The Saturday Evening Post - June 28, 1919
OUT on the terrace the night was very still. From a steel-blue sky the stars looked down as calmly as they had looked on the night of the ball, when George had waited by the shrubbery, listening to the wailing of the music and thinking long thoughts. From the dark meadows down by the brook came the cry of a corncrake, its harsh note softened by distance.
“What shall we do?” said Maud. She was sitting on the stone seat where Reggie Byng had sat and meditated on his love for Alice Faraday and his unfortunate habit of slicing his approach shots. To George, as he stood beside her, she was a white blur in the darkness. He could not see her face.
“I don’t know!” he said frankly.
Nor did he. Like Lady Caroline and Lord Belpher and Keggs the butler, he had been completely overwhelmed by Lord Marshmoreton’s dramatic announcement. The situation had come upon him unheralded by any warning, and had found him unequal to it.
A choking sound suddenly proceeded from the whiteness that was Maud. In the stillness it sounded like some loud noise. It jarred on George’s disturbed nerves.
“I c-can’t help it!”
“There’s nothing to cry about, really! If we think long enough we shall find some way out all right. Please don’t cry.”
“I’m not crying!” The choking sound became an unmistakable ripple of mirth. “It’s so absurd! Poor father getting up like that in front of everyone! Did you see Aunt Caroline’s face?”
“It haunts me still,” said George. “I shall never forget it. Your brother didn’t seem any too pleased either.”
Maud stopped laughing.
“It’s an awful position,” she said soberly. “The announcement will be in the Morning Post the day after to-morrow. And then the letters of congratulation will begin to pour in, and after that the presents. And I simply can’t see how we can convince them all that there has been a mistake.” Another aspect of the matter struck her. “It’s so hard on you, too.”
“Don’t think about me,” urged George. “Heaven knows I’d give the whole world if we could just let the thing go on, but there’s no use in discussing impossibilities.” He lowered his voice. “There’s no use either in my pretending that I’m not going to have a pretty bad time. But we won’t discuss that. It was my own fault. I came butting in on your life of my own free will, and, whatever happens, it’s been worth it to have known you and tried to be of service to you.”
“You’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”
“I’m glad you think that.”
“The best and kindest friend any girl ever had. I wish ——” She broke off. “Oh, well!”
There was a silence.
In the castle somebody had begun to play the piano. Then a man’s voice began to sing.
“That’s Edwin Plummer,” said Maud. “How badly he sings.”
George laughed. Somehow the intrusion of Plummer had removed the tension. Plummer, whether designedly and as a somber commentary on the situation or because he was the sort of man who does sing that particular song, was chanting Tosti’s Good-by. He was giving to its never very cheery notes a wailing melancholy all his own. A dog in the stables began to howl in sympathy, and with the sound came a curious soothing of George’s nerves. He might feel broken-hearted later, but for the moment, with this double accompaniment, it was impossible for a man with humor in his soul to dwell on the deeper emotions. Plummer and his canine duettist had brought him to earth. He felt calm and practical.
“We’d better talk the whole thing over quietly,” he said. “There’s certain to be some solution. At the worst you can always go to Lord Marshmoreton and tell him that he spoke without a sufficient grasp of his subject.”
“I could,” said Maud, “but, just at present, I feel as if I’d rather do anything else in the world. You don’t realize what it must have cost father to defy Aunt Caroline openly like that. Ever since I was old enough to notice anything I’ve seen how she dominated him. It was Aunt Caroline who really caused all this trouble. If it had only been father I could have coaxed him to let me marry anyone I pleased. I wish, if you possibly can, you would think of some other solution.”
“I haven’t had an opportunity of telling you,” said George, “that I called at Belgrave Square, as you asked me to do. I went there directly I had seen Reggie Byng safely married.”
“Did you see him married?”
“I was best man.”
“Dear old Reggie! I hope he will be happy.”
“He will; don’t worry about that. Well, as I was saying, I called at Belgrave Square and found the house shut up. I couldn’t get any answer to the bell, though I kept my thumb on it for minutes at a time. I think they must have gone abroad again.”
“No, it wasn’t that. I had a letter from Geoffrey this morning. His uncle died suddenly of apoplexy, while they were in Manchester on a business trip.” She paused. “He left Geoffrey all his money,” she went on; “every penny.”
The silence seemed to stretch out interminably. The music from the castle had ceased. The quiet of the summer night was unbroken. To George the stillness had a touch of the sinister. It was the ghastly silence of the end of the world. With a shock he realized that even now he had been permitting himself to hope, futile as he recognized hope to be. Maud had told him she loved another man. That should have been final. And yet somehow his indomitable subconscious self had refused to accept it as final. But this news ended everything. The only obstacle that had held Maud and this man apart was removed. There was nothing to prevent their marrying. George was conscious of a vast depression. The last strand of the rope of hope had parted, and he was drifting alone out into the ocean of desolation.
“Oh!” he said, and was surprised that his voice sounded very much the same as usual. Speech was so difficult that it seemed strange that it should show no signs of effort. “That alters everything, doesn’t it.”
