction of a second from adding “you idiot”—“can’t we be the same again to each other? Can’t we—pretend all this has never happened?”
Exasperating as Bill’s wooden failure to play the scene in the spirit in which her imagination had conceived it was to Claire, several excuses may be offered for him: He had opened the evening with a shattering blow at his faith in woman. He had walked twenty miles at a rapid pace. He had heard shots and found a corpse, and carried the latter by the tail across country. Finally, he had had the stunning shock of discovering that Elizabeth Boyd loved him. He was not himself. He found a difficulty in concentrating. With the result that, in answer to this appeal from a beautiful girl whom he had once imagined that he loved, all he could find to say was: “How do you mean?”
Claire, never an adept at patience, just succeeded in swallowing the remark that sprang into her mind. It was incredible to her that a man could exist who had so little intuition. She had not anticipated the necessity of being compelled to put the substance of her meaning in so many blunt words, but it seemed that only so could she make him understand.
“I mean, can’t we be engaged again, Bill?”
Bill’s overtaxed brain turned one convulsive hand-spring, and came to rest with a sense of having dislocated itself. This was too much. This was not right. No fellow at the end of a hard evening ought to have to grapple with this sort of thing. What on earth did she mean, springing questions like that on him? How could they be engaged? She was going to marry someone else, and so was he. Something of these thoughts he managed to put into words:—
“But you’re engaged to——”
“I’ve broken my engagement with Mr. Pickering.”
“Great Scot! When?”
“To-night. I found out his true character. He is cruel and treacherous. Something happened—it may sound nothing to you, but it gave me an insight into what he really was. Polly Wetherby had a little monkey, and just because it bit Mr. Pickering he shot it.”
“Yes. He wasn’t the sort of man I should have expected to do a mean, cruel thing like that. It sickened me. I gave him back his ring then and there. Oh, what a relief it was! What a fool I was ever to have got engaged to such a man.”
Bill was puzzled. He was one of those simple men who take their fellows on trust, but who, if once that trust is shattered, can never recover it. Like most simple men, he was tenacious of ideas when he got them, and the belief that Claire was playing fast and loose was not lightly to be removed from his mind. He had found her out during his self-communion that night, and he could never believe her again. He had the feeling that there was something behind what she was saying. He could not put his finger on the clue, but that there was a clue he was certain.
“I only got engaged to him out of pique. I was angry with you, and—— Well, that’s how it happened.”
Still Bill could not believe. It was plausible. It sounded true. And yet some instinct told him that it was not true. And while he waited, perplexed, Claire made a false step.
The thing had been so close to the top of her mind ever since she had come to the knowledge of it that it had been hard for her to keep it down. Now she could keep it down no longer.
“How wonderful about old Mr. Nutcombe, Bill!” she said.
A vast relief rolled over Bill. Despite his instinct, he had been wavering. But now he understood. He had found the clue.
“You got my letter, then?”
“Yes; it was forwarded on from the theatre. I got it to-night.”
Too late she realized what she had said and the construction that an intelligent man would put on it. Then she reflected that Bill was not an intelligent man. She shot a swift glance at him. To all appearances he had suspected nothing.
“It went all over the place,” she hurried on. “The people at the Portsmouth theatre sent it to the London office, who sent it home, and mother mailed it on to me.”
There was a silence. Claire drew a step nearer.
“Bill!” she said softly.
Bill shut his eyes. The moment had come which he had dreaded. Not even the thought that she was crooked, that she had been playing with him, could make it any better. She was a woman and he was a man. That was all that mattered, and nothing could alter it.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s impossible.”
Claire stared at him in amazement. She had not been prepared for this. He met her eyes, but every nerve in his body was protesting.
He set his teeth. It was just as bad as he had thought it would be.
“But, Bill, I’ve explained. I’ve told you how——”
Claire’s eyes opened wide.
“I thought you loved me.” She came closer. She pulled at his sleeve. Her voice took on a note of soft raillery. “Don’t be absurd, Bill! You mustn’t behave like a sulky schoolboy. It isn’t like you, this. You surely don’t want me to humble myself more than I have done.” She gave a little laugh. “Why, Bill, I’m proposing to you! I know I’ve treated you badly, but I’ve explained why. You must be just enough to see that it wasn’t altogether my fault. I’m only human. And if I made a mistake I’ve done all I can do to undo it. I——”
“Claire, listen: I’m engaged!”
