Woman’s Home Companion, November 1921
HIPS’ concerts are given in aid of the Seamen’s Orphans and Widows, and after one has been present at a few of them one seems to feel that any right-thinking orphan or widow would rather jog along and take a chance of starvation than be the innocent cause of such things. They open with a long speech from the master of the ceremonies—so long, as a rule, that it is only the thought of what is going to happen afterward that enables the audience to bear it with fortitude. This done, the amateur talent is unleashed, and the grim work begins.
It was not till after the all too brief intermission for rest and recuperation that the newly formed team of Marlowe and Hignett was scheduled to appear. Previous to this there had been dark deeds done in the quiet saloon. The lecturer on deep-sea fish had fulfilled his threat and spoken at great length on a subject which, treated by a master of oratory, would have palled on the audience after ten or fifteen minutes; and at the end of fifteen minutes this speaker had only just got past the haddocks, and was feeling his way tentatively through the shrimps.
A young man recited “Gunga Din” and, willfully misinterpreting the gratitude of the audience that it was over, for a desire for more, had followed it with “Fuzzy-Wuzzy.” His sister—these things run in families—had sung “My Little Gray Home in the West,” and, with the same obtuseness which characterized her brother, had come back and rendered two plantation songs. The audience was now examining its programs in the interval of silence in order to ascertain the duration of the sentence still remaining unexpired.
It was shocked to read the following:
A Little Imitation . . . . . . . . . . S. Marlowe
All over the saloon you could see fair women and brave men wilting in their seats. Imitation! The word, as Keats would have said, was like a knell! Many of these people were old travelers, and their minds went back wincingly, as one recalls forgotten wounds, to occasions when performers at ships’ concerts had imitated whole strings of Dickens’s characters or, with the assistance of a few hats and a little false hair, had endeavored to portray Napoleon, Bismarck, Shakespeare, and other of the famous dead. In this printed line on the program there was nothing to indicate the nature or scope of the imitation which this S. Marlowe proposed to inflict upon them. They could only sit and wait, and hope that it would be short.
There was a sinking of hearts as Eustace Hignett moved down the room and took his place at the piano. A pianist! This argued more singing. They stared at Hignett apprehensively. There seemed to them something ominous in the man’s very aspect. His face was pale and set, the face of one approaching a task at which his humanity shudders.
So tense was Eustace’s concentration that he did not see Billie Bennett, seated in the front row. Billie had watched him enter, with a little thrill of embarrassment. She wished that she had been content with one of the seats at the back. But her friend Jane Hubbard, who accompanied her, had insisted on the front row.
In order to avoid recognition for as long as possible, Billie now put up her fan and turned to Jane. She was surprised to see that her friend was staring eagerly before her, with a fixity almost equal to that of Eustace.
“What is the matter, Jane?”
Jane Hubbard was a tall, handsome girl with large brown eyes. About her, as Bream Mortimer had said, there was something dynamic. The daughter of an eminent explorer and big-game hunter, she had frequently accompanied her father on his expeditions. An outdoors girl.
“Who is that man at the piano?” she whispered. “Do you know him?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” said Billie. “His name is Hignett. Why?”
“I met him in the subway not long ago. Poor little fellow, how miserable he looks!”
At this moment their conversation was interrupted. Eustace Hignett, pulling himself together with a painful effort, raised his hands and struck a crashing chord; and, as he did so, there appeared through the door at the far end of the saloon a figure at the sight of which the entire audience started convulsively, with a feeling that a worse thing had befallen them than even they had looked for.
The figure in the doorway wore a boldly striped shirt. Its face was a grisly black and below the nose appeared what seemed a horrible gash. It advanced toward them, smoking a cigar.
“Hullo, Ernest,” it said.
And then it seemed to pause expectantly, as though desiring some reply. Dead silence reigned in the saloon.
Those nearest the piano—and nobody more quickly than Jane Hubbard—now observed that the white face of the man on the stool had grown whiter still. His eyes gazed out glassily from under his damp brow. He looked like a man who was seeing some ghastly sight. The audience sympathized with him. They felt like that, too.
In all human plans there is ever some slight hitch, some little miscalculation which just makes all the difference. A moment’s thought should have told Eustace Hignett that a half-smoked cigar was one of the essential properties to any imitation of the eminent Mr. Tinney; but he had completely overlooked the fact. His jaw fell. His eyes protruded. He looked for a long moment like one of those deep-sea fishes concerning which the recent lecturer had spoken so searchingly. Then, with the cry of a stricken animal, he bounded from his seat and fled for the deck.
There was a rustle of taffeta at Billie’s side as Jane Hubbard rose and followed him. Thrusting aside a steward who happened to be between her and the door, she raced in pursuit.
Sam Marlowe had watched his cousin’s dash for the open with a consternation so complete that his senses seemed to have left him. Of all the learned professions, the imitation of Mr. Frank Tinney is the one which can least easily be carried through single-handed. The man at the piano, the leader of the orchestra, is essential.
For an instant Sam stood there, gaping blankly. Then the open door of the saloon seemed to beckon an invitation. He made for it, reached it, passed through it. That concluded his efforts in aid of the Seamen’s Orphans and Widows.
The spell which had lain on the audience broke. This imitation seemed to them to possess in an extraordinary measure the one quality which renders amateur imitations tolerable, that of brevity. The saloon echoed with their applause.
It brought no balm to Samuel Marlowe. He did not hear it. He had fled for refuge to his stateroom, and was lying in the lower berth, chewing the pillow, a soul in torment.
THERE was a tap at the door. Sam sat up dizzily. He had lost all count of time.
“I have a note for you, sir.”
It was the level voice of J. B. Midgeley, the steward. The stewards of the White Star Line, besides being the civilest and most obliging body of men in the world, all have soft and pleasant voices. A White Star steward, waking you up at six-thirty to tell you that your bath is ready, when you wanted to sleep on till twelve, is the nearest human approach to the nightingale.
Sam jumped up and switched on the light. He went to the door and took the note from J. B. Midgeley, who, his mission accomplished, retired in an orderly manner down the passage. Sam looked at the letter with a thrill. He had never seen the handwriting before, but, with the eye of love, he recognized it. He tore open the envelope.
Please come up to the top deck. I want to speak to you.
Sam could not disguise it from himself that he was a little disappointed. I don’t know if you see anything wrong with the letter, but the way Sam looked at it was that, for a first love letter, it might have been longer and perhaps a shade warmer. And, without running any risk of writer’s cramp, she might have signed it.
However, these were small matters. No doubt she had been in a hurry, and all that sort of thing. The important point was that he was going to see her. A woman’s gentle sympathy, that was what Samuel Marlowe wanted more than anything else at the moment. That, he felt, was what the doctor ordered. He scrubbed the burnt cork off his face with all possible speed and changed his clothes, and made his way to the upper deck. It was like Billie, he felt, to have chosen this spot for their meeting. It would be deserted, and it was hallowed for them both by sacred associations.
She was standing at the rail, looking out over the water. The girl appeared to be wrapped in thought, and it was not till the sharp crack of Sam’s head against an overhanging stanchion announced his approach that she turned.
“You’ve been a long time.”
“It wasn’t an easy job,” explained Sam, “getting all that burnt cork off. You’ve no notion how the stuff sticks. You have to use butter.”
“Don’t tell me these horrible things!” Her voice rose almost hysterically. “I never want to hear the words ‘burnt cork’ mentioned again as long as I live.”
“I feel exactly the same.” Sam moved to her side.
“Darling,” he said in a low voice, “it was like you to ask me to meet you here. I know what you were thinking. You thought that I should need sympathy. You wanted to pet me, to soothe my wounded feelings, to hold me in your arms, and tell me that, as we loved each other, what did anything else matter?”
“I thought,” he said, “that possibly you might have wished to comfort me. I have been through a great strain. I have had a shock. . . .”
“And what about me?” she demanded passionately. “Haven’t I had a shock?”
He melted at once.
“Have you had a shock, too? Poor little thing! Sit down and tell me all about it.”
“Can’t you understand what a shock I have had? I thought you were the perfect knight.”
“Yes, isn’t it?”
“I thought you said it was a perfect night.”
“I said I thought you were a perfect knight.”
Silence fell. Sam was feeling hurt and bewildered. He could not understand her mood. He had come up expecting to be soothed and comforted, and she was like a petulant iceberg.
She gave a little sob.
“I put you on a pedestal, and I find you have feet of clay. I can never think of you again without picturing you as you stood in that saloon, stammering and helpless. . . .”
“Well, what can you do when your pianist runs out on you?”
“You could have done something!”
The words she had spoken only yesterday to Jane Hubbard came back to her. “I can’t forgive a man for looking ridiculous.”
“I did my best,” said Sam sullenly.
“That is the awful thought.”
“I did it for your sake.”
“I know. It gives me a horrible sense of guilt.” She shuddered again. “I can never marry you now.”
“What! Good heavens! Don’t be absurd.”
“Oh, go on, have a dash at it,” he said, encouragingly, though his heart was sinking.
She shook her head.
“When I said I would marry you, you were a hero to me. You stood to me for everything that was noble and brave and wonderful. I had only to shut my eyes to conjure up the picture of you as you dived off the rail that morning. Now”— her voice trembled— “if I shut my eyes now, I can only see a man with a hideous black face making himself the laughing-stock of the ship. How can I marry you, haunted by that picture?”
“But, good heavens, you talk as if I made a habit of blacking up. You talk as if you expected me to come to the altar smothered in burnt cork.”
