THE LITTLE WARRIOR
(or JILL THE RECKLESS in
P. G. Wodehouse
Freddie Rooke gazed coldly at the breakfast-table. Through a gleaming eye-glass he inspected the revolting object which Parker, his faithful man, had placed on a plate before him.
“Parker!” His voice had a ring of pain.
“Poached egg, sir.”
Freddie averted his eyes with a silent shudder.
“It looks just like an old aunt of mine,” he said. “Remove it!”
He got up, and, wrapping his dressing-gown about his long legs, took up a
stand in front of the fireplace. From this position he surveyed the room, his
shoulders against the mantelpiece, his calves pressing the club-fender. It was
a cheerful oasis in a chill and foggy world, a typical
“Eggs, Parker,” said Freddie solemnly, “are the acid test!”
“If, on the morning after, you can tackle a poached egg, you are all right. If not, not. And don't let anybody tell you otherwise.”
Freddie pressed the palm of his hand to his brow, and sighed.
“It would seem, then, that I must have revelled a trifle whole-heartedly last night. I was possibly a little blotto. Not whiffled, perhaps, but indisputably blotto. Did I make much noise coming in?”
“No, sir. You were very quiet.”
“Ah! A dashed bad sign!”
Freddie moved to the table, and poured himself a cup of coffee.
“The cream-jug is to your right, sir,” said the helpful Parker.
“Let it remain there. Cafe noir for me this morning. As noir as it can jolly well stick!” Freddie retired to the fireplace and sipped delicately. “As far as I can remember, it was Ronny Devereux' birthday or something —”
“Mr Martyn's, I think you said, sir.”
“That's right. Algy Martyn's birthday, and Ronny and I were the guests. It all comes back to me. I wanted Derek to roll along and join the festivities—he's never met Ronny—but he gave it a miss. Quite right! A chap in his position has responsibilities. Member of Parliament and all that. Besides,” said Freddie earnestly, driving home the point with a wave of his spoon, “he's engaged to be married. You must remember that, Parker!”
“I will endeavor to, sir.”
“Sometimes,” said Freddie dreamily, “I wish I were engaged to be married. Sometimes I wish I had some sweet girl to watch over me and — No, I don't, by Jove! It would give me the utter pip! Is Sir Derek up yet, Parker?”
“Getting up, sir.”
“See that everything is all right, will you? I mean as regards the
foodstuffs and what not. I want him to make a good breakfast. He's got to meet
his mother this morning at
Freddie shook his head.
“You wouldn't speak in that light, careless tone if you knew her! Well, you'll see her tonight. She's coming here to dinner.”
“Miss Mariner will he here, too. A foursome. Tell Mrs Parker to pull up her socks and give us something pretty ripe. Soup, fish, all that sort of thing. She knows. And let's have a stoup of malvoisie from the oldest bin. This is a special occasion!”
“Her ladyship will be meeting Miss Mariner for the first time, sir?”
“You've put your finger on it! Absolutely the first time on this or any stage! We must all rally round and make the thing a success.”
“I am sure Mrs Parker will strain every nerve, sir.” Parker moved to the door, carrying the rejected egg, and stepped aside to allow a tall, well-built man of about thirty to enter. “Good morning, Sir Derek.”
Parker slid softly from the room.
“Finished, Freddie?” asked Derek.
Freddie smiled wanly,
“We are not breakfasting this morning,” he replied. “The spirit was willing, but the jolly old flesh would have none of it. To be perfectly frank, the Last of the Rookes has a bit of a head.”
“Ass!” said Derek.
“A bit of sympathy,” said Freddie, pained, “would not be out of place. We are far from well. Some person unknown has put a threshing-machine inside the old bean and substituted a piece of brown paper for our tongue. Things look dark and yellow and wobbly!”
“You shouldn't have overdone it last night.”
“It was Algy Martyn's birthday,” pleaded Freddie.
“If I were an ass like Algy Martyn,” said Derek, “I wouldn't go about advertising the fact that I'd been born. I'd hush it up!”
He helped himself to a plentiful portion of kedgeree, Freddie watching him with repulsion mingled with envy. When he began to eat, the spectacle became too poignant for the sufferer, and he wandered to the window.
“What a beast of a day!”
It was an appalling day. January, that grim month, was treating
“Awful!” said Derek.
“Your mater's train will be late.”
“Yes. Damned nuisance. It's bad enough meeting trains in any case, without having to hang about a draughty station for an hour.”
“And it's sure, I should imagine,” went on Freddie, pursuing his train of thought, “to make the dear old thing pretty tolerably ratty, if she has one of those slow journeys.” He pottered back to the fireplace, and rubbed his shoulders reflectively against the mantelpiece. “I take it that you wrote to her about Jill?”
“Of course. That's why she's coming over, I suppose. By the way, you got those seats for that theatre tonight?”
“Yes. Three together and one somewhere on the outskirts. If it's all the same to you, old thing, I'll have the one on the outskirts.”
Derek, who had finished his kedgeree and was now making himself a blot on Freddie's horizon with toast and marmalade, laughed.
“What a rabbit you are, Freddie! Why on earth are you so afraid of mother?”
Freddie looked at him as a timid young squire might have gazed upon St.
George when the latter set out to do battle with the dragon. He was of the
amiable type which makes heroes of its friends. In the old days when he had
fagged for him at
“I wish I had your nerve!” he said, awed. “What I should be feeling, if I were in your place and had to meet your mater after telling her that I was engaged to marry a girl she had never seen, I don't know. I'd rather face a wounded tiger!”
“Idiot!” said Derek placidly.
“Not,” pursued Freddie, “that I mean to say anything in the least derogatory and so forth to your jolly old mater, if you understand me, but the fact remains she scares me pallid! Always has, ever since the first time I went to stay at your place when I was a kid. I can still remember catching her eye the morning I happened by pure chance to bung an apple through her bedroom window, meaning to let a cat on the sill below have it in the short ribs. She was at least thirty feet away, but, by Jove, it stopped me like a bullet!”
“Push the bell, old man, will you? I want some more toast.”
Freddie did as he was requested with growing admiration.
“The condemned man made an excellent breakfast,” he murmured. “More toast, Parker,” he added, as that admirable servitor opened the door. “Gallant! That's what I call it. Gallant!”
Derek tilted his chair back.
“Mother is sure to like Jill when she sees her,” he said.
“When she sees her! Ah! But the trouble is, young feller-me-lad, that she hasn't seen her! That's the weak spot in your case, old companion! A month ago she didn't know of Jill's existence. Now, you know and I know that Jill is one of the best and brightest. As far as we are concerned, everything in the good old garden is lovely. Why, dash it, Jill and I were children together. Sported side by side on the green, and what not. I remember Jill, when she was twelve, turning the garden-hose on me and knocking about seventy-five per cent off the market value of my best Sunday suit. That sort of thing forms a bond, you know, and I've always felt that she was a corker. But your mater's got to discover it for herself. It's a dashed pity, by Jove, that Jill hasn't a father or a mother or something of that species to rally round just now. They would form a gang. There's nothing like a gang! But she's only got that old uncle of hers. A rummy bird! Met him?”
“Several times. I like him.”
“Oh, he's a genial old buck all right. A very bonhomous lad. But you hear some pretty queer stories about him if you get among people who knew him in the old days. Even now I'm not so dashed sure I should care to play cards with him. Young Threepwood was telling me only the other day that the old boy took thirty quid off him at picquet as clean as a whistle. And Jimmy Monroe, who's on the Stock Exchange, says he's frightfully busy these times buying margins or whatever it is chappies do down in the City. Margins. That's the word. Jimmy made me buy some myself on a thing called Amalgamated Dyes. I don't understand the procedure exactly, but Jimmy says it's a sound egg and will do me a bit of good. What was I talking about? Oh, yes, old Selby. There's no doubt he's quite a sportsman. But till you've got Jill well established, you know, I shouldn't enlarge on him too much with the mater.”
“On the contrary,” said Derek. “I shall mention him at the first
opportunity. He knew my father out in
“Did he, by Jove! Oh, well, that makes a difference.”
Parker entered with the toast, and Derek resumed his breakfast.
“It may be a little bit awkward,” he said, “at first, meeting mother. But everything will be all right after five minutes.”
“Absolutely! But, oh, boy! that first five minutes!” Freddie gazed portentously through his eye-glass. Then he seemed to be undergoing some internal struggle, for he gulped once or twice. “That first five minutes!” he said, and paused again. A moment's silent self-communion, and he went on with a rush. “I say, listen. Shall I come along, too?”
“To the station. With you.”
“What on earth for?”
“To see you through the opening stages. Break the ice and all that sort of thing. Nothing like collecting a gang, you know. Moments when a feller needs a friend and so forth. Say the word, and I'll buzz along and lend my moral support.”
Derek's heavy eyebrows closed together in an offended frown, and seemed to darken his whole face. This unsolicited offer of assistance hurt his dignity. He showed a touch of the petulance which came now and then when he was annoyed, to suggest that he might not possess so strong a character as his exterior indicated.
“It's very kind of you,” he began stiffly.
Freddie nodded. He was acutely conscious of this himself.
“Some fellows,” he observed, “would say 'Not at all!' I suppose. But not the Last of the Rookes! For, honestly, old man, between ourselves, I don't mind admitting that this is the bravest deed of the year, and I'm dashed if I would do it for anyone else.”
“It's very good of you, Freddie —”
“That's all right. I'm a Boy Scout, and this is my act of kindness for today.”
Derek got up from the table.
“Of course you mustn't come,” he said. “We can't form a sort of debating
society to discuss Jill on the platform at
“Oh, I would just hang around in the offing, shoving in an occasional tactful word.”
“The wheeze would simply be to —”
“Oh, very well,” said Freddie, damped. “Just as you say, of course. But there's nothing like a gang, old man, nothing like a gang!”
It seemed to Derek that he had been patrolling the platform for a life-time, but he resumed his sentinel duty. The fact that the boat-train, being already forty-five minutes overdue, might arrive at any moment made it imperative that he remain where he was instead of sitting, as he would much have preferred to sit, in one of the waiting-rooms. It would be a disaster if his mother should get out of the train and not find him there to meet her. That was just the sort of thing which would infuriate her; and her mood, after a Channel crossing and a dreary journey by rail, would be sufficiently dangerous as it was.
The fog and the waiting had had their effect upon Derek. The resolute
front he had exhibited to Freddie at the breakfast-table had melted since his
arrival at the station, and he was feeling nervous at the prospect of the
meeting that lay before him. Calm as he had appeared to the eye of Freddie and
bravely as he had spoken, Derek, in the recesses of his heart, was afraid of
his mother. There are men—and
Now that his meeting with her might occur at any moment, Derek shrank from
it. It was not likely to be a pleasant one. The mere fact that
Would his mother approve of Jill? That was the question which he had been
asking himself over and over again as he paced the platform in the
disheartening fog. Nothing had been said, nothing had even been hinted, but he
was perfectly aware that his marriage was a matter regarding which
That, as Freddie had pointed out, was the confoundedly awkward part of it.
His engagement had been so sudden. Jill had swept into his life like a comet.
His mother knew nothing of her. A month ago he had known nothing of her
himself. It would, he perceived, as far as the benevolent approval of
Somewhat comforted by this reflection, Derek turned to begin one more walk along the platform, and stopped in mid-stride, raging. Beaming over the collar of a plaid greatcoat, all helpfulness and devotion, Freddie Rooke was advancing towards him, the friend that sticketh closer than a brother. Like some loving dog, who, ordered home, sneaks softly on through alleys and by-ways, peeping round corners and crouching behind lamp-posts, the faithful Freddie had followed him after all. And with him, to add the last touch to Derek's discomfiture, were those two inseparable allies of his, Ronny Devereux and Algy Martyn.
“Well, old thing,” said Freddie, patting Derek encouragingly on the shoulder, “here we are after all! I know you told me not to roil round and so forth, but I knew you didn't mean it. I thought it over after you had left, and decided it would be a rotten trick not to cluster about you in your hour of need. I hope you don't mind Ronny and Algy breezing along, too. The fact is, I was in the deuce of a funk—your jolly old mater always rather paralyzes my nerve-centers, you know—so I roped them in. Met 'em in Piccadilly, groping about for the club, and conscripted 'em both, they very decently consenting. We all toddled off and had a pick-me-up at that chemist chappie's at the top of the Hay-market, and now we're feeling full of beans and buck, ready for anything. I've explained the whole thing to them, and they're with you to the death! Collect a gang, dear boy, collect a gang! That's the motto. There's nothing like it!”
“Nothing!” said Ronny.
“Absolutely nothing!” said Algy.
“We'll just see you through the opening stages,” said Freddie, “and then leg it. We'll keep the conversation general, you know.”
“Stop it getting into painful channels,” said Ronny.
“Steer it clear,” said Algy, “of the touchy topic.”
“That's the wheeze,” said Freddie. “We'll — Oh, golly! There's the train coming in now!” His voice quavered, for not even the comforting presence of his two allies could altogether sustain him in this ordeal. But he pulled himself together with a manful effort. “Stick it, old beans!” he said doughtily. “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party!”
“We're here!” said Ronny Devereux.
“On the spot!” said Algy Martyn.
The boat-train slid into the station. Bells rang, engines blew off steam, porters
shouted, baggage-trucks rattled over the platform. The train began to give up
its contents, now in ones and twos, now in a steady stream. Most of the
travellers seemed limp and exhausted, and were pale with the pallor that comes
of a choppy Channel crossing. Almost the only exception to the general
condition of collapse was the eagle-faced lady in the brown ulster, who had
taken up her stand in the middle of the platform and was haranguing a subdued
little maid in a voice that cut the gloomy air like a steel knife. Like the
other travellers, she was pale, but she bore up resolutely. No one could have
“Have you got a porter, Ferris? Where is he, then? Ah! Have you got all the bags? My jewel-case? The suit-case? The small brown bag? The rugs? Where are the rugs?
“Yes, I can see them, my good girl. There is no need to brandish them in
my face. Keep the jewel-case and give the rest of the things to the porter, and
take him to look after the trunks. You remember which they are? The steamer
trunk, the other trunk, the black box — Very well. Then make haste. And, when
you've got them all together, tell the porter to find you a four-wheeler. The
small things will go inside. Drive to the
“Then go along. Oh, and give the porter sixpence. Sixpence is ample.”
The little maid, grasping the jewel-case, trotted off beside the now pessimistic porter, who had started on this job under the impression that there was at least a bob's-worth in it. The remark about the sixpence had jarred the porter's faith in his species.
Derek approached, acutely conscious of Freddie, Ronny, and Algy, who were
skirmishing about his flank. He had enough to worry him without them. He had
listened with growing apprehension to the catalogue of his mother's possessions.
Plainly this was no flying visit. You do not pop over to
“Well, mother! So there you are at last!”
Derek kissed his mother. Freddie, Ronny, and Algy shuffled closer, like leopards. Freddie, with the expression of one who leads a forlorn hope, moved his Adam's apple briskly up and down several times, and spoke.
“How do you do,
“How do you do, Mr Rooke?”
“Like you,” mumbled Freddie, “to meet my friends.
“Charmed,” said Ronny affably.
“Delighted,” said Algy with old-world courtesy.
“How do you do?” she said. “Have you come to meet somebody?”
“I-er-we-er-why-er—” This woman always made Freddie feel as if he were
being disembowelled by some clumsy amateur. He wished that he had defied the
dictates of his better nature and remained in his snug rooms at the
“Indeed! That was very kind of you!”
“Oh, not at all.”
“Thought we'd welcome you back to the old homestead,” said Ronny, beaming.
“What could be sweeter?” said Algy. He produced a cigar-case, and
extracted a formidable torpedo-shaped
Derek chafed impotently. These unsought allies were making a difficult situation a thousand times worse. A more acute observer than young Mr Martyn, he noted the tight lines about his mother's mouth and knew them for the danger-signal they were. Endeavoring to distract her with light conversation, he selected a subject which was a little unfortunate.
“What sort of crossing did you have, mother?”
“Bit choppy, I suppose, what?” he bellowed, in a voice that ran up and
“It's an extraordinary thing about that Channel crossing,” said Algy Martyn meditatively, as he puffed a refreshing cloud. “I've known fellows who could travel quite happily everywhere else in the world—round the Horn in sailing-ships and all that sort of thing—yield up their immortal soul crossing the Channel! Absolutely yield up their immortal soul! Don't know why. Rummy, but there it is!”
“I'm like that myself,” assented Ronny Devereux. “That dashed trip from
“It's exactly the same with me,” said Freddie, delighted with the smooth, easy way the conversation was flowing. “Whether it's the hot, greasy smell of the engines —”
“It's not the engines,” contended Ronny Devereux.
“Stands to reason it can't be. I rather like the smell of engines. This station is reeking with the smell of engine-grease, and I can drink it in and enjoy it.” He sniffed luxuriantly. “It's something else.”
“Ronny's right,” said Algy cordially. “It isn't the engines. It's the way
the boat heaves up and down and up and down and up and down —” He shifted his
cigar to his left hand in order to give with his right a spirited illustration
of a Channel steamer going up and down and up and down and up and down.
“Be quiet!” she snapped.
“I was only saying —”
There was a pause. Algy, damped, was temporarily out of action, and his friends had for the moment nothing to remark.
“I'm afraid you had a trying journey, mother,” said Derek. “The train was very late.”
“Now, train-sickness,” said Algy, coming to the surface again, “is a thing lots of people suffer from. Never could understand it myself.”
“I've never had a touch of train-sickness,” said Ronny.
“Oh, I have,” said Freddie. “I've often felt rotten on a train. I get floating spots in front of my eyes and a sort of heaving sensation, and everything kind of goes black —”
“I should be greatly obliged if you would keep these confidences for the ear of your medical adviser.”
“Freddie,” intervened Derek hastily, “my mother's rather tired. Do you think you could be going ahead and getting a taxi?”
“My dear old chap, of course! Get you one in a second. Come along, Algy. Pick up the old waukeesis, Ronny.”
And Freddie, accompanied by his henchmen, ambled off, well pleased with himself. He had, he felt, helped to break the ice for Derek and had seen him safely through those awkward opening stages. Now he could totter off with a light heart and get a bite of lunch.
“A little more,” she said tensely, “and I should have struck those unspeakable young men with my umbrella. One of the things I have never been able to understand, Derek, is why you should have selected that imbecile Rooke as your closest friend.”
Derek smiled tolerantly.
“It was more a case of him selecting me. But Freddie is quite a good fellow really. He's a man you've got to know.”
“I have not got to know him, and I thank heaven for it!”
“He's a very good-natured fellow. It was decent of him to put me up at the
“Then why didn't she meet me?”
“Here, do you mean? At the station? Well, I—I wanted you to see her for the first time in pleasanter surroundings.”
It is a disturbing thought that we suffer in this world just as much by
being prudent and taking precautions as we do by being rash and impulsive and
acting as the spirit moves us. If Jill had been permitted by her wary fiancé to
come with him to the station to meet his mother, it is certain that much
trouble would have been avoided. True,
She stopped and faced him.
“Who is she?” she demanded. “Who is this girl?”
“I thought I made everything clear in my letter.”
“You made nothing clear at all.”
“By your leave!” chanted a porter behind them, and a baggage-truck clove them apart.
“We can't talk in a crowded station,” said Derek irritably. “Let me get you to the taxi and take you to the hotel. — What do you want to know about Jill?”
“Everything. Where does she come from? Who are her people? I don't know any Mariners.”
“I haven't cross-examined her,” said Derek stiffly. “But I do know that her parents are dead. Her father was an American.”
“Americans frequently have daughters, I believe.”
“There is nothing to be gained by losing your temper,” said
“There is nothing to be gained, as far as I can see, by all this talk,” retorted Derek. He wondered vexedly why his mother always had this power of making him lose control of himself. He hated to lose control of himself. It upset him, and blurred that vision which he liked to have of himself as a calm, important man superior to ordinary weaknesses. “Jill and I are engaged, and there is an end of it.”
“Don't be a fool,” said
“Listen, mother!” Derek's long wait on the draughty platform had generated an irritability which overcame the deep-seated awe of his mother which was the result of years of defeat in battles of the will. “Let me tell you in a few words all that I know of Jill, and then we'll drop the subject. In the first place, she is a lady. Secondly, she has plenty of money —”
“The Underhills do not need to marry for money.”
“I am not marrying for money!”
“Well, go on.”
“I have already described to you in my letter—very inadequately, but I did my best—what she looks like. Her sweetness, her loveableness, all the subtle things about her which go to make her what she is, you will have to judge for yourself.”
“I intend to!”
“Well, that's all, then. She lives with her uncle, a Major Selby —”
“Major Selby? What regiment?”
“I didn't ask him,” snapped the goaded Derek. “And, in the name of heaven, what does it matter?”
“Not the Guards?”
“I tell you I don't know.”
“Probably a line regiment,” said
“Possibly. What then?” He paused, to play his trump card. “If you are worrying about Major Selby's social standing, I may as well tell you that he used to know father.”
“What! When? Where?”
“Years ago. In
“Selby? Selby? Not Christopher Selby?”
“Oh, you remember him?”
“I certainly remember him! Not that he and I ever met, but your father often spoke of him.”
Derek was relieved. It was abominable that this sort of thing should
matter, but one had to face facts, and, as far as his mother was concerned, it
did. The fact that Jill's uncle had known his dead father would make all the
“Christopher Selby!” said
“Didn't you hear what I said? I will repeat it, if you wish.”
“There must have been some mistake.”
“Only the one your father made when he trusted the man.”
“It must have been some other fellow.”
“Of course!” said
Derek bit his lip.
“Well, after all,” he said doggedly, “whether it's true or not —”
“I see no reason why your father should not have spoken the truth.”
“All right. We'll say it is true, then. But what does it matter? I am marrying Jill, not her uncle.”
“Nevertheless, it would be pleasanter if her only living relative were not a swindler!— Tell me, where and how did you meet this girl?”
“I should he glad if you would not refer to her as 'this girl.' The name, if you have forgotten it, is Mariner.”
“Well, where did you meet Miss Mariner?”
“Skating-rink,” said Derek impatiently. “Just after you left for Mentone. Freddie Rooke introduced me.”
“Oh, your intellectual friend Mr Rooke knows her?”
“They were children together. Her people lived next to the Rookes in Worcestershire.”
“I thought you said she was an American.”
“I said her father was. He settled in
“The fact,” said
Derek kicked angrily at a box of matches which someone had thrown down on the platform.
“I wonder if you could possibly get it into your head, mother, that I want to marry Jill, not engage her as an under-housemaid. I don't consider that she requires recommendations, as you call them. However, don't you think the most sensible thing is for you to wait till you meet her at dinner tonight, and then you can form your own opinion? I'm beginning to get a little bored with this futile discussion.”
“As you seem quite unable to talk on the subject of this girl without
becoming rude,” said
“I'm glad you think so,” said Derek, “for I fell in love with Jill the very first moment I saw her!”
Parker stepped back, and surveyed with modest pride the dinner-table to which he had been putting the finishing touches. It was an artistic job and a credit to him.
“That's that!” said Parker, satisfied.
He went to the window and looked out. The fog which had lasted well into the evening, had vanished now, and the clear night was bright with stars. A distant murmur of traffic came from the direction of Piccadilly.
As he stood there, the front-door bell rang, and continued to ring in little spurts of sound. If character can be deduced from bell-ringing, as nowadays it apparently can be from every other form of human activity, one might have hazarded the guess that whoever was on the other side of the door was determined, impetuous, and energetic.
Freddie Rooke pushed a tousled head, which had yet to be brushed into the smooth sleekness that made it a delight to the public eye, out of a room down the passage.
“I heard, sir. I was about to answer the bell.”
“I fancy it is Miss Mariner, sir. I think I recognise her touch.”
He made his way down the passage to the front-door, and opened it. A girl was standing outside. She wore a long gray fur coat, and a filmy gray hood covered her hair. As Parker opened the door, she scampered in like a gray kitten.
“Brrh! It's cold!” she exclaimed. “Hullo, Parker!”
“Good evening, miss.”
“Am I the last or the first or what?”
Parker moved to help her with her cloak.
“Sir Derek and her ladyship have not yet arrived, miss. Sir Derek went to bring her ladyship from the Savoy Hotel. Mr Rooke is dressing in his bedroom and will be ready very shortly.”
The girl had slipped out of the fur coat, and Parker cast a swift glance of approval at her. He had the valet's unerring eye for a thoroughbred, and Jill Mariner was manifestly that. It showed in her walk, in every move of her small, active body, in the way she looked at you, in the way she talked to you, in the little tilt of her resolute chin. Her hair was pale gold, and had the brightness of coloring of a child's. Her face glowed, and her gray eyes sparkled. She looked very much alive.
It was this aliveness of hers that was her chief charm. Her eyes were good
and her mouth, with its small, even, teeth, attractive, but she would have
laughed if anybody had called her beautiful. She sometimes doubted if she were
even pretty. Yet few men had met her and remained entirely undisturbed. She had
a magnetism. One hapless youth, who had laid his heart at her feet and had been
commanded to pick it up again, had endeavored subsequently to explain her
attraction (to a bosom friend over a mournful bottle of the best in the club
smoking-room) in these words: “I don't know what it is about her, old man, but
she somehow makes a feller feel she's so damned interested in a chap, if
you know what I mean.” And, though not generally credited in his circle with
any great acuteness, there is no doubt that the speaker had achieved something
approaching a true analysis of Jill's fascination for his sex. She was
interested in everything Life presented to her notice, from a Coronation to a
stray cat. She was vivid. She had sympathy. She listened to you as though you
really mattered. It takes a man of tough fibre to resist these qualities.
Women, on the other hand, especially of the
“Go and stir him up,” said Jill, alluding to the absent Mr Rooke. “Tell him to come and talk to me. Where's the nearest fire? I want to get right over it and huddle.”
“The fire's burning nicely in the sitting-room, miss.”
