The Strand Magazine, January 1917
HE village of Brookport, Long Island, is a summer place. It lives, like the mosquitoes that infest it, entirely on its summer visitors. At the time of the death of Mr. Ira Nutcombe, the only all-the-year-round inhabitants were the butcher, the grocer, the chemist, the other customary fauna of villages, and Miss Elizabeth Boyd, who rented the ramshackle farm known locally as Flack’s and eked out a precarious livelihood by keeping bees.
If you take down your “Encyclopædia Britannica”—Volume III., Aus to Bis, you will find that bees are a “large and natural family of the zoölogical order Hymenoptera, characterized by the plumose form of many of their hairs, by the large size of the basal segment of the foot . . . and by the development of a ‘tongue’ for sucking liquid food,” the last of which peculiarities, it is interesting to note, they shared with Claude Nutcombe Boyd, Elizabeth’s brother, who for quite a long time—till his money ran out—had made liquid food almost his sole means of sustenance. These things, however, are by the way. We are not such snobs as to think better or worse of a bee because it can claim kinship with the Hymenoptera family, nor so ill-bred as to chaff it for having large feet. The really interesting passage in the article occurs later, where it says: “The bee industry prospers greatly in America.”
This is one of those broad statements that invite challenge. Elizabeth Boyd would have challenged it. She had not prospered greatly. With considerable trouble she contrived to pay her way, and that was all.
Again referring to the “Encyclopædia,” we find the words: “Before undertaking the management of a modern apiary, the beekeeper should possess a certain amount of aptitude for the pursuit.” This was possibly the trouble with Elizabeth’s venture, considered from a commercial point of view. She loved bees, but she was not an expert on them. She had started her apiary with a small capital, a book of practical hints, and a second-hand queen, principally because she was in need of some occupation that would enable her to live in the country. It was the unfortunate condition of Claude Nutcombe which made life in the country a necessity. At that time he was spending the remains of the money left him by his aunt, and Elizabeth had hardly settled down at Brookport and got her venture under way when she found herself obliged to provide for Nutty a combination of home and sanatorium. It had been the poor lad’s mistaken view that he could drink up all the alcoholic liquor in America.
It is a curious law of Nature that the most undeserving brothers always have the best sisters. Thrifty, plodding young men, who get up early, and do it now, and catch the employer’s eye, and save half their salaries, have sisters who never speak civilly to them except when they want to borrow money. To the Claude Nutcombes of the world are vouchsafed the Elizabeths.
The great aim of Elizabeth’s life was to make a new man of Nutty. It was her hope that the quiet life and soothing air of Brookport, with—unless you counted the money-in-the-slot musical box at the store—its absence of the fiercer excitements, might in time pull him together and unscramble his disordered nervous system. She liked to listen of a morning to the sound of Nutty busy in the next room with a broom and a dustpan, for in the simple lexicon of Flack’s there was no such word as “help.” The privy purse would not run to a maid. Elizabeth did the cooking and Claude Nutcombe the housework.
Several days after Claire Fenwick and Lord Dawlish, by different routes, had sailed from England, Elizabeth Boyd sat up in bed and shook her mane of hair from her eyes, yawning. Outside her window the birds were singing, and a shaft of sunlight intruded itself beneath the blind. But what definitely convinced her that it was time to get up was the plaintive note of James, the cat, patrolling the roof of the porch. An animal of regular habits, James always called for breakfast at eight-thirty sharp.
Elizabeth got out of bed, wrapped her small body in a pink kimono, thrust her small feet into a pair of blue slippers, yawned again, and went downstairs. Having taken last night’s milk from the ice-box, she went to the back door, and, having filled James’s saucer, stood on the grass beside it, sniffing the morning air.
Elizabeth Boyd was twenty-one, but standing there with her hair tumbling about her shoulders she might have been taken by a not-too-close observer for a child. It was only when you saw her eyes and the resolute tilt of the chin that you realized that she was a young woman very well able to take care of herself in a difficult world. Her hair was very fair, her eyes brown and very bright, and the contrast was extraordinarily piquant. They were valiant eyes, full of spirit; eyes, also, that saw the humour of things. And her mouth was the mouth of one who laughs easily. Her chin, small like the rest of her, was strong; and in the way she held herself there was a boyish jauntiness. She looked—and was—a capable little person.
She stood besides James like a sentinel, watching over him as he breakfasted. There was a puppy belonging to one of the neighbours who sometimes lumbered over and stole James’s milk, disposing of it in greedy gulps while its rightful proprietor looked on with piteous helplessness. Elizabeth was fond of the puppy, but her sense of justice was keen and she was there to check this brigandage.
It was a perfect day, cloudless and still. There was peace in the air. James, having finished his milk, began to wash himself. A squirrel climbed cautiously down from a linden tree. From the orchard came the murmur of many bees.
Æsthetically Elizabeth was fond of still, cloudless days, but experience had taught her to suspect them. As was the custom in that locality, the water supply depended on a rickety wind-wheel. It was with a dark foreboding that she returned to the kitchen and turned on one of the taps. For perhaps three seconds a stream of the dimension of a darning-needle emerged, then with a sad gurgle the tap relapsed into a stolid inaction. There is no stolidity so utter as that of a waterless tap.
“Confound it!” said Elizabeth.
She passed through the dining-room to the foot of the stairs.
There was no reply.
“Nutty, my precious lamb!”
Upstairs in the room next to her own a long, spare form began to uncurl itself in bed; a face with a receding chin and a small forehead raised itself reluctantly from the pillow, and Claude Nutcombe Boyd signalized the fact that he was awake by scowling at the morning sun and uttering an aggrieved groan.
Alas, poor Nutty! This was he whom but yesterday Broadway had known as the Speed Kid, on whom head-waiters had smiled and lesser waiters fawned; whose snake-like form had nestled in so many a front-row orchestra stall.
Where were his lobster Newburgs now, his cold quarts that were wont to set the table in a roar?
Nutty Boyd conformed as nearly as a human being may to Euclid’s definition of a straight line. He was length without breadth. From boyhood’s early day he had sprouted like a weed, till now in the middle twenties he gave startled strangers the conviction that it only required a sharp gust of wind to snap him in half. Lying in bed, he looked more like a length of hose-pipe than anything else. While he was unwinding himself the door opened and Elizabeth came into the room.