She looked at him sadly. “There’s a bit of black still on your left ear.”
He tried to take her hand. But she drew it away. He fell back as if struck.
“Well, I might have expected it. I might have known what would happen! Eustace warned me. Eustace was right. He knows women—as I do—now. Women! What mighty ills have not been done by women? Who was’t betrayed the what’s-its-name? A woman! Who lost . . . lost . . . who lost . . . who . . . er . . . and so on? A woman. . . . So, all is over! There is nothing to be said but good-by?”
“Good-by, then, Miss Bennett!”
“Good-by,” said Billie sadly. “I—I’m sorry.”
“Don’t mention it!”
“I hope—I hope you won’t be unhappy.”
“Unhappy!” Sam produced a strangled noise from his larynx like the cry of a shrimp in pain. “Unhappy! I’m not unhappy! Whatever gave you that idea? I feel I’ve had a merciful escape.”
“It’s very unkind and rude of you to say that.”
“I’m not unhappy! What have I got to be unhappy about? What on earth does any man want to get married for? Good night, Miss Bennett. And good-by—forever.”
He turned on his heel and strode across the deck. He had spoken bravely; but already his heart was aching.
As he drew near to his stateroom, he was amazed and disgusted to hear a high tenor voice raised in song proceeding from behind the closed door:
“I fee-er naw faw in shee-ining arr-mor,
Though his lance be sharrrp and-er keen:
But I fee-er, I fee-er the glah-mour
Therough thy der-rooping lashes seen;
I fee-er, I fee-er the glah-mour. . .”
Sam flung open the door wrathfully. That Eustace Hignett should be even alive was bad—he had pictured him hurling himself overboard and bobbing about, a pleasing sight, in the wake of the vessel. Instead of which, here he was comporting himself like a blasted linnet.
“Well,” he said sternly, “so there you are!”
Eustace Hignett looked up brightly, even beamingly. In the brief interval which had elapsed since Sam had seen him last an extraordinary transformation had taken place in this young man. His wan look had disappeared. His eyes were bright.
“Hullo!” he said. “I was wondering where you had got to.”
“Never mind,” said Sam coldly, “where I had got to! Where did you get to, and why? You poor, miserable worm!” he went on in a burst of generous indignation, “what have you got to say for yourself? What do you mean by dashing away like that and killing my little entertainment?”
“Awfully sorry, old man. I hadn’t foreseen the cigar. I was bearing up tolerably well till I began to sniff the smoke. Then everything seemed to go black—I don’t mean you, of course. You were black already—and I got the feeling that I simply must get on deck and drown myself.”
“Well, why didn’t you?” demanded Sam, with a strong sense of injury. “I might have forgiven you then. But to come down here and find you singing. . . .”
A soft light came into Eustace Hignett’s eyes.
“I want to tell you all about that,” he said. “It’s the most astonishing story. Makes you believe in fate and all that sort of thing. A week ago I was on the subway in New York—”
He broke off, while Sam cursed him, the subway, and the city of New York in the order named.
“Something is the matter,” said Eustace Hignett. “I can tell it by your manner.”
“Let me tell you that, as a result of that concert, my engagement is broken off.”
Eustace sprang forward with outstretched hand.
“Not really? How splendid! Accept my congratulations! This is the finest thing that could possibly have happened. You are well out of it, Sam.”
Sam thrust aside his hand.
“My heart is broken,” he said with dignity.
“That feeling will pass, giving way to one of devout thankfulness. I know! I’ve been there! After all. . . . Wilhelmina Bennett . . . what is she? ‘A rag and a bone and a hank of hair’!”
“She is nothing of the kind,” said Sam, revolted. “She is the only girl in the world, and, owing to your idiotic behavior, I have lost her.”
“You speak of the only girl in the world,” said Eustace blithely. “If you want to hear about the only girl in the world, I will tell you.”
“I’m going to bed,” said Sam brusquely.
“A week ago,” said Eustace Hignett, “I will ask you to picture me seated after some difficulty in a carriage in a New York subway; I got into conversation with a girl with an elephant gun.”
Sam revised his private commination service in order to include the elephant gun.
“She was my soul-mate,” proceeded Eustace with quiet determination. “I didn’t know it at the time, but she was. She had grave brown eyes, a wonderful personality, and this elephant gun. She was bringing the gun away from the down-town place where she had taken it to be mended.”
“Did she shoot you with it?”
“Shoot me? What do you mean? Why, no!”
“The girl must have been a fool!” said Sam bitterly. “The chance of a lifetime, and she missed it. Where are my pajamas?”
“I haven’t seen your pajamas. . . . . She talked to me about this elephant gun, and explained its mechanism. Well, we parted at Sixty-sixth Street and, strange as it may seem, I forgot all about her.”
“Do it again! Forget all about her again.”
“Nothing,” said Eustace Hignett gravely, “could make me do that. Our souls have blended. Our beings have called to one another from their deepest depths, saying. . . . There are your pajamas, over in the corner . . . saying, ‘You are mine!’ Little did I know that she was sailing on this very boat! But just now she came to me as I writhed on deck. She seemed to understand without a word how I was feeling. There are some situations which do not need words. She went away, and returned with a mixture of some description in a glass. She said it was what her father always used in Africa for bull-calves with the staggers. Well, believe me or believe me not— Are you asleep?”
“Believe me, or believe me not, in under two minutes I was not merely freed from the nausea caused by your cigar, I was smoking myself! I was walking the deck with her without the slightest qualm. I have said some mordant things about women since I came on board this boat. I withdraw them unreservedly. They still apply to girls like Wilhelmina Bennett; but I have ceased to include the whole sex in my remarks. Jane Hubbard has restored my faith in woman.”
Eustace Hignett finished undressing and got into bed. With a soft smile on his face he switched off the light. At about twelve-thirty a voice came from the lower berth:
“What is it now?”
“There is a sweet womanly strength about her, Sam. She was telling me she once killed a panther with a hat-pin.”
Sam groaned and tossed on his mattress.
“At least, I think it was a panther,” said Eustace Hignett, at a quarter past one. “Either a panther or a puma.”
A WEEK after the liner “Atlantic” had docked, Sam Marlowe might have been observed—and was observed by various of the residents—sitting on a bench on the esplanade of that repellent watering-place, Bingley-on-the-Sea, in Sussex. All watering-places on the south coast of England are blots on the landscape; but, though I am aware that by saying it I shall offend the civic pride of some of the others, none are so peculiarly foul as Bingley-on-the-Sea. The asphalt on the Bingley esplanade is several degrees more depressing than the asphalt on other esplanades. The Swiss waiters at the Hotel Magnificent, where Sam was stopping, are in a class of bungling incompetence by themselves. The very waves that break on the shingle seem to creep up the beach reluctantly, as if it revolted them to come to such a place.
Why, then, was Sam Marlowe visiting this ozone-swept Gehenna? Why, with all the rest of England at his disposal, had he chosen to spend a week at breezy, blighted Bingley?
Simply because he had been disappointed in love. He had sought relief by slinking off alone to the most benighted spot he knew, in the same spirit as other men in similar circumstances had gone off to the Rockies to shoot grizzly bears.
To a certain extent the experiment had proved successful. If the Hotel Magnificent had not cured his agony, the service and the cooking there had at least done much to take his mind off it. His heart still ached, but he felt equal to going to London and seeing his father, which, of course, he ought to have done immediately upon his arrival in England.
He rose from his bench and, going back to the hotel to inquire about trains, observed a familiar figure in the lobby. Eustace Hignett was leaning over the counter in conversation with the desk clerk.
“Hullo, Eustace!” said Sam.
“Hullo, Sam!” said Eustace.
There was a brief silence. The conversational opening had been a little unfortunately chosen, for it reminded both men of a recent painful episode in their lives.
“What are you doing here?” asked Eustace.
“What are you doing here?” asked Sam.
“I came to see you,” said Eustace, leading his cousin out of the lobby and onto the bleak esplanade. A fine rain had begun to fall, and Bingley looked, if possible, worse than ever. “I asked for you at your club, and they told me you had come down here.”
“What did you want to see me about?”
“The fact is, old man, I’m in a bit of a hole.”
“What’s the matter?”
Eustace stared gloomily at a stranded crab on the beach below. The crab stared gloomily back.
“Well, you remember my telling you about the girl I met on the boat?”
“Jane Hubbard,” said Eustace reverently. “Sam, I love that girl.”
“I know. You told me.”
“But I didn’t tell her. I tried to muster up the nerve, but what a dashed difficult thing a proposal is to bring off, isn’t it! I mean to say, so jolly hard to work into a conversation, if you know what I mean. Well, anyway, I didn’t bring it off, and it began to look to me as though I was in the soup. And then she told me something which gave me an idea. She said the Bennetts had invited her to stay with them in the country when she got to England. Old Mr. Bennett and his pal Mortimer, Bream’s father, were trying to get a house somewhere which they could share. Only, so far, they hadn’t managed to find the house they wanted. When I heard that, I had an idea. I happened to know, you see, that Bennett and Mortimer were both frightfully keen on getting Windles for the summer; but my mother wouldn’t hear of it and gave them both the miss-in-balk. It suddenly occurred to me that Mother was going to be away in America all the summer, so why shouldn’t I make a private deal, let them the house, and make it a stipulation that I was to stay there to look after things? And, to cut a long story short, that’s what I did.”
“You let Windles?”
