The Strand Magazine, December 1916
N a day in June, at the hour when London moves abroad in quest of lunch, a young man stood at the entrance of the Bandolero Restaurant looking earnestly up Shaftesbury Avenue—a large young man in excellent condition, with a pleasant, good-humoured, brown, clean-cut face. He paid no attention to the stream of humanity that flowed past him. His mouth was set and his eyes wore a serious, almost a wistful expression. He was frowning slightly. One would have said that here was a man with a secret sorrow.
William FitzWilliam Delamere Chalmers, Lord Dawlish, had no secret sorrow. All that he was thinking of at that moment was the best method of laying a golf ball dead in front of the Palace Theatre. It was his habit to pass the time in mental golf when Claire Fenwick was late in keeping her appointments with him. On one occasion she had kept him waiting so long that he had been able to do nine holes, starting at the Savoy Grill and finishing up near Hammersmith. His was a simple mind, able to amuse itself with simple things.
As he stood there, gazing into the middle distance, an individual of dishevelled aspect sidled up, a vagrant of almost the maximum seediness, from whose midriff there protruded a trayful of a strange welter of collar-studs, shoe-laces, rubber rings, buttonhooks, and dying roosters. For some minutes he had been eyeing his lordship appraisingly from the edge of the kerb, and now, secure in the fact that there seemed to be no policeman in the immediate vicinity, he anchored himself in front of him and observed that he had a wife and four children at home, all starving.
This sort of thing was always happening to Lord Dawlish. There was something about him, some atmosphere of unaffected kindliness, that invited it.
In these days when everything, from the shape of a man’s hat to his method of dealing with asparagus, is supposed to be an index to character, it is possible to form some estimate of Lord Dawlish from the fact that his vigil in front of the Bandolero had been expensive even before the advent of the Benedict with the studs and laces. In London, as in New York, there are spots where it is unsafe for a man of yielding disposition to stand still, and the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Piccadilly Circus is one of them. Scrubby, impecunious men drift to and fro there, waiting for the gods to provide something easy; and the prudent man, conscious of the possession of loose change, whizzes through the danger zone at his best speed, “like one that on a lonesome road doth walk in fear and dread, and having once turned round walks on, and turns no more his head, because he knows a frightful fiend doth close behind him tread.” In the seven minutes he had been waiting two frightful fiends closed in on Lord Dawlish, requesting loans of five shillings till Wednesday week and Saturday week respectively, and he had parted with the money without a murmur.
A further clue to his character is supplied by the fact that both these needy persons seemed to know him intimately, and that each called him Bill. All Lord Dawlish’s friends called him Bill, and he had a catholic list of them, ranging from men whose names were in “Debrett” to men whose names were on the notice boards of obscure clubs in connection with the non-payment of dues. He was the sort of man one instinctively calls Bill.
The anti-race-suicide enthusiast with the rubber rings did not call Lord Dawlish Bill, but otherwise his manner was intimate. His lordship’s gaze being a little slow in returning from the middle distance—for it was not a matter to be decided carelessly and without thought, this problem of carrying the length of Shaftesbury Avenue with a single brassy shot—he repeated the gossip from the home. Lord Dawlish regarded him thoughtfully.
“It could be done,” he said, “but you’d want a bit of pull on it. I’m sorry; I didn’t catch what you said.”
The other obliged with his remark for the third time, with increased pathos, for constant repetition was making him almost believe it himself.
“Four starving children?”
“Four, guv’nor, so help me!”
“I suppose you don’t get much time for golf, then, what?” said Lord Dawlish, sympathetically.
It was precisely three days, said the man, mournfully inflating a dying rooster, since his offspring had tasted bread.
This did not touch Lord Dawlish deeply. He was not very fond of bread. But it seemed to be troubling the poor fellow with the studs a great deal, so, realizing that tastes differ and that there is no accounting for them, he looked at him commiseratingly.
“Of course, if they like bread, that makes it rather rotten, doesn’t it? What are you going to do about it?”
The man permitted the dying rooster to die noisily.
“Buy a dying rooster, guv’nor,” he advised. “Causes great fun and laughter.”
Lord Dawlish eyed the strange fowl without enthusiasm.
“No,” he said, with a slight shudder.
There was a pause. The situation had the appearance of being at a deadlock.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Lord Dawlish, with the air of one who, having pondered, has been rewarded with a great idea: “the fact is, I really don’t want to buy anything. You seem by bad luck to be stocked up with just the sort of things I wouldn’t be seen dead in a ditch with. I can’t stand rubber rings, never could. I’m not really keen on buttonhooks. And I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I think that squeaking bird of yours is about the beastliest thing I ever met. So suppose I give you a shilling and call it square, what?”
“Gawd bless yer, guv’nor.”
“Not at all. You’ll be able to get those children of yours some bread—I expect you can get a lot of bread for a shilling. Do they really like it? Rum kids!”
And having concluded this delicate financial deal, Lord Dawlish turned, the movement bringing him face to face with a tall girl in white.
During the business talk which had just come to an end this girl had been making her way up the side street which forms a short cut between Coventry Street and the Bandolero, and several admirers of feminine beauty who happened to be using the same route had almost dislocated their necks looking after her. She was a strikingly handsome girl. She was tall and willowy. Her eyes, shaded by her hat, were large and grey. Her nose was small and straight, her mouth, though somewhat hard, admirably shaped, and she carried herself magnificently. One cannot blame the policeman on duty in Leicester Square for remarking to a cabman as she passed that he envied the bloke that that was going to meet.
Bill Dawlish was this fortunate bloke, but, from the look of him as he caught sight of her, one would have said that he did not appreciate his luck. The fact of the matter was that he had only just finished giving the father of the family his shilling, and he was afraid that Claire had seen him doing it. For Claire, dear girl, was apt to be unreasonable about these little generosities of his. He cast a furtive glance behind him in the hope that the disseminator of expiring roosters had vanished, but the man was still at his elbow. Worse, he faced them, and in a hoarse but carrying voice he was instructing Heaven to bless his benefactor.
“Halloa, Claire darling!” said Lord Dawlish, with a sort of sheepish breeziness. “Here you are.”
