The Strand Magazine, November 1920
ARCHIE MOFFAM’S connection with that devastatingly popular ballad, “Mother’s Knee,” was one to which he always looked back later with a certain pride. “Mother’s Knee,” it will be remembered, went through the world like a pestilence. Scots elders hummed it on their way to kirk; cannibals crooned it to their offspring in the jungles of Borneo; it was a best-seller among the Bolshevists. In the United States alone three million copies were disposed of. For a man who has not accomplished anything outstandingly great in his life, it is something to have been in a sense responsible for a song like that; and, though there were moments when Archie experienced some of the emotions of a man who has punched a hole in the dam of one of the larger reservoirs, he never really regretted his share in the launching of the thing.
It seems almost bizarre now to think that there was a time when even one person in the world had not heard “Mother’s Knee”; but it came fresh to Archie one afternoon in his suite at the Hotel Cosmopolis, where he was cementing with cigarettes and pleasant conversation his renewed friendship with Wilson Hymack, whom he had first met in the neighbourhood of Armentières during the war.
“What are you doing these days?” inquired Wilson Hymack.
“Me?” said Archie. “Well, as a matter of fact, there is what you might call a sort or species of lull in my activities at the moment. But my jolly old father-in-law is bustling about, running up a new hotel a bit farther down-town, and the scheme is for me to be manager when it’s finished. From what I have seen in this place, it’s a simple sort of job, and I fancy I shall be somewhat hot stuff. How are you filling in the long hours?”
“I’m in my uncle’s office, darn it!”
“Starting at the bottom and learning the business and all that? A noble pursuit, no doubt, but I’m bound to say it would give me the pip in no uncertain manner.”
“It gives me,” said Wilson Hymack, “a pain in the gizzard. I want to be a composer.”
“A composer, eh?”
Archie felt that he should have guessed this. The chappie had a distinctly artistic look. He wore a bow-tie and all that sort of thing. His trousers bagged at the knees, and his hair, which during the martial epoch of his career had been pruned to the roots, fell about his ears in luxuriant disarray.
“Say! Do you want to hear the best thing I’ve ever done?”
“Indubitably,” said Archie, politely. “Carry on, old bird!”
“I wrote the lyric as well as the melody,” said Wilson Hymack, who had already seated himself at the piano. “It’s got the greatest title you ever heard. It’s a lallapaloosa! It’s called ‘It’s a Long Way Back to Mother’s Knee.’ How’s that? Poor, eh?”
Archie expelled a smoke-ring doubtfully.
“Isn’t it a little stale?”
“Stale? What do you mean, stale? There’s always room for another song boosting mother.”
“Oh, is it boosting mother?” Archie’s face cleared. “I thought it was a hit at the short skirts. Why, of course, that makes all the difference. In that case, I see no reason why it should not be ripe, fruity, and pretty well all to the mustard. Let’s have it.”
Wilson Hymack pushed as much of his hair out of his eyes as he could reach with one hand, cleared his throat, looked dreamily over the top of the piano at a photograph of Archie’s father-in-law, Mr. Daniel Brewster, played a prelude, and began to sing in a weak, high, composer’s voice. All composers sing exactly alike, and they have to heard to be believed.
“One night a young man wandered through the glitter of Broadway:
His money he had squandered. For a meal he couldn’t pay.”
“Tough luck!” murmured Archie, sympathetically.
“He thought about the village where his boyhood he had spent,
And yearned for all the simple joys with which he’d been content.”
“The right spirit!” said Archie, with approval. “I’m beginning to like this chappie!”
“Oh, right-o! Carried away and all that!”
“He looked upon the city, so frivolous and gay:
And, as he heaved a weary sigh, these words he then did say:—
It’s a long way back to mother’s knee,
It’s a long way back to mother’s knee,
It’s a long way back to mother’s knee:
It’s a long way back to mother’s knee,
Where I used to stand and prattle
With my teddy-bear and rattle:
Oh, those childhood days in Tennessee,
They sure look good to me!