“Yes. Old Bennett was down on the dock to meet Wilhelmina, and I fixed it up with him then and there.”
“Why do you say you’re in a hole?” Sam asked. “It seems to me as though you had done yourself a bit of good. You’ve got the check, and you’re in the same house with Miss Hubbard. What more do you want?”
“But suppose Mother gets to hear about it?”
“But why should she hear of it?”
“Well, down at Windles it has been raining practically all the time, and after a couple of days it became fairly clear to me that Bennett and Mortimer were getting a bit fed. I mean to say, having spent all their lives in America, don’t you know, they weren’t used to a country where it rained all the time, and pretty soon it began to get on their nerves. They started quarreling. Nothing bad at first, but hotting up more and more, till at last they were hardly on speaking terms. Every little thing that happened seemed to get the wind up them. There was that business of Smith, for instance.”
“Mortimer’s bulldog. Old Bennett is scared of him, and wants him kept in the stables, but Mortimer insists on letting him roam about the house. Well, they scrapped a goodish bit about that. And then there was the orchestrion. You remember the orchestrion?”
“I haven’t been down at Windles since I was a kid.”
“That’s right. I forgot that. Well, my pater had an orchestrion put in the drawing-room. One of those automatic things you switch on, you know. Makes a devil of a row. Bennett can’t stand it, and Mortimer insists on playing it all day. Well, they hotted up a goodish bit over that.”
“Well, I don’t see how all this affects you. If they want to scrap, why not let them?”
“Yes, but, you see, the most frightful thing has happened. Bennett’s talking about taking legal advice to see if he can’t induce Mortimer to cheese it by law, as he can’t be stopped any other way. And the deuce of it is, your father’s Bennett’s legal representative over in England, and he’s sure to go to him.”
“Well, that’ll do the pater a bit of good. Legal fees.”
“But don’t you see? If Bennett goes to your father about this binge, your father will get onto the fact that Windles has been let, and the first thing that’ll happen will be that Mother will get to hear of it, and then where shall I be?”
“Yes, there’s that,” he admitted. “What are you going to do about it?”
“You’re the only person who can help me.”
“What can I do?”
“Why, your father wants you to join the firm, doesn’t he? Well, for goodness’ sake buck up and join it. Don’t waste a minute. Dash up to London by the next train and sign on. Then, if Bennett does blow in for advice, you can fix it somehow that he sees you instead of your father, and it’ll be all right.”
“But I don’t know anything about the law. What shall I say to him?”
“That’s all right. I’ve been studying it up a bit. As far as I can gather, this legal advice business is quite simple. Anything that isn’t a tort is a misdemeanor. You’ve simply got to tell old Bennett that in your opinion the whole thing looks jolly like a tort.”
“What does it mean?”
“I don’t know. Probably nobody knows. But it’s a safe card to play. Tort. Don’t forget it.”
They walked back to the hotel. Sam gulped once or twice.
“Oh, by the way,” he said, “Er—how is—er—Miss Bennett?”
“Oh, she’s all right. We’re quite good friends again now. No use being in the same house and not being on speaking terms. It’s rummy how the passage of time sort of changes a fellow’s point of view. Why, when she told me about her engagement, I congratulated her as cheerfully as dammit! And only a few weeks ago—”
“Her engagement!” exclaimed Sam, leaping like a stricken blancmange. “Her en-gug-gug-gagement!”
“To Bream Mortimer, you know,” said Eustace Hignett. “She got engaged to him the day before yesterday.”
THE offices of the old-established firm of Marlowe, Thorpe, Prescott, Winslow, and Appleby are in Ridgeway’s Inn, not far from Fleet Street. If you are a millionaire beset by blackmailers or anyone else to whose comfort the best legal advice is essential, and have decided to put your affairs in the hands of the ablest and discreetest firm in London, you proceed through a dark and grimy entry and up a dark and grimy flight of stairs; and, having felt your way along a dark and grimy passage, you come at length to a dark and grimy door. There is plenty of dirt in other parts of Ridgeway’s Inn, but nowhere is it so plentiful, so rich in alluvial deposits, as on the exterior of the offices of Marlowe, Thorpe, Prescott, Winslow, and Appleby. As you tap on the topmost of the geological strata concealing the ground glass of the door, a sense of relief and security floods your being. For in London grubbiness is the gauge of a lawyer’s respectability.
The name of the firm leads you to suppose that there will be barely standing room in the office. You picture Thorpe jostling you aside as he makes for Prescott to discuss with him the latest case of demurrer, and Winslow and Appleby treading on your toes, deep in conversation on replevin. But these legal firms dwindle. The years go by and take their toll, snatching away here a Prescott, there an Appleby, till before you know where you are, you are down to your last lawyer. The only surviving member of the firm of Marlowe, Thorpe—what I said before—was, at the time with which this story deals, Sir Mallaby Marlowe, son of the original founder of the firm and father of the celebrated black-faced comedian, Samuel of that ilk; and the outer office, where callers were received and parked till Sir Mallaby could find time for them, was occupied by a single clerk.
When Sam, reaching the office after his journey, opened the door, this clerk, Jno. Peters by name, was seated on a high stool, holding in one hand a half-eaten sausage, in the other an extraordinary large and powerful revolver. At the sight of Sam he laid down both engines of destruction and beamed. He was not a particularly successful beamer, being hampered by a cast in one eye which gave him a truculent and sinister look; but those who knew him knew that he had a heart of gold, and were not intimidated by his repellent face. Between Sam and himself there had always existed terms of cordiality, starting from the time when the former was a small boy and it had been Jno. Peters’s mission to take him now to the Zoo, now to the train back to school.
“Why, Mr. Samuel!”
“We were expecting you back a week ago. So you got back safe?”
“Safe! Why, of course.”
Peters shook his head.
“I confess that, when there was this delay in your coming here, I sometimes feared something might have happened to you. I recall mentioning it to the young lady who recently did me the honor to promise to become my wife.”
“Ocean liners aren’t often wrecked nowadays.”
“I was thinking more of the brawls on shore. America’s a dangerous country. But perhaps you were not in touch with the Underworld.”
Jno. Peters took up the revolver, gave it a fond and almost paternal look, and replaced it on the desk.
“What on earth are you doing with that thing?” asked Sam.
Mr. Peters lowered his voice.
“I’m going to America myself in a few days’ time, Mr. Samuel. It’s my annual holiday, and the guvnor’s sending me over with papers in connection with The People v. Schultz and Bowen. It’s a big case over there. A client of ours is mixed up in it, an American gentleman. I am to take these important papers to his legal representative in New York. So I thought it best to be prepared.”
The first smile that he had permitted himself in nearly two weeks flitted across Sam’s face.
“What on earth sort of place do you think New York is?” he asked. “It’s safer than London.”
“Ah, but what about the Underworld? I’ve seen these American films that they send over here, Mr. Samuel. Every Saturday night regular I take my young lady to a cinema, and, I tell you, they teach you something. Did you ever see ‘Wolves of the Bowery’? There was a man in that in just my position, carrying important papers, and what they didn’t try to do to him! No, I’m taking no chances, Mr. Samuel!”
“I should have said you were, lugging that thing about with you.”
Mr. Peters seemed wounded.
“Oh, I understand the mechanism perfectly, and I am becoming a very fair shot. I take my little bite of food in here early and go and practice at the Rupert Street Rifle Range during my lunch hour. When I get home at night I try how quick I can draw. You have to draw like a flash of lightning, Mr. Samuel. You haven’t time to be loitering about.”
“I haven’t,” agreed Sam. “Is my father in? I’d like to see him if he’s not busy.”
Mr. Peters, recalled to his professional duties, shed his sinister front like a garment. He picked up a speaking tube and blew down it.
“Mr. Samuel to see you, Sir Mallaby. . . . Yes, sir, very good. . . . Will you go right in, Mr. Samuel?”
Sam proceeded to the inner office, and found his father dictating into the attentive ear of Miss Milliken, his elderly and respectable stenographer, replies to his morning mail.
The grime which encrusted the lawyer’s professional stamping ground did not extend to his person. Sir Mallaby Marlowe was a dapper little man, with a round, cheerful face and a bright eye. His morning coat had been cut by London’s best tailor, and his trousers perfectly creased by a sedulous valet. A pink carnation in his buttonhole matched his healthy complexion. His golf handicap was twelve. His sister, Mrs. Horace Hignett, considered him worldly.
“Messrs. Brigney, Goole, and Butterworth . . . .What infernal names these people have. . . . Sirs, on behalf of our client. . . . Oh, hullo, Sam!”
“Good morning, Father.”
“Take a seat. I’m busy, but I’ll be finished in a moment. Where was I, Miss Milliken?”
“On behalf of our client. . . .”
“Oh, yes. On behalf of our client, Mr. Wibblesley Eggshaw. . . .Where these people get their names I’m hanged if I know. Your poor mother wanted to call you Hyacinth, Sam. You may not know it, but in the nineties, when you were born, children were frequently christened Hyacinth. Well, I saved you from that.”
His attention was now diverted to his son; Sir Mallaby seemed to remember that the latter had just returned from a long journey, and that he had not seen him for many weeks. He inspected him with interest.
“Very glad to see you’re back, Sam. So you didn’t win?”
“No, I got beaten in the semi-finals.”
“American amateurs are a very hot lot: the best ones. I suppose you were weak on the greens. I warned you about that. You’ll have to rub up your putting before next year.”
