The Saturday Evening Post - June 21, 1919
MR. AND MRS. Reginald Byng, seated at a table in the corner of the Regent grillroom, gazed fondly into each other’s eyes. George, seated at the same table but feeling many miles away, watched them moodily, fighting to hold off a depression which, cured for a while by the exhilaration of the ride in Reggie’s racing car—it had beaten its previous record for the trip to London by nearly twenty minutes—now threatened to return. The gay scene, the ecstasy of Reggie, the more restrained but equally manifest happiness of his bride, these things induced melancholy in George. He had not wished to attend the wedding luncheon, but the happy pair seemed to be revolted at the idea that he should stroll off and get a bite to eat somewhere else.
“Stick by us, laddie,” Reggie had said pleadingly, “for there is much to discuss, and we need the counsel of a man of the world. We are married all right ——”
“Though it didn’t seem legal in that little registrar’s office,” put in Alice.
“But that, as the blighters say in books, is but a beginning, not an end. We have now to think out the most tactful way of letting the news seep through, as it were, to the mater.”
“And Lord Marshmoreton,” said Alice. “Don’t forget he has lost his secretary.”
“And Lord Marshmoreton,” amended Reggie. “And about a million other people who’ll be most frightfully peeved at my doing the wedding glide without consulting them. Stick by us, old top. Join our simple meal, and we will discuss many things.”
The arrival of a waiter with dishes broke up the silent communion between husband and wife, and lowered Reggie to a more earthly plane. He refilled the glasses from the stout bottle that nestled in the ice-bucket—“Only this one, dear!” murmured the bride in a warning undertone; and “All right, darling!” replied the dutiful groom—and raised his own to his lips.
“Cheero! Here’s to us all! Maddest, merriest day of all the glad New Year and so forth. And now,” he continued, becoming sternly practical, “about the good old sequel and aftermath, so to speak, of this little binge of ours. What’s to be done? You’re a brainy sort of feller, Bevan old man, and we look to you for suggestions. How would you set about breaking the news to mother?”
“Write her a letter,” said George.
Reggie was profoundly impressed.
“Didn’t I tell you he would have some devilish shrewd scheme?” he said enthusiastically to Alice. “Write her a letter! What could be better? Poetry, by Gad!” His face clouded. “But what would you say in it? That’s a pretty knotty point.”
“Not at all. Be perfectly frank and straightforward. Say you are sorry to go against her wishes ——”
“Wishes,” murmured Reggie, scribbling industriously on the back of the marriage license.
“But you know that all she wants is your happiness ——”
Reggie looked doubtful.
“I’m not sure about that last bit, old thing. You don’t know the mater!”
“Never mind, Reggie,” put in Alice. “Say it, anyhow. Mr. Bevan is perfectly right.”
“Righto, darling! All right, laddie—‘happiness.’ And then?”
“Point out in a few well-chosen sentences how charming Mrs. Byng is ——”
“Mrs. Byng!” Reggie smiled fatuously. “I don’t think I ever heard anything that sounded so indescribably ripping. That part’ll be easy enough. Besides, the mater knows Alice.”
“Lady Caroline has seen me at the castle,” said his bride doubtfully, “but I shouldn’t say she knows me. She has hardly spoken a dozen words to me.”
“There,” said Reggie earnestly, “you’re in luck, dear heart! The mater’s a great speaker, especially in moments of excitement. I’m not looking forward to the time when she starts on me. Between ourselves, laddie, and meaning no disrespect to the dear soul, when the mater is moved and begins to talk, she uses up most of the language.”
“Outspoken, is she?”
“I should hate to meet the person who could outspeak her,” said Reggie. George sought information on a delicate point.
“And financially? Does she exercise any authority over you in that way?”
“You mean has the mater the first call on the family doubloons?” said Reggie. “Oh, absolutely not! You see, when I call her the mater, it’s using the word in a loose sense, so to speak. She’s my stepmother really. She has her own little collection of pieces of eight, and I have mine. That part’s simple enough.”
“Then the whole thing is simple. I don’t see what you’ve been worrying about.”
“Just what I keep telling him, Mr. Bevan,” said Alice.
“You’re a perfectly free agent. She has no hold on you of any kind.”
Reggie Byng blinked dizzily.
“Why, now you put it like that,” he exclaimed, “I can see that I jolly well am! It’s an amazing thing, you know; habit and all that! I’ve been so accustomed for years to jumping through hoops and shamming dead when the mater lifted a little finger, that it absolutely never occurred to me that I had a soul of my own. I give you my honest word I never saw it till this moment.”
“And now it’s too late!”
George indicated Alice with a gesture. The newly made Mrs. Byng smiled.
“Mr. Bevan means that now you’ve got to jump through hoops and sham dead when I lift a little finger!”
Reggie raised her hand to his lips and nibbled at it gently.
“Blessums ’ittle finger! It shall lift it and have ’ums Reggums jumping through . . .” He broke off and tendered George a manly apology: “Sorry, old top! Forgot myself for the moment. Shan’t occur again! Have another chicken or an éclair or some soup or something!”
Over the cigars Reggie became expansive.
“Now that you’ve lifted the frightful weight of the mater off my mind, dear old lad,” he said, puffing luxuriously, “I find myself surveying the future in a calmer spirit. It seems to me that the best thing to do, as regards the mater and everybody else, is simply to prolong the merry wedding trip till time, the great healer, has had a chance to cure the wound. Alice wants to put in a week or so in Paris ——”
“Paris!” murmured the bride ecstatically.
“Then I would like to trickle southward to the Riviera.”
“If you mean Monte Carlo, dear,” said his wife with gentle firmness, “no!”
“No, no, not Monte Carlo,” said Reggie hastily, “though it’s a great place. Air—scenery—and what not! But Nice and Bordighera and Mentone and other fairly ripe resorts. You’d enjoy them.” Reggie broke off with a sharp exclamation.
“My sainted aunt!”
“What’s the matter?”
Both his companions were looking past him, wide-eyed. George occupied the chair that had its back to the door, and was unable to see what it was that had caused their consternation; but he deduced that someone known to both of them must have entered the restaurant; and his first thought, perhaps naturally, was that it must be Reggie’s “mater.”