Claire was looking after the stud merchant, as, grasping his wealth, he scuttled up the avenue.
“Were you giving that man money, Bill?”
“Only a bob,” his lordship hastened to say. “Rather a sad case, don’t you know. Squads of children at home demanding bread. Didn’t want much else, apparently, but were frightfully keen on bread.”
“He has just gone into a public-house.”
“He may have gone to telephone or something, what?”
“I wish,” said Claire, fretfully, leading the way down the grillroom stairs, “that you wouldn’t let all London sponge on you like this. I keep telling you not to. I should have thought that if any one needed to keep what little money he has got it was you.”
Certainly Lord Dawlish would have been more prudent not to have parted with even eleven shillings, for he was not a rich man. Indeed, with the single exception of the Earl of Wetherby, whose finances were so irregular that he could not be said to possess an income at all, he was the poorest man of his rank in the British Isles.
It was in the days of the Regency that the Dawlish coffers first began to show signs of cracking under the strain, in the era of the then celebrated Beau Dawlish. Nor were his successors backward in the spending art. A breezy disregard for the preservation of the pence was a family trait. Bill was at Cambridge when his predecessor in the title, his Uncle Philip, was performing the concluding exercises of the dissipation of the Dawlish doubloons, a feat which he achieved so neatly that when he died there was just enough cash to pay the doctors, and no more. Bill found himself the possessor of that most ironical thing, a moneyless title. He was then twenty-three.
Until six months before, when he had become engaged to Claire Fenwick, he had found nothing to quarrel with in his lot. He was not the type to waste time in vain regrets. His tastes were simple. As long as he could afford to belong to one or two golf clubs and have something over for those small loans which, in certain of the numerous circles in which he moved, were the inevitable concomitant of popularity, he was satisfied. And this modest ambition had been realized for him by a group of what he was accustomed to refer to as decent old bucks, who had installed him as secretary of that aristocratic and exclusive club, Brown’s in St. James Street, at an annual salary of four hundred pounds. With that wealth, added to free lodging at one of the best clubs in London, perfect health, a steadily-diminishing golf handicap, and a host of friends in every walk of life, Bill had felt that it would be absurd not to be happy and contented.
But Claire had made a difference. There was no question of that. In the first place, she resolutely declined to marry him on four hundred pounds a year. She scoffed at four hundred pounds a year. To hear her talk, you would have supposed that she had been brought up from the cradle to look on four hundred pounds a year as small change to be disposed of in tips and cab fares. That in itself would have been enough to sow doubts in Bill’s mind as to whether he had really got all the money that a reasonable man needed; and Claire saw to it that these doubts sprouted, by confining her conversation on the occasions of their meeting almost entirely to the great theme of money, with its minor sub-divisions of How to get it, Why don’t you get it? and I’m sick and tired of not having it.
She developed this theme to-day, not only on the stairs leading to the grillroom, but even after they had seated themselves at their table. It was a relief to Bill when the arrival of the waiter with food caused a break in the conversation and enabled him adroitly to change the subject.
“What have you been doing this morning?” he asked.
“I went to see Maginnis at the theatre.”
“I had a wire from him asking me to call. They want me to take up Claudia Winslow’s part in the number one company.”
“Well—er—what I mean—well, isn’t it? What I mean is, leading part, and so forth.”
“In a touring company?”
“Yes, I see what you mean,” said Lord Dawlish, who didn’t at all. He thought rather highly of the number one companies that hailed from the theatre of which Mr. Maginnis was proprietor.
“And anyhow, I ought to have had the part in the first place instead of when the tour’s half over. They are at Southampton this week. He wants me to join them there and go on to Portsmouth with them.”
“You’ll like Portsmouth.”
“Well—er—good links quite near.”
“You know I don’t play golf.”
“Nor do you. I was forgetting. Still, it’s quite a jolly place.”
“It’s a horrible place. I loathe it. I’ve half a mind not to go.”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?”
Lord Dawlish was feeling a little sorry for himself. Whatever he said seemed to be the wrong thing. This evidently was one of the days on which Claire was not so sweet-tempered as on some other days. It crossed his mind that of late these irritable moods of hers had grown more frequent. It was not her fault, poor girl! he told himself. She had rather a rotten time.
It was always Lord Dawlish’s habit on these occasions to make this excuse for Claire. It was such a satisfactory excuse. It covered everything. But, as a matter of fact, the rather rotten time which she was having was not such a very rotten one. Reducing it to its simplest terms, and forgetting for the moment that she was an extraordinarily beautiful girl—which his lordship found it impossible to do—all that it amounted to was that, her mother having but a small income, and existence in the West Kensington flat being consequently a trifle dull for one with a taste for the luxuries of life, Claire had gone on the stage. By birth she belonged to a class of which the female members are seldom called upon to earn money at all, and that was one count of her grievance against Fate. Another was that she had not done as well on the stage as she had expected to do. When she became engaged to Bill she had reached a point where she could obtain without difficulty good parts in the touring companies of London successes, but beyond that it seemed it was impossible for her to soar. It was not, perhaps, a very exhilarating life, but, except to the eyes of love, there was nothing tragic about it. It was the cumulative effect of having a mother in reduced circumstances and grumbling about it, of being compelled to work and grumbling about that, and of achieving in her work only a semi-success and grumbling about that also, that—backed by her looks—enabled Claire to give quite a number of people, and Bill Dawlish in particular, the impression that she was a modern martyr, only sustained by her indomitable courage.
So Bill, being requested in a peevish voice to explain what he meant by saying, “Oh, I don’t know,” condoned the peevishness. He then bent his mind to the task of trying to ascertain what he had meant.
“Well,” he said, “what I mean is, if you don’t show up won’t it be rather a jar for old friend Maginnis? Won’t he be apt to foam at the mouth a bit and stop giving you parts in his companies?”
“I’m sick of trying to please Maginnis. What’s the good? He never gives me a chance in London. I’m sick of being always on tour. I’m sick of everything.”
“It’s the heat,” said Lord Dawlish, most injudiciously.
“It isn’t the heat. It’s you!”