“He said in his letter that he wanted me to meet him in London, and talk things over, I suppose.”
“There’s nothing now to prevent your going—I mean, now that your father has made this announcement you are free to go where you please.”
“Yes, I suppose I am.”
There was another silence.
“Everything’s so difficult,” said Maud.
“In what way?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“If you are thinking of me,” said George, “please don’t. I know exactly what you mean. You are hating the thought of hurting my feelings. I wish you would look on me as having no feelings. All I want is to see you happy. As I said just now, it’s enough for me to know that I’ve helped you. Do be reasonable about it. The fact that our engagement has been officially announced makes no difference in our relations to each other. As far as we two are concerned, we are exactly where we were the last time we met. It’s no worse for me now than it was then to know that I’m not the man you love, and that there’s somebody else you loved before you ever knew of my existence. For goodness’ sake, a girl like you must be used to having men tell her that they love her and having to tell them that she can’t love them in return.”
“But you’re so different.”
“Not a bit of it; I’m just one of the crowd.”
“I’ve never known anybody quite like you.”
“Well, you’ve never known anybody quite like Plummer, I should imagine. But the thought of his sufferings didn’t break your heart.”
“I’ve known a million men exactly like Edwin Plummer,” said Maud emphatically. “All the men I ever have known have been like him, quite nice and pleasant and negative. It never seemed to matter refusing them. One knew that they would just be a little bit piqued for a week or two and then wander amiably off and fall in love with somebody else. But you’re different. You matter.”
“That is where we disagree. My argument is that, where your happiness is concerned, I don’t matter.”
Maud rested her chin on her hand and stared out into the velvet darkness.
“You ought to have been my brother instead of Percy,” she said at last. “What chums we should have been! And how simple that would have made everything!”
“The best thing for you to do is to regard me as an honorary brother. That will make everything simple.”
“It’s easy to talk like that. No, it isn’t; it’s horribly hard. I know exactly how difficult it is for you to talk as you have been doing, to try to make me feel better by pretending the whole trouble is just a trifle. It’s strange. We have only really met for a few minutes at a time, and three weeks ago I didn’t know there was such a person as you, but somehow I seem to know everything you’re thinking. I’ve never felt like that before with any man, even Geoffrey. He always puzzled me.”
She broke off. The corncrake began to call again out in the distance.
“I wish I knew what to do,” she said with a catch in her voice.
“I’ll tell you in two words what to do. The whole thing is absurdly simple. You love this man and he loves you, and all that kept you apart before was the fact that he could not afford to marry you. Now that he is rich there is no obstacle at all. I simply won’t let you look on me and my feelings as an obstacle. Rule me out altogether. Your father’s mistake has made the situation a little more complicated than it need have been, but that can easily be remedied. Imitate the excellent example of Reggie Byng. He was in a position where it would have been embarrassing to announce what he intended to do, so he very sensibly went quietly off and did it and left everybody to find out about it after it was done. I’m bound to say I never looked on Reggie as a master mind, but, when it came to finding a way out of embarrassing situations, one has to admit that he had the right idea. Do what he did.”
Maud started. She half rose from the stone seat. George could hear the quick intake of her breath.
“You mean—run away?”
“Exactly; run away!”
An automobile swung round the corner of the castle from the direction of the garage, and drew up, purring, at the steps. There was a flood of light and the sound of voices as the great door opened. Maud rose.
“People are leaving,” she said. “I didn’t know it was so late.” She stood irresolutely. “I suppose I ought to go in and say good-by, but I don’t think I can.”
“Stay where you are. Nobody will see you.”
More automobiles arrived. The quiet of the night was shattered by the noise of their engines. Maud sat down again. “I suppose they will think it very odd of me not being there.”
“Never mind what people think; Reggie Byng didn’t.”
Maud’s foot traced circles on the dry turf.
“What a lovely night,” she said. “There’s no dew at all.”
The automobiles snorted, tooted, backfired and passed away. Their clamor died in the distance, leaving the night a thing of peace and magic once more. The door of the castle closed with a bang.
“I suppose I ought to be going in now,” said Maud.
“I suppose so. And I ought to be there, too, politely making my farewells. But something seems to tell me that Lady Caroline and your brother will be quite ready to dispense with the formalities. I shall go home.”
They faced each other in the darkness.
“Would you really do that?” asked Maud. “Run away, I mean, and get married in London?”
“It’s the only thing to do.”
“But can one get married as quickly as that?”
“At a registrar’s? Nothing simpler. You should have seen Reggie Byng’s wedding. It was over before one realized it had started. A snuffy little man in a black coat with a cold in his head asked a few questions, wrote a few words, and the thing was done.”
“That sounds rather—dreadful.”
“Reggie didn’t seem to think so.”
“Unromantic, I mean—prosaic.”
“You would supply the romance.”
“Of course one ought to be sensible. It is just the same as a regular wedding.”
“In its effects, absolutely.”
They moved up the terrace together. On the gravel drive by the steps they paused.
“I’ll do it!” said Maud.