At the idea that any mundane pursuit as practicing putting could appeal to his broken spirit now, Sam uttered a bitter laugh.
“On behalf of our client, Mr. Wibblesley Eggshaw,” said Sir Mallaby, swooping back to duty once more, “we beg to state that we are prepared to accept service. . . . What time did you dock this morning?”
“I landed nearly a week ago.”
“A week ago! Then what the deuce have you been doing with yourself? Why haven’t I seen you?”
“I’ve been down at Bingley-on-the-Sea.”
“Bingley! What on earth were you doing at that god-forsaken place?”
“Wrestling with myself,” said Sam with simple dignity.
Sir Mallaby’s agile mind had leaped back to the letter which he was answering.
“We should be glad to meet you. . . . Wrestling, eh! Well, I like a boy to be fond of manly sports. Still, life isn’t all athletics. Don’t forget that. ‘Life is real! Life is—’ How does it go, Miss Milliken?”
Miss Milliken folded her hands and shut her eyes, her invariable habit when called upon to recite.
“ ‘Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal; Dust thou art, to dust returnest, Was not spoken of the soul. Art is long, and time is fleeting. And our hearts though stout and brave, Still like muffled drums are beating Funeral marches to the grave. Lives of great men all remind us We can make our lives sublime, And, departing leave behind us Footsteps on the sands of Time. Let us then’ . . .” said Miss Milliken respectfully . . .“ ‘be up and doing. . .’ ”
“All right, all right, all right!” said Sir Mallaby. “I don’t want it all. ‘Life is real! Life is earnest,’ Sam. I want to speak to you about that when I’ve finished answering these infernal letters. Where was I? ‘We should be glad to meet you at any time, if you will make an appointment. . . .’
“Oh, what’s the good of answering the dashed thing at all?” said Sir Mallaby. “Brigney, Goole, and Butterworth know perfectly well that they have got us in a cleft stick. This young fool, Eggshaw, Sam, admits that he wrote the girl twenty-three letters, twelve of them in verse, and twenty-one specifically asking her to marry him, and he comes to me and expects me to get him out of it. The girl is suing him for ten thousand.”
“How like a woman!”
Miss Milliken bridled reproachfully at this slur on her sex. Sir Mallaby took no notice of it whatever.
“. . . If you will make an appointment, when we can discuss the matter without prejudice. . . Get those typed, Miss Milliken. Have a cigar, Sam. Miss Milliken, tell Peters as you go out that I am occupied with a conference and can see nobody for half an hour.”
When Miss Milliken had withdrawn, Sir Mallaby occupied ten seconds of the period which he had set aside for communion with his son in staring silently at him.
“I’m glad you’re back, Sam,” he said at length. “I want to have a talk with you. You know, it’s time you were settling down. I’ve been thinking about you while you were in America, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been letting you drift along. Very bad for a young man. You’re getting on. I don’t say you’re senile, but you’re not twenty-one any longer, and at your age I was working like a beaver. In fact, it’s time you took your coat off and started to work.”
“I am quite ready, Father.”
“You didn’t hear what I said,” exclaimed Sir Mallaby, with a look of surprise. “I said it was time you began work.”
“And I said I was quite ready.”
“Bless my soul! You’ve changed your views a trifle since I saw you last.”
“I have changed them altogether.”
“Your trip has done you good,” said Sir Mallaby approvingly. “The sea air has given you some sense. I’m glad of it. It makes it easier for me to say something else that I’ve had on my mind for a good while. Sam, it’s time you got married.”
Sam barked bitterly. His father looked at him with concern.
“Swallow some smoke the wrong way?”
“I was laughing,” explained Sam with dignity.
Sir Mallaby shook his head.
“I don’t want to discourage your high spirits, but I must ask you to approach this matter seriously. Marriage would do you a world of good, Sam. It would brace you up. You really ought to consider the idea. I was two years younger than you are when I married your poor mother, and it was the making of me. A wife might make something of you.”
“I don’t see why she shouldn’t. There’s lots of good in you, my boy, though you may not think so at this time.”
“When I said it was impossible,” said Sam coldly, “I was referring to the impossibility of the possibility. . . . I mean, that it was impossible that I could possibly— In other words, Father, I can never marry. My heart is dead.”
“Don’t be a fool. There’s nothing wrong with your heart. All our family have had hearts like steam engines. Probably you have been feeling a sort of burning. Knock off cigars and that will soon stop.”
“You don’t understand me. I mean that a woman has treated me in a way that has finished her whole sex as far as I am concerned. For me, women do not exist.”
“You didn’t tell me about this,” said Sir Mallaby, interested. “When did this happen? Did she jilt you?”
“In America was it?”
“On the boat.”
Sir Mallaby chuckled heartily.
“My dear boy, you don’t mean to tell me that you’re taking a shipboard flirtation seriously. Why, you’re expected to fall in love with a different girl every time you go on a voyage. You’ll get over this in a week.”
The whistle of the speaking-tube blew. Sir Mallaby put the instrument to his ear.
“All right.” He turned to Sam. “I shall have to send you away now, Sam. Man waiting to see me. Good-by.”
AT ABOUT the time when Sam Marlowe was having this momentous interview with his father in grimy Ridgeway’s Inn, Mr. Rufus Bennett woke from an after-luncheon nap in Mrs. Hignett’s delightful old-world mansion, Windles, in the county of Hampshire. He had gone to his room after lunch, because there seemed nothing else to do. It was still raining hard, so that a ramble in the picturesque garden was impossible, and the only alternative to sleep, the society of Mr. Henry Mortimer, had become peculiarly distasteful to Mr. Bennett.
Much has been written of great friendships between man and man, friendships which neither woman can mar nor death destroy. Rufus Bennett had always believed that his friendship for Mr. Mortimer was of this order. But never till now had they been cooped up together in an English country house in the middle of a bad patch of English summer weather. So this afternoon, Mr. Bennett, in order to avoid his lifelong friend, had gone to bed.
He awoke now with a start, and a moment later realized what it was that had aroused him. There was music in the air. The room was full of it. It seemed to be coming up through the floor and rolling in chunks all round his bed. He blinked the last fragments of sleep out of his system, and became filled with a restless irritability.
He rang the bell violently, and presently there entered a grave, thin, intellectual man who looked like a duke, only more respectable. This was Webster, Mr. Bennett’s English valet.
“Is that Mr. Mortimer?” he barked, as the door opened.
“No, sir. It is I—Webster.” Not even the annoyance of being summoned like this from an absorbing game of penny nap in the housekeeper’s room had the power to make the valet careless of his grammar. “I fancied that I heard your bell ring, sir.”
“I wonder you could hear anything with that infernal noise going on,” snapped Mr. Bennett. “Is Mr. Mortimer playing that—that damned gas-engine in the drawing-room?”
“Yes, sir. Tosti’s ‘Good-by.’ A charming air, sir.”
“Charming air be—! Tell him to stop it.”
“Very good, sir.”
The valet withdrew like a duke leaving the royal presence, not actually walking backward but giving the impression of doing so. Mr. Bennett lay in bed and fumed. Presently the valet returned. The music still continued to roll about the room.
“I am sorry to have to inform you, sir,” said Webster, “that Mr. Mortimer declines to accede to your request.”
“You gave him my message?”
“Verbatim, sir. In reply, Mr. Mortimer desired me to tell you that, if you did not like it, you could do the other thing. I quote the exact words, sir.”
“He did, did he? Webster, when is the next train to London?”
“I will ascertain, sir. Cook, I believe, has a time-table.”
“Go and see, then. I want to know. And send Miss Wilhelmina to me.”
“Very good, sir.”
Somewhat consoled by the thought that he was taking definite action, Mr. Bennett lay back and waited for Billie.
“I want you to go to London,” he said, when she appeared.
“To London? Why?”
“I’ll tell you why,” said Mr. Bennett vehemently. “Because of that pest Mortimer. I must have legal advice. I want you to go and see Sir Mallaby Marlowe. Here’s his address. Tell him the whole story. Tell him that this man is annoying me in every possible way, and ask if he can’t be stopped. If you can’t see Sir Mallaby himself, see someone else in the firm. Go up to-night, so that you can see him first thing in the morning. You can stop the night at the Savoy. I’ve sent Webster to look out a train.”
“There’s a splendid train in about an hour. I’ll take that.”
“It’s giving you a lot of trouble,” said Mr. Bennett, with belated consideration.
“Oh, no!” said Billie. “I’m only too glad to be able to do something for you, Father dear. This noise is a terrible nuisance, isn’t it.”
“You’re a good girl,” said Mr. Bennett.
“THAT’S right!” said Sir Mallaby Marlowe. “Work while you’re young, Sam, work while you’re young.” He regarded his son’s bent head with affectionate approval. “What’s the book to-day?”
“Widgery on Nisi Prius Evidence,” said Sam, without looking up.
“Capital!” said Sir Mallaby. “Highly improving, and as interesting as a novel.” Sir Mallaby addressed an imaginary ball with the mashie which he had taken out of his golf bag. For this was the day when he went down to Walton Heath for his weekly foursome with three old friends. His tubby form was clad in tweed of a violent nature, with knickerbockers and stockings.
“Sam, a man at the club showed me a new grip the other day. Instead of overlapping the little finger of the right hand— Oh, by the way, Sam.”
“I should lock up the office to-day if I were you, or anxious clients will be coming in and asking for advice, and you’ll find yourself in difficulties. I shall be gone, and Peters is away on his holiday. You’d better lock the outer door.”
