The Saturday Evening Post, May 24, 1924
WITH a sudden sharp snort which, violent though it was, expressed only feebly the disgust and indignation seething within him, Sir George Pyke laid down the current number of Society Spice and took up the desk telephone.
“Give me Spice office,” he said curtly. There was a brief interval. “Roderick?”
“He has not yet returned from lunch, Sir George,” said an obsequious voice.
“Ah, is that you, Pilbeam?” Sir George’s expression softened. Pilbeam was one of his favorites; a youth with a future; a man he had his eye on. “Kindly tell Mr. Roderick when he comes in that I wish to see him.”
“Very good, Sir George.”
The founder and proprietor of the Mammoth Publishing Co., that vast concern which supplies half—the more fat-headed half—of England with its reading matter, hung up the receiver, and after a few moments of frowning thought seized a pencil and began to write. The occupation effected in his appearance a striking change for the better. His brow grew smooth; his eyes ceased to glitter; something resembling a smile relaxed the drawn tensity of his lips. He bent over his pad, absorbed.
One of the things that make the lot of the reader of a story such as this so enjoyable is the fact that, in addition to being uplifted, entertained and instructed, he possesses all the advantages of a disembodied spirit. He can go anywhere and see everything. Any ordinary man, for instance, who wished to enter the presence of Sir George Pyke would be obliged to go down Fleet Street, turn to the right along Tilbury Street till he came to Tilbury House, interview a discouraging official in the vestibule, fill up a form stating name and business and hand this to a small boy in buttons. And in the end, after waiting for anything from ten to forty minutes, he would probably get no further than a brief word with one of Sir George’s secretaries. For the man behind the Mammoth does not see everyone. His time is valuable, his sense of his own importance keen, and he is hedged about by a crowd of willing helpers whose chief duty it is to ensure the respecting by casual callers of that motto of all great men, Keep Out! This Means You! An army with banners would be halted on the threshold, and not even cabinet ministers may crash the gate.
The reader, however, being invisible, can walk right up to the great man’s office on the fourth floor and go in without knocking. He will find Sir George still writing.
The discovery of a man in Sir George Pyke’s position engaged in such an occupation is surely stirring enough to thrill the most blasé. For who can say what literary task it is that occupies him? It may be anything from a snappy column article for Pyke’s Weekly on Should Engaged Couples Kiss? to an editorial for the Daily Record, a page of helpful thoughts for the Sabbath Hour, or even a bedtime story for Tiny Tots. But, as a matter of fact, it is none of these things. What Sir George is so busily jotting down on that large pad is a list of names. He has already written: Ilfracombe, Forshore, Waynscote, Barraclough, Wensleydale, Creeby, Woodshott, Marlinghue; and now, as we look, he adds to the collection the word Michelhever.
This one seems to please him particularly, for he places against it a couple of crosses. Then, inspiration apparently leaving him for the moment, he pushes back his chair and, rising, begins to pace the floor.
It is the custom nowadays to describe all successful men who are stumpy and about twenty pounds overweight as Napoleonic. But, hackneyed though the adjective is, it must be admitted that there was, indeed, something suggestive of Napoleon in the port of Sir George Pyke as he strode up and down his office. His generously filled waistcoat and the habit he dropped into in moments of meditation of thrusting the fingers of his right hand in between its first and second buttons gave at any rate a superficial resemblance to the great Corsican; and this resemblance was accentuated by the gravity of his plump, determined face. He looked like a man fond of having his own way; nor in the last twenty years of his life had he often failed to get it.
The desk telephone emitted a discreet buzzing sound, as if it shrank from raising its voice in the presence of such a man.
“Mrs. Hammond to see you, Sir George.”
“Send her in—send her in. Good heavens, Francie,” exclaimed the proprietor of the Mammoth Publishing Co. as the door opened, “I’ve been phoning your house half the morning, trying to get hold of you!”
“How fortunate that I happened to look in,” said Mrs. Hammond, settling herself in a chair. “What is it?” Frances Hammond, née Pyke, was a feminine replica of her eminent brother. She lacked his second chin, but had the same bright and compelling eyes, the same overjutting brows which lent those eyes such keenness, the same high coloring and breadth of forehead.
Sir George was conscious once again as he looked at her of that little thrill of admiration which she always awoke in him. A great woman.
“What did you want to see me about?” asked Mrs. Hammond.
Sir George drew a deep breath. He had tremendous news to impart, and an instinct for drama urged him not to spoil this moment by blurting the secret out too abruptly. But ecstasy was too strong for his sense of the dramatic.
“Francie, old girl,” he cried, “what do you think? They’ve offered me a peerage!”
It was not easy to shake Frances Hammond’s poise, but these words accomplished that miracle. For a full ten seconds she sat there staring open-mouthed, while Sir George, blushing and on the very verge of giggles, pulled self-consciously at his scarlet knitted-wool waistcoat, the famous Pyke waistcoat which was one of the sights of London.
“Letter’s over there on that desk. Came this morning.”
Mrs. Hammond scrambled out of her chair and kissed her brother fondly. There were tears in her commanding eyes.
“I thought it would please you!”
“I am proud of you, Georgie dear. What a culmination for your splendid career!”
“And who helped me build that career? Hey?”
“I have always done what I could,” said Mrs. Hammond modestly. “But of course it was you——”
Sir George thumped the desk; and, happening to strike the sharp edge of a wire paper basket, wished that he had expressed his emotion a little less muscularly. He sucked his hand for a moment before speaking.
“You have been the making of the business,” he said vehemently when the pain had somewhat abated. “I couldn’t have got anywhere without you. Who suggested the how-many-pins-does-the-prime-minister’s-hat-hold competition in Pyke’s Weekly when it was touch and go if it could turn the corner? From that moment Pyke’s Weekly never looked back. And on Pyke’s my whole present fortune is founded. The fact is, from the very start we have worked as a team. If I had the ginger, you had the judgment. I don’t suppose there’s a person in the world whose judgment I respect as highly as I do yours, Francie.”
Mrs. Hammond beamed.
“Well, Georgie, I’m sure I’m only too glad if my efforts to play Egeria have been successful.”
“Play what?” said Sir George, looking a trifle blank.
“Egeria was a goddess who helped and inspired the Roman king, Numa Pompilius. At least, so Sinclair tells me.”
She referred to Mr. Sinclair Hammond, the well-known archæologist, who enjoyed the additional distinction of being her husband.
“Now there’s a fellow,” said Sir George, “who, if he had a little drive and initiative, would go far. Plenty of brains.”
Mrs. Hammond forbore to discuss her husband. She had grown used to his dreamy lack of ambition, his undynamic acceptance of his niche in the world. There had been a time when she had chafed at these things, but recently she had come to accept it as her cross in this life that she never seemed to marry anyone with ginger and pep. Her first husband, acquired in the days before prosperity had dawned on the family, had been a Mr. Herbert Shale, courteous and popular assistant in the hose-and-underwear department of Beasley’s Stores, and him not even her great driving force had been able to shove higher up the social ladder than the rank of shop walker. Whatever his shortcomings, Sinclair was better than Herbert.
“What title did you think of adopting, Georgie?” she asked, changing the subject.
Sir George, whose great brain never wholly relaxed, even in its social moments, was speaking into the dictating device.
“Editor Pyke’s Weekly, attention,” he was saying. “Article next week on Famous Women Who Have Inspired Famous Men. You know—Egeria and so forth.” He turned away apologetically. “I beg your pardon?”
“I said, have you thought of a title yet?”