Reggie dived behind a menu, which he held before him like a shield, and his bride, after one quick look, had turned away so that her face was hidden. George swung round, but the newcomer, whoever he or she was, was now seated and indistinguishable from the rest of the lunchers.
“Who is it?”
Reggie laid down the menu with the air of one who after momentary panic rallies.
“Don’t know what I’m making such a fuss about,” he said stoutly. “I keep forgetting that none of these blighters really matters in the scheme of things. I’ve a good mind to go over and pass the time of day.”
“Don’t!” pleaded his wife. “I feel so guilty.”
“Who is it?” asked George again. “Your stepmother?”
“Great Scott, no!” said Reggie. “Nothing so bad as that. It’s old Marshmoreton!”
“Absolutely! And looking positively festive.”
“I feel so awful, Mr. Bevan,” said Alice solemnly.
“You know, I left the castle without a word to anyone, and he doesn’t know yet that there won’t be a secretary waiting for him when he gets back.”
Reggie took another look over George’s shoulder, and chuckled.
“It’s all right, darling. Don’t worry. We can nip off secretly by the other door. He’s not going to spot us. He’s got a girl with him! The old boy has come to life—absolutely! He’s gassing away sixteen to the dozen to a frightfully pretty girl with gold hair. If you slew the old bean round at an angle of about forty-five, Bevan old top, you can see her. Take a look. He won’t see you. He’s got his back to us.”
“Do you call her pretty?” asked Alice disparagingly.
“Now that I take a good look, precious,” replied Reggie with alacrity, “no! Absolutely not! Not my style at all.”
His wife crumbled bread.
“I think she must know you, Reggie dear,” she said softly. “She’s waving to you.”
“She’s waving to me,” said George, bringing back the sunshine to Reggie’s life and causing the latter’s face to lose its hunted look. “I know her very well. Her name’s Dore, Billie Dore.”
“Old man,” said Reggie, “be a good fellow and slide over to their table and cover our retreat. I know there’s nothing to be afraid of really, but I simply can’t face the old boy.”
“And break the news to him that I’ve gone, Mr. Bevan,” added Alice.
“Very well. I’ll say good-by then.”
“Good-by, Mr. Bevan, and thank you ever so much.”
Reggie shook George’s hand warmly.
“Good-by, Bevan old thing, you’re a ripper! I can’t tell you how bucked I am at the sportsmanlike way you’ve rallied round.
“I’ll do the same for you one of these days. Just hold the old boy in play for a minute or two while we leg it. And, if he wants us, tell him our address till further notice is Paris. What ho! What ho! What ho! Toodleoo, laddie, toodleoo!”
George threaded his way across the room. Billie Dore welcomed him with a friendly smile. The earl, who had turned to observe his progress, seemed less delighted to see him. His weather-beaten face wore an almost furtive look. He reminded George of a schoolboy who has been caught in some breach of the law.
“Fancy seeing you here, George!” said Billie. “We’re always meeting, aren’t we! How did you come to separate yourself from the pigs and chickens? I thought you were never going to leave them.”
“I had to run up on business,” explained George. “How are you, Lord Marshmoreton?”
The earl nodded briefly.
“So you’re onto him, too?” said Billie. “When did you get wise?”
“Lord Marshmoreton was kind enough to call on me the other morning and drop the incognito.”
“Isn’t dadda the foxiest old thing!” said Billie delightedly. “Imagine him standing there that day in the garden, kidding us along like that! I tell you, when they brought me his card last night after the first act, and I went down to take a slant at this Lord Marshmoreton and found dadda hanging round the stage door, you could have knocked me over with a whisk broom.”
“I have not stood at the stage door for twenty-five years,” said Lord Marshmoreton sadly.
“Now, it’s no use your pulling that Henry W. Methuselah stuff,” said Billie affectionately. “You can’t get away with it. Anyone can see that you’re just a kid, can’t they, George?” She indicated the blushing earl with a wave of the hand. “Isn’t dadda the youngest thing that ever happened?”
“Exactly what I told him myself.”
Lord Marshmoreton giggled. There is no other verb that describes the sound that proceeded from him.
“I feel young,” he admitted.
“I wish some of the juveniles in the shows I’ve been in,” said Billie, “were as young as you. It’s getting so nowadays that one’s thankful if a juvenile has teeth.” She glanced across the room. “Your pals are walking out on you, George. The people you were lunching with,” she explained. “They’re leaving.”
“That’s all right. I said good-by to them.” He looked at Lord Marshmoreton. It seemed a suitable opportunity to break the news. “I was lunching with Mr. and Mrs. Byng,” he said.
Nothing appeared to stir beneath Lord Marshmoreton’s tanned forehead.
“Reggie Byng and his wife, Lord Marshmoreton,” added George.
This time he secured the earl’s interest. Lord Marshmoreton started.
“They are just off to Paris,” said George.
“Reggie Byng is not married!”
“Married this morning; I was best man.”
“Busy little creature!” interjected Billie.
“You know his wife,” said George casually. “She was a Miss Faraday. I think she was your secretary.”
It would have been impossible to deny that Lord Marshmoreton showed emotion. His mouth opened and he clutched the tablecloth. But just what the emotion was George was unable to say till, with a sigh that seemed to come from his innermost being, the other exclaimed:
George was surprised.
“Of course I’m glad!”
“It’s a pity they didn’t know how you were going to feel. It would have saved them a lot of anxiety. I rather gathered they supposed that the shock was apt to darken your whole life.”
“That girl,” said Lord Marshmoreton vehemently, “was driving me crazy! Always bothering me to come and work on that damned family history. Never gave me a moment’s peace.”
“I liked her,” said George.
“Nice enough girl,” admitted his lordship grudgingly; “but a damned nuisance about the house. Always at me to go on with the family history. As if there weren’t better things to do with one’s time than writing all day about my infernal fools of ancestors!”
“Isn’t dadda fractious to-day!” said Billie reprovingly, giving the earl’s hand a pat. “Quit knocking your ancestors! You’re very lucky to have ancestors. I wish I had. The Dore family seems to go back about as far as the presidency of Willard Filmore, and then it kind of gets discouraged and quits cold. Gee! I’d like to feel that my great-great-great-grandfather had helped Queen Elizabeth with the rent. I’m strong for the fine old stately families of England.”