Jill hurried into the sitting-room, and increased her hold on Parker's
esteem by exclaiming rapturously at the sight that greeted her. Parker had
expended time and trouble over the sitting-room. There was no dust, no
untidiness. The pictures all hung straight; the cushions were smooth and
unrumpled; and a fire of exactly the right dimensions burned cheerfully in the
grate, flickering cosily on the small piano by the couch, on the deep leather
arm-chairs which Freddie had brought with him from
“You're simply wonderful, Parker! I don't see how you manage to make a room so cosy!” Jill sat down on the club-fender that guarded the fireplace, and held her hands over the blaze. “I can't understand why men ever marry. Fancy having to give up all this!”
“I am gratified that you appreciate it, miss. I did my best to make it comfortable for you. I fancy I hear Mr Rooke coming now.”
“I hope the others won't be long. I'm starving. Has Mrs Parker got something very good for dinner?”
“She has strained every nerve, miss.”
“Then I'm sure it's worth waiting for. Hullo, Freddie.”
Freddie Rooke, resplendent in evening dress, bustled in, patting his tie with solicitous fingers. It had been right when he had looked in the glass in his bedroom, but you never know about ties. Sometimes they stay right, sometimes they wiggle up sideways. Life is full of these anxieties.
“I shouldn't touch it,” said Jill. “It looks beautiful, and, if I may say so in confidence, is having a most disturbing effect on my emotional nature. I'm not at all sure I shall be able to resist it right through the evening. It isn't fair of you to try to alienate the affections of an engaged young person like this.”
Freddie squinted down, and became calmer.
“Hullo, Jill, old thing. Nobody here yet?”
“Well, I'm here,—the petite figure seated on the fender. But perhaps I don't count.”
“Oh, I didn't mean that, you know.”
“I should hope not, when I've bought a special new dress just to fascinate you. A creation I mean. When they cost as much as this one did, you have to call them names. What do you think of it?”
Freddie seated himself on another section of the fender, and regarded her with the eye of an expert. A snappy dresser, as the technical term is, himself, he appreciated snap in the outer covering of the other sex.
“Topping!” he said spaciously. “No other word for it! All wool and a yard wide! Precisely as mother makes it! You look like a thingummy.”
“How splendid! All my life I've wanted to look like a thingummy, but somehow I've never been able to manage it.”
“A wood-nymph!” exclaimed Freddie, in a burst of unwonted imagery.
“Wood-nymphs didn't wear creations.”
“Well, you know what I mean!” He looked at her with honest admiration. “Dash it, Jill, you know, there's something about you! You're—what's the word?—you've got such small bones!”
“Ugh! I suppose it's a compliment, but how horrible it sounds! It makes me feel like a skeleton.”
“I mean to say, you're—you're dainty!”
“That's much better.”
“You look as if you weighed about an ounce and a half! You look like a bit of thistledown! You're a little fairy princess, dash it!”
“Freddie! This is eloquence!” Jill raised her left hand, and twiddled a ringed finger ostentatiously. “Er—you do realize that I'm bespoke, don't you, and that my heart, alas, is another's? Because you sound as if you were going to propose.”
Freddie produced a snowy handkerchief, and polished his eye-glass. Solemnity descended on him like a cloud. He looked at Jill with an earnest, paternal gaze.
“That reminds me,” he said. “I wanted to have, a bit of a talk with you about that—being engaged and all that sort of thing. I'm glad I got you alone before the Curse arrived.”
“Curse? Do you mean Derek's mother? That sounds cheerful and encouraging.”
“Well, she is, you know,” said Freddie earnestly. “She's a bird! It would be idle to deny it. She always puts the fear of God into me. I never know what to say to her.”
“Why don't you try asking her riddles?”
“It's no joking matter,” persisted Freddie, his amiable face overcast. “Wait till you meet her! You should have seen her at the station this morning. You don't know what you're up against!”
“You make my flesh creep, Freddie. What am I up against?”
Freddie poked the fire scientifically, and assisted it with coal.
“It's this way,” he said. “Of course, dear old Derek's the finest chap in the world.”
“I know that,” said Jill softly. She patted Freddie's hand with a little gesture of gratitude. Freddie's devotion to Derek was a thing that always touched her. She looked thoughtfully into the fire, and her eyes seemed to glow in sympathy with the glowing coals. “There's nobody like him!”
“But,” continued Freddie, “he always has been frightfully under his mother's thumb, you know.”
Jill was conscious of a little flicker of irritation.
“Don't be absurd, Freddie. How could a man like Derek be under anybody's thumb?”
“Well, you know what I mean!”
“I don't in the least know what you mean.”
“I mean, it would be rather rotten if his mother set him against you.”
Jill clenched her teeth. The quick temper which always lurked so very
little beneath the surface of her cheerfulness was stirred. She felt suddenly
chilled and miserable. She tried to tell herself that Freddie was just an
amiable blunderer who spoke without sense or reason, but it was no use. She
could not rid herself of a feeling of foreboding and discomfort. It had been
the one jarring note in the sweet melody of her love-story, this apprehension
of Derek's regarding his mother. The Derek she loved was a strong man, with a
strong man's contempt for other people's criticism; and there had been
something ignoble and fussy in his attitude regarding
“Do you remember the time I turned the hose on you, Freddie,” she said, rising from the fender, “years ago, when we were children, when you and that awful Mason boy—what was his name? Wally Mason—teased me?” She looked at the unhappy Freddie with a hostile eye. It was his blundering words that had spoiled everything. “I've forgotten what it was all about, but I know that you and Wally infuriated me and I turned the garden hose on you and soaked you both to the skin. Well, all I want to point out is that, if you go on talking nonsense about Derek and his mother and me, I shall ask Parker to bring me a jug of water, and I shall empty it over you! Set him against me! You talk as if love were a thing any third party could come along and turn off with a tap! Do you suppose that, when two people love each other as Derek and I do, that it can possibly matter in the least what anybody else thinks or says, even if it is his mother? I haven't got a mother, but suppose Uncle Chris came and warned me against Derek —”
Her anger suddenly left her as quickly as it had come. That was always the way with Jill. One moment later she would be raging; the next, something would tickle her sense of humor and restore her instantly to cheerfulness. And the thought of dear, lazy old Uncle Chris taking the trouble to warn anybody against anything except the wrong brand of wine or an inferior make of cigar conjured up a picture before which wrath melted away. She chuckled, and Freddie, who had been wilting on the fender, perked up.
“You're an extraordinary girl, Jill! One never knows when you're going to get the wind up.”
“Isn't it enough to make me get the wind up, as you call it, when you say absurd things like that?”
“I meant well, old girl!”
“That's the trouble with you. You always do mean well. You go about the
world meaning well till people fly to put themselves under police protection.
Besides, what on earth could
“Yes,” said Freddie dubiously. “Yes, yes, oh, quite so, rather!”
Jill looked at him sternly.
“Freddie, you're concealing something from me! You don't think I'm
a charming and attractive Society belle! Tell me why not and I'll show you
where you are wrong. Is it my face you object to, or my manners, or my figure?
There was a young bride of
“Oh, I think you're topping.”
“But for some reason you're afraid that Derek's mother won't think so. Why
“Well, it's like this. Remember I've known the old devil —”
“Freddie Rooke! Where do you pick up such expressions? Not from me!”
“Well, that's how I always think of her! I say I've known her ever since I used to go and stop at their place when I was at school, and I know exactly the sort of things that put her back up. She's a what-d'you-call-it.”
“I see no harm in that. Why shouldn't the dear old lady be a what-d'you-call-it? She must do something in her spare time.”
“I mean to say, one of the old school, don't you know. And you're so dashed impulsive, old girl. You know you are! You are always saying things that come into your head.”
“You can't say a thing unless it comes into your head.”
“You know what I mean,” Freddie went on earnestly, not to be diverted from his theme. “You say rummy things and you do rummy things. What I mean to say is, you're impulsive.”
“What have I ever done that the sternest critic could call rummy?”
“Well, I've seen you with my own eyes stop in the middle of
“I should hope not. The poor old horse was trying all he knew to get going, and he couldn't quite make it. Naturally, I helped.”
“Oh, I know. Very decent and all that, but I doubt if
“Don't be a snob, Freddie.”
“I'm not a snob,” protested Freddie, wounded. “When I'm alone with Parker—for instance—I'm as chatty as dammit. But I don't ask waiters in public restaurants how their lumbago is.”
“Have you ever had lumbago?”
“Well, it's a very painful thing, and waiters get it just as badly as dukes. Worse, I should think, because they're always bending and stooping and carrying things. Naturally one feels sorry for them.”
“But how do you ever find out that a waiter has got lumbago?”
“I ask him; of course.”
“Well, for goodness sake,” said Freddie, “if you feel the impulse to do
that sort of thing tonight, try and restrain it. I mean to say, if you're
curious to know anything about Parker's chilblains, for instance, don't enquire
after them while he's handing
Jill uttered an exclamation.
“I knew there was something! Being so cold and wanting to rush in and crouch over a fire put it clean out of my head. He must be thinking me a perfect beast!” She ran to the door. “Parker! Parker!”
Parker appeared from nowhere.
“I'm so sorry I forgot to ask before. How are your chilblains?”
“A good deal better, miss, thank you.”
“Did you try the stuff I recommended?”
“Yes, miss. It did them a world of good.”
Jill went back into the sitting-room.
“It's all right,” she said reassuringly. “They're better.”
She wandered restlessly about the room, looking at the photographs.
“What a lot of girls you seem to know, Freddie. Are these all the ones you've loved and lost?” She sat down at the piano and touched the keys. The clock on the mantelpiece chimed the half hour. “I wish to goodness they would arrive,” she said.
“They'll be here pretty soon, I expect.”
“It's rather awful,” said Jill, “to think of
The eye-glass dropped from Freddie's eye.
“Are you nervous?” he asked, astonished.
“Of course I'm nervous. Wouldn't you be in my place?”
“Well, I should never have thought it.”
“Why do you suppose I've been talking such a lot? Why do you imagine I snapped your poor, innocent head off just now? I'm terrified inside, terrified!”
“You don't look it, by Jove!”
“No, I'm trying to be a little warrior. That's what Uncle Chris always used to call me. It started the day when he took me to have a tooth out, when I was ten. 'Be a little warrior, Jill!' he kept saying—'Be a little warrior!' And I was.” She looked at the clock. “But I shan't be if they don't get here soon. The suspense is awful.” She strummed the keys. “Suppose she doesn't like me, Freddie! You see how you've scared me.”
“I didn't say she wouldn't. I only said you'd got to watch out a bit.”
“Something tells me she won't. My nerve is oozing out of me.” Jill shook her head impatiently. “It's all so vulgar! I thought this sort of thing only happened in the comic papers and in music-hall songs. Why, it's just like that song somebody used to sing.” She laughed. “Do you remember? I don't know how the verse went, but —
John took me round to see his mother,
And when he'd introduced us to each other,
She sized up everything that I had on.
She put me through a cross-examination:
I fairly boiled with aggravation:
Then she shook her head,
Looked at me and said:
'Poor John! Poor John!'
“Chorus, Freddie! Let's cheer ourselves up! We need it!”
'John took me round to see his mother — !
“His mo-o-o-other!” croaked Freddie. Curiously enough, this ballad was one of Freddie's favorites. He had rendered it with a good deal of success on three separate occasions at village entertainments down in Worcestershire, and he rather flattered himself that he could get about as much out of it as the next man. He proceeded to abet Jill heartily with gruff sounds which he was under the impression constituted what is known in musical circles as “singing seconds.”
“His mo-o-o-other!” he growled with frightful scorn.
“And when she'd introduced us to each other —”
“She sized up everything that I had on!”
“She put me through a cross-examination —”
Jill had thrown her head back, and was singing jubilantly at the top of her voice. The appositeness of the song had cheered her up. It seemed somehow to make her forebodings rather ridiculous, to reduce them to absurdity, to turn into farce the gathering tragedy which had been weighing upon her nerves.
“Then she shook her head,
Looked at me and said:
“Jill,” said a voice at the door. “I want you to meet my mother!”
“Poo-oo-oor John!” bleated the hapless Freddie, unable to check himself.
“Dinner,” said Parker the valet, appearing at the door and breaking a silence that seemed to fill the room like a tangible presence, “is served!”
The front-door closed softly behind the theatre-party. Dinner was over, and Parker had just been assisting the expedition out of the place. Sensitive to atmosphere, he had found his share in the dinner a little trying. It had been a strained meal, and what he liked was a clatter of conversation and everybody having a good time and enjoying themselves.
“Ellen!” called Parker, as he proceeded down the passage to the empty dining-room. “Ellen!”
Mrs Parker appeared out of the kitchen, wiping her hands. Her work for the evening, like her husband's, was over. Presently what is technically called a “useful girl” would come in to wash the dishes, leaving the evening free for social intercourse. Mrs Parker had done well by her patrons that night, and now she wanted a quiet chat with Parker over a glass of Freddie Rooke's port.
“Have they gone, Horace?” she asked, following him into the dining-room.
Parker selected a cigar from Freddie's humidor, crackled it against his ear, smelt it, clipped off the end, and lit it. He took the decanter and filled his wife's glass, then mixed himself a whisky-and-soda.
“Happy days!” said Parker. “Yes, they've gone!”
“I didn't see her ladyship.”
“You didn't miss much! A nasty, dangerous specimen, she is! 'Always merry and bright', I don't think. I wish you'd have had my job of waiting on 'em, Ellen, and me been the one to stay in the kitchen safe out of it all. That's all I say! It's no treat to me to 'and the dishes when the atmosphere's what you might call electric. I didn't envy them that vol-au-vent of yours, Ellen, good as it smelt. Better a dinner of 'erbs where love is than a stalled ox and 'atred therewith,” said Parker, helping himself to a walnut.
“Did they have words?”
Parker shook his head impatiently.
“That sort don't have words, Ellen. They just sit and goggle.”
“How did her ladyship seem to hit it off with Miss Mariner, Horace?”
Parker uttered a dry laugh.
“Ever seen a couple of strange dogs watching each other sort of wary? That was them! Not that Miss Mariner wasn't all that was pleasant and nice-spoken. She's all right, Miss Mariner is. She's a little queen! It wasn't her fault the dinner you'd took so much trouble over was more like an evening in the Morgue than a Christian dinner-party. She tried to help things along best she could. But what with Sir Derek chewing his lip 'alf the time and his mother acting about as matey as a pennorth of ice-cream, she didn't have a chance. As for the guv'nor,-well, I wish you could have seen him, that's all. You know, Ellen, sometimes I'm not altogether easy in my mind about the guv'nor's mental balance. He knows how to buy cigars, and you tell me his port is good—I never touch it myself—but sometimes he seems to me to go right off his onion. Just sat there, he did, all through dinner, looking as if he expected the good food to rise up and bite him in the face, and jumping nervous when I spoke to him. It's not my fault,” said Parker, aggrieved. “I can't give gentlemen warning before I ask 'em if they'll have sherry or hock. I can't ring a bell or toot a horn to show 'em I'm coming. It's my place to bend over and whisper in their ear, and they've no right to leap about in their seats and make me spill good wine. (You'll see the spot close by where you're sitting, Ellen. Jogged my wrist, he did!) I'd like to know why people in the spear of life which these people are in can't behave themselves rational, same as we do. When we were walking out and I took you to have tea with my mother, it was one of the pleasantest meals I ever ate. Talk about 'armony! It was a love-feast!”
“Your ma and I took to each other right from the start, Horace,” said Mrs Parker softly—“That's the difference.”
“Well, any woman with any sense would take to Miss Mariner. If I told you how near I came to spilling the sauce-boat accidentally over that old fossil's head, you'd be surprised, Ellen. She just sat there brooding like an old eagle. If you ask my opinion, Miss Mariner's a long sight too good for her precious son!”
“Oh, but Horace! Sir Derek's a baronet!”
“What of it? Kind 'earts are more than coronets and simple faith than Norman blood, aren't they?”
“You're talking Socialism, Horace.”
“No, I'm not. I'm talking sense. I don't know who Miss Mariner's parents may have been—I never enquired—but anyone can see she's a lady born and bred. But do you suppose the path of true love is going to run smooth, for all that? Not it! She's got a 'ard time ahead of her, that poor girl”
“Horace!” Mrs Parker's gentle heart was wrung. The situation hinted at by her husband was no new one—indeed, it formed the basis of at least fifty per cent of the stories in the True Heart Novelette Series, of which she was a determined reader—but it had never failed to touch her. “Do you think her ladyship means to come between them and wreck their romance?”
“I think she means to have a jolly good try.”
“But Sir Derek has his own money, hasn't he? I mean, it's not like when Sir Courtenay Travers fell in love with the milk-maid and was dependent on his mother, the Countess, for everything. Sir Derek can afford to do what he pleases, can't he?”
Parker shook his head tolerantly. The excellence of the cigar and the soothing qualities of the whisky-and-soda had worked upon him, and he was feeling less ruffled.
“You don't understand these things,” he said. “Women like her ladyship can talk a man into anything and out of anything. I wouldn't care, only you can see the poor girl is mad over the feller. What she finds attractive in him, I can't say, but that's her own affair.”
“He's very handsome, Horace, with those flashing eyes and that stern mouth,” argued Mrs Parker.
“Have it your own way,” he said. “It's no treat to me to see his eyes flash, and if he'd put that stern mouth of his to some better use than advising the guv'nor to lock up the cigars and trouser the key, I'd be better pleased. If there's one thing I can't stand,” said Parker, “it's not to be trusted!” He lifted his cigar and looked at it censoriously. “I thought so! Burning all down one side. They will do that if you light 'em careless. Oh, well,” he continued, rising and going to the humidor, “there's plenty more where that came from. Out of evil cometh good,” said Parker philosophically. “If the guv'nor hadn't been in such a overwrought state tonight, he'd have remembered not to leave the key in the key-hole. Help yourself to another glass of port, Ellen, and let's enjoy ourselves!”
When one considers how full of his own troubles, how weighed down with the problems of his own existence the average playgoer generally is when he enters a theatre, it is remarkable that dramatists ever find it possible to divert and entertain whole audiences for a space of several hours. As regards at least three of those who had assembled to witness its opening performance, the author of “Tried by Fire,” at the Leicester Theater, undoubtedly had his work cut out for him.
It has perhaps been sufficiently indicated by the remarks of Parker, the
valet, that the little dinner at Freddie Rooke's had not been an unqualified
success. Searching the records for an adequately gloomy parallel to the
taxi-cab journey to the theatre which followed it, one can only think of
Napoleon's retreat from
The only member of the party who was even remotely happy was, curiously
enough, Freddie Rooke. Originally Freddie had obtained three tickets for “Tried
by Fire.” The unexpected arrival of
It consoles the philosopher in this hard world to reflect that, even if
man is born to sorrow as the sparks fly upwards, it is still possible for small
things to make him happy. The thought of being several rows away from
The theatre was nearly full when Freddie's party arrived. The Leicester Theatre had been rented for the season by the newest theatrical knight, Sir Chester Portwood, who had a large following; and, whatever might be the fate of the play in the final issue, it would do at least one night's business. The stalls were ablaze with jewelry and crackling with starched shirt-fronts; and expensive scents pervaded the air, putting up a stiff battle with the plebeian peppermint that emanated from the pit. The boxes were filled, and up in the gallery grim-faced patrons of the drama, who had paid their shillings at the door and intended to get a shilling's-worth of entertainment in return, sat and waited stolidly for the curtain to rise.
First nights at the theatre always excited Jill. The depression induced by
absorbing nourishment and endeavouring to make conversation in the presence of
The lights shot up beyond the curtain. The house-lights dimmed. Conversation ceased. The curtain rose. Jill wriggled herself comfortably into her seat, and slipped her hand into Derek's. She felt a glow of happiness as it closed over hers. All, she told herself, was right with the world.
All, that is to say, except the drama which was unfolding on the stage. It was one of those plays which start wrong and never recover. By the end of the first ten minutes there had spread through the theatre that uneasy feeling which comes over the audience at an opening performance when it realises that it is going to be bored. A sort of lethargy had gripped the stalls. The dress-circle was coughing. Up in the gallery there was grim silence.
Sir Chester Portwood was an actor-manager who had made his reputation in
light comedy of the tea-cup school. His numerous admirers attended a first
night at his theatre in a mood of comfortable anticipation, assured of
something pleasant and frothy with a good deal of bright dialogue and not too
much plot. Tonight he seemed to have fallen a victim to that spirit of ambition
which intermittently attacks actor-managers of his class, expressing itself in
an attempt to prove that, having established themselves securely as light
comedians, they can, like the lady reciter, turn right around and be serious.
The one thing which the
The acting did nothing to dispel the growing uneasiness. Sir Chester himself, apparently oppressed by the weightiness of the occasion and the responsibility of offering an unfamiliar brand of goods to his public, had dropped his customary debonair method of delivering lines and was mouthing his speeches. It was good gargling, but bad elocution. And, for some reason best known to himself, he had entrusted the role of the heroine to a doll-like damsel with a lisp, of whom the audience disapproved sternly from her initial entrance.
It was about half-way through the first act that Jill, whose attention had begun to wander, heard a soft groan at her side. The seats which Freddie Rooke had bought were at the extreme end of the seventh row. There was only one other seat in the row, and, as Derek had placed his mother on his left and was sitting between her and Jill, the latter had this seat on her right. It had been empty at the rise of the curtain, but in the past few minutes a man had slipped silently into it. The darkness prevented Jill from seeing his face, but it was plain that he was suffering, and her sympathy went out to him. His opinion of the play so obviously coincided with her own.
Presently the first act ended, and the lights went up. There was a spatter of insincere applause from the stalls, echoed in the dress-circle. It grew fainter in the upper circle, and did not reach the gallery at all.
“Well?” said Jill to Derek. “What do you think of it?”
“Too awful for words,” said Derek sternly.
He leaned forward to join in the conversation which had started between
All this Jill noted with her customary quickness, and then she looked away. For an instant she had had an odd feeling that somewhere she had met this man or somebody very like him before, but the impression vanished. She also had the impression that he was still looking at her, but she gazed demurely in front of her and did not attempt to verify the suspicion.
Between them, as they sat side by side, there inserted itself suddenly the
pinkly remorseful face of Freddie Rooke. Freddie, having skirmished warily in
the aisle until it was clear that
“I'm awfully sorry about this,” he said penitently. “I mean, roping you in to listen to this frightful tosh! When I think I might have got seats just as well for any one of half a dozen topping musical comedies, I feel like kicking myself with some vim. But, honestly, how was I to know? I never dreamed we were going to be let in for anything of this sort. Portwood's plays are usually so dashed bright and snappy and all that. Can't think what he was doing, putting on a thing like this. Why, it's blue round the edges!”
The man on Jill's right laughed sharply.
“Perhaps,” he said, “the chump who wrote the piece got away from the asylum long enough to put up the money to produce it.”
If there is one thing that startles the well-bred Londoner and throws him off his balance, it is to be addressed unexpectedly by a stranger. Freddie's sense of decency was revolted. A voice from the tomb could hardly have shaken him more. All the traditions to which he had been brought up had gone to solidify his belief that this was one of things which didn't happen. Absolutely it wasn't done. During an earthquake or a shipwreck and possibly on the Day of Judgment, yes. But only then. At other times, unless they wanted a match or the time or something, chappies did not speak to fellows to whom they had not been introduced. He was far too amiable to snub the man, but to go on with this degrading scene was out of the question. There was nothing for it but flight.
“Oh, ah, yes,” he mumbled. “Well,” he added to Jill, “I suppose I may as well be toddling back. See you later and so forth.”
And with a faint 'Good-bye-ee!' Freddie removed himself, thoroughly unnerved.
Jill looked out of the corner of her eye at Derek. He was still occupied with the people in front. She turned to the man on her right. She was not the slave to etiquette that Freddie was. She was much too interested in life to refrain from speaking to strangers.
“You shocked him!” she said, dimpling.
“Yes. It broke Freddie all up, didn't it!”
It was Jill's turn to be startled. She looked at him in astonishment.
“That was Freddie Rooke, wasn't it? Surely I wasn't mistaken?”
“But—do you know him? He didn't seem to know you.”
“These are life's tragedies. He has forgotten me. My boyhood friend!”
“Oh, you were at school with him?”
“No. Freddie went to
“Worcestershire!” Jill leaned forward excitedly. “But I used to live near Freddie in Worcestershire myself when I was small. I knew him there when he was a boy. We must have met!”
“We met all right.”
Jill wrinkled her forehead. That odd familiar look was in his eyes again. But memory failed to respond. She shook her head.
“I don't remember you,” she said. “I'm sorry.”
“Never mind. Perhaps the recollection would have been painful.”
“How do you mean, painful?”
“Well, looking back, I can see that I must have been a very unpleasant child. I have always thought it greatly to the credit of my parents that they let me grow up. It would have been so easy to have dropped something heavy on me out of a window. They must have been tempted a hundred times, but they refrained. Yes, I was a great pest around the home. My only redeeming point was the way I worshipped you!”
“Oh, yes. You probably didn't notice it at the time, for I had a curious way of expressing my adoration. But you remain the brightest memory of a checkered youth.”
Jill searched his face with grave eyes, then shook her head again. “Nothing stirs?” asked the man sympathetically.
“It's too maddening! Why does one forget things?” She reflected. “You aren't Bobby Morrison?”
“I am not. What is more, I never was!”
Jill dived into the past once more and emerged with another possibility.
“Or Charlie—Charlie what was it?—Charlie Field?”
“You wound me! Have you forgotten that Charlie Field wore velvet Lord Fauntleroy suits and long golden curls? My past is not smirched with anything like that.”
“Would I remember your name if you told me?”
“I don't know. I've forgotten yours. Your surname, that is. Of course I remember that your Christian name was Jill. It has always seemed to me the prettiest monosyllable in the language.” He looked at her thoughtfully. “It's odd how little you've altered in looks. Freddie's just the same, too, only larger. And he didn't wear an eye-glass in those days, though I can see he was bound to later on. And yet I've changed so much that you can't place me. It shows what a wearing life I must have led. I feel like Rip van Winkle. Old and withered. But that may be just the result of watching this play.”
“It is pretty terrible, isn't it?”
