The Saturday Evening Post, June 28, 1924
IN THE heart of the city of London’s bustle and din, some fifty yards to the east of Leadenhall Market, there stands a small and dingy place of refreshment bearing over its door the name of Pirandello. In addition to alluring the public with a rich smell of mixed foods, the restaurant keeps permanently in its window a dish containing a saintly looking pig’s head flanked by two tomatoes and a discouraged lettuce. There are also cakes of dubious aspect scattered here and there. Through the glass you can see sad-eyed members of the Borgia family in stained dress suits busily engaged in keeping up the ancient traditions of the clan.
In the narrow doorway of this establishment, about three hours after Pilbeam had left Sir George Pyke’s office in Tilbury House, Bill West was standing with his young friend Judson Coker. They were looking up and down the street with an air of expectancy.
“You’re sure this is the right place?” asked Judson in a voice of melancholy. The Gioconda smile of that placid pig had begun to weigh upon his spirits.
“It’s what she said in her telegram—Pirandello’s in Leadenhall Street.”
“Very mysterious, the whole thing,” said Judson, frowning at the pig.
“Ah!” said Bill, stepping from the doorway. He had observed Flick threading her way through the traffic from the other side of the street.
Flick, in marked contrast to Judson, seemed in the highest spirits. She waved cheerily as she eluded a passing van. She sprang onto the pavement with a gay leap.
“So you got my wire? That’s splendid. Come in; I’m hungry.”
“You aren’t going to lunch here?” said Judson incredulously.
“Certainly. It’s a very good place. Henry recommended it strongly. He always lunches here. He said he would have treated me today, only he’s in conference with another man at Blake’s Chophouse.”
“Henry?” said Bill, perplexed. “Who’s Henry?”
“The office boy where I work.”
Bill and Judson exchanged a bewildered glance.
“Where you work?” said Judson.
“Where you work?” said Bill.
“Yes; that’s what I’ve come to tell you about. That’s why I wired to you to meet me here. I’ve got a job as stenographer at the London branch of the Paradene Pulp and Paper Company.”
“I can’t explain till I’ve had something to eat. You idle rich don’t realize it, but working gives one an appetite.”
They followed her dazedly into the restaurant. A warm, sweet-scented blast of air smote them as they entered. Flick sniffed. “Smell the cocoa!” she said to Judson. “Doesn’t it tantalize you?” She sat down at one of the marble-topped tables. “Mr. Cocoa likes coker,” she said to Bill. “I mean Mr. Coker likes cocoa.”
Bill, staring in astonishment at Judson, found the latter eying Flick with the reproachful look of one who has been disappointed in a friend. The light-hearted girl appeared unaware of his penetrating gaze. She was busy with a waiter, who accepted her order dejectedly and wrote it down on a grubby pad with a noncommittal air, as if disclaiming all responsibility.
“There,” said Flick, when the lethal provender was on the table and they were alone once more. “Now we can talk. I chose this place because nobody’s likely to come in here.”
“Not unless they’re dippy,” said Judson gloomily, poking cautiously at his plate.
Bill, who was less wrapped up in the matter of food than his fastidious friend, was able to turn his mind to the extraordinary statement which Flick had made a moment back.
“You’ve got a job with Slingsby?” he said, marveling. “What on earth for?”
“Because I suspect that sinister man, and I want to keep an eye on him.”
“What is this?” demanded Judson, who had now summoned up courage enough to swallow a mouthful. “I know it’s paraffin, but what have they put in it?”
“I don’t understand. When did you get this job?”
“This morning at ten o’clock.”
“I just walked in and said I heard there was a vacancy for a stenographer.”
“How did you know there was?”
“Mr. Coker told me so last night. He spent the afternoon with Mr. Slingsby. There must be something awfully attractive about Mr. Coker, because Mr. Slingsby simply wouldn’t let him go. Would he?”
“Eh?” said Judson absently.
“I said Mr. Slingsby just kept you sitting in his office for hours yesterday, didn’t he?”
“I’m off that man for life,” said Judson with somber emphasis. “I have no use for him.”
“You see,” said Flick. “Mr. Coker thinks there’s something wrong with him too. We had a long talk last night,” she went on, “after you had gone off to write your letter, and we came to the conclusion that Mr. Slingsby is a thoroughly bad man.”
“What on earth made you think that?”
Flick sipped daintily at the odd muddy liquid which the management laughingly described as chocolate.
“What would you think of a man who’s probably got a salary of a thousand pounds a year or so and runs a Winchester-Murphy car and lives in Bruton Street?”
“Why shouldn’t he live in Bruton Street?” asked Bill, mystified. His knowledge of London was small.
“Bruton Street, Berkeley Square,” said Flick. “You have to be pretty rich to live there. Anyhow you want a good deal more than a thousand a year.”
“But Slingsby goes in for theatrical ventures. He told me so. He probably makes a lot out of those.”
“Well, how did he get the money to go in for theatrical ventures? It’s no use arguing. The man is a crook. He must be. Apart from anything else, he had a black eye when I called on him this morning.”
“A man like that,” said Judson in a hard voice, “is bound to get a black eye sooner or later. I wish I had given it him.”
“A black eye? What do you mean?”
“Just what I say. Now, do honest men get black eyes? Of course they don’t. And besides, anybody could tell that he wasn’t straight just by looking at him.”
“That man’s a scoundrel of the worst and lowest description,” said Judson.
“How do you know?” said Bill.
“Never mind,” said Judson darkly. “I have my reasons.”
He pushed away his plate, and nibbled in a disheartened way at a roll. Bill turned to Flick again.
“Tell me exactly what happened,” he said.
“All right,” said Flick. “I lay awake in bed last night for ever so long, thinking over what Mr. Coker had told me—about Bruton Street and the car, you know. And the longer I thought, the fishier it looked. And then I remembered that Mr. Coker had also said that when he called at the office yesterday Mr. Slingsby was in a bad temper because he had just got rid of his stenographer. It occurred to me that if I called early enough in the morning I might get there before he had sent out to some agency for another, and, luckily, I did. I saw Mr. Slingsby and he engaged me at once. Didn’t ask for references or anything.”
To Bill, though he had little knowledge of what was the customary ceremonial that led up to the engaging of stenographers, this seemed somewhat unusual. Surely, he felt, the proceedings were not always so rapid as that! The fact was, Mr. Slingsby had happened to be in a frame of mind that morning in which his ideal of feminine attractiveness was something differing in every respect from Miss Prudence Stryker; and Flick’s fair slimness, so opposite to the brunet heftiness of that militant lady, had soothed him on the instant. She would have had to be a far less efficient stenographer than she was to fail to secure the post.
“Well, there I was,” said Flick. “He told me to start right in, so I started right in. There’s a dear old clerk in the office who has been there for years and years. He was under three other managers before Mr. Slingsby, and it wasn’t long before he was talking to me about the terrible state of the business now as compared with the dear old days. I suppose I encouraged him a little, but he gave me the impression of being the sort of man who would have confided in anyone who was ready to listen.”
She purred triumphantly over her chocolate. Bill, in spite of his sturdy belief that this was all nonsense and that the well-meaning girl had started off on the wildest of wild-goose chases, could not help being interested. As he sat there thinking another aspect of the matter struck him.
“But look here,” he said, “why are you doing all this—going to all this trouble, I mean?”
Flick looked up with that swift kitten look of hers. There was something odd in her expression which puzzled Bill.
“Why shouldn’t I go to a little trouble to help you?” she said. “We’re pals, aren’t we?”
There was a silence. For the briefest moment Bill was conscious of a curious feeling, as if the atmosphere had become suddenly charged with something electric. There had been a look in Flick’s eyes as they met his for an instant that perplexed him. He felt that he hovered on the brink of some strange revelation. Then the spell was shattered by Judson.
“I want the body,” said Judson, who had seemed plunged in a deep coma for the past few minutes, “to be sent to my people in New York.”
Flick’s seriousness vanished as quickly as it had come. She laughed.
“What a fuss you are making!” she said. “I shan’t take you out to lunch again in a hurry. The food’s perfectly good. Look how I’m eating mine.”
“Women are extraordinary,” said Judson, refusing to be cheered. “They must have cast-iron insides.”
“Don’t be indelicate, Mr. Coker. Remember, there are gentlemen present.”
“I’ve seen my sister Alice wolf with obvious relish,” said Judson, “stuff that would kill a strong man. A woman’s idea of lunch is ptomaine germs washed down with tea and iced lemonade.”
The mention of the absent Miss Coker had the effect of producing another momentary silence. But almost immediately Flick hurried on.
