The Saturday Evening Post, July 12, 1924
LONDON was a dead and empty city when Bill turned the corner into the Prince of Wales Road, Battersea. Even the coffee stall at the end of the road was silent and deserted. Just how late it was he did not know, for his watch, like time itself, seemed to have stopped. He was dimly aware of a not unpleasant fatigue, for, like Judson on a previous occasion, he had walked all the way back from Wimbledon—not, as had been the case with Judson, because he had to, but because his uplifted mood made any other form of locomotion impossible.
Lovers are a curious and unpractical race. If Bill had been asked what he imagined himself to have gained by his journey to Holly House and those hours of silent sentinel duty in the shadows of its garden, he would not have been able to say; yet he was not conscious of having wasted his time. The fact, too, that it had been quite impossible for one with his slight knowledge of the topography of the house to guess which of those windows whose lights had gone out one by one as he watched belonged to Flick did not in any way take the edge off his fervor. For all he knew, he might have been expending his emotional energy on the window of his Uncle Cooley or even on that of Mrs. Hammond; but he did not care. He had done the only thing possible on such a night, and now he was ready to drop into bed and dream of quickly made fortunes and a life lived happily ever after.
He climbed the five flights of stairs that led to Number 9, Marmont Mansions and, stepping delicately to avoid waking Judson, reached his room. Ten minutes later he was asleep.
Exactly when it was that he was wakened by a noise that sounded like the sudden collapse of the roof, he could not have said. The evidence of his window, which had been an oblong of black and was now an oblong of dingy gray, seemed to point to the fact of several hours having passed. He was on the point of dismissing the noise as part of a dream, when the sound of a hearty chuckle outside his door came to convince him of its reality. There was somebody in the passage, and, however unpleasant it might be to get out of bed, it behooved him to go and look into the matter. Only an idiot burglar would burgle a place like this and laugh while doing so; but even idiot burglars must be thrown out by the conscientious householder. Bill put on a pair of slippers, grasped a chair as the handiest weapon and charged forth.
The noise had evidently been caused by the falling of the hatstand, and what had caused the hatstand to fall had just as evidently been the efforts of Judson Coker to hang his hat on it. He was now leaning placidly against the front door, and he turned a happy face in Bill’s direction as the latter came out of his room. He was still in full evening dress, with the exception of the white tie conventionally worn with that costume. This he had apparently lost or given away; and in place of this he was decorated with a ribbon of light blue of the kind used to adorn the female hair, hanging diagonally athwart his shirt front and giving him a vaguely ambassadorial look. His hair was disordered, and he beamed at Bill with an almost overpowering friendliness.
“Hullo, Bill, o’ man!” he cried jubilantly. “Say, I can’t get this darned thing to stand up, Bill, o’ man. Every time I try to make it stand up it falls down, and every time it falls down it makes the most awful noise, and every time it makes the most awful noise I try to stand it up, and every time I try to stand it up it falls down, and every time—— Where was I?” he asked, puzzled.
Bill lowered his chair and regarded him sternly; then stooped and restored the hatstand to an upright position. Judson, who had watched the process with a tense interest that would have been almost excessive if his friend had been trying to walk a tight rope across Niagara Falls, uttered an excited cry.
“You did it!” There was nothing petty or envious, no hidden note of jealousy about his admiration. “You did it! First shot! You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”
“Don’t make such an infernal noise!”
“You’re quite right, Bill, o’ man. Noise, yes. But not infernal noise. Well, Bill,” proceeded Judson genially, “it’s great seeing you again after all this long time. Yessir, that’s what it is—great! What have you been doing with yourself? Sit down and tell me all about it.”
“What have you been doing, that’s what I would like to know.”
Judson nodded owlishly. “You’re absolutely right, Bill; absolutely right. You’re always absolutely right. And a great gift it is too. Nothing to beat it. Well, Bill, o’ man, I’ve been out to supper. You remember my pointing out a girl to you at the Al-al—Al-hal—— Wait!” said Judson with dignity, raising a compelling hand. “Lots of fellows think I can’t say the word. Oh, yes, they do! It’s all over London that I cannot pronounce the word Al-ham-ber-er, but I can, I can, I can, and I’m glad! glad! glad! Where was I?”
Bill, somewhat recovered now from the moroseness which comes to those abruptly awakened in the small hours, was growing interested.
“Did you meet someone who took you to supper?” he asked.
“No, sir!” replied Judson with a touch of hauteur. “I was the one that took someone to supper. Yes, I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say, where did I get the money to take someone to supper? And very frank and honest of you, too, to say so. Manly, that’s what I call it—manly. I got that money, Bill, o’ man, because I’ve got a head.”
“You’ll have one tomorrow all right,” said Bill unkindly.
“A smart business head,” resumed Judson. “Lots of fellows haven’t got smart business heads, and where are they? Streeping the sweets. You know what I did? Well, listen then, because you’re a young man trying to get along, and this’ll be useful to you. Alhambra! I’ve said it once and I can say it again. You remember that piece there was in all the London papers about Toddy van Riter founding the Silks? Well, I clipped that out and mailed it to Toddy and told him I’d had it put in all the London papers because he was a young man trying to get along and I wanted to do him a good turn. At the same time—and mark this, Bill, always bearing in mind the word ‘Alhambra’—at the same time I asked him to lend me a hundred smackers. And what ensued? He sent ’em! They arrived this morning. And that’s why I say to you—and I want to lay stress on this, Bill—that anyone who thinks that just because I’ve been having a bite of supper I can’t say the word ‘Alhambra’ lies! Lies,” said Judson, waving his hand spaciously and restoring his balance by a swift snatch at the hatstand, “in his teeth! And you know as well as I do, Bill, that it’s the worst possible thing to lie in your teeth, because four in every five will get pyorrhea.”
“You’d better go to bed,” said Bill.
“I will,” agreed Judson with a sage nod of his smart business head. “That’s just one little thing that I will do. I’d like,” he went on, eying the hatstand with sudden truculence, “to see the man who will stop me going to bed. That’s me. Blunt and straightforward, and if people don’t like it they can do the other thing. I’m going to bed. Just like that!”
“This way,” said Bill. “Watch your step.”
“Funny you should have said that, Bill, o’ man,” chuckled Judson. “It’s just what that girl said. The girl I met at the Al-hal——” He halted. “Bill, there’s something at the back of my mind that I want to tell you. Something important. But what is it? Ah! There you have me! But it’ll come back. Oh, yes, it’ll come back. Never forget that, Bill. However black the sky, however dark the outlook, it’ll come. Well, good night, Bill, o’ man. Mustn’t keep me up,” said Judson, and with a brief “Alhambra!” vanished into his room.
Daylight was now streaming pinkly in through the window and the bird population of Battersea Park had begun to greet it with a vociferous chirping. The light and the noise combined prevented Bill from dropping off to sleep; which was just as well, for an hour later his door opened and Judson made his appearance, clad now in a suit of blue pajamas.
“Just looked in to tell you that thing I forgot,” said Judson. “It came to me in a flash only half a minute ago.”
Judson plunged into thoughtful silence for a moment.
“Sorry,” he said. “Forgotten it again. Good night, o’ man.”
He retired. Bill closed his eyes, and after what seemed the lapse of a few minutes awoke to find that the morning was well advanced—so well advanced that he could hear down the passage as he opened his door the pleasing sound of one who prepared breakfast. He made his way to the bathroom, to the accompaniment of a musical snoring from behind Judson’s closed door.
It was only after Bill had finished breakfast and was reading the Sunday papers that the heir of the Cokers presented himself. A trifle pale, he seemed nevertheless in far better condition than one meeting him some hours back would have supposed possible. His mental equilibrium also seemed to have reëstablished itself. He bade Bill a subdued but friendly good morning and drank four cups of coffee in rapid succession.
“Did I dream it,” he said, “or did I make a certain amount of noise coming in last night? Seem to remember crashing into something.”
“That was when you upset the hatstand.”
“The hatstand!” said Judson, pleased. “That was the clew I wanted. Now it all comes back to me. How much did I tell you, o’ man, when I came in? Or didn’t I? I seem to remember having a chat with you.”
“You told me Toddy van Riter had sent you a hundred dollars.”
“That’s right.” Judson helped himself to more coffee but declined, with a gentle shake of the head and the soft, sad smile of a suffering saint, Bill’s offer of scrambled eggs. “In fact,” he confessed, with reference to these wholesome foodstuffs, “I don’t believe I can even stand the sight of them. You might put a paper up in front of your plate, Bill. Thanks. It’s funny about eggs on the morning after. They sort of look at you.” He drank deeply from his coffee cup. “Well, now let’s see. Did I tell you about taking Prudence Stryker to supper?”
“You told me you took someone to supper.”
“That’s right. Prudence Stryker. The girl I pointed out to you. A dear old pal of mine back in New York. Remind me sometime to tell you about the night she and I and Jimmy Boole and Freddy Osgood——”
“Thanks,” said Bill. “You told me about that at the Alhambra.”
“Did I? Oh? Well, there she was, prancing about on the stage last night, and after the show I popped round and took her out for a bite of supper. We had quite a good time.”
“So I gathered.”
“Got in with a bunch of hearty mixers and went on to a fellow’s apartment. Just a nice home evening. It wasn’t till about half past three in the morning that the people in the apartment below sent for the police. Well, what I’m trying to tell you, Bill, is that Prudence handed me a bit of information that’s going to send you singing up and down Prince of Wales Road. I meant to tell you last night, only it slipped my memory.”
“You’re sure you remember it now?”
“I certainly do. It was about that mutt Slingsby.”
Bill laid down his knife and fork the better to attend. For the first time he permitted himself to hope that this news of Judson’s might really be of importance. “How does Slingsby come into it?”
Judson shook his head sadly, as one mourning over the wickedness of the world.
“Slingsby treated that poor girl darned badly, Bill, o’ man. I didn’t get an absolute strangle hold on the facts of the case, because, between ourselves, I wasn’t feeling as bright as I could have wished at the moment; but I did get onto this, that Prudence and this fellow Slingsby were extremely matey for quite a time, and then he sneaked off and started going around with a girl from the Gaiety; and, one thing leading to another, Prudence did the square straightforward thing by blacking his eye and passing out of his life forever.”
“She blacked his eye? Then that was——”
“Exactly. It happened the night before Flick went to work in his office. But that’s neither here nor there, o’ man. I’m coming to the really important part. We somehow or other got talking about you, and I mentioned that you were old Paradene’s nephew and had come over to London to try to find out why the profits on the old boy’s business had fallen off; and then she said that you were just the fellow she wanted to meet, because she could put you wise to where the dirty work was.”
Bill sat up excitedly.
“There really has been dirty work?”