“Worse than that. Looking at it dispassionately, I find it the extreme, ragged, outermost edge of the limit. Freddie had the correct description of it. He's a great critic.”
“I really do think it's the worst thing I have ever seen.”
“I don't know what plays you have seen, but I feel you're right.”
“Perhaps the second act's better,” said Jill optimistically.
“It's worse. I know that sounds like boasting, but it's true. I feel like getting up and making a public apology.”
“But — Oh!”
Jill turned scarlet. A monstrous suspicion had swept over her.
“The only trouble is,” went on her companion, “that the audience would undoubtedly lynch me. And, though it seems improbable just at the present moment, it may be that life holds some happiness for me that's worth waiting for. Anyway I'd rather not be torn limb from limb. A messy finish! I can just see them rending me asunder in a spasm of perfectly justifiable fury. 'She loves me!' Off comes a leg. 'She loves me not!' Off comes an arm. No, I think on the whole I'll lie low. Besides, why should I care? Let 'em suffer. It's their own fault. They would come!”
Jill had been trying to interrupt the harangue. She was greatly concerned.
“Did you write the play?”
The man nodded.
“You are quite right to speak in that horrified tone. But, between ourselves and on the understanding that you don't get up and denounce me, I did.”
“Oh, I'm so sorry!”
“Not half so sorry as I am, believe me!”
“I mean, I wouldn't have said —”
“Never mind. You didn't tell me anything I didn't know.” The lights began to go down. He rose. “Well, they're off again. Perhaps you will excuse me? I don't feel quite equal to assisting any longer at the wake. If you want something to occupy your mind during the next act, try to remember my name.”
He slid from his seat and disappeared. Jill clutched at Derek.
“Oh, Derek, it's too awful. I've just been talking to the man who wrote this play, and I told him it was the worst thing I had ever seen!”
“Did you?” Derek snorted. “Well, it's about time somebody told him!” A thought seemed to strike him. “Why, who is he? I didn't know you knew him.”
“I don't. I don't even know his name.”
“His name, according to the programme, is John Grant. Never heard of him before. Jill, I wish you would not talk to people you don't know,” said Derek with a note of annoyance in his voice. “You can never tell who they are.”
“Especially with my mother here. You must be more careful.”
The curtain rose. Jill saw the stage mistily. From childhood up, she had never been able to cure herself of an unfortunate sensitiveness when sharply spoken to by those she loved. A rebuking world she could face with a stout heart, but there had always been just one or two people whose lightest word of censure could crush her. Her father had always had that effect upon her, and now Derek had taken his place.
But if there had only been time to explain — Derek could not object to her chatting with a friend of her childhood, even if she had completely forgotten him and did not remember his name even now. John Grant? Memory failed to produce any juvenile John Grant for her inspection.
Puzzling over this problem, Jill missed much of the beginning of the second act. Hers was a detachment which the rest of the audience would gladly have shared. For the poetic drama, after a bad start, was now plunging into worse depths of dulness. The coughing had become almost continuous. The stalls, supported by the presence of large droves of Sir Chester's personal friends, were struggling gallantly to maintain a semblance of interest, but the pit and gallery had plainly given up hope. The critic of a weekly paper of small circulation, who had been shoved up in the upper circle, grimly jotted down the phrase “apathetically received” on his programme. He had come to the theatre that night in an aggrieved mood, for managers usually put him in the dress-circle. He got out his pencil again. Another phrase had occurred to him, admirable for the opening of his article. “At the Leicester Theatre,” he wrote, “where Sir Chester Portwood presented 'Tried by Fire,' dulness reigned supreme. —”
But you never know. Call no evening dull till it is over. However uninteresting its early stages may have been, that night was to be as animated and exciting as any audience could desire,—a night to be looked back to and talked about. For just as the critic of London Gossip wrote those damning words on his programme, guiding his pencil uncertainly in the dark, a curious yet familiar odor stole over the house.
The stalls got it first, and sniffed. It rose to the dress-circle, and the dress-circle sniffed. Floating up, it smote the silent gallery. And, suddenly, coming to life with a single-minded abruptness, the gallery ceased to be silent.
Sir Chester Portwood, ploughing his way through a long speech, stopped and looked apprehensively over his shoulder. The girl with the lisp, who had been listening in a perfunctory manner to the long speech, screamed loudly. The voice of an unseen stage-hand called thunderously to an invisible “Bill” to cummere quick. And from the scenery on the prompt side there curled lazily across the stage a black wisp of smoke.
“Fire! Fire! Fire!”
“Just,” said a voice at Jill's elbow, “what the play needed!” The mysterious author was back in his seat again.
In these days when the authorities who watch over the welfare of the
community have taken the trouble to reiterate encouragingly in printed notices
that a full house can he emptied in three minutes and that all an audience has
to do in an emergency is to walk, not run, to the nearest exit, fire in the
theatre has lost a good deal of its old-time terror. Yet it would be paltering
with the truth to say that the audience which had assembled to witness the
opening performance of the new play at the
Portions of the house were taking the thing better than other portions. Up in the gallery a vast activity was going on. The clatter of feet almost drowned the shouting. A moment before it would have seemed incredible that anything could have made the occupants of the gallery animated, but the instinct of self-preservation had put new life into them.
The stalls had not yet entirely lost their self-control. Alarm was in the air, but for the moment they hung on the razor-edge between panic and dignity. Panic urged them to do something sudden and energetic: dignity counselled them to wait. They, like the occupants of the gallery, greatly desired to be outside, but it was bad form to rush and jostle. The men were assisting the women into their cloaks, assuring them the while that it was “all right” and that they must not be frightened. But another curl of smoke had crept out just before the asbestos curtain completed its descent, and their words lacked the ring of conviction. The movement towards the exits had not yet become a stampede, but already those with seats nearest the stage had begun to feel that the more fortunate individuals near the doors were infernally slow in removing themselves.
Suddenly, as if by mutual inspiration, the composure of the stalls began to slip. Looking from above, one could have seen a sort of shudder run through the crowd. It was the effect of every member of that crowd starting to move a little more quickly.
A hand grasped Jill's arm. It was a comforting hand, the hand of a man who had not lost his head. A pleasant voice backed up its message of reassurance.
“It's no good getting into that mob. You might get hurt. There's no danger: the play isn't going on.”
Jill was shaken: but she had the fighting spirit and hated to show that she was shaken. Panic was knocking at the door of her soul, but dignity refused to be dislodged.
“All the same,” she said, smiling a difficult smile, “it would be nice to get out, wouldn't it?”
“I was just going to suggest something of that very sort,” said the man beside her. “The same thought occurred to me. We can stroll out quite comfortably by our own private route. Come along.”
Jill looked over her shoulder. Derek and
As it opened, smoke blew through, and the smell of burning was formidable. Jill recoiled involuntarily.
“It's all right,” said her companion. “It smells worse than it really is. And, anyway, this is the quickest way out.”
They passed through onto the stage, and found themselves in a world of noise and confusion compared with which the auditorium which they had left had been a peaceful place. Smoke was everywhere. A stage-hand, carrying a bucket, lurched past them, bellowing. From somewhere out of sight on the other side of the stage there came a sound of chopping. Jill's companion moved quickly to the switchboard, groped, found a handle, and turned it. In the narrow space between the corner of the proscenium and the edge of the asbestos curtain lights flashed up: and simultaneously there came a sudden diminution of the noise from the body of the house. The stalls, snatched from the intimidating spell of the darkness and able to see each other's faces, discovered that they had been behaving indecorously and checked their struggling, a little ashamed of themselves. The relief would be only momentary, but, while it lasted, it postponed panic.
“Go straight across the stage,” Jill heard her companion say, “out along the passage and turn to the right, and you'll be at the stage-door. I think, as there seems no one else around to do it, I'd better go out and say a few soothing words to the customers. Otherwise they'll be biting holes in each other.”
He squeezed through the narrow opening in front of the curtain.
“Ladies and gentlemen!”
Jill remained where she was, leaning with one hand against the
switchboard. She made no attempt to follow the directions he had given her. She
was aware of a sense of comradeship, of being with this man in this adventure.
If he stayed, she must stay. To go now through the safety of the stage-door
would be abominable desertion. She listened, and found that she could hear plainly
in spite of the noise. The smoke was worse than ever, and hurt her eyes, so
that the figures of the theatre-firemen, hurrying to and fro, seemed like
“Ladies and gentlemen, I assure you that there is absolutely no danger. I am a stranger to you, so there is no reason why you should take my word, but fortunately I can give you solid proof. If there were any danger, I wouldn't be here. All that has happened is that the warmth of your reception of the play has set a piece of scenery alight. —”
A crimson-faced stage-hand, carrying an axe in blackened hands, roared in Jill's ear.
Jill looked at him, puzzled.
“'Op it!” shouted the stage-hand. He cast his axe down with a clatter. “Can't you see the place is afire?”
“But—but I'm waiting for —” Jill pointed to where her ally was still addressing an audience that seemed reluctant to stop and listen to him.
The stage-hand squinted out round the edge of the curtain.
“If he's a friend of yours, miss, kindly get 'im to cheese it and get a move on. We're clearing out. There's nothing we can do. It's got too much of an 'old. In about another two ticks the roof's going to drop on us.”
Jill's friend came squeezing back through the opening.
“Hullo! Still here?” He blinked approvingly at her through the smoke. “You're a little soldier! Well, Augustus, what's on your mind?” The simple question seemed to take the stage-hand aback.
“Wot's on my mind? I'll tell you wot's on my blinking mind —”
“Don't tell me. Let me guess. I've got it! The place is on fire!”
The stage-hand expectorated disgustedly. Flippancy at such a moment offended his sensibilities.
“We're 'opping it,” he said.
“Great minds think alike! We are hopping it, too.”
“You'd better! And damn quick!”
“And, as you suggest, damn quick! You think of everything!”
Jill followed him across the stage. Her heart was beating violently. There was not only smoke now, but heat. Across the stage little scarlet flames were shooting, and something large and hard, unseen through the smoke, fell with a crash. The air was heavy with the smell of burning paint.
“Where's Sir Portwood Chester?” enquired her companion of the stage-hand, who hurried beside them.
“'Opped it!” replied the other briefly, and coughed raspingly as he swallowed smoke.
“Strange,” said the man in Jill's ear, as he pulled her along. “This way. Stick to me. Strange how the drama anticipates life! At the end of act two there was a scene where Sir Chester had to creep sombrely out into the night, and now he's gone and done it! Ah!”
They had stumbled through a doorway and were out in a narrow passage, where the air, though tainted, was comparatively fresh. Jill drew a deep breath. Her companion turned to the stage-hand and felt in his pocket.
“Here, Rollo!” A coin changed hands. “Go and get a drink. You need it after all this.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Don't mention it. You've saved our lives. Suppose you hadn't come up and told us, and we had never noticed there was a fire! Charred bones, believed to be those of a man and a woman, were found in the ruined edifice!”
He turned to Jill. “Here's the stage-door. Shall we creep sombrely out into the night?”
The guardian of the stage-door was standing in the entrance of his little hutch, plainly perplexed. He was a slow thinker and a man whose life was ruled by routine: and the events of the evening had left him uncertain how to act.
“Wot's all this about a fire?” he demanded.
Jill's friend stopped.
“A fire?” He looked at Jill. “Did you hear anything about a fire?”
“They all come bustin' past 'ere yelling there's a fire,” persisted the door-man.
“By George! Now I come to think of it, you're perfectly right! There is a fire! If you wait here a little longer, you'll get it in the small of the back. Take the advice of an old friend who means you well and vanish. In the inspired words of the lad we've just parted from, 'op it!”
The stage-door man turned this over in his mind for a space.
“But I'm supposed to stay 'ere till eleven-thirty and lock up!” he said. “That's what I'm supposed to do. Stay 'ere till eleven-thirty and lock up! And it ain't but ten-forty-five now.”
“I see the difficulty,” said Jill's companion thoughtfully. “It's what you might call an impasse. French! Well, Casabianca, I'm afraid I don't see how to help you. It's a matter for your own conscience. I don't want to lure you from the burning deck: on the other hand, if you stick on here, you'll most certainly be fried on both sides — But, tell me. You spoke about locking up something at eleven-thirty. What are you supposed to lock up?”
“Why, the theatre.”
“Then that's all right. By eleven-thirty there won't be a theatre. If I were you, I should leave quietly and unostentatiously now. Tomorrow, if you wish it, and if they've cooled off sufficiently, you can come and sit on the ruins. Good night!”
Outside, the air was cold and crisp. Jill drew her warm cloak closer. Round the corner there was noise and shouting. Fire-engines had arrived. Jill's companion lit a cigarette.
“Do you wish to stop and see the conflagration?” he asked.
Jill shivered. She was more shaken than she had realized.
“I've seen all the conflagration I want.”
“Same here. Well, it's been an exciting evening. Started slow, I admit, but warmed up later! What I seem to need at the moment is a restorative stroll along the Embankment. Do you know, Sir Portwood Chester didn't like the title of my play. He said 'Tried by Fire' was too melodramatic. Well, he can't say now it wasn't appropriate.”
They made their way towards the river, avoiding the street which was
blocked by the crowds and the fire-engines. As they crossed the
“A great blaze!” he said. “What you might call—in fact what the papers will call—a holocaust. Quite a treat for the populace.”
“Do you think they will be able to put it out?”
“Not a chance. It's got too much of a hold. It's a pity you hadn't that garden-hose of yours with you, isn't it!”
Jill stopped, wide-eyed.
“Don't you remember the garden-hose? I do! I can feel that clammy feeling of the water trickling down my back now!”
Memory, always a laggard by the wayside that redeems itself by an eleventh-hour rush, raced back to Jill. The Embankment turned to a sunlit garden, and the January night to a July day. She stared at him. He was looking at her with a whimsical smile. It was a smile which, pleasant today, had seemed mocking and hostile on that afternoon years ago. She had always felt then that he was laughing at her, and at the age of twelve she had resented laughter at her expense.
“You surely can't be Wally Mason!”
“I was wondering when you would remember.”
“But the programme called you something else,—John something.”
“That was a cunning disguise. Wally Mason is the only genuine and official name. And, by Jove! I've just remembered yours. It was Mariner. By the way,”—he paused for an almost imperceptible instant—“is it still?”
Jill was hardly aware that he had asked her a question. She was suffering
that momentary sense of unreality which comes to us when the years roll away
and we are thrown abruptly hack into the days of our childhood. The logical
side of her mind was quite aware that there was nothing remarkable in the fact
that Wally Mason, who had been to her all these years a boy in an
She glanced down the Embankment. Close by, to the left,
“Cold?” said Wally Mason.
They moved westwards. Cleopatra's Needle shot up beside them, a pointing finger. Down on the silent river below, coffin-like row-boats lay moored to the wall. Through a break in the trees the clock over the Houses of Parliament shone for an instant as if suspended in the sky, then vanished as the trees closed in. A distant barge in the direction of Battersea wailed and was still. It had a mournful and foreboding sound. Jill shivered again. It annoyed her that she could not shake off this quite uncalled-for melancholy, but it withstood every effort. Why she should have felt that a chapter, a pleasant chapter, in the book of her life had been closed, she could not have said, but the feeling lingered.
“Correct me if I am wrong,” said Wally Mason, breaking a silence that had
lasted several minutes, “but you seem to me to be freezing in your tracks. Ever
since I came to
Jill's depression disappeared magically. Her mercurial temperament asserted itself.
“Lights!” she said. “Music!”
“And food! To an ethereal person like you that remark may seem gross, but I had no dinner.”
“You poor dear! Why not?”
“Why, of course.” The interlude of the fire had caused her to forget his private and personal connection with the night's events. Her mind went back to something he had said in the theatre. “Wally—” She stopped, a little embarrassed. “I suppose I ought to call you Mr Mason, but I've always thought of you —”
“Wally, if you please, Jill. It's not as though we were strangers. I haven't my book of etiquette with me, but I fancy that about eleven gallons of cold water down the neck constitutes an introduction. What were you going to say?”
“It was what you said to Freddie about putting up money. Did you really?”
“Put up the money for that ghastly play? I did. Every cent. It was the only way to get it put on.”
“But why — ? I forget what I was going to say!”
“Why did I want it put on? Well, it does seem odd, but I give you my
honest word that until tonight I thought the darned thing a masterpiece. I've
been writing musical comedies for the last few years, and after you've done
that for a while your soul rises up within you and says, 'Come, come, my lad!
You can do better than this!' That's what mine said, and I believed it.
Subsequent events have proved that
“But—then you've lost a great deal of money?”
“The hoarded wealth, if you don't mind my being melodramatic for a moment,
of a lifetime. And no honest old servitor who dangled me on his knee as a baby
to come along and offer me his savings! They don't make servitors like that in
In the supper-room of the Savoy Hotel there was, as anticipated, food and light and music. It was still early, and the theatres had not yet emptied themselves, so that the fog room was as yet but half full. Wally Mason had found a table in the corner, and proceeded to order with the concentration of a hungry man.
“Forgive my dwelling so tensely on the bill-of-fare,” he said, when the waiter had gone. “You don't know what it means to one in my condition to have to choose between poulet en casserole and kidneys a la maitre d'hotel. A man's cross-roads!”
Jill smiled happily across the table at him. She could hardly believe that this old friend with whom she had gone through the perils of the night and with whom she was now about to feast was the sinister figure that had cast a shadow on her childhood. He looked positively incapable of pulling a little girl's hair—as no doubt he was.
“You always were greedy,” she commented. “Just before I turned the hose on you, I remember you had made yourself thoroughly disliked by pocketing a piece of my birthday-cake.”
“Do you remember that?” His eyes lit up and he smiled back at her. He had an ingratiating smile. His mouth was rather wide, and it seemed to stretch right across his face. He reminded Jill more than ever of a big, friendly dog. “I can feel it now,—all squashy in my pocket, inextricably mingled with a catapult, a couple of marbles, a box of matches, and some string. I was quite the human general store in those days. Which reminds me that we have been some time settling down to an exchange of our childhood reminiscences, haven't we?”
“I've been trying to realise that you are Wally Mason. You have altered so.”
“For the better?”
“Very much for the better! You were a horrid little brute. You used to terrify me. I never knew when you were going to bound out at me from behind a tree or something. I remember your chasing me for miles, shrieking at the top of your voice!”
“Sheer embarrassment! I told you just now how I used to worship you. If I shrieked a little, it was merely because I was shy. I did it to hide my devotion.”
“You certainly succeeded. I never even suspected it.”
“How like life! I never told my love, but let concealment like a worm i' the bud —”
“Talking of worms, you once put one down my back!”
“No, no,” said Wally in a shocked voice. “Not that! I was boisterous, perhaps, but surely always the gentleman.”
“You did! In the shrubbery. There had been a thunderstorm and —”
“I remember the incident now. A mere misunderstanding. I had done with the worm, and thought you might be glad to have it.”
“You were always doing things like that. Once you held me over the pond and threatened to drop me into the water—in the winter! Just before Christmas. It was a particularly mean thing to do, because I couldn't even kick your shins for fear you would let me fall. Luckily Uncle Chris came up and made you stop.”
“You considered that a fortunate occurrence, did you?” said Wally. “Well, perhaps from your point of view it may have been. I saw the thing from a different angle. Your uncle had a whangee with him, and the episode remains photographically lined on the tablets of my mind when a yesterday has faded from its page. My friends sometimes wonder what I mean when I say that my old wound troubles me in frosty weather. By the way, how is your uncle?”
“Oh, he's very well. Just as lazy as ever. He's away at present, down at
“He didn't strike me as lazy,” said Wally thoughtfully. “Dynamic would express it better. But perhaps I happened to encounter him in a moment of energy.”
“He doesn't look a day older than he did then.”
“I'm afraid I don't recall his appearance very distinctly. On the only occasion on which we ever really foregathered—hobnobbed, so to speak—he was behind me most of the time. Ah!” The waiter had returned with a loaded tray. “The food! Forgive me if I seem a little distrait for a moment or two. There is man's work before me!”
“And later on, I suppose, you would like a chop or something to take away in your pocket?”
“I will think it over. Possibly a little soup. My needs are very simple these days.”
Jill watched him with a growing sense of satisfaction. There was something boyishly engaging about this man. She felt at home with him. He affected her in much the same way as did Freddie Rooke. He was a definite addition to the things that went to make her happy.
She liked him particularly for being such a good loser. She had always been a good loser herself, and the quality was one which she admired. It was nice of him to dismiss from his conversation—and apparently from his thoughts—that night's fiasco and all that it must have cost him. She wondered how much he had lost. Certainly something very substantial. Yet it seemed to trouble him not at all. Jill considered his behavior gallant, and her heart warmed to him. This was how a man ought to take the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
Wally sighed contentedly, and leaned back in his chair.
“An unpleasant exhibition!” he said apologetically. “But unavoidable. And, anyway, I take it that you would prefer to have me well-fed and happy about the place than swooning on the floor with starvation. A wonderful thing, food! I am now ready to converse intelligently on any subject you care to suggest. I have eaten rose-leaves and am no more a golden ass, so to speak! What shall we talk about?”
“Tell me about yourself.”
“There is no nobler topic! But what aspect of myself do you wish me to
touch on? My thoughts, my tastes, my amusements, my career, or what? I can talk
about myself for hours. My friends in
“Yes. I only came over here to see that darned false alarm of a play of mine put on.”
“Why didn't you put it on in
“Too many of the lads of the village know me over there. This was a new
departure, you see. What the critics in those parts expect from me is something
entitled 'Wow! Wow!' or 'The Girl from
“But when did you go to
“I think it must have been four—five—well, quite a number of years after
the hose episode. Probably you didn't observe that I wasn't still around, but
we crept silently out of the neighborhood round about that time and went to
“Yes. It was wonderfully good of him to bother about me. I didn't suppose he would have known me by sight, and even if he had remembered me, I shouldn't have imagined that the memory would have been a pleasant one. But he couldn't have taken more trouble if I had been a blood-relation.”
“That was just like father,” said Jill softly.
“He was a prince.”
“But you aren't in the office now?”
“No. I found I had a knack of writing verses and things, and I wrote a few vaudeville songs. Then I came across a man named Bevan at a music-publisher's. He was just starting to write music, and we got together and turned out some vaudeville sketches, and then a manager sent for us to fix up a show that was dying on the road and we had the good luck to turn it into a success, and after that it was pretty good going. Managers are just like sheep. They know nothing whatever about the show business themselves, and they come flocking after anybody who looks as if he could turn out the right stuff. They never think any one any good except the fellow who had the last hit. So, while your luck lasts, you have to keep them off with a stick. Then you have a couple of failures, and they skip off after somebody else, till you have another success, and then they all come skipping back again, bleating plaintively. George Bevan got married the other day—you probably read about it—he married Lord Marshmoreton's daughter. Lucky devil!”
“Are you married?”
“You were faithful to my memory?” said Jill with a smile.
“It can't last,” said Jill, shaking her head. “One of these days you'll meet some lovely American girl and then you'll put a worm down her back or pull her hair or whatever it is you do when you want to show your devotion, and — What are you looking at? Is something interesting going on behind me?”
He had been looking past her out into the room.
“It's nothing,” he said. “Only there's a statuesque old lady about two tables back of you who has been staring at you, with intervals for refreshment, for the last five minutes. You seem to fascinate her.”
“An old lady?”
“Yes. With a glare! She looks like Dunsany's Bird of the Difficult Eye. Count ten and turn carelessly round. There, at that table. Almost behind you.”
“Good Heavens!” exclaimed Jill.
She turned quickly round again.
“What's the matter? Do you know her? Somebody you don't want to meet?”
Wally had been lifting his glass. He put it down rather suddenly.
“Derek?” he said.
There was a moment's silence.
“Oh!” said Wally thoughtfully. “The man you're engaged to marry? Yes, I see!”
He raised his glass again, and drank its contents quickly.
Jill looked at her companion anxiously. Recent events had caused her
completely to forget the existence of
“What shall I do?”
Wally Mason started at the sound of her voice. He appeared to be deep in thoughts of his own.
“I beg your pardon?”
“What shall I do?”
“I shouldn't be worried.”
“Derek will be awfully cross.”
Wally's good-humored mouth tightened almost imperceptibly.
“Why?” he said. “There's nothing wrong in your having supper with an old friend.”
“N-no,” said Jill doubtfully. “But —”
“Derek is in the papers a lot. He's an M.P. and all sorts of things.”
“Good-looking fellow. Ah, here's the coffee.”
“I don't want any, thanks.”
“Nonsense. Why spoil your meal because of this? Do you smoke?”
“Given it up, eh? Daresay you're wise. Stunts the growth and increases the expenses.”
“Given it up?”
“Don't you remember sharing one of your father's cigars with me behind the haystack in the meadow? We cut it in half. I finished my half, but I fancy about three puffs were enough for you. Those were happy days!”
“That one wasn't! Of course I remember it now. I don't suppose I shall ever forget it.”
“The thing was my fault, as usual. I recollect I dared you.”
“Yes. I always took a dare.”
“Do you still?”
“What do you mean?”
Wally knocked the ash off his cigarette.
“Well,” he said slowly, “suppose I were to dare you to get up and walk over to that table and look your fiancé in the eye and say, 'Stop scowling at my back hair! I've a perfect right to be supping with an old friend!'—would you do it?”
“Is he?” said Jill, startled.
“Scowling? Can't you feel it on the back of your head?” He drew thoughtfully at his cigarette. “If I were you I should stop that sort of thing at the source. It's a habit that can't be discouraged in a husband too early. Scowling is the civilized man's substitute for wife-beating.”
Jill moved uncomfortably in her chair. Her quick temper resented his tone. There was a hostility, a hardly veiled contempt in his voice which stung her. Derek was sacred. Whoever criticized him, presumed. Wally, a few minutes before a friend and an agreeable companion, seemed to her to have changed. He was once more the boy whom she had disliked in the old days. There was a gleam in her eyes which should have warned him, but he went on.
“I should imagine that this Derek of yours is not one of our leading sunbeams. Well, I suppose he could hardly be, if that's his mother and there is anything in heredity.”
“Please don't criticize Derek,” said Jill coldly.
“I was only saying —”
“Never mind. I don't like it.”