She fell back. For the first time the sense of defeat came to her. She had anticipated many things. She had looked for difficulties. But she had not expected this. A feeling of cold fury surged over her at the way Fate had tricked her. She had gambled recklessly on her power of fascination, and she had lost.
Mr. Pickering, at that moment brooding in solitude in the smoking-room of Lady Wetherby’s house, would have been relieved could he have known how wistfully she was thinking of him.
“Well!” She forced another laugh. “How very—rapid of you! To whom?”
“To Elizabeth Boyd.”
“I’m afraid I’m very ignorant, but who is Elizabeth Boyd? The ornate lady you were dancing with at the restaurant?”
“She is old Ira Nutcombe’s niece. The money ought to have been left to her. That was why I came over to America, to see if I could do anything for her.”
“And you’re going to marry her? How very romantic—and convenient! What an excellent arrangement for her. Which of you suggested it?”
Bill drew in a deep breath. All this was, he supposed, unavoidable, but it was not pleasant.
Claire suddenly abandoned her pose of cool amusement. The fire behind it blazed through.
“You fool!” she cried, passionately. “Are you blind? Can’t you see that this girl is simply after your money? A child could see it.”
Bill looked at her steadily.
“You’re quite wrong. She doesn’t know who I am.”
“Doesn’t know who you are? What do you mean? She must know by this time that her uncle left his money to you.”
“But she doesn’t know that I am Lord Dawlish. I came to America under another name. She knows me as Chalmers.”
Claire was silent for a moment.
“How did you get to know her?” she asked, more quietly.
“I met her brother by chance in New York.”
“Quite by chance. A man I knew in England lent me his rooms in New York. He happened to be a friend of Boyd’s. Boyd came to call on him one night, and found me.”
“Odd! Had your mutual friend been away from New York long?”
“And in all that time Mr. Boyd had not discovered that he had left. They must have been great friends! What happened then?”
“Boyd invited me down here.”
“They live in this house.”
“Is Miss Boyd the girl who keeps the bee farm?”
Claire’s eyes suddenly lit up. She began to speak in a louder voice:—
“Bill, you’re an infant, a perfect infant! Of course, she’s after your money. Do you really imagine for one instant that this Elizabeth Boyd of yours and her brother don’t know as well as I do that you are really Lord Dawlish? I always thought you had a trustful nature! You tell me the brother met you by chance. Chance! And invited you down here. I bet he did! He knew his business! And now you’re going to marry the girl so that they will get the money after all! Splendid! Oh, Bill, you’re a wonderful, wonderful creature! Your innocence is touching.”
She swung round.
“Good night,” she called over her shoulder.
He could hear her laughing as she went down the road.
In the smoking-room of Lady Wetherby’s house, chewing the dead stump of a once imposing cigar, Dudley Pickering sat alone with his thoughts. He had been alone for half an hour now. Once Lord Wetherby had looked in, to withdraw at once coldly, with the expression of a groom who has found loathsome things in the harness-room. Roscoe Sherriff, good, easy man, who could never dislike people, no matter what they had done, had come for a while to bear him company; but Mr. Pickering’s society was not for the time being entertaining. He had answered with grunts the press-agent’s kindly attempts at conversation, and the latter had withdrawn to seek a more congenial audience. And now Mr. Pickering was alone, talking things over with his subconscious self.
A man’s subconscious self is not the ideal companion. It lurks for the greater part of his life in some dark den of its own, hidden away, and emerges only to taunt and deride and increase the misery of a miserable hour. Mr. Pickering’s rare interviews with his subconscious self had happened until now almost entirely in the small hours of the night, when it had popped out to remind him, as he lay sleepless, that all flesh was grass and that he was not getting any younger. To-night, such had been the shock of the evening’s events, it came to him at a time which was usually his happiest—the time that lay between dinner and bed. Mr. Pickering at that point of the day was generally feeling his best. But to-night was different from the other nights of his life.
One may picture Subconscious Self as a withered, cynical, malicious person standing before Mr. Pickering and regarding him with an evil smile. There has been a pause, and now Subconscious Self speaks again:—
“You will have to leave to-morrow. Couldn’t possibly stop on after what’s happened. Now you see what comes of behaving like a boy.”
Mr. Pickering writhed.
