The Strand Magazine, February 1926
MR. JOHN HAMILTON POTTER, founder and proprietor of the well-known New York publishing house of J. H. Potter, Inc., laid down the typescript which had been engaging his leisurely attention, and from the depths of his basket-chair gazed dreamily across the green lawns and gleaming flower-beds to where Skeldings Hall basked in the pleasant June sunshine. He was feeling quietly happy. The waters of the moat glittered like liquid silver; a gentle breeze brought to his nostrils the scent of newly-cut grass; the doves in the immemorial elms cooed with precisely the right gentlemanly intonation; and he had not seen Clifford Gandle since luncheon. God, it seemed to Mr. Potter, was in his heaven and all was right with the world.
And how near, he reflected, he had come to missing all this delightful old-world peace. When, shortly after his arrival in England, he had met Lady Wickham at a Pen and Ink Club dinner and she had invited him to pay a visit to Skeldings, his first impulse had been to decline. His hostess was a woman of rather markedly overwhelming personality; and, inasmuch as he had only recently recovered from a nervous breakdown and had been ordered by his doctor complete rest and tranquillity, it had seemed to him that at close range and over an extended period of time she might be a little too much for the old system. Furthermore, she wrote novels: and that instinct of self-preservation which lurks in every publisher had suggested to him that behind her invitation lay a sinister desire to read these to him one by one with a view to getting him to produce them in America. Only the fact that he was a lover of the old and picturesque, coupled with the fact that Skeldings Hall dated back to the time of the Tudors, had caused him to accept.
Not once, however—not even when Clifford Gandle was expressing to him with a politician’s trained verbosity his views on Unemployment and other weighty matters—had he regretted his decision. When he looked back on his life of the past eighteen months—a life spent in an inferno of shrilling telephones and authors, many of them female, popping in to abuse him for not advertising their books better—he could almost fancy that he had been translated to Paradise.
A Paradise, moreover, which was not without its Peri. For at this moment there approached Mr. Potter across the lawn, walking springily as if she were constructed of whalebone and indiarubber, a girl. She was a boyish-looking girl, slim and graceful, and the red hair on her bare head glowed pleasingly in the sun.
“Hullo, Mr. Potter!” she said.
The publisher beamed upon her. This was Roberta Wickham, his hostess’s daughter, who had returned to her ancestral home two days ago from a visit to friends in the North. A friendly young thing, she had appealed to Mr. Potter from the first.
“Well, well, well!” said Mr. Potter.
“Don’t get up. What are you reading?” Bobbie Wickham picked up the manuscript. “ ‘Ethics of Suicide,’ ” she read. “Cheery!”
Mr. Potter laughed indulgently.
“No doubt it seems an odd thing to be reading on such a day and in such surroundings. But a publisher is never free. This was sent over for my decision from my New York office. They won’t leave me alone, you see, even when I am on vacation.”
Bobbie Wickham’s hazel eyes clouded pensively.
“There’s a lot to be said for suicide,” she murmured. “If I had to see much of Clifford Gandle, I’d commit suicide myself.”
Mr. Potter started. He had always liked this child, but he had never dreamed that she was such a completely kindred soul.
“Don’t you like Mr. Gandle?”
“Nor do I.”
“Nor does anyone,” said Bobbie, “except mother.” Her eyes clouded again. “Mother thinks he’s wonderful.”
“Well, well!” said Mr. Potter.
“He’s a member of Parliament, you know.”
“And they say he may be in the Cabinet any day.”
“So he gave me to understand.”
“And all that sort of thing is very bad for a man, don’t you think? I mean, it seems to make him so starchy.”
“The very word.”
“The exact adjective I would have selected,” agreed Mr. Potter. “In our frequent conversations, before you arrived, he addressed me as if I were a half-witted deputation of his constituents.”
“Did you see much of him before I came?”
“A great deal, though I did my best to avoid him.”
“He’s a difficult man to avoid.”
“Yes.” Mr. Potter chuckled sheepishly. “Shall I tell you something that happened a day or two ago? You must not let it go any farther, of course. I was coming out of the smoking-room one morning and I saw him approaching me along the passage. So—so I jumped back and—ha, ha!—hid in a small cupboard.”
“Yes. But unfortunately he opened the cupboard door and discovered me. It was exceedingly embarrassing.”
“What did you say?”