It’s a long, long way, but I’m gonna start to-day!
I’m going back,
Believe me, oh!
I’m going back
(I want to go!)
I’m going back—back—on the seven-three
To the dear old shack where I used to be!
I’m going back to mother’s knee!”
Wilson Hymack’s voice cracked on the final high note, which was of an altitude beyond his powers. He turned with a modest cough.
“That’ll give you an idea of it!”
“It has, old thing, it has!”
“Is it or is it not a ball of fire?”
“It has many of the earmarks of a sound egg,” admitted Archie. “Of course——”
“Of course, it wants singing.”
“Just what I was going to suggest.”
“It wants a woman to sing it. A woman who could reach out for that last high note and teach it to take a joke. The whole refrain is working up to that. You need Tetrazzini or someone who would just pick that note off the roof and hold it till the janitor came round to lock up the building for the night.”
“I must buy a copy for my wife. Where can I get it?”
“You can’t get it! It isn’t published. Writing music’s the darndest job!” Wilson Hymack snorted fiercely. It was plain that the man was pouring out the pent-up emotion of many days. “You write the biggest thing in years and you go round trying to get someone to sing it, and they say you’re a genius and then shove the song away in a drawer and forget about it.”
Archie lit another cigarette.
“I’m a jolly old child in these matters, old lad,” he said, “but why don’t you take it direct to a publisher? As a matter of fact, if it would be any use to you, I was foregathering with a music-publisher only the other day. A bird of the name of Blumenthal. He was lunching in here with a pal of mine, and we got tolerably matey. Why not let me tool you round to the office to-morrow and play it to him?”
“No, thanks. Much obliged, but I’m not going to play that melody in any publisher’s office with his hired gang of Tin-Pan Alley composers listening at the keyhole and taking notes. I’ll have to wait till I can find somebody to sing it. Well, I must be going along. Glad to have seen you again. Sooner or later I’ll take you to hear that high note sung by someone in a way that’ll make your spine tie itself in knots round the back of your neck.”
“I’ll count the days,” said Archie, courteously. “Pip-pip!”
HARDLY had the door closed behind the composer when it opened again to admit Lucille.
“Hallo, light of my soul!” said Archie, rising and embracing his wife. “Where have you been all the afternoon? I was expecting you this many an hour past. I wanted you to meet——”
“I’ve been having tea with a girl down in Greenwich Village. I couldn’t get away before. Who was that who went out just as I came along the passage?”
“Chappie of the name of Hymack. I met him in France. A composer and what not.”
“We seem to have been moving in artistic circles this afternoon. The girl I went to see is a singer. At least, she wants to sing, but gets no encouragement.”
“Precisely the same with my bird. He wants to get his music sung but nobody’ll sing it. But I didn’t know you knew any Greenwich Village warblers, sunshine of my home. How did you meet this female?”
Lucille sat down and gazed forlornly at him with her big grey eyes. She was registering something, but Archie could not gather what it was.
“Archie, darling, when you married me you undertook to share my sorrows, didn’t you?”
“Absolutely! It’s all in the book of words. For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, all-down-set-’em-up-in-the-other-alley. Regular iron-clad contract!”
“Then share ’em!” said Lucille. “Bill’s in love again!”
“Bill? When you say Bill, do you mean Bill? Your brother Bill? My brother-in-law Bill? Jolly old William, the son and heir of the Brewsters?”
“You say he’s in love? Cupid’s dart?”
“But, I say! Isn’t this rather—— What I mean to say is, the lad’s an absolute scourge! The Great Lover, what! Also ran, Brigham Young, and all that sort of thing! Why, it’s only a few weeks ago that he was moaning brokenly about that vermilion-haired female who subsequently hooked on to old Reggie van Tuyl!”
“She’s a little better than that girl, thank goodness. All the same, I don’t think father will approve.”