A slow flush crept over Wally's face. He made no reply, and there fell between them a silence that was like a shadow. Jill sipped her coffee miserably. She was regretting that little spurt of temper. She wished she could have recalled the words. Not that it was the actual words that had torn asunder this gossamer thing, the friendship which they had begun to weave like some fragile web: it was her manner, the manner of the princess rebuking an underling. She knew that, if she had struck him, she could not have offended Wally more deeply. There are some men whose ebullient natures enable them to rise unscathed from the worst snub. Wally, her intuition told her, was not that kind of man.
There was only one way of mending the matter. In these clashes of human temperaments, these sudden storms that spring up out of a clear sky, it is possible sometimes to repair the damage, if the psychological moment is resolutely seized, by talking rapidly and with detachment on neutral topics. Words have made the rift, and words alone can bridge it. But neither Jill nor her companion could find words, and the silence lengthened grimly. When Wally spoke, it was in the level tones of a polite stranger.
“Your friends have gone.”
His voice was the voice in which, when she went on railway journeys, fellow-travellers in the carriage enquired of Jill if she would prefer the window up or down. It had the effect of killing her regrets and feeding her resentment. She was a girl who never refused a challenge, and she set herself to be as frigidly polite and aloof as he.
“Really?” she said. “When did they leave?”
“A moment ago.” The lights gave the warning flicker that announces the arrival of the hour of closing. In the momentary darkness they both rose. Wally scrawled his name across the check which the waiter had insinuated upon his attention. “I suppose we had better be moving?”
They crossed the room in silence. Everybody was moving in the same direction. The broad stairway leading to the lobby was crowded with chattering supper-parties. The lights had gone up again.
At the cloak-room Wally stopped.
“I see Underhill waiting up there,” he said casually, “To take you home, I suppose. Shall we say good-night? I'm staying in the hotel.”
Jill glanced towards the head of the stairs. Derek was there. He was
Wally was holding out his hand. His face was stolid, and his eyes avoided hers.
“Good-bye,” he said.
“Good-bye,” said Jill.
She felt curiously embarrassed. At this last moment hostility had weakened, and she was conscious of a desire to make amends. She and this man had been through much together that night, much that was perilous and much that was pleasant. A sudden feeling of remorse came over her.
“You'll come and see us, won't you?” she said a little wistfully. “I'm sure my uncle would like to meet you again.”
“It's very good of you,” said Wally, “but I'm afraid I shall be going back
Pique, that ally of the devil, regained its slipping grip upon Jill.
“Oh? I'm sorry,” she said indifferently. “Well, goodbye, then.”
“I hope you have a pleasant voyage.”
He turned into the cloak-room, and Jill went up the stairs to join Derek. She felt angry and depressed, full of a sense of the futility of things. People flashed into one's life and out again. Where was the sense of it?
Derek had been scowling, and Derek still scowled. His eyebrows were
formidable, and his mouth smiled no welcome at Jill as she approached him. The
evening, portions of which Jill had found so enjoyable, had contained no
pleasant portions for Derek. Looking back over a lifetime whose events had been
almost uniformly agreeable, he told himself that he could not recall another
day which had gone so completely awry. It had started with the fog. He hated
fog. Then had come that meeting with his mother at
Breeding counts. Had he belonged to a lower order of society, Derek would probably have seized Jill by the throat and started to choke her. Being what he was, he merely received her with frozen silence and led her out to the waiting taxi-cab. It was only when the cab had started on its journey that he found relief in speech.
“Well,” he said, mastering with difficulty an inclination to raise his voice to a shout, “perhaps you will kindly explain?”
Jill had sunk back against the cushions of the cab. The touch of his body against hers always gave her a thrill, half pleasurable, half frightening. She had never met anybody who affected her in this way as Derek did. She moved a little closer, and felt for his hand. But, as she touched it, it retreated—coldly. Her heart sank. It was like being cut in public by somebody very dignified.
“Derek, darling!” Her lips trembled. Others had seen this side of
The English language is the richest in the world, and yet somehow in moments when words count most we generally choose the wrong ones. The adjective “cross” as a description of his Jove-like wrath that consumed his whole being jarred upon Derek profoundly. It was as though Prometheus, with the vultures tearing his liver, had been asked if he were piqued.
The cab rolled on. Lights from lamp-posts flashed in at the windows. It was a pale, anxious little face that they lit up when they shone upon Jill.
“I can't understand you,” said Derek at last. Jill noticed that he had not yet addressed her by her name. He was speaking straight out in front of him as if he were soliloquizing. “I simply cannot understand you. After what happened before dinner tonight, for you to cap everything by going off alone to supper at a restaurant, where half the people in the room must have known you, with a man —”
“You don't understand!”
“Exactly! I said I did not understand.” The feeling of having scored a point made Derek feel a little better. “I admit it. Your behavior is incomprehensible. Where did you meet this fellow?”
“I met him at the theatre. He was the author of the play.”
“The man you told me you had been talking to? The fellow who scraped acquaintance with you between the acts?”
“But I found out he was an old friend. I mean, I knew him when I was a child.”
“You didn't tell me that,”
“I only found it out later.”
“After he had invited you to supper! It's maddening!” cried Derek, the sense of his wrongs surging back over him. “What do you suppose my mother thought? She asked me who the man with you was. I had to say I didn't know! What do you suppose she thought?”
It is to be doubted whether anything else in the world could have restored
the fighting spirit to Jill's cowering soul at that moment: but the reference
“If your mother had asked me that question,” she retorted with spirit “I should have told her that he was the man who got me safely out of the theatre after you —” She checked herself. She did not want to say the unforgiveable thing. “You see,” she said, more quietly, “you had disappeared. —”
“My mother is an old woman,” said Derek stiffly. “Naturally I had to look after her. I called to you to follow.”
“Oh, I understand. I'm simply trying to explain what happened. I was there all alone, and Wally Mason —”
“Wally!” Derek uttered a short laugh, almost a bark. “It got to Christian names, eh?”
Jill set her teeth.
“I told you I knew him as a child. I always called him Wally then.”
“I beg your pardon. I had forgotten.”
“He got me out through the pass-door onto the stage and through the stage-door.”
Derek was feeling cheated. He had the uncomfortable sensation that comes to men who grandly contemplate mountains and — see them dwindle to mole-hills. The apparently outrageous had shown itself in explanation nothing so out-of-the-way after all. He seized upon the single point in Jill's behavior that still constituted a grievance.
“There was no need for you to go to supper with the man!” Jove-like wrath had ebbed away to something deplorably like a querulous grumble. “You should have gone straight home. You must have known how anxious I would be about you.”
“Well, really, Derek, dear! You didn't seem so very anxious! You were having supper yourself quite cosily.”
The human mind is curiously constituted. It is worthy of record that, despite his mother's obvious disapproval of his engagement, despite all the occurrences of this dreadful day, it was not till she made this remark that Derek Underhill first admitted to himself that, intoxicate his senses as she might, there was a possibility that Jill Mariner was not the ideal wife for him. The idea came and went more quickly than breath upon a mirror. It passed, but it had been. There are men who fear repartee in a wife more keenly than a sword. Derek was one of these. Like most men of single outlook, whose dignity is their most precious possession, he winced from an edged tongue.
“My mother was greatly upset,” he replied coldly. “I thought a cup of soup would do her good. And, as for being anxious about you, I telephoned to your home to ask if you had come in.”
“And when,” thought Jill, “they told you I hadn't, you went off to supper!”
She did not speak the words. If she had an edged tongue, she had also the control of it. She had no wish to wound Derek. Whole-hearted in everything she did, she loved him with her whole heart. There might be specks upon her idol—that its feet might be clay she could never believe—but they mattered nothing. She loved him.
“I'm so sorry, dear,” she said. “So awfully sorry! I've been a bad girl, haven't I?”
She felt for his hand again, and this time he allowed it to remain stiffly in her grasp. It was like being grudgingly recognized by somebody very dignified who had his doubts about you but reserved judgment.
The cab drew up at the door of the house in
“I'll never be naughty again!”
For a flickering instant Derek hesitated. The drive, long as it was, had been too short wholly to restore his equanimity. Then the sense of her nearness, her sweetness, the faint perfume of her hair, and her eyes, shining softly in the darkness so close to his own, overcame him. He crushed her to him.
Jill disappeared into the house with a happy laugh. It had been a terrible day, but it had ended well.
He leaned back against the cushions. His senses were in a whirl. The cab
rolled on. Presently his exalted mood vanished as quickly as it had come. Jill
absent always affected him differently from Jill present. He was not a man of
strong imagination, and the stimulus of her waned when she was not with him.
Long before the cab reached the
Arriving at the
“Hullo, old thing,” he observed as Derek entered. “So you buzzed out of the fiery furnace all right? I was wondering how you had got along. How are you feeling? I'm not the man I was! These things get the old system all stirred up! I'll do anything in reason to oblige and help things along and all that, but to be called on at a moment's notice to play Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego rolled into one, without rehearsal or make-up, is a bit too thick! No, young feller-me-lad! If theatre-fires are going to be the fashion this season, the Last of the Rookes will sit quietly at home and play solitaire. Mix yourself a drink of something, old man, or something of that kind. By the way, your jolly old mater. All right? Not even singed? Fine! Make a long arm and gather in a cigar.”
And Freddie, having exerted himself to play the host in a suitable manner, wedged himself more firmly into his chair and blew a cloud of smoke.
Derek sat down. He lit a cigar, and stared silently at the fire. From the mantelpiece Jill's photograph smiled down, but he did not look at it. Presently his attitude began to weigh upon Freddie. Freddie had had a trying evening. What he wanted just now was merry prattle, and his friend did not seem disposed to contribute his share. He removed his feet from the mantelpiece, and wriggled himself sideways, so that he could see Derek's face. Its gloom touched him. Apart from his admiration for Derek, he was a warm-hearted young man, and sympathized with affliction when it presented itself to his notice.
“Something on your mind, old bean?” he enquired delicately.
Derek did not answer for a moment. Then he reflected that, little as he esteemed the other's mentality, he and Freddie had known each other a long time, and that it would be a relief to confide in some one. And Freddie, moreover, was an old friend of Jill and the man who had introduced him to her.
“Yes,” he said.
“I'm listening, old top,” said Freddie. “Release the film.”
Derek drew at his cigar, and watched the smoke as it curled to the ceiling.
“It's about Jill.”
Freddie signified his interest by wriggling still further sideways.
“Freddie, she's so damned impulsive!”
Freddie nearly rolled out of his chair. This, he took it, was what writing-chappies called a coincidence.
“Rummy you should say that,” he ejaculated. “I was telling her exactly the same thing myself only this evening.” He hesitated. “I fancy I can see what you're driving at, old thing. The watchword is 'What ho, the mater!' yes, no? You've begun to get a sort of idea that if Jill doesn't watch her step, she's apt to sink pretty low in the betting, what? I know exactly what you mean! You and I know all right that Jill's a topper. But one can see that to your mater she might seem a bit different. I mean to say, your jolly old mater only judging by first impressions, and the meeting not having come off quite as scheduled — I say, old man,” he broke off, “fearfully sorry and all that about that business. You know what I mean! Wouldn't have had it happen for the world. I take it the mater was a trifle peeved? Not to say perturbed and chagrined? I seemed to notice at dinner.”
“She was furious, of course. She did not refer to the matter when we were alone together, but there was no need to. I knew what she was thinking.”
Derek threw away his cigar. Freddie noted this evidence of an overwrought soul—the thing was only a quarter smoked, and it was a dashed good brand, mark you—with concern.
“The whole thing,” he conceded, “was a bit unfortunate.”
Derek began to pace the room.
“On the spot, old man!”
“Something's got to be done!”
“Absolutely!” Freddie nodded solemnly. He had taken this matter greatly to heart. Derek was his best friend, and he had always been extremely fond of him. It hurt him to see things going wrong. “I'll tell you what, old bean. Let me handle this binge for you.”
“Me! The Final Rooke!” He jumped up, and leaned against the mantelpiece. “I'm the lad to do it. I've known Jill for years. She'll listen to me. I'll talk to her like a Dutch uncle and make her understand the general scheme of things. I'll take her out to tea tomorrow and slang her in no uncertain voice! Leave the whole thing to me, laddie!”
“It might do some good,” he said.
“Good?” said Freddie. “It's it, dear boy! It's a wheeze! You toddle off to bed and have a good sleep. I'll fix the whole thing for you!”
There are streets in
On the afternoon following the events recorded, a girl was dressing in the
ground-floor room of Number Nine, Daubeny Street. A tray bearing the remains of
a late breakfast stood on the rickety table beside a bowl of wax flowers. From
beneath the table peered the green cover of a copy of Variety. A gray
parrot in a cage by the window cracked seed and looked out into the room with a
satirical eye. He had seen all this so many times before,—Nelly Bryant arraying
herself in her smartest clothes to go out and besiege agents in their offices
“Who cares?” said Bill, and cracked another seed.
If rooms are an indication of the characters of their occupants, Nelly
Bryant came well out of the test of her surroundings. Nothing can make a
Today, not for the first time, Nelly was feeling unhappy. The face that looked back at her out of the mirror at which she was arranging her most becoming hat was weary. It was only a moderately pretty face, but loneliness and underfeeding had given it a wistful expression that had charm. Unfortunately, it was not the sort of charm which made a great appeal to the stout, whisky-nourished men who sat behind paper-littered tables, smoking cigars, in the rooms marked “Private” in the offices of theatrical agents. Nelly had been out of a “shop” now for many weeks,—ever since, in fact, “Follow the Girl” had finished its long ran at the Regal Theatre.
“Follow the Girl,” an American musical comedy, had come over from
“Who cares?” said Bill.
For a bird who enjoyed talking he was a little limited in his remarks and apt to repeat himself.
“I do, you poor fish!” said Nelly, completing her maneuvers with the hat and turning to the cage. “It's all right for you—you have a swell time with nothing to do but sit there and eat seed—but how do you suppose I enjoy tramping around, looking for work and never finding any?”
She picked up her gloves. “Oh, well!” she said. “Wish me luck!”
“Good-bye, boy!” said the parrot, clinging to the bars.
Nelly thrust a finger into the cage and scratched his head.
“Anxious to get rid of me, aren't you? Well, so long.”
“All right, I'm going. Be good!”
“Woof-woof-woof!” barked Bill the parrot, not committing himself to any promises.
For some moments after Nelly had gone he remained hunched on his perch, contemplating the infinite. Then he sauntered along to the seed-box and took some more light nourishment. He always liked to spread his meals out, to make them last longer. A drink of water to wash the food down, and he returned to the middle of the cage, where he proceeded to conduct a few intimate researches with his beak under his left wing. After which he mewed like a cat, and relapsed into silent meditation once more. He closed his eyes and pondered on his favorite problem—Why was he a parrot? This was always good for an hour or so, and it was three o'clock before he had come to his customary decision that he didn't know. Then, exhausted by brain-work and feeling a trifle hipped by the silence of the room, he looked about him for some way of jazzing existence up a little. It occurred to him that if he barked again it might help.
Good as far as it went, but it did not go far enough. It was not real excitement. Something rather more dashing seemed to him to be indicated. He hammered for a moment or two on the floor of his cage, ate a mouthful of the newspaper there, and stood with his head on one side, chewing thoughtfully. It didn't taste as good as usual. He suspected Nelly of having changed his Daily Mail for the Daily Express or something. He swallowed the piece of paper, and was struck by the thought that a little climbing exercise might be what his soul demanded. (You hang on by your beak and claws and work your way up to the roof. It sounds tame, but it's something to do.) He tried it. And, as he gripped the door of the cage, it swung open. Bill the parrot now perceived that this was going to be one of those days. He had not had a bit of luck like this for months.
For awhile he sat regarding the open door. Unless excited by outside influences, he never did anything in a hurry. Then proceeding cautiously, he passed out into the room. He had been out there before, but always chaperoned by Nelly. This was something quite different. It was an adventure. He hopped onto the window-sill. There was a ball of yellow wool there, but he had lunched and could eat nothing. He cast around in his mind for something to occupy him, and perceived suddenly that the world was larger than he had supposed. Apparently there was a lot of it outside the room. How long this had been going on, he did not know, but obviously it was a thing to be investigated. The window was open at the bottom, and just outside the window were what he took to be the bars of another and larger cage. As a matter of fact they were the railings which afforded a modest protection to Number Nine. They ran the length of the house, and were much used by small boys as a means of rattling sticks. One of these stick-rattlers passed as Bill stood there looking down. The noise startled him for a moment, then he seemed to come to the conclusion that this sort of thing was to be expected if you went out into the great world and that a parrot who intended to see life must not allow himself to be deterred by trifles. He crooned a little, and finally, stepping in a stately way over the window-sill, with his toes turned in at right angles, caught at the top of the railing with his beak, and proceeded to lower himself. Arrived at the level of the street, he stood looking out.
A dog trotted up, spied him, and came to sniff.
“Good-bye, boy!” said Bill chattily.
The dog was taken aback. Hitherto, in his limited experience, birds had been birds and men men. Here was a blend of the two. What was to be done about it? He barked tentatively, then, finding that nothing disastrous ensued, pushed his nose between two of the bars and barked again. Any one who knew Bill could have told him that he was asking for it, and he got it. Bill leaned forward and nipped his nose. The dog started back with a howl of agony. He was learning something new every minute.
“Woof-woof-woof!” said Bill sardonically.
He perceived trousered legs, four of them, and, cocking his eye upwards,
saw that two men of the lower orders stood before him. They were gazing down at
him in the stolid manner peculiar to the proletariat of
“It's a parrot!” He removed a pipe from his mouth and pointed with the stem. “A perishin' parrot, that is, Erb.”
“Ah!” said Erb, a man of few words.
“A parrot,” proceeded the other. He was seeing clearer into the matter every moment. “That's a parrot, that is, Erb. My brother Joe's wife's sister 'ad one of 'em. Come from abroad, they do. My brother Joe's wife's sister 'ad one of 'em. Red-'aired gel she was. Married a feller down at the Docks. She 'ad one of 'em. Parrots they're called.”
He bent down for a closer inspection, and inserted a finger through the railings. Erb abandoned his customary taciturnity and spoke words of warning.
“Tike care 'e don't sting yer, 'Enry!”
Henry seemed wounded.
“Woddyer mean sting me? I know all abart parrots, I do. My brother Joe's wife's sister 'ad one of 'em. They don't 'urt yer, not if you're kind to 'em. You know yer pals when you see 'em, don't yer, mate?” he went on, addressing Bill, who was contemplating the finger with one half-closed eye.
“Good-bye, boy,” said the parrot, evading the point.
“Jear that?” cried Henry delightedly. “Goo'-bye, boy!' 'Uman they are!”
“'E'll 'ave a piece out of yer finger,” warned Erb, the suspicious.
“Wot, 'im!” Henry's voice was indignant. He seemed to think that his reputation as an expert on parrots had been challenged. “'E wouldn't 'ave no piece out of my finger.”
“Bet yer a narf-pint 'e would 'ave a piece out of yer finger,” persisted the skeptic.
“No blinkin' parrot's goin' to 'ave no piece of no finger of mine! My brother Joe's wife's sister's parrot never 'ad no piece out of no finger of mine!” He extended the finger further and waggled it enticingly beneath Bill's beak. “Cheerio, matey!” he said winningly. “Polly want a nut?”
Whether it was mere indolence or whether the advertised docility of that other parrot belonging to Henry's brother's wife's sister had caused him to realize that there was a certain standard of good conduct for his species one cannot say: but for awhile Bill merely contemplated temptation with a detached eye.
“See!” said Henry.
“Woof-woof-woof!” said Bill.
“Wow-Wow-Wow!” yapped the dog, suddenly returning to the scene and going on with the argument at the point where he had left off.
The effect on Bill was catastrophic. Ever a high-strung bird, he lost completely the repose which stamps the caste of Vere de Vere and the better order of parrot. His nerves were shocked, and, as always under such conditions, his impulse was to bite blindly. He bit, and Henry—one feels sorry for Henry: he was a well-meaning man—leaped back with a loud howl.
“That'll be 'arf a pint,” said Erb, always the business man.
There was a lull in the rapid action. The dog, mumbling softly to himself, had moved away again and was watching affairs from the edge of the sidewalk. Erb, having won, his point, was silent once more. Henry sucked his ringer. Bill, having met the world squarely and shown it what was what, stood where he was, whistling nonchalantly.
Henry removed his finger from his mouth. “Lend me the loan of that stick of yours, Erb,” he said tensely.
Erb silently yielded up the stout stick which was his inseparable companion. Henry, a vastly different man from the genial saunterer of a moment ago, poked wildly through the railings. Bill, panic-stricken now and wishing for nothing better than to be back in his cosy cage, shrieked loudly for help. And Freddie Rooke, running the corner with Jill, stopped dead and turned pale.
“Good God!” said Freddie.
In pursuance of his overnight promise to Derek, Freddie Rooke had got in
touch with Jill through the medium of the telephone immediately after
breakfast, and had arranged to call at
“What is it?” cried Jill.
“It sounds like a murder!”
“I don't know, you know this is the sort of street chappies are murdering people in all the time.”
They caught sight of the group in front of them, and were reassured. Nobody could possibly be looking so aloof and distrait as Erb, if there were a murder going on.
“It's a bird!”
“It's a jolly old parrot. See it? Just inside the railings.”
A red-hot wave of rage swept over Jill. Whatever her defects,—and already
this story has shown her far from perfect,—she had the excellent quality of
loving animals and blazing into fury when she saw them ill-treated. At least
three draymen were going about
Jill reached the scene of battle, and, stopping, eyed Henry with a baleful glare. We, who have seen Henry in his calmer moments and know him for the good fellow he was, are aware that he was more sinned against than sinning. If there is any spirit of justice in us, we are pro-Henry. In his encounter with Bill the parrot, Henry undoubtedly had right on his side. His friendly overtures, made in the best spirit of kindliness, had been repulsed. He had been severely bitten. And he had lost half a pint of beer to Erb. As impartial judges we have no other course before us than to wish Henry luck and bid him go to it. But Jill, who had not seen the opening stages of the affair, thought far otherwise. She merely saw in Henry a great brute of a man poking at a defenceless bird with a stick.
She turned to Freddie, who had come up at a gallop and was wondering why the deuce this sort of thing happened to him out of a city of six millions.
“Make him stop, Freddie!”
“Oh, I say you know, what!”
“Can't you see he's hurting the poor thing? Make him leave off! Brute!” she added to Henry (for whom one's heart bleeds), as he jabbed once again at his adversary.
Freddie stepped reluctantly up to Henry, and tapped him on the shoulder. Freddie was one of those men who have a rooted idea that a conversation of this sort can only be begun by a tap on the shoulder.
“Look here, you know, you can't do this sort of thing, you know!” said Freddie.
Henry raised a scarlet face.
“'Oo are you?” he demanded.
This attack from the rear, coming on top of his other troubles, tried his restraint sorely,
“Well—” Freddie hesitated. It seemed silly to offer the fellow one of his cards. “Well, as a matter of fact, my name's Rooke —”
“And who,” pursued Henry, “arsked you to come shoving your ugly mug in 'ere?”
“Well, if you put it that way —”
“'E comes messing abart,” said Henry complainingly, addressing the universe, “and interfering in what don't concern 'im and mucking around and interfering and messing abart. — Why,” he broke off in a sudden burst of eloquence, “I could eat two of you for a relish wiv me tea, even if you 'ave got white spats!”
Here Erb, who had contributed nothing to the conversation, remarked “Ah!” and expectorated on the sidewalk. The point, one gathers, seemed to Erb well taken. A neat thrust, was Erb's verdict.
“Just because you've got white spats,” proceeded Henry, on whose sensitive mind these adjuncts of the costume of the well-dressed man about town seemed to have made a deep and unfavorable impression, “you think you can come mucking around and messing abart and interfering and mucking around. This bird's bit me in the finger, and 'ere's the finger, if you don't believe me—and I'm going to twist 'is ruddy neck, if all the perishers with white spats in London come messing abart and mucking around, so you I take them white spats of yours 'ome and give 'em to the old woman to cook for your Sunday dinner!”
And Henry, having cleansed his stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart, shoved the stick energetically once more through the railings.
Jill darted forward. Always a girl who believed that, if you want a thing well done, you must do it yourself, she had applied to Freddie for assistance merely as a matter of form. All the time she had felt that Freddie was a broken reed, and such he had proved himself. Freddie's policy in this affair was obviously to rely on the magic of speech, and any magic his speech might have had was manifestly offset by the fact that he was wearing white spats and that Henry, apparently, belonged to some sort of league or society which had for its main object the discouragement of white spats. It was plainly no good leaving the conduct of the campaign to Freddie. Whatever was to be done must be done by herself. She seized the stick and wrenched it out of Henry's hand.
“Woof-woof-woof!” said Bill the parrot.
No dispassionate auditor could have failed to detect the nasty ring of sarcasm. It stung Henry. He was not normally a man who believed in violence to the gentler sex outside a clump on the head of his missus when the occasion seemed to demand it: but now he threw away the guiding principles of a lifetime and turned on Jill like a tiger.
“Gimme that stick!”
“Here, I say, you know!” said Freddie.
Henry, now thoroughly overwrought, made a rush at Jill: and Jill, who had a straight eye, hit him accurately on the side of the head.
“Goo!” said Henry, and sat down.
And then, from behind Jill, a voice spoke.
“What's all this?”
A stout policeman had manifested himself from empty space.
“This won't do!” said the policeman.
Erb, who had been a silent spectator of the fray, burst into speech. “She 'it 'im!”
The policeman looked at Jill. He was an officer of many years' experience
in the Force, and time had dulled in him that respect for good clothes which he
had brought with him from Little-Sudbury-in-the-Wold in the days of his
novitiate. Jill was well-dressed, but, in the stirring epoch of the Suffrage
disturbances, the policeman had been kicked on the shins and even bitten by
ladies of an equally elegant exterior. Hearts, the policeman knew, just as pure
and fair may beat in
“Your name, please, and address, miss?” he said.