“Stately old fiddlesticks!” snapped the earl.
“Did you see his eyes flash then, George? That’s what they call aristocratic rage. It’s the fine old spirit of the Marshmoretons boiling over.”
“I noticed it,” said George. “Just like lightning!”
“It’s no use trying to fool us, dadda,” said Billie. “You know just as well as I do that it makes you feel good to think that every time you cut yourself with your safety razor you bleed blue!”
“A lot of silly nonsense!” grumbled the earl.
“This foolery of titles and aristocracy. Silly fetish worship! One man’s as good as another.”
“This is the spirit of ’76!” said George approvingly.
“Regular I. W. W. stuff,” agreed Billie. “Shake hands with the President of the Bolsheviki!”
Lord Marshmoreton ignored the interruption. There was a strange look in his eyes. It was evident to George, watching him with close interest, that here was a revelation of the man’s soul; that thoughts, locked away for years in the other’s bosom, were crying for utterance.
“Damned silly nonsense! When I was a boy I wanted to be an engine driver. When I was a young man I was a Socialist, and hadn’t any idea except to work for my living and make a name for myself. I was going to the colonies—Canada. The fruit farm was actually bought—bought and paid for!” He brooded a moment on that long-lost fruit farm. “My father was a younger son. And then my uncle must go and break his neck out hunting, and the baby, poor little chap, got croup or something, and there we were, saddled with the title, and all my plans gone up in smoke! Silly nonsense! Silly nonsense!” He bit the end off a cigar. “And you can’t stand up against it,” he went on ruefully. “It saps you; it’s like some damned drug. I fought against it as long as I could, but it was no use. I’m as big a snob as any of them now. I’m afraid to do what I want to do. Always thinking of the family dignity. I haven’t taken a free step for twenty-five years.”
George and Billie exchanged glances. Each had the uncomfortable feeling that they were eavesdropping and hearing things not meant to be heard. George rose.
“I must be getting along now,” he said. “I’ve one or two things to do. Glad to have seen you again, Billie. Is the show going all right?”
“Fine. Making money for you right along.”
“Good-by, Lord Marshmoreton.”
The earl nodded without speaking. It was not often now that he rebelled even in thought against the lot which fate had thrust upon him, and never in his life before had he done so in words. He was still in the grip of the strange discontent which had come upon him so abruptly.
There was a silence after George had gone.
“I’m glad we met George,” said Billie. “He’s a good boy!” She spoke soberly. She was conscious of a curious feeling of affection for the sturdy, weather-tanned little man opposite her. The glimpse she had been given of his inner self had somehow made him come alive for her.
“He wants to marry my daughter,” said Lord Marshmoreton.
A few moments before, Billie would undoubtedly have replied to such a statement with some jocular remark expressing disbelief that the earl could have a daughter old enough to be married. But now she felt oddly serious and unlike her usual flippant self.
“Oh!” was all she could find to say.
“She wants to marry him.”
Not for years had Billie Dore felt embarrassed, but she felt so now. She judged herself unworthy to be the recipient of these very private confidences.
“Oh!” she said again.
“He’s a good fellow. I like him. I liked him the moment we met. He knew it too. And I knew he liked me.”
A group of men and girls from a neighboring table passed on their way to the door. One of the girls nodded to Billie. She returned the nod absently. The party moved on. Billie frowned down at the tablecloth and drew a pattern on it with a fork.
“Why don’t you let George marry your daughter, Lord Marshmoreton?”
The earl drew at his cigar in silence.
“I know it’s not my business,” said Billie apologetically, interpreting the silence as a rebuff.
“Because I’m the Earl of Marshmoreton.”
“No, you don’t,” snapped the earl. “You think I mean by that that I think your friend isn’t good enough to marry my daughter. You think that I’m an incurable snob. And I’ve no doubt he thinks so, too, though I took the trouble to explain my attitude to him when we last met. You’re wrong. It isn’t that at all. When I say I’m the Earl of Marshmoreton, I mean that I’m a poor, spineless fool who’s afraid to do the right thing because he daren’t go in the teeth of the family.”
“I don’t understand. What have your family got to do with it?”
“They’d worry the life out of me. I wish you could meet my sister Caroline! That’s what they’ve got to do with it. Girls in my daughter’s unfortunate position have got to marry position or money.”
“Well, I don’t know about position, but when it comes to money, why, George is the fellow that made the dollar bill famous. He and Rockefeller have got all there is, except the little bit they let Andy Carnegie have for car fare.”
“What do you mean? He told me he worked for a living.”
Billie was becoming herself again. Embarrassment had fled.
“If you call it work. He’s a composer.”
“I know—writes tunes and things.”
Billie regarded him compassionately.
“And I suppose, living out in the woods the way you do, that you haven’t a notion that they pay him for it.”
“Pay him? Yes, but how much? Composers were not rich men in my day.”
“I wish you wouldn’t talk of your day as if you were Noah telling the boys down at the corner store about the good times they all had before the flood. You’re one of the younger set, and don’t let me have to tell you again. Say, listen, you know that show you saw last night—the one where I star, supported by a few underlings. Well, George wrote the music for that.”
“I know. He told me so.”
“Well, did he tell you that he draws three per of the gross receipts? You saw the house we had last night. It was a fair average house. We are playing to over fourteen thousand dollars a week. George’s little bit of that is—I can’t do it in my head, but it’s round four hundred dollars. That’s eighty pounds of your money. And did he tell you that this same show ran over a year in New York to big business all the time, and that there are three companies on the road now? And did he mention that this is the ninth show he’s done, and that seven of the others were just as big hits as this one? And did he remark in passing that he gets royalties on every copy of his music that’s sold, and that at least ten of his things have sold over half a million? No, he didn’t, because he isn’t the sort of fellow who stands round blowing about his income; but you know it now.”
“Why, he’s a rich man!”
“I don’t know what you call rich, but, keeping on the safe side, I should say that George pulls down—in a good year, during the season—round five thousand dollars a week.”
Lord Marshmoreton was frankly staggered.
“A thousand pounds a week! I had no idea!”