“Of what calibre is the latest exhibit?”
“Well, she comes from the Middle West, and seems to be trying to be twice as Bohemian as the rest of the girls down in Greenwich Village. She wears her hair bobbed and goes about in a kimono. She’s probably read magazine stories about Greenwich Village, and has modelled herself on them. It’s so silly, when you can see Hicks Corners sticking out of her all the time.”
“That one got past me before I could grab it. What did you say she had sticking out of her?”
“I meant that anybody could see that she came from somewhere out in the wilds. As a matter of fact, Bill tells me that she was brought up in Snake Bite, Michigan.”
“Snake Bite? What rummy names you have in America! Still, I’ll admit there’s a village in England called Nether Wallop, so who am I to cast the first stone? How is old Bill? Pretty feverish?”
“He says this time it is the real thing.”
“That’s what they all say! I wish I had a dollar for every time—— Forgotten what I was going to say!” broke off Archie, prudently. “So you think,” he went on, after a pause, “that William’s latest is going to be one more shock for the old dad?”
“I can’t imagine father approving of her.”
“I’ve studied your merry old progenitor pretty closely,” said Archie, “and, between you and me, I can’t imagine him approving of anybody!”
“I can’t understand why it is that Bill goes out of his way to pick these horrors. I know at least twenty delightful girls, all pretty and with lots of money, who would be just the thing for him; but he sneaks away and goes falling in love with someone impossible. And the worst of it is that one always feels one’s got to do one’s best to see him through.”
“Absolutely! One doesn’t want to throw a spanner into the works of Love’s young dream. It behoves us to rally round. Have you heard this girl sing?”
“Yes. She sang this afternoon.”
“What sort of a voice has she got?”
“Could she pick a high note off the roof and hold it till the janitor came round to lock up the building for the night?”
“What on earth do you mean?”
“Answer me this, woman, frankly. How is her high note? Pretty lofty?”
“Then say no more,” said Archie. “Leave this to me, my dear old better four-fifths! Hand the whole thing over to Archibald, the man who never lets you down. I have a scheme!”
AS Archie approached his suite on the following afternoon he heard through the closed door the drone of a gruff male voice; and, going in, discovered Lucille in the company of his brother-in-law. Lucille, Archie thought, was looking a trifle fatigued. Bill, on the other hand, was in great shape. His eyes were shining, and his face looked so like that of a stuffed frog that Archie had no difficulty in gathering that he had been lecturing on the subject of his latest enslaver.
“Hallo, Bill, old crumpet!” he said.
“I’m so glad you’ve come,” said Lucille. “Bill is telling me all about Spectatia.”
“Spectatia. The girl, you know. Her name is Spectatia Huskisson.”
“It can’t be!” said Archie, incredulously.
“Why not?” growled Bill.
“Well, how could it?” said Archie, appealing to him as a reasonable man. “I mean to say! Spectatia Huskisson! I gravely doubt whether there is such a name.”
“What’s wrong with it?” demanded the incensed Bill. “It’s a darned sight better name than Archibald Moffam.”
“Don’t fight, you two children!” intervened Lucille, firmly. “It’s a good old Middle West name. Everybody knows the Huskissons of Snake Bite, Michigan. Besides, Bill calls her Tootles.”
“Pootles,” corrected Bill, austerely.
“Oh, yes, Pootles. He calls her Pootles.”
“Young blood! Young blood!” sighed Archie.
“I wish you wouldn’t talk as if you were my grandfather.”
“I look on you as a son, laddie, a favourite son!”
“If I had a father like you——!”
“Ah, but you haven’t, young-feller-me-lad, and that’s the trouble. If you had, everything would be simple. But as your actual father, if you’ll allow me to say so, is one of the finest specimens of man-eating fish in captivity, something has got to be done about it, and you’re dashed lucky to have me in your corner, a guide, philosopher, and friend, full of the fruitiest ideas. Now, if you’ll kindly listen to me for a moment——”
“I’ve been listening to you ever since you came in.”