“Just jotted down a few suggestions, that’s all.” He picked up the pad. “How do you like Lord Barraclough? Or Wensleydale? Or Marlinghue? The one that pleased me most was Michelhever. There’s a swing about Michelhever.”
Mrs. Hammond shook her head.
“Too florid. They’re all too florid.”
“Well, you know, a title ought to have a bit of a ring. Look at some of the ones there are already—Beaverbrook, Stratheden, Leverhulme—plenty of zip to them.”
“I know, but——”
“And mark you,” urged Sir George, “it’s deuced hard to pick something good that hasn’t already been taken. The fellows who got in first skimmed the cream.”
“I know. But none of these you have mentioned sound just right to me. There is nothing actually wrong with them, and a man with your personality could carry them off; but they are all just the least bit ornate. You must not forget that eventually Roderick will have to succeed to whatever title you choose. We must not select anything that would seem ridiculous in connection with Roderick. His actual name is bad enough, as it is. Roderick!” Mrs. Hammond winced. This was a painful subject with her. “How often I pleaded with poor Lucy to call him Thomas!”
The frown which had been so long absent from Sir George’s happy face returned. He had the air of one into whose cup of joy an unfriendly hand has dropped a dead mouse.
“I’d forgotten all about Roderick,” he said moodily.
THERE was a pause. The future Lord Michelhever—or possibly Wensleydale or Marlinghue—drummed irritably on the desk with his finger tips.
“How the deuce I came to have a son like that,” he complained, as many a stout father had done before him and many would do when he was dead and gone, “beats me!”
“He takes after poor Lucy,” said Mrs. Hammond. “She was just the same timid, feeble creature.”
Sir George nodded. The mention of his long-departed wife stirred no sentimental chord in him. The days when he was plain George Pyke, humble clerk in a solicitor’s office, and used to thrill at the soft voice of Lucy Maynard as she took the order for his frugal lunch at the Holborn Viaduct Cabin had long since faded from his memory. That quite unsatisfactory woman had now definitely become poor Lucy—a thing to be spoken of in much the same tone as would be accorded to measles or any other mild ailment that had attacked a great man in his infancy.
“Reminds me,” said Sir George, reaching for the telephone, “that I want to have a word with Roderick. I’ll do it now,” he said, unconsciously quoting the motto which by his instructions had been placed in a wooden frame on every editorial desk in the building. “I rang up the Spice office just before you came, but he was still out at lunch.”
“Wait one moment, Georgie. There is something I want to speak to you about before you send for Roderick.” Sir George, always docile when it was she who commanded, put down the telephone. “What has he been doing that you want to see him?”
Sir George snorted.
“I’ll tell you!” The agony of a disappointed father rang in his voice. In some such accents might King Lear have spoken of his children. “I gave that boy his head far too much while he was up at Oxford. I let him have a large allowance, and what did he do with it? Published a book he had written on the Prose of Walter Pater! At his own expense, in limp purple leather! And on top of that had the effrontery to suggest that the Mammoth should take over the Poetry Quarterly, a beastly thing that doesn’t sell a dozen copies a year, and let him run it as editor.”
“I know all that,” said Mrs. Hammond, a shade impatiently. If Georgie had a fault it was this tendency of his toward the twice-told tale. “And you made him editor of Society Spice. How is he getting on?”
“That’s just what I’m coming to. I started to break him into the business by making him editor of Spice, never dreaming that even he could make a mess of that. Why, the position is a sinecure! Young Pilbeam, a thoroughly able young fellow, really runs the paper. All I asked of Roderick, all I wanted him to do, was to show some signs of grip and generally find his feet before going on to something bigger. And what happens? I would like you,” said the stricken father, “just to glance through this week’s issue.”
Mrs. Hammond took the paper. There was a silence, broken only by the rustling of leaves and Sir George’s deep, overwrought breathing.
“Lacks vigor,” announced Egeria at length.
“Lacks grip,” said Numa Pompilius.
“Needs ginger. I made inquiries,” proceeded Numa Pompilius bitterly, hurling the offending journal into a corner, “and what do you think? Young Pilbeam tells me that Roderick deliberately vetoes and excludes from the paper all the best items he submits. That’s his idea of earning his salary and being loyal to the firm that employs him.”
Mrs. Hammond clicked her tongue concernedly.
“It seems incredible.”
“It’s quite true.”
“But what possible motive could he have?”
“Motive? A boy like that doesn’t have to have motives. He’s just a plain imbecile. I wish to heaven,” cried this tortured parent, “that he would get married! A wife might make something of him.”
Mrs. Hammond started.
“What an extraordinary thing that you should say that! It was the very thing I wanted to speak to you about. I suppose you realize, George, that, now you are going to receive this peerage, Roderick’s marriage becomes a matter of vital importance. I mean, it is even more essential than before that he should marry somebody in a suitable social position.”
“Let me catch him,” said Sir George grimly, “trying to marry anybody that isn’t!”
“Well, you know, there was that girl you told me about—the one that worked as a stenographer in the Pyke’s Weekly office.”
“Sacked,” said Sir George briefly. “Shot her out five minutes after I discovered that they were having a flirtation.”
“Has he been seeing her since?”
“Wouldn’t have the nerve to.”
“No, that is true. Deliberate defiance of your wishes would be out of keeping with Roderick’s character. Has he shown any signs of being attracted by any other girl—any girl in his own class, I mean?”
“Not that I know of.”
“George,” said Mrs. Hammond, leaning forward, “I have been thinking of this for some time. Why should not Roderick marry Felicia?”
SIR GEORGE quivered from head to foot. He gazed at his sister with that stunned reverence which comes over men whose darkness has suddenly been lightened by the beacon flash of pure genius. This, he felt, was Francie at her best. This was the latest and greatest of that stream of epoch-making ideas which had begun with the how-many-pins-does-the-prime-minister’s-hat-hold competition. It was inspirations such as this that gave the lie to the theory that the female brain is smaller than the male.
“Could you work it?” he quavered huskily.
“Work it?” Mrs. Hammond’s eyebrows rose a fraction of an inch. “I don’t understand you.”
“Well, I—er——” The rebuke to his coarse directness abashed Sir George. “What I mean is, Felicia’s an uncommonly attractive girl, and Roderick—well, Roderick——”
“Roddy is not at all unattractive, if you do not object to the rather weak type of young man. He inherits poor Lucy’s pretty eyes and hair. I can easily imagine any girl admiring him.”
At this statement Sir George’s mouth opened. He shut it again. The remark he had intended to make concerning the mental condition of a girl who could admire Roderick was suppressed at its source. In the circumstances, he felt, it would be injudicious.
“And, of course, he is a very good match. He will have your money some day, and the title. I should call him an excellent match. Then again, I know Felicia is not in love with anybody else. And I have a great deal of influence with her.”
This last sentence removed Sir George’s lingering doubts. Translated into less feminine English, its meaning was clear. He had a complete faith in Francie’s ability to make anyone do anything she wished. It was, in his opinion, asking a lot of a girl to require her to accept as husband a young man who deliberately excluded grip and ginger from the columns of Society Spice; but if Francie undertook to put such a transaction through it was all over but cutting the wedding cake.
“If you can persuade Roddy to propose,” said Mrs. Hammond, “I think I can answer for Felicia.”
“Persuade him! Roderick will do anything I tell him to. My goodness, Francie,” he exclaimed, “the thought of that boy safely married to a girl who has been trained by you is—well, I can’t tell you what I think of the idea! I only hope Felicia’s had the sense to pattern herself on you. . . . Ah, there you are, Roderick.”