“Good morning, Nutty!”
“What’s the time?” asked her brother, hollowly.
“Getting on towards nine. It’s a lovely day. The birds are singing, the bees are buzzing, summer’s in the air. It’s one of those beautiful, shiny, heavenly, gorgeous days.”
A look of suspicion came into Nutty’s eyes. Elizabeth was not often as lyrical as this.
“There’s a catch somewhere,” he said.
“Well, as a matter of fact,” said Elizabeth, carelessly, “the water’s off again.”
“I said that. I’m afraid we aren’t a very original family.”
“What a ghastly place this is! Why can’t you see old Flack and make him mend that infernal wheel?”
“I’m going to pounce on him and have another try directly I see him. Meanwhile, darling Nutty, will you get some clothes on and go round to the Smiths and ask them to lend us a pailful?”
“Oh, gosh, it’s over a mile!”
“No, no, not more than three-quarters.”
“Lugging a pail that weighs a ton! The last time I went there their dog bit me.”
“I expect that was because you slunk in all doubled up, and he got suspicious. You should hold your head up and throw your chest out and stride up as if you were a military friend of the family.”
Self-pity lent Nutty eloquence.
“For Heaven’s sake! You drag me out of bed at some awful hour of the morning when a rational person would just be turning in; you send me across country to fetch pailfuls of water when I’m feeling like a corpse; and on top of that you expect me to behave like a drum-major!”
“Dearest, you can wriggle on your tummy, if you like, so long as you get the fluid. We must have water. I can’t fetch it. I’m a delicately-nurtured female.”
“We ought to have a man to do these ghastly jobs.”
“But we can’t afford one. Just at present all I ask is to be able to pay expenses. And, as a matter of fact, you ought to be very thankful that you have got——”
“A roof over my head? I know. You needn’t keep rubbing it in.”
“I wasn’t going to say that at all. What a pig you are sometimes, Nutty. As if I wasn’t only too glad to have you here. What I was going to say was that you ought to be very thankful that you have got to draw water and hew wood——”
A look of absolute alarm came into Nutty’s pallid face.
“You don’t mean to say that you want some wood chopped?”
“I was speaking figuratively. I meant hustle about and work in the open air. The sort of life you are leading now is what millionaires pay hundreds of dollars for at these physical-culture places. It has been the making of you.”
“I don’t feel made.”
“Your nerves are ever so much better.”
Elizabeth looked at him in alarm.
“Oh, Nutty, you haven’t been—seeing anything again, have you?”
“Not seeing, dreaming. I’ve been dreaming about monkeys. Why should I dream about monkeys if my nerves were all right?”
“I often dream about all sorts of queer things.”
“Have you ever dreamed that you were being chased up Broadway by a chimpanzee in evening dress?”
“Never mind, dear, you’ll be quite all right again when you have been living this life down here a little longer.”
Nutty glared balefully at the ceiling.
“What’s that darned thing up there on the ceiling? It looks like a hornet. How on earth do these things get into the house?”
“We ought to have nettings. I am going to pounce on Mr. Flack about that too.”
“Thank goodness this isn’t going to last much longer. It’s nearly two weeks since Uncle Ira died. We ought to be hearing from the lawyers any day now. There might be a letter this morning.”
“Do you think he has left us his money?”
“Do I? Why, what else could he do with it? We are his only surviving relatives, aren’t we? I’ve had to go through life with a ghastly name like Nutcombe as a compliment to him, haven’t I? I wrote to him regularly at Christmas and on his birthday, didn’t I? Well, then! I have a feeling there will be a letter from the lawyers to-day. I wish you would get dressed and go down to the post-office while I’m fetching that infernal water. I can’t think why the fools haven’t cabled. You would have supposed they would have thought of that.”
Elizabeth returned to her room to dress. She was conscious of a feeling that nothing was quite perfect in this world. It would be nice to have a great deal of money, for she had a scheme in her mind which called for a large capital; but she was sorry that it could come to her only through the death of her uncle, of whom, despite his somewhat forbidding personality, she had always been fond. She was also sorry that a large sum of money was coming to Nutty at that particular point in his career, just when there seemed the hope that the simple life might pull him together. She knew Nutty too well not to be able to forecast his probable behaviour under the influence of a sudden restoration of wealth.
While these thoughts were passing through her mind she happened to glance out of the window. Nutty was shambling through the garden with his pail, a bowed, shuffling pillar of gloom. As Elizabeth watched, he dropped the pail and lashed the air violently for a while. From her knowledge of bees (“It is needful to remember that bees resent outside interference and will resolutely defend themselves,” “Encyc. Brit.,” Vol. III., Aus to Bis) Elizabeth deduced that one of her little pets was annoying him. This episode concluded, Nutty resumed his pail and the journey, and at this moment there appeared over the hedge the face of Mr. John Prescott, a neighbour. Mr. Prescott, who had dismounted from a bicycle, called to Nutty and waved something in the air. To a stranger the performance would have been obscure, but Elizabeth understood it. Mr. Prescott was intimating that he had been down to the post-office for his own letters and, as was his neighbourly custom on these occasions, had brought back also letters for Flack’s.
Nutty foregathered with Mr. Prescott and took the letters from him. Mr. Prescott disappeared. Nutty selected one of the letters and opened it. Then, having stood perfectly still for some moments, he suddenly turned and began to run towards the house.
The mere fact that her brother, whose usual mode of progression was a languid saunter, should be actually running, was enough to tell Elizabeth that the letter which Nutty had read was from the London lawyers. No other communication could have galvanized him into such energy. Whether the contents of the letter were good or bad it was impossible at that distance to say. But when she reached the open air, just as Nutty charged up, she saw by his face that it was anguish not joy that had spurred him on. He was gasping and he bubbled unintelligible words. His little eyes gleamed wildly.
“Nutty, darling, what is it?” cried Elizabeth, every maternal instinct in her aroused.
He was thrusting a sheet of paper at her, a sheet of paper that bore the superscription of Nichols, Nichols, Nichols, and Nichols, with a London address.
“Uncle Ira——” Nutty choked. “Twenty pounds! He’s left me twenty pounds, and all the rest to a—to a man named Dawlish!”