“Made a pretty considerable fool of yourself, didn’t you, with your revolvers and your hidings and your trailings? Too old for that sort of thing, you know. You’re getting on. Probably have a touch of lumbago to-morrow. You must remember you aren’t a youngster. Got to take care of yourself. Next time you feel an impulse to hide in shrubberies and take moonlight walks through damp woods, perhaps you will listen to me.”
Mr. Pickering relit the stump of his cigar defiantly and smoked in long gulps for a while. He was trying to persuade himself that all this was untrue, but it was not easy. The cigar became uncomfortably hot, and he threw it away. He fumbled in his waistcoat pocket and produced a diamond ring, at which he looked pensively.
“A pretty thing, is it not?” said Subconscious Self.
Mr. Pickering sighed. That moment when Claire had thrown the ring at his feet and swept out of his life like an offended queen had been the culminating blow of a night of blows, the knock-out following on a series of minor punches. Subconscious Self seized the opportunity to become offensive again.
“You’ve lost her, all through your own silly fault,” it said. “How on earth you can have been such a perfect fool beats me. Running round with a gun like a boy of fourteen! Well, it’s done now and it can’t be mended. Countermand the order for cake, send a wire putting off the wedding, dismiss the bridesmaids, tell the organist he can stop practising ‘The Voice that Breathed O’er Eden’—no wedding-bells for you! For Dudley Damfool Pickering, Esquire, the lonely hearth for evermore! Little feet pattering about the house? Not on your life! Childish voices sticking up the old man for half a crown to buy chocolates? No, sir! Not for D. Bonehead Pickering, the amateur trailing arbutus!”
Subconscious Self may have had an undesirable way of expressing itself, but there was no denying the truth of what it said. Its words carried conviction. Mr. Pickering replaced the ring in his pocket, and, burying his head in his hands, groaned in bitterness of spirit.
He had lost her. He must face the fact. She had thrown him over. Never now would she sit at his table, the brightest jewel of Detroit’s glittering social life. She would have made a stir in Detroit. Now that city would never know her. Not that he was worrying much about Detroit. He was worrying about himself. How could he ever live without her?
This mood of black depression endured for a while, and then Mr. Pickering suddenly became aware that Subconscious Self was sneering at him. “You’re a wonder!” said Subconscious Self.
“What do you mean?”
“Why, trying to make yourself think that at the bottom of your heart you aren’t tickled to death that this has happened. You know perfectly well that you’re tremendously relieved that you haven’t got to marry the girl after all. You can fool everybody else, but you can’t fool me. You’re delighted, man, delighted!”
The mere suggestion revolted Mr. Pickering. He was on the point of indignant denial, when quite abruptly there came home to him the suspicion that the statement was not so preposterous after all. It seemed incredible and indecent that such a thing should be, but he could not deny, now that it was put to him point-blank in this way, that a certain sense of relief was beginning to mingle itself with his gloom. It was shocking to realize, but—yes, he actually was feeling as if he had escaped from something which he had dreaded. Half an hour ago there had been no suspicion of such an emotion among the many which had occupied his attention, but now he perceived it clearly. Half an hour ago he had felt like Lucifer hurled from heaven. Now, though how that train of thought had started he could not have said, he was distinctly conscious of the silver lining. Subconscious Self began to drive the thing home.
“Be honest with yourself,” it said. “You aren’t often. No man is. Look at the matter absolutely fairly. You know perfectly well that the mere idea of marriage has always scared you. You hate making yourself conspicuous in public. Think what it would be like, standing up there in front of all the world and getting married. And then—afterward! Why on earth do you think that you would have been happy with this girl? What do you know about her except that she is a beauty? I grant you she’s that, but are you aware of the infinitesimal part looks play in married life? My dear chap, better is it for a man that he marry a sympathetic gargoyle than a Venus with a streak of hardness in her. You know—and you would admit it if you were honest with yourself—that this girl is hard. She’s got a chilled-steel soul.