“You wouldn’t speak in that harsh tone of voice if you knew all! William, I have a scheme!”
“The scheme to which I allude is what Maeterlinck would call a lallapaloosa!”
“What a little marvel he is!” said Lucille, regarding her husband affectionately. “He eats a lot of fish, Bill. That’s what makes him so clever!”
“Shrimps!” diagnosed Bill, churlishly.
“Do you know the leader of the orchestra in the restaurant downstairs?” asked Archie, ignoring the slur.
“I know there is a leader of the orchestra. What about him?”
“A sound fellow. Great pal of mine. I’ve forgotten his name——”
“Call him Pootles!” suggested Lucille.
“Desist!” said Archie, as a wordless growl proceeded from his stricken brother-in-law. “This girlish frivolity is unseemly. Well, I’m going to have a chat with this chappie and fix it all up.”
“Fix what up?”
“The whole jolly business. I’m going to kill two birds with one stone. I’ve a composer chappie popping about in the background whose one ambish. is to have his pet song sung before a discriminating audience. You have a singer straining at the leash. I’m going to arrange with this egg who leads the orchestra that your female shall sing my chappie’s song downstairs one night during dinner. How about it? Is it or is it not a ball of fire?”
“It’s not a bad idea,” admitted Bill, brightening visibly. “I wouldn’t have thought you had it in you.”
“It’s a capital idea,” said Lucille. “Quite out of the question, of course.”
“How do you mean?”
“Don’t you know that the one thing father hates more than anything else in the world is anything like a cabaret? People are always coming to him, suggesting that it would brighten up the dinner hour if he had singers and things, and he crushes them into little bits. He thinks there’s nothing that lowers the tone of a place more. He’ll bite you in three places when you suggest it to him!”
“Ah! But has it escaped your notice, lighting system of my soul, that the dear old dad is not at present in residence? He went off to fish at Lake What’s-its-name this morning.”
“You aren’t dreaming of doing this without asking him?”
“That was the general idea.”
“But he’ll be furious when he finds out.”
“But will he find out? I ask you, will he?”
“Of course he will.”
“I don’t see why he should,” said Bill, on whose plastic mind the plan had made a deep impression.
“He won’t,” said Archie, confidently. “This wheeze is for one night only. By the time the jolly old guv’nor returns, bitten to the bone by mosquitoes, with one small stuffed trout in his suit-case, everything will be over and all quiet once more along the Potomac. The scheme is this. My chappie wants his song heard by a publisher. Your girl wants her voice heard by one of the blighters who get up concerts and all that sort of thing. No doubt you know such a bird, whom you could invite to the hotel for a bit of dinner?”
“I know Carl Steinburg. As a matter of fact, I was thinking of writing to him about Spectatia.”
“You’re absolutely sure that is her name?” said Archie, his voice still tinged with incredulity. “Oh, well, I suppose she told you so herself, and no doubt she knows best. That will be topping. Rope in your pal and hold him down at the table till the finish. Lucille, the beautiful vision on the sky-line yonder, and I will be at another table entertaining Maxie Blumenthal.”
“Who on earth is Maxie Blumenthal?” asked Lucille.
“One of my boyhood chums. A music-publisher. I’ll get him to come along, and then we’ll all be set. At the conclusion of the performance Miss——”—Archie winced—“Miss Spectatia Huskisson will be signed up for a forty weeks’ tour, and jovial old Blumenthal will be making all arrangements for publishing the song. Two birds, as I indicated before, with one stone! How about it?”
“It’s a winner,” said Bill.
“Of course,” said Archie, “I’m not urging you. I merely make the suggestion. If you know a better ’ole, go to it!”
“It’s terrific!” said Bill.
“It’s absurd!” said Lucille.
“My dear old partner of joys and sorrows,” said Archie, wounded, “we court criticism, but this is mere abuse. What seems to be the difficulty?”
