The Strand Magazine, June 1917
HEN Bill woke next morning it was ten o’clock; and his first emotion, on a day that was to be crowded with emotions of various kinds, was one of shame. The desire to do the fitting thing is innate in man, and it struck Bill, as he hurried through his toilet, that he must be a shallow, coarse-fibred sort of person, lacking in the finer feelings, not to have passed a sleepless night. There was something revolting in the thought that, in circumstances which would have made sleep an impossibility for most men, he had slept like a log. He did not do himself the justice to recollect that he had had a singularly strenuous day, and that it is Nature’s business, which she performs quietly and unromantically, to send sleep to tired men regardless of their private feelings; and it was in a mood of dissatisfaction with the quality of his soul that he left his room.
He had a general feeling that he was not much of a chap, and that when he died—which he trusted would be shortly—the world would be well rid of him. He felt humble and depressed and hopeless.
Elizabeth met him in the passage. At the age of eleven or thereabout women acquire a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve somewhere in the later seventies. Except for a pallor strange to her face and a drawn look about her eyes, there was nothing to show that all was not for the best with Elizabeth in a best of all possible worlds. If she did not look jaunty, she at least looked composed. She greeted Bill with a smile.
“I didn’t wake you. I thought I would let you sleep on.”
The words had the effect of lending an additional clarity and firmness of outline to the picture of himself which Bill had already drawn in his mind—of a soulless creature sunk in hoggish slumber.
“We’ve had breakfast. Nutty has gone for a walk. Isn’t he wonderful nowadays? I’ve kept your breakfast warm for you.”
Bill protested. He might be capable of sleep, but he was not going to sink to food.
“Not for me, thanks,” he said, hollowly.
He followed her meekly. How grimly practical women were! They let nothing interfere with the essentials of life. It seemed all wrong. Nevertheless, he breakfasted well and gratefully, Elizabeth watching him in silence across the table.
She hesitated for a moment.
“Well, Bill, I’ve slept on it. Things are in rather a muddle, aren’t they? I think I had better begin by explaining what led up to those words you heard Nutty say last night. Won’t you smoke?”
“You’ll feel better if you do.”
A bee had flown in through the open window. She followed it with her eye as it blundered about the room. It flew out again into the sunshine. She turned to Bill again.
“They were supposed to be words of consolation,” she said.
Bill said nothing.
“Nutty, you see, has his own peculiar way of looking at things, and it didn’t occur to him that I might have promised to marry you because I loved you. He took it for granted that I had done it to save the Boyd home. He has been very anxious from the first that I should marry you. I think that that must have been why he asked you down here. He found out in New York, you know, who you were. Someone you met at supper recognized you, and told Nutty. So, as far as that is concerned, the girl you were speaking to at the gate last night was right.”
“You heard her?”
“I couldn’t help it. She meant me to hear. She was raising her voice quite unnecessarily if she did not mean to include me in the conversation. I had gone in to find Nutty, and he was out, and I was coming back to you. That’s how I was there. You didn’t see me because your back was turned. She saw me.”
Bill met her eyes. “You don’t ask who she was?”
“It doesn’t matter who she was. It’s what she said that matters. She said that we knew you were Lord Dawlish.”
“Did you know?”
“Nutty told me two or three days ago.” Her voice shook and a flush came into her face. “You probably won’t believe it, but the news made absolutely no difference to me one way or the other. I had always imagined Lord Dawlish as a treacherous, adventurer sort of man, because I couldn’t see how a man who was not like that could have persuaded Uncle Ira to leave him his money. But after knowing you even for this short time, I knew you were quite the opposite of that, and I remembered that the first thing you had done on coming into the money had been to offer me half, so the information that you were the Lord Dawlish whom I had been hating did not affect me. And the fact that you were rich and I was poor did not affect me either. I loved you, and that was all I cared about. If all this had not happened everything would have been all right. But, you see, nine-tenths of what that girl said to you was so perfectly true that it is humanly impossible for you not to believe the other tenth, which wasn’t. And then, to clinch it, you hear Nutty consoling me. That brings me back to Nutty.”
“Let me tell you about Nutty first. I said that he had always been anxious that I should marry you. Something happened last night to increase his anxiety. I have often wondered how he managed to get enough money to enable him to spend three days in New York, and last night he told me. He came in just after I had got back to the house after leaving you and that girl, and he was very scared. It seems that when the letter from the London lawyer came telling him that he had been left a hundred dollars, he got the idea of raising money on the strength of it. You know Nutty by this time, so you won’t be surprised at the way he went about it. He borrowed a hundred dollars from the man at the chemist’s on the security of that letter, and then—I suppose it seemed so easy that it struck him as a pity to let the opportunity slip—he did the same thing with four other tradesmen. Nutty’s so odd that I don’t know even now whether it ever occurred to him that he was obtaining money under false pretences; but the poor tradesmen hadn’t any doubt about it at all. They compared notes and found what had happened, and last night, while we were in the woods, one of them came here and called Nutty a good many names and threatened him with imprisonment.