“There was nothing much I could say. I’m afraid he must have thought me out of my senses.”
“Well, I—— All right, mother. Coming.”
THE rich contralto of a female novelist calling to its young had broken the stillness of the summer afternoon. Mr. Potter looked up with a start. Lady Wickham was standing on the lawn. It seemed to Mr. Potter that, as his little friend moved towards her, something of the springiness had gone out of her walk. It was as if she moved reluctantly.
“Where have you been, Roberta?” asked Lady Wickham, as her daughter came within earshot of the normal tone of voice. “I have been looking everywhere for you.”
“Anything special, mother?”
“Mr. Gandle wants to go to Hertford. He has to get some books. I think you had better drive him in your car.”
Mr. Potter, watching from his chair, observed a peculiar expression flit into Lady Wickham’s face. Had he been her English publisher, instead of merely her prospective American publisher, he would have been familiar with that look. It meant that Lady Wickham was preparing to exercise her celebrated will-power.
“Roberta,” she said, with dangerous quiet, “I particularly wish you to drive Mr. Gandle to Hertford.”
“But I had promised to go over and play tennis at the Crufts’.”
“Mr. Gandle is a much better companion for you than a young waster like Algy Crufts. You must run over and tell him that you cannot play to-day.”
A few minutes later a natty two-seater drew up at the front door of the Crufts’ residence down the road; and Bobbie Wickham, seated at the wheel, gave tongue.
The flannel-clad form of Mr. Algernon Crufts appeared at a window.
“Hullo! Down in a jiffy.”
There was an interval. Then Mr. Crufts joined her on the drive.
“Hullo! I say, you haven’t brought your racket, you poor chump,” he said.
“Tennis is off,” announced Bobbie, briefly. “I’ve got to drive Clifford Gandle in to Hertford.” She paused. “I say, Algy, shall I tell you something?”
“Mother wants me to marry Clifford Gandle.”
Algy Crufts uttered a strangled exclamation. Such was his emotion that he nearly swallowed the first eight inches of his cigarette-holder.
“Marry Clifford Gandle!”
“Yes. She’s all for it. She says he would have a steadying influence on me.”
“Ghastly! Take my advice and give the project the most absolute go-by. I was up at Oxford with the man. A blighter, if ever there was one. He was President of the Union and all sorts of frightful things.”
“It’s all very awkward. I don’t know what to do.”
“Kick him in the eye and tell him to go to blazes. That’s the procedure.”
“But it’s so hard not to do anything mother wants you to do. You know mother.”
“I do,” said Mr. Crufts, who did.
“Oh, well,” said Bobbie, “you never know. There’s always the chance that she may take a sudden dislike to him for some reason or other. She does take sudden dislikes to people.”
“She does,” said Mr. Crufts. Lady Wickham had disliked him at first sight.
“Well, let’s hope she will suddenly dislike Clifford Gandle. But I don’t mind telling you, Algy, that at the moment things are looking pretty black.”
“Keep smiling,” urged Mr. Crufts.
“What’s the good of smiling, you fathead?” said Bobbie, morosely.
NIGHT had fallen on Skeldings Hall. Lady Wickham was in her study, thinking those great thoughts which would subsequently be copyrighted in all languages, including the Scandinavian. Bobbie was strolling somewhere in the grounds, having eluded Mr. Gandle after dinner. And Mr. Gandle, baffled but not defeated, had donned a light overcoat and gone out to try to find Bobbie.
As for Mr. Potter, he was luxuriating in restful solitude in a punt under a willow by the bank of the moat.
From the first moment he had set eyes on it, Hamilton Potter had loved the moat at Skeldings Hall. Here, by the willow, it broadened out almost into the dimensions of a lake; and there was in the glitter of stars on its surface and the sleepy rustling of birds in the trees along its bank something infinitely soothing. The healing darkness wrapped the publisher about like a blanket; the cool night-wind fanned caressingly a forehead a little heated by Lady Wickham’s fine old port; and gradually, lulled by the beauty of the scene, Mr. Potter allowed himself to float into one of those reveries which come to publishers at moments such as this.
He mused on “jackets” and remainders and modes of distribution; on royalties and advertisements and spring lists and booksellers’ discounts. And his random thoughts, like fleeting thistledown, had just drifted to the question of the growing price of pulp-paper, when from somewhere near by there came the sound of a voice, jerking him back to the world again.