George had to make an effort before he could reply. For all his sane and convincing arguments, he could not check a pang at this definite acceptance of them. He had begun to appreciate now the strain under which he had been speaking.
“You must,” he said. “Well, good-by.”
There was light on the drive; he could see her face. Her eyes were troubled.
“What will you do?” she asked.
“I mean, are you going to stay on in your cottage?”
“No, I hardly think I could do that. I shall go back to London to-morrow and stay at the Carlton for a few days. Then I shall sail for America. There are a couple of pieces I’ve got to do for the fall. I ought to be starting on them.”
Maud looked away.
“You’ve got your work,” she said almost inaudibly.
George understood her.
“Yes, I’ve got my work.”
She held out her hand.
“You’ve been very wonderful. Right from the beginning you’ve been—oh, what’s the use of my saying anything!”
“I’ve had my reward—I’ve known you. We’re friends, aren’t we?”
“My best friend.”
They shook hands.
“I WAS never so upset in my life!” said Lady Caroline. She had been saying the same thing and many other things for the past five minutes. Until the departure of the last guest she had kept an icy command of herself and shown an unruffled front to the world. She had even contrived to smile. But now, with the final automobile whirring its way homeward, she had thrown off the mask. The very furniture of Lord Marshmoreton’s study seemed to shrink, seared by the flame of her wrath. As for Lord Marshmoreton himself he looked quite shriveled.
It had not been an easy matter to bring her erring brother to bay. The hunt had been in progress fully ten minutes before she and Lord Belpher finally cornered the poor wretch. His plea, through the keyhole of the locked door, that he was working on the family history and could not be disturbed was ignored; and now he was face to face with the avengers.
“I cannot understand it,” continued Lady Caroline. “You know that for months we have all been straining every nerve to break off this horrible entanglement and, just as we had begun to hope that something might be done, you announce the engagement in the most public manner. I think you must be out of your mind. I can hardly believe even now that this appalling thing has happened. I am hoping that I shall wake up and find it is all a nightmare. How you can have done such a thing, I cannot understand.”
“Quite!” said Lord Belpher.
If Lady Caroline was upset, there are no words in the language that will adequately describe the emotions of Percy. From the very start of this lamentable episode in high life Percy had been in the forefront of the battle. It was Percy who had had his best hat smitten from his head in the full view of all Piccadilly. It was Percy who had suffered arrest and imprisonment in the cause. It was Percy who had been crippled for days owing to his zeal in tracking Maud across country. And now all his sufferings were in vain. He had been betrayed by his own father.
There was, so historians of the Middle West tell us, a man of Chicago named Young, who once, when his nerves were unstrung, put his mother—unseen—in the chopping machine, and canned her and labeled her “Tongue.” It is enough to say that the glance of disapproval which Percy cast upon his father at this juncture would have been unduly severe if cast by the Young offspring upon their parent at the moment of confession.
Lord Marshmoreton had rallied from his initial panic. The spirit of revolt began to burn again in his bosom. Once the die is cast for revolution there can be no looking back. One must defy, not apologize. Perhaps the inherited tendencies of a line of ancestors who, whatever their shortcomings, had at least known how to treat their womenfolk, came to his aid. Possibly there stood by his side in this crisis ghosts of dead and buried Marshmoretons, whispering spectral encouragement in his ear—the ghost, let us suppose, of that earl who, in the days of the seventh Henry, had stabbed his wife with a dagger to cure her of a tendency to lecture him at night; or of that other earl who, at a previous date in the annals of the family, had caused two aunts and a sister to be poisoned apparently from a mere whim. At any rate, Lord Marshmoreton produced from some source sufficient courage to talk back.
“Silly nonsense!” he grunted. “Don’t see what you’re making all this fuss about. Maud loves the fellow. I like the fellow. Perfectly decent fellow. Nothing to make a fuss about. Why shouldn’t I announce the engagement?”
“You must be mad!” cried Lady Caroline. “Your only daughter and a man nobody knows anything about!”
“Quite!” said Percy.
Lord Marshmoreton seized his advantage with the skill of an adroit debater.
“That’s where you’re wrong. I know all about him. He’s a very rich man. You heard the way all those people at dinner behaved when they heard his name. Very celebrated man! Makes thousands of pounds a year. Perfectly suitable match in every way.”
“It is not a suitable match,” said Lady Caroline vehemently. “I don’t care whether this Mr. Bevan makes thousands of pounds a year or twopence-ha’penny. The match is not suitable. Money is not everything.”
She broke off. A knock had come to the door. The door opened and Billie Dore came in. A kind-hearted girl, she had foreseen that Lord Marshmoreton might be glad of a change of subject at about this time.
“Would you like me to help you tonight?” she asked brightly. “I thought I would ask if there was anything you wanted me to do.”
Lady Caroline snatched hurriedly at her aristocratic calm. She resented the interruption acutely, but her manner, when she spoke, was bland.
“Lord Marshmoreton will not require your help to-night,” she said. “He will not be working.”
“Good night,” said Billie.
“Good night,” said Lady Caroline.