“Me? What have I done?”
“It’s what you’ve not done. Why can’t you exert yourself and make some money?”
Lord Dawlish groaned a silent groan. By a devious route, but with unfailing precision, they had come homing back to the same old subject.
“We have been engaged for six months, and there seems about as much chance of our ever getting married as of—I can’t think of anything unlikely enough. We shall go on like this till we’re dead.”
“But, my dear girl!”
“I wish you wouldn’t talk to me as if you were my grandfather. What were you going to say?”
“Only that we can get married this afternoon if you’ll say the word.”
“Oh, don’t let us go into all that again! I’m not going to marry on four hundred a year and spend the rest of my life in a poky little flat on the edge of London. Why can’t you make more money?”
“I did have a dash at it, you know. I waylaid old Bodger—Colonel Bodger, on the committee of the club, you know—and suggested over a whisky-and-soda that the management of Brown’s would be behaving like sportsmen if they bumped my salary up a bit, and the old boy nearly strangled himself trying to suck down Scotch and laugh at the same time. I give you my word, he nearly expired on the smoking-room floor. When he came to he said that he wished I wouldn’t spring my good things on him so suddenly, as he had a weak heart. He said they were only paying me my present salary because they liked me so much. You know, it was decent of the old boy to say that.”
“What is the good of being liked by the men in your club if you won’t make any use of it?”
“How do you mean?”
“There are endless things you could do. You could have got Mr. Breitstein elected at Brown’s if you had liked. They wouldn’t have dreamed of blackballing anyone proposed by a popular man like you, and Mr. Breitstein asked you personally to use your influence—you told me so.”
“But, my dear girl—I mean my darling—Breitstein! He’s the limit! He’s the worst bounder in London.”
“He’s also one of the richest men in London. He would have done anything for you. And you let him go! You insulted him!”
“Didn’t you send him an admission ticket to the Zoo?”
“Oh, well, yes, I did do that. He thanked me and went the following Sunday. Amazing how these rich Johnnies love getting something for nothing. There was that old American I met down at Marvis Bay last year——”
“You threw away a wonderful chance of making all sorts of money. Why, a single tip from Mr. Breitstein would have made your fortune.”
“But, Claire, you know, there are some things—what I mean is, if they like me at Brown’s, it’s awfully decent of them and all that, but I couldn’t take advantage of it to plant a fellow like Breitstein on them. It wouldn’t be playing the game.”
Lord Dawlish looked unhappy, but said nothing. This matter of Mr. Breitstein had been touched upon by Claire in previous conversations, and it was a subject for which he had little liking. Experience had taught him that none of the arguments which seemed so conclusive to him—to wit, that the financier had on two occasions only just escaped imprisonment for fraud, and, what was worse, made a noise when he drank soup, like water running out of a bathtub—had the least effect upon her. The only thing to do when Mr. Breitstein came up in the course of chitchat over the festive board was to stay quiet until he blew over.
“That old American you met at Marvis Bay,” said Claire, her memory flitting back to the remark which she had interrupted; “well, there’s another case. You could easily have got him to do something for you.”
“Claire, really!” said his goaded lordship, protestingly. “How on earth? I only met the man on the links.”
“But you were very nice to him. You told me yourself that you spent hours helping him to get rid of his slice, whatever that is.”
“We happened to be the only two down there at the time, so I was as civil as I could manage. If you’re marooned at a Cornish seaside resort out of the season with a man, you can’t spend your time dodging him. And this man had a slice that fascinated me. I felt at the time that it was my mission in life to cure him, so I had a dash at it. But I don’t see how on the strength of that I could expect the old boy to adopt me. He probably forgot my existence after I had left.”
“You said you met him in London a month or two afterwards, and he hadn’t forgotten you.”
“Well, yes, that’s true. He was walking up the Haymarket and I was walking down. I caught his eye, and he nodded and passed on. I don’t see how I could construe that into an invitation to go and sit on his lap and help myself out of his pockets.”
“You couldn’t expect him to go out of his way to help you; but probably if you had gone to him he would have done something.”
“You haven’t the pleasure of Mr. Ira Nutcombe’s acquaintance, Claire, or you wouldn’t talk like that. He wasn’t the sort of man you could get things out of. He didn’t even tip the caddie. Besides, can’t you see what I mean? I couldn’t trade on a chance acquaintance of the golf links to——”
“That is just what I complain of in you. You’re too diffident.”
“It isn’t diffidence exactly. Talking of old Nutcombe, I was speaking to Gates again the other night. He was telling me about America. There’s a lot of money to be made over there, you know, and the committee owes me a holiday. They would give me a few weeks off any time I liked.
“What do you say? Shall I pop over and have a look round? I might happen to drop into something. Gates was telling me about fellows he knew who had dropped into things in New York.”
“What’s the good of putting yourself to all the trouble and expense of going to America? You can easily make all you want in London if you will only try. It isn’t as if you had no chances. You have more chances than almost any man in town. With your title you could get all the directorships in the City that you wanted.”
“Well, the fact is, this business of taking directorships has never quite appealed to me. I don’t know anything about the game, and I should probably run up against some wildcat company. I can’t say I like the directorship wheeze much. It’s the idea of knowing that one’s name would be being used as a bait. Every time I saw it on a prospectus I should feel like a trout fly.”
Claire bit her lip.
“It’s so exasperating!” she broke out. “When I first told my friends that I was engaged to Lord Dawlish they were tremendously impressed. They took it for granted that you must have lots of money. Now I have to keep explaining to them that the reason we don’t get married is that we can’t afford to. I’m almost as badly off as poor Polly Davis who was in the Heavenly Waltz Company with me when she married that man, Lord Wetherby. A man with a title has no right not to have money. It makes the whole thing farcical.
“If I were in your place I should have tried a hundred things by now, but you always have some silly objection. Why couldn’t you, for instance, have taken on the agency of that what-d’you-call-it car?”
“What I called it would have been nothing to what the poor devils who bought it would have called it.”
“You could have sold hundreds of them, and the company would have given you any commission you asked. You know just the sort of people they wanted to get in touch with.”