“Oh, let the solid ground not fail beneath my feet before that I have found what some have found so sweet,” said the voice.
A moderate request, one would have supposed; and yet it irritated Mr. Potter like the bite of a mosquito. For the voice was the voice of Clifford Gandle.
“Robertah,” proceeded the voice, and Mr. Potter breathed again. He had taken it for granted that the man had perceived and was addressing himself. He gathered now that his presence had not been discovered.
“Robertah,” said Mr. Gandle, “surely you cannot have been blind to the na-chah of my feelings? Surely you must have guessed that it was love that——”
Hamilton Potter congealed into a solid mass of frozen horror. He was listening-in on a proposal of marriage.
The emotions of any delicate-minded man who finds himself in such a position cannot fail to be uncomfortable; and the greater his delicacy of mind the more acute must the discomfort be. Mr. Potter, being, as are all publishers, more like a shrinking violet than anything else in the world, nearly swooned. His scalp tingled; his jaw fell; and his toes began to open and shut like poppet-valves.
“Heart of my heart——” said Mr. Gandle.
Mr. Potter gave a convulsive shudder. And the punt-pole, which had been resting on the edge of the boat, clattered down with a noise like a machine-gun.
There was a throbbing silence. Then Mr. Gandle spoke sharply. “Is anybody they-ah?”
There are situations in which a publisher can do only one thing. Raising himself noiselessly, Mr. Potter wriggled to the side of the punt and lowered himself into the water.
“Who is they-ah?”
Mr. Potter with a strong effort shut his mouth, which was trying to emit a howl of anguish. He had never supposed that water could be so cold. Silently he waded out towards the opposite bank. The only thing that offered any balm in this black moment was the recollection that his hostess had informed him that the moat was not more than four feet deep. But what Lady Wickham had omitted to inform him was that in one or two places there were ten-foot holes. It came, therefore, as a surprise to Mr. Potter when, after he had travelled some six yards, there happened to him that precise disaster which Mr. Gandle, in his recent remarks, had expressed himself as so desirous of avoiding. As the publisher took his next step forward, the solid ground failed beneath his feet.
“Oosh!” ejaculated Mr. Potter.
Clifford Gandle was a man of swift intuition. Hearing the cry and becoming aware at the same time of loud splashing noises, he guessed in one masterly flash of inductive reasoning that someone had fallen in. He charged down the bank and perceived the punt. He got into the punt. Bobbie Wickham got into the punt. Mr. Gandle seized the pole and propelled the punt out into the waste of waters.
“Are you they-ah?” inquired Mr. Gandle.
“Glub!” exclaimed Mr. Potter.
“I see him,” said Bobbie. “More to the left.”
Clifford Gandle drove the rescuing craft more to the left, and was just digging the pole into the water when Mr. Potter, coming up for the third time, found it within his reach. The partiality of drowning men for straws is proverbial; but, as a class, they are broad-minded and will clutch at punt-poles with equal readiness. Mr. Potter seized the pole and pulled strongly; and Clifford Gandle, who happened to be leaning his whole weight on it at the moment, was not proof against what practically amounted to a formal invitation. A moment later he had joined Mr. Potter in the depths.
Bobbie Wickham rescued the punt-pole, which was floating away on the tide, and peered down through the darkness. Stirring things were happening below. Clifford Gandle had grasped Mr. Potter. Mr. Potter had grasped Clifford Gandle. And Bobbie, watching from above, was irresistibly reminded of a picture she had seen in her childhood of alligators fighting in the River Hoogly. She raised the pole, and, with the best intentions, prodded at the tangled mass.
The treatment proved effective. The pole, taking Clifford Gandle shrewdly in the stomach, caused him to release his grip on Mr. Potter; and Mr. Potter, suddenly discovering that he was in shallow water again, did not hesitate. By the time Clifford Gandle had scrambled into the punt he was on dry land, squelching rapidly towards the house.
A silence followed his departure. Then Mr. Gandle, expelling the last pint of water from his mouth, gave judgment.
“The man must be mad!”
He found some more water which he had overlooked, and replaced it.
“Stark, staring mad!” he repeated. “He must have deliberately flung himself in.”
Bobbie Wickham was gazing out into the night; and, had the visibility been better, her companion might have observed in her expression the raptness of inspiration.