In silence Elizabeth took the letter. It was even as he had said. A few moments before Elizabeth had been regretting the imminent descent of wealth upon her brother. Now she was inconsistent enough to boil with rage at the shattering blow which had befallen him. That she, too, had lost her inheritance hardly occurred to her. Her thoughts were all for Nutty. It did not need the sight of him, gasping and gurgling before her, to tell her how overwhelming was his disappointment.
It was useless to be angry with the deceased Mr. Nutcombe. He was too shadowy a mark. Besides, he was dead. The whole current of her wrath turned upon the supplanter, this Lord Dawlish. She pictured him as a crafty adventurer, a wretched fortune-hunter. For some reason or other she imagined him a sinister person with a black moustache, a face thin and hawklike, and unpleasant eyes. That was the sort of man who would be likely to fasten his talons into poor Uncle Ira.
She had never hated any one in her life before, but as she stood there at that moment she felt that she loathed and detested William Lord Dawlish—unhappy, well-meaning Bill, who only a few hours back had set foot on American soil in his desire to nose round and see if something couldn’t be arranged.
Nutty fetched the water. Life is like that. There is nothing clean-cut about it, no sense of form. Instead of being permitted to concentrate his attention on his tragedy Nutty had to trudge three-quarters of a mile, conciliate a bull-terrier, and trudge back again carrying a heavy pail. It was as if one of the heroes of Greek drama, in the middle of his big scene, had been asked to run round the corner to a provision store.
The exercise did not act as a restorative. The blow had been too sudden, too overwhelming. Nutty’s reason—such as it was—tottered on its throne. Who was Lord Dawlish? What had he done to ingratiate himself with Uncle Ira? By what insidious means, with what devilish cunning, had he wormed his way into the old man’s favour? These were the questions that vexed Nutty’s mind when he was able to think at all coherently.
Back at the farm Elizabeth cooked breakfast and awaited her brother’s return with a sinking heart. She was a soft-hearted girl, easily distressed by the sight of suffering; and she was aware that Nutty was scarcely of the type that masks its woes behind a brave and cheerful smile. Her heart bled for Nutty.
There was a weary step outside. Nutty entered, slopping water. One glance at his face was enough to tell Elizabeth that she had formed a too conservative estimate of his probable gloom. Without a word he coiled his long form in a chair. There was silence in the stricken house.
“What’s the time?”
Elizabeth glanced at her watch.
“About now,” said Nutty, sepulchrally, “the blighter is ringing for his man to prepare his bally bath and lay out his gold-leaf underwear. After that he will drive down to the bank and draw some of our money.”
The day passed wearily for Elizabeth. Nutty having the air of one who is still engaged in picking up the pieces, she had not the heart to ask him to play his customary part in the household duties, so she washed the dishes and made the beds herself. After that she attended to the bees. After that she cooked lunch.
Nutty was not chatty at lunch. Having observed “About now the blighter is cursing the waiter for bringing the wrong brand of champagne,” he relapsed into a silence which he did not again break.
Elizabeth was busy again in the afternoon. At four o’clock, feeling tired out, she went to her room to lie down until the next of her cycle of domestic duties should come round.
It was late when she came downstairs, for she had fallen asleep. The sun had gone down. Bees were winging their way heavily back to the hives with their honey. She went out into the grounds to try to find Nutty. There had been no signs of him in the house. There were no signs of him about the grounds. It was not like him to have taken a walk, but it seemed the only possibility. She went back to the house to wait. Eight o’clock came, and nine, and it was then the truth dawned upon her—Nutty had escaped. He had slipped away and gone up to New York.
Lord Dawlish sat in the New York flat which had been lent him by his friend Gates. The hour was half-past ten in the evening; the day, the second day after the exodus of Nutty Boyd from the farm. Before him on the table lay a letter. He was smoking pensively.
Lord Dawlish had found New York enjoyable, but a trifle fatiguing. There was much to be seen in the city, and he had made the mistake of trying to see it all at once. It had been his intention, when he came home after dinner that night, to try to restore the balance of things by going to bed early. He had sat up longer than he had intended, because he had been thinking about this letter.
Immediately upon his arrival in America, Bill had sought out a lawyer and instructed him to write to Elizabeth Boyd, offering her one-half of the late Ira Nutcombe’s money. He had had time during the voyage to think the whole matter over, and this seemed to him the only possible course. He could not keep it all. He would feel like the despoiler of the widow and the orphan. Nor would it be fair to Claire to give it all up. If he halved the legacy everybody would be satisfied.
That at least had been his view until Elizabeth’s reply had arrived. It was this reply that lay on the table—a brief, formal note, setting forth Miss Boyd’s absolute refusal to accept any portion of the money. This was a development which Bill had not foreseen, and he was feeling baffled. What was the next step? He had smoked many pipes in the endeavour to find an answer to this problem, and was lighting another when the door-bell rang.
He opened the door and found himself confronting an extraordinarily tall and thin young man in evening-dress.
Lord Dawlish was a little startled. He had taken it for granted, when the bell rang, that his visitor was Tom, the liftman from downstairs, a friendly soul who hailed from London and had been dropping in at intervals during the past two days to acquire the latest news from his native land. He stared at this changeling inquiringly. The solution of the mystery came with the stranger’s first words:—
“Is Gates in?”
He spoke eagerly, as if Gates were extremely necessary to his well-being. It distressed Lord Dawlish to disappoint him, but there was nothing else to be done.
“Gates is in London,” he said.
“What! When did he go there?”
“About four months ago.”
“May I come in a minute?”
“Yes, rather, do.”
He led the way into the sitting-room. The stranger gave abruptly in the middle, as if he were being folded up by some invisible agency, and in this attitude sank into a chair, where he lay back looking at Bill over his knees, like a sorrowful sheep peering over a sharp-pointed fence.
“You’re from England, aren’t you?”
“Been in New York long?”
“Only a couple of days.”
The stranger folded himself up another foot or so until his knees were higher than his head, and lit a cigarette.