“You can imagine how delighted Nutty was when I came in and told him that I was engaged to you. In his curious way, he took it for granted that I had heard about his financial operations, and was doing it entirely for his sake, to get him out of his fix. And while I was trying to put him right on that point he began to console me. You see, Nutty looks on you as the enemy of the family, and it didn’t strike him that it was possible that I didn’t look on you in that light too. So, after being delighted for a while, he very sweetly thought that he ought to cheer me up and point out some of the compensations of marriage with you. And—— Well, that was what you heard. There you have the full explanation. You can’t possibly believe it.”
She broke off and began to drum her fingers on the table. And as she did so there came to Bill a sudden relief from all the doubts and black thoughts that had tortured him. Elizabeth was straight. Whatever appearances might seem to suggest, nothing could convince him that she was playing an underhand game. It was as if something evil had gone out of him. He felt lighter, cleaner. He could breathe.
“I do believe it,” he said. “I believe every word you say.”
She shook her head.
“You can’t in the face of the evidence.”
“I believe it.”
“No. You may persuade yourself for the moment that you do, but after a while you will have to go by the evidence. You won’t be able to help yourself. You haven’t realized what a crushing thing evidence is. You have to go by it against your will. You see, evidence is the only guide. You don’t know that I am speaking the truth; you just feel it. You’re trusting your heart and not your head. The head must win in the end. You might go on believing for a time, but sooner or later you would be bound to begin to doubt and worry and torment yourself. You couldn’t fight against the evidence, when once your instinct—or whatever it is that tells you that I am speaking the truth—had begun to weaken. And it would weaken. Think what it would have to be fighting all the time. Think of the case your intelligence would be making out, day after day, till it crushed you. It’s impossible that you could keep yourself from docketing the evidence and arranging it and absorbing it. Think! Consider what you know are actual facts! Nutty invites you down here, knowing that you are Lord Dawlish. All you know about my attitude toward Lord Dawlish is what I told you on the first morning of your visit. I told you I hated him. Yet, knowing you are Lord Dawlish, I become engaged to you. Directly afterward you hear Nutty consoling me as if I were marrying you against my will. Isn’t that an absolutely fair statement of what has happened? How could you go on believing me with all that against you?”
“I know you’re straight. You couldn’t do anything crooked.”
“The evidence proves that I did.”
“I don’t care.”
She shook her head.
“It’s dear of you, Bill, but you’re promising an impossibility. And just because it’s impossible, and because I love you too much to face what would be bound to happen, I’m going to send you away.”
“Send me away!”
“Yes. It’s going to hurt. You don’t know how it’s going to hurt, Bill; but it’s the only thing to do. I love you too much to live with you for the rest of my life wondering all the time whether you still believed or whether the weight of the evidence had crushed out that tiny little spark of intuition which is all that makes you believe me now. You could never know the truth for certain, you see—that’s the horror of it; and sometimes you would be able to make yourself believe, but more often, in spite of all you could do, you would doubt. It would poison both our lives. Little things would happen, insignificant in themselves, which would become tremendously important just because they added a little bit more to the doubt which you would never be able to get rid of.
“When we had quarrels—which we should, as we are both human—they wouldn’t be over and done with in an hour. They would stick in your mind and rankle, because, you see, they might be proofs that I didn’t really love you. And then when I seemed happy with you, you would wonder if I was acting. I know all this sounds morbid and exaggerated, but it isn’t. What have you got to go on, as regards me? What do you really know of me? If something like this had happened after we had been married half-a-dozen years and really knew each other, we could laugh at it. But we are strangers. We came together and loved each other because there was something in each of us which attracted the other. We took that little something as a foundation and built on it. But what has happened has knocked away our poor little foundation. That’s all. We don’t really know anything at all about each other for certain. It’s just guesswork.”
She broke off and looked at the clock.
“I had better be packing if you’re to catch the train.”
He gave a rueful laugh.
“You’re throwing me out!”
“Yes, I am. I want you to go while I am strong enough to let you go.”
“If you really feel like that, why send me away?”
“How do you know I really feel like that? How do you know that I am not pretending to feel like that as part of a carefully-prepared plan?”
He made an impatient gesture.
“Yes, I know,” she said. “You think I am going out of my way to manufacture unnecessary complications. I’m not; I’m simply looking ahead. If I were trying to trap you for the sake of your money, could I play a stronger card than by seeming anxious to give you up? If I were to give in now, sooner or later that suspicion would come to you. You would drive it away. You might drive it away a hundred times. But you couldn’t kill it. In the end it would beat you.”
He shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
“I can’t argue.”
“Nor can I. I can only put very badly things which I know are true. Come and pack.”
“I’ll do it. Don’t you bother.”
“Nonsense! No man knows how to pack properly.”
He followed her to his rooms, pulled out his suit-case, the symbol of the end of all things, watched her as she flitted about, the sun shining on her hair as she passed and repassed the window. She was picking things up, folding them, packing them. Bill looked on with an aching sense of desolation. It was all so friendly, so intimate, so exactly as it would have been if she were his wife. It seemed to him needlessly cruel that she should be playing on this note of domesticity at the moment when she was barring for ever the door between him and happiness. He rebelled helplessly against the attitude she had taken. He had not thought it all out, as she had done. It was folly, insanity, ruining their two lives like this for a scruple.
Once again he was to encounter that practical strain in the feminine mind which jars upon a man in trouble. She was holding something in her hand and looking at it with concern.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she said. “Your socks are in an awful state, poor boy!”
He had the feeling of having been hit by something. A man has not a woman’s gift of being able to transfer his mind at will from sorrow to socks.
“Like sieves!” She sighed. A troubled frown wrinkled her forehead. “Men are so helpless! Oh, dear, I’m sure you don’t pay any attention to anything important. I don’t believe you ever bother your head about keeping warm in winter and not getting your feet wet. And now I sha’n’t be able to look after you!”
Bill’s voice broke. He felt himself trembling.
She was kneeling on the floor, her head bent over the suit-case. She looked up and met his eyes.
“It’s no use, Bill, dear. I must. It’s the only way.”
The sense of the nearness of the end broke down the numbness which held him.
“Elizabeth! It’s so utterly absurd. It’s just—chucking everything away!”
She was silent for a moment.
“Bill, dear, I haven’t said anything about it before, but don’t you see that there’s my side to be considered too? I only showed you that you could never possibly know that I loved you. How am I to know that you really love me?”
He had moved a step toward her. He drew back, chilled.
“I can’t do more than tell you,” he said.
“You can’t. And there you have put in two words just what I’ve been trying to make clear all the time. Don’t you see that that’s the terrible thing about life, that nobody can do more than tell anybody anything? Life’s nothing but words, words, words; and how are we to know when words are true? How am I to know that you didn’t ask me to marry you out of sheer pity and an exaggerated sense of justice?”
He stared at her.
“That,” he said, “is absolutely ridiculous!”
“Why? Look at it as I should look at it later on, when whatever it is inside me that tells me it’s ridiculous now had died. Just at this moment, while we’re talking here, there’s something stronger than reason which tells me you really do love me. But can’t you understand that that won’t last? It’s like a candle burning on a rock with the tide coming up all round it. It’s burning brightly enough now, and we can see the truth by the light of it. But the tide will put it out, and then we shall have nothing left to see by. There’s a great black sea of suspicion and doubt creeping up to swamp the little spark of intuition inside us.
“I will tell you what would happen to me if I didn’t send you away. Remember I heard what that girl was saying last night. Remember that you hated the thought of depriving me of Uncle Ira’s money so much that your first act was to try to get me to accept half of it. The quixotic thing is the first that it occurs to you to do, because you’re like that, because you’re the straightest, whitest man I’ve ever known or shall know. Could anything be more likely, looking at it as I should later on, than that you should have hit on the idea of marrying me as the only way of undoing the wrong you thought you had done me? I’ve been foolish about obligations all my life. I’ve a sort of morbid pride that hates the thought of owing anything to anybody, of getting anything that I have not earned. By and by, if I were to marry you, a little rotten speck of doubt would begin to eat its way farther and farther into me. It would be the same with you. We should react on each other. We should be watching each other, testing each other, trying each other out all the time. It would be horrible, horrible!”
He started to speak; then, borne down by the hopelessness of it, stopped. Elizabeth stood up. They did not look at each other. He strapped the suit-case and picked it up. The end of all things was at hand.
“Better to end it all cleanly, Bill,” she said, in a low voice. “It will hurt less.”
He did not speak.
“I’ll come down to the gate with you.”
They walked in silence down the drive. The air was heavy with the torpor of late summer. They reached the gate.
“Good-bye, Bill, dear.”
He took her hand dully.
“Good-bye,” he said.
Elizabeth stood at the gate, watching. He swung down the road with long strides. At the bend he turned and for a moment stood there, as if waiting for her to make some sign. Then he fell into his stride again and was gone. Elizabeth leaned on the gate. Her face was twisted, and she clutched the warm wood as if it gave her strength.