“There is no other explanation. The punt was they-ah, by the bank, and he was hee-yah, right out in the middle of the moat. I’ve suspected for days that he was unbalanced. Once I found him hiding in a cupboard. Crouching there with a wild gleam in his eyes. And that brooding look of his. That strange brooding look. I’ve noticed it every time I’ve been talking to him.”
Bobbie broke the silence, speaking in a low, grave voice.
“Didn’t you know about poor Mr. Potter?”
“That he has suicidal mania?”
Clifford Gandle drew in his breath sharply.
“You can’t blame him,” said Bobbie. “How would you feel if you came home one day and found your wife and your two brothers and a cousin sitting round the dinner table stone-dead?”
“Poisoned. Something in the curry.” She shivered. “This morning I found him in the garden gloating over a book called ‘Ethics of Suicide.’ ”
Clifford Gandle ran his fingers through his dripping hair.
“Something ought to be done!”
“What can you do? The thing isn’t supposed to be known. If you mention it to him, he will simply go away; and then mother will be furious, because she wants him to publish her books in America.”
“I shall keep the closest watch on the man.”
“Yes, that’s the thing to do,” agreed Bobbie.
She pushed the punt to the shore. Mr. Gandle, who had begun to feel chilly, leaped out and sped to the house to change his clothes. Bobbie, following at a more leisurely pace, found her mother standing in the passage outside her study. Lady Wickham’s manner was perturbed.
“What in the world has been happening? A few moments ago Mr. Potter ran past my door, dripping wet. And now Clifford Gandle has just gone by, also soaked to the skin. What have they been doing?”
“Fighting in the moat, mother.”
“Fighting in the moat? What do you mean?”
“Mr. Potter jumped in to try and get away from Mr. Gandle, and then Mr. Gandle went in after him and seized him round the neck, and they grappled together for quite a long time, struggling furiously. I think they must have had a quarrel.”
“What on earth would they quarrel about?”
“Well, you know what a violent man Clifford Gandle is.” This was an aspect of Mr. Gandle’s character which Lady Wickham had not perceived. She opened her penetrating eyes.
“Clifford Gandle violent?”
“I think he’s the sort of man who takes sudden dislikes to people.”
“Well, it all seems very queer to me,” said Bobbie. She passed on her way upstairs; and, reaching the first landing, turned down the corridor till she came to the principal guest-room. She knocked delicately. There were movements inside, and presently the door opened, revealing Hamilton Potter in a flowered dressing-gown.
“Thank Heaven you’re safe!” said Bobbie.
The fervour of her tone touched Mr. Potter. His heart warmed to the child.
“If I hadn’t been there when Mr. Gandle was trying to drown you——”
Mr. Potter started violently.
“Trying to drown me?” he gasped.
Bobbie’s eyebrows rose.
“Hasn’t anybody told you about Mr. Gandle—warned you? Didn’t you know he was one of the mad Gandles?”
“Mad Gandles. You know what some of these very old English families are like. All the Gandles have been mad for generations back.”
“You don’t mean—you can’t mean——” Mr. Potter gulped. “You can’t mean that Mr. Gandle is homicidal?”
“Not normally. But he takes sudden dislikes to people.”
“I think he likes me,” said Mr. Potter, with a certain nervous satisfaction. “He has made a point of seeking me out and giving me his views on—er—various matters.”
“Did you ever yawn while he was doing it?”
Mr. Potter blenched.
“Would—would he mind that very much?”
“Mind it! You lock your door at night, don’t you, Mr. Potter?”
“But this is terrible.”
“He sleeps in this corridor.”
“But why is the man at large?”
“He hasn’t done anything yet. You can’t shut a man up till he has done something.”
“Does Lady Wickham know of this?”
“For goodness’ sake don’t say a word to mother. It would only make her nervous. Everything will be quite all right, if you’re only careful. You had better try not to let him get you alone.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Potter. It was an idea that had occurred to him independently.
The last of the mad Gandles, meanwhile, having peeled off the dress-clothes moistened during the recent water-carnival, had draped his bony form in a suit of orange-coloured pyjamas, and was now devoting the full force of a legislator’s mind to the situation which had arisen.