A timid knock had sounded on the door while he was speaking, and into the room there now came sidling a young man. He was a tall young man, thin and of an intellectual cast of countenance. The eyes and hair to which Mrs. Hammond had alluded, those legacies from poor Lucy, formed the best part of his make-up. The eyes were large and brown; the hair, which swept flowingly over his forehead, a deep chestnut. The rather large and straggling bow tie which he wore was also admired in certain circles, but not by Sir George.
“How do you do, Aunt Frances?” said Roderick. His manner was nervous and suggested that of men who visit dentists or of small boys who go by request into the studies of head masters. “Pilbeam says you want to see me, father.”
“I do,” said Sir George coldly. “Sit down.” Mrs. Hammond rose with her customary tact.
“I think I will be running away,” she said. “I have some shopping to do.”
Roderick watched her go with something of the emotions of a shipwrecked sailor on a raft who sees a sail vanishing over the horizon. He was not particularly fond of his Aunt Frances, but almost anyone who made a third at interviews between himself and his father was welcome to him. He sat down and fingered his tie uncomfortably.
“Don’t fidget!” snapped Sir George. He glowered at the tie. “What the deuce do you wear that thing for? It makes me sick!”
A more spirited youth might have retorted that a man who habitually appeared in public in a waistcoat of scarlet wool could hardly lay claim to be considered arbiter elegantiarum in the matter of dress. Roderick, unequal to this shattering comeback, merely smiled weakly.
“I want to talk to you about Society Spice,” said Sir George severely, dismissing the minor subject of costume. He retrieved the copy of the paper from the corner into which his just indignation had caused him to fling it, and began to turn its pages with knitted brow, Roderick eying him the while with all the carefree insouciance of a man watching a ticking bomb.
“Ha!” barked Sir George suddenly, lifting his son and heir a clear two inches off the seat of his chair. “Just as I thought! It isn’t there!”
“The fourth installment of that series on Bookmakers’ Swindling Methods. It has been discontinued. Why?”
“Well, you see, father——”
“Pilbeam told me it was a great success. He said there had been a number of letters about it.”
Roderick shuddered. He had seen some of those letters.
“Well, you see, father,” he bleated, “it was so frightfully personal.”
“Personal!” Sir George’s Jovian frown seemed to darken the room. “It was meant to be personal. Society Spice is a personal paper. Good heavens, you don’t suppose these bookmakers can afford to bring libel actions, do you?”
“All the better if they did. It would be an excellent advertisement, and no jury would award them more than a farthing’s damages.”
Roderick shuffled unhappily.
“It isn’t so much libel actions.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, father, it’s like this: I happened to be down at Kempton Park last Saturday, and I met a man who told me that Ike Bullett was going about uttering the most awful threats.”
“Ike Bullett? Who’s Ike Bullett?”
“He’s one of the bookies. The articles have been particularly outspoken about him, you know. And he was threatening that if I didn’t stop them he would put the lads onto me and they would come and butter me over the pavement.”
Sensational as this announcement was, it seemed to leave Sir George completely unimpressed. He did not actually snap his fingers, but he made an odd, contemptuous noise at the back of his throat that amounted to a finger snap. Having done this, he proceeded to speak his mind.
It was a manly, sturdy attitude that he adopted. He defied Ike Bullett and all his kind. Ike Bullett, he seemed to suggest, might put all the lads in the world onto Roderick, but he couldn’t intimidate him, Sir George. He faced with a fine, fearless unconcern the prospect of people buttering Roderick over the pavement. Not since the days of Lucius Junius Brutus had there been a father so ruggedly careless of the comfort of his son.
“The series,” said the proprietor of the Mammoth Publishing Co. tensely, at the end of a striking passage in which he had voiced some of the resentment he felt at the mean trick Providence had played upon him in making him Roderick’s father, “will be resumed—at once. Understand that?”
“And if,” said Sir George valiantly, “this Ike Bullett of yours doesn’t like it, he can lump it!”
“Very well, father,” said Roderick hopelessly.
His voice was like that of a nervous Roman gladiator saluting the emperor before entering the arena. Through his mind there had flashed again a recollection of those letters. Crude, almost illiterate documents they had been, written under the stress of strong emotion by rough and uncultured men; yet not even Walter Pater in all the glory of limp purple leather had ever expressed his meaning with a more exact precision. He turned to go, but the painful interview was not, it seemed, yet concluded.
“Wait,” said Sir George, “I have something else to say to you.”
Roderick poured himself into his chair once more.
MR. SINCLAIR HAMMOND, easy-going consort of the Egeria of the Mammoth Publishing Co., basked in the sunshine in the garden of Holly House, his residence on Wimbledon Common. There was a notebook on his knee, and he was scribbling industriously with a stubby pencil.
Mr. Hammond was fond of his garden. It was—for a suburb—quite an Eden. Several acres in dimension, and shut off from the outer world by high brick walls, it contained almost more than its fair share of trees; and later on, when summer came, it would, he knew, blaze very nobly with many-colored flowers. There were smooth lawns, hedges of lavender and a decent-sized stone pool with goldfish. Not a bad place at all, felt Mr. Hammond as he put down his pencil, removed his glasses and leaned back in his deck chair; by no means a bad place for a man of quiet tastes who asked little more from life than to be left alone to do his writing.
His tranquillity now was largely due to the fact that he was alone. It had been quite an hour since anyone had bothered him. This was almost a record, and he had an uneasy feeling that it was too good to last. He was on the point of replacing his glasses and resuming his work when he saw that his forebodings had been well grounded. A female figure had come out through the French windows of the drawing-room and was making for him across the lawn.
Mr. Hammond sighed. Fond though he was of his wife, the Pyke blood in her made her occasionally a companion too restless and uncomfortable for a man who liked to sit and dream. Francie’s life was a series of small wars in which cooks, housemaids, parlor maids, chauffeurs and tradesmen followed one another in the rôle of enemy, and she was apt to combine in herself the parts of fighter and war correspondent. If this was Francie coming now, it probably meant that he was in for half an hour’s military gossip. With the cook, if he recollected rightly, an armistice had been concluded yesterday; but he seemed to remember hearing something said at breakfast about an ultimatum to the grocer, the stringiness of whose bacon had recently been causing alarm and despondency in the Hammond household.
With a little moan he put on his glasses, and was relieved to see that it was not his wife who was approaching, but his niece Felicia. This altered the situation entirely. He had no objection whatever to abandoning work in favor of a chat with Flick. They were firm friends and allies. Moreover, Flick shared his ability to see humor in the little things of life—a valuable gift in woman and one of the few great qualities his admirable wife lacked.
He looked at her, as she drew near, with the same mild wonder which he always felt when he saw her nowadays. Seven years ago, when she had been dumped on him like a parcel on the death of his sister and her husband, Jack Sheridan, in a railway accident, she had been a leggy, scraggy, tousle-haired, freckled thing with nose and eyelids pink from much weeping, a curious object giving as little promise of beauty as a week-old baby. And now the sight of her suggested to him, given as he was to drawing his images from the classics, a hamadryad or some shepherdess strayed out of an idyl of Theocritus. Just when the astounding change had taken place it would have been beyond him to say. It had come so gradually and imperceptibly, first one feature, then another, ceasing to offend the eye—here a leg shortening to a decently human length, there a mop of amber hair miraculously tidying itself. He supposed vaguely that it was always this way with girls.
“Hullo, Uncle Sinclair,” said Flick. She held out the overcoat she was carrying. “Get up!”