The grounds were very empty. The spirit of loneliness brooded on them. Elizabeth walked slowly back to the house. Nutty was coming toward her from the orchard.
“Halloa!” said Nutty.
He was cheerful and debonair. His little eyes were alight with contentment. He hummed a tune.
“Where’s Dawlish?” he said.
“He has gone.”
Nutty’s tune failed in the middle of a bar. Something in his sister’s voice startled him. The glow of contentment gave way to a look of alarm.
“Gone? How do you mean—gone? You don’t mean—gone?”
They had reached the house before he spoke again.
“You don’t mean—gone away?”
“Do you mean—gone away?”
“You aren’t going to marry him?”
The world stood still. The noise of the crickets and all the little sounds of summer smote on Nutty’s ear in one discordant shriek.
“Oh, gosh!” he exclaimed, faintly, and collapsed on the front steps like a jelly-fish.
The spectacle of Nutty in his anguish did not touch Elizabeth. Normally a kind-hearted girl, she was not in the least sorry for him. She had even taken a bitter pleasure and found a momentary relief in loosing the thunderbolt which had smitten him down. Even if it has to manufacture it, misery loves company. She watched Nutty with a cold and uninterested eye as he opened his mouth feebly, shut it again and reopened it; and then when it became apparent that these manœuvres were about to result in speech, she left him and walked quickly down the drive again. She had the feeling that if Nutty were to begin to ask her questions—and he had the aspect of one who is about to ask a thousand—she would break down. She wanted solitude and movement, so she left Nutty sitting and started for the gate. Presently she would go and do things among the beehives; and after that, if that brought no solace, she would go in and turn the house upside down and get dusty and tired. Anything to occupy herself.
Reaction had set in. She had known it would come, and had made ready to fight against it, but she had under-estimated the strength of the enemy. It seemed to her, in those first minutes, that she had done a mad thing; that all those arguments which she had used were far-fetched and ridiculous. It was useless to tell herself that she had thought the whole thing out clearly and had taken the only course that could have been taken. With Bill’s departure the power to face the situation steadily had left her. All she could think of was that she loved him and that she had sent him away.
Why had he listened to her? Why hadn’t he taken her in his arms and told her not to be a little fool? Why did men ever listen to women? If he had really loved her, would he have gone away? She tormented herself with this last question for a while. She was still tormenting herself with it when a melancholy voice broke in on her meditations.
“I can’t believe it,” said the voice. She turned, to perceive Nutty drooping beside her. “I simply can’t believe it!”
Elizabeth clenched her teeth. She was not in the mood for Nutty.
“It will gradually sink in,” she said, unsympathetically.
“Did you really send him away?”
“But what on earth for?”
“Because it was the only thing to do.”
A light shone on Nutty’s darkness.
“Oh, I say, did he hear what I said last night?”
“He did hear what you said last night.”
Nutty’s mouth opened slowly.
Elizabeth said nothing.
“But you could have explained that.”
“Oh, I don’t know—somehow or other.” He appeared to think. “But you said it was you who sent him away.”
“Well, this beats me!”
Elizabeth’s strained patience reached the limit.
“Nutty, please!” she said. “Don’t let’s talk about it. It’s all over now.”
“Nutty, don’t! I can’t stand it. I’m raw all over. I’m hating myself. Please don’t make it worse.”
Nutty looked at her face, and decided not to make it worse. But his anguish demanded some outlet. He found it in soliloquy.
“Just like this for the rest of our lives!” he murmured, taking in the farm-grounds and all that in them stood with one glassy stare of misery. “Nothing but ghastly bees and sweeping floors and fetching water till we die of old age! That is, if those blighters don’t put me in jail for getting that money out of them. How was I to know that it was obtaining money under false pretences? It simply seemed to me a darned good way of collecting a few dollars. I don’t see how I’m ever going to pay them back, so I suppose it’s prison for me all right.”
Elizabeth had been trying not to listen to him, but without success.
“I’ll look after that, Nutty. I have a little money saved up, enough to pay off what you owe. I was saving it for something else, but never mind.”
“Awfully good of you,” said Nutty, but his voice sounded almost disappointed. He was in the frame of mind which resents alleviation of its gloom. He would have preferred at that moment to be allowed to round off the picture of the future which he was constructing in his mind with a reel or two showing himself brooding in a cell. After all, what difference did it make to a man of spacious tastes whether he languished for the rest of his life in a jail or on a farm in the country? Jail, indeed, was almost preferable. You knew where you were when you were in prison. They didn’t spring things on you. Whereas life on a farm was nothing but one long succession of things sprung on you. Now that Lord Dawlish had gone, he supposed that Elizabeth would make him help her with the bees again. At this thought he groaned aloud. When he contemplated a lifetime at Flack’s, a lifetime of bee-dodging and carpet-beating and water-lugging, and reflected that, but for a few innocent words—words spoken, mark you, in a pure spirit of kindliness and brotherly love with the object of putting a bit of optimistic pep into sister!—he might have been in a position to touch a millionaire brother-in-law for the needful whenever he felt disposed, the iron entered into Nutty’s soul. A rotten, rotten world!