“As far as I could gather from Prudence, it has been running on all six cylinders for years. And here’s the point: I was verging on a state which you might call pie-eyed when she told me; but I gathered this much—that one night Slingsby, who must have been pretty well tanked himself to do such a bonehead thing, confided the whole business to her. Told her everything, o’ man! Where the body was buried and all about it. The way fellows you would ordinarily think darned shrewd, level-headed birds make goofs of themselves with women beats me. Look at Samson! Or Mark Antony, for the matter of that. The bigger they are,” sighed Judson, “the harder they fall.”
“But what was it? What has Slingsby been up to?”
“Ah! Now that,” said Judson, “she didn’t tell me, because she’s saving it up for you. She wants to give you the low-down in person, so that you can hand it on to the old man, thereby doing Slingsby dirt and putting him where he belongs. I’ve arranged everything. You’re to give her dinner tonight.”
“This very night. I’ll come, too, if you like.”
“Sure? No trouble, you know.”
“Quite sure, thanks.”
“Very well,” said Judson resignedly. “Maybe you’re right, at that,” he went on after a moment’s meditation. “The idea of a quiet evening and an early bed doesn’t look so bad to me, I’m bound to admit. For some reason or other I’ve got an odd sort of headachy feeling today. I guess it’s the weather. Well, she will meet you at Mario’s at 8:15. You can’t miss her. Tall, dark, handsome girl, built rather on the lines of a motor truck.”
“Mario’s?” said Bill. “No, hang it all, not Mario’s!”
“Eh? Why not?”
“Mario’s is sacred. It was there that I dined with Flick the last time we had dinner together before she went off to America.”
“You’ll go to Mario’s—and like it!” said Judson firmly. “Good heavens, you can’t expect the girl to start chopping and changing just to humor your whims! It’s darned decent of her to take the trouble to meet you at all.”
“Yes,” admitted Bill, “I suppose it is.”
“Eight-fifteen sharp in the lobby then. You won’t have any difficulty spotting her. She’ll be wearing a red dress. She’s rather Spanish in appearance, with great gleaming eyes and a lot of teeth.”
“Eh?” said Judson sharply.
“She’s a thoroughly nice girl. Full of pep. You’ll like her.”
“I will if she really tells me something important about Slingsby. Gosh, Juddy, do you realize that this may mean the straightening out of everything? If she can tell me as much as you think she can, I shall be in the strongest possible position with Uncle Cooley.”
“Aces and eights,” agreed Judson.
“And then I shall be able to take Flick away from those confounded people of hers and marry her without any more delay. Juddy, you don’t know how I feel about Flick. She’s like a wonderful inspiration. Sometimes, when I’m sitting all alone, I can see her face with those dear blue eyes of hers——”
Judson reached for the Sunday paper and hoisted it defensively in front of him. There are limits to the obligations of friendship.
“Some other time, o’ man,” he said.
THE spirit of optimism and joviality which has just been shown sweetening the daily round of Number 9, Marmont Mansions, Battersea, had found, during the week which had passed since Flick’s arrival, no counterpart at Holly House, Wimbledon. In spite of the fact that the return of prodigals is almost proverbially associated with joyful revelings and effervescent gayety on the part of the whole strength of the company, with the possible exception of the fatted calf, Flick had found little to cheer her in the atmosphere of her revisited home; and day by day in every way she had had need to fill her mind with thoughts of Bill in order to prevent depression claiming her for its own.
The lecture which her Aunt Frances had begun on the platform of Waterloo Station had continued intermittently throughout the week; and at seven o’clock on Sunday evening it gushed up into such a freshet of eloquence that Mr. Sinclair Hammond, bursting the bonds of years, put his foot down and asserted himself with a mild man’s impressive ferocity.
“Flick,” said Mr. Hammond, interrupting his wife’s remarks in an odd, strained voice.
“Yes, Uncle Sinclair?”
“Just run away for a moment, will you?”
Mrs. Hammond directed at him the gaze which had so often sent him cowering back among his books. But tonight it had no effect. Hell hath no fury like a mild and peace-loving man who has at last decided to give battle, and Mr. Hammond was strong with the strength of one who has been simmering for a week in a fury of suppressed animosity. Just as Bill West, another mild man, could be roused by a blow on the head with a stick, so could Sinclair Hammond be stirred to action by the spectacle of Flick, whom he loved, being talked to and talked at and nagged and harried and generally rendered miserable.
“I am speaking to Felicia,” said Mrs. Hammond frostily.
“Get out, Flickie,” said Mr. Hammond with a twisted half smile, and Flick left the room.
Mrs. Hammond turned majestically on her husband. Unlike the King of France, she had no one to warn her that this was no mere revolt, but a revolution which was to destroy her supremacy in the home forever; and she endeavored to crush him in the old familiar way.
“Be quiet,” said Mr. Hammond, and Mrs. Hammond was quiet.
“You’ve got to stop it, Francie,” said Mr. Hammond mildly, but holding her with a glittering eye. “You’ve had plenty of time to say all there was any need to say on the subject of Flick’s leaving home, and now you’ve finished. Do you understand? Definitely and completely finished. I won’t have the poor kid worried any more. And, to remove temptation from your path, I am now going to take her out to dinner somewhere. I am going to transport her to where there are lights and music and good dyspepsia-promoting food. The band will play, the lights will gleam. Who knows? I may even dance with her. And when we come home—probably at about six in the morning—you will welcome her with your famous smile; you will dig up a motherly embrace, and your pleasant chatter will deal exclusively with the brighter side of life. Do I make myself clear?”
“In one moment,” said Mr. Hammond suavely, but still with that unholy glitter in his benevolent eyes. “I asked you the simple question—do I make myself clear?”
“But, Sinclair,” protested Mrs. Hammond, and there was an awe-struck note of appeal in her voice, “you can’t take Felicia out to dinner!”
“Watch me!” said Mr. Hammond.
“But George is coming to dinner!”
“Your brother George,” said Mr. Hammond, “is a man whom in many ways I respect and admire. By his own efforts he has risen from rags to riches, so to speak, and I esteem him for it. But as a dinner-table companion for Flick at this particular moment he fails to qualify. You know George and I know George. He would lecture Flick, and I do not intend to have her lectured.”
“But he will think it so odd if Felicia is not here to meet him!” wailed Mrs. Hammond.
Mr. Hammond kissed her affectionately on the forehead. He was very fond of Francie.
“He may be able,” said Mr. Hammond frivolously, “to get an article for Pyke’s Weekly out of it. Famous Nieces Who Have Behaved Oddly to Famous Uncles. Well, I must be going up to dress. I suppose it means a white waistcoat.” He sighed. “Ah well, we must all make sacrifices in this world.”
He kissed Mrs. Hammond again and left the room humming.
“Flick!” he called.
Flick came out of the morning room.
“Flickie,” said Mr. Hammond, “we’re a couple of reckless young fellows out for a good time. How would you like to come and have dinner somewhere—somewhere low and vulgar? Let’s go to one of those Night Clubs Which are Living Hells that Society Spice writes about.”
Flick gazed at him for a moment with an incredulous awe. Dearly as she loved her Uncle Sinclair, she had always recognized his limitations. And this was open rebellion. This was hoisting the skull and crossbones.
“Wouldn’t it be lovely!” she said wistfully.
“It will be lovely,” Mr. Hammond corrected.
“But Uncle George is coming to dinner,” Flick reminded him.
“I know. Think how jolly it will be to revel in some gay café and feel that Uncle George is sitting snugly all the while in yonder dining room! It’ll be like turning on the cold shower and standing over by the bathroom door, watching it.”
Flick hugged him.
“You are a darling, Uncle Sinclair!”
“Well, I got a kind of idea that a little change would do you no harm tonight. Where shall we go? Do you know a good hell?”
“Let’s go to Mario’s.”
“Mario’s? A new name to me. Considering that I am one of the wild and depraved younger generation they’re always writing about nowadays, I know very little of London’s West End. Will it be devilish enough for me? I want a place where I can throw bread at people. How is the bread throwing at Mario’s?”
“Splendid! All the best shots go there. Mario’s was the place where young Lord Trevelyan picked off six waiters with six consecutive rolls.”
“Six?” said Mr. Hammond musingly. “Ah well, we must see what we can do. But how do you come to know of this low resort?”
“I went there once”—Flick hesitated—“with somebody.”
“H’m! Oh? Ah!” said Mr. Hammond. He scrutinized her a little closely and his manner took on a certain gravity. “Would it be indiscreet to ask with whom? And I hope you appreciate the fact that I am the only man in Wimbledon who wouldn’t have said, ‘Who with?’ Who took you to Mario’s, Flickie?”
“Bill West, Mr. Paradene’s nephew. You remember my telling you about him in the garden that day?”
“I remember. So he is over in this country—and you have met him again?”
“Flickie,” said Mr. Hammond, “I know you will think me an awful old bore, but I’m afraid I shall have to begin dinner by talking what you might call shop. You won’t mind?”
“I don’t mind anything you do, Uncle Sinclair.”
“Right!” said Mr. Hammond cheerfully. “I ought to get finished by about the fish course, and after that we’ll start throwing bread. Were these waiters that Lord Trevelyan bagged sitting or on the wing?”
“Indeed?” said Mr. Hammond. “Well, well, we can only do our best. Hurry up and get some clothes on, Flickie. I’m off to dig my white waistcoat out of the moth balls.”
“ FLAG that waiter, old love,” said Miss Prudence Stryker, indicating a sprinting martyr who was whizzing about among the crowded tables in his efforts to do the work of two ordinary men, “and remind him that when he was a little boy he promised to bring us a bottle of Lanson.”
Bill beamed politely and turned to do her behest.
“Louder,” recommended Miss Stryker. “Less of the Pekingese and a bit more of the bloodhound.”
“That’s better. You’ve got a nice voice. If you studied and had it developed you’d make a good train announcer.”
Bill beamed again. It seemed to him that he had been beaming through a dreadful eternity.
If it is true that a man may smile and smile and be a villain, it is equally the case that he may beam and beam and yet be in an extremely acute state of discomfort. Bill was not enjoying his evening out at Mario’s celebrated night club.
Even in those remote days when he had been wont to add his presence to those parties in New York of which Judson Coker had been the life and soul, Bill had never really derived much pleasure from this type of entertainment. Indeed, even before his mistaken infatuation for Alice Coker had turned his thoughts to deeper things, he had come quite definitely to the conclusion that parties bored him to extinction. To be at home at these bohemian revels a man has to have a nimble wit. He must be a strong kidder, a good scout and a great old josher, and must possess in addition an interior of cast steel and asbestos. Bill was deficient in all these qualities. His interior put up practically no resistance after the second or third cocktail, and no one was more keenly alive than he to the fact that he was a poor josher, an indifferent scout, and hardly to be reckoned a kidder at all by any impartial critic.
The present occasion was proving even more exacting than those other orgies. Then he had been one of a crowd, while now he was in the position of having to shoulder the whole weight of the entertainment himself, and it had proved a considerable weight. Apart from the fact that the holy associations of the place made it distasteful for him to dine there with anybody but Flick, there was a flamboyant exuberance about Miss Prudence Stryker which had oppressed him from the very moment when she had sailed forward to meet him in the lobby. The accuracy of Judson’s description of her had come home to him right from the start.