He was a long, thin young man with a curved nose which even in his lighter moments gave him the appearance of disapproving things in general; and there had been nothing in the events of the last hour to cause any diminution of this look of disapproval. For we cannot in fairness but admit that, if ever a mad Gandle had good reason to be mad, Clifford Gandle had at this juncture. He had been interrupted at the crucial point of a proposal of marriage. He had been plunged into water and prodded with a punt-pole. He had sown the seeds of a cold in the head. And he rather fancied that he had swallowed a newt. These things do not conduce to sunniness in a man.
Nor did an inspection of the future do anything to remove his gloom. He had come to Skeldings for rest and recuperation after the labours of an exhausting Session, and now it seemed that, instead of passing his time pleasantly in the society of Roberta Wickham, he would be compelled to devote himself to acting as a guardian to a misguided publisher.
It was not as if he liked publishers, either. His relations with Prodder and Wiggs, who had sold forty-three copies of his book of political essays —“Watchman, What of the Night?”—had not been agreeable.
Nevertheless, this last of the Gandles was a conscientious man. He had no intention of shirking the call of duty. The question of whether it was worth while preventing a publisher committing suicide did not present itself to him.
That was why Bobbie’s note, when he read it, produced such immediate results.
Exactly when the missive had been delivered, Clifford Gandle could not say. Much thought had rendered him distrait, and the rustle of the paper as it was thrust under his door did not reach his consciousness. It was only when, after a considerable time, he rose with the intention of going to bed that he perceived lying on the floor an envelope.
He stooped and picked it up. He examined it with a thoughtful stare. He opened it.
The letter was brief. It ran as follows:—
“What about his razors?”
A thrill of dismay shot through him.
He had forgotten them.
Clifford Gandle did not delay. Already it might be that he was too late. He hurried down the passage and tapped at Mr. Potter’s door.
Clifford Gandle was relieved. He was in time.
“Can I come in?”
“Who is that?”
“What do you want?”
“Can you—er—lend me a razah?”
There followed a complete silence from within. Mr. Gandle tapped again.
“Are you they-ah?”
THE silence was broken by an odd rumbling sound. Something heavy knocked against the woodwork. But that the explanation seemed so improbable, Mr. Gandle would have said that this peculiar publisher had pushed a chest of drawers against the door.
“Are you they-ah, Mr. Pottah?”
Additional stillness. Mr. Gandle, wearying of a profitless vigil, gave the thing up and returned to his room.
The task that lay before him, he now realized, was to wait awhile and then make his way along the balcony which joined the windows of the two rooms; enter while the other slept, and abstract his weapon or weapons.
He looked at his watch. The hour was close on midnight. He decided to give Mr. Potter till two o’clock.
Clifford Gandle sat down to wait.
MR. POTTER’S first action, after the retreating footsteps had told him that his visitor had gone, was to extract a couple of nerve pills from the box by his bed and swallow them. This was a rite which, by the orders of his medical adviser, he had performed thrice a day since leaving America—once half an hour before breakfast, once an hour before luncheon, and again on retiring to rest.
In spite of the fact that he now consumed these pills, it seemed to Mr. Potter that he could scarcely be described as retiring to rest. After the recent ghastly proof of Clifford Gandle’s insane malevolence, he could not bring himself to hope that even the most fitful slumber would come to him this night. The horror of the thought of that awful man padding softly to his door and asking for razors chilled Hamilton Potter to the bone.
Nevertheless, he did his best. He switched off the light and, closing his eyes, began to repeat in a soft undertone a formula which he had often found efficacious.
“Day by day,” murmured Mr. Potter, “in every way, I am getting better and better. Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better.”
It would have astonished Clifford Gandle, yawning in his room down the corridor, if he could have heard such optimistic sentiments proceeding from those lips.
“Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better.”
Mr. Potter’s mind performed an unfortunate side-slip. He lay there tingling. Suppose he was getting better and better, what of it? What was the use of getting better and better if at any moment a mad Gandle might spring out with a razor and end it all?
He forced his thoughts away from these uncomfortable channels. He clenched his teeth and whispered through them with a touch of defiance.
“Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better. Day by day, in every way——”
A pleasant drowsiness stole over Mr. Potter.
“Day by day, in every way,” he murmured, “I am getting better and better. Day by day, in every way, I am betting getter and getter. Bay by day, in every way, I am betting getter and wetter. Way by day——”
Mr. Potter slept.
