The Saturday Evening Post, July 11, 1925
CLAIRE LIPPETT sat in the kitchen of San Rafael, reading Pyke’s Home Companion. It was Mr. Wrenn’s kindly custom to bring back a copy for her each week on the day of publication, thus saving her an outlay of twopence. She was alone in the house, for Kay was up in London doing some shopping, and Mr. Wrenn, having come in and handed over the current number, had gone off for a game of chess with his friend, Cornelius.
She was not expecting to be alone long. Muffins lay on the table, all ready to be toasted; a cake which she had made herself stood beside them; and there was also a new tin of anchovy paste—all of which dainties were designed for the delectation of Hash Todhunter, her fiancé, who would shortly be coming to tea.
As a rule, Pyke’s Home Companion absorbed Claire’s undivided attention, for she was one of its most devoted supporters; but this evening she found her mind wandering, for there was that upon it which not even Cordelia Blair’s Hearts Aflame could conjure away.
Claire was worried.
On the previous day a cloud had fallen on her life, not exactly blotting out the sunshine, but seeming to threaten some such eclipse in the near future. She had taken Hash to John Street for a formal presentation to her mother, and it was on the way home that she had first observed the approach of the cloud.
Hash’s manner had seemed to her peculiar. A girl who has just become romantically betrothed to a man does not expect that man, when they are sitting close together on the top of an omnibus, to talk moodily of the unwisdom of hasty marriages.
It pains and surprises her when he mentions friends of his who, plunging hot-headedly into matrimony, spent years of subsequent regret. And when, staring woodenly before him, he bids her look at Samson, Doctor Crippen and other celebrities who were not fortunate in their domestic lives, she feels a certain alarm.
And such had been the trend of Hash Todhunter’s conversation, coming home from John Street. Claire, recalling the more outstanding of his dicta, felt puzzled and unhappy, and not even the fact that Cordelia Blair had got her hero into a ruined mill with villains lurking on the ground floor and dynamite stored in the basement could enchain her interest. She turned the page listlessly and found herself confronted by Aunt Ysobel’s Chats With My Girls.
In spite of herself, Claire’s spirits rose a little. She never failed to read every word that Aunt Ysobel wrote, for she considered that lady a complete guide to all mundane difficulties. Nor was this an unduly flattering opinion, for Aunt Ysobel was indeed like some wise pilot, gently steering the storm-tossed barks of her fellow men and women through the shoals and sunken rocks of the ocean of life. If you wanted to know whether to blow on your tea or allow it to cool of itself in God’s good time, Aunt Ysobel would tell you. If, approaching her on a deeper subject, you desired to ascertain the true significance of the dark young man’s offer of flowers, she could tell you that too—even attributing to each individual bloom a hidden and esoteric meaning which it would have been astonished to find that it possessed.
Should a lady shake hands or bow on parting with a gentleman whom she has met only once? Could a gentleman present a lady with a pound of chocolates without committing himself to anything unduly definite? Must mother always come along? Did you say “Miss Jones—Mr. Smith” or “Mr. Smith—Miss Jones,” when introducing friends? And arising from this question, did Mr. Smith on such an occasion say, “Pleased to meet you” or “Happy, I’m sure”?
Aunt Ysobel was right there every time with the correct answer. And everything she wrote had a universal message.
It was so today. Scarcely had Claire begun to read, when her eye was caught by a paragraph headed Worried—Upper Sydenham.
“Coo!” said Claire.
The passage ran as follows:
“Worried—Upper Sydenham. You tell me, dear, that the man to whom you are betrothed seems to you to be growing cold, and you ask me what you had better do. Well, dear, there is only one thing you can do, and I give this advice to all my girl friends who come to me with this trouble. You must test this man. You see, he may not really be growing cold; he may merely have some private business worry on his mind which causes him to seem distrait. If you test him you will soon learn the truth. What I suggest may seem to you at first a wee bit unladylike, but try it all the same. Pretend to show a liking for some other gentleman friend of yours. Even flirt with him a teeny-weeny bit.
“You will soon discover then if this young man really cares for you still. If he does he will exhibit agitation. He may even go to the length of becoming violent. In the olden days, you know, knights used to joust for the love of their lady. Try Herbert or George, or whatever his name is, out for a week, and see if you can work him up to the jousting stage.”
Claire laid down the paper with trembling hands. The thing might have been written for her personal benefit. There was no getting away from Aunt Ysobel. She touched the spot every time.
Of course, there were difficulties. It was all very well for Aunt Ysobel to recommend flirting with some other male member of your circle, but suppose your circle was so restricted that there were no available victims. From the standpoint of dashing male society, Burberry Road was at the moment passing through rather a lean time. The postman was an elderly man who, if he stopped to exchange a word, talked only of his son in Canada. The baker’s representative, on the other hand, was a mere boy, and so was the butcher’s. Besides, she might smile upon these by the hour and Hash would never see her. It was all very complex, and she was still pondering upon the problem when a whistle from without announced the arrival of her guest.
The chill of yesterday still hung over Mr. Todhunter’s demeanor. He was not precisely cold, but he was most certainly not warm. He managed somehow to achieve a kind of intermediate temperature. He was rather like a broiled fish that has been lying too long on a plate.
He kissed Claire. That is to say, technically the thing was a kiss. But it was not the kiss of other days.
“What’s up?” asked Claire, hurt.
“Yes, there is something up.”
“No, there ain’t anything up.”
“Yes, there is.”
“No, there ain’t.”
“Well, then,” said Claire, “what’s up?”
These intellectual exchanges seemed to have the effect of cementing Mr. Todhunter’s gloom. He relapsed into a dark silence, and Claire, her chin dangerously elevated, prepared tea.
Tea did not thaw the guest. He ate a muffin, sampled the cake and drank deeply; but he still remained that strange, moody figure who rather reminded Claire of the old earl in Hearts Aflame. But then the old earl had had good reason for looking like a man who has drained the wine of life and is now unwillingly facing the lees, because he had driven his only daughter from his door, and, though mistaken in this view, supposed that she had died of consumption in Australia—it was really another girl. But why Hash should look like one who has drained the four ale of life and found a dead mouse at the bottom of the pewter, Claire did not know, and she quivered with a sense of injury.
However, she was a hostess—“A hostess, dears, must never, never permit her private feelings to get the better of her”—Aunt Ysobel.
“Would you like a nice fresh lettuce?” she asked. It might be, she felt, that this would just make the difference.
“Ah!” said Hash. He had a weakness for lettuces.
“I’ll go down the garden and cut you one.”
He did not offer to accompany her, and that in itself was significant. It was with a heart bowed down that Claire took her knife and made her way along the gravel path. So preoccupied was she that she did not cast even a glance over the fence till she was aware suddenly of a strange moaning sound proceeding from the domain of Mon Repos. This excited her curiosity. She stopped, listened, and finally looked.
The garden of Mon Repos presented an animated spectacle. Sam was watering a flower bed, and not far away the dog Amy, knee-deep in a tub, was being bathed by a small, clean-shaven man who was a stranger to Claire.
Both of them seemed to be having a rough passage. Amy, as is the habit of her species on these occasions, was conveying the impression of being at death’s door and far from resigned. Her mournful eyes stared hopelessly at the sky, her brow was wrinkled with a perplexed sorrow, and at intervals she uttered a stricken wail. On these occasions she in addition shook herself petulantly, and Chimp Twist—for, as Miss Blair would have said, it was he—was always well within range.
Claire stopped, transfixed. She had had no notion that the staff of Mon Repos had been augmented, and it seemed to her that Chimp had been sent from heaven. Here, right on the spot, in daily association with Hash, was the desired male. She smiled dazzlingly upon Chimp.
“Hullo,” she said.
“Hullo,” said Chimp.
He spoke moodily, for he was feeling moody. There might be golden rewards at the end of this venture of his, but he perceived already that they would have to be earned. Last night Hash Todhunter had won sixteen shillings from him at stud poker, and Chimp was a thrifty man. Moreover, Hash slept in the top back room, and when not in it, locked the door.