Percy scowled a valediction.
“Money,” resumed Lady Caroline, “is immaterial. Maud is in no position to be obliged to marry a rich man. What makes the thing impossible is that this Mr. Bevan is nobody. He comes from nowhere. He has no social standing whatsoever.”
“Don’t see it,” said Lord Marshmoreton. “The fellow’s a thoroughly decent fellow; that’s all that matters.”
“How can you be so pig-headed! You are talking like an imbecile. Your secretary, Miss Dore, is a nice girl; but how would you feel if Percy were to come to you and say that he was engaged to be married to her?”
“Exactly!” said Percy. “Quite!”
Lord Marshmoreton rose and moved to the door. He did it with a certain dignity, but there was a strange, hunted expression in his eyes.
“That would be impossible,” he said.
“Precisely,” said his sister. “I am glad that you admit it.”
Lord Marshmoreton had reached the door and was standing holding the handle. He seemed to gather strength from its support. “I’ve been meaning to tell you about that,” he said.
“About Miss Dore. I married her myself last Wednesday,” said Lord Marshmoreton, and disappeared like a diving duck.
AT A QUARTER past four in the afternoon, two days after the memorable dinner party at which Lord Marshmoreton had behaved with so notable a lack of judgment, Maud sat in Ye Cosy Nooke, waiting for Geoffrey Raymond. He had said in his telegram that he would meet her there at four-thirty; but eagerness had brought Maud to the tryst a quarter of an hour ahead of time; and already the sadness of her surroundings was causing her to regret this impulsiveness. Depression had settled upon her spirit. She was aware of something that resembled foreboding.
Ye Cosy Nooke, as its name will immediately suggest to those who know their London, is a tea shop in Bond Street, conducted by distressed gentlewomen. In London, when a gentlewoman becomes distressed—which she seems to do on the slightest provocation—she collects about her two or three other distressed gentlewomen, forming a quorum, and starts a tea shop in the West End, which she calls Ye Oak-Leaf, Ye Olde Willow-Pattern, Ye Linden-Tree, or Ye Snug Harbor, according to personal taste. There, dressed in Tyrolese, Japanese, Norwegian or some other exotic costume, she and her associates administer refreshments of an afternoon with a proud languor calculated to knock the nonsense out of the cheeriest customer. Here you will find none of the bustle and efficiency of the rival establishments of Lyons and Co., nor the glitter and gayety of Rumpelmayer’s. These places have an atmosphere of their own. They rely for their effect on an insufficiency of light, an almost total lack of ventilation, a property chocolate cake which you are not supposed to cut, and the sad aloofness of their ministering angels. It is to be doubted whether there is anything in the world more damping to the spirit than a London tea shop of this kind, unless it be another London tea shop of the same kind.
Maud sat and waited. Somewhere out of sight a kettle bubbled in an undertone, like a whispering pessimist. Across the room two distressed gentlewomen in fancy dress leaned against the wall. They, too, were whispering. Their expressions suggested that they looked on life as low and wished they were well out of it, like the body upstairs. One assumed that there was a body upstairs. One cannot help it at these places. One’s first thought on entering is that the lady assistant will approach one and ask “Tea or chocolate? And would you care to view the remains?”
Maud looked at her watch. It was twenty past four. She could scarcely believe that she had been there only five minutes, but the ticking of the watch assured her that it had not stopped. Her depression deepened. Why had Geoffrey told her to meet him in a cavern of gloom like this instead of at the Savoy? She would have enjoyed the Savoy. But here she seemed to have lost beyond recovery the first gay eagerness with which she had set out to meet the man she loved.
Suddenly she began to feet frightened. Some evil spirit, possibly the kettle, seemed to whisper to her that she had been foolish in coming here, to cast doubts on what she had hitherto regarded as the one rock-solid fact in the world, her love for Geoffrey. Could she have changed since those days in Wales? Life had been so confusing of late. In the vividness of recent happenings those days in Wales seemed a long way off, and she herself different from the girl of a year ago. She found herself thinking about George Bevan.
It was a curious fact that the moment she began to think of George Bevan she felt better. It was as if she had lost her way in a wilderness and had met a friend. There was something so capable, so soothing about George. And how well he had behaved at that last interview. George seemed somehow to be part of her life. She could not imagine a life in which he had no share. And he was at this moment probably packing to return to America, and she would never see him again. Something stabbed at her heart. It was as if she were realizing now for the first time that he was really going.
She tried to rid herself of the ache at her heart by thinking of Wales. She closed her eyes and found that that helped her to remember. With her eyes shut, she could bring it all back—that rainy day, the graceful, supple figure that had come to her out of the mist, those walks over the hills. If only Geoffrey would come! It was the sight of him that she needed.
“There you are!”
Maud opened her eyes with a start. The voice had sounded like Geoffrey’s, but it was a stranger who stood by the table, and not a particularly prepossessing stranger. In the dim light of Ye Cosy Nooke, to which her opening eyes had not yet grown accustomed, all she could see of the man was that he was remarkably stout. She stiffened defensively. This was what a girl who sat about in tea rooms alone had to expect.