“I will not get up,” said Mr. Hammond. “Why should I get up? I refuse to get up for anyone.”
“Aunt Frances says it’s getting chilly and she wants you to put on your light overcoat.”
Mr. Hammond put on the coat. He knew that the sleeves would brush against the paper when he resumed his writing, thus distracting his thoughts and leading to intemperate language; but the alternative, throwing the beastly thing into the goldfish pond, was impossible. If he continued to sit out here as he was and after a lapse of two months caught a cold, that cold would, he was aware, be put down to his reckless refusal to take the elementary precaution of wearing the light overcoat.
“You know, of course, that you are an abominable nuisance, child?” he observed, reseating himself.
“Of course,” said Flick equably. “It’s awfully nice of you to offer me your chair, but I shall be perfectly all right down here on the grass.”
“I wouldn’t give you this chair if you pleaded for it with salt tears,” said Mr. Hammond. “For one thing, you’re only going to stay a moment.”
“I’m not. I’ve come for a nice long talk.”
“Leave me, woman. Get back into your tree, you yellow-haired hamadryad. Can’t you see I’m busy?”
Flick glanced up. She was looking, Mr. Hammond thought, unusually pensive. Her mouth was a little drooped and white teeth showed below her lip. Her blue eyes, which always reminded him of a rain-washed sky, were clouded. This surprised Mr. Hammond, for as a rule she took life lightly.
“Are you really busy, uncle?”
“Of course not. I was just wondering when you came out how I should find a decent excuse for stopping work. Something on the mind, Flickie?”
Flick pulled at the grass thoughtfully.
“Uncle Sinclair, you know you always say you never give advice to anybody.”
“My guiding rule in life. I attribute my universal popularity to it.”
“I wish you would give me some.”
“Oh, you’re different. I’ll give you all you want. State your case.”
“Roderick has asked me to marry him. What do you think I ought to do?”
Mr. Hammond was appalled. Ironic, he reflected, to think that when he had found that it was Flick who was coming to disturb his privacy he had been relieved. But who would have supposed that she intended flinging frightful problems like this at his head? He was fifty-three years old and had grown to regard life as a spectacle, content to watch it without rushing in and grabbing hold of the steering wheel. He shrank aghast from advising this girl about a thing like marriage. Besides, what business had a child like her to dream of marrying anyone? And then Mr. Hammond realized that time had not been standing still. Flick was twenty-one.
“What does your aunt think?” he asked feebly, fighting for time.
“She thinks I ought to. But—I don’t know——”
A pang of pity for her innocence shot through Mr. Hammond. Francie had given her decision, and here the poor child was treating the matter as if it still lay open for debate.
“Your aunt knows best,” he said, and blushed hotly at the words. They sounded to him like something out of one of the novels of his boyhood.
“Yes, but this is something I’ve got to think out for myself, isn’t it?”
Mr. Hammond felt uneasy. He liked peace in the home, and this speech of Flick’s seemed to suggest that conditions might conceivably arise to render peace a memory of the past. He, personally, never opposed Francie. It suited him to have a power outside himself directing his life for him. But the younger generation, he was aware, might look on the matter with different eyes. Flick’s chin was round and soft, but it was a strong chin. You could not dragoon a girl like Flick.
“Of course, I like Roddy,” said Flick meditatively.
“Splendid fellow,” agreed Mr. Hammond heartily, growing more cheerful. He knew, as a fact, little or nothing of Roderick, for he was a man who avoided the society of his juniors; but if Francie indorsed him that settled it. “Good-looking chap, too.”
“Yes, in a way.”
“Ah,” said Mr. Hammond, bravely trying to keep it light, “I see what the trouble is. Constant association with me has set your standards a little too high. You must be practical, my child. There is only one Sinclair Hammond in the world. You will have to resign yourself to something short of perfection.”
Flick ran her fingers over the short grass.
“He isn’t very—exciting,” she said.
“You don’t want a jumpy husband, surely? Not a fellow like the chap in the Bab Ballads who ‘couldn’t walk into a room without ejaculating Boom! which startled ladies greatly.’ Is that what you’re yearning after?”
“I don’t think I’ve got quite the right word. I meant—— Oh, well, this is what I mean, though it sounds horribly silly when one says it: I suppose every girl is sort of half in love with a kind of fairy prince—a sort of ideal, you know. Doesn’t it sound idiotic? Still, there it is, you know. And Roderick isn’t a fairy prince, is he?”
Her rain-washed eyes were more cloudy and serious than ever, but Mr. Hammond stuck doggedly to light persiflage. The conversation seemed to be displaying a perilous tendency to plunge into the depths, and he disliked depths.
“I know exactly what you mean,” he said. “We all have one big romance in our lives which is apt to make everything else seem commonplace and dull—a beautiful, opalescent dream, very pleasant to dig up every now and then and brood over. In my case it was the passion I conceived at the age of fourteen for a lady who played in comic opera at Terry’s Theater. I used to sneak off and watch her from the gallery and write for her autograph and wish I could save her from red Indians. I sent her a shilling box of chocolates once. Heavens, how I loved that woman! There was none like her—none. Those were the days when lovely, free, unfettered goddesses roamed the earth—between eight-thirty and eleven at night—with their beautiful limbs emphasized by frank satin tights. It hardly gave a fellow a chance. I was bowled over like a shot rabbit the instant I saw her. Still, I’m glad that for one reason and another we were not able to marry. I suppose she would be about seventy-eight now. Much better to have her image tucked away in my heart, always as good as new. . . . Well, now tell me your romance. From the way you were speaking, I’m sure you’ve had one. Out with it! Some fatal, fascinating boy with a jammy face and a Lord Fauntleroy suit whom you met at a birthday party, eh?”
Flick smiled indulgently.
“It isn’t quite so long ago as that.”
“Oh, then there really was somebody? Come on, child, confide in me. I’m quivering with excitement. Very bad for me, too, at my age.”
“You’ll laugh at me.”
“Not I! You did not mock at my great love.”
Bob, the Sealyham terrier, had wandered up. Flick rolled him over on his back and pulled his ears absently for a moment without speaking.
“I wonder,” she said, “if you remember taking me to stay with a Mr. Paradene when we were over in America; the time you did the lecture tour, you know; about five years ago, just before you married Aunt Francie.”
“Certainly. Do you suppose I’m as senile as all that? I can remember back much further. Besides, Cooley Paradene is one of my best friends. We both collect old books, which gives us an excuse for writing to each other. Only man in the world I do write letters to. I’m always urging him to come here and pay me a visit. But how does he come into the story?”
“It was then that it happened.”
“All the fairy-prince and beautiful-opalescent-dream stuff.”
Mr. Hammond regarded his niece with grave concern.
“Don’t tell me you are nurturing a secret passion for old Cooley. A little elderly for you, my child. Besides, you aren’t interested in old books. You wouldn’t appeal to him.”
“Don’t be silly! It was Bill.”
“What was Bill?”
“Bill West—Mr. Paradene’s nephew. He’s my great love, as you would call it.”
Mr. Hammond frowned thoughtfully.
“Bill? Bill? I must be getting senile, after all. This William absolutely eludes my memory.”
“Oh, you must remember Bill! Mr. Paradene’s nephew at Harvard.”
“Bill? Bill?” Mr. Hammond’s face cleared. “Of course! A pimply youth with outstanding ears.”
“He wasn’t!” cried Flick, revolted.
“Ears,” insisted Mr. Hammond firmly, “which he used to hang his hat on when the rack in the hall was full.”