“All right,” said Sam absently.
He was finding Widgery stiff reading. He had just got to the bit about Raptu Haeredis, which, as of course you know, is a writ for taking away an heir holding insocage.
Sir Mallaby went out, and Sam, placing both elbows on the desk and twining his fingers in his hair, returned, with a frown of concentration, to his grappling with Widgery. For perhaps ten minutes the struggle was an even one, then gradually Widgery got the upper hand. Sam’s mind, numbed by constant batterings against the stony ramparts of legal phraseology, weakened, faltered, and dropped away; and a moment later his thoughts, as so often happened when he was alone, darted off and began to circle round the image of Billie Bennett.
It was useless to pretend that he did not still love Billie, and more than ever, because he knew he did.
So engrossed was he in his meditation that he did not hear the light footstep in the outer office, and it was only when it was followed by a tap on the door of the inner office that he awoke with a start to the fact that clients were in his midst.
Was it too late to escape? A spasm of Napoleonic strategy seized Sam. He dropped silently to the floor and concealed himself under the desk. Napoleon was always doing that sort of thing.
Then the door opened. Sam, crouched like a hare in its form, felt he had acted just as Napoleon would have done in a similar crisis. And so, no doubt, he had to a certain extent; only Napoleon would have seen to it that his boots and about eighteen inches of trousered legs were not sticking out, plainly visible to all who entered.
“Good morning,” said a voice.
Sam thrilled from the top of his head to the soles of his feet.
“Are you busy, Mr. Marlowe?” asked Billie, addressing the boots.
Sam wriggled out from under the desk like a disconcerted tortoise.
“Dropped my pen,” he mumbled, as he rose to the surface.
He invited Billie to sit down, and seated himself at the desk.
“Dropped my pen!” he gurgled again.
“Really?” said Billie, and Sam blinked and told himself resolutely that this would not do. He was not appearing to advantage.
“Er—how do you do, Miss Bennett?” he said with a question in his voice, raising his eyebrows in a professional way. He modeled this performance on that of lawyers he had seen on the stage, and wished he had something to tap against his front teeth. “Miss Bennett, I believe?”
Billie drew herself up stiffly.
“Yes,” she replied. “How clever of you to remember me.”
“Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked in a sort of voice Widgery might have used. Sam always pictured Widgery as a small man with bushy eyebrows, a thin face, and a voice like a rusty file.
“Well, I really wanted to see Sir Mallaby.”
“My father has been called away on important business to Walton Heath. Cannot I act as his substitute?”
“Do you know anything about the law?”
“Do I know anything about the law!” echoed Sam, amazed. “Do I know—! Why, I was reading my Widgery on Nisi Prius Evidence when you came in.”
“Oh, were you?” said Billie, interested. “Do you always read on the floor?”
“I told you I dropped my pen,” said Sam coldly.
“And of course you couldn’t read without that!”
Sam ignored this thrust. “I have not specialized exclusively on Nisi Prius Evidence. I know the law in all its branches.”
“Then what would you do if a man insisted on playing the orchestrion when you wanted to get to sleep?”
“Tell me the facts,” said Sam.
“Well, Mr. Mortimer and my father have taken a house together in the country, and for some reason or other they have quarreled, and now Mr. Mortimer is doing everything he can to make Father uncomfortable. Yesterday afternoon Father wanted to sleep, and Mr. Mortimer started this orchestrion just to annoy him.”
“I think—I’m not quite sure—I think that’s a tort,” said Sam.
“Either a tort or a misdemeanor.”
“Why, you do know something about it, after all!” cried Billie, startled into a sort of friendliness in spite of herself. And at the words and the sight of her quick smile Sam’s professional composure reeled on its foundations. He had half risen, with the purpose of springing up and babbling of the passion that consumed him, when the chill reflection came to him that this girl had once said that she considered him ridiculous. If he let himself go, would she not continue to think him ridiculous? He sagged back into his seat, and at that moment there came another tap on the door which, opening, revealed the sinister face of the holiday-making Peters.
“Good morning, Mr. Samuel,” said Jno. Peters. “Good morning, Miss Milliken. Oh!”
He vanished as abruptly as he had appeared. He perceived that what he had taken at first glance for the stenographer was a client, and that the junior partner was engaged on a business conference. He left behind him a momentary silence.
“What a horrible-looking man!” said Billie, breaking it with a little gasp.
For some moments Sam sat without speaking. If this had not been one of his Napoleonic mornings, no doubt the sudden arrival of his old friend, Mr. Peters, whom he had imagined at his home in Putney packing for his trip to America, would have suggested nothing to him. As it was it suggested a great deal.
“Who is he?” asked Billie. “He seemed to know you? And who,” she demanded after a slight pause, “is Miss Milliken?”
Sam drew a deep breath.
“It’s rather a sad story,” he said. “His name is John Peters. He used to be clerk here, but we had to get rid of him.”
“I don’t wonder. A man looking like that!”
“It wasn’t that so much,” said Sam. “The thing that annoyed Father was that he tried to shoot Miss Milliken.”
Billie uttered a cry of horror.
“She used to be my father’s stenographer, and she was thrown a good deal with Peters. It was quite natural that he should fall in love with her. She was a beautiful girl, with rather your own shade of hair. Peters is a man of volcanic passions, and when, after she had given him to understand that his love was returned, she informed him that she was engaged to a fellow at Ealing West, he went right off his onion—I mean, he became completely distraught. We had no inkling of his condition till he came in with the pistol. And, after that . . . well, as I say, we had to dismiss him. A great pity, for he was a good clerk. Still, it wouldn’t do. It wasn’t only that he tried to shoot Miss Milliken. That wouldn’t have mattered so much, as she left and got married. But the thing became an obsession with him, and we found that he had a fixed idea that every red-haired woman who came into the office was the girl who had deceived him. You can see how awkward that made it. Red hair is so fashionable nowadays.”
“My hair is red!” whispered Billie pallidly.
“Yes, I noticed it myself. It’s rather fortunate that I happened to be here with you when he came.”
“But he may be lurking out there still!”
“I expect he is,” said Sam carelessly. “Yes, I suppose he is. Would you like me to go and send him away? All right.”
“But—but is it safe?”
Sam uttered a light laugh.
“I don’t mind taking a risk or two for your sake,” he said, and sauntered from the room, closing the door behind him. Billie followed him with worshiping eyes.
Jno. Peters rose politely from the chair in which he had seated himself for more comfortable perusal of the copy of “Home Whispers,” which he had brought with him to refresh his mind in the event of the firm being too busy to see him immediately.
“Hullo, Peters,” said Sam. “Want anything?”
“Very sorry to have disturbed you, Mr. Samuel. I just looked in to say good-by. I sail on Saturday, and my time will be pretty fully taken up all the week. I have to go down to the country to get some final instructions from the client whose important papers I am taking over. Is there anything I can do before I go?”
“Well,”—Jno. Peters coughed tactfully—“I see that you are engaged with a client, Mr. Samuel, and was wondering if any little point of law had arisen with which you did not feel yourself quite capable of coping, in which case I might perhaps be of assistance.”
“Oh, that lady,” said Sam. “That was Miss Milliken’s sister.”
“Indeed? She is not very like her in appearance.”
“No. This one is the beauty of the family, I believe. A very bright, intelligent girl. I was telling her about your revolver just before you came in, and she was most interested. It’s a pity you haven’t got it with you now, to show to her.”
“Oh, but I have! I have, Mr. Samuel!” said Peters, opening a small hand bag and taking out a hymn book, half a pound of mixed chocolates, a tongue sandwich, and the pistol, in the order named. “I was on my way to the Rupert Street range for a little practice. I should be glad to show it to her.”
“Well, wait here a minute or two,” said Sam. “I’ll have finished talking business in a moment.”
He returned to the inner office.
“Well?” cried Billie.
“Eh? Oh, he’s gone,” said Sam. “I persuaded him to go away. He was a little excited, poor fellow. And now let us return to what we were talking about. You say—” He broke off with an exclamation, and glanced at his watch. “Good heavens! I had no idea of the time. I promised to run up and see a man in one of the offices in the next court. He wants to consult me on some difficulty which has arisen with one of his clients. Rightly or wrongly he values my advice. Can you spare me for a short while? I sha’n’t be more than ten minutes.”
He went out.
“You can go in now,” said Sam.
“Certainly, Mr. Samuel, certainly.”
Sam took up the copy of “Home Whispers,” and sat down with his feet on the desk. He turned to the serial story and began to read the synopsis.
In the inner room, Billie, who was engaged in making a tour of the office, looking at the portraits of whiskered men, whom she took correctly to be the Thorpes, Prescotts, Winslows, and Applebys mentioned on the contents bill outside, was surprised to hear the door open at her back. She had not expected Sam to return so instantaneously.
Nor had he done so. It was not Sam who entered. It was a man of repellent aspect whom she recognized instantly, for Jno. Peters was one of those men who, once seen, are not easily forgotten. He was smiling, a cruel, cunning smile—at least, she thought he was; Mr. Peters himself was under the impression that his face was wreathed in a benevolent simper; and in his hand he bore the largest pistol ever seen outside a motion picture studio.
“How do you do, Miss Milliken?” he said.
BILLIE shrank back against the wall, as if she were trying to get through it.
“Er—how do you do?” she said.
If she had not been an exceedingly pretty girl, one would have said that she spoke squeakily. She had seen this sort of thing in the movies, but she had not anticipated that it would ever happen to her; and consequently she had not thought out any plan for coping with such a situation.