Judson had said that she was built on the lines of a motor truck. She was. Judson had said that she would be wearing a red dress. She was, though the adjective was almost feeble. Judson had said that she was full of pep. This also was true. The only point on which Judson had gone astray was in his prediction that Bill would like Miss Stryker. He did not. He would have been hard put to it to name any other living person whom he disliked more. He disliked her large and gleaming eyes. He disliked her impressive physique. He disliked the tendency which she had developed as early as the soup course to address him as old love. And most of all he disliked the way she bent forward and laughed merrily in his face and her habit of pointing her witticisms by slapping him on the arm. As Mr. Wilfrid Slingsby had discovered at an earlier date, Prudence Stryker was a girl of muscle, and her slaps were like the kicks of a playful horse.
Nevertheless, he persevered. Miss Stryker, whatever her surface faults, had one outstanding merit that eclipsed them all. She was the girl who knew where Mr. Slingsby had buried the body; and, as such, must be conciliated. So Bill, though speculating wanly as to what she would be like if the waiter ever brought that Lanson, brought the old bulldog courage of the Wests to bear and set himself grimly to see the thing through.
The exact nature of the body which Mr. Slingsby had buried refused to reveal itself. All through the age-long meal Miss Stryker stoutly declined to talk what she described as business, confining herself to snappy anecdote and mirthful jest. All that Bill had gleaned by the time the coffee arrived was that Mr. Slingsby’s secret was a pippin, well worth waiting for; and in the interval of waiting he managed to achieve such a creditable imitation of a vivacious host that Miss Stryker formally stamped him with the seal of her approval as a good kid. And, as everybody knows, it is but a step from being a good kid to being a good scout, and from there a mere amble to the giddy eminence of a great old josher. Shortly after Bill had reached the good-scout stage Miss Stryker expressed a desire to dance.
Bill rose politely. The idea of dancing with his fair guest was one that filled him with loathing, but in pursuance of his policy of conciliation he forced himself to do it. It was at the moment when they were circling round the room for the second time that Flick entered the restaurant with her Uncle Sinclair and mounted the stairs that led to the balcony. As a vague concession to old-fashioned propriety, Mr. Hammond had decided on a table in the balcony in preference to one on the main floor. The main floor, a glance told him, was infested to no little extent by brilliant creatures who, though doubtless good-hearted and kind to their mothers, seemed to him better seen at a distance. The balcony, to which are banished those who visit Mario’s without dressing, had the appearance of being 99 per cent pure. His white waistcoat would be wasted there, but that could not be helped.
How long Bill danced he could not have said. The process seemed interminable. From time to time the music would stop and they would return for a brief instant to their table, only to spring up once more at the bidding of the saxophones. Eventually, however, just as he was beginning to feel that Miss Stryker’s powerful form must be constructed of India rubber, she confessed to a desire for temporary repose. They sat down, and Bill, feeling that if he missed this opportunity, another would not occur until he was too weary to understand what she said, leaned forward.
“I wish you would tell me about Slingsby,” he pleaded.
“Want to know about that?”
“I do, indeed.”
“Well, then listen, kid,” said Miss Stryker. “Here it comes!”
Bill hitched his chair a few inches nearer and beamed devotedly into her face. Miss Stryker, with a preliminary slap at his throbbing arm, began to speak.
MR. HAMMOND tugged at his waistcoat, which had grown mysteriously tight since its last public appearance, and looked down interestedly over the rail at the throng below.
“Nothing in this modern life of ours, Flickie,” he said, “is more significant than the attitude of the good and respectable toward Sunday evening. Places like this are the outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual change that has taken place in the life of the English family. Twenty years ago a man of my decent stodginess and unblemished reputation would never have dreamed of moving out of his home on Sunday night. Twenty years ago I would have spent the concluding hours of the Sabbath surrounded by my loved ones beneath my own rooftree. There would have been supper, consisting of rather red cold beef, rather wet salad, cold, clammy apple pie, blancmange, and a very big, very yellow cheese. This would have been followed by hymns in the drawing-room; or possibly, if our views were a little lax, by some round game played with pencils and pieces of paper. The fact that I am here and strongly tempted to drop a sardine on the head of that bald gentleman down below is due to what they call the march of progress.” Mr. Hammond helped himself to hors d’œuvres. “Having relieved myself of which prosy reflections,” he said, “I will now turn the conversation to the subject of your previous visit to this place. How did you happen to come here?”
“Bill brought me. He had been here once before with Mr. Slingsby, Mr. Paradene’s manager in London.”
“And now about William,” said Mr. Hammond. “Tell me all.”
Flick’s kitten eyes searched his face gravely. She was wondering what would be the result if she really did tell him all; if she confided in him the twin facts that she loved Bill and that Bill loved her, and the additional fact that, as soon as ever he gave the word, she proposed to elope with him. Consideration for her Uncle Sinclair’s feelings caused her to decide against this course. It would have been comforting to herself to pour out her secret, and she knew that she could have relied on him to keep it—but it would be at the expense of his peace of mind. Poor darling, how he would worry!
“I happened to meet Bill the day I left home,” she said. “And so, you see, when I was by myself in London, I naturally saw quite a lot of him.”
“I see,” said Mr. Hammond doubtfully.
“I used to dine with him a good deal.”
“And one of the times he brought me here.”
Mr. Hammond crumbled his bread.
“I seem to recollect your telling me in the garden that day that this William had been the ideal of your girlish dreams. Did he still exercise a spell when you met him again?”
“He’s very nice,” said Flick guardedly.
“You didn’t tell him, I suppose, that you had once worshiped the ground he trod on?”
“Bill was in love with somebody else when I met him again in London.”
Mr. Hammond looked relieved.
“Ah!” he said.
“Madly and desperately,” said Flick, bubbling. “He had twelve photographs of her in his sitting room.”
Mr. Hammond’s relief was now complete. He attacked his roast chicken with gusto.
“I’m bound to admit, Flickie,” he said, “that you’ve taken a weight off my mind. You may have suspected occasionally during the past few years that I am mildly fond of you. I am a battered old hulk, with but little to live for——”
“I thought you said you were one of the younger generation.”
“Never mind. For purposes of my big speech I am a battered old hulk, with but little to live for except the happiness of my golden-haired child.”
“I wish I had been your child,” said Flick wistfully. “How simple everything would have been then, wouldn’t it?”
“If you mean that you would have twisted me round your finger even more easily than you do at present, you are probably right. But you keep interrupting when you should be listening in silence, brushing away a tear from time to time. Harking back once more, I say I am a moth-eaten old relic with practically nothing to live for except to see you happy; and I don’t mind owning that I’ve been a good deal worried about you, my Flickie. I want to see you doing the right thing, and I’ve come to the conclusion that your marrying young Roderick will be the right thing. I’ve made a point of seeing something of him lately, and I like him.”
“I like him too. I like him very much,” said Flick warmly.
“The great point in favor of this Roderick idea is that it is sensible, and the older I get the more I feel that you can’t beat the sensible thing. Marry Roderick, my child, and may an uncle’s blessing be your reward. The mere fact that he will eventually inherit several million pounds gives him a great glamour in my eyes.”
“I never knew you were so sordid! If I loved a man I wouldn’t mind how poor he was.”
“Brave words, child! But never forget, poverty is the banana skin on the doorstep of romance. . . . What are you gazing at so intently? You have a spellbound look.”
Flick had been watching the gyrating couples on the floor below. She withdrew her gaze with a start as he spoke and turned to him once more. Had Mr. Hammond been an observant man he would have noticed that her eyes had widened into a curiously fixed stare and that about the corners of her mouth there was an oddly pinched look. But he was not an observant man. Moreover, he was smoking now, and the cigar, which he had purchased in a somewhat doubting spirit, was proving of such rare excellence that his mood had become dreamy and introspective.
“I was looking at those people down there dancing,” said Flick. She seemed to speak with difficulty.
“Weird creatures,” said Mr. Hammond, puffing comfortably. “Ages ago, though you may not believe it, I used to be one of them myself. Yes, I, your respectable uncle, loved and admired by all Wimbledon, frequently cavorted as a young man at the ancient equivalents of this place. It used to be Jimmy’s in those days, and Covent Garden. You probably expected me to say Cremorne; but no, that was before even my time.”
Flick scrawled hieroglyphics on the tablecloth with nervous digs of her coffee spoon.
“Uncle Sinclair,” she said at last, “I suppose men are always falling in love with girls.”
“It has been known to occur,” admitted Mr. Hammond.
“I mean, thinking they are in love with girls and really not being in love with any particular girl, but—oh, I don’t know how to put it. I mean there is a sort of man who might pretend he was in love with a girl and—and really seem to mean it, and make her think he meant it, while all the time he was perfectly happy with other girls and forgot all about her after they had been separated for a day or two.”
“I should imagine a great many young men were like that, unless they have changed a lot since my day. Constancy is a shy plant that blossoms only in the sunshine of middle age. Except, of course,” added Mr. Hammond hastily, “in the case of a young fellow like Roderick. You wouldn’t find him doing that sort of thing.”
“I wasn’t thinking of Roderick,” said Flick. She traced another intricate pattern on the tablecloth. “I suppose you’re right, Uncle Sinclair.”
“In what respect?”
“I mean about being sensible. I suppose—well, what you’d call romance is rather silly, isn’t it?—and the only thing to do is to be sensible.”
“That is my opinion, given for what it is worth. Though, mind you, I don’t think that you would have any cause to complain of lack of romance where Roderick was concerned. The boy drips with it. Look at that tie he wears!”
“If you were a girl, Uncle Sinclair, would you marry a man if you found out you couldn’t trust him?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, suppose someone had pretended that he was in love with you, and then you suddenly found out that all the time he was going about with other girls—dining with them, and dancing and”—Flick shot a swift glance over the balcony rail—“and beaming up into their beastly faces as if he thought them the most wonderful thing in the world,” she went on viciously. “Wouldn’t that make you feel you had made a mistake?”
Mr. Hammond patted her hand.
“Don’t you worry, Flickie,” he said. “Roderick isn’t that sort of chap; not that sort of chap at all. If he was, I would be the first to advise you to have nothing whatever to do with him. A fellow you can’t trust isn’t any good to anybody.”
TO MANY people in this age of rush and hurry—indeed, one might say to most people—the early hours of Monday morning are the worst of the week.
Mr. Wilfred Slingsby, as he sat at breakfast in his house in Bruton Street on the morning after Bill’s dinner with Miss Stryker, experienced nothing of this Monday feeling. Everything seemed to him for the best in the best of all possible worlds. His eye was bright and his mind at peace as he ate his kidneys on toast and read the pile of morning papers beside his plate.