“I was telling you about this old clerk,” she said. “He seemed to have the worst opinion of Mr. Slingsby as a business man. I can’t remember all he said, but one thing did strike me as curious. He told me that almost all the wood pulp is being sold, at prices which allow only the smallest profit, to a firm named Higgins & Bennett.”
“Well?” said Bill.
“Well,” said Flick, “doesn’t that seem odd to you? Only the smallest profit!”
“But you don’t understand. That’s just what Slingsby was talking about at lunch that day. Business conditions——”
“Nonsense!” said Flick decidedly. “It’s fishy and you know it is. Because he told me something else. He said that a letter had come from a firm offering a much higher price than Higgins & Bennett, and that he had particularly noticed that no deal for this had been entered in the contract book, showing that for some reason or other Mr. Slingsby had refused the offer. What do you think of that?”
“It does sound queer.”
“I’m glad you admit it. It sounds very queer to me, and I’m going to keep my eyes open. . . . And now I think you had better be escorting me back to my office or I shall be getting dismissed on my first day. Henry tells me three-quarters of an hour is the official time for lunch.”
Bill was thoughtful as they walked toward St. Mary Axe. A simple-minded young man, he found these puzzles uncongenial. And suddenly another disturbing thought struck him.
“Look here,” he said, “is it safe for you to be round these parts? Aren’t you apt to run into somebody you know?”
“Of course not. Uncle George never comes into the City. I’m as safe here as I am in Battersea.”
“Oh well, that’s all right. I was only wondering.”
They stopped at the entrance of the building on the third floor of which the Paradene Pulp and Paper Company had its offices. And as they stood there a young man in a vivid check suit came out, a small young man with close-set eyes and the scenario of a mustache. He was walking rapidly and in so preoccupied a condition that he almost cannoned into Flick.
“I beg your pardon,” he said.
Flick smiled forgivingly, and turned to Bill.
“Good-by,” she said. “Good-by, Mr. Coker.”
“Good-by,” said Judson. “You’ll be coming to dinner tonight?”
Flick entered the building and started to climb the stairs. The young man in the check suit, who had been tying his shoe lace, straightened himself and followed her. He moved cautiously, like a leopard.
This stupendous stroke of luck, coming so unexpectedly out of a blue sky, had for a moment almost unmanned Percy Pilbeam. He had recognized Flick the instant he saw her, and that feeling that comes to all of us at times of a mysterious power benevolently guiding our movements flooded over him. If he had terminated his interview with Mr. Wilfrid Slingsby two minutes sooner—and Mr. Slingsby’s attitude and behavior on being questioned about last night’s affray had given him every excuse to do so—he would have missed the girl. As it was, everything was working out with the most perfect smoothness. Though he had recognized her, Flick, he was certain, had not recognized him. She was entirely unaware that she was being trailed. The only thing he had to do was to ascertain where she was going and if she intended to stay there long, and then to send word to Sir George Pyke to come and get her.
Warily he tiptoed after her up the stairs. They reached the first floor. They reached the second. They reached the third, and Pilbeam, peering with infinite caution, saw the girl pass through a door the ground-glass window of which bore the legend Paradene Pulp and Paper Company. It was now necessary only to wait and see if she was paying a brief visit or if she intended to remain. Pilbeam camped on the stairs and the minutes went by.
When a reasonable period of time had passed without any sign of Flick he hurried downstairs. In the doorway he paused and scribbled a note. This he gave, with a shilling, to a passing boy. Then he stationed himself in the doorway to await Sir George’s arrival.
IN ASSUMING so complacently that Flick had not recognized him Percy Pilbeam had made a tactical blunder. It is true that in the first moment of their meeting he had seemed a stranger, but suddenly, as she started to mount the stairs, her subconscious mind, which, after the helpful habit of subconscious minds, had been working all the time on its own account, sounded an alarm. Vaguely, in a nebulous, uncertain fashion, she began to feel that somewhere at some time she had seen this check-suited young man before.
She had just reached the second floor when memory leaped into life as if she had touched a spring. It was in Roderick’s office the day when she had called to take Roderick out to tea, that ever-to-be-remembered day when all the trouble had started. This was the man—Pilbeam? Wasn’t that his name?—who assisted Roderick in the control of Society Spice.
It was lucky that this illumination came to Flick with such a startling abruptness, for this very abruptness had all the effect of a physical shock. It actually jerked her head sideways as if it had been a blow. And so it came about that out of the corner of her eye she was enabled to see her pursuer just a moment before he made one of his wary slidings into the shadows on the staircase. An instant later, and she would have missed him.
She gave a little gasp. Of all the unpleasant sensations that can attack us in this world, one of the least agreeable is the feeling of being hunted. A brief flurry of panic shook Flick. Then, pulling herself together, she went on up the stairs. Peril quickens the wit, and she had thought of a plan of action. The success of this plan depended entirely on whether that other door in Mr. Slingsby’s private office—a door whose existence she had completely forgotten until her subconscious mind, that admirable assistant, now presented a picture of it for her inspection—led anywhere. It might, of course, be merely the entrance to a cupboard, in which case she was trapped. But hope seemed to whisper that a man of Wilfrid Slingsby’s evil mind, a man who got black eyes and sold wood pulp cheap to Higgins & Bennett when he could have disposed of it more advantageously elsewhere, would be extremely likely to select for his office a room with a bolt hole for use in case of emergency. She entered the office with a high heart.
A loud and angry voice proceeding through the door had warned her before she turned the handle that a disturbed atmosphere prevailed within. She found Mr. Slingsby in a state of effervescing fury, engaged in a passionate passage with Henry the office boy.
One cannot altogether blame Wilfrid Slingsby for his lack of self-control. His unfortunate encounter with Miss Prudence Stryker at Mario’s Restaurant overnight had brought him to the office in mood of extreme edginess, and when a good lunch had to some extent pulled him round he had been plunged into the depths once more by the totally unforeseen intrusion of Mr. Percy Pilbeam. These things upset a man and render an office boy’s whistling more than ordinarily disturbing to the nerves. The consequence was that Henry, a dreamy youth who was apt to forget his surroundings when he became absorbed in his work, had scarcely got halfway through the latest song hit before something that seemed for an instant like a charge of cavalry shot out of the private office; and the next moment young Master Smith—Henry was one of the Smiths of Somers’ Town—was being told things about himself which even the companions of his leisure hours—and they were a candid and free-speaking band—had never thought of saying. Mr. Slingsby, roused, had a large vocabulary and Henry was getting nearly all of it.
The instinct of self-preservation rules us all. Flick, though their acquaintance had been so brief, was fond of Henry, and had her own affairs been less pressing might have attempted to create a diversion. As it was, she merely welcomed the fact that Mr. Slingsby was busy outside of his private office and walked into that sanctum without a pause. And there was the second door, beckoning her.
Flick opened this second door and thrilled with exquisite relief. It was not a cupboard. The door led into a passage. The passage in its turn led to a flight of stairs. The stairs led into a small dark courtyard full of boxes and barrels. And the courtyard, after she had threaded her way among these obstacles, proved to lead into a street. Flick reached this street, and hurrying down it without a backward look, left the premises of the Paradene Pulp and Paper Company forever.
A MATTER of half an hour or so after Flick’s departure a cab stopped at the main entrance of the building and Sir George Pyke sprang out. Pilbeam, leaving his doorway, advanced, gamboling about him like a faithful dog.
“Where is she? In here?” demanded Sir George, a man of few words.
“Quite,” said Pilbeam, a man of fewer.
They entered the building, Pilbeam explaining as they climbed the stairs the events that had led up to this tense situation—events which he had had neither time nor space to record in his brief note.
“You’re sure it was the right girl?”
“Now what in the world,” mused Sir George, as they halted outside the door, “could the fool of a girl be doing here?”
Pilbeam, baffled by the same problem, forbore to speculate. They went into the office. A meek and chastened Henry took Sir George’s card into the inner room, where Mr. Slingsby, outwardly calm once more, but inwardly still a mere volcano, scrutinized it captiously.
“What’s he want?”
“Well, show him in, blast him,” said Mr. Slingsby forcefully.
We have already seen Wilfrid Slingsby considerably persecuted by fate, but even in the brief interval which has elapsed since his last appearance another blow had befallen him. On top of all the Prudence Strykers, Percy Pilbeams and whistling Henrys that had recently made life so hard to bear, he had now discovered that his stenographer had mysteriously disappeared at just the time when he needed her assistance most. There were a number of important letters waiting to be dictated; and if the plight of a man all dressed up and having no place to go is bad, that of one full of dictation with nobody to dictate it to is hardly less enviable. Small wonder that the world looked black to Wilfrid Slingsby.