A girl in blue with a big hat had come up, and was standing staring open-mouthed at the group. At the sight of her Bill the parrot uttered a shriek of welcome. Nelly Bryant had returned, and everything would now be all right again.
“Mariner,” said Jill, pale and bright-eyed. “I live at Number Twenty-two,
“And yours, sir?”
“Mine? Oh, ah, yes. I see what you mean. Rooke, you know. F. L. Rooke. I
live at the
The policeman made an entry in his note-book. “Officer,” cried Jill, “this man was trying to kill that parrot and I stopped him. —”
“Can't help that, miss. You 'adn't no right to hit a man with a stick. You'll 'ave to come along.”
“But, I say, you know!” Freddie was appalled. This sort of thing had happened to him before, but only on Boat-Race Night at the Empire, where it was expected of a chappie. “I mean to say!”
“And you too, sir. You're both in it.”
“Oh, come along, Freddie,” said Jill quietly. “It's perfectly absurd, but it's no use making a fuss.”
“That,” said the policeman cordially, “is the right spirit!”.
Derek had listened gloomily, scarcely rousing himself to reply. His mother
would have been gratified, could she have known how powerfully her arguments
were working on him. That little imp of doubt which had vexed him in the cab as
he drove home from
“You must be mad, Derek, to dream of handicapping yourself at this vital stage of your career with a wife who not only will not be a help to you, but must actually be a ruinous handicap. I am not blaming you for imagining yourself in love in the first place, though I really should have thought that a man of your strength and character would — However, as I say, I am not blaming you for that. Superficially, no doubt, this girl might be called attractive. I do not admire the type myself, but I suppose she has that quality—in my time we should have called it boldness—which seems to appeal to the young men of today. I could imagine her fascinating a weak-minded imbecile like your friend Mr Rooke. But that you — Still, there is no need to go into that. What I am trying to point out is that in your position, with a career like yours in front of you,—it's quite certain that in a year or two you will be offered some really big and responsible position—you would be insane to tie yourself to a girl who seems to have been allowed to run perfectly wild, whose uncle is a swindler —”
“She can't be blamed for her uncle.”
“— Who sups alone with strange men in public restaurants. —”
“I explained that.”
“You may have explained it. You certainly did not excuse it or make it a
whit less outrageous. You cannot pretend that you really imagine that an
engaged girl is behaving with perfect correctness when she allows a man she has
only just met to take her to supper at the
Derek shifted uneasily. There was a part of his mind which called upon him to rise up and challenge the outrageous phrase and demand that it be taken back. But he remained silent. The imp-colossus was too strong for him. She is quite right, said the imp. That is an unpleasant but accurate description of what happened. He looked at the clock again, and wished for the hundredth time that the cab would come. Jill's photograph smiled at him from beside the clock. He looked away, for, when he found his eyes upon it, he had an odd sensation of baseness, as if he were playing some one false who loved and trusted him.
“If you were an ordinary man like hundreds of the idle young men one meets
Once more Derek stirred uneasily, and once more he remained silent. A
gleam came into
“Well, I am not going to say any more,” she said, getting up and buttoning her glove. “I will leave you to think it over. All I will say is that, though I only met her yesterday, I can assure you that I am quite confident that this girl is just the sort of harum-scarum, so-called 'modern' girl who is sure some day to involve herself in a really serious scandal. I don't want her to be in a position to drag you into it as well. Yes, Parker, what is it? Is Sir Derek's cab here?”
The lantern-jawed Parker had entered softly, and was standing deferentially in the doorway. There was no emotion on his face beyond the vague sadness which a sense of what was correct made him always wear like a sort of mask when in the presence of those of superior station.
“The cab will be at the door very shortly, m'lady. If you please, Sir Derek, a policeman has come with a message.”
“With a message from Mr Rooke.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have had a few words of conversation with the constable, sir,” said Parker sadly, “and I understand from him that Mr Rooke and Miss Mariner have been arrested.”
“Arrested! What are you talking about?”
“Mr Rooke desired the officer to ask you to be good enough to step round and bail them out!”
The gleam in
“Why were Miss Mariner and Mr Rooke arrested, Parker?”
“As far as I can gather, m'lady, Miss Mariner struck a man in the street with a stick, and they took both her and Rooke to the Chelsea Police Station.”
“This is a little awkward, Derek,” she said suavely. “If you go to the police-station, you will miss your train.”
“I fancy, m'lady, it would be sufficient if Sir Derek were to dispatch me with a check for ten pounds.”
“Very well. Tell the policeman to wait a moment.”
“Very good, m'lady.”
Derek roused himself with an effort. His face was drawn and gloomy. He sat down at the writing-table, and took out his check-book. There was silence for a moment, broken only by the scratching of the pen. Parker took the check and left the room.
“Now, perhaps,” said
Derek rose without speaking. He took his coat and hat from where they lay on a chair.
“Derek! You will! Say you will!”
Derek put on his coat.
“For heaven's sake, leave me alone, mother. I want to think.”
“Very well. I will leave you to think it over, then.”
“I'll see you when you get back?”
“Yes. No. I don't know. I'm not certain when I shall return. I may go away for a bit.”
The door closed behind
The door opened softly.
“The cab is at the door, Sir Derek,” said Parker.
Derek addressed an envelope, and got up.
“All right. Thanks. Oh, Parker, stop at a district-messenger office on your way to the police-station, and have this sent off at once.”
“Very good, Sir Derek,” said Parker.
Derek's eyes turned once more to the mantelpiece. He stood looking for an instant, then walked quickly out of the room.
A taxi-cab stopped at the door of number
“Doesn't everything smell lovely, Freddie,” said Jill, “after our prison-life!”
“Fancy getting out so quickly! Whenever I'm arrested, I must always make a point of having a rich man with me. I shall never tease you about that fifty-pound note again.”
“It certainly came in handy today!”
She was opening the door with her latch-key, and missed the sudden sagging
of Freddie's jaw, the sudden clutch at his breast-pocket, and the look of
horror and anguish that started into his eyes. Freddie was appalled. Finding
himself at the police-station penniless with the exception of a little loose
change, he had sent that message to Derek, imploring assistance, as the only
alternative to spending the night in a cell, with Jill in another. He had
realized that there was a risk of Derek taking the matter hardly, and he had
not wanted to get Jill into trouble, but there seemed nothing else to do. If
they remained where they were overnight, the thing would get into the papers,
and that would be a thousand times worse. And if he applied for aid to Ronny
Devereux or Algy Martyn or anybody like that all
He followed Jill into the house, groaning in spirit, but thankful that she had taken it for granted that he had secured their release in the manner indicated. He did not propose to disillusion her. It would be time enough to take the blame when the blame came along. Probably old Derek would simply be amused and laugh at the whole bally affair like a sportsman. Freddie cheered up considerably at the thought.
Jill was talking to the parlormaid whose head had popped up over the banisters flanking the stairs that led to the kitchen.
“Major Selby hasn't arrived yet, miss.”
“That's odd. I suppose he must have taken a later train.”
“There's a lady in the drawing-room, miss, waiting to see him. She didn't give any name. She said she would wait till the major came. She's been waiting a goodish while.”
“All right, Jane. Thanks. Will you bring up tea.”
They walked down the hall. The drawing-room was on the ground floor, a long, dim room that would have looked like a converted studio but for the absence of bright light. A girl was sitting at the far end by the fireplace. She rose: as they entered.
“How do you do?” said Jill. “I'm afraid my uncle has not come back yet —”
“Say!” cried the visitor. “You did get out quick!”
Jill was surprised. She had no recollection of ever having seen the other before. Her visitor was a rather pretty girl, with a sort of jaunty way of carrying herself which made a piquant contrast to her tired eyes and wistful face. Jill took an immediate liking to her. She looked so forlorn and pathetic.
“My name's Nelly Bryant,” said the girl. “That parrot belongs to me.”
“Oh, I see.”
“I heard you say to the cop that you lived here, so I came along to tell your folks what had happened, so that they could do something. The maid said that your uncle was expected any minute, so I waited.”
“That was awfully good of you.”
“Dashed good,” said Freddie.
“Oh, no! Honest, I don't know how to thank you for what you did. You don't know what a pal Bill is to me. It would have broken me all up if that plug-ugly had killed him.”
“But what a shame you had to wait so long.”
“I liked it.”
Nelly Bryant looked about the room wistfully. This was the sort of room she sometimes dreamed about. She loved its subdued light and the pulpy cushions on the sofa.
“You'll have some tea before you go, won't you?” said Jill, switching on the lights.
“It's very kind of you.”
“Why, hullo!” said Freddie. “By Jove! I say! We've met before, what?”
“Why, so we have!”
“That lunch at Oddy's that young Threepwood gave, what?”
“I wonder you remember.”
“Oh, I remember. Quite a time ago, eh? Miss Bryant was in that show, 'Follow the Girl,' Jill, at the Regal.”
“Oh, yes. I remember you took me to see it.”
“Dashed odd meeting again like this!” said Freddie. “Really rummy!”
Jane, the parlormaid, entering with tea, interrupted his comments.
“You're American, then?” said Jill, interested. “The whole company came
“I'm half American myself, you know. I used to live in
“The Elevated!” murmured Nelly devoutly. A wave of homesickness seemed to choke her for a moment.
“And the air. Like champagne. And a very blue sky.”
“Yes,” said Nelly in a small voice.
“I shouldn't half mind popping over
“I don't believe I do.”
“That's rummy! Oakes has lived in
“So have about seven million other people,” interposed Jill. “Don't be
silly, Freddie. How would you like somebody to ask of you if you knew a man
named Jenkins in
“I do know a man named Jenkins in
Jill poured out a cup of tea for her visitor, and looked at the clock.
“I wonder where Uncle Chris has got to,” she said. “He ought to be here by
now. I hope he hasn't got into any mischief among the wild stock-brokers down
Freddie laid down his cup on the table and uttered a loud snort.
“Oh, Freddie, darling!” said Jill remorsefully. “I forgot! Stock-brokers are a painful subject, aren't they!” She turned to Nelly. “There's been an awful slump on the Stock Exchange today, and he got—what was the word, Freddie?”
“Nipped!” said Freddie with gloom.
“Nipped like the dickens!”
“Nipped like the dickens!” Jill smiled at Nelly. “He had forgotten all about it in the excitement of being a jailbird, and I went and reminded him.”
Freddie sought sympathy from Nelly.
“A silly ass at the club named Jimmy Monroe told me to take a flutter in some rotten thing called Amalgamated Dyes. You know how it is, when you're feeling devilish fit and cheery and all that after dinner, and somebody sidles up to you and slips his little hand in yours and tells you to do some fool thing. You're so dashed nappy you simply say 'Right-ho, old bird! Make it so!' That's the way I got had!”
Jill laughed unfeelingly.
“It will do you good, Freddie. It'll stir you up and prevent you being so silly again. Besides, you know you'll hardly notice it. You've much too much money as it is.”
“It's not the money. It's the principle of the thing. I hate looking a frightful chump.”
“Well, you needn't tell anybody. We'll keep it a secret. In fact, we'll start at once, for I hear Uncle Chris outside. Let us dissemble. We are observed!— Hullo, Uncle Chris!”
She ran down the room, as the door opened, and kissed the tall, soldierly man who entered.
“Well, Jill, my dear.”
“How late you are. I was expecting you hours ago.”
“I had to call on my broker.”
“What's the matter?”
“Nothing, nothing. — We've got visitors. You know Freddie Rooke, of course?”
“How are you, Freddie, my boy?”
“Cheerio!” said Freddie. “Pretty fit?”
“And Miss Bryant,” said Jill.
“How do you do?” said Uncle Chris in the bluff, genial way which, in his younger days, had charmed many a five-pound note out of the pockets of his fellow-men and many a soft glance out of the eyes of their sisters, their cousins, and their aunts.
“Come and have some tea,” said Jill. “You're just in time.”
Nelly had subsided shyly into the depths of her big armchair. Somehow she felt a better and a more important girl since Uncle Chris had addressed her. Most people felt like hat after encountering Jill's Uncle Christopher. Uncle Chris had a manner. It was not precisely condescending, and yet it was not the manner of an equal. He treated you as an equal, true, but all the time you were conscious of the fact that it was extraordinarily good of him to do so. Uncle Chris affected the rank and file of his fellow-men much as a genial knight of the Middle Ages would have affected a scurvy knave or varlet if he had cast aside social distinctions for awhile and hobnobbed with the latter in a tavern. He never patronized, but the mere fact that he abstained from patronizing seemed somehow impressive.
To this impressiveness his appearance contributed largely. He was a fine,
upstanding man, who looked less than his forty-nine years in spite of an
ominous thinning of the hair which he tended and brushed so carefully. He had a
firm chin, a mouth that smiled often and pleasantly beneath the closely-clipped
moustache, and very bright blue eyes which met yours in a clear, frank, honest
gaze. Though he had served in his youth in
It was his clothes, however, which, even more than his appearance,
fascinated the populace. There is only one tailor in
“Miss Bryant is American, Uncle Chris,” said Jill.
Uncle Chris spread his shapely legs before the fire, and glanced down kindly at Nelly.
“Indeed?” He took a cup of tea and stirred it. “I was in
“Whereabouts?” asked Nelly eagerly.
“Oh, here and there and everywhere. I travelled considerably.”
“That's how it is with me,” said Nelly, overcoming her diffidence as she
warmed to the favorite topic. “I guess I know most every town in every State,
“It is!” said Uncle Chris. “I shall be returning there very shortly.” He paused meditatively. “Very shortly indeed.”
Nelly bit her lip. It seemed to be her fate today to meet people who were
“When did you decide to do that?” asked Jill.
She had been looking at him, puzzled. Years of association with Uncle Chris had enabled her to read his moods quickly, and she was sure that there was something on his mind. It was not likely that the others had noticed it, for his manner was as genial and urbane as ever. But something about him, a look in his eyes that came and went, an occasional quick twitching of his mouth, told her that all was not well. She was a little troubled, but not greatly. Uncle Chris was not the sort of man to whom grave tragedies happened. It was probably some mere trifle which she could smooth out for him in five minutes, once they were alone together. She reached out and patted his sleeve affectionately. She was fonder of Uncle Chris than of anyone in the world except Derek.
“The thought,” said Uncle Chris, “came to me this morning, as I read my
morning paper while breakfasting. It has grown and developed during the day. At
this moment you might almost call it an obsession. I am very fond of
“Rummily enough,” said Freddie, “I was saying just before you came in that I had half a mind to pop over. Only it's rather a bally fag, starting. Getting your luggage packed and all that sort of thing.”
Nelly, whose luggage consisted of one small trunk, heaved a silent sigh. Mingling with the idle rich carried its penalties.
“'Come, eleven!'“ exclaimed Nelly excitedly.
“'Baby —' I feel convinced that in some manner the word baby entered into it.”
“'Baby needs new shoes!'“
“'Baby needs new shoes!' Precisely!”
“It sounds to me,” said Freddie, “dashed silly.”
“Oh, no!” cried Nelly reproachfully.
“Well, what I mean to say is, there's no sense in it, don't you know.”
“It is a noble pursuit,” said Uncle Chris firmly. “Worthy of the great
nation that has produced it. No doubt, when I return to
“You aren't returning to
“Age?” declaimed Uncle Chris. “What is my age? At the present moment I feel in the neighborhood of twenty-one, and Ambition is tapping me on the shoulder and whispering 'Young man, go West!' The years are slipping away from me, my dear Jill,—slipping so quickly that in a few minutes you will he wondering why my nurse does not come to fetch me. The wanderlust is upon me. I gaze around me at all this prosperity in which I am lapped,” said Uncle Chris, eyeing the arm-chair severely, “all this comfort and luxury which swaddles me, and I feel staggered. I want activity. I want to be braced!”
“You would hate it,” said Jill composedly. “You know you're the laziest old darling in the world.”
“Exactly what I am endeavoring to point out. I am lazy. Or, I was till this morning.”
“Something very extraordinary must have happened this morning. I can see that.”
“I wallowed in gross comfort. I was what Shakespeare calls a 'fat and greasy citizen'!”
“Please, Uncle Chris!” protested Jill. “Not while I'm eating buttered toast!”
“But now I am myself again.”
“I have heard the beat of the off-shore wind,” chanted Uncle Chris, “and the thresh of the deep-sea rain. I have heard the song—How long! how long! Pull out on the trail again!”
“He can also recite 'Gunga Din,'“ said Jill to Nelly. “I really must apologize for all this. He's usually as good as gold.”
“I believe I know how he feels,” said Nelly softly.
“Of course you do. You and I, Miss Bryant, are of the gipsies of the world. We are not vegetables like young Rooke here.”
“Eh, what?” said the vegetable, waking from a reverie. He had been watching Nelly's face. Its wistfulness attracted him.
“We are only happy,” proceeded Uncle Chris, “when we are wandering.”
“You should see Uncle Chris wander to his club in the morning,” said Jill. “He trudges off in a taxi, singing wild gipsy songs, absolutely defying fatigue.”
“That,” said Uncle Chris, “is a perfectly justified slur. I shudder at the
depths to which prosperity has caused me to sink.” He expanded his chest. “I
shall be a different man in
“I'm all right, thanks!” said that easily satisfied young man.
Uncle Chris turned to Nelly, pointing dramatically.
“Young woman, go West! Return to your bracing home, and leave this
Nelly got up abruptly. She could endure no more.
“I believe I'll have to be going now,” she said. “Bill misses me if I'm away long. Good-bye. Thank you ever so much for what you did.”
“It was awfully kind of you to come round,” said Jill.
“Good-bye, Major Selby.”
“Good-bye, Mr Rooke.”
Freddie awoke from another reverie.
“Eh? Oh, I say, half a jiffy. I think I may as well be toddling along
myself. About time I was getting back to dress for dinner and all that. See you
home, may I, and then I'll get a taxi at
Freddie escorted Nelly through the hall and opened the front door for her. The night was cool and cloudy, and there was still in the air that odd, rejuvenating suggestion of Spring. A wet fragrance came from the dripping trees.
“Topping evening!” said Freddie conversationally.
They walked through the square in silence. Freddie shot an appreciative glance at his companion. Freddie, as he would have admitted frankly, was not much of a lad for the modern girl. The modern girl, he considered, was too dashed rowdy and exuberant for a chappie of peaceful tastes. Now, this girl, on the other hand, had all the earmarks of being something of a topper. She had a soft voice. Rummy accent and all that, but nevertheless a soft and pleasing voice. She was mild and unaggressive, and these were qualities which Freddie esteemed. Freddie, though this was a thing he would not have admitted, was afraid of girls, the sort of girls he had to take down to dinner and dance with and so forth. They were too dashed clever, and always seemed to be waiting for a chance to score off a fellow. This one was not like that. Not a bit. She was gentle and quiet and what not.
It was at this point that it came home to him how remarkably quiet she was. She had not said a word for the last five minutes. He was just about to break the silence, when, as they passed under a street lamp, he perceived that she was crying,—crying very softly to herself, like a child in the dark.
“Good God!” said Freddie, appalled. There were two things in life with
which he felt totally unable to cope,—crying girls and dog-fights. The glimpse
he had caught of Nelly's face froze him into a speechlessness which lasted
until they reached
“Good-bye,” said Nelly.
“Good-bye-ee!” said Freddie mechanically. “That's to say, I mean to say, half a second!” he added quickly. Ha faced her nervously, with one hand on the grimy railings. This wanted looking into. When it came to girls trickling to and fro in the public streets, weeping, well, it was pretty rotten and something had to be done about it. “What's up?” he demanded.
“It's nothing. Good-bye.”
“But, my dear old soul,” said Freddie, clutching the railing for moral support, “it is something. It must be! You might not think it, to look at me, but I'm really rather a dashed shrewd chap, and I can see there's something up. Why not give me the jolly old scenario and see if we can't do something?”
Nelly moved as if to turn to the door, then stopped. She was thoroughly ashamed of herself.
“I'm a fool!”
“Yes, I am. I don't often act this way, but, oh, gee! hearing you all
talking like that about going to
“A simp. I'm all right as far up as the string of near-pearls, but above that I'm reinforced concrete.”
Freddie groped for her meaning.
“Do you mean you've made a bloomer of some kind?”
“I pulled the worst kind of bone. I stopped on in
“Rush of jolly old professional engagement, what?”
Nelly laughed bitterly.
“You're a bad guesser. No, they haven't started to fight over me yet. I'm at liberty, as they say in the Era.”
“But, my dear old thing,” said Freddie earnestly, “if you've got nothing
to keep you in
“How do you mean, which line? Oh, I see, you mean which line? Well — well — I've never been on any of them, so it's rather hard to say. But I hear the Cunard well spoken of, and then again some chappies swear by the White Star. But I should imagine you can't go far wrong, whichever you pick. They're all pretty ripe, I fancy.”
“Which of them is giving free trips? That's the point.”
“Eh? Oh!” Her meaning dawned upon Freddie. He regarded her with deep consternation. Life had treated him so kindly that he had almost forgotten that there existed a class which had not as much money as himself. Sympathy welled up beneath his perfectly fitting waistcoat. It was a purely disinterested sympathy. The fact that Nelly was a girl and in many respects a dashed pretty girl did not affect him. What mattered was that she was hard up. The thought hurt Freddie like a blow. He hated the idea of anyone being hard up.
“I say!” he said. “Are you broke?”
“Am I! If dollars were doughnuts, I wouldn't even have the hole in the middle.”
Freddie was stirred to his depths. Except for the beggars in the streets, to whom he gave shillings, he had not met anyone for years who had not plenty of money. He had friends at his clubs who frequently claimed to be unable to lay their hands on a bally penny, but the bally penny they wanted to lay their hands on generally turned out to be a couple of thousand pounds for a new car.
“Good God!” he said.
There was a pause. Then, with a sudden impulse, he began to fumble in his
breast-pocket. Rummy how things worked out for the best, however scaly they
might seem at the moment. Only an hour or so ago he had been kicking himself
for not having remembered that fifty-pound note, tacked onto the lining of his
coat, when it would have come in handy at the police-station. He now saw that
“My dear old thing,” he said, “I can't stand it! I absolutely cannot stick it at any price! I really must insist on your trousering this. Positively!”
Nelly Bryant gazed at the note with wide eyes. She was stunned. She took it limply, and looked at it under the dim light of the gas-lamp over the door.
“I couldn't!” she cried.
“Oh, but really! You must!”
“But this is a fifty-pound!”
“Absolutely! It will take you back to
“But I can't take two hundred and fifty dollars from you!”
“Oh, rather. Of course you can.”
There was another pause.
“You'll think—” Nelly's pale face flushed. “You'll think I told you all about myself just—just because I wanted to —”
“To make a touch? Absolutely not! Kid yourself of the jolly old
superstition entirely. You see before you, old thing, a chappie who knows more
about borrowing money than any man in
The note crackled musically in Nelly's hand.
“I don't know what to say!”
“That's all right.”
“I don't see why — Gee! I wish I could tell you what I think of you!”
Freddie laughed amusedly.
“Do you know,” he said, “that's exactly what the beaks—the masters, you know,—used to say to me at school.”
“Are you sure you can spare it?”
Nelly's eyes shone in the light of the lamp.
“I've never met anyone like you before. I don't know how —”
Freddie shuffled nervously. Being thanked always made him feel pretty rotten.
“Well, I think I'll be popping,” he said. “Got to get back and dress and all that. Awfully glad to have seen you, and all that sort of rot.”
Nelly unlocked the door with her latchkey, and stood on the step.
“I'll buy a fur-wrap,” she said, half to herself.
“Great wheeze! I should!”
“And some nuts for Bill!”
“Oh, the jolly old parrot! Rather! Well, cheerio!”
“Good-bye — You've been awfully good to me.”
“Oh, no,” said Freddie uncomfortably. “Any time you're passing — !”
“Awfully good — Well, good-bye.”
“Maybe we'll meet again some day.”
“I hope so. Absolutely!”
There was a little scurry of feet. Something warm and soft pressed for an instant against Freddie's cheek, and, as he stumbled back, Nelly Bryant skipped up the steps and vanished through the door.
Freddie felt his cheek. He was aware of an odd mixture of embarrassment and exhilaration.
From the area below a slight cough sounded. Freddie turned sharply. A maid in a soiled cap, worn coquettishly over one ear, was gazing intently up through the railings. Their eyes met. Freddie turned a warm pink. It seemed to him that the maid had the air of one about to giggle.
“Damn!” said Freddie softly, and hurried off down the street. He wondered whether he had made a frightful ass of himself, spraying bank-notes all over the place like that to comparative strangers. Then a vision came to him of Nelly's eyes as they had looked at him in the lamp-light, and he decided—no, absolutely not. Rummy as the gadget might appear, it had been the right thing to do. It was a binge of which he thoroughly approved. A good egg!
Jill, when Freddie and Nelly left the room, had seated herself on a low stool, and sat, looking thoughtfully into the fire. She was wondering if she had been mistaken in supposing that Uncle Chris was worried about something. This restlessness of his, this desire for movement, was strange in him. Hitherto he had been like a dear old cosy cat, revelling in the comfort which he had just denounced so eloquently. She watched him as he took up his favorite stand in front of the fire.
“Nice girl,” said Uncle Chris. “Who was she?”
“Somebody Freddie met,” said Jill diplomatically. There was no need to worry Uncle Chris with details of the afternoon's happenings.
“Very nice girl.” Uncle Chris took out his cigar-case. “No need to ask if I may, thank goodness.” He lit a cigar. “Do you remember, Jill, years ago, when you were quite small, how I used to blow smoke in your face?”
“Of course I do. You said that you were training me for marriage. You said that there were no happy marriages except where the wife didn't mind the smell of tobacco. Well, it's lucky, as a matter of fact, for Derek smokes all the time.”
Uncle Chris took up his favorite stand against the fireplace.
“You're very fond of Derek, aren't you, Jill?”
“Of course I am. You are, too, aren't you?”
“Fine chap. Very fine chap. Plenty of money, too. It's a great relief,” said Uncle Chris, puffing vigorously. “A thundering relief.” He looked over Jill's head down the room. “It's fine to think of you happily married, dear, with everything in the world that you want.”