“But, darling, how could I? Planting Breitstein on the club would have been nothing compared with sowing these horrors about London. I couldn’t go about the place sticking my pals with a car which, I give you my honest word, was stuck together with chewing-gum and tied up with string.”
“Why not? It would be their fault if they bought a car that wasn’t any good. Why should you have to worry once you had it sold?”
It was not Lord Dawlish’s lucky afternoon. All through lunch he had been saying the wrong thing, and now he put the coping-stone on his misdeeds. Of all the ways in which he could have answered Claire’s question he chose the worst.
“Er—well,” he said, “noblesse oblige, don’t you know, what?”
For a moment Claire did not speak. Then she looked at her watch and got up.
“I must be going,” she said, coldly.
“But you haven’t had your coffee yet.”
“I don’t want any coffee.”
“What’s the matter, dear?”
“Nothing is the matter. I have to go home and pack. I’m going to Southampton this afternoon.”
She began to move toward the door. Lord Dawlish, anxious to follow, was detained by the fact that he had not yet paid the bill. The production and settling of this took time, and when finally he turned in search of Claire she was nowhere visible.
Bounding upstairs on the swift feet of love, he reached the street. She had gone.
A grey sadness surged over Bill Dawlish. The sun hid itself behind a cloud, the sky took on a leaden hue, and a chill wind blew through the world. He scanned Shaftesbury Avenue with a jaundiced eye, and thought that he had never seen a beastlier or more depressing thoroughfare. Piccadilly, however, into which he shortly dragged himself, was even worse. It was full of men and women and other depressing things.
He pitied himself profoundly. It was a rotten world to live in, this, where a fellow couldn’t say noblesse oblige without upsetting the universe. Why shouldn’t a fellow say noblesse oblige? Why——? At this juncture Lord Dawlish walked into a lamp-post.
The shock changed his mood. Gloom still obsessed him, but blended now with remorse. He began to look at the matter from Claire’s viewpoint, and his pity switched from himself to her. In the first place, the poor girl had rather a rotten time. Could she be blamed for wanting him to make money? No. Yet whenever she made suggestions as to how the thing was to be done, he snubbed her by saying noblesse oblige. Naturally a refined and sensitive young girl objected to having things like noblesse oblige said to her. Where was the sense in saying noblesse oblige? Such a confoundedly silly thing to say. Only a perfect ass would spend his time rushing about the place saying noblesse oblige to people.
“By Jove!” Lord Dawlish stopped in his stride. He disentangled himself from a pedestrian who had rammed him on the back. “I’ll do it!”
He hailed a passing taxi and directed the driver to make for the Pen and Ink Club.
The decision at which Bill had arrived with such dramatic suddenness in the middle of Piccadilly was the same at which some centuries earlier Columbus had arrived in the privacy of his home.
“Hang it!” said Bill to himself in the cab, “I’ll go to America!” The exact words probably which Columbus had used, talking the thing over with his wife.
Bill’s knowledge of the great republic across the sea was at this period of his life a little sketchy. He knew that there had been unpleasantness between England and the United States in seventeen-something and again in eighteen-something, but that things had eventually been straightened out by Miss Edna May and her fellow missionaries of the Belle of New York Company, since which time there had been no more trouble. Of American cocktails he had a fair working knowledge, and he appreciated ragtime. But of the other great American institutions he was completely ignorant.
He was on his way now to see Gates. Gates was a comparatively recent addition to his list of friends, a New York newspaper man who had come to England a few months before to act as his paper’s London correspondent. He was generally to be found at the Pen and Ink Club, an institution affiliated with the New York Players, of which he was a member.
Gates was in. He had just finished lunch.
“What’s the trouble, Bill?” he inquired, when he had deposited his lordship in a corner of the reading-room, which he had selected because silence was compulsory there, thus rendering it possible for two men to hear each other speak. “What brings you charging in here looking like the Soul’s Awakening?”
“I’ve had an idea, old man.”
“Oh! Well, you remember what you were saying about America?”
“What was I saying about America?”
“The other day, don’t you remember? What a lot of money there was to be made there and so forth.”
“I’m going there.”
“To make money?”
Gates nodded—sadly, it seemed to Bill. He was rather a melancholy young man, with a long face not unlike a pessimistic horse.
“Gosh!” he said.
Bill felt a little damped. By no mental juggling could he construe “Gosh!” into an expression of enthusiastic approbation.
Gates looked at Bill curiously. “What’s the idea?” he said. “I could have understood it if you had told me that you were going to New York for pleasure, instructing your man Willoughby to see that the trunks were jolly well packed and wiring to the skipper of your yacht to meet you at Liverpool. But you seem to have sordid motives. You talk about making money. What do you want with more money?”
“Why, I’m devilish hard up.”
“Tenantry a bit slack with the rent?” said Gates, sympathetically.
“My dear chap, I don’t know what on earth you’re talking about. How much money do you think I’ve got? Four hundred pounds a year, and no prospect of ever making more unless I sweat for it.”
“What! I always thought you were rolling in money.”
“What gave you that idea?”
“You have a prosperous look. It’s a funny thing about England. I’ve known you four months, and I know men who know you; but I’ve never heard a word about your finances. In New York we all wear labels, stating our incomes and prospects in clear lettering. Well, if it’s like that it’s different, of course. There certainly is more money to be made in America than here. I don’t quite see what you think you’re going to do when you get there, but that’s up to you.
“There’s no harm in giving the city a trial. Anyway, I can give you a letter or two that might help.”
“That’s awfully good of you.”
“You won’t mind my alluding to you as my friend William Smith?”
“You can’t travel under your own name if you are really serious about getting a job. Mind you, if my letters lead to anything it will probably be a situation as an earnest bill-clerk or an effervescent office-boy, for Rockefeller and Carnegie and that lot have swiped all the soft jobs. But if you go over as Lord Dawlish you won’t even get that. Lords are popular socially in America, but are not used to any great extent in the office. If you try to break in under your right name you’ll get the glad hand and be asked to stay here and there and play a good deal of golf and dance quite a lot, but you won’t get a job. A gentle smile will greet all your pleadings that you be allowed to come in and save the firm.”