But his reading was that of a specialist. A glance at each periodical was enough for him before he threw it on the floor. Only one section of these papers interested him—that devoted to theatrical reviews. The previous Saturday night had seen the opening of a new and sprightly farce, Tell It to Papa, at the Bijou Theater; and this had the distinction of being the first theatrical venture for which Mr. Slingsby had assumed sole financial responsibility. And it seemed from the papers today, as it had seemed from the Sunday papers yesterday, that he had stumbled upon a gold mine.
Mr. Slingsby finished the last review and leaned back in his chair, a happy man. It is the dream of all those alchemists who dabble in theatrical ventures to discover one day the philosopher’s stone, to produce a historic farce—one of those farces which flare over the horizon about once in every twenty years and after a record-breaking career in London go on running forever in the provinces. And this dream, judging from the criticisms of the press taken in conjunction with the enthusiasm of the first-night audience, Mr. Slingsby seemed to have achieved. He finished his breakfast, smoked a leisurely cigar and rang for his car to take him down to the City.
Complete happiness was Mr. Slingsby’s. No thought of any Damocles sword suspended above his head came to mar his joy. From this day forward he was on velvet. He could abandon his commercial career and live the life of a leisured gentleman, confining his activities to smoking big cigars and telling dramatists that their second acts needed a lot of work done to them. As the car stopped outside his office building his heart was leaping high. Larks did not actually sing in the sky above St. Mary Axe, but to Mr. Slingsby they seemed to be singing. So exalted was his mood that he beamed upon Henry, the office boy, like a father and was in two minds about giving him half a crown.
“Gentleman waiting to see you, sir,” said Henry.
“Gentleman, eh?” said Mr. Slingsby, almost adding Tra-la-la! “Where is he?”
“I showed him into your office, sir.”
“Quite right,” chanted Mr. Slingsby, just managing to check his right foot from executing a dance step. “Any name?”
“Mr. West, sir.”
“Mr. West, eh? Ah, Mr. West? Yes, yes!” He curveted into the private office.
“Ah, West,” said Mr. Slingsby jovially, while the air seemed to echo with the clash of cymbals and the note of flutes, “hope I haven’t kept you waiting.”
He had kept him waiting, but Bill did not mind that. “Good morning,” he said frigidly.
He wanted no friendly overtures from this blue-chinned man. He was about to execute the spiritual equivalent of hitting Mr. Slingsby over the head with a hatchet, and he resented the other’s ebullience.
“Sit down. Make yourself comfortable. Have a cigar,” said Mr. Slingsby.
Bill sat down, but waved away the proffered cigar. He waved it away with much the same cold aloofness which an executioner might have exhibited toward a cigar case extended by a prisoner at the block. He was feeling like an executioner. The conversation which he had had at Mario’s with Miss Stryker had made it plain to him that Mr. Slingsby had, indeed, revealed to that lady the location of the body’s interment; and the body was one of such magnitude that he marveled at any man, even when a good bit tanked and under the weakening influence of love, confiding such a secret to anybody.
“I came here this morning——” he began.
“You weren’t by any chance at the opening of Tell It to Papa at the Bijou on Saturday, were you?” interrupted Mr. Slingsby.
“No,” said Bill. “I——”
“A riot, my dear fellow!” cried Mr. Slingsby. “A positive knock-out! Not a single paper either yesterday or this morning that doesn’t rave its head off. It’s the first show I have ever owned outright and it’s the biggest winner since Charley’s Aunt. In fact, between ourselves, I shouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t make even more money. Costs nothing to run—three acts with only one set, an ordinary interior—and looks like playing to capacity for a couple of years. It’s a funny thing the way people let these gold mines slip away from them. I know for a certain fact that at least six managers turned it down cold. It was quite by accident that it came my way. But I know a good play when I see one, and the moment I read the first act——”
“I may as well tell you right away——” said Bill.
“——I knew I was onto a winner. Even then, of course, I didn’t know how big it really was. But I knew it couldn’t fail. There’s one scene where the fellow loses his trousers——”
The mere accident of Mr. Slingsby pausing at this moment to relight his cigar enabled Bill to escape hearing the entire plot of Tell It to Papa and to jerk the conversation back on to a business plane. He had an uncomfortable sense of being bustled and hurried as he began to speak, and this made it difficult for him to be as impressive as he could have wished. But he relied on the subject matter of his discourse to grip his audience.
“I dined last night with Miss Prudence Stryker,” he said, feeling that that was a statement which, if anything could, would divert Mr. Slingsby’s mind from the humors of Tell It to Papa.
His confidence was justified. Mr. Slingsby let his cigar go out again and stared fixedly across the desk. Mr. Slingsby did not actually say, “Proceed! Your narrative interests me strangely!” But the mere fact of his silence was enough to convince Bill that his attention was arrested.
“And I may as well tell you,” proceeded Bill severely, “that I know exactly what you’ve been up to.”
There was a weakness about the phrase which he did not like, but he had only just stopped himself saying, “I know all!”
“Ah!” said Mr. Slingsby. There was nothing tremulous about the hand that struck the match that lighted his cigar for the third time, nor did his voice express undue emotion. But his dark eyes were gleaming. “What do you know?”
“I know that you are Higgins and Bennett!”
“Higgins and Bennett?” murmured Mr. Slingsby, bewildered. “Higgins and Bennett?”
Bill had no patience with this childish attempt to evade the issue.
“Yes, Higgins and Bennett,” he repeated. “The mysterious firm that has been buying up all Uncle Cooley’s wood pulp at the smallest possible prices. It was a nice, simple, ingenious trick, wasn’t it? You get the job of London manager to Uncle Cooley, and then you start a firm under another name and sell all the stuff to yourself and sell it again to other firms at a handsome profit. I don’t wonder you can afford to put on your Tell Father’s!”
“Not Tell Father—Tell It to Papa. Much better title,” corrected Mr. Slingsby.
“Never mind that!” said Bill sternly.
“But it makes a difference,” urged Mr. Slingsby. “You’d be surprised how many good shows have been killed by bad titles. You can see it for yourself if you think a minute. Tell It to Papa. It rolls off the tongue. It looks well on the billing. It——”
“I didn’t come here to discuss the titles of plays,” said Bill. “What I want to know is what you intend to do about it.”
Mr. Slingsby’s black eyebrows rose.
“Do about it?” he said. “My dear fellow, what is there to do about it? There was always the chance of the thing coming out one of these days, and now apparently it has happened. You haven’t got anything remotely resembling evidence as yet, of course, but unfortunately that doesn’t matter. Now that you are on the track, you won’t have any difficulty in getting evidence. I must clear out. That’s plain enough. No argument about that.”
Bill was oppressed with a feeling that the scene was going all wrong. Even in this moment of his triumph the other’s personality was too strong for him. Hardly in a less degree than on that other occasion when the blue-chinned one had trampled all over him at the luncheon table, he felt himself a weak-kneed, diffident inferior. With an effort he forced himself to a spurt of truculence, sadly aware the while that it was not going to amount to anything. The second mate of a tramp steamer or one of Miss Ethel M. Dell’s more virile heroes might have attempted truculence with Mr. Slingsby and got away with it; but Bill, even as he spoke, knew that he was not the man to do it. He did not even bother to bang the desk.
“Clear out?” he said, in what he tried to make a hard and intimidating voice. It sounded to him like an apologetic bleat. “Suppose I have you arrested.”
Mr. Slingsby looked at him with a pained incredulity. This, Mr. Slingsby seemed to think, judging from his expression, was simply asinine—mere babble from the sick bed.
“Have me arrested!” he said. “Talk sense! You don’t suppose your uncle is going to thank you for making a public exposure of this business and getting him laughed at by everybody. He will be only too glad to have the whole thing hushed up.”
He eyed Bill as if he expected him to apologize, and such was his magnetism that Bill very nearly did. Mr. Slingsby summed up.
“Never,” he said severely, “go into a thing of this sort unless you are prepared to have it slip up on you at a moment’s notice.” Bill just contrived to check himself from saying he wouldn’t. “I had the sense to make all my preparations long ago. My money is invested in South American securities, and I shall take the next boat to Buenos Aires.” He paused. “No,” he went on, “I shall go to New York first and arrange for the production of Tell It to Papa. Tell me,” he said, shelving the more trivial matter of his criminality—“you have lived in New York for a number of years—who would you say was the best manager to go in with on the production of a nice clean farce with only one interior set for the three acts? It doesn’t need money spent on it. The thing takes care of itself. All I need is an honest man.”
Bill, routed and discomfited, rallied for a brief counter attack.
“What do you want with an honest man?” he said bitterly.
Mr. Slingsby was not to be jarred out of his geniality.
“There is no need to be personal,” he chided gently. “No need for any hard feelings. I’m the one who ought to be grumbling. You’ve spoiled as nice a little income for me as ever a man had. Fortunately I can get on without it. Tell It to Papa is all I shall want for the rest of my life. You have no cause to be nasty. You have done pretty well for yourself. Old Paradene ought to come down handsome when you tell him. Besides, you’ve learned a very valuable lesson—one that ought to be a great help to you in your future life. Never,” said Mr. Slingsby, and would have laid his hand on Bill’s shoulder if the latter had not drawn coldly back—“never tell your business secrets to anybody. Anybody, mind! And above all, never give yourself away in an effort to impress a girl with your smartness. It doesn’t pay. In fact, better keep away from girls altogether. They’re tricky propositions. No sense of honesty. Nothing fair and square about them. . . . How was Prudence?” asked Mr. Slingsby chattily.
Bill found himself saying that Miss Stryker had seemed pretty well.
“Quite a nice girl in her way,” said Mr. Slingsby tolerantly. “Beast of a temper and inclined to be deceitful, but quite a good sort on the whole. I think I shall be able to give her the part of the maid in one of the touring companies of Tell It to Papa. And now, my dear fellow,” he said, making a little rustle of dismissal among the papers on his desk, “I’m afraid I shall have to ask you to be going. I have a lot of cleaning up to do before I leave. By the way, it would be most kind of you if you didn’t say anything about this little matter to your uncle before I sail. I shall be able to get Wednesday’s boat. I should appreciate it extremely if you would postpone telling him till I’ve gone. There’s just an outside chance that, if I were actually ready to hand, so to speak, he might take it into his head to be vindictive. Better not tell him till I’ve gone. Eh? What do you think?”
“All right,” said Bill.
He had no notion why he said it, except that it was the only thing that he felt he could possibly say.
“Capital!” said Mr. Slingsby his excellent teeth gleaming in a delighted smile. “Well, good-by, my dear fellow. I hope we shall meet again one of these days. Oh, before you go.” He scribbled on a card. “Take this,” he said. “Give it to the house manager at the Bijou and he’ll fix you up with a couple of seats any night you want. Better, perhaps, not make it a Saturday. I know you’ll like the show. Best second act that’s ever been put on the stage.”