The Episode of the Vanishing Stenographer, as Mr. Slingsby would have called it if he had been a writer of detective stories, had that quality of utter and insane inexplicability which makes a man moan feebly and stick straws in his hair. He had with his own eyes seen her come in, and now she simply was not. The thing got right in amongst Wilfrid Slingsby’s nerve centers; and just as he was feeling that he could stand no more, he saw sailing in in the wake of Sir George the loathly figure of young Pilbeam.
It is a curious phenomenon, which can be vouched for by anyone who has ever boiled an egg, that a slight increase of provocation added to a bubbling fury produces a condition strangely resembling calm. The water which has hissed and shrieked in the saucepan seems to subside almost phlegmatically when it reaches boiling point. It was so with Mr. Slingsby now. The sight of Pilbeam seemed to produce in him a kind of frozen inertness. With his unblacked eye he looked venomously at his visitors, but he did not spring from his chair and bite them in the leg. And though his fingers closed for an instant on the large inkpot on his desk, he released it again.
Pilbeam did the honors.
“This is Sir George Pyke, of the Mammoth Publishing Company, Mr. Slingsby,” he said.
“Do you publish Society Spice?” asked Mr. Slingsby in a dull voice.
“Among a great number of other papers,” replied Sir George with a touch of pomposity.
“Ah!” said Mr. Slingsby. He toyed with the inkpot once more, but again relaxed his grasp.
Pilbeam proceeded briskly to business. He had had a word with the elderly clerk in the outer office while waiting, and ascertained the reason of Flick’s presence in this place.
“We have just discovered,” he said, “that your stenographer is the daughter of an old friend of Sir George’s, Mr. Slingsby. She recently left home——”
“Amnesia,” said Sir George.
“Quite,” said Pilbeam.
“Indeed?” said Wilfrid Slingsby, still in the grip of that sinister calm.
Sir George glared impressively. He intended to stand no nonsense from this man. Mr. Slingsby’s black eye and the knowledge of how it had been acquired had made an unfavorable impression.
“I have come to take her back to her home.”
“Oh, have you?”
“The poor girl is in an unfit state to be wandering about alone.”
“Oh, is she?”
“And so,” said Sir George imperiously, “I should be obliged, Mr. Slingsby, if you would produce her.”
Wilfrid Slingsby, his mind working with cold swiftness during these exchanges, began now to see his way to getting a bit—a small bit, but nevertheless a bit—of his own back. He forced a winning smile into his bleak face.
“I should be only too glad to produce her, as you put it; but she is not here.”
“She came in here.”
“Exactly—and went away again. She said she had a headache and wanted to go home, so I let her off for the afternoon.”
“But I’ve been watching the door and she didn’t go out,” said Pilbeam keenly.
“Yes,” said Sir George; “how do you account for that?”
“You are at liberty,” said Mr. Slingsby, “to search the premises if you wish. Here are the keys of the safe, and the drawers of this desk are not locked. The wastepaper basket, as you see, is empty. I imagine,” he continued, for the solution of the puzzle which had been vexing him had now presented itself, “that she went out by that door there, which leads to another exit. By now, I expect, she is well on her way home.”
“What is her address?”
“Seven, Paradise Walk, Earlsfield,” said Mr. Slingsby promptly.
The locality had not been selected by him at random. Paradise Walk, Earlsfield, was, he knew, in a particularly unpleasant part of London and had in addition been quite recently the scene of a rather unusually spectacular murder. Mr. Slingsby was not without a faint hope that the inhabitants, if given to that sort of thing and having nothing better on their hands, might turn their talent for slaughter in the direction of his visitors.
“Thank you,” said Sir George.
“Not at all,” said Mr. Slingsby.
“Much obliged,” said Pilbeam.
“Don’t mention it,” said Mr. Slingsby.
The visitors picked up their hats. As the door closed behind them there came into Mr. Slingsby’s drawn face something almost resembling a smile of happiness.
THE callousness of Nature in times of human suffering has been commented on so often by poets and others that it has become a truism. If Nature had possessed a heart, the day following that on which Sir George Pyke and his young assistant had visited the office of Mr. Wilfrid Slingsby would have been one of dark clouds and weeping skies. As it was, it reached a level of bright serenity that had not been equaled in London since the summer of the previous year. Tilbury Street, whose inhabitants still seemed to be boiling cabbage as if their lives depended on it, stewed in the sunshine, so that horses drooped their heads and strong men went gaspingly about their work, counting the minutes till the pubs should open. The pavement in front of Tilbury House was all inlaid with patinas of bright gold, and sparrows, reveling in the warmth, chirped merrily as they lunched in the gutters. In a word, all Nature smiled.
Nevertheless, as has been suggested by our opening remarks, there were aching hearts in Tilbury Street, hearts to which the glorious weather brought no balm. Chief among these was that of Percy Pilbeam. He sat in the office of Society Spice in that dismal half hour that precedes luncheon, brooding miserably. Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been; and the thought of how narrowly he had missed pulling off the coup of a lifetime gnawed at Pilbeam’s vitals like a vulture.
If only Flick had proved less elusive, what a triumph would have been his! Sir George would have showered commendation upon him, and what is more, could hardly in decency have avoided giving him a handsome raise of salary. Instead of which——
It is a defect in the characters of Napoleonic men that they are apt to demand from their subordinates success and nothing but success. To come within an ace of triumph advances the subordinate’s stock not at all. Indeed, it rather depreciates it. Pilbeam realized that he would now be standing considerably higher in Sir George’s esteem if he had never got on Flick’s trail at all. His employer had exhibited a disquieting disposition to blame him for everything that had happened.
Number 7, Paradise Walk, Earlsfield, had proved, when reached after a long and expensive journey in a taxicab, to be an evil-smelling bird-and-snake shop, owned by a dirty and cheerful old man with gray whiskers and a skullcap, who had proceeded to answer their inquiries for Flick by urging them to examine his stock with a view to purchase. Sir George had read into the man’s words a suspicious evasiveness, and it had been his idea that they should sit down and wait. The memory of that vigil had seared Pilbeam’s soul deeply, and the recollection of the long green snake which he had suddenly found nestling in his lap was destined to haunt him for many days.
Eventually the realization that Mr. Slingsby, in his low fashion, had sent them to a false address had dawned upon them both at about the same time; and they had gone away, pursued to the last by the owner of the shop, who wanted to do a sacrifice deal on a parrot. The last they had seen of him before threading their way through the local murderers and starting back for civilization, he was standing in the street with the parrot on his shoulder, doing some spirited price cutting. It was just about this point that Sir George had become peevish.
Pilbeam sighed. It was hard that he should be blamed for what was none of his fault. Sir George’s statement that he ought to have had the sense to know that a man like Slingsby, with one eye black and the other gleaming with the light of pure deceit, would naturally send them to a wrong address struck him as unjust. Still, there it was. He had failed and he was suffering the penalty always meted out to failure in Tilbury House.
He had just begun to busy himself with the revision of an article on Plague Spots of the West End—he was alone in the office today, Roderick being absent with a cold in the head—when a boy in buttons entered, bearing a form.
“Gem’ to see you, sir.”
Pilbeam took the form listlessly. His sufferings had had the effect of subduing his normal pep and ginger, and for a moment, so greatly did he desire solitude in his hour of travail, he had the churlish intention of telling the boy to say that he was out. Then his eye fell on the name written on the paper in his hand——Judson Coker.
Something stirred at the back of Pilbeam’s mind. Coker? Why was that name vaguely familiar? Coker? Why were those two simple syllables somehow oddly significant? Coker? Where had he heard——
He gasped, awed by the sudden suspicion of a terrific possibility. Now he knew where he had heard the name before. “Good-by, Mr. Coker.” They were the last words that infernal girl—for so he was now unchivalrously accustomed to think of Flick—had spoken before going into her office building. “Good-by, Mr. Coker.” He remembered it distinctly. And then he had asked her if she would be coming to dinner, and she had said “Of course.” What could this mean but that she was in the habit of visiting this Coker so frequently that her presence at his dinner table had become a matter of course?
“What sort of a looking fellow is he?” he cried.
The boy in buttons seemed perplexed. It was not usual for the editorial staff of Society Spice to demand word portraits of visitors.
“A kind of bloke,” he said vaguely.
Pilbeam perceived that to continue examining this unprofitable witness would be wasting time. The thing to do was to have the fellow up and inspect him face to face. Unusual as the name Coker was, he dared not allow himself to hope that this could be the same man. That would be too much like a miracle. Yet, as he waited, nervously pulling at his small mustache, he could not keep himself from hoping. And when the door opened and Judson was ushered in he saw with a pang of excitement which seemed to stop his heart beating that his hope had been fulfilled. The million-to-one chance had come off. This was the fellow he had seen yesterday in St. Mary Axe.