“I thought you hadn’t. And, while I’m boosting George, let me tell you another thing. He’s one of the whitest men that ever happened. I know him. You can take it from me that, if there’s anything rotten in a fellow, the show business will bring it out, and it hasn’t come out in George yet, so I guess it isn’t there. George is all right!”
“He has at least an excellent advocate.”
“Oh, I’m strong for George. I wish there were more like him. Well, if you think I’ve butted in on your private affairs sufficiently, I suppose I ought to be moving. We’ve a rehearsal this afternoon.”
“Let it go!” said Lord Marshmoreton boyishly.
“Yes, and how quick do you think they would let me go, if I did? I’m an honest working girl, and I can’t afford to lose jobs.”
Lord Marshmoreton fiddled with his cigar butt.
“I could offer you an alternative position, if you cared to accept it.”
Billie looked at him keenly. Other men in similar circumstances had made much the same remark to her. She was conscious of feeling a little disappointed in her new friend.
“Well?” she said dryly. “Shoot!”
“You gathered, no doubt, from Mr. Bevan’s conversation, that my secretary has left me and run away and got married? Would you like to take her place?”
It was not easy to disconcert Billie Dore, but she was taken aback. She had been expecting something different.
“You’re a shriek, dadda!”
“I am perfectly serious.”
“Can you see me at a castle?”
“I can see you perfectly.” Lord Marshmoreton’s rather formal manner left him. “Do please accept, my dear child. I’ve got to finish this damned family history some time or other. The family expect me to. Only yesterday my sister Caroline got me in a corner and bored me for half an hour about it. And I simply can’t face the prospect of getting another Alice Faraday from an agency. Charming girl, charming girl, of course, but—but—well, I’ll be damned if I do it, and that’s the long and short of it!”
Billie bubbled over with laughter.
“Of all the impulsive kids!” she gurgled. “I never met anyone like you, dadda! You don’t even know that I can use a typewriter.”
“I do. Mr. Bevan told me you were an expert stenographer.”
“So George has been boosting me, too, has he?” She mused. “I must say I’d love to come. That old place got me when I saw it that day.”
“That’s settled then,” said Lord Marshmoreton masterfully. “Go to the theater and tell them—tell whatever is usual in these cases. And then go home and pack, and meet me at Waterloo at six o’clock. The train leaves at six-fifteen.”
“Return of the wanderer, accompanied by dizzy blonde! You’ve certainly got it all fixed, haven’t you! Do you think the family will stand for me?”
“Damn the family!” said Lord Marshmoreton stoutly.
“There’s one thing,” said Billie complacently, eyeing her reflection in the mirror of her vanity case; “I may glitter in the fighting-top, but it is genuine. When I was a kid I was a regular little towhead.”
“I never supposed for a moment that it was anything but genuine.”
“Then you’ve got a fine, unsuspicious nature, dadda, and I admire you for it.”
“Six o’clock at Waterloo,” said the earl. “I will be waiting for you.”
Billie regarded him with affectionate admiration.
“Boys will be boys,” she said. “All right, I’ll be there.”
“YOUNG blighted Albert,” said Keggs, the butler, shifting his weight so that it distributed itself more comfortably over the creaking chair in which he reclined, “let this be a lesson to you, young feller me lad!”
The day was a week after Lord Marshmoreton’s visit to London, the hour six o’clock. The housekeeper’s room, in which the upper servants took their meals, had emptied. Of the gay company which had just finished dinner only Keggs remained, placidly digesting. Albert, whose duty it was to wait on the upper servants, was moving to and fro, morosely collecting the plates and glasses. The boy was in no happy frame of mind. Throughout dinner the conversation at table had dealt almost exclusively with the now celebrated elopement of Reggie Byng and his bride, and few subjects could have made more painful listening to Albert.
“What’s been the result and what I might call the upshot,” said Keggs, continuing his homily, “of all your making yourself so busy and thrusting of yourself forward and meddling in the affairs of your elders and betters? The upshot and issue of it ’as been that you are out five shillings and nothing to show for it. Five shillings what you might have spent on some good book and improved your mind! And goodness knows it wants all the improving it can get, for of all the worthless, idle little messers it’s ever been my misfortune to ’ave dealings with, you are the champion. Be careful of them plates, young man, and don’t breathe so ’ard. You ’aven’t got hasthma or something, ’ave you?”
“I can’t breathe now!” complained the stricken child.
“Not like a grampus you can’t, and don’t you forget it!” Keggs wagged his head reprovingly. “Well, so your Reggie Byng’s gone and eloped, has he! That ought to teach you to be more careful another time ’ow you go gambling and plunging into sweepstakes. The idea of a child of your age ’aving the audacity to thrust ’isself forward like that!”
“Don’t call him my Reggie Byng! I didn’t draw ’im!”
“There’s no need to go into all that again, young feller. You accepted ’im freely and without prejudice when the fair exchange was suggested, so for all practical intents and purposes he is your Reggie Byng. I ’ope you’re going to send him a wedding present.”
“Well, you ain’t any better off than me, with all your ’ighway robbery!”
“You ’eard what I said.”
“Well, don’t let me ’ear you say it again. The idea! If you ’ad any objections to parting with that ticket, you should have stated them clearly at the time. And what do you mean by saying I ain’t any better off than you are?”
“I ’ave my reasons.”
“You think you ’ave, which is a very different thing. I suppose you imagine that you’ve put a stopper on a certain little affair by surreptitiously destroying letters intrusted to you.”
“I never!” exclaimed Albert with a convulsive start that nearly sent eleven plates dashing to destruction.
“ ’Ow many times have I got to tell you to be careful of them plates?” said Keggs sternly. “Who do you think you are, a juggler on the ’alls, ’urling them about like that? Yes, I know all about that letter. You thought you was very clever, I’ve no doubt. But let me tell you, young blighted Albert, that only the other evening ’er ladyship and Mr. Bevan ’ad a long and extended interview in spite of all your hefforts. I saw through your little game, and I proceeded and went and arranged the meeting.”
In spite of himself Albert was awed. He was oppressed by the sense of struggling with a superior intellect.
“Yes, you did!” he managed to say with the proper note of incredulity, but in his heart he was not incredulous. Dimly Albert had begun to perceive that years must elapse before he could become capable of matching himself in battles of the wits with this master strategist.