This latter fact may seem to offer little material for gloom on Chimp’s part, but it was, indeed, the root of all his troubles. In informing Mr. and Mrs. Molloy that the plunder of the late Edward Finglass was hidden in the cistern of Mon Repos, Chimp Twist had been guilty of subterfuge—pardonable, perhaps, for your man of affairs must take these little business precautions, but nevertheless subterfuge. In the letter which, after carefully memorizing, he had just as carefully destroyed, Mr. Finglass had revealed that the proceeds of his flutter with the New Asiatic Bank might be found not in the cistern but rather by anyone who procured a chisel and raised the third board from the window in the top back room. Chimp had not foreseen that this top back room would be occupied by a short-tempered cook who, should he discover people prying up his floor with chisels, would scarcely fail to make himself unpleasant. That was why Mr. Twist spoke moodily to Claire, and who shall blame him?
Claire was not discouraged. She had cast Chimp for the rôle of stalking horse and he was going to be it.
“Is the doggie having his bath?” she asked archly.
“I think they’re splitting it about fifty-fifty,” said Sam, adding himself to the conversation.
Claire perceived that this was, indeed, so.
“Oh, you are wet,” she cried. “You’ll catch cold. Would you like a nice cup of hot tea?”
Something approaching gratitude appeared in Chimp’s mournful face.
“Thank you, miss,” he said. “I would.”
“We’re spoiling you,” said Sam.
He sauntered down the garden, plying his hose, and Claire hurried back to her kitchen.
“Where’s my nice lettuce?” demanded Hash.
“Haven’t got it yet. I’ve come in to get a cup of hot tea and a slice of cake for that young man next door. He’s got so wet washing that big dog.”
It was some little time before she returned.
“I’ve been having a talk with that young man,” she said. “He liked his tea very much.”
“Did he?” said Hash shortly. “Ho, did he? Where’s my lettuce?”
Claire uttered an exclamation.
“There! If I haven’t gone and forgotten it!”
Hash rose, a set look on his face.
“Never mind,” he said. “Never mind.”
“You aren’t going?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Well, if you must,” said Claire. “I like Mr. Twist,” she went on pensively. “He’s what I call a perfect gentleman.”
“He’s what I call a perisher,” said Hash sourly.
“Nice way he’s got of speaking. His Christian name’s Alexander. Do you call him that or Aleck?”
“If you care to ’ear what I call him,” replied Hash with frigid politeness, “you can come and listen at our kitchen door.”
“Why, you surely aren’t jealous!” cried Claire, wide-eyed.
“Who, me?” said Hash bitterly.
It was some few minutes later that Sam, watering his garden like a good householder, heard sounds of tumult from within. Turning off his hose, he hastened toward the house and reached it in time to observe the back door open with some violence and his new odd-job man emerge at a high rate of speed. A crockery implement of the kind used in kitchens followed the odd-job man, bursting like a shell against the brick wall which bounded the estate of Mon Repos. The odd-job man himself, heading for the street, disappeared, and Sam, going into the kitchen, found Mr. Todhunter fuming.
“Little tiff?” inquired Sam.
Hash gave vent to a few sailorly oaths.
“He’s been flirting with my girl and I’ve been telling him off.”
Sam clicked his tongue.
“Boys will be boys,” he said. “But, Hash, didn’t I gather from certain words you let fall when you came home last night that your ardor was beginning to wane a trifle?”
“I say, from the way you spoke last night about the folly of hasty marriages, I imagined that you had begun to experience certain regrets. In other words, you gave me the impression of a man who would be glad to be free from sentimental entanglements. Yet here you are positively—yes, by Jove, positively jousting!”
“I was quoting from a little thing I dashed off up at the office recently. Have you changed your mind about hasty marriages then?”
Hash frowned perplexedly at the stove. He was not a man who found it easy to put his thoughts into words.
“Well, it’s like this: I saw her mother yesterday.”
“Ah! That is a treat I have not had.”
“Do you think girls get like their mothers, Sam?”
“Well, the ’ole thing is, when I’m away from the girl I get to thinking about her.”
“Very properly,” said Sam. “Absence, it has been well said, makes the heart grow fonder.”
“Thinking of her mother, I mean.”
“Oh, of her mother?”
“And then I wish I was well out of it all, you understand. But then again, when I’m settin’ with ’er with my arm round ’er little waist ——”
“You are still speaking of the mother?”
“No, the girl.”
“Oh, the girl?”
“And when I’m lookin’ at her and she’s lookin’ at me, it’s different. It’s—well, it’s what I may call different. She’s got a way of tossing her chin up, Sam, and waggling of ’er ’air ——”
“I know,” he said, “I know. They have, haven’t they? Confirmed hair wagglers, all of them. Well, Hash, if you will listen to the advice of an old lady with girl friends in every part of England—and Scotland, too, for that matter; you will find a communication from Bonnie Lassie—Glasgow—in this very issue—I would say, Risk the mother. And meanwhile, Hash, refrain, if possible, from slaying our odd-job man. He may not be much to look at, but he is uncommonly useful. Never forget that in a few days we may want Amy washed again.”
He bestowed an encouraging nod upon his companion and went out into the garden. He was just picking up his hose when a scuffling sound from the other side of the fence attracted his attention. It was followed by a sharp exclamation, and he recognized Kay’s voice.
It was growing dark now, but it was not too dark for Sam to see, if only sketchily, what was in progress in the garden of San Rafael. Shrouded though the whole scene was in an evening mist, he perceived a male figure. He also perceived the figure of Kay. The male figure appeared either to be giving Kay a lesson in jiujitsu or else embracing her against her will. From the sound of her voice, he put the latter construction on the affair, and it seemed to him that, in the inspired words of the typewriter, now was the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party.
Sam was a man of action. Several policies were open to him. He could ignore the affair altogether; he could shout reproof at the aggressor from a distance; he could climb the fence and run to the rescue. None of these operations appealed to him. It was his rule in life to act swiftly and to think, if at all, later. In his simple, direct fashion, therefore, he lifted the hose and sent a stream of water shooting at the now closely entangled pair.
THE treatment was instantaneously effective. The male member of the combination, receiving several gallons of the Valley Fields Water Company’s best stuff on the side of his head and then distributed at random over his person, seemed to understand with a lightning quickness that something in the nature of reënforcements had arrived. Hastily picking up his hat, which had fallen off, he stood not upon the order of his going, but ran. The darkness closed upon him, and Sam, with a certain smug complacency inevitable in your knight errant who has borne himself notably well in a difficult situation, turned off the hose and stood waiting while Kay crossed the lawn.
“Who was our guest?” he asked.
Kay seemed a little shaken. She was breathing quickly.
“It was Claude Bates,” she said, and her voice quivered; so did Sam’s.
“Claude Bates!” he cried distractedly. “If I had known that, I would have chased him all the way back to London, kicking him violently.”
“I wish you had.”
“How on earth did that fellow come to be here?”
“I met him outside Victoria Station. I suppose he got into the train and followed me.”
“I suddenly found him out here in the garden.”
“Do you think somebody will kill him some day?” asked Kay wistfully.
“I shall have a very poor opinion of the public spirit of the modern Englishman,” Sam assured her, “if that loathsome leprous growth is permitted to infest London for long. But in the meantime,” he said, lowering his voice tenderly, “doesn’t it occur to you that this thing has been sent for a purpose? Surely it is intended as a proof of the truth of what I was saying at lunch, that you need ——”
“Yes,” said Kay; “but we’ll talk about that some other time, if you don’t mind. I suppose you know you’ve soaked me to the skin.”
“You?” said Sam incredulously.
“You don’t mean Bates?”
“No, I do not mean Bates. Feel my arm if you don’t believe me.”
Sam extended a reverent hand.
“What an extraordinarily beautiful arm you have,” he said.
“An extraordinarily wet arm.”
“Yes, you are wet,” Sam acknowledged. “Well, all I can say is that I am extremely sorry. I acted for the best; impulsively, let us say—mistakenly, it may be—but still with the best intentions.”
“I should hate to be anywhere near when you are doing your worst. Well, things like this, I suppose, must be ——”
“—— after a famous victory. Exactly!”