“Hope I’m not late,” said the stranger, sitting down and breathing heavily. “I thought a little exercise would do me good, so I walked.”
Every nerve in Maud’s body seemed to come to life simultaneously. She tingled from head to foot. It was Geoffrey!
He was looking over his shoulder and endeavoring, by snapping his fingers, to attract the attention of the nearest distressed gentlewoman; and this gave Maud time to recover from the frightful shock she had received. Her dizziness left her, and, leaving, was succeeded by a panic dismay. This couldn’t be Geoffrey! It was outrageous that it should be Geoffrey! And yet it undeniably was Geoffrey. For a year she had prayed that Geoffrey might be given back to her, and the gods had heard her prayer. They had given her back Geoffrey, and with a careless generosity they had given her twice as much of him as she had expected. She had asked for the slim Apollo whom she had loved in Wales, and this colossal changeling had arrived in his stead.
We all of us have our prejudices. Maud had a prejudice against fat men. It may have been the spectacle of her brother Percy, bulging more and more every year she had known him, that had caused this kink in her character. At any rate, it existed; and she gazed in sickened silence at Geoffrey. He had turned again now, and she was enabled to get a full and complete view of him. He was not merely stout, he was gross. The slim figure which had haunted her for a year had spread into a sea of waistcoat. The keen lines of his face had disappeared altogether. His cheeks were pink jellies.
One of the distressed gentlewomen had approached with a slow disdain, and was standing by the table, brooding on the corpse upstairs. It seemed a shame to bother her.
“Tea or chocolate?” she inquired proudly.
“Tea, please,” said Maud, finding her voice.
“One tea,” sighed the mourner.
“Chocolate for me,” said Geoffrey briskly, with the air of one discoursing on a congenial topic. “I’d like plenty of whipped cream. And please see that it’s hot.”
Geoffrey pondered. This was no light matter that occupied him.
“And bring some fancy cakes—I like the ones with icing on them—and some tea-cake and buttered toast. Please see that there’s plenty of butter on it.”
Maud shivered. This man before her was a man in whose lexicon there should have been no such word as butter, a man who should have called for the police had some enemy endeavored to thrust butter upon him.
“Well,” said Geoffrey, leaning forward, as the haughty ministrant drifted away, “you haven’t changed a bit—to look at, I mean.”
“No?” said Maud.
“You’re just the same. I think I”—he squinted down at his waistcoat—“I have put on a little weight. I don’t know if you notice it?”
Maud shivered again. He thought he had put on a little weight, and didn’t know if she noticed it! She was oppressed by the eternal melancholy miracle of the fat man who does not realize that he has become fat.
“It was living on the yacht that put me a little out of condition,” said Geoffrey. “I was on the yacht nearly all the time since I saw you last. The old boy had a Japanese cook and lived pretty high. It was apoplexy that got him. We had a great time, touring about. We were on the Mediterranean all last winter, mostly at Nice.”
“I should like to go to Nice,” said Maud, for something to say. She was feeling that it was not only externally that Geoffrey had changed. Or had he in reality always been like this, commonplace and prosaic, and was it merely in her imagination that he had been wonderful?
“If you ever go,” said Geoffrey earnestly, “don’t fail to lunch at the Hotel Côte d’Azure. They give you the most amazing selection of hors-d’œuvres you ever saw. Crayfish as big as baby lobsters! And there’s a fish—I’ve forgotten its name— it’ll come back to me—that’s just like the Florida pompano. Be careful to have it broiled, not fried. Otherwise you lose the flavor. Tell the waiter you must have it broiled, with melted butter and a little parsley and some plain boiled potatoes. It’s really astonishing. It’s best to stick to fish on the Continent. People can say what they like, but I maintain that the French don’t really understand steaks or any sort of red meat. The veal isn’t bad, though I prefer our way of serving it. Of course what the French are real geniuses at is the omelet. I remember, when we put in at Toulon for coal, I went ashore for a stroll, and had the most delicious omelet with chicken livers, beautifully cooked, at quite a small, unpretentious place near the harbor. I shall always remember it.”
The mourner returned, bearing a laden tray, from which she removed the funeral bakemeats and placed them limply on the table. Geoffrey shook his head, annoyed.
“I particularly asked for plenty of butter on my toast!” he said. “I hate buttered toast if there isn’t lots of butter. It isn’t worth eating. Get me a couple of pats, will you, and I’ll spread it myself. Do hurry, please, before the toast gets cold. It’s no good if the toast gets cold. They don’t understand tea as a meal at these places,” he said to Maud, as the mourner withdrew. “You have to go to the country to appreciate the real thing. I remember we lay off Lyme Regis, down Devonshire way, for a few days, and I went and had tea at a farmhouse there. It was quite amazing! Thick Devonshire cream and homemade jam and cakes of every kind. This sort of thing here is just a farce. I do wish that woman would make haste with that butter; it’ll be too late in a minute.”