It was not till late in the afternoon that Bill returned to Marmont Mansions. The necessity of walking slowly and stopping dazedly at intervals rendered his progress westward slow, and by the time the lunch hour arrived he had not got beyond the Strand. He turned into a quiet restaurant, and the effect of the meal was so curative that he emerged again in a state of cheerfulness almost rivaling that of Mr. Slingsby.
He perceived that the impact of the other’s powerful personality had led him to ignore the really vital fact. Whether Wilfrid Slingsby was crushed or defiant was immaterial; whether he stayed in or out of jail made no difference whatever. Crushed, defiant, free or in broad arrows, Mr. Slingsby had played his part. Whatever his demerits as a man, Wilfrid Slingsby had made it possible for him to do Mr. Paradene a momentous service. He had made it possible for him to achieve what he had come to London to do.
Yes, Uncle Cooley could hardly overlook a service like this. Now, surely, he must, as Mr. Slingsby had suggested, come down handsome. And if he did, why then the last obstacle between himself and Flick was removed.
Through a world ringing with joy bells Bill made his way to Marmont Mansions and floated airily up the stairs into his sitting room. There was a letter lying on the table, and the joy bells seemed to ring louder than ever as he recognized Flick’s handwriting.
He tore it open.
The joy bells stopped as if they had been turned off with a switch. He collapsed onto the settee. There was a strange buzzing in his ears; the opposite wall seemed far away and obscured by a mist; at the pit of his stomach was a dull, aching feeling, as though some unseen hand had smitten him with violence.
He reread the letter. . . . There must be some mistake.
Mistake! That was what the letter said: “——feel we have made a mistake—sure we should only be unhappy—marry Roderick on Wednesday—only thing to do——” And for this extraordinary, this ghastly, this unbelievable change of heart she gave no reason. No reason whatever.
Bill stared before him and the room grew darker and darker.
THE garden of Holly House slumbered in the moonlight. Trees threw dark shadows across the lawn, and in the bushes little breezes went whispering to and fro. To any man strolling there with his mind at rest the place would have seemed a magic haven of peace; but on Bill, lurking warily in the shelter of the shrubbery, its romantic appeal was wasted. His mind was far from being at rest.
It was with no vague intention of hanging about in the darkness and keeping a sentimental watch on lighted windows that Bill had come to the garden this time. He was here tonight as the man of action. Hours of concentrated brooding over Flick’s letter had brought him to the conclusion that it was an inspired letter, probably dictated word for word, with all the commas and full stops complete, by that repellent woman who had forced them asunder in Waterloo Station. Yes, the more Bill thought about it, the more definitely he seemed to see in that letter the hand of the demon aunt.
No man of action embarks on any enterprise without a settled plan. Bill had a settled plan. It involved the coöperation of one of the minor domestics of the Hammond household, and it was in quest of such a domestic that he had taken up his present position in the middle of a laurel bush facing the side of the house. He had reasoned the thing out. It would be useless to attempt to communicate with Flick through the ordinary medium of the post. A woman like that Waterloo Station woman, brimming over—as that brief glimpse of her had told him—with the lowest and most criminal cunning, would undoubtedly be exercising supervision over Flick’s correspondence. She would be watching for the postman like a bird dog, all ready to intercept letters. As for district messenger boys, it would be sheer waste of money to employ them. No, the only thing to do was to lurk about here until one of the servants came out for a breath of air and then collar him or her and bribe her—or him—with untold gold to convey secretly to Flick the note which even now was burning holes in his left breast pocket.
It was a good letter. The writing of it had occupied an hour and a half, but the results had justified the toil. In six closely filled sheets it told all that there was to tell about his undying love, explained the roseate aspect of the situation as regarded the future when Uncle Cooley should have been informed of the Slingsby matter, and sketched out in detail a scheme for Flick to leave home privily next day, meet him under the clock at Charing Cross and proceed with him to the registry office, where he had made all arrangements for their immediate marriage. In the whole annals of love correspondence there had probably never been a letter which so nicely combined the fervent and the practical, and all that was needed now was a messenger to take it to her.
But the charms of the moonlit garden, obvious though they should have been, appeared to have no appeal for the domestic staff of Holly House. The breezes chuckled in the bushes, the moonbeams danced on the lawn, invisible flowers filled the air with a languorous scent; but not even a knife-and-boot boy was lured out of that back door. Little by little, as he kept shifting his position to avoid cramp, Bill began to be filled with sneering and contemptuous thoughts toward the British domestic. He seemed to picture these degraded creatures huddled together on this divine night in a stuffy kitchen, with all the windows shut and the fire going full blast, talking about the movies or reading Forget-Me-Not Novelettes.
And finally, after a distant clock had twice struck the hour, the strain of this waiting became too much for him. He burst from the bushes and marched up to the front door.
A long interval followed his ringing of the bell. Then a parlor maid appeared. Bill, who had anticipated a butler and had been wondering if the latter would remember having seen him before, experienced a momentary relief; and had even got so far as feeling that here was the minor domestic for whom he had been waiting all these weary hours, when he caught sight of the girl’s face and immediately withdrew the fingers that were fumbling in his pocket for the note. She wore spectacles, and through these her eyes seemed to glitter with so austere a light that he suspected her instantly of being a minion, probably the demon aunt’s right-hand woman.
Nevertheless, it being necessary to render some explanation of his presence, he plunged boldly ahead.
“I want to see Miss Sheridan,” he said.
The spectacles raked him with what seemed a shocked incredulity. The parlor maid had the air of one who has been reading books of etiquette and is cognizant of the fact that calls upon young ladies at such an hour of the night are among the things that are not done. She made Bill feel like the villain of a What is Wrong With This Picture? advertisement.
“Miss Sheridan is nottertome, sir,” she replied in a voice of ice.
“Can I see Mr. Paradene?”
“Mr. Paradene is nottertome, sir.” She eyed Bill with critical spectacles and went through the first stages of closing the door. Nor can we in justice blame her. Bill’s vigil in the bushes had left him a good deal disheveled and far from the sort of person one likes to find on one’s front-door step after dark. “They’ve all gone to the theater.”
This was true. It had occurred to the amiable Mr. Hammond that Flick was looking pensive and depressed, and he had continued his good ministrations on her behalf by suggesting a dinner in town and a visit to the theater. And it was part of the irony which so marks mundane affairs that the manager enriched by the expedition was Mr. Wilfrid Slingsby, for it was at the Bijou Theater that they had taken a box.
To Bill, however, there seemed no truth whatever in the statement. Its obvious falsity confirmed him in his opinion that this woman was a mere instrument of Flick’s Aunt Frances. He withdrew sullenly as the door closed; and, after pausing for several moments in deep thought on the drive, sneaked round the corner of the house and hid himself once more in the bushes. There was no need to be discouraged by a single parlor maid. A big house like this would have all sorts of servants, and at any moment one of a more benevolent disposition might pop out. He snuggled into his laurel bush and waited.
He had been waiting some ten minutes when there suddenly came to him something that was practically an inspiration. On the night when he had taken refuge on top of that outhouse roof, Flick, he now recollected, had come climbing down her knotted sheet from a window immediately above it—presumably that of her bedroom. Silly of him not to think of that before. All he had to do was to locate that outhouse, climb onto its roof, and there he would be. If there was a light in the window he could whistle softly till she appeared; and if the darkness showed that she was not there he could put the letter, with a good-sized stone, in his handkerchief and hurl the whole package in for her to find when she went to bed. He wasted no more time. Extricating himself from the bush, he made his way round the house.
There was his roof, just as he had left it. So far, good. But the window above it was dark. He groped about for a stone, found one, and was wrapping up his parcel when from somewhere above his head there came the sound of a window opening, followed by a soft but penetrating “Hey!”
A man who has been subjected to the amount of nervous strain which Bill had had to undergo that day is in no mood to have “Hey!” said to him out of upper windows when he is trespassing in hostile gardens. Bill bit his tongue, dropped the stone and the note, and leaped sideways into the shadow of the outhouse. There he waited, holding his breath, for the drama to develop.
It now became apparent that only his guilty conscience had led him to suppose that he was the person whom the mysterious voice had addressed; for at this moment there sounded from the darkness to his left a sharp whistle, and he perceived that he was not the only trespasser in this garden. The breeze, which for some time had been freshening, now began to blow strongly, shredding away the bank of clouds which had covered the moon and illuminating the scene as if a spotlight had been turned on. He himself was in the shadow of the outhouse, but beyond this little pool of gloom the garden was bright and he saw all things clearly. Out of the window, easily recognizable in the silver glow, protruded the head and shoulders of his uncle’s adopted son Horace; while below, his large feet ruthlessly trampling some choice begonias, stood a squat, burly figure—the figure of a man whom Bill did not know, and with whom, if he had had his choice, he would have been loath ever to become acquainted. For, as plainly as if he had carried a sign, this man wore the word “plug-ugly” written all over him. We who have met Joe the Dip at close quarters in the light of the sun know that he was not one of Nature’s beauty-prize winners. Seen at night, he was a human gargoyle.
The boy Horace was leaning further out of the window.
“I’ve got ’em,” he said.
The wind was now blowing so strongly as to render whispering impossible; and Horace’s chest notes came plainly to Bill’s ears, as did the plug-ugly’s response.
“Good enough!” said the plug-ugly. “Drop ’em down.”
For the first time, on hearing these words, Bill, though still at a loss to know what all this was about, became convinced that dark deeds were in progress. Possibly the interview with Mr. Slingsby had blunted his genial trust in human honesty. At any rate, he needed no further words to tell him that sinister things were toward. And this was fortunate, for there were no further words. Horace reached back into the room, leaned forward again, balancing in his hands some solid object that looked like a bag, and dropped this into the depths, where it was neatly caught by the plug-ugly. The boy then retired and closed the window, and the plug-ugly, hereinafter to be called Joe the Dip, trampled down a few more begonias and began to steal down the path that led past Bill’s hiding place. He had arrived abreast of him when the latter spoke.
“Stop!” said Bill. “What have you got there?”
In the normal round of his everyday life Joe the Dip was a man of phlegmatic habit. It took a good deal to stir him to any exhibition of mental distress more marked than the quiver of a raised eyebrow. But this was something special. It got right into his emotions and churned them up. With a single startled yelp of dismay, he looked once over his shoulder and then began to pound off across the lawn as fast as his ample feet would take him.
It was a futile move. Even under ordinary conditions Bill could have given him fifty yards in a hundred and won comfortably; and now the welcome prospect of action coming after his long, tedious wait in the bushes made him a supersprinter. Joe, moreover, was hampered by a heavy bag. The race ended halfway across the lawn, where Joe, feeling the hot breath of the pursuer on his neck, turned at bay. He dropped the bag and flung himself on Bill.