“I must run in and change.”
“Wait!” said Sam. “We must get this thing straight. You will admit now, I imagine, that you need a strong man’s protection?”
“I don’t admit anything of the kind.”
“But surely, with Claude Bateses surging around you on every side, dogging your footsteps, forcing their way into your very garden, you must acknowledge ——”
“I shall catch cold.”
“Of course! What am I thinking of? You must run in at once.”
“But wait!” said Sam. “I want to get to the bottom of this. What makes you think that you and I were not designed for each other from the beginning of time? I’ve been thinking very deeply about the whole thing, and it beats me why you can’t see it. To start with, we are so much alike, we have the same tastes ——”
“Most certainly. To take a single instance, we both dislike Claude Bates. Then there is your love, which I share, for a life in the country. The birds, the breeze, the trees, the bees—you love them and so do I. It is my one ambition to amass enough money to enable me to buy a farm and settle down. You would like that.”
“You seem to know a lot about me.”
“I have my information from your uncle.”
“Don’t you and uncle ever do any work at the office? You seem to spend your whole time talking.”
“In the process of getting together a paper like Pyke’s Home Companion, there come times when a little rest, a little folding of the hands, is essential. Otherwise the machine would break down. On these occasions we chat, and when we chat we naturally talk about you.”
“Because there is no other subject in which I am in the least interested. Well, then, returning to what I was saying, we are so much alike ——”
“They say that people should marry their opposites.”
“Pyke’s Home Companion has exploded that view. Replying to Anxious—Wigan—in this very issue, Aunt Ysobel says just the contrary.”
“I’ve often wondered who Aunt Ysobel was.”
“It would be foreign to the policy of Pyke’s Home Companion to reveal office secrets. You may take it from me that Aunt Ysobel is the goods. She knows. You might say she knows everything.”
“I wonder if she knows I’m getting pneumonia.”
“Good heavens! I was forgetting. I mustn’t keep you standing here for another instant.”
“Wait!” said Sam. “While we are on the subject of Aunt Ysobel, I wonder if you have seen her ruling this week in the case of Romeo—Middlesbrough?”
“I haven’t read this week’s number.”
“Ah! Well, the gist of what she says—I quote from memory—is that there is nothing wrong in a young man taking a girl to the theater, provided that it is a matinée performance. On the contrary, the girl will consider it a pretty and delicate attention. Now tomorrow will be Saturday, and I have in my possession two seats for the Winter Garden. Will you come?”
“Does Aunt Ysobel say what the significance is if the girl accepts?”
“It implies that she is beginning to return—slightly, it may be, but still perceptibly—the gentleman’s esteem.”
“I see. Rather serious. I must think this over.”
“Certainly. And now, if I may suggest it, you really ought to be going in and changing your dress. You are very wet.”
“So I am. You seem to know everything—like Aunt Ysobel.”
“There is a resemblance, perhaps,” said Sam.
Hash Todhunter met Sam as he reëntered Mon Repos.
“Oh, there you are,” said Hash. “There was some people calling, wanting to see you, a minute ago.”
“Well, it was a young female party that come to the door, but I thought I saw a kind of thickset feller hanging about down on the drive.”
“My old friends, Thomas G. and Miss Gunn, no doubt. A persistent couple. Did they leave any message?”
“No. She asked if you was in, and when I told her you was around somewhere she said it didn’t matter.”
THAT night. The apartments of Lord Tilbury.
“Yes? Yes? This is Lord Tilbury speaking. . . . Ah, is that you, Twist? Have you anything to report?”
“The young woman’s cook has just been round with a message. The young woman is going with Mr. Shotter to the theater tomorrow afternoon.”
“Cor!” said Lord Tilbury.
He replaced the receiver. He remained for a moment in the deepest thought. Then, swiftly reaching a decision, he went to the desk and took out a cable form.
The wording of the cable gave him some little trouble. The first version was so condensed that he could not understand it himself. He destroyed the form and decided that this was no time for that economy which is instinctive even to the richest men when writing cables. Taking another form and recklessly dashing the expense, he informed Mr. Pynsent that, in spite of the writer’s almost fatherly care, his nephew Samuel had most unfortunately sneaked off surreptitiously and become entangled with a young woman residing in the suburbs. He desired Mr. Pynsent to instruct him in this matter.
The composition satisfied him. It was a good piece of work. He rang for an underling and sent him with it to the cable office.
THERE are few pleasanter things in life than to sit under one’s own rooftree and smoke that first pipe of the morning which so sets the seal on the charms of breakfast. Sam, as he watched Hash clearing away the remains of as goodly a dish of bacon and eggs and as fragrant a pot of coffee as ever man had consumed, felt an uplifted thrill of well-being. It was Saturday morning, and a darned good Saturday morning at that—mild enough to permit of an open window, yet crisp enough to justify a glowing fire.
“Hash,” said Sam, “have you ever felt an almost overwhelming desire to break into song?”
“No,” said Hash, after consideration.
“You have never found yourself irresistibly compelled to render some old Provençal chansonnette breathing of love and youth and romance?”
“No, I ain’t.”
“Perhaps it’s as well. You wouldn’t be good at it, and one must consider the neighbors. But I may tell you that I am feeling the urge today. What’s that thing of Browning’s that you’re always quoting? Ah, yes! ‘The morning’s at seven; the hillside’s dew-pearled. God’s in his heaven; all’s right with the world.’ That is how I feel.”
“How’d you like this bacon?” inquired Hash, picking up a derelict slice and holding it against the light as if it were some rare objet d’art.
Sam perceived that his audience was not attuned to the lyrical note.
“I am too spiritual to be much of a judge of these things,” he said; “but as far as I could gather, it seemed all right.”
“Ha’penny a pound cheaper than the last,” said Hash with sober triumph.
“Indeed? Well, as I was saying, life seems decidedly tolerable today. I am taking Miss Derrick to the theater this afternoon, so I shall not be back until lateish. Before I go, therefore, I have something to say to you, Hash. I noticed a disposition on your part yesterday to try to disintegrate our odd-job man. This must not be allowed to grow upon you. When I return this evening I shall expect to find him all in one piece.”
“That’s all right, Sam,” replied Mr. Todhunter cordially. “All that ’appened there was that I let myself get what I might call rather ’asty. I been thinking it over, and I’ve got nothing against the feller.”
This was true. Sleep, which knits up the raveled sleave of care, had done much to soothe the troubled spirit of Hash Todhunter. The healing effect of a night’s slumber had been to convince him that he had wronged Claire. He proceeded to get Sam’s expert views on this.
“Suppose it was this way, Sam: Suppose a feller’s young lady went and give another feller a cup of hot tea and cut him a slice of cake. That wouldn’t ’ave to mean that she was flirting with ’im, would it?”
“Not at all,” said Sam warmly. “Far from it. I would call it evidence of the kind heart rather than the frivolous mind.”
“I may be dangerously modern,” said Sam, “but my view—and I give it fearlessly—is that a girl may cut many a slice of cake and still remain a good, sweet, womanly woman.”
“You see,” argued Hash, “he was wet.”
“Who was wet?”
“This feller Twist. Along of washing the dog. And Claire, she took and give him a nice cup of hot tea and a slice of cake. Upset me at the time, I’ll own, but I see where maybe I done ’er an injustice.”
“You certainly did, Hash. That girl is always doing that sort of thing out of pure nobility of nature. Why, the first morning I was here she gave me a complete breakfast—eggs, bacon, toast, coffee, marmalade and everything.”
“No; did she?”
“You bet she did. She’s a jewel, and you’re lucky to get her.”
“Ah!” said Hash with fervor.
He gathered up the tray alertly and bore it downstairs to the kitchen, where Chimp Twist eyed him warily. Although on his return to the house on the previous night Chimp had suffered no injury at Hash’s hands, he attributed this solely to the intervention of Sam, who had insisted on a formal reconciliation; and he had just heard the front door bang behind Sam. A nervous man who shrank from personal violence, particularly when it promised to be so one-sided as in his present society, Chimp felt apprehensive.
He was reassured by the geniality of his companion’s manner.