“We may look on Smith as a necessity.”
“Do you know, I’m not frightfully keen on the name Smith. Wouldn’t something else do?”
“Sure. We aim to please. How would Jones suit you?”
“The trouble is, you know, that if I took a name I wasn’t used to I might forget it.”
“If you’ve the sort of mind that would forget Jones I doubt if ever you’ll be a captain of industry.”
“Why not Chalmers?”
“You think it easier to memorize than Jones?”
“It used to be my name, you see, before I got the title.”
“I see. All right. Chalmers then. When do you think of starting?”
“You aren’t losing much time. By the way, as you’re going to New York you might as well use my flat.”
“It’s awfully good of you.”
“Not a bit. You would be doing me a favour. I had to leave at a moment’s notice, and I want to know what’s been happening to the place. I left some Japanese prints there, and my favourite nightmare is that some one has broken in and sneaked them. Write down the address—Forty-blank East Twenty-seventh Street. I’ll send you the key to Brown’s to-night with those letters.”
Bill walked up the Strand, glowing with energy. He made his way to Cockspur Street to buy his ticket for New York. This done, he set out to Brown’s to arrange with the committee the details of his departure.
He reached Brown’s at twenty minutes past two and left it again at twenty-three minutes past; for, directly he entered, the hall porter had handed him a telephone message. The telephone attendants at London clubs are masters of suggestive brevity. The one in the basement of Brown’s had written on Bill’s slip of paper the words: “1 p.m. Will Lord Dawlish as soon as possible call upon Mr. Gerald Nichols at his office?” To this was appended a message consisting of two words: “Good news.”
It was stimulating. The probability was that all Jerry Nichols wanted to tell him was that he had received stable information about some horse or had been given a box for the Empire, but for all that it was stimulating.
Bill looked at his watch. He could spare half an hour. He set out at once for the offices of the eminent law firm of Nichols, Nichols, Nichols, and Nichols, of which aggregation of Nicholses his friend Jerry was the last and smallest.
On a west-bound omnibus Claire Fenwick sat and raged silently in the June sunshine. She was furious. What right had Lord Dawlish to look down his nose and murmur “Noblesse oblige” when she asked him a question, as if she had suggested that he should commit some crime? It was the patronizing way he had said it that infuriated her, as if he were a superior being of some kind, governed by codes which she could not be expected to understand. Everybody nowadays did the sort of things she suggested, so what was the good of looking shocked and saying “Noblesse oblige”?
The omnibus rolled on towards West Kensington. Claire hated the place with the bitter hate of one who had read society novels, and yearned for Grosvenor Square and butlers and a general atmosphere of soft cushions and pink-shaded lights and maids to do one’s hair. She hated the cheap furniture of the little parlour, the penetrating contralto of the cook singing hymns in the kitchen, and the ubiquitousness of her small brother. He was only ten, and small for his age, yet he appeared to have the power of being in two rooms at the same time while making a nerve-racking noise in another.
It was Percy who greeted her to-day as she entered the flat.
“Halloa, Claire! I say, Claire, there’s a letter for you. It came by the second post. I say, Claire, it’s got an American stamp on it. Can I have it, Claire? I haven’t got one in my collection.”
His sister regarded him broodingly. “For goodness’ sake don’t bellow like that!” she said. “Of course, you can have the stamp. I don’t want it. Where is the letter?”
Claire took the envelope from him, extracted the letter, and handed back the envelope. Percy vanished into the dining-room with a shattering squeal of pleasure.
A voice spoke from behind a half-opened door:—
“Is that you, Claire?”
“Yes, mother; I’ve come back to pack. They want me to go to Southampton to-night to take up Claudia Winslow’s part.”
“What train are you catching?”
“You will have to hurry.”
“I’m going to hurry,” said Claire, clenching her fists as two simultaneous bursts of song, in different keys and varying tempos, proceeded from the dining-room and kitchen. A girl has to be in a sunnier mood than she was to bear up without wincing under the infliction of a duet consisting of the Rock of Ages and Waiting for the Robert E. Lee. Assuredly Claire proposed to hurry. She meant to get her packing done in record time and escape from this place. She went into her bedroom and began to throw things untidily into her trunk. She had put the letter in her pocket against a more favourable time for perusal. A glance had told her that it was from her friend Polly, Countess of Wetherby: that Polly Davis of whom she had spoken to Lord Dawlish. Polly Davis, now married for better or for worse to that curious invertebrate person, Algie Wetherby, was the only real friend Claire had made on the stage. A sort of shivering gentility had kept her aloof from the rest of her fellow-workers, but it took more than a shivering gentility to stave off Polly.
Claire had passed through the various stages of intimacy with her, until on the occasion of Polly’s marriage she had acted as her bridesmaid.
It was a long letter, too long to be read until she was at leisure, and written in a straggling hand that made reading difficult. She was mildly surprised that Polly should have written her, for she had been back in America a year or more now, and this was her first letter. Polly had a warm heart and did not forget her friends, but she was not a good correspondent.
The need of getting her things ready at once drove the letter from Claire’s mind. She was in the train on her way to Southampton before she remembered its existence.
It was dated from New York.
“My dear old Claire,—Is this really my first letter to you? Isn’t that awful! Gee! A lot’s happened since I saw you last. I must tell you first about my hit. Some hit! Claire, old girl, I own New York. I daren’t tell you what my salary is. You’d faint.
“I’m doing barefoot dancing. You know the sort of stuff. I started it in vaudeville, and went so big that my agent shifted me to the restaurants, and they have to call out the police reserves to handle the crowd. You can’t get a table at Reigelheimer’s, which is my pitch, unless you tip the head waiter a small fortune and promise to mail him your clothes when you get home. I dance during supper with nothing on my feet and not much anywhere else, and it takes three vans to carry my salary to the bank.
“Of course, it’s the title that does it: ‘Lady Pauline Wetherby!’ Algie says it oughtn’t to be that, because I’m not the daughter of a duke, but I don’t worry about that. It looks good, and that’s all that matters. You can’t get away from the title. I was born in Carbondale, Illinois, but that doesn’t matter—I’m an English countess, doing barefoot dancing to work off the mortgage on the ancestral castle, and they eat me. Take it from me, Claire, I’m a riot.