Nothing could have been more admirably suited to the latter’s frame of mind. Joe, standing beneath the window in the moonlight, had looked an ugly customer, but that did not damp his ardor. Bill had had a trying day, and what he felt at that moment was that they could not come too ugly for him. At the precise moment when Joe’s clutching fingers closed upon his throat he induced him to relax them with a short, sharp uppercut which, from the click which followed its delivery, appeared to have landed squarely on the spot where it was calculated to do most good. There ensued a scrambling flurry of blows at close quarters, and then Joe, securing a grip, swung Bill off his feet and they fell together. And for some moments matters became confused, with Joe in the ascendant.
But every fighter has his weak spot. With some it is a too fragile jaw; while others have a finicky distaste for being hit on the nose. Achilles, it will be remembered, could stand little punishment on the heel. None of these weaknesses impaired the efficiency as a fighting machine of Joe the Dip. Strong men with hammers could hit him on the nose and accomplish nothing; nor was it easy to discourage him by buffets on the jawbone. Nevertheless, he was but human. He had his danger spot, and it was one which had frequently undone him in the rough-and-tumbles of his colorful past. He was extraordinarily ticklish. You had but to prod Joe with a sharp finger and he became a spent force.
And this was what Bill did now—purely by chance as he strove to overcome him in the wrestle. His wandering fingers suddenly roamed searchingly over his adversary’s ribs, and on the instant Joe wrenched himself free with a stifled howl and staggered to his feet.
Bill also rose. There was nothing in his acquaintance with Joe that led him to suppose that it was safe to remain on the ground while the latter was standing. He jumped up, and from that instant the tide of battle began to turn. Joe was a massive rather than a nimble fighter. When it came to long-range exchanges he was at a disadvantage. The wind had dropped now as suddenly as it had risen, and clouds once more covered the moon; but there still remained enough light for Bill’s purposes. He slid in and jabbed Joe in the eye. He swung forcefully and felt Joe’s cauliflower ear yield squashily under his fist. He slid in once more and smote Joe on the other eye. And it was this last blow, delivered with all the violence of one who had had a morning with Wilfrid Slingsby, an afternoon with Flick’s letter and a night in the bushes of Holly House, that decided the issue. It seemed to lend the final touch to Joe’s discouragement. Staggering back, he prolonged his stagger till it became a run; then, making for the shrubbery, he cast himself into it; and working his way round till he came out into the open, took to his heels and passed out of Bill’s life forever.
Bill stood panting. This little turn-up had done him a world of good. He felt happy and invigorated. Dismissing his late opponent from the scheme of things, he picked up the bag and went back to the outhouse to find the letter he had dropped. And it was here that he received the final shock of this disturbing day.
The letter was not there; nor was his handkerchief. Both had been swept away into the darkness by that unfriendly wind.
Bill searched well and thoroughly, but he could not search the whole garden; and gradually there stole upon him a sense of discouragement as poignant as that which he had caused Joe the Dip to feel in the concluding stages of their little disagreement. He was beaten. Fate was against him and there was no use struggling.
He slouched brokenly through the garden out into the road, slouched half a mile down the road till he met a taxicab, and climbing wearily in, drove back to Marmont Mansions, where Judson greeted him with frank amazement.
“What on earth,” Judson exclaimed, “have you been doing to your face, Bill, o’ man?”
Bill had not been conscious of anything amiss with his face. A glance at the mirror now revealed surprising wounds. Judging from the evidence, at least one of Joe’s wandering wallops must have got home on his nose. He placed the bag on the table and went off to the bathroom.
When he returned, cleansed and refreshed, he found that Judson’s simple curiosity had led him to open the bag.
“What are you doing with all these old books, Bill?”
“Books?” Bill began to understand. He told his story briefly. “That kid must be one of a gang of crooks,” he said. “He certainly dropped that bag out of the window to the fellow I had the scrap with.”
Joyous excitement lit up Judson’s speaking countenance.
“Why, good gosh, Bill, o’ man,” he cried, “this is the most amazing bit of luck that ever happened! Old Paradene can’t in common decency do less than slip you half his fortune now. He’s a nut about books. Many a time has my old father bored me stiff with stories about his library. If ever there was a blue-eyed boy you will be it, once he hears about this. Make your terms stiff, Bill, o’ man! Slip it into his ribs! Don’t weaken! He ought to give you a million a year for this!”
“And a lot of good that will be,” grunted Bill moodily. “Flick’s marrying Roderick Pyke the day after tomorrow!”
“What? But I thought she was going to marry you!”
“Well, she isn’t. They’ve been getting at her, I suppose. I had a letter from her. That’s why I went to Holly House. I thought I might be able to see her or at any rate get word to her.”
Judson’s jaw had fallen. This calamity was affecting him deeply.
“Flick!” he cried. “Marry that bird who said Toddy van Riter founded the Silks? Not while I have my strength!”
“What are you going to do about it?” said Bill wearily.
“Do about it?” boomed Judson. “Do about it? Why——” He paused reflectively. “Well, I’m darned if I know!”
WEDNESDAY morning, eleven of the clock, and a fair, fresh day, with a cheerful little breeze nipping along from the southeast. Placid, stolid, wrapped up in its own affairs and titanically indifferent to all else, London went about its daily business. From Putney to Sloane Square, from Cricklewood to Regent Street, from Sydenham Hill to the Strand, from everywhere to everywhere, red, yellow and maroon omnibuses clattered without ceasing. Policemen guarded the peace, stockbrokers dealt in stocks, beggars begged, hatters sold hats, loafers loafed, spatters sold spats, motors rolled in the park, paper boys hawked the three o’clock editions of the evening papers, and retired colonels sat spaciously in the club windows fronting on Piccadilly and Pall Mall, dreaming of lunch. The only things in all the great metropolis that even hinted that this was not just one of London’s ordinary days were the striped awning stretched over the pavement in front of St. Peter’s, Eaton Square, and the strip of red carpet which the awning shadowed—portents which indicated clearly to the cognoscenti that a marriage had been arranged and would shortly take place beneath that church’s famous roof.
In addition to Bill, who was dressed in quiet gray picked out with a twill of invisible red and accompanied by Bob the Sealyham, wearing a tan-colored leash and a splash of mud on the tip of his nose, the cognoscenti already assembled on each side of the awning consisted of the usual group of old women, discussing other weddings they had seen in their time; the usual seedy men, chatting in undertones about snips and winners; and the usual baby, asleep in a perambulator, without whom this kind of gathering never seems complete. These would stand round, gaping, until the bride and bridegroom emerged, when they would potter off, to reassemble at the next wedding that happened along.
Of all those present, Bill alone had come to this spot with a motive other than that of mere idle sight-seeing. But what that motive was he would have found it difficult to explain. He certainly expected to derive no pleasure from watching Flick go into that church and come out again on the arm of her husband—not even the mild and vacuous pleasure which the old women and the seedy men would experience. No, it would be sheer torture to witness this ghastly thing; and yet he knew that strong men with ropes would not have kept him away. There is a deep-seated instinct in all human beings that prompts them to twist the knife in the wound and make things as unpleasant for themselves as possible, and it was this instinct that Bill was obeying.
And even now, before any of the wedding party had appeared, he was not in the loosest sense of the word enjoying himself. The struggles of Bob the Sealyham alone would have prevented that. Bob was taking this business of waiting hardly. His dog soul was in seething rebellion, for he considered that he had been cheated and imposed upon. Observing Bill leaving the flat, he had slipped adroitly through the door at the last moment and asked quite civilly to be taken for a walk. To this proposition Bill had apparently agreed, and they had started out perfectly normally and all quite in order; and now here he had been for twenty minutes, marooned in the middle of this beastly pavement, unable to move more than a couple of yards in any direction. And he was beginning to feel that this was going on forever. He expressed his resentment, accordingly, by a series of determined efforts to strangle himself on the end of his leash, weaving the leash about Bill’s leg in order to get a better purchase; and it was during the last of these attempts at suicide that the cheerful little breeze, whipping round the corner of the street, removed Bill’s hat and sent it trundling across the square.
To Bill’s deeper sorrows, therefore, there was now added the misery of being conspicuous and an object of derision in the eyes of the hoi polloi. Of all spectacles that enchant a simple-minded London audience, that of a man chasing his hat on a windy day is the most exhilarating. And when, in addition to chasing his hat, the man is in imminent danger of being tripped up by a frolicking dog their enjoyment becomes complete. Bill’s little entertainment went with a roar; and when he returned, hatted once more and full of hard feelings toward his species, his chagrin was deepened by the discovery that in the interval of his occupation elsewhere Flick had arrived and gone into the church. The cognoscenti, when he rejoined their ranks, were already engaged in discussing her and comparing her with other brides of their distant acquaintance.
The notices on the whole were favorable. One lady in a cloth cap and a cavalry mustache said she liked ’em plumper, but with this exception Flick had a good press. Adverse criticisms were reserved for the appearance of her “Pa.” Bill, knowing that Flick possessed no pa, took this gentleman to be her Uncle Sinclair, to whom doubtless would have been assigned the task of giving away the bride. He had not gone very well with the critics. Indeed, there was one man in a sweater and a dented derby hat who grew almost caustic on the subject of Mr. Hammond’s trousers crease.
“Where’s the groom?” inquired the lady whom Flick’s figure had displeased. “ ’E’s late.”
“Of course ’e’s late,” rejoined one who knew about these things. “Only natural ’e’d let her get there first,” he explained, apparently with some recollection in his mind of the habits of boxers.
“Looked a bit pale, I thought she did,” ventured a rather diffident voice.
The speaker seemed to be a comparative novice at these affairs and a little conscious of the weakness of his position in the midst of these experts.
“They always look pale,” coldly said the man who knew. “Besides, I reckon you’d look pale if you was properly up against it like ’er. I seen a picture of ’im in the Record this morning. Nasty-lookin’ bloke.”
“Yus!” The man of knowledge was not one of your broad-minded fellows who are able to make allowances for the alterations which reproduction in a cheap morning paper can effect in the human countenance. The fact that nobody could possibly really look as villainous as Roderick had done in the Record did not occur to him. “A nasty, mean-lookin’ bloke with a smudge across his face. If you ask me, I think ’e’ll beat ’er!”
Bill could endure no more. Three courses suggested themselves to him—to go away, to knock the speaker down and trample upon his remains, and to go into the church and sit there. And because it was the unpleasantest and would make his torments the most complete, he chose the last. He made his way through the square, found a handy tobacconist’s, purchased an ounce of tobacco in a forbidding wrapper, and on the strength of this business deal left Bob in charge of the man behind the counter; then walked out of the shop, threw away the tobacco, and returning to the church, strode in and sank into the nearest pew.
It was dim and cool and rustling in here; and quite against his wishes a feeling of peace was beginning to steal over Bill, when he was roused to wrath once more by a voice breathing delicately in his ear.
“Ticket?” whispered the voice.
It was a pink youth, who looked hot and uncomfortable. The scowl which Bill bestowed upon him was so fierce and so packed with hatred, malice and uncharitableness that his heat and discomfort seemed to grow even greater; and after backing a pace and blinking he finally decided to withdraw from the affair. The idea of a man in a gray suit and minus a ticket being at a wedding of any importance offended all his finest feelings; but even had the edifice he was in been of a less sacred character, Bill had not the appearance of one with whom it would be agreeable to wrangle. Gray suits always make a big man look bigger, and Bill’s suit was very gray.