“Nice day,” said Hash.
“Lovely,” said Chimp, relieved.
“ ’As that dog ’ad ’er breakfast?”
“She was eating a shoe when I saw her last.”
“Ah, well, maybe that’ll do her till dinnertime. Nice dog.”
“If the rain ’olds off it’ll be a regular nice day.”
“It certainly will.”
“And if it rains,” continued Hash, sunnily optimistic, “I see by the paper that the farmers need it.”
It was a scene which would have rejoiced the heart of Henry Ford or any other confirmed peacemaker; and Chimp, swift, in his canny fashion, to take advantage of his companion’s miraculous cordiality, put a tentative question:
“Sleep well last night?”
“Like a top.”
“So did I. Say,” said Chimp enthusiastically, “that’s a swell bed I’ve got.”
“Yes, sir, that’s one swell bed. And a dandy room too. And I been thinking it over, and it don’t seem right that I should have that dandy room and that swell bed, seeing that I came here after you. So what say we exchange?”
“Yes, sir; you have my swell big front room and I have your poky little back room.”
The one fault which undoes diplomatists more than any other is the temptation to be too elaborate. If it had been merely a case of exchanging rooms, as two medieval monarchs, celebrating a truce, might have exchanged chargers and suits of armor, Hash would probably have consented. He would have thought it silly, but he would have done it by way of a gesture indicating his opinion of the world’s excellence this morning and of his desire to show Mr. Twist that he had forgiven him and wished him well. But the way the other put it made it impossible for any man feeling as generous and amiable as he did to become a party to a scheme for turning this charming fellow out of a swell front room and putting him in a poky back one.
“Couldn’t do it,” he said.
“I cert’nly wish you would.”
“No,” said Hash. “No; couldn’t do it.”
Chimp sighed and returned to his solitaire. Hash, full of the milk of human kindness, went out into the garden. It had occurred to him that at about this time of day Claire generally took a breather in the open after the rough work of making the beds. She was strolling up and down the gravel path.
“Hullo,” she said.
“Hullo,” said Hash. “Nice day.”
A considerable proportion of the pathos of life comes from the misunderstandings that arise between male and female through the inability of a man with an untrained voice to convey the emotions underlying his words. Hash supposed that he had spoken in a way that would show Claire that he considered her an angel of light and a credit to her sex. If he was slightly more formal than usual, that was because he was feeling embarrassed at the thought of the injustice he had done her at their last meeting.
Claire, however, noting the formality—for it was customary with him to couch his morning’s greeting in some such phrase as “Hullo, ugly!” or “What cheer, face!”—attributed it to that growing coldness of which she had recently become aware. Her heart sank. She became provocative.
“How’s Mr. Twist this morning?”
“Oh, he’s fine.”
“Not been quarreling with him, have you?”
“Who, me?” cried Hash, shocked. “Why, him and me is the best of friends!”
“We just been having a chat.”
“No; about the weather and the dog and how well we slept last night.”
Claire scraped at the gravel with the toe of her shoe.
“Oh! Well, I’ve got to go and wash the dishes,” she said. “Goo’ mornin’.”
HASH TODHUNTER was not a swift-thinking man. Nor was he one of those practiced amateurs of the sex who can read volumes in a woman’s glance and see in a flash exactly what she means when she scrapes arabesques on a gravel path with the toe of her shoe. For some three hours and more, therefore, he remained in a state of perfect content. And then suddenly, while smoking a placid after-luncheon pipe, his mood changed and there began to seep into the hinterlands of his mind the idea that in Claire’s manner at their recent meeting there had been something decidedly peculiar.
He brooded over this; and as the lunch which he had cooked and eaten fought what was for the moment a winning battle with his organs of digestion, there crept over him a somber alarm. Slowly, but with a persistence not to be denied, the jealousy of which sleep had cured him began to return. He blew out a cloud of tobacco smoke and through it stared bleakly at Chimp Twist, who was in a reverie on the other side of the kitchen table.
It came to him, not for the first time, that he did not like Chimp’s looks. Handsome not even his mother could have called Chimp Twist; and yet there was about him a certain something calculated to inspire uneasiness in an engaged man. He had that expression in his eyes which home wreckers wear in the movies. A human snake, if ever there was one, felt Hash, as his interior mechanism strove vainly to overcome that which he had thrust upon it.
Nor did his recollection of Claire’s conversation bring any reassurance. So brief it had been that he could remember everything she had said. And it had all been about that black-hearted little object across the table.
“How’s Mr. Twist this morning?” A significant question. “Not been quarreling with him, have you?” A fishy remark. And then he had said that they had been having a chat, and she had asked, “About me?”
So moved was Hash by the recollection of this that he took the pipe out of his mouth and addressed his companion with an abruptness that was almost violent:
Chimp looked up with a start. He had been pondering whether it might not possibly come within the scope of an odd-job man’s duties to put a ladder against the back of the house and climb up it and slap a coat of paint on the window frame of the top back room. Then, when Hash was cooking dinner ——
“Hullo?” he said, blinking. He was surprised to see that the other, who had been geniality itself during lunch, was regarding him with a cold and suspicious hostility.
“Want to ask you something,” said Hash.
“Spill it,” said Chimp, and smiled nervously.
It was an unfortunate thing for him to have done, for he did not look his best when smiling. It seemed to Hash that his smile was furtive and cunning.
“Want to know,” said Hash, “if there are any larks on?”
“You and my young lady next door—there’s nothing what you might call between you, is there?”
“ ’Course not!” cried Chimp in agitation.
“Well,” said Hash weightily, “there better hadn’t be. See?”
He rose, feeling a little better, and, his suspicions being momentarily quieted, he proceeded to the garden, where he chirruped for a while over the fence.
This producing no response, he climbed the fence and peeped in through the kitchen window of San Rafael. The kitchen was empty.
“Gone for a walk,” diagnosed Hash, and felt a sense of injury. If Claire wanted to go for a walk, why hadn’t she asked him to come too? He did not like it. It seemed to him that love must have grown cold. He returned to Mon Repos and embarrassed the sensitive Mr. Twist by staring at him for twenty minutes almost without a blink.
Claire had not gone for a walk. She had taken the 12:10 train to Victoria and had proceeded thence to Mr. Braddock’s house in John Street. It was her intention to put the facts before her mother and from that experienced woman to seek advice in this momentous crisis of her life. Her faith in Aunt Ysobel had not weakened, but there is never any harm done by getting the opinion of a second specialist. For Claire’s uneasiness had been growing ever since that talk with Hash across the fence that morning. His manner had seemed to her peculiar. Nor did her recollection of his conversation bring any reassurance.
“How’s Mr. Twist this morning?” she had asked. And instead of looking like one about to joust, he had replied heartily, “Oh, he’s fine.” A disturbing remark.
And then he had gone on to say that he and Chimp were the best of friends. It was with tight lips and hard eyes that Claire, replying absently to the paternal badinage of Sleddon, the butler, made her way into her mother’s presence. Mrs. Lippett, consulted, proved uncompromisingly pro-Aunt Ysobel.
“That’s what I call a sensible woman, Clara.”
“Claire,” corrected her daughter mechanically.
“That’s what I think.”
“Ah, she’s suffered, that woman has,” said Mrs. Lippett. “You can see that. Stands to reason she couldn’t know so much about life if she hadn’t suffered.”
“Then you’d go on testing him?” said Claire anxiously.
“Test him more and more,” said Mrs. Lippett. “There’s no other way. You’ve got to remember, dearie, that your Clarence is a sailor, and sailors has to be handled firm. They say sailors don’t care. I say they must be made to care. That’s what I say.”
Claire made the return journey on an omnibus.
For purposes of thought there is nothing like a ride on the top of an omnibus. By four o’clock, when the vehicle put her down at the corner of Burberry Road, her resolution was as chilled steel and she had got her next move all planned out. She went into the kitchen for a few moments, and coming out into the garden, perceived Hash roaming the lawn of Mon Repos.
“Hi!” she called, and into her voice managed to project a note of carefree liveliness.
“Where you been?” inquired Hash.