Nutty had the sort of mind that moves in circles. After contemplating for a time the rottenness of the world, he came back to the point from which he had started.
“I can’t understand it,” he said. “I can’t believe it.”
He kicked a small pebble that lay convenient to his foot.
“You say you sent him away. If he had legged it on his own account, because of what he heard me say, I could understand that. But why should you—”
It became evident to Elizabeth that, until some explanation of this point was offered to him, Nutty would drift about in her vicinity, moaning and shuffling his feet indefinitely.
“I sent him away because I loved him,” she said, “and because, after what had happened, he could never be certain that I loved him. Can you understand that?”
“No,” said Nutty, frankly, “I’m darned if I can! It sounds loony to me.”
“You can’t see that it wouldn’t have been fair to him to marry him?”
The doubts which she was trying to crush increased the violence of their attack. It was not that she respected Nutty’s judgment in itself. It was that his view of what she had done chimed in so neatly with her own. She longed for someone to tell her that she had done right: someone who would bring back that feeling of certainty which she had had during her talk with Bill. And in these circumstances Nutty’s attitude had more weight than on its merits it deserved. She wished she could cry. She had a feeling that if she once did that the right outlook would come back to her.
Nutty, meanwhile, had found another pebble and was kicking it sombrely. He was beginning to perceive something of the intricate and unfathomable workings of the feminine mind. He had always looked on Elizabeth as an ordinary good fellow, a girl whose mind worked in a more or less understandable way. She was not one of those hysterical women you read about in the works of the novelists; she was just a regular girl. And yet now, at the one moment of her life when everything depended on her acting sensibly, she had behaved in a way that made his head swim when he thought of it. What it amounted to was that you simply couldn’t understand women.
Into this tangle of silent sorrow came a hooting automobile. It drew up at the gate and a man jumped out.
The man who had alighted from the automobile was young and cheerful. He wore a flannel suit of a gay blue and a straw hat with a coloured ribbon, and he looked upon a world which, his manner seemed to indicate, had been constructed according to his own specifications through a single eyeglass. When he spoke it became plain that his nationality was English.
Nutty regarded his beaming countenance with a lowering hostility. The indecency of anyone being cheerful at such a time struck him forcibly. He would have liked mankind to have preserved till further notice a hushed gloom. He glared at the young man.
Elizabeth, such was her absorption in her thoughts, was not even aware of his presence till he spoke to her.
“I beg your pardon, is this Flack’s?”
She looked up and met that sunny eyeglass.
“This is Flack’s,” she said.
“Thank you,” said the young man.
The automobile, a stout, silent man at the helm, throbbed in the nervous way automobiles have when standing still, suggesting somehow that it were best to talk quick, as they can give you only a few minutes before dashing on to keep some other appointment. Either this or a natural volatility lent a breezy rapidity to the visitor’s speech. He looked at Elizabeth across the gate, which it had not occurred to her to open, as if she were just what he had expected her to be and a delight to his eyes, and burst into speech.
“My name’s Nichols—J. Nichols. I expect you remember getting a letter from me a week or two ago?”
The name struck Elizabeth as familiar. But he had gone on to identify himself before she could place it in her mind.
“Lawyer, don’t you know. Wrote you a letter telling you that your Uncle Ira Nutcombe had left all his money to Lord Dawlish.”
“Oh, yes,” said Elizabeth, and was about to invite him to pass the barrier, when he began to speak again.
“You know, I want to explain that letter. Wrote it on a sudden impulse, don’t you know. The more I have to do with the law, the more it seems to hit me that a lawyer oughtn’t to act on impulse. At the moment, you see, it seemed to me the decent thing to do—put you out of your misery, and so forth—stop your entertaining hopes never to be realized, what? and all that sort of thing. You see, it was like this: Bill—I mean Lord Dawlish—is a great pal of mine, a dear old chap. You ought to know him. Well, being in the know, you understand, through your uncle having deposited the will with us, I gave Bill the tip directly I heard of Mr. Nutcombe’s death. I sent him a telephone message to come to the office, and I said: ‘Bill, old man, this old buster’—I beg your pardon, this old gentleman—‘has left you all his money.’ Quite informal, don’t you know, and at the same time, in the same informal spirit, I wrote you the letter.” He dammed the torrent for a moment. “By the way, of course you are Miss Elizabeth Boyd, what?”