“If you wanted to marry someone—and there’s no earthly reason why you should, for your life’s perfectly full and happy with your work—this is the last girl you ought to marry. You’re a middle-aged man. You’re set. You like life to jog along at a peaceful walk. This girl wants it to be a fox-trot. You’ve got habits which you have had for a dozen years. I ask you, is she the sort of girl to be content to be a stepmother to a middle-aged man’s habits? Of course, if you were really in love with her, if she were your mate, and all that sort of thing, you would take a pleasure in making yourself over to suit her requirements. But you aren’t in love with her. You are simply caught by her looks. I tell you, you ought to look on that moment when she gave you back your ring as the luckiest moment of your life. You ought to make a sort of anniversary of it. You ought to endow a hospital or something out of pure gratitude. I don’t know how long you’re going to live—if you act like a grown-up man instead of a boy and keep out of woods and shrubberies at night you may live for ever—but you will never have a greater bit of luck than the one that happened to you to-night.”
Mr. Pickering was convinced. His spirits soared. Marriage! What was marriage? Slavery, not to be endured by your man of spirit. Look at all the unhappy marriages you saw everywhere. Besides, you had only to recall some of the novels and plays of recent years to get the right angle on marriage. According to the novelists and playwrights, shrewd fellows who knew what was what, if you talked to your wife about your business she said you had no soul; if you didn’t, she said you didn’t think enough of her to let her share your life. If you gave her expensive presents and an unlimited credit account, she complained that you looked on her as a mere doll; and if you didn’t, she called you a screw. That was marriage. If it didn’t get you with the left jab, it landed on you with the right upper-cut. None of that sort of thing for Dudley Pickering.
“You’re absolutely right,” he said, enthusiastically. “Funny I never looked at it that way before.”
Somebody was turning the door-handle. He hoped it was Roscoe Sherriff. He had been rather dull the last time Sherriff had looked in. He would be quite different now. He would be gay and sparkling. He remembered two good stories he would like to tell Sherriff.
The door opened and Claire came in. There was a silence. She stood looking at him in a way that puzzled Mr. Pickering. If it had not been for her attitude at their last meeting and the manner in which she had broken that last meeting up, he would have said that her look seemed somehow to strike a note of appeal. There was something soft and repentant about her. She suggested, it seemed to Mr. Pickering, the prodigal daughter revisiting the old homestead.
She smiled a faint smile, a wistful, deprecating smile. She was looking lovelier than ever. Her face glowed with a wonderful colour and her eyes were very bright. Mr. Pickering met her gaze, and strange things began to happen to his mind, that mind which a moment before had thought so clearly and established so definite a point of view.
What a gelatine-backboned thing is man, who prides himself on his clear reason and becomes as wet blotting-paper at one glance from bright eyes! A moment before Mr. Pickering had thought out the whole subject of woman and marriage in a few bold flashes of his capable brain, and thanked Providence that he was not as those men who take unto themselves wives to their undoing. Now in an instant he had lost that iron outlook. Reason was temporarily out of business. He was slipping.
For a space Subconscious Self thrust itself forward. “Look out! Be careful!” it warned.
Mr. Pickering ignored it. He was watching, fascinated, the glow on Claire’s face, her shining eyes.
“Dudley, I want to speak to you.”
“Tell her you can only be seen by appointment! Escape! Bolt!”
Mr. Pickering did not bolt. Claire came toward him, still smiling that pathetic smile. A thrill permeated Mr. Pickering’s entire one hundred and ninety-seven pounds, trickling down his spine like hot water and coming out at the soles of his feet. He had forgotten now that he had ever sneered at marriage. It seemed to him now that there was nothing in life to be compared with that beatific state, and that bachelors were mere wild asses of the desert.
Claire came and sat down on the arm of his chair. He moved convulsively, but he stayed where he was.
“Fool!” said Subconscious Self.
Claire took hold of his hand and patted it. He quivered, but remained.
“Ass!” hissed Subconscious Self.
Claire stopped patting his hand and began to stroke it. Mr. Pickering breathed heavily.
“Dudley, dear,” said Claire, softly, “I’ve been an awful fool, and I’m dreadful, dreadful sorry, and you’re going to be the nicest, kindest, sweetest man on earth and tell me you’ve forgiven me. Aren’t you?”
Mr. Pickering’s lips moved silently. Claire kissed the thinning summit of his head. There was a pause.
“Where is it?” she asked.
Mr. Pickering started.
“Where is it? Where did you put it? The ring, silly!”
Mr. Pickering became aware that Subconscious Self was addressing him. The occasion was tense, and Subconscious Self did not mince its words.