Over the stables the clock chimed the hour of two, and Clifford Gandle stepped out on to the balcony.
It has been well said by many thinkers that in human affairs you can never be certain that some little trifling obstacle will not undo the best-laid of schemes. It was the sunken road at Hougomont that undid the French cavalry at Waterloo, and it was something very similar that caused Clifford Gandle’s plan of action to go wrong now—a jug of water, to wit, which the maid who had brought Mr. Potter’s hot-water can before dinner had placed immediately beneath the window.
Clifford Gandle, insinuating himself with the extreme of caution through the window and finding his foot resting on something hard, assumed that he was touching the floor, and permitted his full weight to rest upon that foot. Almost immediately afterwards the world collapsed with a crash and a deluge of water; and light, flooding the room, showed Mr. Potter sitting up in bed, blinking.
Mr. Potter stared at Clifford Gandle. Clifford Gandle stared at Mr. Potter.
“Er—hullo!” said Clifford Gandle.
Mr. Potter uttered a low, curious sound like a cat with a fish-bone in its throat.
“I—er—just looked in,” said Clifford Gandle.
Mr. Potter made a noise like a second and slightly larger cat with another fish-bone in its throat.
“I’ve come for the razah,” said Clifford Gandle. “Ah, there it is,” he said, and, moving towards the dressing-table, secured it.
Mr. Potter leaped from his bed. He looked about him for a weapon. The only one in sight appeared to be the typescript of “Ethics of Suicide,” and that, while it would have made an admirable instrument for swatting flies, was far too flimsy for the present crisis. All in all, it began to look to Mr. Potter like a sticky evening.
“Good night,” said Clifford Gandle.
Mr. Potter was amazed to see that his visitor was withdrawing towards the window. It seemed incredible. For a moment he wondered whether Bobbie Wickham had not made some mistake about this man. Nothing could be more temperate than his behaviour at the moment.
And then, as he reached the window, Clifford Gandle smiled, and all Mr. Potter’s fears leaped into being again.
The opinion of Clifford Gandle regarding this smile was that it was one of those kindly, reassuring smiles—the sort of smile to put the most nervous melancholiac at his ease. To Mr. Potter it seemed precisely the kind of maniac grin which he would have expected from such a source.
“Good night,” said Clifford Gandle.
He smiled again, and was gone. And Mr. Potter, having stood rooted to the spot for some minutes, crossed the floor and closed the window. He then bolted the window. He perceived a pair of shutters, and shut them. He moved the washhand-stand till it rested against the shutters. He placed two chairs and a small bookcase against the washhand-stand. Then he went to bed, leaving the light burning.
“Day by day, in every way,” said Mr. Potter, “I am getting better and better.”
But his voice lacked the ring of true conviction.
SUNSHINE filtering in through the shutters, and the song of birds busy in the ivy outside his window, woke Mr. Potter at an early hour next morning; but it was some time before he could bring himself to spring from his bed to greet another day. His disturbed night had left him heavy and lethargic. When finally he had summoned up the energy to rise and remove the zareba in front of the window and open the shutters, he became aware that a glorious morning was upon the world. The samples of sunlight that had crept into the room had indicated only feebly the golden wealth without.
But there was no corresponding sunshine in Mr. Potter’s heart. Spiritually as well as physically he was at a low ebb. The more he examined the position of affairs, the less he liked it. He went down to breakfast in pensive mood.
Breakfast at Skeldings was an informal meal, and visitors were expected to take it when they pleased, irrespective of the movements of their hostess, who was a late riser. In the dining-room, when Mr. Potter entered it, only the daughter of the house was present.
Bobbie was reading the morning paper. She nodded cheerfully to him over its top.
“Good morning, Mr. Potter. I hope you slept well.” Mr. Potter winced.
“Miss Wickham,” he said, “last night an appalling thing occurred.”
A startled look came into Bobbie’s eyes.
“You don’t mean—Mr. Gandle?”
“Oh, Mr. Potter, what?”
“Just as I was going to bed, the man knocked at my door and asked if he could borrow my razah—I mean my razor.”
“You didn’t lend it to him?”
“No, I did not,” replied Mr. Potter, with a touch of asperity. “I barricaded the door.”
“How wise of you!”
“And at two in the morning he came in through the window!”
“He took my razor. Why he did not attack me, I cannot say. But, having obtained it, he grinned at me in a ghastly way and went out.”