The young man seemed relieved.
“I’m glad of that,” he said. “Funny if you hadn’t been. You’d have wondered what on earth I was talking about.”
In spite of her identity, this was precisely what Elizabeth was doing. Her mind, still under a cloud, had been unable to understand one word of Mr. Nichols’s discourse. Judging from his appearance, which was that of a bewildered hosepipe or a snake whose brain is being momentarily overtaxed, Nutty was in the same difficulty. He had joined the group at the gate, abandoning the pebble which he had been kicking in the background, and was now leaning on the top bar, a picture of silent perplexity.
“You see, the trouble is,” resumed the young man, “my governor, who’s the head of the firm, is all for doing things according to precedent. He loves red tape—wears it wrapped round him in winter instead of flannel. He’s all for doing things in the proper legal way, which, as I dare say you know, takes months. And, meanwhile, everybody’s wondering what’s happening and who has got the money, and so on and so forth. I thought I would skip all that and let you know right away exactly where you stood, so I wrote you that letter. I don’t think my temperament’s quite suited to the law, don’t you know, and if he ever hears that I wrote you that letter I have a notion that the governor will think so too. So I came over here to ask you, if you don’t mind, not to mention it when you get in touch with the governor. I frankly admit that that letter, written with the best intentions, was a bloomer.”
With which manly admission the young man paused, and allowed the rays of his eyeglass to play upon Elizabeth in silence. Elizabeth tried to piece together what little she understood of his monologue.
“You mean that you want me not to tell your father that I got a letter from you?”
“Exactly that. And thanks very much for not saying ‘without prejudice,’ or anything of that kind. The governor would have.”
“But I don’t understand. Why should you think that I should ever mention anything to your father?”
“Might slip out, you know, without your meaning it.”
“But when? I shall never meet your father.”
“You might quite easily. He might want to see you about the money.”
The eyebrow above the eyeglass rose, surprised.
“Haven’t you had a letter from the governor?”
The young man made a despairing gesture.
“I took it for granted that it had come on the same boat that I did. There you have the governor’s methods! Couldn’t want a better example. I suppose some legal formality or other has cropped up and laid him a stymie, and he’s waiting to get round it. You really mean he hasn’t written?
“Why, dash it,” said the young man, as one to whom all is revealed, “then you can’t have understood a word of what I’ve been saying!”
For the first time Elizabeth found herself capable of smiling. She liked this incoherent young man.
“I haven’t,” she said.
“You don’t know about the will?”
“Only what you told me in your letter.”
“Well, I’m hanged! Tell me—I hadn’t the honour of knowing him personally—was the late Mr. Nutcombe’s whole life as eccentric as his will-making? It seems to me——”
“Uncle Ira’s middle name,” he said, “was Bloomingdale. That,” he proceeded, bitterly, “is the frightful injustice of it all. I had to suffer from it right along, and all I get, when it comes to a finish, is a miserable hundred dollars. Uncle Ira insisted on father’s and mother’s calling me Nutcombe; and whenever he got a new craze I was always the one he worked it off on. You remember the time he became a vegetarian, Elizabeth? Gosh!” Nutty brooded coldly on the past. “You remember the time he had it all worked out that the end of the world was to come at five in the morning one February? Made me stop up all night with him, reading Marcus Aurelius! And the steam-heat turned off at twelve-thirty! I could tell you a dozen things just as bad as that. He always picked on me. And now I’ve gone through it all he leaves me a hundred dollars!”
Mr. Nichols nodded sympathetically.
“I should have imagined that he was rather like that. You know, of course, why he made that will I wrote to you about, leaving all his money to Bill Dawlish? Simply because Bill, who met him golfing at a place in Cornwall in the off season, cured him of slicing his approach-shots! I give you my word that was the only reason. I’m sorry for old Bill, poor old chap. Such a good sort!”
“He’s all right,” said Nutty. “But why you should be sorry for him gets past me. A fellow who gets a million——”
“But he doesn’t, don’t you see?”
“How do you mean?”
“Why, this other will puts him out of the running.”
“Which other will?”
“Why, the one I’m telling you about.”
He looked from one to the other, apparently astonished at their slowness of understanding. Then an idea occurred to him.
“Why, now that I think of it, I never told you, did I? Yes, your uncle made another will at the very last moment, leaving all he possessed to Miss Boyd.”
The dead silence in which his words were received stimulated him to further speech. It occurred to him that, after that letter of his, perhaps these people were wary about believing anything he said.