“The curse of New York,” he said, mournfully, “is the way everything changes in it. You can’t take your eyes off it for a minute. The population’s always shifting. It’s like a railway station. You go away for a bit and come back and try to find your old pals, and they’re all gone: Ike’s in Arizona, Mike’s in a sanatorium, Spike’s in jail, and nobody seems to know where the rest of them have got to. I came up from the country two days ago, expecting to find the old gang along Broadway the same as ever, and I’m dashed if I’ve been able to put my hands on one of them! Not a single, solitary one of them! And it’s only six months since I was here last.”
Lord Dawlish made sympathetic noises.
“Of course,” proceeded the other, “the time of year may have something to do with it. Living down in the country you lose count of time, and I forgot that it was July, when people go out of the city. I guess that must be what happened. I used to know all sorts of fellows, actors and fellows like that, and they’re all away somewhere. I tell you,” he said, with pathos, “I never knew I could be so infernally lonesome as I have been these last two days. If I had known what a rotten time I was going to have I would never have left Brookport.”
“It’s a place down on Long Island.”
Bill was not by nature a plotter, but the mere fact of travelling under an assumed name had developed a streak of wariness in him. He checked himself just as he was about to ask his companion if he happened to know a Miss Elizabeth Boyd, who also lived at Brookport. It occurred to him that the question would invite a counter-question as to his own knowledge of Miss Boyd, and he knew that he would not be able to invent a satisfactory answer to that offhand.
“This evening,” said the thin young man, resuming his dirge, “I was sweating my brain to try to think of somebody I could hunt up in this ghastly, deserted city. It isn’t so easy, you know, to think of fellows’ names and addresses. I can get the names all right, but unless the fellow’s in the telephone-book, I’m done. Well, I was trying to think of some of my pals who might still be around the place, and I remembered Gates. Remembered his address, too, by a miracle. You’re a pal of his, of course?”
“Yes, I knew him in London.”
“Oh, I see. And when you came over here he lent you his flat? By the way, I didn’t get your name?”
“My name’s Chalmers.”
“Well, as I say, I remembered Gates and came down here to look him up. We used to have a lot of good times together a year ago. And now he’s gone too!”
“Did you want to see him about anything important?”
“Well, it’s important to me. I wanted him to come out to supper. You see, it’s this way: I’m giving supper to-night to a girl who’s in that show at the Forty-ninth Street Theatre, a Miss Leonard, and she insists on bringing a pal. She says the pal is a good sport, which sounds all right——” Bill admitted that it sounded all right. “But it makes the party three. And of all the infernal things a party of three is the ghastliest.”
Having delivered himself of this undeniable truth the stranger slid a little farther into his chair and paused. “Look here, what are you doing to-night?” he said.
“I was thinking of going to bed.”
“Going to bed!” The stranger’s voice was shocked, as if he had heard blasphemy. “Going to bed at half-past ten in New York! My dear chap, what you want is a bit of supper. Why don’t you come along?”
Amiability was, perhaps, the leading quality of Lord Dawlish’s character. He did not want to have to dress and go out to supper, but there was something almost pleading in the eyes that looked at him between the sharply-pointed knees.
“It’s awfully good of you——” He hesitated.
“Not a bit; I wish you would. You would be a life-saver.”
Bill felt that he was in for it. He got up.
“You will?” said the other. “Good boy! You go and get into some clothes and come along. I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”
“Mine’s Boyd—Nutcombe Boyd.”
“Boyd!” cried Bill.
Nutty took his astonishment, which was too great to be concealed, as a compliment. He chuckled.
“I thought you would know the name if you were a pal of Gates’. I expect he’s always talking about me. You see, I was pretty well known in this old place before I had to leave it.”
Bill walked down the long passage to his bedroom with no trace of the sleepiness which had been weighing on him five minutes before. He was galvanized by a superstitious thrill. It was fate, Elizabeth Boyd’s brother turning up like this and making friendly overtures right on top of that letter from her. This astonishing thing could not have been better arranged if he had planned it himself. From what little he had seen of Nutty he gathered that the latter was not hard to make friends with. It would be a simple task to cultivate his acquaintance. And having done so, he could renew negotiations with Elizabeth. The desire to rid himself of half the legacy had become a fixed idea with Bill. He had the impression that he could not really feel clean again until he had made matters square with his conscience in this respect. He felt that he was probably a fool to take that view of the thing, but that was the way he was built and there was no getting away from it.
This irruption of Nutty Boyd into his life was an omen. It meant that all was not yet over. He was conscious of a mild surprise that he had ever intended to go to bed. He felt now as if he never wanted to go to bed again. He felt exhilarated.
In these days one cannot say that a supper-party is actually given in any one place. Supping in New York has become a peripatetic pastime. The supper-party arranged by Nutty Boyd was scheduled to start at Reigelheimer’s on Forty-second Street, and it was there that the revellers assembled.
Nutty and Bill had been there a few minutes when Miss Daisy Leonard arrived with her friend. And from that moment Bill was never himself again.
The Good Sport was, so to speak, an outsize in Good Sports. She loomed up behind the small and demure Miss Leonard like a liner towed by a tug. She was big, blonde, skittish, and exuberant; she wore a dress like the sunset of a fine summer evening, and she effervesced with spacious good will to all men. She was one of those girls who splash into public places like stones into quiet pools. Her form was large, her eyes were large, her teeth were large, and her voice was large. She overwhelmed Bill. She hit his astounded consciousness like a shell. She gave him a buzzing in the ears. She was not so much a Good Sport as some kind of an explosion.
He was still reeling from the spiritual impact with this female tidal wave when he became aware, as one who, coming out of a swoon, hears voices faintly, that he was being addressed by Miss Leonard. To turn from Miss Leonard’s friend to Miss Leonard herself was like hearing the falling of gentle rain after a thunderstorm. For a moment he revelled in the sense of being soothed; then, as he realized what she was saying, he started violently. Miss Leonard was looking at him curiously.
“I beg your pardon?” said Bill.
“I’m sure I’ve met you before, Mr. Chalmers.”
“But I can’t think where.”
“I’m sure,” said the Good Sport, languishingly, like a sentimental siege-gun, “that if I had ever met Mr. Chalmers before I shouldn’t have forgotten him.”
“You’re English, aren’t you?” asked Miss Leonard.
The Good Sport said she was crazy about Englishmen.
“I thought so from your voice.”
The Good Sport said that she was crazy about the English accent.