“Come in, come in,” he cried ecstatically. “Do take a seat, won’t you?”
“Thanks,” said Judson, a little surprised at this cordiality, but rendered by it distinctly happier. It began to look to Judson as though his mission was to be plain sailing.
It was the story which Flick had told on visiting the Marmont Mansions on the previous evening that had brought Judson Coker today to the office of Society Spice. Flick’s description of Pilbeam’s pursuit and how she had eluded it had been spirited and absorbing; but though all of it had interested him, the point that interested him most had been the revelation that Roderick was not the only official in charge of things at the Spice office. His knowledge of the inner workings of weekly paper offices was slight, and he had assumed until now that the only person to whom he could apply for a correction of that paragraph about Toddy van Riter and the Silks was the fellow who had batted Bill West over the head with his stick—obviously a man of the worst and one from whom it would be hopeless to seek justice. The discovery that Roderick had a partner altered the whole aspect of the affair.
He had come here, of course, in a spirit of the utmost wariness and caution. Very much on his guard, Judson was. On no account, he realized, must he let fall a word that would establish in the mind of this man a connection between himself and Flick. Pilbeam, he understood from Flick’s narrative, was acting as a sort of amateur bloodhound as far as she was concerned. It caused Judson a faint amusement as he sat down to reflect what a lot this man would give to know that he lived in a flat to which the girl he was hunting came every night for dinner.
“What did you want to see me about?” asked Pilbeam.
“Well, it’s like this,” Judson began: “You had a piece in your paper a couple of weeks ago——”
Pilbeam looked at his watch.
“I didn’t know it was so late,” he said. “You haven’t lunched yet, have you?”
“No,” said Judson, thrilled from head to foot by a sudden spasm of hope. In his wildest dreams he had never foreseen a bit of luck like this.
“How about coming out and having a bite? I can see you’ve got all sorts of interesting things to tell me, and we can talk better at lunch.”
“So we can,” said Judson enthusiastically. “So we can.”
“You’re American, aren’t you?” said Pilbeam.
“Then we’ll go to the Cheshire Cheese. You must see the Cheshire Cheese. You aren’t a teetotaler by any chance?”
“No!” said Judson vehemently.
“I only asked because they have some rather special port——”
“Port!” whispered Judson.
Judson’s eyes closed for a moment in a prayerful ecstasy.
“Lead me to it,” he said in a low, reverent voice. It is strange how the views of different people concerning any given individual can differ. There were men in London, dozens of them, who heartily disliked Percy Pilbeam. If you had asked Wilfrid Slingsby what he thought of the young man behind Society Spice it would have taken him ten minutes to reply, and scarcely a word of his remarks would have been printable. Yet Judson Coker found him one of the most delightful fellows he had ever met.
The Cheshire Cheese, that historical tavern, pleased Judson immensely. Its old associations, it is true, made but small appeal to him, and he was only tepidly interested in Doctor Johnson’s chair; but the lark-steak-and-kidney pudding, that famous specialty of the house, went with a bang from start to finish. Washed down with tankards of old ale, it appealed to all that was best and deepest in Judson. By the time the tawny port arrived he was in a mood so mellowed that it was difficult for him to realize that the man with the slightly blurred outline sitting opposite him had not been a trusted friend since the days of boyhood.
Besides, apart altogether from the port and the old ale, Pilbeam had endeared himself to Judson by his thoroughly sympathetic and understanding attitude in the matter of that Silks article. It was unforgivable, declared Pilbeam warmly, that such a mistake should have occurred. But a man of the world like Judson would understand how hard it was to keep a paper like Society Spice free from these occasional errors.
“Of course, of course!”
They would creep in from time to time.
But it should be corrected in the very next issue.
“Awfully good of you,” said Judson.
“Not at all, not a-tall,” said Pilbeam.
“Oh, but it is!”
“Oh, but it is!”
“Not a bit.”
“Oh, but it is but-i-toz but it is!” insisted Judson with enthusiasm.
He drained his glass and gazed with goggle-eyed affection at this obliging man, whom he liked, he was now convinced, quite a good deal better than anyone else in the world.
“I’ll write an article myself,” said Pilbeam, “putting the matter straight. And look here, we don’t want any more mistakes—I’d better send you proofs.”
“No, sir!” Judson waved his hand in a wide and generous gesture. “Don’t want any proofs. Take your word for it.”
“Proofs of the article,” explained Pilbeam gently, “so that you can see it before it appears.”
“Where shall I send it?”
“Nine, Marmont Mansions, Battersea.”
“Right!” said Pilbeam. “And now,” he went on, for triumph had made him kindly, “tell me all about the Fifth Avenue Silks. You must have had a great time. I can’t think how you ever happened to get the idea.”
It was a flushed and uplifted Pilbeam who parted from Judson outside the Cheshire Cheese at a few minutes after two and made his way with great strides down Fleet Street to Tilbury House. The sight of Sir George’s limousine drawn up at the curb told him that his employer had returned from lunch. He went straight up to the office on the fourth floor.
“Well?” said Sir George.
His manner was distant, but Pilbeam had been prepared for a cold reception. He would, he told himself, soon thaw the ice.
“I have great news, Sir George. I have found out where we can make inquiries of Miss——”
There was an uncomfortable pause. Pilbeam had forgotten the name and so had Sir George. The latter, after a moment of swift thinking, decided on candor.
“Perhaps I had better tell you, Pilbeam—I am sure that you will treat the information in the strictest confidence.”
“The girl is my niece.”
“Is that so!” said Pilbeam, trying to inject a sharp amazement into his voice.
“My niece,” repeated Sir George with gloomy impressiveness.
“It makes me all the happier that I have found her,” said Pilbeam devoutly.
“Well,” amended Pilbeam, “found the place which she seems to be visiting every day.”
He told his story with the crisp expertness of one accustomed to squashing the vice of a great city into a column and a quarter. Sir George listened, rapt.
“Pilbeam,” he said, “I knew all along that I could rely on you.”
“It is very kind of you to say so, Sir George.”
“I train my young men to be bright, and you are the brightest of them all. You may take this note to the cashier.”
“I will,” said Pilbeam fervently, pocketing the slip of paper. “Thank you.”
Sir George rose.
“I shall go at once to this Marmont Mansions you speak of. I shall see this man Coker——”
“I don’t think he will be in for some time,” said Pilbeam. “When I left him he was saying something about going and having a nap in the park.”
“Then I will wait for him. And when I see him,” said Sir George portentously, “I shall stand no nonsense!”
A POWERFUL car was standing outside Marmont Mansions when Sir George Pyke arrived at that storm center. Beside it, one foot on the running board, a pleasant-faced young man of impressive physique smoked a cigarette. This young man watched Sir George as he alighted and approached. He had no recollection of ever having seen Sir George before, nor did his appearance seem in any way familiar to the older man. Yet they had met and in dramatic circumstances.
Sir George was peering up at the building. His chauffeur had told him that a policeman had told him that this was Marmont Mansions, but there was no name over the door to prove it. He decided to seek a further opinion.
“I am looking for Marmont Mansions, Battersea,” he said.
“Right here,” said the young man agreeably.
“Not at all. Nice day.”
“Very,” said Sir George.
He passed through the doorway. The young man, who seemed to be expecting someone, resumed his vigil. Presently he smiled and waved his hand. A girl in a floppy and unbecoming sealskin coat was advancing briskly along the pavement. Sir George’s chauffeur, sitting stolidly at his wheel a few yards down the street, eyed her with approval. He had a nice taste in female beauty, and not even the sealskin coat could hide the fact that Flick was an unusually pretty girl.
“Here I am,” said Flick. “Haven’t I been quick? What do you think of the coat?”
“Fine,” said Bill.
“It isn’t. It’s awful. But it was the only thing I could get that was warm enough. I borrowed it from my landlady.”
She climbed into the car and settled herself cozily.
The idea of hiring a car and taking Flick for a drive out into the country had come to Bill as a luminous inspiration while they lunched together in the neighborhood of Shaftesbury Avenue, a locality which seemed well outside the danger zone haunted by Sir George Pyke and his minions. The fineness of the day had not escaped their notice, and they had decided that it would be unwise to waste it. Bill, moreover, being a young man used to the possession of a car of his own, had been experiencing for some days that restless and starved sensation which comes to habitual motorists whose motoring is cut off for any long period. His fingers itched to close themselves over a wheel again, and he had sent Flick off to her lodgings to borrow a warm coat while he negotiated for the hire of a car for the afternoon. He climbed in after her.