“I’ve brought the revolver,” said Mr. Peters.
“So—so I see!” said Billie.
Mr. Peters nursed the weapon affectionately in his hand. He was rather a shy man with women as a rule, but what Sam had told him about her being interested in his revolver had made his heart warm to this girl.
“I was just on my way to have a little practice at the range,” he said. “Then I thought I might as well look in here.”
“I suppose—I suppose you’re a good shot?” quavered Billie.
“I seldom miss,” said Jno. Peters.
Billie shuddered. Then, reflecting that the longer she engaged this maniac in conversation, the more hope there was of Sam’s coming back in time to save her, she essayed further small talk.
“It’s—it’s very ugly!”
“Oh, no!” said Mr. Peters, hurt.
Billie perceived that she had said the wrong thing.
“Very deadly-looking, I meant,” she corrected herself hastily.
“It may have deadly work to do, Miss Milliken,” said Mr. Peters. “The great thing is to learn to draw quickly. Everything depends on getting the first shot! The first shot, Miss Milliken, is vital.”
Suddenly Billie had an inspiration. It was hopeless, she knew, to try to convince this poor demented creature, obsessed with his idée fixe, that she was not Miss Milliken. It was imperative that she should humor him.
“Mr. Peters,” she cried, “you are quite mistaken!”
“Well, I had it direct from the man at the Rupert Street range,” said Mr. Peters stiffly. “And if you had ever seen a picture called Two-Gun Thomas—”
“Mr. Peters!” cried Billie desperately. He was making her head swim with his meaningless ravings. “Mr. Peters, hear me! I am not married to a man at Ealing West!”
Mr. Peters betrayed no excitement at the information. This girl seemed for some reason to consider her situation an extraordinary one, but many women, he was aware, were in a similar position. In fact, he could not at the moment think of any of his feminine acquaintances who were married to men at Ealing West.
“Indeed?” he said politely.
“Won’t you believe me?” exclaimed Billie wildly. “I’m not even engaged! It’s all been a terrible mistake!”
When two people in a small room are speaking on two distinct and different subjects, and neither knows what on earth the other is driving at, there is bound to be a certain amount of mental confusion: but at this point Jno. Peters began to see a faint shimmer of light behind the clouds. In a nebulous kind of way he began to understand that the girl had come to consult the firm about a breach-of-promise action. Some unknown man at Ealing West had been trifling with her heart, and she wished to start proceedings. Mr. Peters felt almost in his depth again. He put the revolver in his pocket, and drew out a notebook.
“This man at Ealing West,” said Mr. Peters, moistening the point of his pencil, “he wrote you letters proposing marriage?”
“No, no, no!”
“At any rate,” said Mr. Peters, disappointed but hopeful, “he made love to you before witnesses?”
“Never! Never! There is no man at Ealing West! There never was a man at Ealing West!”
It was at this point that Jno. Peters began for the first time to entertain serious doubts of the girl’s mental balance. The most elementary acquaintance with the latest census was enough to tell him that there were any number of men at Ealing West. He was glad that he had the revolver with him. She had done nothing as yet actively violent, but it was nice to feel prepared. He took it out and laid it nonchalantly in his lap.
The sight of the weapon acted on Billie electrically. She flung out her hands, in a gesture of passionate appeal, and played her last card.
“I love you!” she cried. “You are the only man I love.”
“My gracious goodness!” ejaculated Mr. Peters, and nearly fell over backward. To a naturally shy man this sudden and wholly unexpected declaration was disconcerting; and the clerk was moreover, engaged. He blushed violently. And yet, even in that moment of consternation, he could not check a certain thrill. No man ever thinks he is as homely as he really is; but Jno. Peters had always come fairly near to a correct estimate of his charms. He now began to wonder if he were not really rather a devil of a chap, after all.
Calmer thoughts succeeded this little flicker of complacency. The girl was mad. He got up and began to edge toward the door.
“I thought you would be pleased,” said Billie, relieved, but puzzled. For a man of volcanic passions, as Sam Marlowe had described him, he seemed to be taking the thing very calmly.
“Oh, it’s a great compliment,” Mr. Peters assured her.
At this point Sam came in, interrupting the conversation at a moment when it had reached a somewhat difficult stage. He had finished the instalment of the serial story in “Home Whispers,” and, looking at his watch, he fancied that he had allowed enough time to elapse for events to have matured along the lines which his imagination had indicated.
The atmosphere of the room seemed to him, as he entered, a little strained. Billie looked pale and agitated. Mr. Peters looked rather agitated, too. Sam caught Billie’s eye. It had an unspoken appeal in it. He gave an imperceptible nod, a reassuring nod, the nod of a man who understood all and was prepared to handle the situation.
“Come, Peters,” he said in a deep, firm, quiet voice, laying a hand on the clerk’s arm. “It’s time that you went.”
“Yes, indeed, Mr. Samuel! Yes, yes, indeed!”
“I’ll see you out,” said Sam soothingly, and led him through the outer office and on to the landing outside. “Well, good luck, Peters,” he said, as they stood at the head of the stairs. “I hope you have a pleasant trip. Why, what’s the matter? You seem upset.”
“That girl, Mr. Samuel! I really think—really, she cannot be quite right in her head.”
“Nonsense, nonsense!” said Sam firmly. “She’s all right! Well, good-by. Mind you have a good time in America. I’ll tell my father you called.”
Sam watched him out of sight down the stairs, then turned and made his way back to the inner office. Billie was sitting limply on the chair which Jno. Peters had occupied.
“Has he really gone?”
“Yes, he’s gone this time.”
“Was he—was he violent?”
“A little,” said Sam, “a little. But I calmed him down.” He looked at her gravely. “Thank God I was in time!”
“Oh, you are the bravest man in the world!” cried Billie, and, burying her face in her hands, burst into tears.
“There, there!” said Sam. “There, there! Come, come! It’s all right now! There, there, there!”
He knelt down beside her. He slipped one arm around her waist. He patted her hands.
I have tried to draw Samuel Marlowe so that he will live on the printed page. I have endeavored to delineate his character so that it will be as an open book. And, if I have succeeded in my task, the reader will by now have become aware that he was a young man with the gall of an army mule. His conscience, if he had ever had one, had become atrophied through long disuse. He had given this sensitive girl the worst fright she had had since a mouse had got into her bedroom at school. He had caused Jno. Peters to totter off to the Rupert Street range making low, bleating noises. And did he care? No! All he cared about was the fact that he had erased forever from Billie’s mind that undignified picture of himself as he had appeared on the boat, and substituted another, which showed him brave, resourceful, gallant. All he cared about was the fact that Billie, so cold ten minutes before, had allowed him to kiss her for the forty-second time. That was the sort of man Samuel Marlowe was.
His face was very close to Billie’s, who had cheered up wonderfully by this time, and he was whispering his degraded words of endearment into her ear, when there was a sort of explosion in the doorway.
“Great Godfrey!” exclaimed Mr. Rufus Bennett, gazing on the scene from this point of vantage. “Great heavens above!”
REMARKABLE as the apparition of Mr. Bennett appeared to his daughter, the explanation of his presence at that moment in the office of Marlowe, Thorpe, Prescott, Winslow, and Appleby was simple. He had risen early that morning and, glancing at his watch on the dressing table, he had suddenly become aware of something bright and yellow beside it, and had paused, transfixed, like Robinson Crusoe staring at the footprint in the sand. If he had not been in England, he would have said it was a patch of sunshine. Hardly daring to hope, he pulled up the shades and looked out on the garden.
It was a superb morning. It was as if some giant had uncorked a great bottle full of the distilled scent of grass, trees, flowers, and hay. Mr. Bennett sniffed luxuriously. Gone was the gloom of the past days, swept away in a great exhilaration.
Breakfast had deepened his content. Henry Mortimer, softened by the same balmy influence, had been perfectly charming. All their little differences had melted away in the genial warmth. And then suddenly Mr. Bennett remembered that he had sent Billie up to London to enlist the aid of the Law against his old friend, and remorse gripped him. Half an hour later he was in the train on his way to London to intercept her and cancel her mission. He had arrived, breathless, at Sir Mallaby’s office, and the first thing he had seen was his daughter in the arms of a young man who was a total stranger to him. The shock took away his breath again just as it was coming back. He advanced shakily into the room, and supported himself with one hand on the desk, while with the other he plied a handkerchief on his superheated face.
Billie was the first to speak.
“Why, Father,” she said, “I didn’t expect you!”
As an explanation of her behavior this might, no doubt, have been considered sufficient, but as an excuse for it Mr. Bennett thought it inadequate.
“This is Sam,” proceeded Billie. “Sam Marlowe.”
Mr. Bennett became aware that the young man was moving toward him with outstretched hand. Mr. Bennett stared in a frozen sort of way at the hand. He knew that Sir Mallaby had a son. This, presumably, was he. But the discovery did not diminish his indignation.
“I am delighted to meet you, Mr. Bennett,” said Sam. “You could not have come at a more fortunate moment. You see for yourself how things are. There is no need for a long explanation. You came to find a daughter, Mr. Bennett, and you have found a son!”
Mr. Bennett sat down. He put away his handkerchief, which had certainly earned a rest. Then he fastened a baleful stare upon his newly discovered son. It was not the sort of look a proud and happy father-in-law-to-be ought to have directed at a prospective relative. Billie, not being in the actual line of fire, caught only the tail end of it, but it was enough to create a misgiving.