There was a silence.
“Have an egg or something,” said Bobbie, in a hushed voice.
“Thank you, I will take a little ham,” whispered Mr. Potter.
There was another silence.
“I’m afraid,” said Bobbie at length, “you will have to go.”
“That is what I think.”
“It is quite evident that Mr. Gandle has taken one of his uncontrollable dislikes to you.”
“What I think you ought to do is to leave quite quietly, without saying good-bye or anything, so that he won’t know where you’ve gone and won’t be able to follow you. Then you could write mother a letter, saying that you had to go because of Mr. Gandle’s persecution.”
“You needn’t say anything about his being mad. She knows that. Just say that he ducked you in the moat and then came into your room at two in the morning and made faces at you. She will understand.”
CLIFFORD GANDLE came into the room.
“Good morning,” said Bobbie.
“Good morning,” said Mr. Gandle.
He helped himself to a poached egg; and, glancing across the table at the publisher, was concerned to note how wan and sombre was his aspect. If ever a man looked as if he were on the verge of putting an end to everything, that man was John Hamilton Potter.
Clifford Gandle was not feeling particularly festive himself at the moment, for he was a man who depended greatly for his well-being on a placid eight hours of sleep; but he exerted himself to be bright and optimistic.
“What a lovely morning!” he trilled.
“Yes,” said Mr. Potter.
“Surely such weather is enough to make any man happy and satisfied with life.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Potter, doubtfully.
“Who, with all Na-chah smiling, could seriously contemplate removing himself from so bright a world?”
“George Philibert, of 32, Acacia Road, Cricklewood, did,” said Bobbie, who had resumed her study of the paper.
“Eh?” said Mr. Gandle.
“George Philibert, of 32, Acacia Road, Cricklewood, was had up before the beak yesterday, charged with attempted suicide. He stated that——”
Mr. Gandle cast a reproachful look at her. He had always supposed Roberta Wickham to be a girl of fair intelligence, as women go; and it seemed to him that he had over-estimated her good sense. He did his best to cover up her blunder.
“Possibly,” he said, “with some really definite and serious reason——”
“I can never understand,” said Mr. Potter, coming out of what had all the outward appearance of a trance, “why the idea arose that suicide is wrong.”
He spoke with a curious intensity. The author of “Ethics of Suicide” had wielded a plausible pen, and the subject was one on which he now held strong views. And, even if he had not already held them, his mood this morning was of a kind to breed them in his bosom.
“The author of a very interesting book which I intend to publish shortly,” he said, “points out that none but the votaries of the monotheistic religions look upon suicide as a crime.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Gandle, “but——”
“If, he goes on to say, the criminal law forbids suicide, that is not an argument valid in the Church. And, besides, the prohibition is ridiculous, for what penalty can frighten a man who is not afraid of death itself?”
“George Philibert got fourteen days,” said Bobbie.
“Yes, but——” said Mr. Gandle.
“The ancients were very far from regarding the matter in the modern light. Indeed, in Massilia and on the island of Ceos, the man who could give valid reasons for relinquishing his life was handed the cup of hemlock by the magistrate, and that, too, in public.”
“And why,” said Mr. Potter, “suicide should be regarded as cowardly is beyond me. Surely no man who had not an iron nerve——”
He broke off. The last two words had tapped a chord in his memory. Abruptly it occurred to him that here he was, half-way through breakfast, and he had not taken those iron nerve-pills which his doctor had so strictly ordered him to swallow thirty minutes before the morning meal.
“Yes,” said Mr. Gandle. He lowered his cup and looked across the table. “But——”
His voice died away. He sat staring before him in horror-struck silence. Mr. Potter, with a strange, wild look in his eyes, was in the very act of raising to his lips a sinister-looking white pellet. And, even as Mr. Gandle gazed, the wretched man’s lips closed over the horrid thing and a movement of his Adam’s apple showed that the deed was done.
“Surely,” said Mr. Potter, “no man who——”
It seemed that Fate was inflexibly bent on preventing him from finishing that particular sentence this morning. For he had got thus far when Clifford Gandle, seizing the mustard-pot, rose with a maniac screech and bounded, wild-eyed, round the table at him.