Maud sipped her tea in silence. Her heart was like lead within her. The recurrence of the butter theme as a sort of leitmotif in her companion’s conversation was fraying her nerves till she felt she could endure little more. She cast her mind’s eye back over the months and had a horrid vision of Geoffrey steadily absorbing butter, day after day, week after week, ever becoming more and more of a human keg. She shuddered.
Indignation at the injustice of fate in causing her to give her heart to a man, and then changing him into another and quite different man, fought with a cold terror, which grew as she realized more and more clearly the magnitude of the mistake she had made.
She felt that she must escape. And yet how could she escape? She had definitely pledged herself to this man.
“Ah!” cried Geoffrey gayly, as the pats of butter arrived. “That’s more like it!” He began to smear the toast.
Maud averted her eyes. She had told him that she loved him, that he was the whole world to her, that there would never be anyone else. He had come to claim her. How could she refuse him just because he was about thirty pounds overweight?
Geoffrey finished his meal. He took out a cigarette.
“No smoking, please!” said the distressed gentlewoman. He put the cigarette back in its case. There was a new expression in his eyes now, a tender expression. For the first time since they had met Maud seemed to catch a far-off glimpse of the man she had loved in Wales. Butter appeared to have softened Geoffrey.
“So you couldn’t wait!” he said with pathos.
Maud did not understand.
“I waited over a quarter of an hour. It was you who were late.”
“I don’t mean that; I am referring to your engagement. I saw the announcement in the Morning Post. Well, I hope you will let me offer you my best wishes. This Mr. George Bevan, whoever he is, is lucky.”
Maud had opened her mouth to explain, to say that it was all a mistake. She closed it again without speaking.
“So you couldn’t wait!” proceeded Geoffrey with gentle regret. “Well, I suppose I ought not to blame you. You are at an age when it is easy to forget. I had no right to hope that you would be proof against a few months’ separation. I expected too much. But it is ironical, isn’t it! There was I, thinking always of those days last summer when we were everything to each other, while you had forgotten me. Forgotten me!” sighed Geoffrey. He picked a fragment of cake absently off the tablecloth and inserted it in his mouth.
The unfairness of the attack stung Maud to speech. She looked back over the months, thought of all she had suffered, and ached with self-pity.
“I hadn’t!” she cried.
“You hadn’t? But you let this other man, this George Bevan, make love to you.”
“I didn’t! That was all a mistake.”
“Yes. It would take too long to explain, but ——”
She stopped. It had come to her suddenly, in a flash of clear vision, that the mistake was one which she had no desire to correct. She felt like one who, lost in a jungle, comes out after long wandering into the open air. For days she had been thinking confusedly, unable to interpret her own emotions; and now everything had abruptly become clarified. It was as if the sight of Geoffrey had been the key to a cipher. She loved George Bevan, the man she had sent out of her life forever. She knew it now, and the shock of realization made her feel faint and helpless. And, mingled with the shock of realization, there came to her the mortification of knowing that her aunt, Lady Caroline, and her brother Percy had been right after all. What she had mistaken for the love of a lifetime had been, as they had so often insisted, a mere infatuation, unable to survive the spectacle of a Geoffrey who had been eating too much butter and had put on flesh.
Geoffrey swallowed his piece of cake and bent forward.
“Aren’t you engaged to this man Bevan?”
Maud avoided his eye. She was aware that the crisis had arrived and that her whole future hung on her next words.
And then Fate came to her rescue. Before she could speak there was an interruption.
“Pardon me,” said a voice. “One moment!”
So intent had Maud and her companion been on their own affairs that neither of them observed the entrance of a third party. This was a young man with mouse-colored hair and a freckled, badly shaven face which seemed undecided whether to be furtive or impudent. He had small eyes, and his costume was a blend of the flashy and the shabby. He wore a derby hat, tilted a little rakishly to one side, and carried a small bag, which he rested on the table between them.
“Sorry to intrude, miss.” He bowed gallantly to Maud. “But I want to have a few words with Mr. Spencer Gray here.”
Maud, looking across at Geoffrey, was surprised to see that his florid face had lost much of its color. His mouth was open and his eyes had taken on a glassy expression.
“I think you have made a mistake,” she said coldly. She disliked the young man at sight. “This is Mr. Raymond.”
Geoffrey found speech.
“Of course I’m Mr. Raymond!” he cried angrily. “What do you mean by coming and annoying us like this!”
The young man was not discomposed. He appeared to be used to being unpopular. He proceeded as though there had been no interruption.
He produced a dingy card.
“Glance at that,” he said. “Morris Willoughby and Son, Solicitors. I’m Son. The guv’nor put this little matter into my hands. I’ve been looking for you for days, Mr. Gray, to hand you this paper.” He opened the bag like a conjurer performing a trick, and brought out a stiff document of legal aspect. “You’re a witness, miss, that I’ve served the papers. You know what this is, of course?” he said to Geoffrey; “action for breach of promise of marriage. Our client, Miss Yvonne Sinclair, of the Regal Theater, is suing for ten thousand pounds. And if you ask me,” said the young man with genial candor, dropping the professional manner, “I don’t mind telling you I think it’s a walk-over! It’s the best little action for breach we’ve handled for years.” He became professional again. “Your lawyers will no doubt communicate with us in due course. And if you take my advice,” he concluded, with another of his swift changes of manner, “you’ll get ’em to settle out of court, for, between you and me and the lamp-post, you haven’t an earthly!”