“I been up seeing mother. . . . Is Mr. Twist indoors?”
“What do you want with Mr. Twist?”
“Just wanted to give him this—something I promised him.”
This was an envelope, lilac in color and scent, and Hash, taking it and gazing upon it as he might have gazed upon an adder nestling in his palm, made a disturbing discovery.
“There’s something inside this.”
“Of course there is. If there wasn’t, what ’ud I be giving it him for?”
Hash’s fingers kneaded the envelope restlessly.
“What you writing to him about?”
“There’s something else inside this ’ere envelope besides a letter. There’s something that sort of crinkles when you squeeze it.”
“Just a little present I promised to give him.”
A monstrous suspicion flamed in Hash Todhunter’s mind. It seemed inconceivable, and yet —— He tore open the envelope and found his suspicion fulfilled. Between his fingers there dangled a lock of tow-colored hair.
“When you’ve finished opening other people’s letters ——” said Claire.
She looked at him, hopefully at first, and then with a growing despair. For Hash’s face was wooden and expressionless.
“I’m glad,” said Hash huskily at length. “I been worried, but now I’m not worried. I been worried because I was worrying about you and me not being suited to one another and ’aving acted ’asty; but now I’m not worried, because I see there’s another feller you’re fond of, so the worry about what was to be done and everything don’t worry me no more. He’s in the kitchen,” said Hash in a gentle rumble. “I’ll give him this and explain ’ow it come to be opened in error.”
Nothing could have exceeded the dignity of his manner, but there are moments when women chafe at masculine dignity.
“Aren’t you going to knock his head off?” demanded Claire distractedly.
“Me?” said Hash, looking as nearly as he could like the picture of Saint Sebastian in the Louvre. “Me? Why should I knock the pore feller’s ’ead off? I’m glad. Because I was worried, and now I’m not worried—see what I mean?”
Before Claire’s horrified eyes and through a world that rocked and danced, he strode toward the kitchen of Mon Repos, bearing the envelope daintily between finger and thumb. He seemed calm and at peace. He looked as if he might be humming.
Inside the kitchen, however, his manner changed. Chimp Twist, glancing up from his solitaire, observed in the doorway, staring down at him, a face that seemed to his excited imagination to have been equipped with searchlights instead of eyes. Beneath these searchlights was a mouth that appeared to be gnashing its teeth. And from this mouth, in a brief interval of gnashing, proceeded dreadful words.
The first that can be printed were the words “Put ’em up!”
Mr. Twist, rising, slid like an eel to the other side of the table.
“What’s the matter?” he demanded in considerable agitation.
“I’ll show you what’s the matter,” said Hash, after another verbal interlude which no compositor would be allowed by his union to set up. “Come out from behind that table like a man and put your ’ands up!”
Mr. Twist rejected this invitation.
“I’m going to take your ’ead,” continued Hash, sketching out his plans, “and I’m going to pull it off, and then ——”
What he proposed to do after this did not intrigue Chimp. He foiled a sudden dash with an inspired leap.
“Come ’ere,” said Hash coaxingly.
His mind clearing a little, he perceived that the root of the trouble, the obstacle which was standing in the way of his aims, was the table. It was a heavy table, but with a sharp heave he tilted it on its side and pushed it toward the stove. Chimp, his first line of defense thus demolished, shot into the open, and Hash was about to make another offensive movement when the dog Amy, who had been out in the garden making a connoisseur’s inspection of the dustbin, strolled in and observed with pleasure that a romp was in progress.
Amy was by nature a thoughtful dog. Most of her time, when she was not eating or sleeping, she spent in wandering about with wrinkled forehead, puzzling over the cosmos. But she could unbend. Like so many philosophers, she loved an occasional frolic, and this one appeared to be of exceptional promise.
The next moment Hash, leaping forward, found his movements impeded by what seemed like several yards of dog. It was hard for him to tell without sorting the tangle out whether she was between his legs or leaning on his shoulders. Certainly she was licking his face; but on the other hand, he had just kicked her with a good deal of violence, which seemed to indicate that she was on a lower level.
“Get out!” cried Hash.
The remark was addressed to Amy, but the advice it contained was so admirable that Chimp Twist acted on it without hesitation. In the swirl of events he had found himself with a clear path to the door, and along this path he shot without delay. And not until he had put the entire length of Burberry Road between him and his apparently insane aggressor did he pause.
Then he mopped his forehead and said “Gee!”
It seemed to Chimp Twist that a long walk was indicated—a walk so long that by the time he reached Mon Repos again, Sam, his preserver, would have returned and would be on the spot to protect him.
Hash, meanwhile, raged, baffled. He had extricated himself from Amy and had rushed out into the road, but long ere that his victim had disappeared. He went back to try to find Amy and rebuke her, but Amy had disappeared too. In spite of her general dreaminess, there was sterling common sense in Amy. She knew when and when not to be among those present.
Hash returned to his kitchen and remained there, seething. He had been seething for perhaps a quarter of an hour, when the front doorbell rang. He climbed the stairs gloomily; and such was his disturbed frame of mind that not even the undeniable good looks of the visitor who had rung could soothe him.
“Mr. Shotter in?”
He recognized her now. It was the young party that had called on the previous evening, asking for Sam. And, as on that occasion, he seemed to see through the growing darkness the same sturdy male person hovering about in the shadows.
“No, miss, he ain’t.”
“Expecting him back soon?”
“No, miss, I ain’t. He’s gone to the theater, to a mat-i-nay.”
“Ah,” said the lady, “is that so?” And she made a sudden, curious gesture with her parasol.
“Sorry,” said Hash, melting a little, for her eyes were very bright.
“Can’t be helped. You all alone here then?”
“Oh, I don’t mind, miss,” said Hash, pleased by her sympathy.
“Well, I won’t keep you. ’Devening.”
“ ’Evening, miss.”
Hash closed the door. Whistling a little, for his visitor had lightened somehow the depression which was gnawing at him, he descended the stairs and entered the kitchen.
Something which appeared at first acquaintance to be the ceiling, the upper part of the house and a ton of bricks thrown in for good measure hit Hash on the head and he subsided gently on the floor.
SOAPY MOLLOY came to the front door and opened it. He was a little pale, and he breathed heavily.
“All right?” said his wife eagerly.
“Tied him up?”
“With a clothesline.”
“How about if he hollers?”
“I’ve put a duster in his mouth.”
“At-a-boy!” said Mrs. Molloy. “Then let’s get action.”
They climbed the stairs to where the cistern stood, and Mr. Molloy, removing his coat, rolled up his sleeves.
Some minutes passed, and then Mr. Molloy, red in the face and wet in the arm, made a remark.
“But it must be there!” cried his wife.
“You haven’t looked.”
“I’ve looked everywhere. There couldn’t be a toothpick in that thing without I’d have found it.” He expelled a long breath, his face bleak. “Know what I think?”
“That little oil can, Chimp, has slipped one over on us—told us the wrong place.”
The plausibility of this theory was so obvious that Mrs. Molloy made no attempt to refute it. She bit her lip in silence.
“Then let’s you and me get busy and find the right place,” she said at length, with the splendid fortitude of a great woman. “We know the stuff’s in the house somewheres, and we got the place to ourselves.”
“It’s taking a chance,” said Mr. Molloy doubtfully. “Suppose somebody was to come and find us here.”
“Well, then, all you would do would be to just simply haul off and bust them one, same as you did the hired man.”
“ ’M, yes,” said Mr. Molloy.
THE unwelcome discovery of the perfidy of Chimp Twist had been made by Mr. Molloy and his bride at about twenty minutes past four. At 4:30 a natty two-seater car drew up at the gate of San Rafael and Willoughby Braddock alighted. Driving aimlessly about the streets of London some forty minutes earlier, and feeling rather at a loose end, it had occurred to him that a pleasant way of passing the evening would be to go down to Valley Fields and get Kay to give him a cup of tea.