“It’s absolutely true. It’s the real, stable information this time. I had it direct from the governor, who was there when he made the will. He and the governor had had a row about something, you know, and they made it up during those last days, and—— Well, apparently your uncle thought he had better celebrate it somehow, so he made a new will. From what little I know of him, that was the way he celebrated most things. I took it for granted the governor would have written to you by this time. I expect you’ll hear by the next mail. You see, what brought me over was the idea that when he wrote you might possibly take it into your heads to mention having heard from me. You don’t know my governor. If he found out I had done that I should never hear the last of it. So I said to him: ‘Gov’nor, I’m feeling a bit jaded. Been working too hard, or something. I’ll take a week or so off, if you can spare me.’ He didn’t object, so I whizzed over. Well, of course, I’m awfully sorry for old Bill, but I congratulate you, Miss Boyd.”
“What’s the time?” said Elizabeth.
Mr. Nichols was surprised. He could not detect the connection of ideas.
“It’s about five to eleven,” he said, consulting his watch.
The next moment he was even more surprised, for Elizabeth, making nothing of the barrier of the gate, had rushed past him and was even now climbing into his automobile.
“Take me to the station, at once,” she was crying to the stout, silent man, whom not even these surprising happenings had shaken from his attitude of well-fed detachment.
The stout man, ceasing to be silent, became interrogative.
“Take me to the station. I must catch the eleven o’clock train.”
The stout man was not a rapid thinker. He enveloped her in a stodgy gaze. It was only too plain to Elizabeth that he was a man who liked to digest one idea slowly before going on to absorb the next. Jerry Nichols had told him to drive to Flack’s. He had driven to Flack’s. Here he was at Flack’s. Now this young woman was telling him to drive to the station. It was a new idea, and he bent himself to the Fletcherizing of it.
“I’ll give you ten dollars if you get me there by eleven,” shouted Elizabeth.
The car started as if it were some living thing that had had a sharp instrument jabbed into it. Once or twice in his life it had happened to the stout man to encounter an idea which he could swallow at a gulp. This was one of them.
Mr. Nichols, following the car with a wondering eye, found that Nutty was addressing him.
“Is this really true?” said Nutty.
A wild cry, a piercing whoop of pure joy, broke the summer stillness.
“Come and have a drink, old man!” babbled Nutty. “This wants celebrating!” His face fell. “Oh, I was forgetting! I’m on the wagon.”
“On the wagon?”
“Sworn off, you know. I’m never going to touch another drop as long as I live. I began to see things—monkeys!”
“I had a pal,” said Mr. Nichols, sympathetically, “who used to see kangaroos.”
Nutty seized him by the arm, hospitable though handicapped.
“Come and have a bit of bread and butter, or a slice of cake or something, and a glass of water. I want to tell you a lot more about Uncle Ira, and I want to hear all about your end of it. Gee, what a day!”
“ ‘The maddest, merriest of all the glad New Year,’ ” assented Mr. Nichols. “A slice of that old ’eighty-seven cake. Just the thing!”
Bill made his way along the swaying train to the smoking-car, which was almost empty. It had come upon him overwhelmingly that he needed tobacco. He was in the mood when a man must either smoke or give up altogether the struggle with Fate. He lit his pipe, and looked out of the window at Long Island racing past him. It was only a blur to him.
The conductor was asking for tickets. Bill showed his mechanically, and the conductor passed on. Then he settled down once more to his thoughts. He could not think coherently yet. His walk to the station had been like a walk in a dream. He was conscious of a great, dull pain that weighed on his mind, smothering it. The trees and houses still moved past him in the same indistinguishable blur.
He became aware that the conductor was standing beside him, saying something about a ticket. He produced his once more, but this did not seem to satisfy the conductor. To get rid of the man, who was becoming a nuisance, he gave him his whole attention, as far as that smothering weight would allow him to give his whole attention to anything, and found that the man was saying strange things. He thought that he could not have heard him correctly.
“What?” he said.
“Lady back there told me to collect her fare from you,” repeated the conductor. “Said you would pay.”
Bill blinked. Either there was some mistake or trouble had turned his brain. He pushed himself together with a supreme effort.
“A lady said I would pay her fare?”
“But—but why?” demanded Bill, feebly.
The conductor seemed unwilling to go into first causes.
“Search me!” he replied.
“Pay her fare!”
“Told me to collect it off the gentleman in the grey suit in the smoking-car. You’re the only one that’s got a grey suit.”
“There’s some mistake.”
“What does she look like?”
The conductor delved in his mind for adjectives.
“Small,” he said, collecting them slowly. “Brown eyes——”
He desisted from his cataloguing at this point, for, with a loud exclamation, Bill had dashed away.