“Where would you like to go?”
“It’s lovely out at Hindhead.”
“All right. How do you get there?”
“And of course anywhere down on the river is wonderful.”
“Well, you choose.”
But they were destined to go that afternoon neither to Hindhead’s majestic heights nor to any silvery reach of old Thames. While Flick was still trying to make her choice the decision was taken out of her hands. Bill, leaning back in a restful attitude, was startled by a little squeak of dismay, and looking up, saw that she was staring with round and horrified eyes at something beyond him. Turning his head, he perceived that the stout man who had asked him for Marmont Mansions had returned and was coming out of the doorway.
“Quick!” gasped Flick. “Oh, be quick!”
Bill was quick. Though not an abnormally intelligent young man, he gathered that this was no time for waiting and asking questions. He started the car without a word and they began to glide off; and as they did so the stout man uttered a sharp bellow and became a thing of leaping activity.
The reappearance of Sir George at this point was due to the fact that he had got tired of ringing the bell of Number 9. There appeared to be nobody at home, and he had decided that it would be more comfortable to wait—and he intended to wait for hours if necessary—down below in his limousine. The sight of Flick seemed to him, as it had seemed to Percy Pilbeam twenty-four hours earlier, direct evidence that Providence looks after the righteous. It was only when he saw her being borne rapidly away from him that he realized that his position was not so advantageous as he had supposed.
In this crisis Sir George lost his head. He shouted uselessly. He galloped along the pavement. Not until Bill’s car was twenty yards away and moving swiftly westward along the Prince of Wales Road did it occur to him that he, too, had a car and that the pursuit could be conducted far more agreeably on wheels than afoot. He waved like a semaphore to his chauffeur.
“Hi!” he shouted. “Here! Hi! Briggs! Come on, you fool!”
The chauffeur, blandly unemotional, stepped with dignity on his self-starter. He drew up beside his fermenting employer. Sir George sprang in and gesticulated with both hands in the direction of Albert Road, the corner of which Bill and his companion had just turned at a high rate of speed.
“Ur! Ur!” gurgled Sir George.
The chauffeur touched his cap aloofly. He gathered that his employer wished him to pursue the other car, but he was not thrilled. It took more than this sort of thing to excite Augustus Briggs.
“ THAT was Uncle George,” said Flick. Bill had deduced as much. He nodded and glanced over his shoulder.
“It still is,” he replied briefly, and drove his foot down on the accelerator. They whirred over the Albert Bridge.
ONCE started in flight, the human instinct is to keep on running. It was not immediately, therefore, that Bill recovered from the first stark desire to be elsewhere as quickly as possible and began to turn onto the situation the searchlight of clear reason. For perhaps ten minutes or a quarter of an hour his faculties were entirely occupied with the desire to shake off pursuit; and with this end in view he kept his large foot firmly on the accelerator and paid only the most meager attention to the hurriedly expressed criticisms of the various traffic policemen dotted here and there about the winding route.
If he had a thought outside the bare, primitive craving for speed, it was a feeling of relief that he had taken the trouble to hire from the garage a really good car. It was as if some presentiment had warned him not to accept the quaint old relics which they had offered him at the start of the negotiations, but to hold out firmly and coldly till they produced a real hummer. His motorist’s eye had told him after one glance at the engines that this was a car of quality, and events were proving his judgment sound. With a smooth and effortless efficiency, it was eating up the asphalt like a racer.
They snapped across Chelsea Embankment, purred up Oakley Street and, turning to the left at the Fulham Road, began—though Bill was not aware of it—to cover the same ground which he and Judson had gone over that night when they had followed Roderick to Wimbledon Common. In Putney High Street they were enabled to draw away for a while, for the limousine—to Sir George’s manifest discomposure, though Briggs the chauffeur accepted the blow with wooden calm—got itself blocked by a brewer’s dray just across the bridge; whereupon Bill, dexterously imitating the ingenious tactics of the hunted hare, turned down Lacy Road into Charlwood Road, turned again into Felsham Road, and so, doubling on his tracks, crossed Putney Bridge once more and bowled along the Fulham Palace Road, to emerge finally into the bustle of King Street, Hammersmith. It was a maneuver which might well have settled the issue; but Augustus Briggs, for all his woodenness, was an astute fellow; and looking over his shoulder as they reached Hammersmith station, Bill was annoyed to perceive the limousine swerving lithely round a truck, still in the game. It was at this point that he began to examine the situation.
“What on earth is all this about?” he asked.
“It’s Uncle George.”
“I know. But what are we running away for?”
“Because I don’t want him to catch us.”
The question deprived Flick momentarily of speech. Bill filled the hiatus in the conversation by dodging an omnibus and turning sharp to the left up Addison Road.
“What do you mean?” said Flick, astonished.
“Well,” said Bill, skillfully avoiding manslaughter with a quick twist of the wheel, “what can he do if he does catch us?”
It had begun to irk his haughty spirit, this headlong flight from a little man with a double chin whom he could have destroyed with a finger. He would have guaranteed, if challenged to mortal combat, to clean up Sir George and Briggs the chauffeur, too, inside a couple of minutes. In the vivid phrase of Mr. Isaac Bullett, he could butter the pavement with them both. Yet here he was fleeing like the wicked man in the Proverbs, permitting himself to be chevied by these persons all over London. The pride of the Wests put up a strong protest.
“What on earth can he do?” he demanded again. “He can’t tie you up and drag you home against your will.”
“I know,” said Flick. “It’s just that I can’t face him.”
“Why not?” persisted Bill, just contriving to avoid diminishing the juvenile population of Ladbroke Grove by one.
“You don’t know Uncle George,” said Flick, shaking her head. “He’s such a compelling sort of man. So frightfully sort of hypnotic.”
“Oh, come!” protested Bill.
“Well, you know what I mean. He glares at you and tells you to do things and you just do them. When he looks at me I always feel like a rabbit and a snake.”
“How do you mean, you feel like a rabbit and a snake?” said Bill, puzzled.
“Well, you know, sort of hypnotized. I’m sure if my door hadn’t been locked that night, and he had been able to come in and glare at me, I should have lost my nerve altogether and come meekly down to dinner instead of running away. If he catches us I know exactly what will happen. I shall have to go back with him.”
“Nonsense! Be a man!”
“Well, that’s how I feel.”
Bill was in many ways a simple soul, but he had lived long enough in this world to know that a woman’s whims have to be respected, however apparently absurd to the view of the more earthy male. And in a dim way he could follow Flick and understand her position. Until he had got used to him, he had found Ridgway, his late manservant, affecting him in rather the same fashion. Ridgway had had quiet but decided views on ties and hats; and many a time, Bill remembered, he had had his way in these matters, sternly overriding the preferences of the man who paid him his wages. One cannot argue about personality. Its compelling power has to be accepted as a fact. If Flick felt like that about her Uncle George and shrank so timorously from the prospect of meeting him, then Uncle George must be shaken off if it took the last drop of gasoline in the tank.
He pulled the wheel round and they shot away in an easterly direction, and from this point the affair took on a dreamlike aspect which precluded coherent thought. Bill had no notion where he was going. Like the heroine of a melodrama, he was lost in London. His simple policy was to take any road which looked smooth and fairly empty and to skim down it till he came to another road possessing the same desirable qualities. And always the limousine followed. It was impossible to get away from it in the traffic, and Bill yearned for the open country. And suddenly, when he had least expected it, the houses began to thin and he was thrilled by the discovery that there really was an end to this sprawling city after all.
So sedulously had Bill twisted, retwisted and kept on twisting his steering wheel that, though he had started out along the Portsmouth Road, he was now heading for Hertfordshire. And presently London, with its tram lines and traffic, was left behind and they were out on the open road.
“Now,” said Bill, teeth grimly set, “we’ll show ’em!”
Although this car of his was but a hired one, he had come in the course of this adventure to love it like a son. It was a beautiful car, obviously only recently tuned up by expert hands, and what it needed to give of its best was just such a broad highway as now lay before it. Tram lines and traffic fret and hamper a car of spirit. What it craves is space. This it had now got, and the roar of the engines as Bill pressed down his foot sounded like a joyful cheering. The needle on the indicator crept up to forty, then swiftly to forty-five.
“Laugh this off!” growled Bill over his shoulder at the pursuing limousine.
It was as if Augustus Briggs had heard the provocative words. He did not attempt to laugh it off, for he was a chauffeur and by the rules of his guild not allowed anything beyond a faint smile at the corner of his mouth; but he did indulge for an instant in this faint smile. The idea of a Cardinal Six—for such he perceived Bill’s car to be—attempting to give the dust to his own peerless Brown-Windsor excited in him an almost jovial contempt; and so sudden was the bound which the limousine made as he opened the throttle that a hen down the road which had planned to make a leisurely crossing saved its valuable life only by a frenzied leap in the last split second.