“The leader of the orchestra would be afraid to do it.”
“Ten dollars—supplied by William here—push it over, Bill, old man—will remove his tremors.”
“And father’s certain to find out.”
“Am I afraid of father?” cried Archie, manfully. “Well, yes, I am!” he added, after a moment’s reflection. “But I don’t see how he can possibly get to know.”
“Of course he can’t,” said Bill, decidedly. “Fix it up as soon as you can, Archie. This is what the doctor ordered.”
THE main dining-room of the Hotel Cosmopolis is a decorous place. The lighting is artistically dim, and the genuine old tapestries on the walls seem, with their mediæval calm, to discourage any essay in the riotous. Soft-footed waiters shimmer to and fro over thick, expensive carpets to the music of an orchestra which abstains wholly from the noisy modernity of jazz. To Archie, who during the past few days had been privileged to hear Miss Huskisson rehearsing, the place had a sort of brooding quiet, like the ocean just before the arrival of a cyclone. As Lucille had said, Miss Huskisson’s voice was loud. It was a powerful organ, and there was no doubt that it would take the cloistered stillness of the Cosmopolis dining-room and stand it on one ear. Almost unconsciously, Archie found himself bracing his muscles and holding his breath as he had done in France at the approach of the zero hour, when awaiting the first roar of a barrage. He listened mechanically to the conversation of Mr. Blumenthal.
The music-publisher was talking with some vehemence on the subject of Labour. A recent printers’ strike had bitten deeply into Mr. Blumenthal’s soul. The working man, he considered, was rapidly landing God’s Country in the soup, and he had twice upset his glass with the vehemence of his gesticulation. He was an energetic right-and-left-hand talker.
“The more you give ’em the more they want!” he complained. “There’s no pleasing ’em! It isn’t only in my business. There’s your father, Mrs. Moffam!”
“Good God! Where?” said Archie, starting.
“I say, take your father’s case. He’s doing all he knows to get this new hotel of his finished, and what happens? A man gets fired for loafing on his job, and Connolly calls a strike. And the building operations are held up till the thing’s settled! It isn’t right!”
“It’s a great shame,” agreed Lucille. “I was reading about it in the paper this morning.”
“That man Connolly’s a tough guy. You’d think, being a personal friend of your father, he would——”
“I didn’t know they were friends.”
“Been friends for years. But a lot of difference that makes. Out come the men just the same. It isn’t right! I was saying it wasn’t right!” repeated Mr. Blumenthal to Archie, for he was a man who liked the attention of every member of his audience.
Archie did not reply. He was staring glassily across the room at two men who had just come in. One was a large, stout, square-faced man of commanding personality. The other was Mr. Daniel Brewster.
Mr. Blumenthal followed his gaze.
“Why, there is Connolly coming in now!”
“Father!” gasped Lucille.
Her eyes met Archie’s. Archie took a hasty drink of ice-water.
“This,” he murmured, “has torn it!”
“Archie, you must do something!”
“I know! But what?”
“What’s the trouble?” enquired Mr. Blumenthal, mystified.
“Go over to their table and talk to them,” said Lucille.
“Me!” Archie quivered. “No, I say, old thing, really!”
“Get them away!”
“How do you mean?”
“I know!” cried Lucille, inspired. “Father promised that you should be manager of the new hotel when it was built. Well, then, this strike affects you just as much as anybody else. You have a perfect right to talk it over with them. Go and ask them to have dinner up in our suite where you can discuss it quietly. Say that up there they won’t be disturbed by the—the music.”
At this moment, while Archie wavered, hesitating like a diver on the edge of a spring-board who is trying to summon up the necessary nerve to project himself into the deep, a bell-boy approached the table where the Messrs. Brewster and Connolly had seated themselves. He murmured something in Mr. Brewster’s ear, and the proprietor of the Cosmopolis rose and followed him out of the room.