Bill sat on. After one startled glance at his suit the congregation appeared to have come to the conclusion that he was just one of the myriad sights of a great city and gave him no further attention. He plunged into mournful meditation.
Whispering had begun. The atmosphere had become suddenly disturbed and restless. It was a long time before Bill, deep in his thoughts, roused himself to observe this; but once it had come to his notice, it was unmistakable. People were murmuring with their heads together. People were shuffling. Plainly something was wrong.
An important-looking man with a badge pinned to his coat came down the aisle. He stopped and whispered sibilantly in the ear of an ornate woman in the pew in front of Bill’s. The woman uttered an astonished squeak.
The man with the badge nodded solemnly. There was more whispering.
“Then it’s no use waiting?” said the woman.
“None,” said the man with the badge.
Others had apparently received the same information. The church was beginning to empty itself. Bill added himself to the stream and was presently outside in the square, where disappointed and perplexed cognoscenti gaped in amazement at this strange anticlimax. They had been to many weddings in their time, but they had never yet been to one where nobody got married.
Bill sought his hospitable tobacconist, retrieved Bob and began to walk aimlessly back. He was passing under the awning when a hand touched his arm and, turning, he perceived Judson. Judson was looking intensely serious. His face was pasty and his eyes heavy, and it suddenly came to Bill that he had not seen the heir of the Cokers since they had dined together at eight o’clock on the previous night. A man in Bill’s position cannot think of everything, and one of the things to which he had not given a thought was Judson. He remembered now that the other had slipped out soon after dinner for what he described as a quiet stroll. That stroll had apparently lasted all night.
“Wedding off?” said Judson.
“There seems to have been a hitch of some sort,” said Bill.
Judson smiled. It was a smile that seemed to cause him some difficulty, and even pain, but there was triumph in it.
“You bet there’s been a hitch,” he said. “I popped round last night and kidnaped the bridegroom!”
JUDSON stooped and began to tickle the Sealyham, who was wiping his front feet affectionately on the leg of his trousers.
“Kidnaped him!” cried Bill. His companion’s statement had been plain and straightforward, and yet he found himself puzzling dizzily over it as over some strange cryptogram. “Kidnaped him!”
Judson removed his attention from Bob.
“Well, not exactly kidnaped him,” he said. “It wasn’t necessary. When I got to his apartment and put the thing to him as man to man I found he wanted to kidnap himself. That made everything jolly and simple.”
“I don’t understand!”
“What don’t you understand, Bill, o’ man?” said Judson patiently. He blinked in a pained way at a passing lorry, which was rattling by in a noisy and uncouth manner, trying to a man who had had a disturbed night.
“You went to Pyke’s apartment?”
“Yes.” The lorry was out of earshot now, and Judson felt more composed. “After what you told me about Flick going to marry him I instantly saw that it was necessary to take a strong line. I decided to slip round and threaten him with horrible penalties if he did not at once disappear. And it shows how you can misjudge a fellow—he turned out to be a capital bird, perfectly matey and an excellent host. But I didn’t discover that till later, of course. He was out when I got there, but I managed to induce his valet to let me in; so I took a seat and waited. The valet, a most able man, asked me if I would like a drink. I said I would. I was having my third when the bimbo Pyke arrived.” He paused, and again that look of pain passed over his face. This time it was caused by Bob, who barked suddenly and gratingly at a cat. “Pyke was considerably rattled at seeing me, but he calmed down after a while and I got to business. I put it to him squarely. I said nobody was less fond of unpleasantness than I was, but if he didn’t disappear the worst would inevitably ensue. And bit by bit, Bill, o’ man, it came out that he was only too anxious to disappear. Nothing he wanted less than to marry Flick. It seems there’s another girl—she used to be a stenographer or something in the Pyke’s Weekly office—whom he has long loved in a manner—well, he described his feelings to me, and, believe me, he had got it bad!”
“That must have been the girl I met him with in Battersea Park,” said Bill.
“Very probably. If you met him with a girl in Battersea Park, this would be the girl you met him in Battersea Park with, because he told me he had been meeting her on the sly for weeks past. He would have bolted with her like a shot months ago, only he was scared stiff of his father. His father would be the bozo who pursued you in the car, I take it?”
“Yes. Sir George Pyke—Flick’s uncle.”
“Well, the old dad had apparently got him hypnotized. I reasoned with the man. More drinks were produced and we began to do ourselves pretty well, and with each snifter he took he seemed to come more and more round to my way of thinking. I’ve given up all that sort of thing now; but there’s no doubt that, bad as it is for the constitution, there’s nothing like a drop of drink for putting heart into a fellow. Round about one in the morning good old Pyke had begun to walk up and down the room and was talking about calling the old man up on the telephone and telling him just where he got off. No need to do that, I said; just disappear. ‘I will,’ he said. ‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘You really think so?’ he said. ‘I certainly do,’ I said. ‘I ought to have done it before,’ he said. ‘Better late than never,’ I said. . . . It turned out that, as far as the money end of it was concerned, he was sitting very pretty. Some time ago, in order to do down the income-tax people, old Pyke had transferred a large mess of wealth to this bird’s account, the understanding being that Roddy—I was calling him Roddy by this time—was to return it in due season.
“ ‘Be a man,’ I said. ‘Collar the cash, send a few wires of farewell and leg it for foreign parts.’ He burst into tears, clasped my hand and said that I was one of the master minds of the age. In which, mark you, Bill, o’ man, he wasn’t so darned far wrong, for if ever one fellow had given another fellow a bit of good advice, I had. He said that it was the dream of his life to go off to Italy and write poetry. How would it be, he said, to tool off to Florence or Naples or one of those wop spots? Then he could write to the girl to follow him out there and they could get married and write poetry and eat spaghetti and live happily for the rest of their lives. I said it was the peppiest scheme of the age, a lallapaloosa. And the long and the short of it is that he left on the nine o’clock train to catch the boat at Dover. So that’s that, Bill, o’ man.”
Bill was beyond speech. He pressed Judson’s hand silently. His faith in a great, coherent, purposeful plan governing this sometimes seemingly chaotic world of ours was completely restored. It was a splendid, beautifully managed world—a world in which even Judson had his uses.
“And now,” proceeded Judson, “I come to the really important part. As I told you, we made a very fair night of it; and I left Roddy’s apartment, after sleeping on the sofa, at about nine this morning. I had a couple of hours to fill in before I came to find you here, and I was thinking of going and sitting down in the park. Well, I was going along the Brompton Road, headed for the park, when I happened to pass a building into which a good many people were popping, and I thought I might just as well sit down in there. It was becoming pretty necessary for me to sit down somewhere right away.”
A large car had rolled up to the curb. Bill moved away a step to frustrate Bob’s apparent intention of casting himself beneath the wheels.
“And I’m darned, Bill, o’ man,” proceeded Judson earnestly, “if I didn’t find myself right plumb spang in the middle of a temperance lecture. A nasty shock; but it was simply too much effort to get up and leave, so I stayed where I was. Bill, it was the luckiest thing I ever did in my life. Made me a different man. Absolutely and entirely a changed man. No more alcohol for me! I’m off the stuff for life! Give you my word I hadn’t the remotest conception till that moment what it did to a fellow. Makes your inside like a crumpled oak leaf, that’s what it does. I always had the idea that it was a valuable stimulant and carminative. Medicinal, if you know what I mean. But when this bird shot a colored slide on the screen showing the liver of the hard drinker——”
Bill was looking past him with bulging eyes. A morning-suited man of middle age and amiable aspect had come out of the church, and on this middle-aged man’s arm walked a girl in bridal white. They crossed the pavement and entered the car.
“And after that,” said Judson, “he took some worms and slipped them a stiff bracer, and, believe me or believe me not, Bill, o’ man, what it did to them was plenty! All bright and chirpy those worms had been at the start—jolly good fellows having one on the house. But the minute they had got that stuff well over the larynx——”
He broke off. His audience had deserted him. Bill, coming out of his trance, had become a thing of action. The car had begun to move off, when he darted forward, flung open the door and without a word hurled himself in. Bob the Sealyham, trailing through the air on his leash like a kite, uttered a short, strangled yelp of disapproval.
“ FLICK!” said Bill. And for a space no more words were spoken. This was due principally to the behavior of the Sealyham. It had taken Bob a moment or two to get the hang of things. At first sniff that wedding dress of Flick’s had had a strange and misleading smell. But now recognition had come, and he was giving a spirited imitation of six Sealyhams inclosed in a single limousine. To leap up, lick Flick’s face, leap back, kick Bill in the eye, leap up again, knock Mr. Hammond’s hat off, and plunge, panting stertorously, toward Flick once more was with him the work of a moment. He looked like one of those old-fashioned shimmering motion pictures, and, with this emotional exhibition coming on top of the natural surprise consequent upon Bill’s intrusion, conversation was for some few moments at a standstill.
Eventually Mr. Hammond, calm even in this crisis, retrieved his hat from the corner into which Bob had rolled it, and spoke, gazing mildly at Bill.
“If you are looking for a cab, sir,” he said pleasantly, “you will probably find one along the street. This happens to be a private car.”
“Flick,” said Bill, winding the leash round his fingers and pulling strongly, “I got your letter. But I understood. I understood exactly what had happened. I know that it must have been dictated by that infernal fat-headed aunt of yours.”
“My wife,” observed Mr. Hammond in pleased recognition.
Bill had not supposed that the flood of his appeal could be checked by any human power, but this bland remark brought him up with a turn. He gaped in a bewildered way at Mr. Hammond, as if aware for the first time of his presence.
“Flick,” said Mr. Hammond genially, “you appear to know this gentleman with the performing dog—— Good gracious!” he broke off, surprised, as the Sealyham, after trying to climb through the roof, came down with outspread paws on the back of his neck and slithered thence to the floor. “Surely it’s Bob?” He scrutinized Bill once more. “The mystery thickens,” he said. “How do you come to be in possession of the Hammond family dog? And, if it is not a rude question, who in the name of goodness are you?”
A small voice spoke from the corner.
“This is Bill, Uncle Sinclair.”
“Ah!” Mr. Hammond stretched out a polite hand. “How do you do? Are you making a long stay?”
There was a pause.
“Flick,” resumed Bill, “I was talking about that letter. I understood just why you had written it.”
“Did you see me?” said Flick, round-eyed.
A dizzy feeling began to grip Bill.
“See you at Mario’s? What do you mean?”
“But you said you understood.”
Flick held her hands out to him with a little cry. “I don’t care. I saw you with that girl, but I just don’t care. Take me away, Bill. I want you to take me away.”
Bill took her hands mechanically.
“You saw me—— Good heavens!” he exclaimed, enlightened. “You don’t mean you saw me dining with that girl at Mario’s on Sunday night!”