Geoffrey had started to his feet. He was puffing with outraged innocence.
“What the devil do you mean by this?” he demanded. “Can’t you see you’ve made a mistake? My name is not Gray. This lady has told you that I am Geoffrey Raymond!”
“Makes it all the worse for you,” said the young man imperturbably, “making advances to our client under an assumed name. We’ve got letters and witnesses and the whole bag of tricks. And how about this photo?” He dived into the bag again. “Do you recognize that, miss?”
Maud looked at the photograph. It was unmistakably Geoffrey. And it had evidently been taken recently, for it showed the later Geoffrey, the man of substance. It was a full-length photograph, and across the stout legs was written in a flowing hand the legend “To Babe from her little Pootles.” Maud gave a shudder and handed it back to the young man, just as Geoffrey, reaching across the table, made a grab for it.
“I recognize it,” she said.
Mr. Willoughby Junior packed the photograph away in his bag and turned to go.
“That’s all for to-day then, I think,” he said affably.
He bowed again in his courtly way, tilted the derby hat a little more to the left, and, having greeted one of the distressed gentlewomen who loitered limply in his path with a polite “Gangway, if you please, Mabel!” which drew upon him a freezing stare of which he seemed oblivious, he passed out, leaving behind him strained silence.
Maud was the first to break it.
“I think I’ll be going,” she said.
The words seemed to rouse her companion from his stupor.
“Let me explain!”
“There’s nothing to explain.”
“It was just a—it was just a passing—it was nothing, nothing!”
“Pootles!” murmured Maud.
Geoffrey followed her as she moved to the door.
“Be reasonable!” pleaded Geoffrey. “Men aren’t saints! It was nothing! Are you going to end—everything—just because I lost my head?”
Maud looked at him with a smile. She was conscious of an overwhelming relief. The dim interior of Ye Cosy Nooke no longer seemed depressing. She could have kissed this unknown “Babe” whose businesslike action had enabled her to close a regrettable chapter in her life with a clear conscience.
“But you haven’t only lost your head, Geoffrey,” she said; “you’ve lost your figure as well.”
She went out quickly. With a convulsive bound Geoffrey started to follow her, but was checked before he had gone a yard.
There are formalities to be observed before a patron can leave Ye Cosy Nooke.
“If you please!” said a distressed, gentlewomanly voice.
The lady whom Mr. Willoughby had addressed as Mabel—erroneously, for her name was Ernestine—was standing beside him with a slip of paper.
“Six and twopence,” said Ernestine.
For a moment this appalling statement drew the unhappy man’s mind from the main issue.
“Six and twopence for a cup of chocolate and a few cakes?” he cried, aghast. “It’s robbery!”
“Six and twopence, please!” said the queen of the bandits with undisturbed calm. She had been through this sort of thing before. Ye Cosy Nooke did not get many customers, but it made the most of those it did get.
“Here!” Geoffrey produced a half sovereign. “I haven’t time to argue!”
The distressed brigand showed no gratification. She had the air of one who is aloof from worldly things. All she wanted was rest and leisure, leisure to meditate upon the body upstairs. All flesh is as grass. We are here to-day and gone to-morrow. But there beyond the grave is peace.
“Your change?” she said.
“Damn the change!”
“You’re forgetting your hat.”
“Damn my hat!”
Geoffrey dashed from the room. He heaved his body through the door. He lumbered down the stairs.
Out in Bond Street the traffic moved up and the traffic moved down. Strollers strolled upon the sidewalks.
But Maud had gone.
IN HIS bedroom at the Carlton Hotel George Bevan was packing. That is to say, he had begun packing; but for the last twenty minutes he had been sitting on the side of the bed, staring into a future which became bleaker and bleaker, the more he examined it. In the last two days he had been no stranger to these gray moods, and they had become harder and harder to dispel. Now with the steamer trunk before him gaping to receive its contents, he gave himself up whole-heartedly to gloom.
Somehow the steamer trunk, with all that it implied of partings and voyagings, seemed to emphasize the fact that he was going out alone into an empty world. Soon he would be on board the liner every revolution of whose engines would be taking him farther away from where his heart would always be. There were moments when the torment of this realization became almost physical.
It was incredible that, three short weeks ago, he had been a happy man. Lonely, perhaps, but only in a vague, impersonal way; not lonely with this aching loneliness that tortured him now. What was there left for him? As regards any triumphs which the future might bring him in connection with his work, he was, as Mac the stage-door keeper had said, “blarzy.” Any success he might have would be but a stale repetition of other successes which he had achieved. He would go on working, of course, but ——
The ringing of the telephone bell across the room jerked him back to the present. He got up with a muttered malediction. Someone calling up again from the theater probably. They had been doing it all the time since he had announced his intention of leaving for America by Saturday’s boat.