LADY WICKHAM came downstairs and made her way like a stately galleon under sail towards the dining-room. Unlike others of the household, she was feeling particularly cheerful this morning. She liked fine weather, and the day was unusually fine. Also, she had resolved that after breakfast she would take Mr. Potter aside and use the full force of her commanding personality to extract from him something in the nature of an informal contract.
She would not, she decided, demand too much at first. If he would consent to undertake the American publication of “Agatha’s Vow,” “A Strong Man’s Love,” and—possibly—“A Man For A’ That,” she would be willing to postpone discussion of “Meadowsweet,” “Fetters of Fate,” and the rest of her works. But if he thought he could eat her bread and salt and sidestep “Agatha’s Vow” he had grievously under-estimated the power of her cold grey eye when it came to subduing such members of the animal kingdom as publishers.
There was a happy smile, therefore, on Lady Wickham’s face as she entered the room. She was not actually singing, but she stopped only just short of it.
She was surprised to find that, except for her daughter Roberta, the dining-room was empty.
“Good morning, mother,” said Bobbie.
“Good morning. Has Mr. Potter finished his breakfast?” Bobbie considered the question.
“I don’t know if he had actually finished,” she said. “But he didn’t seem to want any more.”
“Where is he?”
“I don’t know, mother.”
“When did he go?”
“He’s only just left.”
“I didn’t meet him.”
“He went out of the window.”
The sunshine faded from Lady Wickham’s face.
“Out of the window? Why?”
“I think it was because Clifford Gandle was between him and the door.”
“What do you mean? Where is Clifford Gandle?”
“I don’t know, mother. He went out of the window, too. They were both running down the drive when I last saw them.” Bobbie’s face grew pensive. “Mother, I’ve been thinking,” she said. “Are you really sure that Clifford Gandle would be such a steadying influence for me? He seems to me rather eccentric.”
“I cannot understand a word of what you are saying.”
“Well, he is eccentric. At two o’clock this morning, Mr. Potter told me, he climbed in through Mr. Potter’s window, made faces at him, and climbed out again. And just now——”
“Made faces at Mr. Potter?”
“Yes, mother. And just now Mr. Potter was peacefully eating his breakfast, when Clifford Gandle suddenly uttered a loud cry and sprang at him. Mr. Potter jumped out of window and Clifford Gandle jumped out after him and chased him down the drive. I thought Mr. Potter ran awfully well for an elderly man, but that sort of thing can’t be good for him in the middle of breakfast.”
Lady Wickham subsided into a chair.
“Is everybody mad?”
“I think Clifford Gandle must be. You know, these men who do wonderful things at the ’Varsity often do crack up suddenly. I was reading a case only yesterday about a man in America. He took every possible prize at Harvard or wherever it was, and then, just as everybody was predicting the most splendid future for him, he bit his aunt in the leg. He——”
“Go and find Mr. Potter,” cried Lady Wickham. “I must speak to him.”
“I’ll try. But I don’t believe it will be easy. I think he’s gone for good.”
Lady Wickham uttered a bereaved cry, such as a tigress might who sees its prey snatched from it.
“He told me he was thinking of going. He said he couldn’t stand Clifford Gandle’s persecution any longer. And that was before breakfast, so I don’t suppose he has changed his mind. I think he means to go on running.”
A sigh like the whistling of the wind through the cracks in a broken heart escaped Lady Wickham.
“Mother,” said Bobbie, “I’ve something to tell you. Last night Clifford Gandle asked me to marry him. I hadn’t time to answer one way or the other, because just after he had proposed he jumped into the moat and tried to drown Mr. Potter; but if you really think he would be a steadying influence for me——”
Lady Wickham uttered a snort of agony.
“I forbid you to dream of marrying this man!”
“Very well, mother,” said Bobbie, dutifully. She rose and moved to the sideboard. “Would you like an egg, mother?”
“Very well.” Bobbie paused at the door. “Don’t you think it would be a good idea,” she said, “if I were to go and find Clifford Gandle and tell him to pack up and go away? I’m sure you won’t like having him about after this.”
Lady Wickham’s eyes flashed fire.
“If that man dares to come back, I’ll—I’ll—— Yes. Tell him to go. Tell him to go away and never let me set eyes on him again.”
“Very well, mother,” said Bobbie.
Printer’s error corrected above:
Magazine had “telling you Algy”; other versions have a comma after “you” as required by grammar.