“Yes, I certainly did!” said Keggs. “I don’t know what ’appened at the interview, not being present in person. But I’ve no doubt that everything proceeded satisfactorily.”
“And a fat lot of good that’s going to do you, when ’e ain’t allowed to come inside the ’ouse!”
A bland smile irradiated the butler’s moonlike face.
“If by ’e you’re alloodin’ to Mr. Bevan, young blighted Albert, let me tell you that it won’t be long before ’e becomes a regular duly invited guest at the castle!”
“A lot of chance!”
“Would you care to ’ave another five shillings, even money, on it?”
Albert recoiled. He had had enough of speculation where the butler was concerned. Where that schemer was allowed to get within reach of it hard cash melted away.
“What are you going to do?”
“Never you mind what I’m going to do. I ’ave my methods. All I say to you is that to-morrow or the day after Mr. Bevan will be seated in our dining ’all with ’is feet under our table, replying according to his personal taste and preference when I ask ’im if ’e’ll ’ave ’ock or sherry. Brush all them crumbs carefully off the tablecloth, young blighted Albert, don’t shuffle your feet, breathe softly through your nose, and close the door be’ind you when you’ve finished!”
“Oh, go and eat coke!” said Albert bitterly. But he said it to his immortal soul, not aloud. The lad’s spirit was broken.
Keggs, the processes of digestion completed, presented himself before Lord Belpher in the billiard room. Percy was alone. The house party, so numerous on the night of the ball and on his birthday, had melted down now to reasonable proportions. The second and third cousins had retired, flushed and gratified, to obscure dens from which they had emerged, and the castle housed only the more prominent members of the family, always harder to dislodge than the small fry.
“Might I have a word with your lordship?”
“What is it, Keggs?”
Keggs was a self-possessed man, but he found it a little hard to begin. Then he remembered that once in the misty past he had seen Lord Belpher spanked for stealing jam, he himself having acted on that occasion as prosecuting attorney; and the memory nerved him.
“I earnestly ’ope that your lordship will not think that I am taking a liberty. I ’ave been in his lordship your father’s service many years now, and the family honor is, if I may be pardoned for saying so, extremely near my ’eart. I ’ave known your lordship since you were a mere boy, and ——”
Lord Belpher had listened with growing impatience to this preamble. His temper was seldom at its best these days, and the rolling periods annoyed him.
“Yes, yes, of course,” he said. “What is it?”
Keggs was himself now. In his opening remarks he had simply been, as it were, winding up, like a pitcher. He was now prepared to put a few over the plate.
“Your lordship will recall inquiring of me on the night of the ball as to the bona fides of one of the temporary waiters—the one that stated that ’e was the cousin of young bli—of the boy Albert, the page? I have been making inquiries, your lordship, and I regret to say find that the man was a impostor. He informed me that he was Albert’s cousin, but Albert now informs me that ’e has no cousin in America. I am extremely sorry that this should have occurred, your lordship, and I ’ope you will attribute it to the bustle and hustle inseparable from duties such as mine on such a occasion.”
Lord Belpher nodded curtly.
“I know the fellow was an impostor. He was probably after the spoons!”
“If I might be allowed to take a further liberty, your lordship, might I suggest that I am aware of the man’s identity and of his motive for visiting the castle.”
He waited a little apprehensively. This was the crucial point in the interview. If Lord Belpher did not now freeze him with a glance and order him from the room, the danger would be past, and he could speak freely. His light-blue eyes were expressionless as they met Percy’s, but inwardly he was feeling much the same sensation as he was wont to experience when the family was in town and he had managed to slip off to Kempton Park or some other race course and put some of his savings on a horse. As he felt when the racing steeds thundered down the straight, so did he feel now.
Astonishment showed in Lord Belpher’s round face. Just as it was about to be succeeded by indignation, the butler spoke again:
“I am aware, your lordship, that it is not my place to offer suggestions as to the private and intimate affairs of the family I ’ave the honor to serve, but, if your lordship would consent to overlook the liberty, I think I could be of ’elp and assistance in a matter which is causing annoyance and unpleasantness to all.”
He invigorated himself with another dip into the waters of memory. Yes! The young man before him might be Lord Belpher, son of his employer and heir to all these great estates, but once he had seen him spanked.
Perhaps Percy also remembered this. Perhaps he merely felt that Keggs was a faithful old servant, and as such entitled to thrust himself into the family affairs. Whatever his reasons, he now definitely lowered the barrier.
“Well?” he said, with a glance at the door to make sure that there were no witnesses to an act of which the aristocrat in him disapproved. “Go on!”
Keggs breathed freely. The danger point was passed.
“ ’Aving a natural interest, your lordship,” he said, “we of the servants’ ’all generally manage to become respectfully aware of whatever ’appens to be transpirin’ above-stairs. May I say that I become acquainted at an early stage with the trouble which your lordship is unfortunately ’aving with a certain party.”
Lord Belpher, although his whole being revolted against what practically amounted to hobnobbing with a butler, perceived that he had committed himself to the discussion. It revolted him to think that these delicate family secrets were the subject of conversation in menial circles, but it was too late to do anything now. And such was the whole-heartedness with which he had declared war upon George Bevan that, at this stage in the proceedings, his chief emotion was a hope that Keggs might have something sensible to suggest.
“I think, begging your lordship’s pardon for making the remark, that you are acting injudicious. I ’ave been in service a great number of years, startin’ as steward’s-room boy and rising to my present position, and I may say I ’ave had experience during those years of several cases where the daughter or son of the ’ouse contemplated a misalliance, and all but one of the cases ended disastrously, your lordship, on account of the family trying opposition. It is my experience that opposition in matters of the ’eart is useless, feedin’, as it so to speak does, the flame. Young people, your lordship, if I may be pardoned for employing the expression in the present case, are naturally romantic, and if you keep ’em away from a thing they sit and pity themselves and want it all the more. And in the end you may be sure they get it. There’s no way of stoppin’ them. I was not on sufficiently easy terms with the late Lord Worlingham to give ’im the benefit of my experience on the occasion when the Honorable Aubrey Pershore fell in love with the young person at the Gaiety Theater. Otherwise I could have told ’im he was not acting judicious. His lordship opposed the match in every way, and the young couple ran off and got married at a registrar’s. It was the same when a young man who was tutor to ’er ladyship’s brother attracted Lady Evelyn Walls, the only daughter of the Earl of Ackleton. In fact, your lordship, the only entanglement of the kind that came to a satisfactory conclusion in the whole of my personal experience was the affair of Lady Catherine Duseby, Lord Bridgefield’s daughter, who injudiciously became infatuated with a roller-skating instructor.”