And so, going nicely, they passed through New Barnet, Hadley Wood, Potters Bar and St. Mimm’s, and came to the town of Hatfield. And it was outside Hatfield, just before you come to Brocket Hall, that the long, long trail reached its abrupt end.
Bill had not been unaware of the new touch of grimness added to the chase. He had noted the chauffeur’s spurt and had answered it by putting his needle up into the fifties. But now a chill feeling of impending defeat had begun to lower his mood of exultation. Something seemed to tell him that the car behind had just that extra turn of speed which was going to make all the difference. Sticking doggedly, however, to his guns, he was endeavoring to urge the Cardinal Six to a gait which its maker had never contemplated, when the disaster occurred which subconsciously he had been anticipating all the time.
There was a sudden loud report. The Cardinal Six swerved madly across the road, nearly jerking the wheel out of his hands. And when he had managed to get it into control, he was made aware by a harsh bumping that the worst had happened. At the very tensest stage of the race he had been put out of the running by a burst tire.
The tragedy had taken place almost immediately opposite the neat little gate of a neat little house standing back from the road behind the shelter of a quickset hedge. Bill brought the car to a stop and looked behind him. The limousine, a couple of hundred yards in the rear, was coming up like a galleon under sail. He grasped Flick’s arm. It was a moment for swift action.
“Come on!” he cried, and jumping out, they ran through the gate.
The garden in which they found themselves was one of those beautifully trim preserves whose every leaf and petal speaks eloquently of a loving proprietor. Neat little sticks supported neat little plants. Neat little gravel paths ran between neat little flower beds. It was the sort of garden from which snails, wandering in with a carefree nonchalance, withdraw abashed, blushing and walking backwards, realizing that they are on holy ground. And it should have affected Bill and Flick, those human intruders, with the same self-conscious awe.
But Bill and Flick were in a hurry, and when we are in a hurry we forget our better selves. In such a maze of flower beds it was obviously impossible to keep to the paths. Taking Flick’s hand, Bill raced diagonally across country to where a shrubbery seemed to offer at least a temporary refuge.
From a window on the ground floor an agonized purple face glared at them with an expression of pure hatred. Two frenzied hands beat madly on the pane. A protesting wail like that of a tortured demon came to their ears, muffled but awesome.
They stopped for neither apologies nor explanations. Hand in hand, they trampled over the beds and were in the shrubbery. There they halted, panting; and presently observed, shooting in at the gate, the projectilelike form of Sir George.
SIR GEORGE PYKE had marked with a stern triumph the accident that had checked the Cardinal Six. It had seemed to him like retribution overtaking the wicked. So greatly did it stimulate him that he yielded once again to that overmastering impetuosity of his, and instead of waiting to be driven up to the gate banged imperiously on the glass and bounded from the limousine while still a good twenty yards down the road. The long period of physical inaction had told upon his nerves and he was impatient to be up and doing. As quickly as his little legs would carry him, he scuttled along the hedge and bolted in at the gate.
He was halfway across the flower beds, following the clearly defined track of his quarry in the mold, when a roar so loud and anguished that it compelled attention brought him to a momentary halt:
“Stop! You! What the devil do you think you’re doing, you —— ——, —— you?”
He perceived a large, mauve-faced individual in golfing costume gesticulating forcefully from the steps of the house.
“——! ——!! ——!!!” added this person, driving home his point.
So great was Sir George’s absorption in the business in hand that it is doubtful whether mere words, however eloquent, would have stopped him for long. The speaker had used two adjectives and a verb which he had never heard before, but it was not the desire to pause and inquire into the meaning of these that caused him to remain. What rooted him to the spot was the sudden appearance from behind some bushes of a second man, in corduroy trousers, and the thing about this second man that so compelled respect was the fact that he carried a large and dangerous-looking pitchfork, and—as if this were not enough—was accompanied by a weedy dog of raffish aspect, which now trotted up and began to sniff in a strong, silent way at Sir George’s calves. Sir George looked at the dog, and the dog, using one rolling reddish eye for the purpose, looked at Sir George. He could never, even with his face in repose, have been a handsome dog, and now his appearance was made definitely repellant by a slightly updrawn lip, revealing a large white tooth. Pressing as his engagements were, Sir George decided to linger.
The man in the golf suit came up.
“——! ——!” he began, enriching Sir George’s vocabulary with a new noun.
The owner of the neat little house and garden, though he looked and behaved like a retired Indian colonel of the old school, was in reality no such thing, but technically a man of peace. He was, in fact, no other than Montague Grayson, the well-known writer of sunny and optimistic novels, and it would have been a distinct shock to his large public could they have beheld him in his present frame of mind. And yet had they known all the facts, they could hardly have denied that his wrath was justified.
If there is one thing that wakes the fiend which sleeps in us all it is getting stuck in the big chapter of a sunny and optimistic novel. For nearly three hours Montague Grayson had been writhing in his study like a lost soul, trying to inject whimsical humor and gentle pathos into the pivotal scene of his new book. And when, looking out of the window for the hundredth time, he saw Flick and Bill plowing through his beloved flower beds all the hatred which he had been feeling toward his hero and heroine became instantly diverted to them. He had not thought it possible to dislike any human beings so much until, coming out of the house and catching sight of Sir George, he realized that what he had felt for Flick and Bill had been but an pale imitation of the real thing. If Montague Grayson had been a Dante he would have gone straight off and started writing a new Inferno in which Sir George would have occupied a position in the middle of the innermost hell. As it was, he contented himself with bounding out into the garden, his bosom seething with that perilous stuff that weighs upon the soul.
“—— you, sir! —— and —— you!” bellowed the ex-sunny and optimistic man, brooding over Sir George like a thunder cloud. It should be mentioned here in further extenuation of Mr. Grayson’s peevishness that he had had a bad morning’s golf. “What the —— do you think you’re doing?”
Sir George drew himself up with what dignity he could muster, painfully conscious of the dog, which was plainly waiting only for a word of encouragement from the man up top before starting to give free play to his worst nature.
“My niece——” he began.
“You come trespassing in here, trampling on my flower beds——”
“I am sorry——”
“What’s the good of being sorry?”
“I should explain that my niece——”
“I’ve a good mind to shred you up and sprinkle you under the rosebushes.”
The man with the pitchfork, an enthusiast in any scheme that made for the good of his flowers, nodded silent approval of this plan. The dog breathed asthmatically.
“If you will allow me to explain, sir——”
“Explain! What possible explanation can there be? It’s an outrage!”
“Look at those beds! Covered with your beastly hoof marks!”
To Bill and Flick, lurking in the shrubbery, only the author’s portion of this dialogue had been audible, but that had been enough to send them creeping onward through the bushes with all the speed that they could command. A respect for other people’s property is deep-seated in most of us, and already the heinousness of the crime that they had committed was heavy upon them. There is something about the mere act of treading on somebody else’s flower beds that automatically puts back the clock and makes us children again; and Bill and Flick, as they slunk away, were feeling about ten years old. It was just such behavior as theirs that led to no jam for tea, and they felt their position deeply. It was not till the shrubbery ended in a small hedge and they found themselves out in a field dotted with sheep that the sense of guilt left them, to be replaced by one of elation. Deplorable though their conduct might have been, it had at any rate had the excellent result of giving them a breathing space. From the way the interview between Sir George and Mr. Grayson was developing, it looked as if their pursuer might be occupied for quite some time.
“Take care!” said Flick suddenly, and dropped on the grass. Bill joined her, flopping as if his legs had been mown from under him.
“What’s the matter?” he asked a little querulously, for his nerves were not what they had been at the start of this affair, and he was shaken.
Flick pointed. Above the hedge that rimmed the field rose the silhouette of the limousine. Against the pale sky the profile of Augustus Briggs stood out like something carven. Calm, Augustus seemed, with the calmness of the man who is able to unhitch his brain at will and think of absolutely nothing. Only the smoke rising from the cigarette that appeared to be glued to his lower lip showed that he was alive.
Bill looked at Augustus keenly. He was thinking hard. A superbly strategic plan was beginning to shape itself in his mind. At this point good fortune sent to him precisely the ally he required. Close beside them, looking down on them with youth’s frankly inquisitive stare, was standing a small boy.
“Hullo,” said Bill, smiling ingratiatingly.