“Nothing of the kind! He was frightfully handsome and wonderful in every way.”
“Name one way in which he was wonderful,” said the skeptical Mr. Hammond.
“Well, I’ll tell you something wonderful that he did—he saved my life.”
“Saved your life?” Mr. Hammond was interested. “How did that happen?”
“We were bathing in Mr. Paradene’s lake, and I went out too far. As a matter of fact, we had finished bathing and I was supposed to be in my tent dressing. But I couldn’t resist one last swim. It very nearly was my last too. Bill had dressed, but he came out just in time and saw me struggling, and he dived in with all his clothes on——”
“Ass! Ought to have taken off his coat.”
“Well, perhaps he did take off his coat, and I wish you wouldn’t interrupt and spoil the story. He dived in and swam out to where I was kicking and screaming, and brought me in safe and sound. I should have been done for in another half minute. I had swallowed most of the lake.”
“And why is this the first I have heard of it?”
“We kept it dark. Bill, I suppose, was modest. At any rate, he begged me not to say anything about it; and I didn’t say anything, because I jolly well knew I should be stopped bathing again if I did. He left next day to join some friends near Boston, and I’ve never seen him since.”
Her voice shook a little. Mr. Hammond lit his pipe thoughtfully. Though sympathetic, for he understood Flick, he decided to continue in the light vein.
“I shouldn’t worry about him, Flickie,” he said. “A fellow like that is sure to have been snapped up by now. Heroes don’t lie around loose for long. Concentrate on the sternly practical side of things, my dear. Fix your mind on Roderick. Here’s a young fellow whom you admit you like—good-looking, amiable, and the heir to a title and more money than you’ll be able to spend in half a dozen lifetimes, even if you start collecting old books. Upon my word, I think you could do worse. You can have a lot of fun in this world with a title and a million pounds, you know. Besides, think how jolly it will be marrying into the Mammoth Publishing Co. and being able to read all the articles in Pyke’s Weekly days before they appear in print.”
Flick was silent. She was wishing in a vague and formless way that life had not arranged itself quite like this; and yet she could not have said exactly what was her objection to the existing state of affairs. After all, she did like Roddy; and she had known him a long time. Not like being asked to marry a stranger.
And again, though everybody was very kind and pleasant and never so much as hinted it to her, there was no getting away from the fact that she was a penniless orphan, hardly in a position to take nebulous and fanciful objections to the quite attractive sons of millionaires.
“Yes, I think I’d better marry him,” she said.
A chill little wind blew across the garden and she shivered. Mr. Hammond was glad now that he had been made to put on the light overcoat. Francie, he reflected, was always right.
WILLIAM PARADENE WEST sat in the middle of the road at that busy spot where Forty-second Street joins Fifth Avenue. Always crowded, this center of New York appeared now to be even more congested than usual. On every side, as far as the eye could reach, vast hordes of people with peculiar faces passed and repassed; and as they went jeered at Bill unfeelingly. A policeman, chewing gum, surveyed him with quiet dislike—offended, doubtless, for policemen are prudish in these matters, by the fact that he was barefooted and clad only in a suit of mesh-knit underwear. Somewhere close at hand a steam riveter was at work, making a noise singularly afflicting to the nerves.
How Bill had come to be in this conspicuous and embarrassing position he was not precisely clear. He could recall in a vague way riding a motor bicycle across a wide prairie and subsequently being chased by leopards through a forest, but after that there occurred a gap in his memory. Still, here he was, and it now became apparent to him that the disadvantages attached to his predicament were even more marked than he had at first supposed. On top of his head somebody had placed one of those iron spikes which road menders use in breaking up asphalt, and two men with large hammers were hitting this with a rhythmical vigor, each blow causing a jarring pain to run through his entire body. The steam riveter, which had stopped for a moment, began its hideous din once more.
Bill felt ill-used and miserable. It was not so much the pain that distressed him, acute though this was; nor the fact that the men with the hammers were respectively his Uncle Cooley, on whose bounty he had been subsisting for years, and Judson Coker, his best friend, hand in hand with whom he had passed through both school and college. All this he could have endured with fortitude as part of the ordinary give and take of life. The thing that cut him to the quick was the discovery that the extraordinarily beautiful girl who held the spike in position—and did it, what is more, with a radiant smile as if she thoroughly enjoyed it—was Judson Coker’s sister, Alice.
That really was bitter. That hurt. He worshiped that girl with a love not only volcanic but steadfast. Since their first meeting, nearly a year ago, he had been circling coyly about her, trying to muster up courage enough to lay at her feet a strong man’s honest devotion. He had given her flowers, chocolates, and on her birthday a beaded bag. And here she was jabbing spikes into his head. Women are like that.
The noise of the riveter rose to a demoniacal crescendo. So insistent did it become that Bill, after stirring uneasily on his pillow, finally opened his eyes; and, having blinked at the sunlight pouring in through the window, became aware that another day had begun and that the telephone at his bedside was ringing. At the same moment the door opened and Ridgeway, his capable manservant, entered.
“I think I heard the telephone, sir,” said Ridgeway.
“So did I,” said Bill wanly.
The mists of sleep had rolled away and returning consciousness was revealing the fact that he felt extremely unwell. His head had swollen unwholesomely to about twice its normal size and shooting pains shuddered through it. His mouth was full of some unpleasant flannel substance, which proved on investigation to be his tongue. Memory awoke. It all came back to him now. Last night Judson Coker had given a party——
Ridgeway had removed the receiver.
“Are you there? . . . Yes.” His voice was a well-modulated coo. The young master’s return home at a little after four in the morning had not passed unnoticed by Ridgway, and he knew instinctively that soft speech would be appreciated. “Yes, I will give Mr. West your message.” He turned to Bill and cooed anew like a cushat dove calling to its mate in spring. “Roberts, Mr. Cooley Paradene’s butler, on the telephone, sir. He requests me to inform you that Mr. Paradene returned from his travels yesterday and is very urgent that you should visit him this afternoon.”
Bill was in but poor shape for paying calls. However, Uncle Cooley’s invitations had the quality of royal commands. You cannot accept a large quarterly allowance from a man and decline to see him when desired.
“Down at Westbury?” he asked.
“At Westbury, sir, yes.”
“Tell him I’ll be there.”
“Very good, sir.” Ridgway relayed this information to the waiting Roberts and replaced the receiver. “Shall I prepare your breakfast, sir?”
Bill considered the point.
“I suppose so,” he said at length without enthusiasm. Breakfast was never a popular meal with those who had enjoyed overnight the hospitality of Judson Coker. “Something pretty light.”
“Exactly, sir,” said Ridgway understandingly, and slid from the presence.
Bill lay on his back, staring at the ceiling. His head seemed more grossly enlarged than ever. He wished he had told Ridgway to go out and stop those birds singing in the trees of Central Park across the road. Voluble, insufferably hearty English sparrows they were, the sort of birds that in a properly run city would be put down by law. But it was too much effort to do anything about it now. Everything was too much effort except just to lie here very quietly with one’s eyes on the ceiling.
He fell to meditation, and was still meditating when a voice spoke in his ear. It was a nasty rasping voice, not soft and gentle like Ridgway’s, and he recognized it immediately as that of Conscience. They had had arguments before.
“Well?” said Conscience.
“Well?” said Bill defensively.
“Up a bit late last night, eh?”
“I thought as much.”
“I was at a party at Judson Coker’s,” said Bill. “I had promised to go, so I had to. A man must keep his word.”