“Oh, Father! You can’t be angry!”
“Why can’t I be angry!” demanded Mr. Bennett, with that sense of injury which comes to self-willed men when their whims are thwarted. “Why the devil shouldn’t I be angry? I am angry! I come here and find you like—like this, and you seem to expect me to throw my hat in the air and give three rousing cheers! Of course I’m angry! You are engaged to be married to an excellent young man of the highest character, one of the finest young men I have ever met. . . .”
“Oh, well!” said Sam, straightening his tie modestly. “Of course if you say so. . . It’s awfully good of you. . . .”
“But, Father,” cried Billie, “I never really loved Bream. I only got engaged to him because you were so anxious for it, and because . . . because I had quarreled with the man I really loved. I don’t want to marry Bream.”
“Naturally!” said Sam. “Naturally. Quite out of the question. In a few days we’ll all be roaring with laughter at the very idea.”
Mr. Bennett scorched him with a look compared with which his earlier effort had been a loving glance.
“Wilhelmina,” he said, “go into the outer office.”
“But, Father, you don’t understand. You don’t realize that Sam has just saved my life.”
“Saved your life? What do you mean?”
“There was a lunatic in here with a pistol, and Sam saved me.”
“It was nothing,” said Sam modestly. “Nothing.”
“Go into the outer office!” thundered Mr. Bennett, quite unmoved by this story.
“Very well,” said Billie. “I shall always love you, Sam,” she said, pausing mutinously at the door.
“I shall always love you,” said Sam.
“You’re the most wonderful man in the world.”
“There never was a girl like you!”
“Get out!” bellowed Mr. Bennett.
“Now, sir!” he said to Sam, as the door closed.
“Yes, let’s talk it over calmly,” said Sam.
“I will not talk it over calmly! Will you understand that my daughter is going to marry Bream Mortimer? What are you giggling about?”
“It sounds so silly—the idea of anyone marrying Bream Mortimer, I mean.”
“Let me tell you he is a thoroughly estimable young man.”
“And there you put the whole thing in a nutshell. Your daughter is a girl of spirit. She would hate to be tied for life to an estimable young man.”
“She will do as I tell her.”
Sam regarded him sternly.
“Have you no regard for her happiness?”
“I am the best judge of what is best for her.”
“If you ask me,” said Sam candidly, “I think you’re a rotten judge.”
“I did not come here to be insulted!”
“I like that! You have been insulting me ever since you arrived. What right have you to say that I’m not fit to marry your daughter?”
“I did not say that.”
“You’ve implied it. And you’ve been looking at me as if I were a leper or something the Pure Food Committee has condemned. Why? That’s what. I ask you,” said Sam, warming up. This, he fancied, was the way Widgery would have tackled a troublesome client. “Why? Answer me that.”
Sam rapped sharply on the desk.
“Be careful, sir. Be very careful!” He knew that this was what lawyers always said.
“What do you mean, be very careful?” said Mr. Bennett.
“I’m dashed if I know,” said Sam frankly. The question struck him as a mean attack. He wondered how Widgery would have met it. Probably by smiling quietly and polishing his spectacles. Sam had no spectacles. He endeavored, however, to smile quietly.
“Don’t laugh at me!” roared Mr. Bennett.
“I’m not laughing at you.”
“Well, don’t then!” said Mr. Bennett. He glowered at his young companion. “I don’t know why I’m wasting my time talking to you. The position is clear to the meanest intelligence. You cannot have any difficulty in understanding it. I have no objection to you personally.”
“Come, this is better!” said Sam.
“I don’t know you well enough to have any objection to you, or any opinion of you at all.”
“You must persevere,” said Sam. “You must buckle to and get to know me.”
“I don’t want to know you!”
“You say that now; but wait!”
“And, thank goodness, I have not got to!” exploded Mr. Bennett, ceasing to be calm and reasonable with a suddenness which affected Sam much as though half a pound of gunpowder had been touched off under his chair. “For the little I have seen of you has been quite enough! Kindly understand that my daughter is engaged to be married to another man, and that I do not wish to see or hear anything of you again! You’re an impudent scoundrel, sir! An impudent scoundrel! If you were the last man in the world I wouldn’t allow my daughter to marry you! If that is quite clear, I will wish you good morning!”
Mr. Bennett thundered out of the room, and Sam, temporarily stunned by the outburst, remained for a moment in thought, then he returned to the inner office and, picking up a time-table, began to look out trains to the village of Windlehurst in Hampshire, the nearest station to his aunt Adeline’s charming old-world house, Windles.
AS I read over the last few pages of this narrative, I see that I have been giving the reader a rather jumpy time. To almost a painful degree I have excited his pity and terror; and, though that is what Aristotle tells one one ought to do, I feel that a little respite would not be out of order. The reader can stand having his emotions churned up to a certain point; after that he wants to take it easy. It is with pleasure, therefore, that I turn now to depict a quiet, peaceful scene in domestic life. It won’t last long—three minutes, perhaps, by a stop-watch—but that is not my fault. My task is to record facts as they happened.
The morning sunlight fell pleasantly on the garden of Windles, turning it into the green and amber Paradise which nature had intended it to be. A number of the local birds sang melodiously in the undergrowth at the end of the lawn, while others, more energetic, hopped about the grass in quest of worms. And in a deck chair under tie cedar tree Billie Bennett, with a sketching block on her knee, was engaged in drawing a picture of the ruined castle. Beside her, curled up in a ball, lay her Pekinese dog, Pinky-Boodles. Beside Pinky-Boodles slept Smith, the bulldog. In the distant stable yard, unseen but audible, a boy in shirt sleeves was washing the car and singing as much as a treacherous memory would permit of a popular sentimental ballad.
You may think that was all. You may suppose that nothing could be added to deepen the atmosphere of peace and content. Not so. At this moment, Mr. Bennett emerged from the French windows of the drawing-room, crossed the lawn and sat down by his daughter. Smith, the bulldog, raising a sleepy head, breathed heavily; but Mr. Bennett did not quail. Of late, relations of distant, but solid, friendship had come to exist between them. Skeptical at first, Mr. Bennett had at length allowed himself to be persuaded of the mildness of the animal’s nature and the essential purity of his motives; and now it was only when they encountered each other unexpectedly round sharp corners that he ever betrayed the slightest alarm.
“Sketching?” said Mr. Bennett.
“Yes,” said Billie, for there were no secrets between this girl and her father. At least, not many. She occasionally omitted to tell him some such trifle as that she had met Samuel Marlowe on the previous morning in a leafy lane, and intended to meet him again this afternoon, but apart from that her mind was an open book.
“It’s a great morning,” said Mr. Bennett.
“So peaceful,” said Billie.
“The eggs you get in the country in England,” said Mr. Bennett, suddenly striking a lyrical note, “are extraordinary. I had three for breakfast this morning which defied competition, simply defied competition. They were large and brown, and as fresh as new-mown hay!”
He mused for a while in a sort of ecstasy.
“And the hams!” he went on. “The ham I had for breakfast was what I call ham! I don’t know when I’ve had ham like that. I suppose it’s something they feed the pigs on,” he concluded, in soft meditation. And he gave a little sigh. Life was very beautiful.
Silence fell, broken only by the snoring of Smith. Billie was thinking of Sam, and of what Sam had said to her in the lane yesterday, of his clean-cut face, and the look in his eyes—so vastly superior to any look that ever came into the eyes of Bream Mortimer. She was telling herself that her relations with Sam were an idyll; for, being young and romantic, she enjoyed this freshet of surreptitious meetings which had come to enliven the stream of her life.
They had sat like this for perhaps a minute—two happy mortals lulled by the gentle beauty of the day—when from the window of the drawing-room there stepped out a white-capped maid. And one may just as well say at once, and have done with it, that this is the point where the quiet, peaceful scene in domestic life terminates with a jerk, and pity and terror resume work at the old stand.
“Please sir, a gentleman to see you. In the drawing-room, sir. He says you are expecting him.”
“Of course, yes. To be sure.”
Mr. Bennett heaved himself out of the deck chair. Beyond the French windows he could see an indistinct form in a gray suit, and remembered that this was the morning on which Sir Mallaby Marlowe’s clerk, who was taking those Schultz and Bowen papers for him to America, had written that he would call. To-day was Friday; no doubt the man was sailing from Southampton to-morrow.
He crossed the lawn, entered the drawing-room, and found Mr. Jno. Peters with an expression on his ill-favored face which looked like one of consternation, of uneasiness, even of alarm.
“Morning, Mr. Peters,” said Mr. Bennett. “Very good of you to run down. Take a seat, and I’ll just go through the few notes I have made about the matter.”
Mr. Peters cleared his throat awkwardly. He was feeling embarrassed at the unpleasantness of the duty which he had to perform; but it was a duty, and he did not intend to shrink from performing it.
“Mr. Bennett,” he said, “I don’t want to do anybody any harm, and if you know all about it and she suits you, well and good; but I think it is my duty to inform you that your stenographer is not quite right in the head. I don’t say she’s dangerous, but she isn’t compos. She decidedly is not compos, Mr. Bennett!”
Mr. Bennett stared at his well-wisher dumbly for a moment. The thought crossed his mind that, if ever there was a case of the pot calling the kettle black, this was it. His opinion of Jno. Peters’s sanity went down to zero.
It occurred to Mr. Peters that a man of the other’s wealth and business connections might well have a troop of these useful females. He particularized.