“Yes; but I don’t care. I want you to take me away.”
Bill slipped the leash into Mr. Hammond’s hand.
“Would you mind holding this animal for a moment?” he said. He gripped Flick’s hands and drew her closer, oblivious of the keenly interested gaze of Mr. Hammond, who had just replaced the glasses which Bob had knocked off and was scrutinizing him as though he were some rare first edition. “Flickie, my darling Flickie,” he cried, “I can explain everything!”
“ ‘All’ is the more customary term,” murmured Mr. Hammond.
“I had to dine with that infernal girl. I hated it, but I had to go through with it. She knew all about Slingsby, and Judson met her and arranged this dinner so that she could tell me. And she told me! My gosh, she told me everything! I saw Slingsby next day and told him that I knew he had been swindling Uncle Cooley for years, and he has cleared out; and directly I tell Uncle Cooley, everything will be all right. He’s sure to fix me up so that we can get married right away.”
Mr. Hammond coughed gently.
“Is it your intention to marry my niece?” he asked interestedly.
“Yes, it is!” said Bill. He turned to Flick again. “Let’s go right off now, Flickie! Roderick’s run off and is going to marry some girl who used to be a stenographer or something.”
“In the words of a song of the people that had a certain vogue in my youth, ‘What a day we’re having!’ ” said Mr. Hammond. “Flick,” he said, removing Bob’s tail from his mouth in order to speak the more clearly, “when you introduced this young man to me as Bill, did you use the name in its deepest and truest sense? In other words, is this the Bill–the brave preserver—the idol of the girlish dreams?”
“Well, well!” said Mr. Hammond. “Tell me,” he went on, turning to Bill, “you look extraordinarily like a young man who dropped in one night at Holly House some months ago and chased my nephew Roderick sixteen times or so round the garden. Are you by any chance the same?”
“That was me,” said Bill.
“Then it was you who were responsible for my brother-in-law, the eminent Sir George Pyke, founder and proprietor of the Mammoth Publishing Company, falling into the pond?”
Mr. Hammond shook him warmly by the hand.
“Say no more!” he said cordially. “The discussion is over. I esteem young men who chase Roderick about gardens, but for those who cause my brother-in-law George to fall into ponds I have a feeling that can only be called adoration. I wish you would look in oftener when he is around. Take him, Flickie! I could wish you no better husband! Why, good heavens, you can’t refuse to marry this splendid young fellow, any more than I can decline to give my blessing! It would be a crime against romance! A man who saved you from drowning, whose image you cherished in your heart through all those long, weary years—— Good gracious, no!” He took up the speaking tube. “Yates,” he said to the chauffeur, “do you know a good registry office? A place, I mean, where an enterprising young couple, aided and abetted by one old enough to know better, can get married in a hurry?” He turned to Flick and Bill. “He says he does not.”
“There’s one at 11 Beaumont Street, Pimlico,” cried Bill enthusiastically.
“Yates,” said Mr. Hammond, speaking into the tube, “drive us with all speed to Number 11, Beaumont Street, Pimlico.”
He hung up the tube and leaned back.
“Oh, Uncle Sinclair!” said Flick breathlessly.
“After the ceremony,” said Mr. Hammond, “I think it would be judicious if you were to return home, Flick, if only for a day or so. It would be a little difficult for me to explain your absence this morning. Later on, the atmosphere may grow a trifle less tense. In any case, however, I come very well out of the affair. Your aunt sent me out today to give away the bride, and I am going to give you away. To the wrong bridegroom, true, but that is the sort of thing that might happen to anyone.” He took up the speaking tube again. “Yates,” he said, “stop at the next grocer’s you come to. I wish to buy sixpenny worth of rice.”
THE sun of a fair summer afternoon shone upon St. Mary Axe. Mr. Cooley Paradene, alighting from his taxicab at the door of the building that housed the London branch of his pulp-and-paper business, climbed listlessly up the three flights of stairs. Niobe, mourning for the loss of her children, was no more pathetic figure than Mr. Paradene, grieving over the mysterious disappearance of the most prized gems of his collection of old books. The mystery of the affair weighed on him sorely. When the theater party had returned from its revels, which had included a late supper at a gay restaurant, there was no sign that any burglars had entered Holly House—no sign whatever. And yet the books were gone. Mr. Paradene had brooded over this astonishing affair ever since without ceasing; and the minor mystery of why his nephew Bill had telegraphed to him in such an urgent vein, bidding him come without fail to the office this afternoon, paled in comparison.
“Mr. West here?” he said gruffly.
Henry the office boy stepped forward, a model of smiling efficiency, courteous and prompt in the presence of the big chief. That was how young fellows got on in the business world.
“This way, sir.”
Bill looked up as the door of the private office opened. He had been seated in Mr. Slingsby’s chair, but he rose and came forward with a promptness and courtesy which not even Henry had exceeded.
“Hullo, Uncle Cooley.”
Mr. Paradene glared about the room. He was in the mood when a man feels that he can find a faint relief in quarreling with someone, and he had decided that he was going to quarrel with Bill. Not that “quarrel” was the right word. It suggested a conflict. He proposed to squelch Bill. On what grounds he should squelch him he did not at present know. But doubtless time would provide an excuse.
“Where’s Slingsby?” he grunted, as Henry, his duty done, stepped delicately out and closed the door.
“Slingsby’s gone,” said Bill.
“Gone! At this hour of the afternoon? Where?”
“America!” Bill bent forward and tapped his uncle impressively on the arm.
“Don’t paw me!” snapped Mr. Paradene. “What are you pawing me for?”
“Slingsby,” said Bill, uncowed by his forbidding manner, “was a swindler and a crook. I was onto him from the very start, but you would insist that he was perfect.”
“Slingsby a swindler? What the devil are you talking about?”
A marked change crept over Mr. Paradene’s demeanor as he listened to the story crisply unfolded by his nephew. Ferocity ebbed from him like some gas with which he had been inflated. For several long minutes after Bill had concluded, he was silent. Then he drew a deep breath.
“What I want is a nurse,” he said dejectedly. “That’s what I want—a nurse. I’m not fit to be trusted alone.”
Bill beamed upon him with jovial encouragement.
“What you want, Uncle Cooley,” he said, “is a good, live fellow like me looking after your business.”
Mr. Paradene eyed him with humility.
“Would you like to come into my business, Bill?” he asked pathetically.
“I’m ready to start learning now.”
“Then you shall—and name your own salary.”
“Anything you say, uncle. Only make it large enough for two. I’ve got a wife to support.”
Mr. Paradene blinked.
“Yes; I think you know her. Your friend Sinclair Hammond’s niece.”
“What! When did this happen?”
“It’s a secret at present, but perhaps you could break it gently to my aunt-in-law. It happened yesterday.”
“But she was going to marry someone else yesterday!”
“She was. But I met her and we talked it over and she went off and married me. We young business men move fast nowadays, Uncle Cooley. Time is money with us.” He reached under the desk. “Oh, by the way, uncle, I think these books belong to you.”
Often as Mr. Paradene had gazed upon the contents of the bag which Bill pushed across the desk, he had never gazed so fixedly as now. And stunned though the look was which he had bestowed upon them, it was as nothing to that which he now directed at Bill. “Where—where—where did you get these?”
“Oh, I just happened to run across your adopted son Horace as he was handing them down from a window at Holly House to a pal of his in the garden. Here, there and everywhere—that’s me! I hate to have to tell you, Uncle Cooley, but that boy is a member in good standing of a gang of crooks. They seem to have planted him on you with the idea of having him pass out the swag.”
Mr. Paradene sighed deeply.
“A nurse!” he muttered. “A nurse!”
There was a silence.
“Bill,” said Mr. Paradene brokenly, “I take back everything I may have said in the heat of the moment about my relatives. They are a ghastly crew; but, by George, you restore the average! From now on,” he said as he rose, “I don’t move a step without you.”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to if you intend leaving now. I promised my wife I’d meet her here. I’m expecting her any moment. Why don’t you stay and have a chat?”
Mr. Paradene shook his head.
“Some other day, Bill,” he said. “Give her my love; but I can’t stop now. I’m going back to Wimbledon.” He swished his stick militantly through the air. “I’m going to have a talk with that boy Horace. Bill,” said Mr. Paradene, “I seem to have made a fool of myself in practically every direction, but this is one job I’m going to carry through. I started it and I’m going to finish it. I’m going to make that boy Horace a credit to society if I have to wallop him every day for the rest of my life. I’ll send him to a good school, by gad, and I’ll employ ten tutors with shotguns to look after him during the holidays. By the time he’s grown up I’ll have him making the hero of a Sunday-school story look like Jesse James. Good-by, Bill, my boy. Come and lunch with me at the Antiquarians one of these days. You’re a great fellow!”
“You’re forgetting your books, Uncle Cooley.”
Mr. Paradene, who had reached the door, returned.
“So I am,” he said humbly. “So I am. Yes, I certainly do need a nurse. If you see any good nurses, Bill, reserve one for me.”
Flick, arriving a few minutes later, found her husband smiling glassily at the opposite wall. The recent interview had affected Bill rather like a strong application of ether. It needed Flick’s womanly presence to restore him to a sense of belonging to the world of solid things.
“Well?” said Flick eagerly.
Bill smiled another glassy smile.
“Everything’s all right, darling,” he replied; “as right as it can possibly be. Uncle Cooley has gone away promising me vast fortunes and thinking me the most wonderful fellow in the world.”
“So you are,” said Flick.
Bill frowned thoughtfully.
“I wonder,” he mused. “I’m the luckiest, I know,” he said. “I’ve only got to look at you to realize that. But—— Look here, you know, I’ve been thinking things over, and from start to finish I can’t see a single thing in the whole business that I’ve actually done myself. It was you who first got on Slingsby’s track. It was Judson who introduced me to Prudence Stryker. It was Prudence Stryker who told me where Slingsby had buried the body. It was Horace who obligingly chose the moment when I was standing under the window to shove his head out and drop the bag of books. It was Judson who got Roderick out of the way in time to prevent——”
Flick ruffled his hair lovingly.
“I shouldn’t worry, precious,” she said. “Don’t you know it’s the one sure sign that a man is really great when he has all sorts of people working for him? Look at Pierpont Morgan and Henry Ford and Selfridge and all of them—they don’t do the work themselves. They just sit and let other people do it for them. That’s what shows they are such great men.”
“Something in that,” said Bill gratefully. “Yes, there’s certainly something in that.”
He drew her to him. Henry the office boy, who was standing on a stool and looking in through the transom, sighed quietly. He was a lad of sentiment.
This serial episode corresponds to Chapters XVI through XXI in the book editions. Annotations to the book are elsewhere on this site.
Editorial and printer’s errors corrected above:
Magazine had “the people in apartment below” in chapter XVIII; corrected to “in the apartment” as in book versions. (The sentence is omitted in the Grand serial.)