“A man need not lower himself to the level of the beasts of the field,” said Conscience coldly. “It begins to look to me as if you were something of a young waster.”
It was an offensive remark, but in his melancholy morning mood Bill found himself unable to combat it. He was in the frame of mind when men search their hearts and plunge into sudden reformations.
“I should think you’d have more self-respect and a rudimentary sense of decency,” proceeded Conscience. “You love Alice Coker, don’t you? Very well, then. A man who loves that noble girl ought to consider himself in the light of a priest or something. But do you? Not by a jugful! Lost to all sense of shame is the way I’d put it.”
This also struck Bill as true.
“I’ve had my eye on you, young man, for a long time, and I’ve about got you sized up. What’s the matter with you, among other things, is that you’re a worm, a loafer, a sponger, and a shiftless, backboneless disgrace to civilization. You wasted your time at Harvard. . . . Yes, I am perfectly aware that you made the football team. I’m not saying you’re not a healthy and muscular young animal; what I’m complaining about is your soul. You’re simply not among those present when it comes to soul, and the soul is what brings home the bacon. As I was saying, you didn’t do a stroke of work at Harvard, and ever since you came out of college you’ve been hanging around New York, absolutely idle, living on your Uncle Cooley. It’s no good to say that he can give you this allowance of yours without feeling it. That’s not the point. I know perfectly well that he owns the Paradene Pulp and Paper Co. and is a millionaire. What I am driving at is that you’re degrading yourself by sponging on him. You’re not a bit better than your Uncle Jasper.”
“Here, I say!” protested Bill. He had been prepared for a good deal, but this was overdoing it.
“Not one bit better than your Uncle Jasper and your Cousin Evelyn and all the rest of the family leeches,” insisted Conscience firmly. “Bloodsuckers, all of you. Uncle Cooley is the man with the money, and the entire family, you included, has been bleeding him for years.”
Bill’s spirit was broken.
“What shall I do about it?” he asked humbly.
“Do? Why, bustle about and earn a living for yourself. Get up, you wastrel, and show there’s something in you. Go to your uncle and tell him you want to work. You’re twenty-six and haven’t started yet. Do you intend to loaf through the whole of your life like this?”
Bill blinked at the ceiling. Conscience’s exordium had wrought powerfully upon him. That stuff about trying to be worthy of Alice Coker—that touched the spot. But what really stung was the suggestion that he was on a par with Uncle Jasper and Cousin Evelyn. That was a wicked punch. That most certainly wanted looking into. In all the world the persons he most despised were these relatives of his who loafed around living on Uncle Cooley. Incredible, he would have said, that he, the winning and debonair Bill West, could actually be classed with these ghastly excrescences. And yet——
The position of affairs in the Paradene family was one that is frequently met with in this world. Cooley Paradene, by means of a toilsome youth and a strenuous middle age, had amassed a large amount of money, and now all his poor relations had gathered round to help him spend it. His brother Otis had a real-estate business that required frequent subsidies; his brother-in-law, Jasper Daly, was an inventor whose only successful inventions were the varied methods he discovered of borrowing money; his niece Evelyn had married a man who was always starting new literary reviews. They were not people who agreed together on many subjects, but on this one point of electing Cooley to the post of family paymaster they had been unanimous.
For some years now Uncle Cooley had been showing, in the matter of parting with money, a pleasingly docile spirit for a man whose quickness of temper had at one time been a family byword. Something had happened to Mr. Paradene recently, purging the old Adam out of him; and his relatives were inclined to think that what had brought about the change was the hobby of collecting old books which had gripped him in his sixtieth year. Until he had started book collecting, Cooley Paradene had been a little too formidable and uncertain for comfort. He had chafed at the constant calls made on his purse. Once he had thrown a small chair at Jasper Daly, though unfortunately with a poor aim. But now everything was splendid. He just mooned about his library at Westbury and signed checks in that delightful absent-minded way we like to see in our rich relatives.
This was the man who had supported Bill West through college days and up to the moment when he lay in bed this morning, tortured by Conscience. Yes, Bill decided, Conscience had been right. Of course, he was not really as bad as Uncle Jasper and Cousin Evelyn; but he could see now that he had allowed himself to drift into an ambiguous position, and one that might easily lead people who did not know what a fine fellow he was to form mistaken judgments. Most assuredly he must go to Uncle Cooley and announce his readiness to accept a job of work. He had never felt anything of an urge toward the pulping of paper, but in this new mood engendered by remorse he rather fancied that there must be more pleasure to be derived from it than the casual spectator would imagine. He had no notion how one pulped paper, nor what one did with it when pulped; but these were small technical details he would doubtless master during the first week. The main thing was to get started.
Filled with resolution, Bill heaved himself up with a groan and made for the bathroom.
There is magic in a cold shower. In combination with youth, few ills of the flesh can stand against it. Drying his glowing body five minutes later, Bill, though still tender about the head and apt to leap at sudden noises, felt on the whole a new man. He thrilled with courage and determination. As he toweled his back, he reviewed the program before him. He would be content with something quite modest at first, of course; something that would just enable him to look round and get a grasp on things. This achieved, he would begin to make his presence felt. Toiling with the banked-up energy of one who had never done a hand’s turn in his life, he would soar higher and higher, until eventually he got control of the entire outfit.
It was about time that Uncle Cooley had a real livewire looking after the Paradene Pulp and Paper Co.’s affairs. The old boy had been a hustler in his day, but for the past few years he had allowed a taste for travel and the fascination of his library to take up too much of his time. What the Paradene Pulp and Paper Co. wanted was new blood, and he, Bill, was the man to supply it.
He dressed and went in to his light breakfast. So exalted was he by now that his dreams of the future began definitely to include a lifelong union with Alice Coker. He brushed aside obstacles grandly. He felt alert and conquering. As he picked up his morning paper he had got his plans so perfectly elaborated that he half expected to find on the front page the headlines:
Young Pulp-Paper King Weds Beautiful Girl
Interview With Mr. West
Instead, all that met his eye was the customary:
Ex-Wife’s Heart-Balm Love Tangle
“Ugh!” said Bill, disgusted, and attacked his grapefruit.
“Mr. Judson Coker on the telephone, sir,” said Ridgeway, oozing softly in like some soundless liquid.
Bill walked to the telephone in a cold, hard, censorious mood. It was impossible for him in his reformed condition to think of his friend and host of last night without a Puritanical shudder. Odd, he reflected, how often the noblest girls had these deplorable brothers. Bill’s standard in the matter of brothers for the goddess of his heart was perhaps a trifle high, and it is to be doubted whether a composite of Sir Galahad, Good King Wenceslaus and Saint Francis of Assisi would quite have made the grade. Judson failed altogether to qualify. Why, last night, he recalled, Judson had behaved for all the world like a licentious clubman in a superfilm being the life and soul of one of those parties out of which the censor cuts three thousand feet the moment he sees it. Gayety of spirit is all very well, but there are limits—especially for those closely related to the sweetest of her sex. And these limits Judson Coker had exceeded by several parasangs.
“Hello!” said Bill.
He spoke crisply and in a manner to discourage badinage. Not that Judson, after last night’s celebrations, was likely to indulge in airy quips. Bill was a little surprised, indeed, that the other should be able at so early an hour as this to speak at all.
A voice sounded over the wire. It was the husky voice of one who has wandered far and long across the hot sands, the voice of a man delicately endeavoring to keep the top of his head from coming off.
“That you, Bill, o’ man?”