“Well, that’s that. What I am really writing about is to tell you that you have got to come over here. I’ve taken a house at Brookport, on Long Island, for the summer. You can stay with me till the fall, and then I can easily get you a good job in New York. I have some pull these days, believe me. Not that you’ll need my help. The managers have only got to see you and they’ll all want you. I showed one of them that photograph you gave me, and he went up in the air. They pay twice as big salaries over here, you know, as in England, so come by the next boat.
“Claire, darling, you must come. I’m wretched. Algie has got my goat the worst way. If you don’t know what that means it means that he’s been behaving like a perfect pig. I hardly know where to begin. Well, it was this way: directly I made my hit my press agent, a real bright man named Sherriff, got busy, of course. Interviews, you know, and Advice to Young Girls in the evening papers, and How I preserve my Beauty, and all that sort of thing. Well, one thing he made me do was to buy a snake and a monkey. Roscoe Sherriff is crazy about animals as aids to advertisement. He says an animal story is the thing he does best. So I bought them.
“Algie kicked from the first. I ought to tell you that since we left England he has taken up painting footling little pictures, and has got the artistic temperament badly. All his life he’s been starting some new fool thing. When I first met him he prided himself on having the finest collection of photographs of race-horses in England. Then he got a craze for model engines. After that he used to work the piano player till I nearly went crazy. And now it’s pictures.
“I don’t mind his painting. It gives him something to do and keeps him out of mischief. He has a studio down in Washington Square, and is perfectly happy messing about there all day.
“Everything would be fine if he didn’t think it necessary to tack on the artistic temperament to his painting. He’s developed the idea that he has nerves and everything upsets them.
“Things came to a head this morning at breakfast. Clarence, my snake, has the cutest way of climbing up the leg of the table and looking at you pleadingly in the hope that you will give him soft-boiled egg, which he adores. He did it this morning, and no sooner had his head appeared above the table than Algie, with a kind of sharp wail, struck him a violent blow on the nose with a teaspoon. Then he turned to me, very pale, and said: ‘Pauline, this must end! The time has come to speak up. A nervous, highly-strung man like myself should not, and must not, be called upon to live in a house where he is constantly meeting snakes and monkeys without warning. Choose between me and——’
“We had got as far as this when Eustace, the monkey, who I didn’t know was in the room at all, suddenly sprang on to his back. He is very fond of Algie.
“Would you believe it? Algie walked straight out of the house, still holding the teaspoon, and has not returned. Later in the day he called me up on the ’phone and said that, though he realized that a man’s place was the home, he declined to cross the threshold again until I had got rid of Eustace and Clarence. I tried to reason with him. I told him that he ought to think himself lucky it wasn’t anything worse than a monkey and a snake, for the last person Roscoe Sherriff handled, an emotional actress named Devenish, had to keep a young puma. But he wouldn’t listen, and the end of it was that he rang off and I have not seen or heard of him since.
“I am broken-hearted. I won’t give in, but I am having an awful time. So, dearest Claire, do come over and help me. If you could possibly sail by the Atlantic, leaving Southampton on the twenty-fourth of this month, you would meet a friend of mine whom I think you would like. His name is Dudley Pickering, and he made a fortune in automobiles. I expect you have heard of the Pickering automobiles?
“Darling Claire, do come, or I know I shall weaken and yield to Algie’s outrageous demands, for, though I would like to hit him with a brick, I love him dearly.
Claire sank back against the cushioned seat and her eyes filled with tears of disappointment. Of all the things which would have chimed in with her discontented mood at that moment a sudden flight to America was the most alluring. Only one consideration held her back—she had not the money for her fare.
Polly might have thought of that, she reflected, bitterly. She took the letter up again and saw that on the last page there was a postscript:—
“P.S.—I don’t know how you are fixed for money, old girl, but if things are the same with you as in the old days you can’t be rolling. So I have paid for a passage for you with the liner people this side, and they have cabled their English office, so you can sail whenever you want to. Come right over.”
An hour later the manager of the Southampton branch of the White Star Line was dazzled by an apparition, a beautiful girl who burst in upon him with flushed face and shining eyes, demanding a berth on the steamship Atlantic and talking about a Lady Wetherby. Ten minutes later, her passage secured, Claire was walking to the local theatre to inform those in charge of the destinies of The Girl and the Artist number one company that they must look elsewhere for a substitute for Miss Claudia Winslow. Then she went back to her hotel to write a letter home, notifying her mother of her plans.
She looked at her watch. It was six o’clock. Back in West Kensington a rich smell of dinner would be floating through the flat; the cook, watching the boiling cabbage, would be singing A Few More Years Shall Roll; her mother would be sighing; and her little brother Percy would be employed upon some juvenile deviltry, the exact nature of which it was not possible to conjecture, though one could be certain that it would be something involving a deafening noise.
Claire smiled a happy smile.
The offices of Messrs. Nichols, Nichols, Nichols, and Nichols were in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The first Nichols had been dead since the reign of King William the Fourth, the second since the jubilee year of Queen Victoria. The remaining brace were Lord Dawlish’s friend Jerry and his father, a formidable old man who knew all the shady secrets of all the noble families in England.
Bill walked up the stairs and was shown into the room where Jerry, when his father’s eye was upon him, gave his daily imitation of a young man labouring with diligence and enthusiasm at the law. His father being at the moment out at lunch, the junior partner was practising putts with an umbrella and a ball of paper.
Jerry Nichols was not the typical lawyer. At Cambridge, where Bill had first made his acquaintance, he had been notable for an exuberance of which Lincoln’s Inn Fields had not yet cured him. There was an airy disregard for legal formalities about him which exasperated his father, an attorney of the old school. He came to the point, directly Bill entered the room, with a speed and levity that would have appalled Nichols Senior, and must have caused the other two Nicholses to revolve in their graves.