Mr. Braddock was in a mood of the serenest happiness. And if this seems strange, seeing that only recently he had had a proposal of marriage rejected, it should be explained that he had regretted that hasty proposal within two seconds of dropping the letter in the letter box. And he had come to the conclusion that, much as he liked Kay, what had induced him to offer her his hand and heart had been the fact that he had had a good deal of champagne at dinner and that its after effects had consisted of a sort of wistful melancholy which had removed for the time his fundamental distaste for matrimony. He did not want matrimony; he wanted adventure. He had not yet entirely abandoned hope that some miracle might occur to remove Mrs. Lippett from the scheme of things; and when that happened, he wished to be free.
Yes, felt Willoughby Braddock, everything had turned out extremely well. He pushed open the gate of San Rafael with the debonair flourish of a man without entanglements. As he did so, the front door opened and Mr. Wrenn came out.
“Oh, hullo,” said Mr. Braddock. “Kay in?”
“I am afraid not,” said Mr. Wrenn. “She has gone to the theater.” Politeness to a visitor wrestled with the itch to be away. “I fear I have an engagement also, for which I am already a little late. I promised Cornelius ——”
“That’s all right. I’ll go in next door and have a chat with Sam Shotter.”
“He has gone to the theater with Kay.”
“A washout, in short,” said Mr. Braddock with undiminished cheerfulness. “Right-ho! Then I’ll pop.”
“But, my dear fellow, you mustn’t run away like this,” said Mr. Wrenn with remorse. “Why don’t you come in and have a cup of tea and wait for Kay? Claire will bring you some if you ring.”
“Something in that,” agreed Mr. Braddock. “Sound, very sound.”
He spoke a few genial words of farewell and proceeded to the drawing-room, where he rang the bell. Nothing ensuing, he went to the top of the kitchen stairs and called down.
“I say!” Silence from below. “I say!” fluted Mr. Braddock once more, and now it seemed to him that the silence had been broken by a sound—a rummy sound—a sound that was like somebody sobbing.
He went down the stairs. It was somebody sobbing.
Bunched up on a chair, with her face buried in her arms, that weird girl Claire was crying like the dickens.
“I say!” said Mr. Braddock.
There is this peculiar quality about tears—that they can wash away in a moment the animosity of a lifetime. For years Willoughby Braddock had been on terms of distant hostility with this girl. Even apart from the fact that that affair of the onion had not ceased to rankle in his bosom, there had been other causes of war between them. Mr. Braddock still suspected that it was Claire who, when on the occasion of his eighteenth birthday he had called at Midways in a top hat, had flung a stone at that treasured object from the recesses of a shrubbery. One of those things impossible of proof, the outrage had been allowed to become a historic mystery; but Willoughby Braddock had always believed the hidden hand to be Claire’s, and his attitude toward her from that day had been one of stiff disapproval.
But now, seeing her weeping and broken before him, with all the infernal cheek which he so deprecated swept away on a wave of woe, his heart softened. It has been a matter of much speculation among historians what Wellington would have done if Napoleon had cried at Waterloo.
“I say,” said Mr. Braddock, “what’s the matter? Anything up?”
The sound of his voice seemed to penetrate Claire’s grief. She sat up and looked at him damply.
“Oh, Mr. Braddock,” she moaned, “I’m so wretched! I am so miserable, Mr. Braddock!”
“There, there!” said Willoughby Braddock.
“How was I to know?”
“I couldn’t tell.”
“I never had a notion he would act like that.”
“Who would like what?”
“You’ve spoiled the hash?” said Mr. Braddock, still out of his depth.
“My Hash—Clarence. He took it the wrong way.”
At last Mr. Braddock began to see daylight. She had cooked hash for this Clarence, whoever he might be, and he had swallowed it in so erratic a manner that it had choked him.
“Is he dead?” he asked in a hushed voice.
A piercing scream rang through the kitchen.
“Oh! Oh! Oh!”
“My dear old soul!”
“He wouldn’t do that, would he?”
“Oh, Mr. Braddock, do say he wouldn’t do that!”
“What do you mean by ‘that’?”
“Go and kill himself.”
Willoughby Braddock removed the perfectly folded silk handkerchief from his breast pocket and passed it across his forehead.
“Look here,” he said limply, “you couldn’t tell me the whole thing from the beginning in a few simple words, could you?”
He listened with interest as Claire related the events of the day.
“Then Clarence is Hash?” he said.
“And Hash is Clarence?”
“Yes; everyone calls him Hash.”
“That was what was puzzling me,” said Mr. Braddock, relieved. “That was the snag that I got up against all the time. Now that that is clear, we can begin to examine this thing in a calm and judicial spirit. Let’s see if I’ve got it straight. You read this stuff in the paper and started testing him—is that right?”
“Yes. And instead of jousting, he just turned all cold-like and broke off the engagement.”
“I see. Well, dash it, the thing’s simple. All you want is for some polished man of the world to take the blighter aside and apprise him of the facts. Shall I pop round and see him now?”
Claire’s tear-stained face lit up as if a light had been switched on behind her eyes. She eyed Mr. Braddock devotedly.
“Oh, if you only would!”
“Of course I will—like a shot.”
“Oh, you are good! I’m sorry I threw that onion at you, Mr. Braddock.”
“Fault’s on both sides,” said Mr. Braddock magnanimously. “Now you stop crying, like a good girl, and powder your nose and all that, and I’ll have the lad round all pleasant and correct in a couple of minutes.”
He patted Claire’s head in a brotherly fashion and trotted out through the back door.
A few minutes later, Mr. and Mrs. Molloy, searching feverishly in the drawing-room of Mon Repos, heard a distant tinkle and looked at each other with a wild surmise.
“It’s the back doorbell,” said Dolly.
“I told you,” said Mr. Molloy somberly. “I knew this would happen. What’ll we do?”
Mrs. Molloy was not the woman to be shaken for long.
“Why, go downstairs and answer it,” she said. “It’s prob’ly only a tradesman come with a loaf of bread or something. He’ll think you’re the help.”
“And if he doesn’t,” replied Mr. Molloy with some bitterness, “I suppose I bust him one with the meat ax. Looks to me as if I shall have to lay out the whole darned population of this blamed place before I’m through.”
“Sweetie mustn’t be cross.”
“Sweetie’s about fed up,” said Mr. Molloy somberly.
EXPECTING, when he opened the back door, to see a tradesman with a basket on his arm, Soapy Molloy found no balm to his nervous system in the apparition of a young man of the leisured classes in a faultlessly cut gray suit. He gaped at Mr. Braddock.
“Hullo,” said Mr. Braddock.
“Hullo,” said Soapy.
“Are you Hash?” inquired the ambassador.
“Is your name Clarence?”
In happier circumstances Soapy would have denied the charge indignantly; but now he decided that it was politic to be whatever anyone wished him to be.
“That’s me, brother,” he said.
Mr. Braddock greatly disliked being called brother, but he made no comment.
“Well, I just buzzed round,” he said, “to tell you that everything’s all right.”
Soapy was far from agreeing with him. He was almost equally far from understanding a word that this inexplicable visitor was saying. He coughed loudly, to drown a strangled sound that had proceeded from the gagged and bound Hash, whom he had deposited in a corner by the range.
“That’s good,” he said.
“About the girl, I mean. Claire, you know. I was in the kitchen next door a moment ago, and she was crying and howling and all that because she thought you didn’t love her any more.”
“Too bad,” said Mr. Molloy.
“It seems,” went on Mr. Braddock, “that she read something in a paper, written by some silly ass, which said that she ought to test your affection by pretending to flirt with some other cove. And when she did, you broke off the engagement. And the gist, if you understand me, of what I buzzed round to say is that she loves you still and was only fooling when she sent that other bloke the lock of hair.”
“Ah?” said Mr. Molloy.
“So it’s all right, isn’t it?”
“It’s all right by me,” said Mr. Molloy, wishing—for it sounded interesting—that he knew what all this was about.
“Then that’s that, what?”
“You said it, brother.”
Mr. Braddock paused. He seemed disappointed at a certain lack of emotion on his companion’s part.
“She’s rather expecting you to dash round right away, you know—fold her in your arms, and all that.”
This was a complication which Soapy had not foreseen.
“Well, I’ll tell you,” he said. “I’ve a lot of work to do around this house and I don’t quite see how I can get away. Say, listen, brother, you tell her I’ll be round later on in the evening.”