Lord Belpher had ceased to feel distantly superior to his companion. The butler’s powerful personality hypnotized him. Long ere the harangue was ended, he was as a little child drinking in the utterances of a master. He bent forward eagerly. Keggs had broken off his remarks at the most interesting point.
“What happened?” inquired Percy.
“The young man,” proceeded Keggs, “was a young man of considerable personal attractions, ’avin’ large brown eyes and a athletic, lissome figure, brought about by roller skating. It was no wonder, in the opinion of the servants’ ’all, that ’er ladyship should have found ’erself fascinated by him, particularly as I myself ’ad ’eard her observe at a full luncheon-table that roller skating was in her opinion the only thing, except her toy Pomeranian, that made life worth living. But when she announced that she had become engaged to this young man, there was the greatest consternation. I was not, of course, privileged to be a participant at the many councils and discussions that ensued and took place, but I was aware that such transpired with great frequency. Eventually ’is lordship took the shrewd step of assuming acquiescence and inviting the young man to visit us in Scotland. And within ten days of ’is arrival, your lordship, the match was broken off. He went back to ’is roller skating, and ’er ladyship took up visiting the poor and eventually contracted an altogether suitable alliance by marrying Lord Ronald Spofforth, the second son of His Grace the Duke of Gorbals and Strathbungo.”
“ How did it happen?”
“Seein’ the young man in the surroundings of ’er own ’ome, ’er ladyship soon began to see that she had taken too romantic a view of ’im previous, your lordship. ’E was one of the lower middle class, what is sometimes termed the bourjoisy, and ’is ’abits were not the ’abits of the class to which ’er ladyship belonged. ’E ’ad nothing in common with the rest of the ’ouse party, and was injudicious in ’is choice of forks. The very first night at dinner ’e took a steel knife to the ontray, and I see ’er ladyship look at him very sharp, as much as to say the scales had fallen from ’er eyes. It didn’t take ’er long after that to become convinced that ’er ’eart ’ad led ’er astray.”
“Then you think ——”
“It is not for me to presume to offer anything but the most respectful advice, your lordship, but I should most certainly advocate a similar procedure in the present instance.”
Lord Belpher reflected. Recent events had brought home to him the magnitude of the task he had assumed when he had appointed himself the watcher of his sister’s movements. The affair of the curate and the village blacksmith had shaken him both physically and spiritually. His feet were still sore, and his confidence in himself had waned considerably. The thought of having to continue his espionage indefinitely was not a pleasant one. How much more effective it would be to adopt the suggestion which had been offered to him.
“I’m not sure you aren’t right, Keggs.”
“Thank you, your lordship. I feel convinced of it.”
“I will speak to my father to-night.”
“Very good, your lordship. I am glad to have been of service.”
“Young blighted Albert,” said Keggs crisply, shortly after breakfast on the following morning, “you’re to take this note to Mr. Bevan at the cottage down by Platt’s farm, and you’re to deliver it without playing any of your monkey tricks, and you’re to wait for an answer, and you’re to bring that answer back to me to ’and to Lord Marshmoreton. And I may tell you, to save you the trouble of opening it with steam from the kitchen kettle, that I ’ave already done so. It’s an invitation to dine with us to-night. So now you know. Look slippy!”
Albert capitulated. For the first time in his life he felt humble. He perceived how misguided he had been ever to suppose that he could pit his pygmy wits against this smooth-faced worker of wonders.
“Crikey!” he ejaculated.
It was all that he could say.
“And there’s one more thing, young fellow me lad,” added Keggs earnestly; “don’t you ever grow up to be such a fat’ead as our friend Percy. Don’t forget I warned you.”
LIFE is like some crazy machine that is always going either too slow or too fast. From the cradle to the grave we alternate between the Sargasso Sea and the rapids, forever either becalmed or storm-tossed. It seemed to Maud, as she looked across the dinner-table in order to make sure for the twentieth time that it really was George Bevan who sat opposite her, that, after months in which nothing whatever had happened, she was now living through a period when everything was happening at once. Life, from being a broken-down machine, had suddenly begun to race.
To the orderly routine that stretched back to the time when she had been hurried home in disgrace from Wales, there had succeeded a mad whirl of events, to which the miracle of to-night had come as a fitting climax. She had not begun to dress for dinner till somewhat late, and had consequently entered the drawing-room just as Keggs was announcing that the meal was ready. She had received her first shock when the lovesick Plummer, emerging from a mixed crowd of relatives and friends, had informed her that he was to take her in. She had not expected Plummer to be there, though he lived in the neighborhood. Plummer at their last meeting had stated his intention of going abroad for a bit to mend his bruised heart, and it was a little disconcerting to a sensitive girl to find her victim popping up again like this. She did not know that, as far as Plummer was concerned, the whole affair was to be considered opened again.
To Plummer, analyzing the girl’s motives in refusing him, there had come the idea that there was another, and that this other must be Reggie Byng. From the first he had always looked upon Reggie as his worst rival. And now Reggie had bolted with the Faraday girl, leaving Maud in excellent condition, so it seemed to Plummer, to console herself with a worthier man. Plummer knew all about the rebound and the part it plays in affairs of the heart. His own breach-of-promise case two years earlier had been entirely due to the fact that the refusal of the youngest Devenish girl to marry him had caused him to rebound into the dangerous society of the second girl from the O. P. end of the first row in the Summertime is Kissing Time number in the Alhambra revue. He had come to the castle to-night gloomy, but not without hope.