Two cars farther back he had dropped into the seat by Elizabeth and was gurgling wordlessly. A massive lady, who had entered the train at East Moriches in company with three children and a cat in a basket, eyed him with a curiosity that she made no attempt to conceal. Two girls in a neighbouring seat leaned forward eagerly to hear all. This was because one of them had told the other that Elizabeth was Mary Pickford. Her companion was sceptical, but nevertheless obviously impressed.
“My God!” said Bill.
The massive lady told the three children sharply to look at their picture-book.
“Well, I’m hanged!”
The mother of three said that if her offspring did not go right along to the end of the car and look at the pretty trees trouble must infallibly ensue.
At the sound of the name the two girls leaned back, taking no further interest in the proceedings.
“What are you doing here?”
Elizabeth smiled, a shaky but encouraging smile.
“I came after you, Bill.”
“You’ve got no hat!”
“I was in too much of a hurry to get one, and I gave all my money to the man who drove the car. That’s why I had to ask you to pay my fare. You see, I’m not too proud to use your money after all.”
“Tickets please. One seventy-nine.”
It was the indefatigable conductor, sensible of his duty to the company and resolved that nothing should stand in the way of its performance. Bill gave him five dollars and told him to keep the change. The conductor saw eye to eye with him in this.
“Bill! You gave him——” She gave a little shrug of her shoulders. “Well, it’s lucky you’re going to marry a rich girl.”
A look of the utmost determination overspread Bill’s face.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m going to marry you. Now that I’ve got you again I’m not going to let you go. You can use all the arguments you like, but it won’t matter. I was a fool ever to listen. If you try the same sort of thing again I’m just going to pick you up and carry you off. I’ve been thinking it over since I left you. My mind has been working absolutely clearly. I’ve gone into the whole thing. It’s perfect rot to take the attitude you did. We know we love each other, and I’m not going to listen to any talk about time making us doubt it. Time will only make us love each other all the more.”
“Why, Bill, this is eloquence!”
“I feel eloquent.”
The stout lady ceased to listen. They had lowered their voices and she was hard of hearing. She consoled herself by taking up her copy of Gingery Stories and burying herself in the hectic adventures of a young millionaire and an artist’s model.
Elizabeth caught a fleeting glimpse of the cover.
“I bet there’s a story in there of a man named Harold who was too proud to marry a girl, though he loved her, because she was rich and he wasn’t. You wouldn’t be so silly as that, Bill, would you?”
“It’s the other way about with me.”
“No, it’s not. Bill, do you know a man named Nichols?”
“J. Nichols. He said he knew you. He said he had told you about Uncle Ira leaving you his money.”
“Jerry Nichols! How on earth—— Oh, I remember. He wrote to you, didn’t he?”
“He did. And this morning, just after you had left, he called.”
“Jerry Nichols called?”
“To tell me that Uncle Ira had made another will before he died, leaving the money to me.”
Their eyes met.
“So I stole his car and caught the train,” said Elizabeth, simply.
Bill was recovering slowly from the news.
“But—this makes rather a difference, you know,” he said.
“In what way?”
“Well, what I mean to say is, you’ve got a million sterling and I’ve got four hundred a year, don’t you know, and so——”
Elizabeth tapped him on the knee.
“Bill, do you see what this is in my hand?”
“It’s a pin. And I’m going to dig it right into you wherever I think it will hurt most, unless you stop being Harold at once. I’ll tell you exactly what you’ve got to do, and you needn’t think you’re going to do anything else. When we get to New York, I first borrow the money from you to buy a hat, and then we walk to the City Hall, where you go to the window marked ‘Marriage Licences,’ and buy one. It will cost you one dollar. You will give your correct name and age and you will hear mine. It will come as a shock to you to know that my second name is something awful! I’ve kept it concealed all my life. After we’ve done that we shall go to the only church that anybody could possibly be married in. It’s on Twenty-ninth Street, just round the corner from Fifth Avenue. It’s got a fountain playing in front of it, and it’s a little bit of heaven dumped right down in the middle of New York. And after that—well, we might start looking about for that farm we’ve talked of. We can get a good farm for a million, and leave something over to be doled out—cautiously—to Nutty.
“And then all we have to do is to live happily ever after.”
Something small and soft slipped itself into his hand, just as it had done ages and ages ago in Lady Wetherby’s wood.
It stimulated Bill’s conscience to one last remonstrance.
“But, I say, you know——”
“This business of the money, you know. What I mean to say is—— Ow!”
He broke off, as a sharp pain manifested itself in the fleshy part of his leg. Elizabeth was looking at him reprovingly, her weapon poised for another onslaught.
“I told you!” she said.
“All right, I won’t do it again.”
“That’s a good child. Bill, listen. Come closer and tell me all sorts of nice things about myself till we get to Jamaica, and then I’ll tell you what I think of you. We’ve just passed Islip, so you’ve plenty of time.”