“It must have been in London that I met you. I was in the revue at the Alhambra last year.”
“By George, I wish I had seen you!” interjected the infatuated Nutty.
The Good Sport said that she was crazy about London.
“I seem to remember,” went on Miss Leonard, “meeting you out at supper. Do you know a man named Delaney in the Coldstream Guards?”
Bill would have liked to deny all knowledge of Delaney, though the latter was one of his best friends, but his natural honesty prevented him.
“I’m sure I met you at a supper he gave at Oddy’s one Friday night. We all went on to Covent Garden. Don’t you remember?”
“Talking of supper,” broke in Nutty, earning Bill’s hearty gratitude thereby, “where’s the dashed head-waiter? I want to find my table.”
He surveyed the restaurant with a melancholy eye.
“Everything changed!” He spoke sadly, as Ulysses might have done when his boat put in at Ithaca. “Every darned thing different since I was here last. New waiters, head-waiter I never saw before in my life, different-coloured carpet——”
“Cheer up, Nutty, old thing!” said Miss Leonard. “You’ll feel better when you’ve had something to eat. I hope you had the sense to tip the head-waiter, or there won’t be any table. Funny how these places go up and down in New York. A year ago the whole management would turn out and kiss you if you looked like spending a couple of dollars here. Now it costs the earth to get in at all.”
“Why’s that?” asked Nutty.
“Lady Pauline Wetherby, of course. Didn’t you know this was where she danced?”
“Never heard of her,” said Nutty, in a sort of ecstasy of wistful gloom. “That will show you how long I’ve been away. Who is she?”
Miss Leonard invoked the name of Mike.
“Don’t you ever get the papers in your village, Nutty?”
“I never read the papers. I don’t suppose I’ve read a paper for years. I can’t stand ’em. Who is Lady Pauline Wetherby?”
“She does Greek dances—at least, I suppose they’re Greek. They all are nowadays, unless they’re Russian. She’s an English peeress.”
Miss Leonard’s friend said she was crazy about these picturesque old English families; and they went in to supper.
Looking back on the evening later and reviewing its leading features, Lord Dawlish came to the conclusion that he never completely recovered from the first shock of the Good Sport. He was conscious all the time of a dream-like feeling, as if he were watching himself from somewhere outside himself. From some conning-tower in this fourth dimension he perceived himself eating broiled lobster and drinking champagne and heard himself bearing an adequate part in the conversation; but his movements were largely automatic.
Time passed. It seemed to Lord Dawlish, watching from without, that things were livening up. He seemed to perceive a quickening of the tempo of the revels, an added abandon. Nutty was getting quite bright. He had the air of one who recalls the good old days, of one who in familiar scenes re-enacts the joys of his vanished youth. The chastened melancholy induced by many months of fetching of pails of water, of scrubbing floors with a mop, and of jumping like a firecracker to avoid excited bees had been purged from him by the lights and the music and the wine. He was telling a long anecdote, laughing at it, throwing a crust of bread at an adjacent waiter, and refilling his glass at the same time. It is not easy to do all these things simultaneously, and the fact that Nutty did them with notable success was proof that he was picking up.
Miss Daisy Leonard was still demure, but as she had just slipped a piece of ice down the back of Nutty’s neck one may assume that she was feeling at her ease and had overcome any diffidence or shyness which might have interfered with her complete enjoyment of the festivities. As for the Good Sport, she was larger, blonder, and more exuberant than ever, and she was addressing someone as “Bill.”
Perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon of the evening, as it advanced, was the change it wrought in Lord Dawlish’s attitude toward this same Good Sport. He was not conscious of the beginning of the change; he awoke to the realization of it suddenly. At the beginning of supper his views on her had been definite and clear. When they had first been introduced to each other he had had a stunned feeling that this sort of thing ought not to be allowed at large, and his battered brain had instinctively recalled that line of Tennyson: “The curse is come upon me.” But now, warmed with food and drink and smoking an excellent cigar, he found that a gentler, more charitable mood had descended upon him.
He argued with himself in extenuation of the girl’s peculiar idiosyncrasies. Was it, he asked himself, altogether her fault that she was so massive and spoke as if she were addressing an open-air meeting in a strong gale? Perhaps it was hereditary. Perhaps her father had been a circus giant and her mother the strong woman of the troupe. And for the unrestraint of her manner defective training in early girlhood would account. He began to regard her with a quiet, kindly commiseration, which in its turn changed into a sort of brotherly affection. He discovered that he liked her. He liked her very much. She was so big and jolly and robust, and spoke in such a clear, full voice. He was glad that she was patting his hand. He was glad that he had asked her to call him Bill.
People were dancing now. It has been claimed by patriots that American dyspeptics lead the world. This supremacy, though partly due, no doubt, to vast supplies of pie absorbed in youth, may be attributed to a certain extent also to the national habit of dancing during meals. Lord Dawlish had that sturdy reverence for his interior organism which is the birthright of every Briton. And at the beginning of supper he had resolved that nothing should induce him to court disaster in this fashion. But as the time went on he began to waver.
The situation was awkward. Nutty and Miss Leonard were repeatedly leaving the table to tread the measure, and on these occasions the Good Sport’s wistfulness was a haunting reproach. Nor was the spectacle of Nutty in action without its effect on Bill’s resolution. Nutty dancing was a sight to stir the most stolid.
Bill wavered. The music had started again now, one of those twentieth century eruptions of sound that begin like a train going through a tunnel and continue like audible electric shocks, that set the feet tapping beneath the table and the spine thrilling with an unaccustomed exhilaration. Every drop of blood in his body cried to him “Dance!” He could resist no longer.
“Shall we?” he said.
Bill should not have danced. He was an estimable young man, honest, amiable, with high ideals. He had played an excellent game of football at the university; his golf handicap was plus two; and he was no mean performer with the gloves. But we all of us have our limitations, and Bill had his. He was not a good dancer. He was energetic, but he required more elbow room than the ordinary dancing floor provides. As a dancer, in fact, he closely resembled a Newfoundland puppy trying to run across a field.