Uncle Chris' gaze wandered down to where Jill sat. A slight mist affected his eyesight. Jill had provided a solution for the great problem of his life. Marriage had always appalled him, but there was this to be said for it, that married people had daughters. He had always wanted a daughter, a smart girl he could take out and be proud of; and fate had given him Jill at precisely the right age. A child would have bored Uncle Chris—he was fond of children, but they made the deuce of a noise and regarded jam as an external ornament—but a delightful little girl of fourteen was different. Jill and he had been very close to each other since her mother had died, a year after the death of her father, and had left her in his charge. He had watched her grow up with a joy that had a touch of bewilderment in it—she seemed to grow so quickly—and had been fonder and prouder of her at every stage of her tumultuous career.
“You're a dear,” said Jill. She stroked the trouser-leg that was nearest. “How do you manage to get such a wonderful crease? You really are a credit to me!”
There was a momentary silence. A shade of embarrassment made itself noticeable in Uncle Chris' frank gaze. He gave a little cough, and pulled at his mustache.
“I wish I were, my dear,” he said soberly. “I wish I were. I'm afraid I'm a poor sort of fellow, Jill.”
Jill looked up.
“What do you mean?”
“A poor sort of fellow,” repeated Uncle Chris. “Your mother was foolish to trust you to me. Your father had more sense. He always said I was a wrong'un.”
Jill got up quickly. She was certain now that she had been right, and that there was something on her uncle's mind.
“What's the matter, Uncle Chris? Something's happened. What is it?”
Uncle Chris turned to knock the ash off his cigar. The movement gave him time to collect himself for what lay before him. He had one of those rare volatile natures which can ignore the blows of fate so long as their effects are not brought home by visible evidence of disaster. He lived in the moment, and, though matters had been as bad at breakfast-time as they were now, it was not till now, when he confronted Jill, that he had found his cheerfulness affected by them. He was a man who hated ordeals, and one faced him now. Until this moment he had been able to detach his mind from a state of affairs which would have weighed unceasingly upon another man. His mind was a telephone which he could cut off at will, when the voice of Trouble wished to speak. The time would arrive, he had been aware, when he would have to pay attention to that voice, but so far he had refused to listen. Now it could he evaded no longer.
Uncle Chris paused again, searching for the best means of saying what had to be said.
“Jill, I don't know if you understand about these things, but there was what is called a slump on the Stock Exchange this morning. In other words —”
“Of course I know all about that,” she said. “Poor Freddie wouldn't talk about anything else till I made him. He was terribly blue when he got here this afternoon. He said he had got 'nipped' in Amalgamated Dyes. He had lost about two hundred pounds, and was furious with a friend of his who had told him to buy margins.”
Uncle Chris cleared his throat.
“Jill, I'm afraid I've got bad news for you. I bought Amalgamated Dyes, too.” He worried his mustache. “I lost heavily, very heavily.”
“How naughty of you! You know you oughtn't to gamble.”
“Jill, you must be brave. I—I—well, the fact is—it's no good beating about the bush—I lost everything! Everything!”
“Everything! It's all gone! All fooled away. It's a terrible business. This house will have to go.”
“But—but doesn't the house belong to me?”
“I was your trustee, dear.” Uncle Chris smoked furiously. “Thank heaven you're going to marry a rich man!”
Jill stood looking at him, perplexed. Money, as money, had never entered into her life. There were things one wanted, which had to be paid for with money, but Uncle Chris had always looked after that. She had taken them for granted.
“I don't understand,” she said.
And then suddenly she realized that she did, and a great wave of pity for Uncle Chris flooded over her. He was such an old dear. It must be horrible for him to have to stand there, telling her all this. She felt no sense of injury, only the discomfort of having to witness the humiliation of her oldest friend. Uncle Chris was bound up inextricably with everything in her life that was pleasant. She could remember him, looking exactly the same, only with a thicker and wavier crop of hair, playing with her patiently and unwearied for hours in the hot sun, a cheerful martyr. She could remember sitting up with him when she came home from her first grown-up dance, drinking cocoa and talking and talking and talking till the birds outside sang the sun high up into the sky and it was breakfast-time. She could remember theatres with him, and jolly little suppers afterwards; expeditions into the country, with lunches at queer old inns; days on the river, days at Hurlingham, days at Lords', days at the Academy. He had always been the same, always cheerful, always kind. He was Uncle Chris, and he would always be Uncle Chris, whatever he had done or whatever he might do. She slipped her arm in his and gave it a squeeze.
“Poor old thing!” she said.
Uncle Chris had been looking straight out before him with those fine blue eyes of his. There had been just a touch of sternness in his attitude. A stranger, coming into the room at that moment, would have said that here was a girl trying to coax her blunt, straightforward, military father into some course of action of which his honest nature disapproved. He might have been posing for a statue of Rectitude. As Jill spoke, he seemed to cave in.
“Poor old thing?” he repeated limply.
“Of course you are! And stop trying to look dignified and tragic! Because it doesn't suit you. You're much too well dressed.”
“But, my dear, you don't understand! You haven't realized!”
“Yes, I do. Yes, I have!”
“I've spent all your money—your money!”
“I know! What does it matter?”
“What does it matter! Jill, don't you hate me?”
“As if anyone could hate an old darling like you!”
Uncle Chris threw away his cigar, and put his arms round Jill. For a moment a dreadful fear came to her that he was going to cry. She prayed that he wouldn't cry. It would be too awful. It would be a memory of which she could never rid herself. She felt as though he were someone extraordinarily young and unable to look after himself, someone she must soothe and protect.
“Jill,” said Uncle Chris, choking, “you're—you're—you're a little warrior!”
Jill kissed him, and moved away. She busied herself with some flowers, her back turned. The tension had been relieved, and she wanted to give him time to recover his poise. She knew him well enough to be sure that, sooner or later, the resiliency of his nature would assert itself. He could never remain long in the depths.
The silence had the effect of making her think more clearly than in the first rush of pity she had been able to do. She was able now to review the matter as it affected herself. It had not been easy to grasp, the blunt fact that she was penniless, that all this comfort which surrounded her was no longer her own. For an instant a kind of panic seized her. There was a bleakness about the situation which made one gasp. It was like icy water dashed in the face. Realization had almost the physical pain of life returning to a numbed limb. Her hands shook as she arranged the flowers, and she had to bite her lip to keep herself from crying out.
She fought panic eye to eye, and beat it down. Uncle Chris, swiftly recovering
by the fireplace, never knew that the fight had taken place. He was feeling
quite jovial again now that the unpleasant business of breaking the news was
over, and was looking on the world with the eye of a debonair
gentleman-adventurer. As far as he was concerned, he told himself, this was the
best thing that could have happened. He had been growing old and sluggish in
prosperity. He needed a fillip. The wits by which he had once lived so merrily
had been getting blunt in their easy retirement. He welcomed the opportunity of
matching them once more against the world. He was remorseful as regarded Jill,
but the optimist in him, never crushed for long, told him that Jill would be
all right. She would step from the sinking ship to the safe refuge of
Jill was thinking of Derek, too. Panic had fled, and a curious exhilaration had seized upon her. If Derek wanted her now, it would be because his love was the strongest thing in the world. She would come to him like the beggar-maid to Cophetua.
Uncle Chris broke the silence with a cough. At the sound of it, Jill smiled again. She knew it for what it was, a sign that he was himself again.
“Tell me, Uncle Chris,” she said, “just how bad is it? When you said everything was gone, did you really mean everything, or were you being melodramatic? Exactly how do we stand?”
“It's dashed hard to say, my dear. I expect we shall find there are a few
hundreds left. Enough to see you through till you get married. After that it
won't matter.” Uncle Chris flicked a particle of dust off his coat-sleeve. Jill
could not help feeling that the action was symbolical of his attitude towards
life. He flicked away life's problems with just the same airy carelessness.
“You mustn't worry about me, my dear. I shall be all right. I have made my way
in the world before, and I can do it again. I shall go to
Jill sat down on the lounge and laughed till there were tears in her eyes. Uncle Chris might be responsible for this disaster, but he was certainly making it endurable. However greatly he might be deserving of censure, from the standpoint of the sterner morality, he made amends. If he brought the whole world crashing in chaos about one's ears, at least he helped one to smile among the ruins.
“Did you ever read 'Candide', Uncle Chris?”
“'Candide'?” Uncle Chris shook his head. He was not a great reader, except of the sporting press.
“It's a book by Voltaire. There's a character in it called Doctor Pangloss, who thought that everything was for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”
Uncle Chris felt a touch of embarrassment. It occurred to him that he had been betrayed by his mercurial temperament into an attitude which, considering the circumstances, was perhaps a trifle too jubilant. He gave his mustache a pull, and reverted to the minor key.
“Oh, you mustn't think that I don't appreciate the terrible, the criminal
thing I have done! I blame myself,” said Uncle Chris cordially, flicking
another speck of dust off his sleeve. “I blame myself bitterly. Your mother
ought never to have made me your trustee, my dear. But she always believed in
me, in spite of everything, and this is how I have repaid her.” He blew his
nose to cover a not unmanly emotion. “I wasn't fitted for the position. Never
become a trustee, Jill. It's the devil, is trust money. However much you argue
with yourself, you can't—dash it, you simply can't believe that it's not your
own, to do as you like with. There it sits, smiling at you, crying 'Spend me!
Spend me!' and you find yourself dipping—dipping—till one day there's nothing
left to dip for—only a far-off rustling—the ghosts of dead bank-notes. That's
how it was with me. The process was almost automatic. I hardly knew it was
going on. Here a little—there a little. It was like snow melting on a
mountain-top. And one morning—all gone!” Uncle Chris drove the point home with
a gesture. “I did what I could. When I found that there were only a few
hundreds left, for your sake I took a chance. All heart and no head! There you
have Christopher Selby in a nutshell! A man at the club—a fool named—I've
forgotten his damn name—recommended Amalgamated Dyestuffs as a speculation.
“And now,” said Jill, “comes the sequel!”
“The sequel?” said Uncle Chris breezily. “Happiness, my dear, happiness!
Wedding bells and—and all that sort of thing!” He straddled the hearth-rug
manfully, and swelled his chest out. He would permit no pessimism on this
occasion of rejoicing. “You don't suppose that the fact of your having lost
your money—that is to say—er—of my having lost your money—will affect a
splendid young fellow like
“Of course I must tell him!”
“You think it wise?”
“I don't know about it being wise. It's the only thing to do. I must see him tonight. Oh, I forgot. He was going away this afternoon for a day or two.”
“Capital! It will give you time to think it over.”
“I don't want to think it over. There's nothing to think about.”
“Of course, yes, of course. Quite so.”
“I shall write him a letter.”
“It's easier to put what one wants to say in a letter.”
“Letters,” began Uncle Chris, and stopped as the door opened. Jane the parlormaid entered, carrying a salver. “For me?” asked Uncle Chris.
“For Miss Jill, sir.”
Jill took the note off the salver.
“It's from Derek.”
“There's a messenger-boy waiting, miss,” said Jane. “He wasn't told if there was an answer.”
“If the note is from Derek,” said Uncle Chris, “it's not likely to want an answer. You said he left town today.”
Jill opened the envelope.
“Is there an answer, miss?” asked Jane, after what she considered a
suitable interval. She spoke tenderly. She was a great admirer of Derek, and
considered it a pretty action on his part to send notes like this when he was compelled
“Any answer, Jill?”
Jill seemed to rouse herself. She had turned oddly pale.
“No, no answer, Jane.”
“Thank you, miss,” said Jane, and went off to tell cook that in her opinion Jill was lacking in heart. “It might have been a bill instead of a love-letter,” said Jane to the cook with indignation, “the way she read it. I like people to have a little feeling!”
Jill sat turning the letter over and over in her fingers. Her face was very white. There seemed to be a big, heavy, leaden something inside her. A cold hand clutched her throat. Uncle Chris, who at first had noticed nothing untoward, now began to find the silence sinister.
“No bad news, I hope, dear?”
Jill turned the letter between her fingers.
“Jill, is it bad news?”
“Derek has broken off the engagement,” said Jill in a dull voice. She let the note fall to the floor, and sat with her chin in her hands.
“What!” Uncle Chris leaped from the hearth-rug, as though the fire had suddenly scorched him. “What did you say?”
“He's broken it off.”
“The hound!” cried Uncle Chris. “The blackguard! The—the—I never liked that man! I never trusted him!” He fumed for a moment. “But—but—it isn't possible. How can he have heard about what's happened? He couldn't know. It's—it's—it isn't possible!”
“He doesn't know. It has nothing to do with that.”
“But —” Uncle Chris stooped to where the note lay. “May I — ?”
“Yes, you can read it if you like.”
Uncle Chris produced a pair of reading-glasses, and glared through them at the sheet of paper as though it were some loathsome insect.
“The hound! The cad! If I were a younger man,” shouted Uncle Chris, smiting the letter violently, “if I were — Jill! My dear little Jill!”
He plunged down on his knees beside her, as she buried her face in her hands and began to sob.
“My little girl! Damn that man! My dear little girl! The cad! The devil! My own darling little girl! I'll thrash him within an inch of his life!”
The clock on the mantelpiece ticked away the minutes. Jill got up. Her face was wet and quivering, but her mouth had set in a brave line.
She let his hand close over hers.
“Everything's happening all at once this afternoon, Uncle Chris, isn't it!” She smiled a twisted smile. “You look so funny! Your hair's all rumpled, and your glasses are over on one side!”
Uncle Chris breathed heavily through his nose.
“When I meet that man —” he began portentously.
“Oh, what's the good of bothering! It's not worth it! Nothing's worth it!”
Jill stopped, and faced him, her hands clenched. “Let's get away! Let's get
right away! I want to get right away, Uncle Chris! Take me away! Anywhere! Take
Uncle Chris raised his right hand, and shook it. His reading-glasses, hanging from his left ear, bobbed drunkenly.
“We'll sail by the next boat! The very next boat, dammit! I'll take care of you, dear. I've been a blackguard to you, my little girl. I've robbed you, and swindled you. But I'll make up for it, by George! I'll make up for it! I'll give you a new home, as good as this, if I die for it. There's nothing I won't do! Nothing! By Jove!” shouted Uncle Chris, raising his voice in a red-hot frenzy of emotion, “I'll work! Yes, by Gad, if it comes right down to it, I'll work!”
He brought his fist down with a crash on the table where Derek's flowers stood in their bowl. The bowl leaped in the air and tumbled over, scattering the flowers on the floor.
In the lives of each one of us, as we look back and review them in
retrospect, there are certain desert wastes from which memory winces like some
tired traveller faced with a dreary stretch of road. Even from the security of
later happiness we cannot contemplate them without a shudder. Time robs our
sorrows of their sharp vividness, but the horror of those blank, gray days
never wholly passes. It remains for ever at the back of our consciousness to
remind us that, though we may have struggled through it to the heights, there
is an abyss. We may dwell, like the Pilgrim, on the
The conditions of modern life are singularly inimical to swift and dramatic action when we wish to escape from surroundings that have become intolerable. In the old days, your hero would leap on his charger and ride out into the sunset. Now, he is compelled to remain for a week or so to settle his affairs,—especially if he is an Uncle Chris—and has got those affairs into such a tangle that hardened lawyers knit their brows at the sight of them. It took one of the most competent firms in the metropolis four days to produce some sort of order in the confusion resulting from Major Selby's financial operations; and during those days Jill existed in a state of being which could be defined as living only in that she breathed and ate and comported herself outwardly like a girl and not a ghost.
Boards announcing that the house was for sale appeared against the railings through which Jane the parlormaid conducted her daily conversations with the tradesmen. Strangers roamed the rooms eyeing and appraising the furniture. Uncle Chris, on whom disaster had had a quickening and vivifying effect, was everywhere at once, an impressive figure of energy. One may be wronging Uncle Chris, but to the eye of the casual observer he seemed in these days of trial to be having the time of his life.
Jill varied the monotony of sitting in her room—which was the only place
in the house where one might be sure of not encountering a furniture-broker's
man with a note-book and pencil—by taking long walks. She avoided as far as
possible the small area which had once made up the whole of
After this meeting, Jill felt a slight diminution of the oppression which
weighed upon her. She could not have borne to have come unexpectedly upon
Derek, and, now that there was no danger of that, she found life a little
easier. The days passed somehow, and finally there came the morning when,
accompanied by Uncle Chris—voluble and explanatory about the details of what he
called “getting everything settled”—she rode in a taxi to take the train for
Then the bustle and confusion of the liner; the calm monotony of the journey, when one came on deck each morning to find the vessel so manifestly in the same spot where it had been the morning before that it was impossible to realize how many hundred miles of ocean had really been placed behind one; and finally the Ambrose Channel lightship and the great bulk of New York rising into the sky like a city of fairyland, heartening yet sinister, at once a welcome and a menace.
“There you are, my dear!” said Uncle Chris indulgently, as though it were
a toy he had made for her with his own hands. “
They were standing on the boat-deck, leaning over the rail. Jill caught
her breath. For the first time since disaster had come upon her she was
conscious of a rising of her spirits. It is impossible to behold the huge
buildings which fringe the
Uncle Chris, the old traveller, was not emotionally affected. He smoked placidly and talked in a wholly earthy strain of grape-fruit and buckwheat cakes.
It was now, also for the first time, that Uncle Chris touched upon future prospects in a practical manner. On the voyage he had been eloquent but sketchy. With the land of promise within biscuit-throw and the tugs bustling about the great liner's skirts like little dogs about their mistress, he descended to details.
“I shall get a room somewhere,” said Uncle Chris, “and start looking about me. I wonder if the old Holland House is still there. I fancy I heard they'd pulled it down. Capital place. I had a steak there in the year — But I expect they've pulled it down. But I shall find somewhere to go. I'll write and tell you my address directly I've got one.”
Jill removed her gaze from the sky-line with a start.
“Write to me?”
“Didn't I tell you about that?” said Uncle Chris cheerily,—avoiding her eye, however, for he had realized all along that it might be a little bit awkward breaking the news. “I've arranged that you shall go and stay for the time being down at Brookport—on Long Island, you know—over in that direction—with your Uncle Elmer. Daresay you've forgotten you have an Uncle Elmer, eh?” he went on quickly, as Jill was about to speak. “Your father's brother. Used to be in business, but retired some years ago and goes in for amateur farming. Corn and—and corn,” said Uncle Chris. “All that sort of thing. You'll like him. Capital chap! Never met him myself, but always heard,” said Uncle Chris, who had never to his recollection heard any comments upon Mr Elmer Mariner whatever, “that he was a splendid fellow. Directly we decided to sail, I cabled to him, and got an answer saying that he would be delighted to put you up. You'll be quite happy there.”
Jill listened to this programme with dismay.
“But I want to be with you,” she protested.
“Impossible, my dear, for the present. I shall be very busy, very busy indeed for some weeks, until I have found my feet. Really, you would be in the way. He—er—travels the fastest who travels alone! I must be in a position to go anywhere and do anything at a moment's notice. But always remember, my dear,” said Uncle Chris, patting her shoulder affectionately, “that I shall be working for you. I have treated you very badly, but I intend to make up for it. I shall not forget that whatever money I may make will really belong to you.” He looked at her benignly, like a monarch of finance who has ear-marked a million or two for the benefit of a deserving charity. “You shall have it all, Jill.”
He had so much the air of having conferred a substantial benefit upon her that Jill felt obliged to thank him. Uncle Chris had always been able to make people grateful for the phantom gold which he showered upon them. He was as lavish a man with the money he was going to get next week as ever borrowed a five-pound note to see him through till Saturday.
“What are you going to do, Uncle Chris?” asked Jill curiously. Apart from a nebulous idea that he intended to saunter through the city picking dollar-bills off the sidewalk, she had no inkling of his plans.
Uncle Chris toyed with his short mustache. He was not quite equal to a direct answer on the spur of the moment. He had a faith in his star. Something would turn up. Something always had turned up in the old days, and doubtless, with the march of civilization, opportunities had multiplied. Somewhere behind those tall buildings the Goddess of Luck awaited him, her hands full of gifts, but precisely what those gifts would be he was not in a position to say.
“I shall—ah—how shall I put it—?”
“Look round?” suggested Jill.
“Precisely,” said Uncle Chris gratefully. “Look round. I daresay you have
noticed that I have gone out of my way during the voyage to make myself
agreeable to our fellow-travellers? I had an object. Acquaintances begun on
shipboard will often ripen into useful friendships ashore. When I was a young
man I never neglected the opportunities which an ocean voyage affords. The
offer of a book here, a steamer-rug there, a word of encouragement to a chatty
bore in the smoke-room—these are small things, but they may lead to much. One
meets influential people on a liner. You wouldn't think it to look at him, but
that man with the eye-glasses and the thin nose I was talking to just now is
one of the richest men in
“But it's not much good having rich friends in
“Exactly. There you have put your finger on the very point I have been trying to make. It will probably be necessary for me to travel. And for that I must be alone. I must be a mobile force. I should dearly like to keep you with me, but you can see for yourself that for the moment you would be an encumbrance. Later on, no doubt, when my affairs are more settled —”
“Oh, I understand. I'm resigned. But, oh dear! it's going to be very dull down at Brookport.”
“Nonsense, nonsense! It's a delightful spot.”
“Have you been there?”
“No! But of course everybody knows Brookport! Healthy, invigorating — Sure to be! The very name — You'll be as happy as the days are long!”
“And how long the days will be!”
“Come, come! You mustn't look on the dark side!”
“Is there another?” Jill laughed. “You are an old hum-bug, Uncle Chris.
You know perfectly well what you're condemning me to! I expect Brookport will
be like a sort of Southend in winter. Oh, well, I'll be brave. But do hurry and
make a fortune, because I want to come to
“My dear,” said Uncle Chris solemnly, “if there is a dollar lying loose in
this city, rest assured that I shall have it! And, if it's not loose, I will
detach it with the greatest possible speed. You have only known me in my
decadence, an idle and unprofitable
“Oh, if you are going to talk poetry,” said Jill, “I'll leave you. Anyhow,
I ought to be getting below and putting my things together. Subject for a
historical picture,—The Belle of Brookport collecting a few simple necessaries
before entering upon the conquest of
If Jill's vision of Brookport as a wintery Southend was not entirely
fulfilled, neither was Uncle Chris' picture of it as an earthly paradise. At
the right time of the year, like most of the summer resorts on the south
“If you're Uncle Elmer,” she said, “I'm Jill.”
The man held out a long hand. He did not smile. He was as bleak as the east wind that swept the platform.
“Glad to meet you again,” he said in a melancholy voice. It was news to Jill that they had met before. She wondered where. Her uncle supplied the information. “Last time I saw you, you were a kiddy in short frocks, running around and shouting to beat the band.” He looked up and down the platform. “I never heard a child make so much noise!”
“I'm quite quiet now,” said Jill encouragingly. The recollection of her infant revelry seemed to her to be distressing her relative.
It appeared, however, that it was not only this that was on his mind.
“If you want to drive home,” he said, “we'll have to phone to the Durham House for a hack.” He brooded awhile, Jill remaining silent at his side, loath to break in upon whatever secret sorrow he was wrestling with. “That would be a dollar,” he went on. “They're robbers in these parts! A dollar! And it's not over a mile and a half. Are you fond of walking?”
Jill was a bright girl, and could take a hint.
“I love walking,” she said. She might have added that she preferred to do it on a day when the wind was not blowing quite so keenly from the East, but her uncle's obvious excitement at the prospect of cheating the rapacity of the sharks at the Durham House restrained her. Her independent soul had not quite adjusted itself to the prospect of living on the bounty of her fellows, relatives though they were, and she was desirous of imposing as light a burden upon them as possible. “But how about my trunk?”
“The expressman will bring that up. Fifty cents!” said Uncle Elmer in a crushed way. The high cost of entertaining seemed to be afflicting this man deeply.
“Oh, yes,” said Jill. She could not see how this particular expenditure was to be avoided. Anxious as she was to make herself pleasant, she declined to consider carrying the trunk to their destination. “Shall we start, then?”
Mr Mariner led the way out into the ice-covered road. The wind welcomed them like a boisterous dog. For some minutes they proceeded in silence.
“Your aunt will be glad to see you,” said Mr Mariner at last in the voice with which one announces the death of a dear friend.
“It's awfully kind of you to have me to stay with you,” said Jill. It is a human tendency to think, when crises occur, in terms of melodrama, and unconsciously she had begun to regard herself somewhat in the light of a heroine driven out into the world from the old home, with no roof to shelter her head. The promptitude with which these good people, who, though relatives, were after all complete strangers, had offered her a resting-place touched her. “I hope I shan't be in the way.”
“Major Selby was speaking to me on the telephone just now,” said Mr Mariner, “and he said that you might be thinking of settling down in Brookport. I've some nice little places round here which you might like to look at. Rent or buy. It's cheaper to buy. Brookport's a growing place. It's getting known as a summer resort. There's a bungalow down on the shore I'd like to show you tomorrow. Stands in a nice large plot of ground, and if you bought it for twelve thousand you'd be getting a bargain.”
Jill was too astonished to speak. Plainly Uncle Chris had made no mention of the change in her fortunes, and this man looked on her as a girl of wealth. She could only think how typical this was of Uncle Chris. There was a sort of boyish impishness about him. She could see him at the telephone, suave and important. He would have hung up the receiver with a complacent smirk, thoroughly satisfied that he had done her an excellent turn.
“I put all my money into real estate when I came to live here,” went on Mr Mariner. “I believe in the place. It's growing all the time.”
They had come to the outskirts of a straggling village. The lights in the
windows gave a welcome suggestion of warmth, for darkness had fallen swiftly
during their walk and the chill of the wind had become more biting. There was a
smell of salt in the air now, and once or twice Jill had caught the low booming
of waves on some distant beach. This was the Atlantic pounding the sandy
“This is Brookport,” said Mr Mariner. “That's Haydock's grocery store there by the post-office. He charges sixty cents a pound for bacon, and I can get the same bacon by walking into Patchogue for fifty-seven!” He brooded awhile on the greed of man, as exemplified by the pirates of Brookport. “The very same bacon!” he said.