Maud’s second shock eclipsed the first entirely. No notification had been given to her either by her father or by Percy of the proposed extension of the hand of hospitality to George, and the sight of him standing there talking to her aunt Caroline made her momentarily dizzy. Life, which for several days had had all the properties now of a dream, now of a nightmare, became more unreal than ever. She could conceive no explanation of George’s presence. He could not be there, that was all there was to it; yet there undoubtedly he was. Her manner, as she accompanied Plummer down the stairs, took on such a dazed sweetness that her escort felt that in coming there that night he had done the wisest act of a lifetime studded but sparsely with wise acts. It seemed to Plummer that this girl had softened toward him. Certainly something had changed her. He could not know that she was merely wondering if she was awake.
George, meanwhile, across the table, was also having a little difficulty in adjusting his faculties to the progress of events. He had given up trying to imagine why he had been invited to this dinner, and was now endeavoring to find some theory which would square with the fact of Billie Dore’s being at the castle. At precisely this hour Billie, by rights, should have been putting the finishing touches on her make-up in a second-floor dressing room at the Regal. Yet there she sat, very much at her ease in this aristocratic company, so quietly and unobtrusively dressed in some black stuff that at first he had scarcely recognized her. She was talking to the Bishop.
The voice of Keggs at his elbow broke in on his reverie:
“Sherry or ’ock, sir?”
George could not have explained why this reminder of the butler’s presence should have made him feel better, but it did. There was something solid and tranquilizing about Keggs. He had noticed it before. For the first time the sensation of having been smitten over the head with some blunt instrument began to abate. It was as if Keggs by the mere intonation of his voice had said:
“All this no doubt seems very strange and unusual to you, but feel no alarm! I am here!”
George began to sit up and take notice. A cloud seemed to have cleared from his brain. He found himself looking on his fellow diners as individuals rather than as a confused mass. The prophet Daniel, after the initial embarrassment of finding himself in the society of the lions had passed away, must have experienced a somewhat similar sensation.
He began to sort these people out and label them. There had been introductions in the drawing-room, but they had merely left him with a bewildered sense of having heard somebody recite a page from Burke’s Peerage. Not since that day in the free library in London, when he had dived into that fascinating volume in order to discover Maud’s identity, had he undergone such a rain of titles. He now took stock, to ascertain how many of these people he could identify.
The stock taking was an absolute failure. Of all those present the only individuals he could swear to were his own personal little playmates with whom he had sported in other surroundings. There was Lord Belpher, for instance, eying him with a hostility that could hardly be called veiled. There was Lord Marshmoreton at the head of the table, listening glumly to the conversation of a stout woman with a pearl necklace. But who was the woman? Was it Lady Jane Allenby or Lady Edith Wade-Beverly or Lady Patricia Fowles? And who, above all, was the pie-faced fellow with the mustache talking to Maud?
He sought assistance from the girl he had taken in to dinner. She appeared, as far as he could ascertain from a short acquaintance, to be an amiable little thing. She was small and young and fluffy, and he had caught enough of her name at the moment of introduction to gather that she was plain “Miss” Something, a fact which seemed to him to draw them together. “I wish you would tell me who some of these people are,” he said, as she turned from talking to the man on her other side. “Who is the man over there?”
“The one talking to Lady Maud. The fellow whose face ought to be shuffled and dealt again.”
“That’s my brother.”
That held George during the soup.
“I’m sorry about your brother,” he said, rallying with the fish.
“That’s very sweet of you.”
“It was the light that deceived me. Now that I look again, I see that his face has great charm.”
The girl giggled. George began to feel better.
“Who are some of the others? I didn’t get your name, for instance. They shot it at me so quick that it had whizzed by before I could catch it.”
“My name is Plummer.”
George was electrified. He looked across the table with more vivid interest. The amorous Plummer had been just a voice to him till now. It was exciting to see him in the flesh.
“And who are the rest of them?”
“They are nearly all members of the family. I thought you knew them.”
“I know Lord Marshmoreton. And Lady Maud. And, of course, Lord Belpher.” He caught Percy’s eye as it surveyed him coldly from the other side of the table, and nodded cheerfully. “Great pal of mine, Lord Belpher.”
The fluffy Miss Plummer twisted her pretty face into a grimace of disapproval.
“I don’t like Percy!”
“I think he’s conceited.”
“Surely not? What could he have to be conceited about?”
“Yes, of course, that’s how he strikes people at first. The first time I met him, I though he was an awful stiff. But you should see him in his moments of relaxation. He’s one of those fellows you have to get to know. He grows on you.”
“Yes, but look at that affair with the policeman in London. Everybody in the county is talking about it.”
“Young blood!” sighed George. “Young blood! Of course, Percy is wild.”
“He must have been intoxicated.”
“Oh, undoubtedly,” said George.
Miss Plummer glanced across the table.
“Do look at Edwin!”
“Which is Edwin?”
“My brother, I mean—look at the way he keeps staring at Maud. Edwin’s awfully in love with Maud,” she prattled on with engaging frankness. “At least he thinks he is. He’s been in love with a different girl every season since I came out. And now that Reggie Byng has gone and got married to Alice Faraday, he thinks he has a chance. You heard about that, I suppose?”
“Yes, I did hear something about it.”
“Of course, Edwin’s wasting his time really. I happen to know”—Miss Plummer sank her voice to a whisper—“I happen to know that Maud’s awfully in love with some man she met in Wales last year, but the family won’t hear of it.”
“Families are like that,” agreed George.
“Nobody knows who he is, but everybody in the county knows all about it. Those things get about, you know. Of course, it’s out of the question. Maud will have to marry somebody awfully rich or with a title. Her family’s one of the oldest in England, you know.”
“So I understand.”
“It isn’t as if she were the daughter of Lord Peebles, or somebody like that.”
“Why Lord Peebles?”
“Well, what I mean to say is,” said Miss Plummer with a silvery echo of Reggie Byng, “he made his money in whisky.”
“That’s better than spending it that way,” argued George.
Miss Plummer looked puzzled.
“I see what you mean,” she said a little vaguely. “Lord Marshmoreton is so different.”
“Haughty nobleman stuff, eh?”
“So you think this mysterious man in Wales hasn’t a chance?”
“Not unless he and Maud elope like Reggie Byng and Alice. Wasn’t that exciting! Who would ever have suspected that Reggie had the dash to do a thing like that? Lord Marshmoreton’s new secretary is very pretty, don’t you think?”