It takes a good deal to daunt the New York dancing man, but the invasion of the floor by Bill and the Good Sport undoubtedly caused a profound and even painful sensation. Linked together they formed a living projectile which might well have intimidated the bravest. Nutty was their first victim. They caught him in mid-step—one of those fancy steps which he was just beginning to exhume from the cobwebbed recesses of his memory—and swept him away. After which they descended resistlessly upon a stout gentleman of middle age, chiefly conspicuous for the glittering diamonds which he wore and the stoical manner in which he danced to and fro on one spot of not more than a few inches in size in the exact centre of the room. He had apparently staked out a claim to this small spot, a claim which the other dancers had decided to respect; but Bill and the Good Sport, coming up from behind, had him two yards away from it at the first impact. Then, scattering apologies broadcast like a mediæval monarch distributing largesse, Bill whirled his partner round by sheer muscular force and began what he intended to be a movement toward the farther corner, skirting the edge of the floor. It was his simple belief that there was more safety there than in the middle.
He had not reckoned with Heinrich Joerg. Indeed, he was not aware of Heinrich Joerg’s existence. Yet fate was shortly to bring them together, with far-reaching results. Heinrich Joerg had left the Fatherland a good many years before with the prudent purpose of escaping military service. After various vicissitudes in the land of his adoption—which it would be extremely interesting to relate, but which must wait for a more favourable opportunity—he had secured a useful and not ill-recompensed situation as one of the staff of Reigelheimer’s Restaurant. He was, in point of fact, a waiter, and he comes into the story at this point bearing a tray full of glasses, knives, forks, and pats of butter on little plates. He was setting a table for some new arrivals, and in order to obtain more scope for that task he had left the crowded aisle beyond the table and come round to the edge of the dancing-floor.
He should not have come out on to the dancing-floor. In another moment he was admitting that himself. For just as he was lowering his tray and bending over the table in the pursuance of his professional duties, along came Bill at his customary high rate of speed, propelling his partner before him, and for the first time since he left home Heinrich was conscious of a regret that he had done so. There are worse things than military service!
It was the table that saved Bill. He clutched at it and it supported him. He was thus enabled to keep the Good Sport from falling and to assist Heinrich to rise from the morass of glasses, knives, and pats of butter in which he was wallowing. Then, the dance having been abandoned by mutual consent, he helped his now somewhat hysterical partner back to their table.
Remorse came upon Bill. He was sorry that he had danced; sorry that he had upset Heinrich; sorry that he had subjected the Good Sport’s nervous system to such a strain; sorry that so much glass had been broken and so many pats of butter bruised beyond repair. But of one thing, even in that moment of bleak regrets, he was distinctly glad, and that was that all these things had taken place three thousand miles away from Claire Fenwick. He had not been appearing at his best, and he was glad that Claire had not seen him.
As he sat and smoked the remains of his cigar, while renewing his apologies and explanations to his partner and soothing the ruffled Nutty with well-chosen condolences, he wondered idly what Claire was doing at that moment.
Claire at that moment, having been an astonished eye-witness of the whole performance, was resuming her seat at a table at the other end of the room.
There were two reasons why Lord Dawlish was unaware of Claire Fenwick’s presence at Reigelheimer’s Restaurant: Reigelheimer’s is situated in a basement below a ten-storey building, and in order to prevent this edifice from falling into his patrons’ soup the proprietor had been obliged to shore up his ceiling with massive pillars. One of these protruded itself between the table which Nutty had secured for his supper-party and the table at which Claire was sitting with her friend, Lady Wetherby, and her steamer acquaintance, Mr. Dudley Pickering. That was why Bill had not seen Claire from where he sat; and the reason that he had not seen her when he left his seat and began to dance was that he was not one of your dancers who glance airily about them. When Bill danced he danced.
He would have been stunned with amazement if he had known that Claire was at Reigelheimer’s that night. And yet it would have been remarkable, seeing that she was the guest of Lady Wetherby, if she had not been there. When you have travelled three thousand miles to enjoy the hospitality of a friend who does near-Greek dances at a popular restaurant, the least you can do is to go to the restaurant and watch her step. Claire had arrived with Polly Wetherby and Mr. Dudley Pickering at about the time when Nutty, his gloom melting rapidly, was instructing the waiter to open the second bottle.
Of Claire’s movements between the time when she secured her ticket at the steamship offices at Southampton and the moment when she entered Reigelheimer’s Restaurant it is not necessary to give a detailed record. She had had the usual experiences of the ocean voyager. She had fed, read, and gone to bed. The only notable event in her trip had been her intimacy with Mr. Dudley Pickering.
Dudley Pickering was a middle-aged Middle Westerner, who by thrift and industry had amassed a considerable fortune out of automobiles. Everybody spoke well of Dudley Pickering. The papers spoke well of him, Bradstreet spoke well of him, and he spoke well of himself. On board the liner he had poured the saga of his life into Claire’s attentive ears, and there was a gentle sweetness in her manner which encouraged Mr. Pickering mightily, for he had fallen in love with Claire on sight.
It would seem that a schoolgirl in these advanced days would know what to do when she found that a man worth millions was in love with her; yet there were factors in the situation which gave Claire pause. Lord Dawlish, of course, was one of them. She had not mentioned Lord Dawlish to Mr. Pickering, and—doubtless lest the sight of it might pain him—she had abstained from wearing her engagement ring during the voyage. But she had not completely lost sight of the fact that she was engaged to Bill. Another thing that caused her to hesitate was the fact that Dudley Pickering, however wealthy, was a most colossal bore. As far as Claire could ascertain on their short acquaintance, he had but one subject of conversation—automobiles.
To Claire an automobile was a shiny thing with padded seats, in which you rode if you were lucky enough to know somebody who owned one. She had no wish to go more deeply into the matter. Dudley Pickering’s attitude toward automobiles, on the other hand, more nearly resembled that of a surgeon toward the human body. To him a car was something to dissect, something with an interior both interesting to explore and fascinating to talk about. Claire listened with a radiant display of interest, but she had her doubts as to whether any amount of money would make it worth while to undergo this sort of thing for life. She was still in this hesitant frame of mind when she entered Reigelheimer’s Restaurant, and it perturbed her that she could not come to some definite decision on Mr. Pickering, for those subtle signs which every woman can recognize and interpret told her that the latter, having paved the way by talking machinery for a week, was about to boil over and speak of higher things.
At the very next opportunity, she was certain, he intended to propose.