“Quick! Now’s your chance!” said Lucille, eagerly. “Father’s been called to the telephone. Hurry!”
Archie took another drink of ice-water to steady his shaking nerve-centres, pulled down his waistcoat, straightened his tie, and then, with something of the air of a Roman gladiator entering the arena, tottered across the room. Lucille turned to entertain the perplexed music-publisher.
The nearer Archie got to Mr. Aloysius Connolly the less did he like the looks of him. Even at a distance the Labour leader had had a formidable aspect. Seen close to, he looked even more uninviting. His face had the appearance of having been carved out of granite, and the eye which collided with Archie’s as the latter, with an attempt at an ingratiating smile, pulled up a chair and sat down at the table was hard and frosty. Mr. Connolly gave the impression that he would be a good man to have on your side during a rough-and-tumble fight down on the water-front or in some lumber-camp, but he did not look chummy.
“Hallo-allo-allo!” said Archie.
“Who the devil,” inquired Mr. Connolly, “are you?”
“My name’s Archibald Moffam.”
“That’s not my fault.”
“I’m jolly old Brewster’s son-in-law.”
“Glad to meet you.”
“Glad to meet you,” said Archie, handsomely.
“Well, good-bye!” said Mr. Connolly.
“Run along and sell your papers. Your father-in-law and I have business to discuss.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Private,” added Mr. Connolly.
“Oh, but I’m in on this binge, you know. I’m going to be the manager of the new hotel.”
“Well, well!” said Mr. Connolly, noncommittally.
Archie, pleased with the smoothness with which matters had opened, bent forward winsomely.
“I say, you know! It won’t do, you know! Absolutely no! Not a bit like it! No, no, far from it! Well, how about it? How do we go? What? Yes? No?”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Call it off, old thing!”
“Call what off?”
“This festive old strike.”
“Not on your—hallo, Dan! Back again?”
MR. BREWSTER, looming over the table like a thundercloud, regarded Archie with more than his customary hostility. Life was no pleasant thing for the proprietor of the Cosmopolis just now. Once a man starts building hotels, the thing becomes like dram-drinking. Any hitch, any sudden cutting-off of the daily dose, has the worst effects; and the strike which was holding up the construction of his latest effort had plunged Mr. Brewster into a restless gloom. In addition to having this strike on his hands, he had had to abandon his annual fishing-trip just when he had begun to enjoy it; and, as if all this were not enough, here was his son-in-law sitting at his table. Mr. Brewster had a feeling that this was more than man was meant to bear.
“What do you want?” he demanded.
“Hallo, old thing!” said Archie. “Come and join the party!”
“Don’t call me old thing!”
“Right-o, old companion, just as you say. I say, I was just going to suggest to Mr. Connolly that we should all go up to my suite and talk this business over quietly.”
“He says he’s the manager of your new hotel,” said Mr. Connolly. “Is that right?”
“I suppose so,” said Mr. Brewster, gloomily.
“Then I’m doing you a kindness,” said Mr. Connolly, “in not letting it be built.”
Archie dabbed at his forehead with his handkerchief. The moments were flying, and it began to seem impossible to shift these two men. Mr. Connolly was as firmly settled in his chair as some primeval rock. As for Mr. Brewster, he, too, had seated himself, and was gazing at Archie with a weary repulsion. Mr. Brewster’s glance always made Archie feel as though there were soup on his shirt-front.
And suddenly from the orchestra at the other end of the room there came a familiar sound, the prelude of “Mother’s Knee.”
“So you’ve started a cabaret, Dan?” said Mr. Connolly, in a satisfied voice. “I always told you you were behind the times here!”
Mr. Brewster jumped.
He stared unbelievingly at the white-robed figure which had just mounted the orchestra dais, and then concentrated his gaze on Archie.