“Hullo,” said the boy. He spoke reservedly, as if wishing to convey that he committed himself to nothing. He was a grave-looking boy with the pinched face of one on whom the cares of the world press heavily. He seemed worried about the cosmos.
“Do you want to earn half a crown?”
“Where is it?”
“Yes,” said the boy, having examined the coin critically. Bill pointed.
“See that car?”
“If I give you this half crown will you start throwing stones at it?”
“D’yer want me to throw stones at that car?”
“At that car,” said Bill patiently.
“And you’ll give me that ’alf crown?”
An instant before one might have thought that it would have been impossible for this stripling to smile, so strained and careworn had been his face; but now his head seemed suddenly to split in the middle. A vast grin gleamed like a gash beneath his snub nose. Stunned for a moment by the stupendous reflection that he was going to be paid a huge sum for indulging in his favorite sport, he recovered swiftly. He took the half crown, bit it, put it in his mouth and retired. At a leisurely pace he crossed the field and for an age-long minute there was silence and peace. The sheep browsed in the grass, birds twittered their evensong in the trees, Augustus Briggs smoked his cigarette in the front seat of the limousine.
Then things began to happen.
Appearances to the contrary, the mind of Augustus Briggs was not wholly a blank as he sat at his wheel placidly savoring his gasper. His was the quietude of deep content. This rest from the chase, with the opportunity it afforded for a couple of whiffs, was just what he needed most. So far from having unhitched his brain, he was thinking quite deeply, the object of his thoughts being the tip he had received that morning from the butler on tomorrow’s three-o’clock race at Hurst Park. The butler, a knowledgeable man, had recommended an investment on Soapy Sam, and the more Augustus examined the prospect the better it looked. By this time tomorrow it seemed practically certain that he would be a richer man by a matter of ten shillings.
The reflection soothed Augustus Briggs. He gazed almost with benevolence at the small boy who was crossing the road. He was not fond of small boys as a rule, but in his mellowed mood he did not actively dislike this one. He would not have adopted him; but on the other hand, he would not have clipped him on the side of the head. He watched him indulgently as he disappeared through the hedge. Then he turned to his thoughts again. Two bob on Soapy Sam at five to one——
Something whizzed across the road and clanged against the bonnet of the car. For an instant Augustus Briggs sat gaping. Then, peering over the side, he saw that what had struck the bonnet was a large, jagged flint. And a moment later he observed bobbing up over the hedge a grinning face.
“Gor!” exclaimed Augustus, and as he spoke a second flint found its billet.
The chauffeur was not a man of deep sensibility. Toward most of the phenomena of the world through which he moved his attitude was one of superior indifference. A primrose by the river’s brim a simple primrose was to him, and it was nothing more. But one thing he did love with a strong and holy passion, and that was his paint. And the impact of those flints on his shiny bonnet caused him an anguish more acute than that which he would have felt had his own head been their target. With one short, sharp wail he leaped from the car, raced across the mud and burst into a torrent of eloquence.
The hedge, it grieved him to discover, formed an impenetrable barrier. It was one of those hedges through which boys can glide like eels but which cannot be negotiated by chauffeurs fearful of tearing their uniforms. He had consequently to be content with mere words. And while he stood there, sketching out a list—necessarily incomplete, for it had been compiled on the spur of the moment, but nevertheless impressive—of the things he proposed to do to the boy if he caught him, Bill and Flick hurried silently out from their ambush.
Augustus, startled by the noise of engines, spun round. The car, with a wholly unauthorized driver at the wheel, was moving rapidly out of sight.
IT IS pleasant to be able to record that Bill’s first act on returning to the metropolis was to drive, guided by Flick, to Sir George’s house in Manchester Square and leave the limousine outside the front door. He had no desire to add larceny to his other offenses against the gentleman. This done, he hailed a cab and took Flick off to a restaurant to dine. He was feeling in need of refreshment after the activities of the afternoon, and it had become evident to both of them that the situation which had arisen was one that called for calm and unhurried discussion.
“How on earth,” he said, as the waiter receded from the table which they had taken in a quiet corner, “your uncle found out that you were likely to be at Marmont Mansions simply gets past me. I suppose we’ve got to take it that he did come there looking for you?”
“I’m afraid so. There doesn’t seem any other possible reason why he should be in Battersea at all.”
“In any case, he knows that you are to be found somewhere round those parts, so the question now arises, What’s to be done?”
Flick drew little patterns on the tablecloth with her fork. She looked about her at the gradually filling restaurant. She had lived a cloistered life at Holly House, rarely emerging for meals except to go to recognized resorts of wealth like the Ritz, Claridge’s and the Carlton, and this sort of place was strange to her. She was trying to decide whether the people at the other tables were interesting or merely flashy when Bill put his question again:
“What’s to be done?”
“Yes, I’m wondering too,” said Flick. But she spoke listlessly, for the long ride with all its varied emotions had left her tired. She wanted to postpone serious talk, and to that end turned the conversation to the subject of this restaurant in which she was sitting. “What did you say the name of this place was?” she asked.
“Mario’s,” said Bill.
“What made you choose it?”
“I was trying to think of somewhere where your Uncle George would be least likely to drop in for a bite, and I remembered this place. Slingsby took me here to lunch one day. Why? Don’t you like it?”
“Yes, I think it’s—— Oh!”
She was looking past him at the door, and he was surprised to see that the color which had been coming back to her face under the influence of food and drink had suddenly left it again. Her eyes had widened in a startled stare of dismay, and for a moment there flashed into his mind the absurd thought that Sir George might miraculously have appeared as if out of a trap. He swung round in his seat and was relieved to find that no such miracle had occurred. Somebody had just come in at the door and was walking down the room looking for a table, but it was not Sir George. It was a young man in a check suit, black-haired and adorned—if you could call it that—as to the upper lip by a small blob of mustache. Bill had no recollection of ever having set eyes on this young man before, nor did the other’s appearance give to his thinking reasonable cause for alarm. He turned round again and looked at Flick inquiringly. She was still pale.
“Did you see?” she whispered.
“See?” said Bill, mystified. “Do you mean the fellow in the check suit?”
Bill, who had taken up his knife and fork, laid them down again. He eyed Flick incredulously for a moment, then turned once more and looked down the room; and looking, saw the check-suited one had congealed into a pillar of amazement and was gaping in their direction with open mouth. If he had been a highly paid motion-picture star he could not have registered surprise more eloquently.
Bill flushed darkly. It took a good deal to ruffle his normally good-humored outlook on life, but it could be done. Roderick Pyke had done it by hitting him over the head with a stick, and Percy Pilbeam had done it now by the mere act of walking into a restaurant where he was having dinner. A man who has been through the sort of experiences which Bill had been having that afternoon does not look at things in the light of pure reason. Mario’s Restaurant was open to the entire population of London, and Percy Pilbeam had a perfect right to go there to dine if he wished; but to Bill, who had been chased by the other’s employer from the Prince of Wales Road, Battersea, to within a couple of miles of Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, his presence in the place seemed as much an outrage as that of Sir George Pyke in his flower bed had seemed to Montague Grayson, the sunny novelist.
It was persecution. That was what Bill felt—sheer persecution, and he pushed his chair back and rose with protruding jaw.
“Where are you going?” asked Flick.
The next moment it had become plain where Bill was going. He was stalking down the aisle in the direction of the table at which the intruder had now been induced by a solicitous waiter to seat himself. He reached the table and, planting two large hands on the cloth, bent forward and raked the assistant editor of Society Spice with a lowering gaze that seemed to the latter to sear his very soul. Not for a long time had Percy Pilbeam seen at close range anyone so big and so obviously unfriendly as Bill. He shrank into his chair.
“Is your name Pilbeam?”
Pilbeam gulped dryly.
Bill bent a little closer. To the diners at the neighboring tables the incident seemed a common one of restaurant life—the old friend spotting the dear pal across the room and coming over to pass a chummy word. Pilbeam would have been amazed if he had known that anybody could possibly so misinterpret the position of affairs. He was, indeed, wondering dully why the whole of the assembled company did not instantly rush to the spot to avert the murder which seemed to him so sickeningly imminent. In the pursuance of his duties as scandal gatherer for Society Spice he had been in some unpleasant situations, but compared with this one they had been roses—roses all the way. For a swift instant he met Bill’s eye, and looked pallidly away, horrified by its red hostility.
“You notice I’m dining with Miss Sheridan?” said Bill in a quiet, rumbling voice.
Pilbeam tried to say, “Quite,” but the word stuck in his throat.
“Good,” said Bill. “Now, do you know what you’re going to do?”
Pilbeam smiled the beginnings of a weak smile, intended to convey that he was open to consider in the most favorable spirit any suggestions which Bill might make.