The presence of Lady Wetherby acted as a temporary check on the development of the situation, but after they had been seated at their table a short time the lights of the restaurant were suddenly lowered, a coloured limelight became manifest near the roof, and classical music made itself heard from the fiddles in the orchestra.
You could tell it was classical, because the banjo players were leaning back and chewing gum; and in New York restaurants only death or a classical speciality can stop banjoists.
There was a spatter of applause, and Lady Wetherby rose.
“This,” she explained to Claire, “is where I do my stunt. Watch it. I invented the steps myself. Classical stuff. It’s called the Dream of Psyche.”
It was difficult for one who knew her as Claire did to associate Polly Wetherby with anything classical. On the road, in England, when they had been fellow-members of the Number Two company of “The Heavenly Waltz,” Polly had been remarkable chiefly for a fund of humorous anecdote and a gift, amounting almost to genius, for doing battle with militant landladies. And renewing their intimacy after a hiatus of a little less than a year Claire had found her unchanged.
It was a truculent affair, this Dream of Psyche. It was not so much dancing as shadow boxing. It began mildly enough to the accompaniment of pizzicato strains from the orchestra—Psyche in her training quarters. Rallentando—Psyche punching the bag. Diminuendo—Psyche using the medicine ball. Presto—Psyche doing road work. Forte—The night of the fight. And then things began to move to a climax. With the fiddles working themselves to the bone and the piano bounding under its persecutor’s blows, Lady Wetherby ducked, side-stepped, rushed, and sprang, moving her arms in a manner that may have been classical Greek, but to the untrained eye looked much more like the last round of some open-air bout.
It was half-way through the exhibition, when you could smell the sawdust and hear the seconds shouting advice under the ropes, that Claire, who, never having seen anything in her life like this extraordinary performance, had been staring spellbound, awoke to the realization that Dudley Pickering was proposing to her. It required a woman’s intuition to divine this fact, for Mr. Pickering was not coherent. He did not go straight to the point. He rambled. But Claire understood, and it came to her that this thing had taken her before she was ready. In a brief while she would have to give an answer of some sort, and she had not clearly decided what answer she meant to give.
Then, while he was still skirting his subject, before he had wandered to what he really wished to say, the music stopped, the applause broke out again, and Lady Wetherby returned to the table like a pugilist seeking his corner at the end of a round. Her face was flushed and she was breathing hard.
“They pay me money for that!” she observed, genially. “Can you beat it?”
The spell was broken. Mr. Pickering sank back in his chair in a punctured manner. And Claire, making monosyllabic replies to her friend’s remarks, was able to bend her mind to the task of finding out how she stood on this important Pickering issue. That he would return to the attack as soon as possible she knew; and the next time she must have her attitude clearly defined one way or the other.
Lady Wetherby, having got the Dance of Psyche out of her system, and replaced it with a glass of iced coffee, was inclined for conversation.
“Algie called me up on the ’phone this evening, Claire.”
Claire was examining Mr. Pickering with furtive side glances. He was not handsome, nor, on the other hand, was he repulsive. “Undistinguished” was the adjective that would have described him. He was inclined to stoutness, but not unpardonably so; his hair was thin, but he was not aggressively bald; his face was dull, but certainly not stupid. There was nothing in his outer man which his millions would not offset. As regarded his other qualities, his conversation was certainly not exhilarating. But that also was not, under certain conditions, an unforgivable thing. No, looking at the matter all round and weighing it with care, the real obstacle, Claire decided, was not any quality or lack of qualities in Dudley Pickering—it was Lord Dawlish and the simple fact that it would be extremely difficult, if she discarded him in favour of a richer man without any ostensible cause, to retain her self-respect.
“I think he’s weakening.”
Yes, that was the crux of the matter. She wanted to retain her good opinion of herself. And in order to achieve that end it was essential that she find some excuse, however trivial, for breaking off the engagement.
A waiter approached the table.
The thwarted lover came to life with a start.
“A gentleman wishes to speak to you on the telephone.”
“Oh, yes. I was expecting a long-distance call, Lady Wetherby, and left word I would be here. Will you excuse me?”
Lady Wetherby watched him as he bustled across the room.
“What do you think of him, Claire?”
“Mr. Pickering? I think he’s very nice.”
“He admires you frantically. I hoped he would. That’s why I wanted you to come over on the same ship with him.”
“Polly! I had no notion you were such a schemer.”
“I would just love to see you two fix it up,” continued Lady Wetherby, earnestly. “He may not be what you might call a genius, but he’s a darned good sort; and all his millions help, don’t they? You don’t want to overlook these millions, Claire!”
“I do like Mr. Pickering.”
“Claire, he asked me if you were engaged.”
“When I told him you weren’t, he beamed. Honestly, you’ve only got to lift your little finger and—Oh, good Lord, there’s Algie!”
Claire looked up. A dapper, trim little man of about forty was threading his way among the tables in their direction. It was a year since Claire had seen Lord Wetherby, but she recognized him at once. He had a red, weather-beaten face with a suspicion of side-whiskers, small, pink-rimmed eyes with sandy eyebrows, the smoothest of sandy hair, and a chin so cleanly shaven that it was difficult to believe that hair had ever grown there. Although his evening-dress was perfect in every detail, he conveyed a subtle suggestion of horsiness. He reached the table and sat down without invitation in the vacant chair.
“Pauline!” he said, sorrowfully.
“Algie!” said Lady Wetherby, tensely. “I don’t know what you’ve come here for, and I don’t remember asking you to sit down and put your elbows on that table, but I want to begin by saying that I will not be called Pauline. My name’s Polly. You’ve got a way of saying Pauline, as if it were a gentlemanly cuss-word, that makes me want to scream. And while you’re about it, why don’t you say how-d’you-do to Claire? You ought to remember her, she was my bridesmaid.”
“How do you do, Miss Fenwick. Of course, I remember you perfectly. I’m glad to see you again.”
“And now, Algie, what is it? Why have you come here?” Lord Wetherby looked doubtfully at Claire. “Oh, that’s all right,” said Lady Wetherby. “Claire knows all about it—I told her.”