Archie would not have looked at his father-in-law at this juncture if he had had a free and untrammelled choice; but Mr. Brewster’s eye drew his with something of the fascination which a snake’s has for a rabbit. Mr. Brewster’s eye was fiery and intimidating. A basilisk might have gone to him with advantage for a course of lessons. His gaze went right through Archie till the latter seemed to feel his back-hair curling crisply in the flames.
“Is this one of your fool-tricks?”
Even in this tense moment Archie found time almost unconsciously to admire his father-in-law’s penetration and intuition. He seemed to have a sort of sixth sense. No doubt this was how great fortunes were made.
“Well, as a matter of fact—to be absolutely accurate— it was like this——”
“Say, cut it out!” said Mr. Connolly. “Can the chatter! I want to listen.”
Archie was only too ready to oblige him. Conversation at the moment was the last thing he himself desired. He managed with a strong effort to disengage himself from Mr. Brewster’s eye, and turned to the orchestra dais, where Miss Spectatia Huskisson was now beginning the first verse of Wilson Hymack’s masterpiece.
MISS HUSKISSON, like so many of the female denizens of the Middle West, was tall and blonde and constructed on substantial lines. She was a girl whose appearance suggested the old homestead and fried pancakes and pop coming home to dinner after the morning’s ploughing. Even her bobbed hair did not altogether destroy this impression. She looked big and strong and healthy, and her lungs were obviously good. She attacked the verse of the song with something of the vigour and breadth of treatment with which in other days she had reasoned with refractory mules. Her diction was the diction of one trained to call the cattle home in the teeth of Western hurricanes. Whether you wanted to or not, you heard every word.
The subdued clatter of knives and forks had ceased. The diners, unused to this sort of thing at the Cosmopolis, were trying to adjust their faculties to cope with the outburst. Waiters stood transfixed, frozen in attitudes of service. In the momentary lull between verse and refrain Archie could hear the deep breathing of Mr. Brewster. Involuntarily he turned to gaze at him once more, as refugees from Pompeii may have turned to gaze upon Vesuvius; and, as he did so, he caught sight of Mr. Connolly, and paused in astonishment.
Mr. Connolly was an altered man. His whole personality had undergone a subtle change. His face still looked as though hewn from the living rock, but into his eyes had crept an expression which in another man might almost have been called sentimental. Incredible as it seemed to Archie, Mr. Connolly’s eyes were dreamy. There was even in them a suggestion of unshed tears. And when with a vast culmination of sound Miss Huskisson reached the high note at the end of the refrain and, after holding it as some storming-party, spent but victorious, holds the summit of a hard-won redoubt, broke off suddenly, in the stillness which followed there proceeded from Mr. Connolly a deep sigh.
Miss Huskisson began the second verse. And Mr. Brewster, seeming to recover from some kind of a trance, leaped to his feet.
“Sit down!” said Mr. Connolly, in a broken voice. “Sit down, Dan!”
“He went back to his mother on the train that very day:
He knew there was no other who could make him bright and gay:
He kissed her on the forehead and he whispered, ‘I’ve come home!’
He told her he was never going any more to roam.
And onward through the happy years, till he grew old and grey,
He never once regretted those brave words he once did say:
It’s a long way back to mother’s knee——”
The last high note screeched across the room like a shell, and the applause that followed was like a shell’s bursting. One could hardly have recognised the refined interior of the Cosmopolis dining-room. Fair women were waving napkins; brave men were hammering on the tables with the butt-end of knives, for all the world as if they imagined themselves to be in one of those distressing midnight-revue places. Miss Huskisson bowed, retired, returned, bowed, and retired again, the tears streaming down her ample face. Over in a corner Archie could see his brother-in-law clapping strenuously. A waiter, with a display of manly emotion that did him credit, dropped an order of new peas.
“Thirty years ago last October,” said Mr. Connolly, in a shaking voice, “I——”
Mr. Brewster interrupted him violently.