“You’re going to wait right here where you’re sitting,” cooed Bill, clenching and unclenching a fist that looked to the other’s fascinated gaze like a ham, “until we are through. You will then keep right on sitting while we go out, and you will continue sitting for ten minutes after that. I should advise you to make it a little longer so as to be on the safe side, as I shall be out there keeping an eye on the door. See?”
Pilbeam said that he saw.
“That’s understood then. Now don’t,” urged Bill earnestly, “go getting absent-minded and forgetting, will you?”
Pilbeam said he wouldn’t, and Bill nodded a brief farewell and returned to his table. Pilbeam, after watching him the whole way, took up a fork and began to pick feebly at a sardine.
“What did he say?” asked Flick eagerly.
Bill considered the question.
“Come to think of it,” he replied, “he didn’t say much. But I gathered that he understood all right.”
“That he wasn’t to stir from the table till we had been gone ten minutes.”
“But he will! He’ll sneak out the moment we leave and follow me.”
“I think not,” said Bill. “I think not. Would you mind changing seats? Then I shall be able to watch him. Not that it’s really necessary. Come on,” he said encouragingly. “Don’t let a little thing like that spoil your dinner. Try some of this fish. It looks good.”
With gentle solicitude he forced her to make an adequate meal, and was pleased to note the steady rise of her spirits as she ate. When the waiter had brought the coffee he felt that the time had come for serious discussion of the situation. The intrusion of Pilbeam, added to the shock of discovering that Sir George had followed the trail that led to the Battersea haven, had disturbed him a good deal, and he had been thinking deeply in the intervals of conversation.
“Now,” he said, “we must talk this thing over and see where we stand. It seems to me that they’re beginning to come over the plate a bit too fast.”
Flick nodded. The metaphor was strange to her, but she gathered its meaning.
“Let’s get it clear,” Bill went on. “Your plan of campaign is to stay away till your people throw in the towel and say that this idea of marrying the man Pyke is off. That’s straight, isn’t it?”
“Yes; but how am I to stay away, with them right after me like this? They know now where you live and any moment they may find out where I live.”
“Exactly! Obviously, you can’t come dropping in at Marmont Mansions any more.”
“Two courses,” proceeded Bill judicially, “are open. We can change our addresses——”
“But even if I do change my address, I shall be all the time in a state of jumps, wondering if Uncle George isn’t going to pop out from somewhere and pounce on me.”
“Just what I was going to say myself. It doesn’t seem to me worth it. You can’t go on with this hunted-fawn business indefinitely. It would give you the heeby-jeebies in a couple of days. So what I suggest is that you clear out altogether.”
“I’ve thought it all out,” said Bill complacently. “And between you and me, I think the scheme’s a pippin. It’ll only take a day getting your passport fixed up.”
“But what am I to do when I get to New York?”
“I’ve two ideas about that. You might go to my Uncle Cooley at Westbury—where we first met, you know.”
Flick shook her head.
“It wouldn’t be safe. He would be sure to cable Uncle Sinclair that I was there. They’re great friends.”
“Yes, that’s true. Well, then, here’s the other idea: I’ll give you a letter to Alice Coker. She will look after you.”
If Bill had not at that moment removed his gaze while he reached for a match he might have observed a queer expression flit over Flick’s face. She looked at Bill wonderingly. It passed her comprehension how he could possibly be so dense as to imagine that she would go anywhere near the odious Miss Coker, no matter how great the emergency. True, she had never let fall a word to indicate that Alice Coker was in her opinion of all the superfluous women in the world the most superfluous, but she felt that he ought to have known it by instinct. She bit her lip and her blue eyes clouded.
“She’s a great girl,” continued Bill with tactless enthusiasm. “You’ll love her.”
“Yes?” said Flick thinly.
“I’ll tell you what. I’ll write the letter now.” He called to the waiter, and presently pen, ink and paper were on the table. “I think this is a wow, don’t you?” he said buoyantly.
“A wam,” explained Bill. “The scheme of a lifetime. It solves the whole thing.”
Flick watched him as he wrote, clenching her hands under the table. She was conscious of a rush of contending emotions. At one moment she wanted to bang this dull-witted young man over the head, and the next she was wishing that she could just bury her face in her hands and cry. It was this latter desire which she found it particularly hard to fight down. She was feeling bitterly hurt. The airy way he had suggested that she should go right out of his life like this, with never a hint that he would miss her for an instant! It was illogical, of course. She realized that. He was only trying to help her. But women cannot always be logical.
In itself, considered merely as a way out of her difficulties, the idea of going to America was, she was forced to admit, a good one. The activities of the enemy had rendered London impossible. She simply could not go on being, as Bill had expressed it, a hunted fawn. In New York she would feel safe, and she had plenty of money.
“There!” said Bill.
Flick took the letter and put it in her bag.
“Thank you,” she said. “I suppose we might as well be going now, mightn’t we? I’m rather tired.”
“All right,” said Bill. “I’ll put you into a cab, and then I’ll hang around for a while just in case friend Pilbeam starts any rannygazoo.”
But Pilbeam did not start any rannygazoo. He was ostentatiously busy with the leg of a chicken as they passed down the aisle, nor did he allow his eyes to stray in their direction when they went through the door. Safety first was Pilbeam’s motto.
Bill closed the door of the cab.
“Good night,” he said. “Don’t lose that letter.”
“Of course not,” said Flick. “Good night.”
Bill turned back to the door of the restaurant and stood there solidly, in his eyes the watchful look of one on his guard against rannygazoo. The cab turned the corner into Shaftesbury Avenue. A hand waved at him from the window.
The cab had scarcely reached Coventry Street when the hand once more came out of the window. This time it grasped some fragments of paper. It opened and with a vicious jerk scattered these into the road. Then it disappeared again.
THE good ship Homeric lay in her slip at Southampton, preparing for departure. Her decks and alleyways were crowded with voyagers and those who had come to see those voyagers off. Flick, leaning over the rail, stared down at the sun-speckled water, and Bill, by her side, gazed at the gulls circling overhead. For some minutes now conversation between them had taken on a limping gait, and the atmosphere was charged with a strange embarrassment.
“You’ll be off soon,” said Bill, urged by the silence to say something.
The gulls flashed to and fro against the cobalt sky, mewing like kittens.
“This is supposed to be one of the most comfortable boats in the world,” said Bill.
“I think you’ll be comfortable.”
“I expect so.”
“They rather pride themselves on making you comfortable.”
Bill was not sure whether he was sorry or relieved to hear at this juncture the all-for-the-shore cry that puts an end to the sometimes trying ordeal of seeing off. Up till a few minutes ago everything had been jolly. Coming down in the train and for the first quarter of an hour on board the boat Flick had been full of chatter, a pleasant and cheery companion. But just recently a cloud seemed to have fallen on her mood, and she had tended to long silences and monosyllables.
“I suppose I ought to be going,” he said.
“I suppose so.”
“I hope you’ll have a good time on board.”
“It’ll seem funny to you being in America again after all these years.”
“I’ll look after Bob.”
“Well, I suppose I ought to be going.”
“I suppose so.”
A gull wheeled so close to Bill’s head that he ducked involuntarily. He laughed a nervous laugh.
“What a lot of people come to see people off,” he said.
“Friends, I suppose,” said Bill brightly.
“I shouldn’t wonder.”
A steward with a voice like a foghorn in pain was once more urging all whom it might concern to make for the shore.
“I suppose,” said Bill, struck with a novel idea, “I ought to be going.”
“I think you’d better.”
“You won’t lose that letter?”
“Why, the one to Alice,” said Bill, surprised.
“Oh, yes,” said Flick.
“She’ll give you a great time.”
They had walked to the gangplank. It was covered with a moving stream of humanity, bustling like bees going into a hive. There was something so suggestive of finality about the spectacle that a curious dull melancholy swept over Bill. He cast a side glance at Flick. The sight of her sent an odd pang through him. Perhaps it was the hugeness of the vessel that made her seem so small and forlorn.
“Gosh!” he exclaimed with sudden fervor. “I shall miss you! The flat will seem like a desert without you in the old armchair. I shall just sit there with poor old Bob——”
He broke off.
“Good Lord!” he said, dismayed.
“It’s nothing,” said Flick. Her face was working. She dabbed impatiently at her eyes.
“I—I was just thinking of Bob.” She held out her hand abruptly. “Good-by,” she said, and was gone.
Bill stood for a moment, staring into the crowd which hid her.
“Golly!” he mused. “She is fond of that dog!”
He walked ashore thoughtfully.
This serial episode corresponds to Chapters IX through XI in the book editions. Annotations to the book are elsewhere on this site.