“Then I appeal to Miss Fenwick, if, as you say, she knows all the facts of the case, to say whether it is reasonable to expect a man of my temperament, a nervous, highly-strung artist, to welcome the presence of snakes at the breakfast-table. I trust that I am not an unreasonable man, but I decline to admit that a long, green snake is a proper thing to keep about the house.”
“You had no right to strike the poor thing.”
“In that one respect I was perhaps a little hasty. I happened to be stirring my tea at the moment his head rose above the edge of the table. I was not entirely myself that morning. My nerves were somewhat disordered. I had lain awake much of the night planning a canvas.”
“Planning a what?”
“A canvas—a picture.”
Lady Wetherby turned to Claire.
“I want you to listen to Algie, Claire. A year ago he did not know one end of a paint-brush from the other. He didn’t know he had any nerves. If you had brought him the artistic temperament on a plate with a bit of watercress round it, he wouldn’t have recognized it. And now, just because he’s got a studio, he thinks he has a right to go up in the air if you speak to him suddenly and run about the place hitting snakes with teaspoons as if he were Michel Angelo!”
“You do me an injustice. It is true that as an artist I developed late—— But why should we quarrel? If it will help to pave the way to a renewed understanding between us, I am prepared to apologize for striking Clarence. That is conciliatory, I think, Miss Fenwick?”
“Miss Fenwick considers my attitude conciliatory.”
“It’s something,” admitted Lady Wetherby, grudgingly.
Lord Wetherby drained the whisky-and-soda which Dudley Pickering had left behind him, and seemed to draw strength from it, for he now struck a firmer note.
“But, though expressing regret for my momentary loss of self-control, I cannot recede from the position I have taken up as regards the essential unfitness of Clarence’s presence in the home.”
Lady Wetherby looked despairingly at Claire.
“The very first words I heard Algie speak, Claire, were at Newmarket during the three o’clock race one May afternoon. He was hanging over the rail, yelling like an Indian, and what he was yelling was, ‘Come on, you blighter, come on! By the living jingo, Brickbat wins in a walk!’ And now he’s talking about receding from essential positions! Oh, well, he wasn’t an artist then!”
“My dear Pau—Polly. I am purposely picking my words on the present occasion in order to prevent the possibility of further misunderstandings. I consider myself an ambassador.”
“You would be shocked if you knew what I consider you!”
“I am endeavouring to the best of my ability——”
“Algie, listen to me! I am quite calm at present, but there’s no knowing how soon I may hit you with a chair if you don’t come to earth quick and talk like an ordinary human being. What is it that you are driving at?”
“Very well, it’s this: I’ll come home if you get rid of that snake.”
“It’s surely not much to ask of you, Polly?”
Lord Wetherby sighed.
“When I led you to the altar,” he said, reproachfully, “you promised to love, honour, and obey me. I thought at the time it was a bit of swank!”
Lady Wetherby’s manner thawed. She became more friendly.
“When you talk like that, Algie, I feel there’s hope for you after all. That’s how you used to talk in the dear old days when you’d come to me to borrow half a crown to put on a horse! Listen, now that at last you seem to be getting more reasonable; I wish I could make you understand that I don’t keep Clarence for sheer love of him. He’s a commercial asset. He’s an advertisement. You must know that I have got to have something to——”
“I admit that may be so as regards the monkey, Eustace. Monkeys as aids to publicity have, I believe, been tested and found valuable by other artistes. I am prepared to accept Eustace, but the snake is worthless.”
“Oh, you don’t object to Eustace, then?”
“I do strongly, but I concede his uses.”
“You would live in the same house as Eustace?”
“I would endeavour to do so. But not in the same house as Eustace and Clarence.”
There was a pause.
“I don’t know that I’m so stuck on Clarence myself,” said Lady Wetherby, weakly.
“Wait a minute. I’ve not said I would get rid of him.”
“But you will?”
Lady Wetherby’s hesitation lasted but a moment. “All right, Algie. I’ll send him to the Zoo to-morrow.”
“My precious pet!”
A hand, reaching under the table, enveloped Claire’s in a loving clasp.
From the look on Lord Wetherby’s face she supposed that he was under the delusion that he was bestowing this attention on his wife.
“You know, Algie, darling,” said Lady Wetherby, melting completely, “when you get that yearning note in your voice I just flop and take the full count.”
“My sweetheart, when I saw you doing that Dream of What’s-the-girl’s-bally-name dance just now, it was all I could do to keep from rushing out on to the floor and hugging you.”
“Do you mind letting go of my hand, please, Lord Wetherby?” said Claire, on whom these saccharine exchanges were beginning to have a cloying effect.
For a moment Lord Wetherby seemed somewhat confused, but, pulling himself together, he covered his embarrassment with a pomposity that blended poorly with his horsy appearance.
“Married life, Miss Fenwick,” he said, “as you will no doubt discover some day, must always be a series of mutual compromises, of cheerful give and take. The lamp of love——”
His remarks were cut short by a crash at the other end of the room. There was a sharp cry and the splintering of glass. The place was full of a sudden, sharp confusion. They jumped up with one accord. Lady Wetherby spilled her iced coffee; Lord Wetherby dropped the lamp of love. Claire, who was nearest the pillar that separated them from the part of the restaurant where the accident had happened, was the first to see what had taken place.
A large man, dancing with a large girl, appeared to have charged into a small waiter, upsetting him and his tray and the contents of his tray. The various actors in the drama were now engaged in sorting themselves out from the ruins. The man had his back toward her, and it seemed to Claire that there was something familiar about that back. Then he turned, and she recognized Lord Dawlish.
She stood transfixed. For a moment surprise was her only emotion. How came Bill to be in America? Then other feelings blended with her surprise. It is a fact that Lord Dawlish was looking singularly uncomfortable.
Claire’s eyes travelled from Bill to his partner and took in with one swift feminine glance her large, exuberant blondness. There is no denying that, seen with a somewhat biased eye, the Good Sport resembled rather closely a poster advertising a revue.
Claire returned to her seat. Lord and Lady Wetherby continued to talk, but she allowed them to conduct the conversation without her assistance.
“You’re very quiet, Claire,” said Polly.
“A very good thing, too, so they tell me. I’ve never tried it myself. Algie, darling, he was a bad boy to leave his nice home, wasn’t he? He didn’t deserve to have his hand held.”