“Hello?” he said wearily.
“Is that George?” asked a voice. It seemed familiar, but all female voices sound the same over the telephone.
“This is George,” he replied. “Who are you?”
“Don’t you know my voice?”
“I do not.”
“You’ll know it quite well before long. I’m a great talker.”
“Is that Billie?”
“It is not Billie, whoever Billie may be. I am female, George.”
“So is Billie.”
“Well, you had better run through the list of your feminine friends till you reach me.”
“I haven’t any feminine friends.”
“You told me in the garden two nights ago that you looked on me as a pal.”
George sat down abruptly. He felt boneless.
“Is—is that you?” he stammered. “It can’t be—Maud!”
“How clever of you to guess. George, I want to ask you one or two things. In the first place, are you fond of butter?”
This was not a dream.
He had just bumped his knee against the corner of the telephone table, and it still hurt most convincingly. He needed the evidence to assure himself that he was awake.
“Butter?” he queried. “What do you mean?”
“Oh, well, if you don’t even know what butter means, I expect it’s all right. What is your weight, George?”
“About a hundred and eighty pounds. But I don’t understand.”
“Wait a minute.” There was a silence at the other end of the wire. “About thirteen stone,” said Maud’s voice. “I’ve been doing it in my head. And what was it this time last year?”
“About the same, I think. I always weigh about the same.”
“How wonderful! George!”
“This is very important. Have you ever been in Florida?”
“I was there one winter.”
“Do you know a fish called the pompano?”
“Tell me about it.”
“How do you mean? It’s just a fish. You eat it.”
“I know. Go into details.”
“There aren’t any details. You just eat it.”
The voice at the other end of the wire purred with approval.
“I never heard anything so splendid. The last man who mentioned pompano to me became absolutely lyrical about sprigs of parsley and melted butter. Well, that’s that. Now here’s another very important point. How about wall paper?”
George pressed his unoccupied hand against his forehead. This conversation was unnerving him.
“I didn’t get that,” he said.
“Didn’t get what?”
“I mean, I didn’t quite catch what you said that time. It sounded to me like ‘What about wall paper?’ ”
“It was ‘What about wall paper?’ Why not?”
“But,” said George weakly, “it doesn’t make any sense.”
“Oh, but it does. I mean, what about wall paper for your den?”
“Your den. You must have a den. Where do you suppose you’re going to work, if you don’t? Now my idea would be some nice quiet grass cloth. And of course you would have lots of pictures and books. And a photograph of me. I’ll go and be taken specially. Then there would be a piano for you to work on, and two or three really comfortable chairs. And—well, that would be about all, wouldn’t it?”
George pulled himself together.
“Hello!” he said.
“Why do you say Hello?”
“I forgot I was in London. I should have said ‘Are you there?’ ”
“Yes, I’m here.”
“Well, then, what does it all mean?”
“What does what mean?”
“What you’ve been saying—about butter and pompanos and wall paper and my den and all that? I don’t understand.”
“How stupid of you! I was asking you what sort of wall paper you would like in your den after we were married and settled down.”
George dropped the receiver. It clashed against the side of the table. He groped for it blindly.
“Hello!” he said.
“Don’t say Hello! It sounds so abrupt!”
“What did you say then?”
“I said ‘Don’t say Hello!’ ”
“No, before that! Before that! You said something about getting married.”
“Well, aren’t we going to get married? Our engagement is announced in the Morning Post.”
“George!” Maud’s voice shook. “Don’t tell me you are going to jilt me!” she said tragically. “Because, if you are, let me know in time, as I shall want to bring an action for breach of promise. I’ve just met such a capable young man who will look after the whole thing for me. He wears a bowler hat on the side of his head and calls waitresses ‘Mabel.’ Answer yes or no. Will you marry me?”
“But—but—how about—I mean what about—I mean how about ——”
“Make up your mind what you do mean.”
“The other fellow!” gasped George.
A musical laugh was wafted to him over the wire.
“What about him?”
“Well, what about him?” said George.
“Isn’t a girl allowed to change her mind?” said Maud.
George yelped excitedly. Maud gave a cry.
“Don’t sing!” she said. “You nearly made me deaf.”
“Have you changed your mind?”
“Certainly I have!”
“And you really think—you really want—I mean, you really want—you really think ——”
“Don’t be so incoherent!”
“Will you marry me?”
“Of course I will.”
“What did you say?”
“I said Gosh! And listen to me, when I say Gosh! I mean Gosh! Where are you? I must see you. Where can we meet? I want to see you! For heaven’s sake tell me where you are! I want to see you! Where are you? Where are you?”
“Where? Here at the Carlton?”
“Here at the Carlton!”
“You won’t be long!” said George.
He hung up the receiver, and bounded across the room to where his coat hung over the back of a chair. The edge of the steamer trunk caught his shin.
“Well,” said George to the steamer trunk, “and what are you butting in for? Who wants you, I should like to know!”
Note: Thanks to Neil Midkiff for providing the transcription and images for this story.