“How far is Patchogue?” asked Jill, feeling that some comment was required of her.
“Four miles,” said Mr Mariner.
They passed through the village, bearing to the right, and found themselves in a road bordered by large gardens in which stood big, dark houses. The spectacle of these stimulated Mr Mariner to something approaching eloquence. He quoted the price paid for each, the price asked, the price offered, the price that had been paid five years ago. The recital carried them on for another mile, in the course of which the houses became smaller and more scattered, and finally, when the country had become bare and desolate again, they turned down a narrow lane and came to a tall, gaunt house standing by itself in a field.
“What!” said Jill. “What did you say?”
“There is.” Jill's voice bubbled. “The King lives there.”
“Is that so?” said Mr Mariner. “Well, I bet he doesn't have the trouble with help that we have here. I have to pay our girl fifty dollars a month, and another twenty for the man who looks after the furnace and chops wood. They're all robbers. And if you kick they quit on you!”
Each day was the same as the last, almost to the final detail. Sometimes Tibby would be naughty at breakfast, sometimes at lunch; while Rover, the spaniel, a great devotee of the garbage-can, would occasionally be sick at mid-day instead of after the evening meal. But, with these exceptions, there was a uniformity about the course of life in the Mariner household which began to prey on Jill's nerves as early as the third day.
The picture which Mr Mariner had formed in his mind of Jill as a wealthy young lady with a taste for house property continued as vivid as ever. It was his practice each morning to conduct her about the neighborhood, introducing her to the various houses in which he had sunk most of the money which he had made in business. Mr Mariner's life centered around Brookport real estate, and the embarrassed Jill was compelled to inspect sitting-rooms, bathrooms, kitchens, and master's bedrooms till the sound of a key turning in a lock gave her a feeling of nervous exhaustion. Most of her uncle's houses were converted farmhouses and, as one unfortunate purchaser had remarked, not so darned converted at that. The days she spent at Brookport remained in Jill's memory as a smell of dampness and chill and closeness.
“You want to buy,” said Mr Mariner every time he shut a front-door behind them. “Not rent. Buy. Then, if you don't want to live here, you can always rent in the summer.”
It seemed incredible to Jill that the summer would ever come. Winter held Brookport in its grip. For the first time in her life she was tasting real loneliness. She wandered over the snow-patched fields down to the frozen bay, and found the intense stillness, punctuated only by the occasional distant gunshot of some optimist trying for duck, oppressive rather than restful. She looked on the weird beauty of the ice-bound marshes which glittered red and green and blue in the sun with unseeing eyes; for her isolation was giving her time to think, and thought was a torment.
On the eighth day came a letter from Uncle Chris,—a cheerful, even rollicking letter. Things were going well with Uncle Chris, it seemed. As was his habit, he did not enter into details, but he wrote in a spacious way of large things to be, of affairs that were coming out right, of prosperity in sight. As tangible evidence of success, he enclosed a present of twenty dollars, for Jill to spend in the Brookport shops.
The letter arrived by the morning mail, and two hours later Mr Mariner took Jill by one of his usual overland routes to see a house nearer the village than most of those which she had viewed. Mr Mariner had exhausted the supply of cottages belonging to himself, and this one was the property of an acquaintance. There would be an agent's fee for him in the deal, if it went through, and Mr Mariner was not a man who despised money in small quantities.
There was a touch of hopefulness in his gloom this morning, like the first intimation of sunshine after a wet day. He had been thinking the thing over, and had come to the conclusion that Jill's unresponsiveness when confronted with the houses she had already seen was due to the fact that she had loftier ideas than he had supposed. Something a little more magnificent than the twelve thousand dollar places he had shown her was what she desired. This house stood on a hill looking down on the bay, in several acres of ground. It had its private landing-stage and bath-house, its dairy, its sleeping-porches,—everything, in fact, that a sensible girl could want. Mr Mariner could not bring himself to suppose that he would fail again today.
“They're asking a hundred and five thousand,” he said, “but I know they'd take a hundred thousand. And, if it was a question of cash down, they would go even lower. It's a fine house. You could entertain there. Mrs Bruggenheim rented it last summer, and wanted to buy, but she wouldn't go above ninety thousand. If you want it, you'd better make up your mind quick. A place like this is apt to be snapped up in a hurry.”
Jill could endure it no longer.
“But, you see,” she said gently, “all I have in the world is twenty dollars!”
There was a painful pause. Mr Mariner shot a swift glance at her in the hope of discovering that she had spoken humorously, but was compelled to decide that she had not. His face under normal conditions always achieved the maximum gloom possible for any face, so he gave no outward sign of the shock which had shattered his mental poise; but he expressed his emotion by walking nearly a mile without saying a word. He was stunned. He had supported himself up till now by the thought that, frightful as the expense of entertaining Jill as a guest might be, the outlay was a good sporting speculation if she intended buying house-property in the neighbourhood. The realization that he was down to the extent of a week's breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, with nothing to show for it, appalled him. There had been a black morning some years before when Mr. Mariner had given a waiter a ten-dollar bill in mistake for a one. As he had felt then, on discovering his error when it was too late to retrieve it, so did he feel now.
“Twenty dollars!” he exclaimed, at the end of the mile.
“Twenty dollars,” said Jill,
“But your father was a rich man.” Mr. Mariner's voice was high and
plaintive. “He made a fortune over here before he went to
“It's all gone. I got nipped,” said Jill, who was finding a certain amount of humor in the situation, “in Amalgamated Dyes.”
“They're something,” explained Jill, “that people get nipped in.”
Mr Mariner digested this.
“You speculated?” he gasped.
“You shouldn't have been allowed to do it,” said Mr Mariner warmly. “Major Selby—your uncle ought to have known better than to allow you.”
“Yes, oughtn't he,” said Jill demurely.
There was another silence, lasting for about a quarter of a mile.
“Well, it's a bad business,” said Mr Mariner.
“Yes,” said Jill. “I've felt that myself.”
The result of this conversation was to effect a change in the atmosphere
That night, after dinner, Mrs Mariner asked Jill to read to her.
“Print tries my eyes so, dear,” said Mrs Mariner. It was a small thing, but it had the significance of that little cloud that arose out of the sea like a man's hand. Jill appreciated the portent. She was, she perceived, to make herself useful.
“Of course I will,” she said cordially. “What would you me to read?”
She hated reading aloud. It always made her throat sore, and her eye skipped to the end of each page and took the interest out of it long before the proper time. But she proceeded bravely, for her conscience was troubling her. Her sympathy was divided equally between these unfortunate people who had been saddled with an undesired visitor and herself who had been placed in a position at which every independent nerve in her rebelled. Even as a child she had loathed being under obligations to strangers or those whom she did not love.
“Thank you, dear,” said Mrs Mariner, when Jill's voice had roughened to a weary croak. “You read so well.” She wrestled ineffectually with her handkerchief against the cold in the head from which she always suffered. “It would be nice if you would do it every night, don't you think? You have no idea how tired print makes my eyes.”
On the following morning after breakfast, at the hour when she had hitherto gone house-hunting with Mr Mariner, the child Tibby, of whom up till now she had seen little except at meals, presented himself to her, coated and shod for the open and regarding her with a dull and phlegmatic gaze.
“Ma says will you please take me for a nice walk!”
Jill's heart sank. She loved children, but Tibby was not an ingratiating child. He was a Mr Mariner in little. He had the family gloom. It puzzled Jill sometimes why this branch of the family should look on life with so jaundiced an eye. She remembered her father as a cheerful man, alive to the small humors of life.
“All right, Tibby. Where shall we go?”
“Ma says we must keep on the roads and I mustn't slide.”
Jill was thoughtful during the walk. Tibby, who was no conversationalist, gave her every opportunity for meditation. She perceived that in the space of a few hours she had sunk in the social scale. If there was any difference between her position and that of a paid nurse and companion, it lay in the fact that she was not paid. She looked about her at the grim countryside, gave a thought to the chill gloom of the house to which she was about to return, and her heart sank.
Nearing home, Tibby vouchsafed his first independent observation.
“The hired man's quit!”
“Yep. Quit this morning.”
It had begun to snow. They turned and made their way back to the house. The information she had received did not cause Jill any great apprehension. It was hardly likely that her new duties would include the stoking of the furnace. That and cooking appeared to be the only acts about the house which were outside her present sphere of usefulness.
“He killed a rat once in the wood-shed with an axe,” said Tibby chattily. “Yessir! Chopped it right in half, and it bled!”
“Look at the pretty snow falling on the trees,” said Jill faintly.
At breakfast next morning, Mrs Mariner having sneezed, made a suggestion.
“Tibby, darling, wouldn't it be nice if you and cousin Jill played a game of pretending you were pioneers in the Far West?”
“What's a pioneer?” enquired Tibby, pausing in the middle of an act of violence on a plate of oatmeal.
“The pioneers were the early settlers in this country, dear. You have read about them in your history book. They endured a great many hardships, for life was very rough for them, with no railroads or anything. I think it would be a nice game to play this morning.”
Tibby looked at Jill. There was doubt in his eye. Jill returned his gaze sympathetically. One thought was in both their minds.
“There is a string to this!” said Tibby's eye.
“Exactly what I think!” said Jill's.
Mrs Mariner sneezed again.
“You would have lots of fun,” she said.
“What'ud we do?” asked Tibby cautiously. He had been this way before. Only last Summer, on his mother's suggestion that he should pretend he was a ship-wrecked sailor on a desert island, he had perspired through a whole afternoon cutting the grass in front of the house to make a ship-wrecked sailor's simple bed.
“I know,” said Jill. “We'll pretend we're pioneers stormbound in their log cabin in the woods, and the wolves are howling outside, and they daren't go out, so they make a lovely big fire and sit in front of it and read.”
“And eat candy,” suggested Tibby, warming to the idea.
“And eat candy,” agreed Jill.
Mrs Mariner frowned.
“I was going to suggest,” she said frostily, “that you shovelled the snow away from the front steps!”
“Splendid!” said Jill. “Oh, but I forgot. I want to go to the village first.”
“There will be plenty of time to do it when you get back.”
“All right. I'll do it when I get back.”
It was a quarter of an hour's walk to the village. Jill stopped at the post-office.
“Could you tell me,” she asked, “when the next train is to
“There's one at ten-ten,” said the woman, behind the window. “You'll have to hurry.”
“I'll hurry!” said Jill.
Doctors, laying down the law in their usual confident way, tell us that the vitality of the human body is at its lowest at two o'clock in the morning: and that it is then, as a consequence, that the mind is least able to contemplate the present with equanimity, the future with fortitude, and the past without regret. Every thinking man, however, knows that this is not so. The true zero hour, desolate, gloom-ridden, and specter-haunted, occurs immediately before dinner while we are waiting for that cocktail. It is then that, stripped for a brief moment of our armor of complacency and self-esteem, we see ourselves as we are,—frightful chumps in a world where nothing goes right; a gray world in which, hoping to click, we merely get the raspberry; where, animated by the best intentions, we nevertheless succeed in perpetrating the scaliest bloomers and landing our loved ones neck-deep in the gumbo.
So reflected Freddie Rooke, that priceless old bean, sitting
disconsolately in an arm-chair at the Drones Club about two weeks after Jill's
Surveying Freddie, as he droops on his spine in the yielding leather, one
is conscious of one's limitations as a writer. Gloom like his calls for the pen
of a master. Zola could have tackled it nicely.
Freddie gave himself up to despondency: and, as always in these days when he was mournful, he thought of Jill. Jill's sad case was a continual source of mental anguish to him. From the first he had blamed himself for the breaking-off of her engagement with Derek. If he had not sent the message to Derek from the police-station, the latter would never have known about their arrest, and all would have been well. And now, a few days ago, had come the news of her financial disaster, with its attendant complications.
It had descended on Freddie like a thunderbolt through the medium of Ronny Devereux.
“I say,” Ronny had said, “have you heard the latest? Your pal, Underhill, has broken off his engagement with Jill Mariner.”
“I know; rather rotten, what!”
“Rotten? I should say so! It isn't done. I mean to say, chap can't chuck a girl just because she's lost her money. Simply isn't on the board, old man!”
“Lost her money? What do you mean?”
Ronny was surprised. Hadn't Freddie heard? Yes, absolute fact. He had it
from the best authority. Didn't know how it had happened and all that, but Jill
Mariner had gone completely bust; Underhill had given her the miss-in-baulk;
and the poor girl had legged it, no one knew where. Oh, Freddie had met her and
she had told him she was going to
“But—” Freddie rushed to his hero's defence. “But it wasn't that at all. Something quite different. I mean, Derek didn't even know Jill had lost her money. He broke the engagement because —” Freddie stopped short. He didn't want everybody to know of that rotten arrest business, as they infallibly would if he confided in Ronny Devereux. Sort of thing he would never hear the last of. “He broke it off because of something quite different.”
“Oh, yes!” said Ronny skeptically.
“But he did, really!”
Ronny shook his head.
“Don't you believe it, old son. Don't you believe it. Stands to reason it must have been because the poor girl was broke. You wouldn't have done it and I wouldn't have done it, but Underhill did, and that's all there is to it. I mean, a tick's a tick, and there's nothing more to say. Well, I know he's been a pal of yours, Freddie, but, next time I meet him, by Jove, I'll cut him dead. Only I don't know him to speak to, dash it!” concluded Ronny regretfully.
Ronny's news had upset Freddie. Derek had returned to the
“Hullo, Freddie, old top! Sorry to have kept you waiting.”
Freddie looked up from his broken meditations, to find that his host had arrived.
“A quick bracer,” said Algy Martyn, “and then the jolly old food-stuffs. It's pretty late, I see. Didn't notice how time was slipping.”
Over the soup, Freddie was still a prey to gloom. For once the healing gin-and-vermouth had failed to do its noble work. He sipped sombrely, so sombrely as to cause comment from his host.
“Pipped?” enquired Algy solicitously.
“Pretty pipped,” admitted Freddie.
“Backed a loser?”
“Something wrong with the old tum?”
“No. — Worried.”
“Derek? Who's — ? Oh, you mean Underhill?”
Algy Martyn chased an elusive piece of carrot about his soup plate, watching it interestedly as it slid coyly from the spoon.
“Oh?” he said, with sudden coolness. “What about him?”
Freddie was too absorbed in his subject to notice the change in his friend's tone.
“A dashed unpleasant thing,” he said, “happened yesterday morning at my
place. I was just thinking about going out to lunch, when the door-bell rang
and Parker said a chappie of the name of Mason would like to see me. I didn't
remember any Mason, but Parker said the chappie said he knew me when I was a
kid. So he loosed him into the room, and it turned out to be a fellow I used to
know years ago down in Worcestershire. I didn't know him from Adam at first,
but gradually the old bean got to work, and I placed him. Wally Mason his name
was. Rummily enough, he had spoken to me at the
“Absolutely,” agreed Algy Martyn. He thoroughly approved of Freddie's code of etiquette. Sheer off. Only thing to do.
“Well, anyhow, now that he had turned up again and told me who he was, I
began to remember. We had been kids together, don't you know. (What's this?
Salmon? Oh, right ho.) So I buzzed about and did the jovial host, you know;
gave him a drink and a toofer, and all that sort of thing; and talked about the
dear old days and what not. And so forth, if you follow me. Then he brought the
conversation round to Jill. Of course he knew Jill at the same time when he
knew me, down in Worcestershire, you see. We were all pretty pally in those
days, if you see what I mean. Well, this man Mason, it seems, had heard
somewhere about Jill losing her money, and he wanted to know if it was true. I
said absolutely. Hadn't heard any details, but Ronny had told me and Ronny had
had it from some one who had stable information and all that sort of thing.
'Dashed shame, isn't it!' I said. 'She's gone to
Freddie broke off and drained his glass. The recollection of that painful moment had made him feverish. Social difficulties always did.
“Then what?” enquired Algy Martyn.
“Well, it, was pretty rotten. Derek held out his hand, as a chappie naturally would, being introduced to a strange chappie, and Wally Mason, giving it an absolute miss, went on talking to me just as if we were alone, you know. Look here. Here was I, where this knife is. Derek over here—this fork—with his hand out. Mason here—this bit of bread. Mason looks at his watch, and says 'I'm sorry, Freddie, but I find I've an engagement for lunch. So long!' and biffed out, without apparently knowing Derek was on the earth. I mean —” Freddie reached for his glass, “What I mean is, it was dashed embarrassing. I mean, cutting a fellow dead in my rooms. I don't know when I've felt so rotten!”
Algy Martyn delivered judgment with great firmness.
“Chappie was perfectly right!”
“No, but I mean —”
“Absolutely correct-o,” insisted Algy sternly. “Underhill can't dash about
all over the place giving the girl he's engaged to the mitten because she's
broke, and expect no notice to be taken of it. If you want to know what I think,
old man, your pal Underhill—I can't imagine what the deuce you see in him, but,
school together and so forth, makes a difference, I suppose,—I say, if you want
to know what I think, Freddie, the blighter Underhill would be well advised
either to leg it after Jill and get her to marry him or else lie low for a
goodish while till people have forgotten the thing. I mean to say, fellows like
Ronny and I and Dick Wimpole and Archie Studd and the rest of our lot,—well, we
all knew Jill and thought she was a topper and had danced with her here and
there and seen her about and all that, and naturally we feel pretty strongly
about the whole dashed business. Underhill isn't in our particular set, but we
all know most of the people he knows, and we talk about this business, and the
thing gets about, and there you are! My sister, who was a great pal of Jill's,
swears that all the girls she knows mean to cut Underhill. I tell you, Freddie,
“But you haven't got the story right, old thing!”
“Well, I mean you think and Ronny thinks and all the rest of you think that Derek broke off the engagement because of the money. It wasn't that at all.”
“What was it, then?”
“Well — Well, look here, it makes me seem a fearful ass and all that, but
I'd better tell you. Jill and I were going down one of those streets near
“Parrot-shooting's pretty good in those parts, they tell me,” interjected Algy satirically.
“Don't interrupt, old man. This parrot had got out of one of the houses, and a fellow was jabbing at it with a stick, and Jill—you know what she's like; impulsive, I mean, and all that—Jill got hold of the stick and biffed him with some vim, and a policeman rolled up and the fellow made a fuss and the policeman took Jill and me off to chokey. Well, like an ass, I sent round to Derek to bail us out, and that's how he heard of the thing. Apparently he didn't think a lot of it, and the result was that he broke off the engagement.”
Algy Martin had listened to this recital with growing amazement.
“He broke it off because of that?”
“What absolute rot!” said Algy Martyn. “I don't believe a word of it!”
“I say, old man!”
“I don't believe a word of it,” repeated Algy firmly. “And nobody else will either. It's dashed good of you, Freddie, to cook up a yarn like that to try and make things look better for the blighter, but it won't work. Such a dam silly story, too!” said Algy with some indignation.
“But it's true!”
“What's the use, Freddie, between old pals?” said Algy protestingly. “You know perfectly well that Underhill's a cootie of the most pronounced order, and that, when he found out that Jill hadn't any money, he chucked her.”
“But why should Derek care whether Jill was well off or not? He's got enough money of his own.”
“Nobody,” said Algy judicially, “has got enough money of his own. Underhill thought he was marrying a girl with a sizeable chunk of the ready, and, when the fuse blew out, he decided it wasn't good enough. For Heaven's sake don't let's talk any more about the blighter. It gives me a pain to think of him.”
And Algy Martyn, suppressing every effort which Freddie made to reopen the subject, turned the conversation to more general matters.
Freddie returned to the
The subject was not an easy one to broach to his somewhat forbidding friend, as he discovered when the latter arrived about half an hour later. Derek had been attending the semi-annual banquet of the Worshipful Dry-Salters Company down in the City, understudying one of the speakers, a leading member of Parliament, who had been unable to appear; and he was still in the grip of that feeling of degraded repletion which city dinners induce. The dry-salters, on these occasions when they cast off for a night the cares and anxieties of dry-salting, do their guests well, and Derek had that bloated sense of foreboding which comes to a man whose stomach is not his strong point after twelve courses and a multitude of mixed wines. A goose, qualifying for the role of a pot of pate de foies gras, probably has exactly the same jaundiced outlook.
Yet, unfavorably disposed as, judging by his silence and the occasional moody grunts he uttered, he appeared to be to a discussion of his private affairs, it seemed to Freddie impossible that the night should be allowed to pass without some word spoken on the subject. He thought of Ronny and what Ronny had said, of Algy and what Algy had said, of Wally Mason and how Wally had behaved in this very room; and he nerved himself to the task.
“Derek, old top.”
“I say, Derek, old bean.”
Derek roused himself, and looked gloomily across the room to where he stood, warming his legs at the blaze.
Freddie found a difficulty in selecting words. A ticklish business, this. One that might well have disconcerted a diplomat. Freddie was no diplomat, and the fact enabled him to find a way in the present crisis. Equipped by nature with an amiable tactlessness and a happy gift of blundering, he charged straight at the main point, and landed on it like a circus elephant alighting on a bottle.
“I say, you know, about Jill!”
He stooped to rub the backs of his legs, on which the fire was playing with a little too fierce a glow, and missed his companion's start and the sudden thickening of his bushy eyebrows.
“Well?” said Derek again.
Freddie nerved himself to proceed. A thought flashed across his mind that
Derek was looking exactly like
“Ronny Devereux was saying —” faltered Freddie.
“Damn Ronny Devereux!”
“Oh, absolutely! But —”
“Ronny Devereux! Who the devil is Ronny Devereux?”
“Why, old man, you've heard me speak of him, haven't you? Pal of mine. He came down to the station with Algy and me to meet your mater that morning.”
“Oh, that fellow? And he has been saying something about — ?”
“It isn't only Ronny, you know,” Freddie hastened to interject. “Algy Martyn's talking about it, too. And lots of other fellows. And Algy's sister and a lot of people. They're all saying —”
“What are they saying?”
Freddie bent down and chafed the back of his legs. He simply couldn't look
at Derek while he had that
“What are they saying?” repeated Derek grimly.
“Well —” Freddie hesitated. “That it's a bit tough — On Jill, you know.”
“They think I behaved badly?”
“Well — Oh, well, you know!”
Derek smiled a ghastly smile. This was not wholly due to mental disturbance. The dull heaviness which was the legacy of the Dry-Salters' dinner had begun to change to something more actively unpleasant. A sub-motive of sharp pain had begun to run through it, flashing in and out like lightning through a thunder-cloud. He felt sullen and vicious.
“I wonder,” he said with savage politeness, “if, when you chat with your friends, you would mind choosing some other topic than my private affairs.”
“Sorry, old man. But they started it, don't you know.”
“And, if you feel you've got to discuss me, kindly keep it to yourself.
Don't come and tell me what your damned friends said to each other and to you
and what you said to them, because it bores me. I'm not interested. I don't
value their opinions as much as you seem to.” Derek paused, to battle in
silence with the imperious agony within him. “It was good of you to put me up
here,” he went on, “but I think I won't trespass on your hospitality any
longer. Perhaps you'll ask Parker to pack my things tomorrow.” Derek moved, as
majestically as an ex-guest of the Worshipful Company of Dry-Salters may, in
the direction of the door. “I shall go to the
“Oh, I say, old man! No need to do that.”
“But, I say —”
“And you can tell your friend Devereux that, if he doesn't stop poking his nose into my private business, I'll pull it off.”
“Well,” said Freddie doubtfully, “of course I don't suppose you know, but
— Ronny's a pretty hefty bird. He boxed for
Derek slammed the door. Freddie was alone. He stood rubbing his legs for
some minutes, a rueful expression on his usually cheerful face. Freddie hated
rows. He liked everything to jog along smoothly. What a rotten place the world
was these days! Just one thing after another. First, poor old Jill takes the
knock and disappears. He would miss her badly. What a good sort! What a pal!
And now—gone. Biffed off. Next, Derek. Together, more or less, ever since
Freddie heaved a sigh, and reached out for the Sporting Times, his never-failing comfort in times of depression. He lit another cigar and curled up in one of the arm-chairs. He was feeling tired. He had been playing squash all the afternoon, a game at which he was exceedingly expert and to which he was much addicted.
Time passed. The paper slipped to the floor. A cold cigar followed it. From the depths of the chair came a faint snore —
A hand on his shoulder brought Freddie with a jerk troubled dreams. Derek was standing beside him. A tousled Derek, apparently in pain.
A spasm twisted Derek's face.
“Have you got any pepsin?”
Derek uttered a groan. What a mocker of our petty human dignity is this dyspepsia, bringing low the haughtiest of us, less than love itself a respecter of persons. This was a different Derek from the man who had stalked stiffly from the room two hours before. His pride had been humbled upon the rack.
Freddie blinked, the mists of sleep floating gently before his eyes. He could not quite understand what his friend was asking for. It had sounded just like pepsin, and he didn't believe there was such a word.
“Yes. I've got the most damned attack of indigestion.”
The mists of sleep rolled away from Freddie. He was awake again, and became immediately helpful. These were the occasions when the Last of the Rookes was a good man to have at your side. It was Freddie who suggested that Derek should recline in the arm-chair which he had vacated; Freddie who nipped round the corner to the all-night chemist's and returned with a magic bottle guaranteed to relieve an ostrich after a surfeit of soda-water bottles; Freddie who mixed and administered the dose.
His ministrations were rewarded. Presently the agony seemed to pass. Derek recovered.
One would say that Derek became himself again, but that the mood of gentle remorse which came upon him as he lay in the arm-chair was one so foreign to his nature. Freddie had never seen him so subdued. He was like a convalescent child. Between them, the all-night chemist and the Dry-Salters seemed to have wrought a sort of miracle. These temporary softenings of personality frequently follow city dinners. The time to catch your Dry-Salter in angelic mood is the day after the semi-annual banquet. Go to him then and he will give you his watch and chain.
“Freddie,” said Derek.
They were sitting over the dying fire. The clock on the mantelpiece, beside which Jill's photograph had stood, pointed to ten minutes past two. Derek spoke in a low, soft voice. Perhaps the doctors are right after all, and two o'clock is the hour at which our self-esteem deserts us, leaving in its place regret for past sins, good resolutions for future behavior.