“Halloa, Bill, old man,” he said, prodding him amiably in the waistcoat with the ferrule of the umbrella. “How’s the boy? Fine! So’m I. So you got my message? Wonderful invention, the telephone.”
“I’ve just come from the club.”
“Take a chair.”
“What’s the matter?”
Jerry Nichols thrust Bill into a chair and seated himself on the table.
“Now look here, Bill,” he said, “this isn’t the way we usually do this sort of thing, and if the governor were here he would spend an hour and a half rambling on about testators and beneficiary legatees, and parties of the first part, and all that sort of rot. But as he isn’t here I want to know, as one pal to another, what you’ve been doing to an old buster of the name of Nutcombe.”
“Not Ira Nutcombe?”
“Ira J. Nutcombe, formerly of Chicago, later of London, now a disembodied spirit.”
“Is he dead?”
“Yes. And he’s left you something like a million pounds.”
Lord Dawlish looked at his watch.
“Joking apart, Jerry, old man,” he said, “what did you ask me to come here for? The committee expects me to spend some of my time at the club, and if I hang about here all the afternoon I shall lose my job. Besides, I’ve got to get back to ask them for——”
Jerry Nichols clutched his forehead with both hands, raised both hands to heaven, and then, as if despairing of calming himself by these means, picked up a paper-weight from the desk and hurled it at a portrait of the founder of the firm, which hung over the mantelpiece. He got down from the table and crossed the room to inspect the ruins.
Then, having taken a pair of scissors and cut the cord, he allowed the portrait to fall to the floor.
He rang the bell. The prematurely-aged office-boy, who was undoubtedly destined to become a member of the firm some day, answered the ring.
“Inspect yonder soufflé.”
“You have observed it?”
“You are wondering how it got there?”
“I will tell you. You and I were in here, discussing certain legal minutiæ in the interests of the firm, when it suddenly fell. We both saw it and were very much surprised and startled. I soothed your nervous system by giving you this half-crown. The whole incident was very painful. Can you remember all this to tell my father when he comes in? I shall be out lunching then.”
“An admirable lad that,” said Jerry Nichols as the door closed. “He has been here two years, and I have never heard him say anything except ‘Yes, sir.’ He will go far. Well, now that I am calmer let us return to your little matter. Honestly, Bill, you make me sick. When I contemplate you the iron enters my soul. You stand there talking about your tuppenny-ha’penny job as if it mattered a cent whether you kept it or not. Can’t you understand plain English? Can’t you realize that you can buy Brown’s and turn it into a moving-picture house if you like? You’re a millionaire!”
Bill’s face expressed no emotion whatsoever. Outwardly he appeared unmoved. Inwardly he was a riot of bewilderment, incapable of speech. He stared at Jerry dumbly.
“We’ve got the will in the old oak chest,” went on Jerry Nichols. “I won’t show it to you, partly because the governor has got the key and he would have a fit if he knew that I was giving you early information like this, and partly because you wouldn’t understand it. It is full of ‘whereases’ and ‘peradventures’ and ‘heretofores’ and similar swank, and there aren’t any stops in it. It takes the legal mind, like mine, to tackle wills. What it says, when you’ve peeled off a few of the long words which they put in to make it more interesting, is that old Nutcombe leaves you the money because you are the only man who ever did him a disinterested kindness—and what I want to get out of you is, what was the disinterested kindness? Because I’m going straight out to do it to every elderly, rich-looking man I can find till I pick a winner.”
Lord Dawlish found speech.
“Jerry, is this really true?”
“You aren’t pulling my leg?”
“Pulling your leg? Of course, I’m not pulling your leg. What do you take me for? I’m a dry, hard-headed lawyer. The firm of Nichols, Nichols, Nichols, and Nichols doesn’t go about pulling people’s legs!”
“It appears from the will that you worked this disinterested gag, whatever it was, at Marvis Bay no longer ago than last year. Wherein you showed a lot of sense, for Ira J., having altered his will in your favour, apparently had no time before he died to alter it again in somebody else’s, which he would most certainly have done if he had lived long enough, for his chief recreation seems to have been making his will. To my certain knowledge he has made three in the last two years. I’ve seen them. He was one of those confirmed will-makers. He got the habit at an early age, and was never able to shake it off. Do you remember anything about the man?”
“It isn’t possible!”
“Anything’s possible with a man cracked enough to make freak wills and not cracked enough to have them disputed on the ground of insanity. What did you do to him at Marvis Bay? Save him from drowning?”
“I cured him of slicing.”
“You did what?”
“He used to slice his approach shots. I cured him.”
“The thing begins to hang together. A certain plausibility creeps into it. The late Nutcombe was crazy about golf. The governor used to play with him now and then at Walton Heath. It was the only thing Nutcombe seemed to live for. That being so, if you got rid of his slice for him it seems to me that you earned your money. The only point that occurs to me is, how does it affect your amateur status? It looks to me as if you were now a pro.”
“But, Jerry, it’s absurd. All I did was to give him a tip or two. We were the only men down there, as it was out of the season, and that drew us together. And when I spotted this slice of his I just gave him a bit of advice. I give you my word that was all. He can’t have left me a fortune on the strength of that!”
“You don’t tell the story right, Bill. I can guess what really happened—to wit, that you gave up all your time to helping the old fellow improve his game, regardless of the fact that it completely ruined your holiday.”
“It’s no use sitting there saying ‘Oh, no!’ I can see you at it. The fact is, you’re such an infernally good chap that something of this sort was bound to happen to you sooner or later. I think making you his heir was the only sensible thing old Nutcombe ever did. In his place I’d have done the same.”
“But he didn’t even seem decently grateful at the time.”
“Probably not. He was a queer old bird. He had a most almighty row with the governor in this office only a month or two ago about absolutely nothing. They disagreed about something trivial, and old Nutcombe stalked out and never came in again. That’s the sort of old bird he was.”
“Was he sane, do you think?”
“Absolutely, for legal purposes. We have three opinions from leading doctors—collected by him in case of accidents, I suppose—each of which declares him perfectly sound from the collar upward. But a man can be pretty far gone, you know, without being legally insane, and old Nutcombe—well, suppose we call him whimsical. He seems to have zigzagged between the normal and the eccentric.