“So you got home all right?” said the voice in tones of surprised congratulation.
Bill resented this reminder of a past now discarded forever.
“Yes,” he said frigidly. “What do you want?”
An unseen throat cleared itself feebly.
“Just remembered, Bill, o’ man. Most important thing. I invited half a dozen of the Follies girls to come on a picnic this afternoon.”
“Well, what about it?”
“I’m relying on you to rally round.”
Bill frowned—such a frown as Saint Anthony might have permitted himself.
“You are, are you?” he said sternly. “Then listen to me, you poor fish! Let me tell you that I’m a changed man and wouldn’t be seen dead in a ditch with a Follies girl. And if you’ll take my advice, you’ll pull up and try to realize that life is stern and earnest and meant for something better than——”
An awed gasp interrupted his harangue.
“Gosh! Bill!” quavered the voice. “I noticed you buzzing around pretty energetically last night, but I’d no notion you would be quite so bad this morning. You must have got the head of a lifetime—absolutely of a lifetime!” The voice sank to an earnest whisper. “What you want to do, Bill, o’ man, is to take a couple of Never Say Dies. That’s what I’m going to do. You remember the recipe? One raw egg in half a wineglassful of Worcester sauce, sprinkle liberally with red pepper, add four aspirins and stir. Put you right in no time.”
And this man was her brother! Bill shuddered.
“I am feeling perfectly well, thank you,” he said austerely.
“Fine! Then you will come to the picnic, after all?”
“I will not! I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing so in any case; but as it happens, I have a previous engagement. I’ve got to go to my uncle’s place at Westbury. He got home yesterday and phoned me this morning.”
“My dear chap! Say no more!” The voice was cordial and sympathetic. “I quite understand. You mean the uncle who unbelts the allowance on the first of every quarter? Of course you must go and see him. I suppose you’ll grab the chance of touching him for a bit extra? It must mean you’re pretty strong with him if he’s so crazy to see you the moment he gets home.”
“If you want to know just what I’m going to do when I see Uncle Cooley,” said Bill coldly, “I’ll tell you. I’m going to ask him for a job.”
There was an exclamation of annoyance at the other end of the wire.
“This darned phone is out of order,” complained the voice. “You can’t hear a thing. It sounded just as if you said something about asking your uncle for a job,” said the voice amusedly, tickled by the quaint conceit.
“That is exactly what I did say.”
“Do you mean work?”
The voice became almost tearful in its agitation.
“Don’t do it, Bill! Don’t do it, o’ man! You don’t know what you’re talking about. You aren’t yourself. It’s just having this head that’s giving you ideas like that. Do take the advice of an old pal and mix up a Never Say Die. It never fails. Guaranteed to make a week-old corpse spring from its bier and enter for the six-day bicycle race. Write the recipe down on a piece of paper so that you won’t forget it. One raw egg——”
Bill hung up the receiver, revolted. He was returning to his breakfast when the telephone bell rang again. Indignant at this pertinacity on the part of his despicable friend, he strode back and spoke with wrathful brusqueness:
“Well, what do you want now?”
“Oh, Mr. West, is that you?”
It was not Judson at all. The voice was a female one; and hearing it, Bill tottered with indescribable emotion. All female voices sound very much alike over the telephone, but this was one which his heart would never allow him to mistake. It was she! And he—criminal fool, misguided blackguard that he was—had spoken angrily! Ye gods, that even in error he should have addressed her so! That “Well!” That emphasis on the “now!” It was vile, brutal, fiendish. Words poured from him in an apologetic flood:
“Miss Coker, I’m terribly sorry. I don’t know how to apologize. I thought it was somebody else. I didn’t mean—I wouldn’t have—I hope you aren’t—I hope I haven’t—I hope you won’t——”
“Mr. West,” said his audience, taking advantage of a lull, “I wonder if you would do me a great favor.”
Bill’s knees gave at the joints. He swayed deliriously.
“Do you a favor?” he breathed fervently. “You bet I will!”
“It’s very important. Can you come and see me?”
“You bet I can!”
“Would you be able to manage it this morning?”
“You bet I would!”
“Thank you so much.”
Bill stood for a moment breathing hard. There was a mist before his eyes. She wanted him to do her a favor! It was to him that she turned, not to Toddy Van Riter or Eustace Bailey or any other of those who formed the court of which she was the undisputed queen. Could he come and see her? Yes—a thousand times yes, even if the road to her father’s house were lined with fire-breathing dragons.
He returned to the sitting room, and going to the mantelpiece, inspected very carefully and reverently all the photographs of Miss Coker which it contained—eleven in all, painfully and laboriously acquired by the slow process of sneaking them one by one out of Judson’s rooms. Alice was a much-photographed girl, and being devoted to her unworthy brother kept him well supplied with her pictures. The horror of the moment when he had found that lost soul using the latest specimen to cut the pages of a detective novel had never quite left Bill.
TO THE sensitive visitor, alert at noticing atmospheric phenomena, there would have seemed on this April morning something not altogether right about the residence of Mr. J. Birdsey Coker on East Sixty-first Street. The dwelling place of the father of Alice and Judson was tastefully, even luxuriously, furnished, and exhibited outwardly all the earmarks of a refined and wealthy home; but over it there seemed to brood a curious awed hush, as if a cyclone had recently passed that way or some great sorrow come upon the inmates. If Bill had not been so immersed in thoughts of Alice, he might have observed a scared expression in the eyes of the maid who admitted him shortly after half past twelve. But being so immersed, it was not until he reached the drawing-room and found himself looking into the lovelier eyes of the mistress of the house that he suspected any calamity.
“Good heavens!” he exclaimed. “What’s the matter?”
Alice Coker was an amazingly handsome girl. She was modeled on rather queenly lines, unlike her brother Judson, who favored his father’s side of the family and looked like an Airedale terrier. Her features were perfect, her teeth were perfect, her hair was perfect. The effect she gave at a first encounter was of flawless beauty. But at the moment, what anyone presented to her would have noticed was not that she was beautiful but that she was worried. Those who make the nation’s songs—so much more admirable than its laws—advise us to look for the silver lining, to seek the bluebird, to put all our troubles in a great big box and sit on the lid and grin. Alice Coker had been unable to follow this counsel. Old Man Trouble, that foe of the song writers, had plainly conquered her proud spirit.
“Sit down, Mr. West,” she said, formal even in her agitation.
For many months now this tendency to a cool formality on her part had irked Bill. With the sisters of most of his other friends he was on terms of easy comradeship. But then he had been brought up with them from a child; and, though he had known Judson so long, Alice had only entered his life a year ago. He did not know all the facts, but he gathered that the peace of the Coker home had been marred by a good deal of that ex-wife’s heart-balm love-tangle stuff. At any rate, until last March, Alice had lived in Europe with her mother; and only on that lady’s death had come to New York to keep house for her father and disturb the peace of mind of the male members of the younger set.
Bill sat down, registering devotion, sympathy and willingness to do all that a red-blooded man may for beauty in distress.
“It was very good of you to come,” said Alice.
“No, no—oh, no—no, no—no, no,” said Bill.
“It’s about Judson.”
“Yes. Father is simply furious. Not,” proceeded the fair-minded Miss Coker, “that you can really blame him. Juddy did behave very badly.”
Bill found himself in something of a dilemma. He wished to agree with every word she spoke, but horrified condemnation of Judson at this point might, he felt, be resented. Besides, he was handicapped in the capacity of censor of morals by not knowing what his convivial friend had been doing to excite the parental wrath to such an extent. He contented himself with making a low, honking noise like a respectful wild duck.