“All right. I’m glad everything’s satisfactory. She’s a nice girl really.”
“None better,” said Mr. Molloy generously.
“I still think she threw a stone at my top hat that day, but dash it,” said Mr. Braddock warmly, “let the dead past bury its dead, what?”
“Couldn’t do a wiser thing,” said Mr. Molloy.
He closed the door; and having breathed a little stertorously, mounted the stairs.
“Who was it?” called Dolly.
“Some nut babbling about a girl.”
“Oh? Well, I’m having a hunt round in the best bedroom. You go on looking in the drawing-room.”
Soapy turned his steps toward the drawing-room, but he did not reach it. For as he was preparing to cross the threshold, the front doorbell rang.
It seemed to Soapy that he was being called upon to endure more than man was ever intended to bear. That, at least, was his view as he dragged his reluctant feet to the door. It was only when he opened it that he realized that he had underestimated the malevolence of fate. Standing on the top step was a policeman.
“Hell!” cried Soapy. And while we blame him for the intemperate ejaculation, we must in fairness admit that the situation seemed to call for some such remark. He stood goggling, a chill like the stroke of an icy finger running down his spine.
“ ’Evening, sir,” said the policeman. “Mr. Shotter?”
Soapy’s breath returned.
“That’s me,” he said huskily. This thing, coming so soon after his unrehearsed impersonation of Hash Todhunter, made him feel the sort of dizzy feeling which a small-part actor must experience who has to open a play as Jervis, a footman, and then rush up to his dressing room, make a complete change and return five minutes later as Lord George Spelvin, one of Lady Hemmingway’s guests at The Towers.
The policeman fumbled in the recesses of his costume.
“Noo resident, sir, I think?”
“Then you will doubtless be glad,” said the policeman, shutting his eyes and beginning to speak with great rapidity, as if he were giving evidence in court, “of the opportunity to support a charitibulorganization which is not only most deserving in itself but is connected with a body of men to ’oom you as a nouse’older will be the first to admit that you owe the safety of your person and the tranquillity of your home. The police,” explained the officer, opening his eyes.
Mr. Molloy did not look on the force in quite this light, but he could not hurt the man’s feelings by saying so.
“This charitibulorganizationtowhichIallude,” resumed the constable, shutting his eyes again, “is the Policeman’s Orphanage, for which I have been told off—one of several others—to sell tickets for the annual concert of, to be ’eld at the Oddfellows ’All in Ogilvy Street on the coming sixteenth prox. Tickets, which may be purchased in any quantity or number, consist of the five-shilling ticket, the three-shilling ticket, the two-shilling ticket, the one-shilling ticket and the sixpenny ticket.” He opened his eyes. “May I have the pleasure of selling you and your good lady a couple of the five-shilling?”
“If I may add such weight as I possess to the request, I should certainly advocate the purchase, Mr. Shotter. It is a most excellent and deserving charity.”
The speaker was a gentleman in clerical dress who had appeared from nowhere and was standing at the constable’s side. His voice caused Soapy a certain relief; for when, a moment before, a second dark figure had suddenly manifested itself on the top step, he had feared that the strain of the larger life was causing him to see double.
“I take it that I am addressing Mr. Shotter?” continued the newcomer. He was a hatchet-faced man with penetrating eyes and for one awful moment he had looked to Soapy exactly like Sherlock Holmes. “I have just taken up my duties as vicar of this parish, and I am making a little preliminary round of visits so that I may become acquainted with my parishioners. Mr. Cornelius, the house agent, very kindly gave me a list of names. May I introduce myself?—the Rev. Aubrey Jerningham.”
It has been well said that the world knows little of its greatest men. This name, which would have thrilled Kay Derrick, made no impression upon Soapy Molloy. He was not a great reader; and when he did read, it was something a little lighter and more on the zippy side than Is There a Hell?
“How do?” he said gruffly.
“And ’ow many of the five-shilling may I sell you and your good lady?” inquired the constable. His respect for the cloth had kept him silent through the recent conversation, but now he seemed to imply that business is business.
“It is a most excellent charity,” said the Rev. Aubrey, edging past Soapy in spite of that sufferer’s feeble effort to block the way. “And I understand that several highly competent performers will appear on the platform. I am right, am I not, officer?”
“Yes, sir, you are quite right. In the first part of the program Constable Purvis will render the ’Oly City—no, I’m a liar, Asleep on the Deep; Constable Jukes will render imitations of well-known footlight celebrities ’oo are familiartoyouall; Inspector Oakshott will render conjuring tricks; Constable ——”
“An excellent evening’s entertainment, in fact,” said the Rev. Aubrey. “I am taking the chair, I may mention.”
“And the vicar is taking the chair,” said the policeman, swift to seize upon this added attraction. “So ’ow many of the five-shilling may I sell you and your good lady, sir?”
Soapy, like Chimp, was a thrifty man; and apart from the expense, his whole soul shrank from doing anything even remotely calculated to encourage the force. Nevertheless, he perceived that there was no escape and decided that it remained only to save as much as possible from the wreck.
“Gimme one,” he said, and the words seemed to be torn from him.
“One only?” said the constable disappointedly. “ ’Ow about your good lady?”
“I’m not married.”
“ ’Ow about your sister?”
“I haven’t a sister.”
“Then ’ow about if you ’appen to meet one of your gentlemen friends at the club and he expresses a wish to come along?”
“Gimme one!” said Soapy.
The policeman gave him one, received the money, returned a few genial words of thanks and withdrew. Soapy, going back into the house, was acutely disturbed to find that the vicar had come too.
“A most deserving charity,” said the vicar.
Soapy eyed him bleakly. How did one get rid of vicars? Short of employing his bride’s universal panacea and hauling off and busting him one, Soapy could not imagine.
“Have you been a resident of Valley Fields long, Mr. Shotter?”
“I hope we shall see much of each other.”
“Do you?” said Soapy wanly.
“The first duty of a clergyman, in my opinion ——”
Mr. Molloy had no notion of what constituted the first duty of a clergyman, and he was destined never to find out. For at this moment there came from the regions above, the clear, musical voice of a woman.
Mr. Molloy started violently. So did the Rev. Aubrey Jerningham.
“I’m in the bedroom, honey bunch. Come right on up.”
A dull flush reddened the Rev. Aubrey’s ascetic face.
“I understood you to say that you were not married, Mr. Shotter,” he said in a metallic voice.
He caught the Rev. Aubrey’s eye. He was looking as Sherlock Holmes might have looked had he discovered Doctor Watson stealing his watch.
It is not given to every man always to do the right thing in trying circumstances. Mr. Molloy may be said at this point definitely to have committed a social blunder. Winking a hideous, distorted wink, he raised the forefinger of his right hand and with a gruesome archness drove it smartly in between his visitor’s third and fourth ribs.
“Oh, well, you know how it is,” he said thickly.
The Rev. Aubrey Jerningham quivered from head to heel. He drew himself up and looked at Soapy. The finger had given him considerable physical pain, but it was the spiritual anguish that hurt the more.
“I do, indeed, know how it is,” he said.
“Man of the world,” said Soapy, relieved.
“I will wish you good evening, Mr. Shotter,” said the Rev. Aubrey.
The front door banged. Dolly appeared on the landing.
“Why don’t you come up?” she said.
“Because I’m going to lie down,” said Soapy, breathing heavily.
“What do you mean?”
“I want a rest. I need a rest and I’m going to have it.” Dolly descended to the hall.
“Why, you’re looking all in, precious!”
“ ‘All in’ is right. If I don’t ease off for a coupla minutes, you’ll have to send for an ambulance.”
“Well, I don’t know as I won’t take a spell myself. It’s kinda dusty work, hunting around. I’ll go take a breath of air outside at the back. . . . Was that somebody else calling just now?”
“Yes, it was.”
“Gee! These people round these parts don’t seem to have any homes of their own, do they? Well, I’ll be back in a moment, honey. There’s a sort of greenhouse place by the back door. Quite likely old Finglass may have buried the stuff there.”