“His only surviving relatives appear to be a nephew and a niece. The nephew dropped out of the running two years ago when his aunt, old Nutcombe’s wife, who had divorced old Nutcombe, left him her money. This seems to have soured the old boy on the nephew, for in the first of his wills that I’ve seen—you remember I told you I had seen three—he leaves the niece the pile and the nephew only gets twenty pounds. Well, so far there’s nothing very eccentric about old Nutcombe’s proceedings. But wait!
“Six months after he had made that will he came in here and made another. This left twenty pounds to the nephew as before, but nothing at all to the niece. Why, I don’t know. There was nothing in the will about her having done anything to offend him during those six months, none of those nasty slams you see in wills about ‘I bequeath to my only son John one shilling and sixpence. Now perhaps he’s sorry he married the cook.’ As far as I can make out he changed his will just as he did when he left the money to you, purely through some passing whim. Anyway, he did change it. He left the pile to support the movement those people are running for getting the Jews back to Palestine.
“He didn’t seem, on second thoughts, to feel that this was quite such a brainy scheme as he had at first, and it wasn’t long before he came trotting back to tear up this second will and switch back to the first one—the one leaving the money to the niece. That restoration to sanity lasted till about a month ago, when he broke loose once more and paid his final visit here to will you the contents of his stocking. This morning I see he’s dead after a short illness, so you collect. Congratulations!”
Lord Dawlish had listened to this speech in perfect silence. He now rose and began to pace the room. He looked warm and uncomfortable. His demeanour, in fact, was by no means the accepted demeanour of the lucky heir.
“This is awful!” he said. “Good Lord, Jerry, it’s frightful!”
“Awful!—being left a million pounds?”
“Yes, like this. I feel like a bally thief.”
“Why on earth?”
“If it hadn’t been for me this girl—what’s her name?”
“Her name is Boyd—Elizabeth Boyd.”
“She would have had the whole million if it hadn’t been for me. Have you told her yet?”
“She’s in America. I was writing her a letter just before you came in—informal, you know, to put her out of her misery. If I had waited for the governor to let her know in the usual course of red tape we should never have got anywhere. Also one to the nephew, telling him about his twenty pounds. I believe in humane treatment on these occasions. The governor would write them a legal letter with so many ‘hereinbefores’ in it that they would get the idea that they had been left the whole pile. I just send a cheery line saying ‘It’s no good, old top. Abandon hope,’ and they know just where they are. Simple and considerate.”
A glance at Bill’s face moved him to further speech.
“I don’t see why you should worry, Bill. How, by any stretch of the imagination, can you make out that you are to blame for this Boyd girl’s misfortune? It looks to me as if these eccentric wills of old Nutcombe’s came in cycles, as it were. Just as he was due for another outbreak he happened to meet you. It’s a moral certainty that if he hadn’t met you he would have left all his money to a Home for Superannuated Caddies or a Fund for Supplying the Deserving Poor with Niblicks. Why should you blame yourself?”
“I don’t blame myself. It isn’t exactly that. But—but, well, what would you feel like in my place?”
“Wouldn’t you do anything?”
“I certainly would. By my halidom, I would! I would spend that money with a vim and speed that would make your respected ancestor, the Beau, look like a village miser.”
“You wouldn’t—er—pop over to America and see whether something couldn’t be arranged?”
“I mean—suppose you were popping in any case. Suppose you had happened to buy a ticket for New York on to-morrow’s boat, wouldn’t you try to get in touch with this girl when you got to America, and see if you couldn’t—er—fix up something?”
Jerry Nichols looked at him in honest consternation. He had always known that old Bill was a dear old ass, but he had never dreamed that he was such an infernal old ass as this.
“You aren’t thinking of doing that?” he gasped.
“Well, you see, it’s a funny coincidence, but I was going to America, anyhow, to-morrow. I don’t see why I shouldn’t try to fix up something with this girl.”
“What do you mean—fix up something? You don’t suggest that you should give the money up, do you?”
“I don’t know. Not exactly that, perhaps. How would it be if I gave her half, what? Anyway, I should like to find out about her, see if she’s hard up, and so on. I should like to nose round, you know, and—er—and so forth, don’t you know. Where did you say the girl lived?”
“I didn’t say, and I’m not sure that I shall. Honestly, Bill, you mustn’t be so quixotic.”
“There’s no harm in my nosing round, is there? Be a good chap and give me the address.”
“Well”—with misgivings—“Brookport, Long Island.”
“Bill, are you really going to make a fool of yourself?”
“Not a bit of it, old chap. I’m just going to—er——”
“To nose round?”
“To nose round,” said Bill.
Jerry Nichols accompanied his friend to the door, and once more peace reigned in the offices of Nichols, Nichols, Nichols, and Nichols.
The time of a man who has at a moment’s notice decided to leave his native land for a sojourn on foreign soil is necessarily taken up with a variety of occupations; and it was not till the following afternoon, on the boat at Liverpool, that Bill had leisure to write to Claire, giving her the news of what had befallen him. He had booked his ticket by a Liverpool boat in preference to one that sailed from Southampton, because he had not been sure how Claire would take the news of his sudden decision to leave for America. There was the chance that she might ridicule or condemn the scheme, and he preferred to get away without seeing her. Now that he had received this astounding piece of news from Jerry Nichols he was relieved that he had acted in this way. Whatever Claire might have thought of the original scheme, there was no doubt at all what she would think of his plan of seeking out Elizabeth Boyd with a view to dividing the legacy with her.
He was guarded in his letter. He mentioned no definite figures. He wrote that Ira Nutcombe of whom they had spoken so often had most surprisingly left him in his will a large sum of money, and eased his conscience by telling himself that half of a million pounds undeniably was a large sum of money.
The addressing of the letter called for thought. She would have left Southampton with the rest of the company before it could arrive. Where was it that she said they were going next week? Portsmouth, that was it. He addressed the letter Care of The Girl and the Artist Company, to the King’s Theatre, Portsmouth.
*** We are grateful to Ian Michaud for his patient and painstaking work in proofreading and correcting the text. ***