“You poor, maudlin, sentimental, doddering chunk of imbecility,” it said; “are there no limits to your insanity? After all I said to you just now, are you deliberately going to start the old idiocy all over again?”
“She’s so beautiful!” pleaded Mr. Pickering. “Look at her eyes!”
“Ass! Don’t you remember what I said about beauty?”
“Yes, I know, but——”
“She’s as hard as nails.”
“I’m sure you’re wrong.”
“I’m not wrong.”
“But she loves me.”
Claire jogged his shoulders.
“Dudley, dear, what are you sitting there dreaming for? Where did you put the ring?”
Mr. Pickering fumbled for it, located it, produced it. Claire examined it fondly.
“Did she throw it at him and nearly break his heart!” she said.
“Bolt!” urged Subconscious Self. “Fly! Go to Japan!”
Mr. Pickering did not go to Japan. He was staring worshippingly at Claire. With rapturous gaze he noted the grey glory of her eyes, the delicate curve of her cheek, the grace of her neck. He had no time to listen to pessimistic warnings from any Gloomy Gus of a Subconscious Self. He was ashamed that he had ever even for a moment allowed himself to be persuaded that Claire was not all that was perfect. No more doubts and hesitations for Dudley Pickering. He was under the influence.
“There!” said Claire, and slipped the ring on her finger.
She kissed the top of his head once more.
“So there we are!” she said.
“There we are!” gurgled the infatuated Dudley.
“Then kiss me.”
Mr. Pickering kissed her.
“Dudley, darling,” said Claire, “we’re going to be awfully, awfully happy, aren’t we?”
“You bet we are!” said Mr. Pickering.
Subconscious Self said nothing, being beyond speech.
For some minutes after Claire had left him Bill remained where he was, motionless. He felt physically incapable of moving. All the strength that was in him he was using to throw off the insidious poison of her parting speech, and it became plainer to him with each succeeding moment that he would have need of strength.
It is part of the general irony of things that in life’s crises a man’s good qualities are often the ones that help him least, if indeed they do not actually turn treacherously and fight against him. It was so with Bill. Modesty, if one may trust to the verdict of the mass of mankind, is a good quality. It sweetens the soul and makes for a kindly understanding of one’s fellows. But arrogance would have served Bill better now. It was his fatal habit of self-depreciation that was making Claire’s words so specious as he stood there trying to cast them from his mind. Who was he, after all, that he should imagine that he had won on his personal merits a girl like Elizabeth Boyd?
He had the not very common type of mind that perceives the merit in others more readily than their faults, and in himself the faults more readily than the merit. Time and the society of a great number of men of different ranks and natures had rid him of the outer symbol of this type of mind, which is shyness, but it had left him still unconvinced that he amounted to anything very much as an individual.
This was the thought that met him every time he tried to persuade himself that what Claire had said was ridiculous, the mere parting shaft of an angry woman. With this thought as an ally her words took on a plausibility hard to withstand. Plausible! That was the devil of it. By no effort could he blind himself to the fact that they were that. In the light of Claire’s insinuations what had seemed coincidences took on a more sinister character. It had seemed to him an odd and lucky chance that Nutty Boyd should have come to the rooms which he was occupying that night, seeking a companion. Had it been chance? Even at the time he had thought it strange that, on the strength of a single evening spent together, Nutty should have invited a total stranger to make an indefinite visit to his home. Had there been design behind the invitation?
Bill began to walk slowly to the house. He felt tired and unhappy. He meant to go to bed and try to sleep away these wretched doubts and questionings. Daylight would bring relief.
As he reached the open front door he caught the sound of voices, and paused for an instant, almost unconsciously, to place them. They came from one of the rooms upstairs. It was Nutty speaking now, and it was impossible for Bill not to hear what he said, for Nutty had abandoned his customary drawl in favour of a high, excited tone.
“Of course, you hate him and all that,” said Nutty; “but after all you will be getting a million pounds that ought to have come to——”
That was all that Bill heard, for he had stumbled across the hall and was in his room, sitting on the bed and staring into the darkness with burning eyes. The door banged behind him.
So it was true!
There came a knock at the door. It was repeated. The handle turned.
“Is that you, Bill?”
It was Elizabeth’s voice. He could just see her, framed in the doorway.
His throat was dry. He swallowed, and found that he could speak.
“Did you just come in?”
There was a long silence. Then the door closed gently and he heard her go upstairs.