“Which is she?”
“The girl in black with the golden hair.”
“Is she Lord Marshmoreton’s secretary!”
“Yes, she’s an American girl. I think she’s much nicer than Alice Faraday. I was talking to her before dinner. Her name is Dore. Her father was a captain in the American Army, who died without leaving her a penny. He was the younger son of a very distinguished family, but his family disowned him because he married against their wishes.”
“Something ought to be done to stop these families,” said George. “They’re always up to something.”
“So Miss Dore had to go out and earn her own living. It must have been awful for her, mustn’t it, having to give up society?”
“Did she give up society?”
“Oh, yes; she used to go everywhere in New York before her father died. I think American girls are wonderful. They have so much enterprise.”
George at the moment was thinking that it was in imagination that they excelled.
“I wish I could go out and earn my living,” said Miss Plummer. “But the family won’t dream of it.”
“The family again!” said George sympathetically. “They’re a perfect curse.”
“I want to go on the stage. Are you fond of the theater?”
“I love it. Have you seen Hubert Broadleigh in ’Twas Once in Spring?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t.”
“He’s wonderful. Have you seen Cynthia Dane in A Woman’s No?”
“I missed that one too.”
“Perhaps you prefer musical pieces? I saw an awfully good musical comedy before I left town. It’s called Follow the Girl. It’s at the Regal Theater. Have you seen it?”
“I wrote it.”
“That is to say, I wrote the music.”
“But the music’s lovely,” gasped little Miss Plummer, as if the fact made his claim ridiculous. “I’ve been humming it ever since.”
“I can’t help that. I still stick to it that I wrote it.”
“You aren’t George Bevan!”
“But”—Miss Plummer’s voice almost failed her—“but I’ve been dancing to your music for years! I’ve got about fifty of your records at home.”
George blushed. However successful a man may be, he can never get really used to fame at close range.
“Why, that trickly thing—you know, in the second act—is the darlingest thing I ever heard. I’m mad about it.”
“Do you mean the one that goes lumty-tumty-tum, tumty-tumty-tum?”
“No, the one that goes ta-rumty-tum-tum, ta-tumty-tum-tum. You know, the one about Granny dancing the shimmy.”
“I’m not responsible for the words, you know,” urged George hastily. “Those are wished on me by the lyrist.”
“I think the words are splendid. ‘Although poor popper thinks it’s improper, Granny’s always doing it and nobody can stop her!’ I loved it.” Miss Plummer leaned forward excitedly. She was an impulsive girl. “Lady Caroline!”
Conversation stopped. Lady Caroline turned.
“Did you know that Mr. Bevan was the Mr. Bevan?”
Everybody was listening now. George huddled pinkly in his chair. He had not foreseen this ballyhooing.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego combined had never felt a tithe of the warmth that consumed him.
He was essentially a modest young man.
“The Mr. Bevan?” echoed Lady Caroline coldly. It was painful to her to have to recognize George’s existence on the same planet as herself. To admire him, as Miss Plummer apparently expected her to do, was a loathsome task. She cast one glance, fresh from the refrigerator, at the shrinking George, and elevated her aristocratic eyebrows.
Miss Plummer was not damped. She was at the hero-worshiping age, and George shared with the Messrs. Douglas Fairbanks, Francis X. Bushman, and one or two tennis champions an imposing pedestal in her Hall of Fame.
“You know—George Bevan, who wrote the music of Follow the Girl.”
Lady Caroline showed no signs of thawing. She had not heard of Follow the Girl. Her attitude suggested that, while she admitted the possibility of George’s having disgraced himself in the manner indicated, it was nothing to her.
“And all those other things,” pursued Miss Plummer. “You must have heard his music on the talking machine!”
“Why, of course!”
It was not Lady Caroline who spoke, but a man farther down the table. He spoke with enthusiasm.
“Of course, by Jove!” he said. “The Schenectady Shimmy, by Jove, and all that! Ripping!”
Everybody seemed pleased and interested. Everybody, that is to say, except Lady Caroline and Lord Belpher. Percy was feeling that he had been tricked. He cursed the imbecility of Keggs in suggesting that this man should be invited to dinner. Everything had gone wrong. George was an undoubted success. The majority of the company were solid for him. As far as exposing his unworthiness in the eyes of Maud was concerned the dinner had been a ghastly failure. Much better to have left him to lurk in his infernal cottage. Lord Belpher drained his glass moodily. He was seriously upset.
But his discomfort at that moment was as nothing to the agony which rent his tortured soul a moment later. Lord Marshmoreton, who had been listening with growing excitement to the chorus of approval, rose from his seat. He cleared his throat. It was plain that Lord Marshmoreton had something on his mind.
“Er . . . .” he said.
The clatter of conversation ceased once more, stunned, as it always is at dinner parties when one of the gathering is seen to have assumed an upright position. Lord Marshmoreton cleared his throat again. His tanned face had taken on a deeper hue, and there was a look in his eyes which seemed to suggest that he was defying something or somebody. It was the look which Ajax had in his eyes when he defied the lightning, the look which nervous husbands have when they announce their intention of going round the corner to bowl a few games with the boys. One could not say definitely that Lord Marshmoreton looked pop-eyed. On the other hand, one could not assert truthfully that he did not. At any rate, he was manifestly embarrassed. He had made up his mind to a certain course of action on the spur of the moment, taking advantage, as others have done, of the trend of popular enthusiasm; and his state of mind was nervous but resolute, like that of a soldier going over the top. He cleared his throat for the third time, took one swift glance at his sister Caroline, then gazed glassily into the emptiness above her head.
“I take this opportunity,” he said rapidly, clutching at the tablecloth for support—“take this opportunity of announcing the engagement of my daughter Maud to Mr. Bevan. And,” he concluded with a rush, pouring back into his chair, “I should like you all to drink their health!”
There was a silence that hurt. It was broken by two sounds, occurring simultaneously in different parts of the room. One was a gasp from Lady Caroline. The other was a crash of glass.
For the first time in a long and unblemished career Keggs the butler had dropped a tray.
(to be concluded)
Note: Thanks to Neil Midkiff for providing the transcription and images for this story.