“Apparently Judson gave a party last night,” said Miss Coker. She sniffed disdainfully; “a very rowdy party to a lot of impossible girls from the theaters. What pleasure he gets from mixing with such people,” she went on severely, “I cannot see.”
“No,” said Bill virtuously; “no, you’re quite right, no.”
“The trouble with Juddy is that he is weak and his friends lead him astray.”
“Exactly,” said Bill, trying to look like one of the friends who didn’t.
“Well, what happened was this,” resumed Miss Coker: “We all went to bed at the usual time, and were sound asleep when—about four in the morning—there was a violent knocking on the front door. Poor father went down in his slippers and dressing gown—rather cross, for he had had a very hard day at the office and was tired—and there was Judson.”
She paused, and a look of pain came into her fine eyes.
“Judson,” she went on in a toneless voice, “seemed glad to see father. When I looked over the banisters, he was patting him on the back. Father asked him what he wanted, and Judson said that he had lost his lucky pig and thought he might have left it on the piano in the drawing-room the last time he was in the house. He came in and hunted about and then returned to his apartment. About half an hour later he was on the doorstep again, banging the knocker; and when father got out of bed and went down Judson said he had only come to apologize for disturbing us. He said he wouldn’t have done it, but he had particularly wanted to show the pig to a girl who was at the party. He said this girl was one of those domestic girls, a little home body, and might be leaving the party any moment now and going home. He came in and had another search, then he went away again. And at half past five he called up on the telephone—it’s in father’s room—and begged father to have a look round and see if the pig wasn’t in the study.”
She paused again. Bill made shocked noises.
“Naturally, father was very much annoyed.” Bill nodded sympathetically. He quite saw how this might be. “You ought to have seen him when he left for the office this morning.”
Bill, as he listened to his adored one’s word picture of the passing of her parent from the bosom of his family, was glad he had not seen him. The impression Miss Coker conveyed to his excited fancy was of something resembling one of those peculiar beasts in the Book of Revelations on one of its bad mornings. J. Birdsey Coker, he gathered, not infrequently displayed a little tetchiness round about breakfast time; but the oldest inhabitant could recall nothing to approach these latest manifestations.
The description of how he had behaved when the maid, unnerved by his demeanor, had dropped the eggs and bacon was alone sufficient to chill the stoutest.
“And the result is,” concluded Alice, “that he says he has had enough. He says he is going to stop Judson’s allowance and send him to grandmamma’s farm in Vermont and keep him there till he gets some sense. And what I wanted to ask you, Mr. West, is this: Could you fit it in with your plans to take Juddy away on a month’s fishing trip?”
“But you said he was going to Vermont.”
“Yes; but I believe that when father has had time to cool down a little he will agree to letting him go on a fishing trip instead, provided it is with someone who will look after him and see that he gets nothing to drink. It doesn’t so much matter where he goes, you see, so long as he gets away from New York and all these people who cluster round him and lead him astray. Juddy,” said Miss Coker, a break in her voice, “is such a dear boy that everybody is attracted to him, and that makes it difficult for him to be strong and resist temptation.”
Bill hesitated no longer. He had been doubtful for a time as to Judson’s exact standing with his sister; but now that it became manifest that not all the dark deeds which the reprobate had performed on the front doorstep in the small hours could shake her divine affection he saw his way clear. He embarked forthwith on an eulogy of his late playmate, the eloquence of which surprised even himself. It was the sort of pæan of praise which would have been considered a bit fulsome even by an Oriental monarch from the lips of the court poet; but its effect on Miss Coker was remarkable. Her proud aloofness thawed. She melted visibly. And presently, as Bill concluded a stirring passage in which he stressed Judson’s essential spirituality, and came out uncompromisingly as considering him too rare and tender a soul for the rough hurly-burly of modern life as lived in New York City, she beamed upon him like the rising sun.
“I knew you were a great friend of his,” she said with such cordiality that Bill twisted his legs round each other and gasped for air. “That’s why I asked you to come here. You don’t know what it would be like for the poor boy at grandmamma’s. He would have to get up at seven every morning, and there would be family prayers twice a day.”
In solemn silence they peered into this inferno from which she had removed the lid.
“Prayers?” faltered Bill.
“And hymns on Sundays,” said Miss Coker, tight-lipped. “It would drive the poor darling off his head. And as far as his health is concerned, a fishing trip would do him just as much good—and he would enjoy it. I know how fond he is of you. I’m sure father will consent, because he likes and trusts you and could rely on you to keep poor Juddy out of trouble. I don’t know how to thank you, Mr. West. But I knew you would not fail me. I am tremendously grateful.”
There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. It seemed to Bill that the moment of his own flood tide had arrived. At no time in the past year had so favorable an opportunity for proposing presented itself, and it might be many a long month before such a chance occurred again. For Bill was not one of your glib fellows who can tap the romantic vein at will and under any conditions. He required something in the nature of a push behind before he could dive. Though painfully conscious of that sick, empty feeling about the diaphragm that had attacked him on the occasion when he stepped out with the rest of the Harvard football team into the Yale Bowl four years ago, he braced himself to play the man.
“Miss Coker, I—that is to say—or putting it another way—I wonder—do you think——”
He paused. He was not sure if he was making his meaning quite clear. He tried again.
“I know—it isn’t as if—I quite see—it might happen—if you would——”
Still not as lucid as he could have wished. He swallowed twice and approached the subject from a new angle.
“Look here,” he said, “will you marry me?”
Miss Coker exhibited an unruffled composure. It is to be assumed that this sort of thing had happened to her before.
“Really,” she said, “I wasn’t expecting this.”
Nor was Bill. He was still stupefied by the sound of those reckless words and wondered dazedly how he could ever have had the nerve to allow them to pass his lips. Still, they were out now and the subject definitely placed before the meeting for consideration. He gazed at her dumbly but hopefully.
“I can’t give you a definite answer now.”
“No, no, of course not.”
“Suppose you ask me again when you have brought Juddy back quite well and strong.”
The assumption that Judson was an invalid in the last stages of eggshell fragility did not quite square with Bill’s recollection of his friend leading the revels on the previous night, but he let it go. It was unimportant. The thing that really mattered was that she had not scornfully rejected his suit and rung the bell for menials to come and throw him into the street.
“We’ll leave it like that, shall we?”
“Yes,” said Bill humbly.
“And when do you think you will be able to start on this fishing trip?” asked Miss Coker, who inherited from her father the gift of being able to shelve sentiment in favor of business. “At once?”
“Tomorrow, if you like,” said the infatuated Bill.
He perceived dimly that this new arrangement was going to make it difficult for him to jump right in and assume control of his uncle’s pulp-paper business, but that seemed of slight importance now. He basked for a moment in the warmth of the smile she bestowed upon him, and was reminded by that smile of a request he wished to make. For the smile was the same smile which rendered the third photograph from the left on his mantelpiece so rarely beautiful.
“I wonder,” he stammered—“I mean—would you—do you think—what I want to say is, you haven’t by any chance a photograph of yourself you could give a fellow?”
“Why, of course,” said Alice amiably.
“I’ve been wanting one of you for a long time,” said Bill.
Notes on the text may be found elsewhere on this site.
This serial episode corresponds to Chapter I and sections 1–2 of Chapter II in the book editions.
Bill’s valet is named Ridgway in all other editions of this novel; we preserve the SEP’s inconsistent spelling, with four instances of Ridgeway here, even though it probably was simply an error by the typesetter.