“I’ll fire that orchestra-leader! He goes to-morrow! I’ll fire——” He turned on Archie. “What the devil do you mean by it, you—you——”
“Thirty years ago,” said Mr. Connolly, wiping away a tear with his napkin, “I left me dear old home in the old country——”
“My hotel a bear-garden!”
“Frightfully sorry and all that, old companion!”
“Thirty years ago last October! ’Twas a fine autumn evening, the finest ye’d ever wish to see. Me old mother, she came to the station to see me off.”
Mr. Brewster, who was not deeply interested in Mr. Connolly’s old mother, continued to splutter inarticulately, like a firework trying to go off.
“ ‘Ye’ll always be a good boy, Aloysius?’ she said to me,” said Mr. Connolly, proceeding with his autobiography. “And I said: ‘Yes, mother, I will!’ ” Mr. Connolly sighed and applied the napkin again. “ ’Twas a liar I was!” he observed, remorsefully. “Many’s the dirty trick I’ve played since then. ‘It’s a long way back to mother’s knee.’ ’Tis a true word!” He turned impulsively to Mr. Brewster. “Dan, there’s a deal of trouble in this world without me going out of me way to make more. The strike is over! I’ll send the men back to-morrow! There’s me hand on it!”
Mr. Brewster, who had just managed to co-ordinate his views on the situation and was about to express them with the generous strength which was ever his custom when dealing with his son-in-law, checked himself abruptly. He stared at his old friend and business enemy, wondering if he could have heard aright. Hope began to creep back into Mr. Brewster’s heart, like a shamefaced dog that has been away from home hunting for a day or two.
“I’ll send the men back to-morrow! That song was sent to guide me, Dan! It was meant! Thirty years ago last October me dear old mother——”
Mr. Brewster bent forward attentively. His views on Mr. Connolly’s dear old mother had changed. He wanted to hear all about her.
“ ’Twas that last note that girl sang brought it all back to me as if ’twas yesterday. As we waited on the platform, me old mother and I, out comes the train from the tunnel, and the engine lets off a screech the way ye’d hear it ten miles away. ’Twas thirty years ago——”
Archie stole softly from the table. He felt that his presence, if it had ever been required, was required no longer. Looking back, he could see his father-in-law patting Mr. Connolly affectionately on the shoulder.
ARCHIE and Lucille lingered over their coffee. Mr. Blumenthal was out in the telephone-box settling the business end with Wilson Hymack. The music-publisher had been unstinted in his praise of “Mother’s Knee.” It was sure-fire, he said. The words, stated Mr. Blumenthal, were gooey enough to hurt, and the tune reminded him of every other song-hit he had ever heard. There was, in Mr. Blumenthal’s opinion, nothing to stop the thing selling a million copies.
Archie smoked contentedly.
“Not a bad evening’s work, old thing,” he said. “Talk about birds with one stone!” He looked at Lucille reproachfully. “You don’t seem bubbling over with joy.”
“Oh, I am, precious!” Lucille sighed. “I was only thinking about Bill.”
“What about Bill?”
“Well, it’s rather awful to think of him tied for life to that—that steam-siren.”
“Oh, we mustn’t look on the jolly old dark side. Perhaps—— Hallo, Bill, old top! We were just talking about you.”
“Were you?” said Bill Brewster, in a dispirited voice.
“I take it that you want congratulations, what?”
“I want sympathy!”
“Sympathy! And lots of it! She’s gone!”
“How do you mean, gone?”
Bill glowered at the tablecloth.
“Gone home. I’ve just seen her off in a cab. She’s gone back to Washington Square to pack. She’s catching the ten o’clock train back to Snake Bite. It was that damned song!” muttered Bill, in a stricken voice. “She says she never realized before she sang it to-night how hollow New York was. She said it suddenly came over her. She says she’s going to give up her career and go back to her mother. What the deuce are you twiddling your fingers for?” he broke off, irritably.
“Sorry, old man. I was just counting.”
“Counting? Counting what?”
“Birds, old thing. Only birds!” said Archie.