“I mean the young lady out in the garden there, to whom you were dictating just now. The young lady with the writing-pad on her knee.”
“What! What!” Mr. Bennett spluttered. “Do you know who that is?” he exclaimed.
“Oh, yes, indeed!” said Jno. Peters. “I have only met her once, when she came into our office to see Mr. Samuel, but her personality and appearance stamped themselves so forcibly on my mind that I know I am not mistaken. I am sure it is my duty to tell you exactly what happened when I was left alone with her in the office. We had hardly exchanged a dozen words, Mr., Bennett, when—” here Jno. Peters, modest to the core, turned vividly pink— “when she told me . . . she told me that I was the only man she loved!”
Mr. Bennett uttered a loud cry.
“Sweet spirits of niter!”
Mr. Peters could make nothing of this exclamation, and he was deterred from seeking light by the sudden action of his host, who, bounding from his seat with a vivacity of which one could not have believed him capable, charged to the French window and emitted a bellow:
Billie looked up from her sketching book with a start. It seemed to her that there was a note of anguish, of panic, in that voice. What her father could have found in the drawing-room to be frightened at, she did not know; but she dropped her block and hurried to his assistance.
“What is it, Father?”
Mr. Bennett had retired within the room when she arrived; and, going in after him, she perceived at once what had caused his alarm. There before her, looking more sinister than ever, stood the lunatic Peters; and there was an ominous bulge in his right coat pocket which betrayed the presence of the revolver. What Jno. Peters was, as a matter of fact, carrying in his right coat pocket was a bag of mixed chocolates which he had purchased in Windlehurst. But Billie’s eyes, though bright, had no X-ray quality. Her simple creed was that, if Jno. Peters bulged at any point, that bulge must be caused by a pistol. She screamed, and backed against the wall. Her whole acquaintance with Jno. Peters had been one constant backing against walls.
“Don’t shoot!” she cried, as Mr. Peters absent-mindedly dipped his hand into the pocket of his coat. “Oh, please don’t shoot!”
“What the deuce do you mean?” said Mr. Bennett irritably.
He hated to have people gibbering around him in the morning.
“Wilhelmina, this man says that you told him you loved him.”
“Yes, I did, and I do. Really, really, Mr. Peters, I do!”
Mr. Bennett clutched at the back of a chair.
“But you’ve only met him once!” he added almost pleadingly.
“You don’t understand, Father dear,” said Billie desperately. “I’ll explain the whole thing later, when—”
“Father!” ejaculated Jno. Peters feebly. “Did you say ‘Father’?”
“Of course I said ‘Father’!”
“This is my daughter, Mr. Peters.”
“My daughter! I mean, your daughter! Are—are you sure?”
“Of course I am sure. Do you think I don’t know my own daughter?”
Mr. Peters uttered a subdued gurgling sound. He was finding this scene oppressive to a not very robust intellect.
“He—Mr. Samuel—told me your name was Miss Milliken,” he said dully.
Billie stared at him.
“Mr. Marlowe told you my name was Miss Milliken!” she repeated.
“He told me that you were the sister of the Miss Milliken who acts as stenographer for the guv—for Sir Mallaby—and sent me in to show you my revolver, because he said you were interested and wanted to see it.”
Billie uttered an exclamation. So did Mr. Bennett, who hated mysteries.
‘‘What revolver? Which revolver? What’s all this about a revolver? Have you a revolver?”
“Why, yes, Mr. Bennett. It is packed now in my trunk, but usually I carry it about with me everywhere in order to take a little practice at the Rupert Street range. I bought it when Sir Mallaby told me he was sending me to America, because I thought I ought to be prepared—because of the Underworld, you know.”
A cold gleam had come into Billie’s eyes. Her face was pale and hard. If Sam Marlowe—at that moment caroling blithely in his bedroom at the Blue Boar in Windlehurst, washing his hands preparatory to descending to the coffee-room for a bit of cold lunch—could have seen her, the song would have frozen on his lips.
Billie knew all. And, terrible though the fact is as an indictment of the male sex, when a woman knows all, there is invariably trouble ahead for some man.
There was trouble ahead for Sam Marlowe. Billie, now in possession of the facts, had examined them, and come to the conclusion that Sam had played a practical joke on her, and she was a girl who strongly disapproved of practical humor at her expense.
“That morning I met you at Sir Mallaby’s office, Mr. Peters,” she said in a frosty voice, “Mr. Marlowe had just finished telling me a long and convincing story to the effect that you were madly in love with a Miss Milliken, who had jilted you, and that this had driven you off your head, and that you spent your time going about with a pistol, trying to shoot every red-haired woman you saw, because you thought they were Miss Milliken. Naturally, when you came in and called me Miss Milliken, and brandished a revolver, I was very frightened. I thought it would be useless to tell you that I wasn’t Miss Milliken, so I tried to persuade you that I was, and hadn’t jilted you after all.”
“Good gracious!” said Mr. Peters, vastly relieved; and yet—for always there is bitter mixed with the sweet—a shade disappointed. “Then . . . er . . . you don’t love me, after all?”
“No!” said Billie. “I am engaged to Bream Mortimer; and I love him and nobody else in the world!”
The last portion of her observation was intended for the consumption of Mr. Bennett, rather than that of Mr. Peters, and he consumed it joyfully. He folded Billie in his ample embrace.
“I always thought you had a grain of sense hidden away somewhere,” he said, paying her a striking tribute. “I hope now that we’ve heard the last of all this foolishness about that young hound Marlowe.”
“You certainly have! I don’t want ever to see him again! I hate him!”
A QUARTER of an hour later, Webster, the valet, sunning himself in the stable yard, was aware of the daughter of his employer approaching him.
“Webster,” said Billie. She was still pale. Her face was still hard, and her eyes still gleamed coldly.
“Miss?” said Webster politely, throwing away the cigarette with which he had been refreshing himself.
“Will you do something for me?”
“I should be more than delighted, miss.”
Billie whisked into view an envelope which had been concealed in the recesses of her dress.
“Do you know the country about here well, Webster?”
“Within a certain radius, not unintimately, miss; I have been for several enjoyable rambles since the fine weather set in.”
“Do you know the place where there is a road leading to Havant, and another to Cosham? It’s about a mile down.”
“I know the spot well, miss.”
“Well, straight in front of you when you get to the sign post there is a little lane.”
“I know it, miss,” said Webster. “A delightfully romantic spot. What with the overhanging trees, the wealth of blackberry bushes, the varied wild flowers. . . .”
“Yes; never mind about the wild flowers now. I want you, after lunch, to take this to a gentleman you will find sitting on the gate at the bottom of the lane.”
“Sitting on the gate, miss. Yes, miss.”
“Or leaning against it. You can’t mistake him. He is rather tall and . . . oh, well, there isn’t likely to be anybody else there, so you can’t make a mistake. Give him this, will you?”
“Certainly, miss. Er—any verbal message?”
“No, certainly not! You won’t forget, will you, Webster?”
“On no account whatever, miss. Shall I wait for an answer?”
“There won’t be any answer,” said Billie, setting her teeth for an instant. “Oh, Webster?”
“I can rely on you to say nothing to anybody?”
“Most undoubtedly, miss. Most undoubtedly!”
“DOES anybody know anything about a feller named S. Marlowe?” inquired Webster, entering the kitchen. “Don’t all speak at once! S. Marlowe. Ever heard of him?”
He paused for a reply, but nobody had any information to impart.
“Because there’s something jolly well up! Our Miss B. is sending me with notes for him to the bottom of the lanes.”
“And her engaged to young Mr. Mortimer!” said the scullery maid, shocked. “The way they go on! Chronic!” said the scullery maid.
“Don’t you go getting alarmed! And don’t you,” added Webster, “go shoving your oar in when your social superiors are talking! I’ve had to speak to you about that before. My remarks were addressed to Mrs. Withers here.”
He indicated the cook with a respectful gesture.
“Yes, here’s the note, Mrs. Withers. Of course, if you had a steamy kettle handy, in about half a moment we could. . . . But no, perhaps it’s wiser not to risk it. And, come to that, I don’t need to unstick the envelope to know what’s inside here. It’s the raspberry, ma’am, or I’ve lost all my power to read the human female countenance. Very cold and proud-looking she was! I don’t know who this S. Marlowe is, but I do know one thing: in this hand I hold the instrument that’s going to give it to him in the neck, proper! Right in the neck, or my name isn’t Montagu Webster!”
“Well!” said Mrs. Withers comfortably, pausing for a moment from her labors. “Think of that!”
“The way I look at it,” said Webster, “is that there’s some been sort of misunderstanding between our Miss B. and this S. Marlowe, and she’s thought better of it and decided to stick to the man of her parent’s choice. She’s chosen wealth and made up her mind to hand the humble suitor the mitten. There was a rather similar situation in ‘Cupid or Mammon,’ that Nosegay Novelette I was reading in the train coming down here, only that ended different. For my part I’d be better pleased if our Miss B. would let the cash go, and obey the dictates of her own heart; but these modern girls are all alike; all out for the stuff, they are! Oh, well, it’s none of my affair,” said Webster, stifling a not unmanly sigh. For beneath that immaculate shirt front there beat a warm heart. Montagu Webster was a sentimentalist.
[concluded in the december issue]
Printer’s error corrected above:
Magazine inserted an extraneous apostrophe in “I’ fee-er naw faw in shee-ining arr-mor”.