THE REV. AUBREY JERNINGHAM crossed the little strip of gravel that served both Mon Repos and San Rafael as a drive and mounted the steps to Mr. Wrenn’s front door. He was still quivering.
“Mr. Wrenn?” he asked of the well-dressed young man who answered the ring.
Mr. Braddock shook his head.
This was the second time in the last five minutes that he had been taken for the owner of San Rafael; for while the vicar had worked down Burberry Road from the top, the policeman had started at the bottom and worked up.
“Sorry,” he said. “Mr. Wrenn’s out.”
“I will come in and wait,” said the Rev. Aubrey.
“Absolutely,” said Mr. Braddock.
He led the way to the drawing-room, feeling something of the embarrassment, though in a slighter degree, which this holy man had inspired in Soapy Molloy. He did not know much about vicars, and rather wondered how he was to keep the conversation going.
“Offer you a cup of tea?”
“No, thank you.”
“I’m afraid,” said Mr. Braddock apologetically, “I don’t know where they keep the whisky.”
“I never touch spirits.”
Conversation languished. Willoughby Braddock began to find his companion a little damping. Not maty. Seemed to be brooding on something, or Mr. Braddock was very much mistaken.
“You’re a clergyman, aren’t you, and all that?” he said, after a pause of some moments.
“I am. My name is the Rev. Aubrey Jerningham. I have just taken up my duties as vicar of this parish.”
“Ah? Jolly spot.”
“Where every prospect pleases,” said the Rev. Aubrey, “and only man is vile.”
Silence fell once more. Mr. Braddock searched in his mind for genial chatter, and found that he was rather short on clerical small talk.
He thought for a moment of asking his visitor why it was that bishops wore those rummy bootlace-looking things on their hats—a problem that had always perplexed him; but decided that the other might take offense at being urged to give away professional secrets.
“How’s the choir coming along?” he asked.
“The choir is quite satisfactory.”
“That’s good. Organ all right?”
“Quite, thank you.”
“Fine!” said Mr. Braddock, feeling that things were beginning to move. “You know, down where I live, in Wiltshire, the local padres always seem to have the deuce of a lot of trouble with their organs. Their church organs, I mean, of course. I’m always getting touched for contributions to organ funds. Why is that? I’ve often wondered.”
The Rev. Aubrey Jerningham forbore to follow him into this field of speculation.
“Then you do not live here, Mr. ——”
“Braddock’s my name—Willoughby Braddock. Oh, no, I don’t live here. Just calling. Friend of the family.”
“Ah? Then you are not acquainted with the—gentleman who lives next door—Mr. Shotter?”
“Oh, yes, I am! Sam Shotter? He’s one of my best pals. Known him for years and years and years.”
“Indeed? I cannot compliment you upon your choice of associates.”
“Why, what’s wrong with Sam?” demanded Mr. Braddock.
“Only this, Mr. Braddock,” said the Rev. Aubrey, his suppressed wrath boiling over like a kettle: “He is living a life of open sin.”
“Open sin. In the heart of my parish.”
“I don’t get this. How do you mean—open sin?”
“I have it from this man Shotter’s own lips that he is a bachelor.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“And yet a few minutes ago I called at his house and found that there was a woman residing there.”
“But there can’t be. Sam’s not that sort of chap. Did you see her?”
“I did not wait to see her. I heard her voice.”
“I’ve got it,” said Mr. Braddock acutely. “She must have been a caller; some casual popper-in, you know.”
“In that case, what would she be doing in his bedroom?”
“In his bedroom?”
“In—his—bedroom! I came here to warn Mr. Wrenn, who, I understand from Mr. Cornelius, has a young niece, to be most careful to allow nothing in the shape of neighborly relations between the two houses. Do you think that Mr. Wrenn will be returning shortly?”
“I couldn’t say. But look here,” said Mr. Braddock, troubled, “there must be some mistake.”
“You do not know where he is, by any chance?”
“No—yes, I do, though. He said something about going to see Cornelius. I think they play chess together or something. A game,” said Mr. Braddock, “which I have never been able to get the hang of. But then I’m not awfully good at those brainy games.”
“I will go to Mr. Cornelius’ house,” said the Rev. Aubrey, rising.
“You don’t play mah-jongg, do you?” asked Mr. Braddock. “Now, there’s a game that I ——”
“If he is not there, I will return.”
Left alone, Willoughby Braddock found that his appetite for tea had deserted him. Claire, grateful for his services, had rather extended herself over the buttered toast, but it had no appeal for him. He lighted a cigarette and went out to fiddle with the machinery of his two-seater, always an assistance to thought.
But even the carburetor, which had one of those fascinating ailments to which carburetors are subject, yielded him no balm. He was thoroughly upset and worried.
He climbed into the car and gave himself up to gloomy meditation, and presently voices down the road announced the return of Kay and Sam.
They were chatting away in the friendliest possible fashion—from where he sat, Willoughby Braddock could hear Kay’s clear laugh ringing out happily—and it seemed to Mr. Braddock, though he was no austerer moralist than the rest of his generation, that things were in a position only to be described as a bit thick. He climbed down and waited on the pavement.
“Why, hullo, Willoughby,” said Kay. “This is fine. Have you just arrived? Come in and have some tea.”
“I’ve had tea, thanks. That girl Claire gave me some, thanks. . . . I say, Sam, could I have a word with you?”
“Say on,” said Sam.
“In private, I mean. You don’t mind, Kay?”
“Not a bit. I’ll go in and order tea.”
Kay disappeared into the house; and Sam, looking at Mr. Braddock, observed with some surprise that his face had turned a vivid red and that his eyes were fastened upon him in a reproachful stare.
“What’s up?” he asked, concerned.
Willoughby Braddock cleared his throat.
“You know, Sam ——”
“But I don’t,” said Sam, as he paused.
“—— you know, Sam, I’m not a—nobody would call me a —— Dash it, now I’ve forgotten the word!”
“Beauty?” hazarded Sam.
“It’s on the tip of my tongue—puritan. That’s the word I want. I’m not a puritan. Not strait-laced, you know. But, really, honestly, Sam, old man—I mean, dash it all!”
Sam stroked his chin thoughtfully.
“I still don’t quite get it, Bradder,” he said. “What exactly is the trouble?”
“Well, I mean, on the premises, old boy, absolutely on the premises—is it playing the game? I mean, next door to people who are pals of mine and taking Kay to the theater and generally going on as if nothing was wrong.”
“Well, what is wrong?” asked Sam patiently.
“Well, when it comes to the vicar beetling in and complaining about women in your bedroom ——”
“He said he heard her.”
“Heard a woman in my bedroom?”
“He must be crazy. When?”
“This beats me.”
“Well, that was what he said, anyway. Dashed unpleasant he was about it too. Oh, and there’s another thing, Sam. I wish you’d ask that man of yours not to call me brother. He ——”
“Great Cæsar!” said Sam.
He took Willoughby Braddock by the arm and urged him toward the steps. His face wore a purposeful look.
“You go in, like a good chap, and talk to Kay,” he said. “Tell her I’ll be in in a minute. There’s something I’ve got to look into.”
“Yes, but listen ——”
“But I don’t understand.”
Yielding to superior force, Willoughby Braddock entered San Rafael, walking pensively. And Sam, stepping off the gravel onto the grass, moved with a stealthy tread toward his home. Vague but lively suspicions were filling his mind.
He had reached the foot of the steps and paused to listen, when the evening air was suddenly split by a sharp feminine scream. This was followed by a joyous barking. And this in its turn was followed by the abrupt appearance of a flying figure, racing toward the gate. It was moving swiftly and the light was dim, but Sam had no difficulty in recognizing his old acquaintance Miss Gunn, of Pittsburgh. She fled rapidly through the gate and out into Burberry Road, while Amy, looking in the dusk like a small elephant, gamboled about her, uttering strange canine noises.
Dolly slammed the gate, but gates meant nothing to Amy. She poured herself over it and the two passed into the darkness.
Sam’s jaw set grimly. He moved with noiseless steps to the door of Mon Repos and took out his key.
(TO BE CONCLUDED)