“What do Algy Martyn and the others say about — you know?”
Freddie hesitated. Pity to start all that again.
“Oh, I know,” went on Derek. “They say I behaved like a cad.”
“Oh, well —”
“They are quite right. I did.”
“Oh, I shouldn't say that, you know. Faults on both sides and all that sort of rot.”
“I did!” Derek stared into the fire. Scattered all over
“She told me she was going.”
“What a fool I've been!”
The clock ticked on through the silence. The fire sputtered faintly, then gave a little wheeze, like a very old man. Derek rested his chin on his hands, gazing into the ashes.
“I wish to God I could go over there and find her.”
“Why don't you?”
“How can I? There may be an election coming on at any moment. I can't stir.”
Freddie leaped from his seat. The suddenness of the action sent a red-hot corkscrew of pain through Derek's head.
“What the devil's the matter?” he demanded irritably. Even the gentle mood which comes with convalescence after a City Dinner is not guaranteed to endure against this sort of thing.
“I've got an idea, old bean!”
“Well, there's no need to dance, is there?”
“I've nothing to keep me here, you know. What's the matter with my popping
“Could you?” he asked eagerly.
“Of course I could. I was saying only the other day that I had half a mind to buzz over. It's a wheeze! I'll get on the next boat and charge over in the capacity of a jolly old ambassador. Have her back in no time. Leave it to me, old thing! This is where I come out strong!”
Yes, New York looked good — good and exciting, with all the taxi-cabs
rattling in at the dark tunnel beside her, with all the people hurrying in and
hurrying out, with all this medley of street-cars and sky-signs and crushed
snow and drays and horses and policemen, and that vast hotel across the street,
towering to heaven like a cliff. It even smelt good. She remembered an old
picture in Punch, of two country visitors standing on the step of their railway
carriage at a
She took Uncle Chris' letter from her bag. He had written from an address
It was a slow ride, halted repeatedly by congestion of the traffic, but a
short one for Jill. She was surprised at herself, a Londoner of long standing,
for feeling so provincial and being so impressed. But
The cab drew up in front of a stone apartment house; and Jill, getting out, passed under an awning through a sort of mediaeval courtyard, gay with potted shrubs, to an inner door. She was impressed. The very atmosphere was redolent of riches, and she wondered how in the world Uncle Chris had managed to acquire wealth on this scale in the extremely short space of time which had elapsed since his landing. There bustled past her an obvious millionaire—or, more probably, a greater monarch of finance who looked down upon mere millionaires and out of the goodness of his heart tried to check a tendency to speak patronisingly to them. He was concealed to the eyebrows in a fur coat, and, reaching the sidewalk, was instantly absorbed in a large limousine. Two expensive-looking ladies followed him. Jill began to feel a little dazed. Evidently the tales one heard of fortunes accumulated overnight in this magic city were true, and one of them must have fallen to the lot of Uncle Chris. For nobody to whom money was a concern could possibly afford to live in a place like this. If Croesus and the Count of Monte Cristo had applied for lodging there, the authorities would probably have looked on them a little doubtfully at first and hinted at the desirability of a month's rent in advance.
In a glass case behind the inner door, reading a newspaper and chewing gum, sat a dignified old man in the rich uniform of a general in the Guatemalan army. He was a brilliant spectacle. He wore no jewelry, but this, no doubt, was due to a private distaste for display. As there was no one else of humbler rank at hand from whom Jill could solicit an introduction and the privilege of an audience, she took the bold step of addressing him directly.
“I want to see Major Selby, please.”
The Guatemalan general arrested for a moment the rhythmic action of his jaws, lowered his paper and looked at her with raised eyebrows. At first Jill thought that he was registering haughty contempt, then she saw what she had taken for scorn was surprise.
“No Major Selby living here.”
“Major Christopher Selby.”
“Not here,” said the associate of ambassadors and the pampered pet of
Jill had read works of fiction in which at certain crises everything had
“seemed to swim” in front of the heroine's eyes, but never till this moment had
she experienced that remarkable sensation herself. The Savior of Guatemala did
not actually swim, perhaps, but he certainly flickered. She had to blink to
restore his prismatic outlines to their proper sharpness. Already the bustle
and noise of
Perhaps the fact that she had said “please” to him when she opened the conversation touched the heart of the hero of a thousand revolutions. Dignified and beautiful as he was to the eye of the stranger, it is unpleasant to have to record that he lived in a world which rather neglected the minor courtesies of speech. People did not often say “please” to him. “Here!” “Hi!” and “Gosh darn you!” yes; but seldom “please.” He seemed to approve of Jill, for he shifted his chewing-gum to a position which facilitated speech, and began to be helpful.
“What was the name again?”
“Howja spell it?”
“S-e-l-b-y. Oh, Selby?”
“What was the first name?”
“Christopher Selby? No one of that name living here.”
“But there must be.”
The veteran shook his head with an indulgent smile.
“You want Mr Sipperley,” he said tolerantly. In
He had almost reached the telephone when Jill stopped him. This is an age of just-as-good substitutes, but she refused to accept any unknown Sipperley as a satisfactory alternative for Uncle Chris.
“I don't want Mr Sipperley. I want Major Selby.”
“Howja spell it once more?”
“S-e-l-b-y. No one of that name living here. Mr. Sipperley—”—he spoke in a wheedling voice, as if determined, in spite of herself, to make Jill see what was in her best interests—“Mr Sipperley's on the fourth floor. Gentleman in the real estate business,” he added insinuatingly. “He's got blond hair and a Boston bull-dog.”
“He may be all you say, and he may have a dozen bulldogs —”
“Only one. Jack his name is.”
“— But he isn't the right man. It's absurd. Major Selby wrote to me from
this address. This is
“I've got his letter here.” She opened her bag, and gave an exclamation of dismay. “It's gone!”
“Mr Sipperley used to have a friend staying with him last Fall. A Mr Robertson. Dark-complected man with a mustache.”
“I took it out to look at the address, and I was sure I put it back. I must have dropped it.”
“There's a Mr Rainsby on the seventh floor. He's a broker down on Wall Street. Short man with an impediment in his speech.”
Jill snapped the clasp of her bag.
“Never mind,” she said. “I must have made a mistake. I was quite sure that this was the address, but it evidently isn't. Thank you so much. I'm so sorry to have bothered you.”
She walked away, leaving the Terror of Paraguay and all points west
speechless: for people who said “Thank you so much” to him were even rarer than
those who said “please.” He followed her with an affectionate eye till she was
out of sight, then, restoring his chewing-gum to circulation, returned to the
perusal of his paper. A momentary suggestion presented itself to his mind that
what Jill had really wanted was Mr Willoughby on the eighth floor, but it was
too late to say so now: and soon, becoming absorbed in the narrative of a
spirited householder in
Jill walked back to
She pondered over the mystery of Uncle Chris' disappearance, and found no solution. The thing was inexplicable. She was as sure of the address he had given in his letter as she was of anything in the world. Yet at that address nothing had been heard of him. His name was not even known. These were deeper waters than Jill was able to fathom.
She walked on, aimlessly. Presently she came to
Jill jumped, and thought for a moment that the thing must have been an
hallucination. It was impossible that anybody in the place should have called
her name. Except for Uncle Chris, wherever he might be, she knew no one in
“I couldn't believe it was you!”
A girl in blue had risen from the nearest table, and was staring at her in
astonishment, Jill recognized her instantly. Those big, pathetic eyes, like a
lost child's, were unmistakable. It was the parrot girl, the girl whom she and
Freddie Rooke had found in the drawing-room, at
“Good gracious!” cried Jill. “I thought you were in
That feeling of emptiness and panic, the result of her interview with the Guatemalan general at the apartment house, vanished magically. She sat down at this unexpected friend's table with a light heart.
“Whatever are you doing in
“It was a little sudden. Still, here I am. And I'm starving. What are those things you're eating?”
“Oh, yes. I remember Uncle Chris talking about them on the boat. I'll have some.”
“But when did you come over?”
“I landed about ten days ago. I've been down at a place called Brookport
“I was surprised that you remembered me.”
“I've forgotten your name,” admitted Jill frankly. “But that's nothing. I always forget names.”
“My name's Nelly Bryant.”
“Of course. And you're on the stage, aren't you?”
“Yes. I've just got work with Goble and Cohn. — Hullo, Phil!”
A young man with a lithe figure and smooth black hair brushed straight back from his forehead had paused at the table on his way to the cashier's desk.
“I didn't know you lunched here.”
“Don't often. Been rehearsing with Joe up at the Century Roof, and had a quarter of an hour to get a bite. Can I sit down?”
“Sure. This is my friend, Miss Mariner.”
The young man shook hands with Jill, flashing an approving glance at her out of his dark, restless eyes.
“Pleased to meet you.”
“This is Phil Brown,” said Nelly. “He plays the straight for Joe Widgeon. They're the best jazz-and-hokum team on the Keith Circuit.”
“Oh, hush!” said Mr Brown modestly. “You always were a great little booster, Nelly.”
“Well, you know you are! Weren't you held over at the Palace last time! Well, then!”
“That's true,” admitted the young man. “Maybe we didn't gool 'em, eh? Stop me on the street and ask me! Only eighteen bows second house Saturday!”
Jill was listening, fascinated.
“I can't understand a word,” she said. “It's like another language.”
“You're from the other side, aren't you?” asked Mr Brown.
“She only landed a week ago,” said Nelly.
“I thought so from the accent,” said Mr Brown. “So our talk sort of goes over the top, does it? Well, you'll learn American soon, if you stick around.”
“I've learned some already,” said Jill. The relief of meeting Nelly had made her feel very happy. She liked this smooth-haired young man. “A man on the train this morning said to me, 'Would you care for the morning paper, sister?' I said, 'No, thanks, brother, I want to look out of the window and think!'“
“You meet a lot of fresh guys on trains,” commented Mr Brown austerely. “You want to give 'em the cold-storage eye.” He turned to Nelly. “Did you go down to Ike, as I told you?”
“Did you cop?”
“Yes. I never felt so happy in my life. I'd waited over an hour on that landing of theirs, and then Johnny Miller came along, and I yelled in his ear that I was after work, and he told me it would be all right. He's awfully good to girls who've worked in shows for him before. If it hadn't been for him I might have been waiting there still.”
“Who,” enquired Jill, anxious to be abreast of the conversation, “is Ike?”
“Mr Goble. Where I've just got work. Goble and Cohn, you know.”
“I never heard of them!”
The young man extended his hand.
“Put it there!” he said. “They never heard of me! At least, the fellow I saw when I went down to the office hadn't! Can you beat it?”
“Oh, did you go down there, too?” asked Nelly.
“Sure. Joe wanted to get in another show on Broadway. He'd sort of got tired of vodevil. Say, I don't want to scare you, Nelly, but, if you ask me, that show they're putting out down there is a citron! I don't think Ike's got a cent of his own money in it. My belief is that he's running it for a lot of amateurs. Why, say, listen! Joe and I blow in there to see if there's anything for us, and there's a tall guy in tortoiseshell cheaters sitting in Ike's office. Said he was the author and was engaging the principals. We told him who we were, and it didn't make any hit with him at all. He said he had never heard of us. And, when we explained, he said no, there wasn't going to be any of our sort of work in the show. Said he was making an effort to give the public something rather better than the usual sort of thing. No specialties required. He said it was an effort to restore the Gilbert and Sullivan tradition. Say, who are these Gilbert and Sullivan guys, anyway? They get written up in the papers all the time, and I never met any one who'd run across them. If you want my opinion, that show down there is a comic opera!”
“For heaven's sake!” Nelly had the musical comedy performer's horror of the older-established form of entertainment. “Why, comic opera died in the year one!”
“Well, these guys are going to dig it up. That's the way it looks to me.” He lowered his voice. “Say, I saw Clarice last night,” he said in a confidential undertone. “It's all right.”
“We've made it up. It was like this —”
His conversation took an intimate turn. He expounded for Nelly's benefit the inner history, with all its ramifications, of a recent unfortunate rift between himself and “the best little girl in Flatbush,”—what he had said, what she had said, what her sister had said, and how it all come right in the end. Jill might have felt a little excluded, but for the fact that a sudden and exciting idea had come to her. She sat back, thinking. — After all, what else was she to do? She must do something. —
She bent forward and interrupted Mr Brown in his description of a brisk passage of arms between himself and the best little girl's sister, who seemed to be an unpleasant sort of person in every way.
“Do you think there would be any chance for me if I asked for work at Goble and Cohn's?”
“You're joking!” cried Nelly.
“I'm not at all.”
“But what do you want with work?”
“I've got to find some. And right away, too.”
“I don't understand.”
Jill hesitated. She disliked discussing her private affairs, but there was obviously no way of avoiding it. Nelly was round-eyed and mystified, and Mr Brown had manifestly no intention whatever of withdrawing tactfully. He wanted to hear all.
“I've lost my money,” said Jill.
“Lost your money! Do you mean — ?”
“I've lost it all. Every penny I had in the world.”
“Tough!” interpolated Mr Brown judicially. “I broke once way out in a
“But how?” gasped Nelly.
“It happened about the time we met in
A dreamy look came into Nelly's eyes. There had not been an hour since their parting when she had not thought of that immaculate sportsman. It would have amazed Freddie, could he have known, but to Nelly Bryant he was the one perfect man in an imperfect world.
“Do I!” she sighed ecstatically.
Mr Brown shot a keen glance at her.
“Aha!” he cried facetiously. “Who is he, Nelly? Who is this blue-eyed boy?”
“If you want to know,” said Nelly, defiance in her tone, “he's the fellow who gave me fifty pounds, with no strings tied to it,—get that!—when I was broke in London! If it hadn't been for him, I'd be there still.”
“Did he?” cried Jill. “Freddie!”
“Yes. Oh, Gee!” Nelly sighed once more. “I suppose I'll never see him again in this world.”
“Introduce me to him, if you do,” said Mr Brown. “He sounds just the sort of little pal I'd like to have!”
“You remember hearing Freddie say something about losing money in a slump on the Stock Exchange,” proceeded Jill. “Well, that was how I lost mine. It's a long story, and it's not worth talking about, but that's how things stand, and I've got to find work of some sort, and it looks to me as if I should have a better chance of finding it on the stage than anywhere else.”
“I'm terribly sorry.”
“Oh, it's all right. How much would these people Goble and Cohn give me if I got an engagement?”
“Only forty a week.”
“Forty dollars a week! It's wealth! Where are they?”
“Over at the Gotham Theatre in
“I'll go there at once.”
“But you'll hate it. You don't realize what it's like. You wait hours and hours and nobody sees you.”
“Why shouldn't I walk straight in and say that I've come for work?”
Nelly's big eyes grew bigger.
“But you couldn't!”
“Why, you couldn't!”
“I don't see why.”
Mr Brown intervened with decision.
“You're dead right,” he said to Jill approvingly. “If you ask me, that's the only sensible thing to do. Where's the sense of hanging around and getting stalled? Managers are human guys, some of 'em. Probably, if you were to try it, they'd appreciate a bit of gall. It would show 'em you'd got pep. You go down there and try walking straight in. They can't eat you. It makes me sick when I see all those poor devils hanging about outside these offices, waiting to get noticed and nobody ever paying any attention to them. You push the office-boy in the face if he tries to stop you, and go in and make 'em take notice. And, whatever you do, don't leave your name and address! That's the old, moth-eaten gag they're sure to try to pull on you. Tell 'em there's nothing doing. Say you're out for a quick decision! Stand 'em on their heads!”
Jill got up, fired by this eloquence. She called for her check.
“Good-bye,” she said. “I'm going to do exactly as you say. Where can I find you afterwards?” she said to Nelly.
“You aren't really going?”
Nelly scribbled on a piece of paper.
“Here's my address. I'll be in all evening.”
“I'll come and see you. Good-bye, Mr Brown. And thank you.”
“You're welcome!” said Mr Brown.
Nelly watched Jill depart with wide eyes.
“Why did you tell her to do that?” she said.
“Why not?” said Mr Brown. “I started something, didn't I? Well, I guess I'll have to be leaving, too. Got to get back to rehearsal. Say, I like that friend of yours, Nelly. There's no yellow streak about her! I wish her luck!”
THE offices of Messrs Goble and Cohn were situated, like everything else
Nobody, except perhaps the night-watchman, had ever seen this bench empty. At whatever hour of the day you happened to call, you would always find three wistful individuals seated side by side with their eyes on the tiny ante-room where sat the office-boy, the telephone-girl, and Mr Goble's stenographer. Beyond this was the door marked “Private,” through which, as it opened to admit some careless, debonair, thousand-dollar-a-week comedian who sauntered in with a jaunty “Hello, Ike!” or some furred and scented female star, the rank and file of the profession were greeted, like Moses on Pisgah, with a fleeting glimpse of the promised land, consisting of a large desk and a section of a very fat man with spectacles and a bald head or a younger man with fair hair and a double chin.
The keynote of the mass meeting on the landing was one of determined, almost aggressive smartness. The men wore bright overcoats with bands round the waist, the women those imitation furs which to the uninitiated eye appear so much more expensive than the real thing. Everybody looked very dashing and very young, except about the eyes. Most of the eyes that glanced at Jill were weary. The women were nearly all blondes, blondness having been decided upon in the theatre as the color that brings the best results. The men were all so much alike that they seemed to be members of one large family,—an illusion which was heightened by the scraps of conversation, studded with “dears,” “old mans,” and “honeys,” which came to Jill's ears. A stern fight for supremacy was being waged by a score or so of lively and powerful young scents.
For a moment Jill was somewhat daunted by the spectacle, but she recovered
almost immediately. The exhilarating and heady influence of
In the ante-room were the outposts, the pickets of the enemy. In one corner a girl was hammering energetically and with great speed on a typewriter: a second girl, seated at a switchboard, was having an argument with Central which was already warm and threatened to descend shortly to personalities: on a chair tilted back so that it rested against the wall, a small boy sat eating candy and reading the comic page of an evening newspaper. All three were enclosed, like zoological specimens, in a cage formed by a high counter terminating in brass bars.
Beyond these watchers on the threshold was the door marked “Private.” Through it, as Jill reached the outer defences, filtered the sound of a piano.
Those who have studied the subject have come to the conclusion that the boorishness of theatrical managers' office-boys cannot be the product of mere chance. Somewhere, in some sinister den in the criminal districts of the town, there is a school where small boys are trained for these positions, where their finer instincts are rigorously uprooted and rudeness systematically inculcated by competent professors. Of this school the candy-eating Cerberus of Messrs Goble and Cohn had been the star scholar. Quickly seeing his natural gifts, his teachers had given him special attention. When he had graduated, it had been amidst the cordial good wishes of the entire faculty. They had taught him all they knew, and they were proud of him. They felt that he would do them credit.
This boy raised a pair of pink-rimmed eyes to Jill, sniffed—for like all theatrical managers' office-boys he had a permanent cold in the head—bit his thumb-nail, and spoke. He was a snub-nosed boy. His ears and hair were vermilion. His name was Ralph. He had seven hundred and forty-three pimples.
“Woddyerwant?” enquired Ralph, coming within an ace of condensing the question into a word of one syllable.
“I want to see Mr Goble.”
“Zout!” said the Pimple King, and returned to his paper.
There will, no doubt, always be class distinctions.
Jill turned pink. Mr Brown, her guide and mentor, foreseeing this situation, had, she remembered, recommended “pushing the office-boy in the face”: and for a moment she felt like following his advice. Prudence, or the fact that he was out of reach behind the brass bars, restrained her. Without further delay she made for the door of the inner room. That was her objective, and she did not intend to be diverted from it. Her fingers were on the handle before any of those present divined her intention. Then the stenographer stopped typing and sat with raised fingers, aghast. The girl at the telephone broke off in mid-sentence and stared round over her shoulder. Ralph, the office-boy, outraged, dropped his paper and constituted himself the spokesman of the invaded force.
Jill stopped and eyed the lad militantly.
“Were you speaking to me?”
“Yes, I was speaking to you!”
“Don't do it again with your mouth full,” said Jill, turning to the door.
The belligerent fire in the office-boy's pink-rimmed eyes was suddenly dimmed by a gush of water. It was not remorse that caused him to weep, however. In the heat of the moment he had swallowed a large, jagged piece of candy, and he was suffering severely.
“You can't go in there!” he managed to articulate, his iron will triumphing over the flesh sufficiently to enable him to speak.
“I am going in there!”
“That's Mr Goble's private room.”
“Well, I want a private talk with Mr Goble.”
Ralph, his eyes still moist, felt that the situation was slipping from his grip. This sort of thing had never happened to him before.
“I tell ya he zout!“
Jill looked at him sternly.
“You wretched child!” she said, encouraged by a sharp giggle from the neighborhood of the switchboard. “Do you know where little boys go who don't speak the truth? I can hear him playing the piano. Now he's singing! And it's no good telling me he's busy. If he was busy, he wouldn't have time to sing. If you're as deceitful as this at your age, what do you expect to be when you grow up? You're an ugly little boy, you've got red ears, and your collar doesn't fit! I shall speak to Mr Goble about you.”
With which words Jill opened the door and walked in.
“Good afternoon,” she said brightly.
After the congested and unfurnished discomfort of the landing, the room in which Jill found herself had an air of cosiness and almost of luxury. It was a large room, solidly upholstered. Along the further wall, filling nearly the whole of its space, stood a vast and gleaming desk, covered with a litter of papers which rose at one end of it to a sort of mountain of play-scripts in buff covers. There was a bookshelf to the left. Photographs covered the walls. Near the window was a deep leather lounge: to the right of this stood a small piano, the music-stool of which was occupied by a young man with untidy black hair that needed cutting. On top of the piano, taking the eye immediately by reason of its bold brightness, was balanced a large cardboard poster. Much of its surface was filled by a picture of a youth in polo costume bending over a blonde goddess in a bathing-suit. What space was left displayed the legend:
ISAAC GOBLE AND JACOB COHN
THE ROSE OF
(A Musical Fantasy)
BOOK AND LYRICS BY OTIS PILKINGTON
MUSIC BY ROLAND TREVIS
Turning her eyes from this, Jill became aware that something was going on at the other side of the desk: and she perceived that a second young man, the longest and thinnest she had ever seen, was in the act of rising to his feet, length upon length like an unfolding snake. At the moment of her entry he had been lying back in an office-chair, so that only a merely nominal section of his upper structure was visible. Now he reared his impressive length until his head came within measurable distance of the ceiling. He had a hatchet face and a receding chin, and he gazed at Jill through what she assumed were the “tortoiseshell cheaters” referred to by her recent acquaintance, Mr Brown.
“Er — ?” said this young man enquiringly in a high, flat voice.
Jill, like many other people, had a brain which was under the alternating control of two diametrically opposite forces. It was like an automobile steered in turn by two drivers, the one a dashing, reckless fellow with no regard for the speed limits, the other a timid novice. All through the proceedings up to this point the dasher had been in command. He had whisked her along at a break-neck pace, ignoring obstacles and police regulations. Now, having brought her to this situation, he abruptly abandoned the wheel and turned it over to his colleague, the shrinker. Jill, greatly daring a moment ago, now felt an overwhelming shyness.
She gulped, and her heart beat quickly. The thin man towered over her. The black-haired pianist shook his locks at her like Banquo.
“I —” she began.
Then, suddenly, womanly intuition came to her aid. Something seemed to tell her that these men were just as scared as she was. And, at the discovery, the dashing driver resumed his post at the wheel, and she began to deal with the situation with composure.
“I want to see Mr Goble.”
“Mr Goble is out,” said the long young man, plucking nervously at the papers on the desk. Jill had affected him powerfully.
“Out!” She felt she had wronged the pimpled office-boy.
“We are not expecting him back this afternoon. Is there anything I can do?”
He spoke tenderly. This weak-minded young man—at school his coarse companions had called him Simp—was thinking that he had never seen anything like Jill before. And it was true that she was looking very pretty, with her cheeks flushed and her eyes sparkling. She touched a chord in the young man which seemed to make the world a flower-scented thing, full of soft music. Often as he had been in love at first sight before in his time, Otis Pilkington could not recall an occasion on which he had been in love at first sight more completely than now. When she smiled at him, it was as if the gates of heaven had opened. He did not reflect how many times, in similar circumstances, these same gates had opened before; and that on one occasion when they had done so it had cost him eight thousand dollars to settle the case out of court. One does not think of these things at such times, for they strike a jarring note. Otis Pilkington was in love. That was all he knew, or cared to know.
“Won't you take a seat, Miss —”
“Mariner,” prompted Jill. “Thank you.”
“Miss Mariner. May I introduce Mr Roland Trevis?”
The man at the piano bowed. His black hair heaved upon his skull like seaweed in a ground swell.
“My name is Pilkington. Otis Pilkington.”
The uncomfortable silence which always follows introductions was broken by the sound of the telephone-bell on the desk. Otis Pilkington, who had moved out into the room and was nowhere near the desk, stretched forth a preposterous arm and removed the receiver.
“Yes? Oh, will you say, please, that I have a conference at present.” Jill was to learn that people in the theatrical business never talked: they always held conferences. “Tell Mrs Peagrim that I shall be calling later in the afternoon, but cannot be spared just now.” He replaced the receiver. “Aunt Olive's secretary,” he murmured in a soft aside to Mr Trevis. “Aunt Olive wanted me to go for a ride.” He turned to Jill. “Excuse me. Is there anything I can do for you, Miss Mariner?”
Jill's composure was now completely restored. This interview was turning
out so totally different from anything she had expected. The atmosphere was
cosy and social. She felt as if she were back in
“I came for work.”
“Work!” cried Mr Pilkington. He, too, appeared to be regarding the interview as purely of a social nature.
“In the chorus,” explained Jill.
Mr Pilkington seemed shocked. He winced away from the word as though it pained him.
“There is no chorus in 'The Rose of America,'“ he said.
“I thought it was a musical comedy.”
Mr Pilkington winced again.
“It is a musical fantasy!” he said. “But there will be no chorus. We shall have,” he added, a touch of rebuke in his voice, “the services of twelve refined ladies of the ensemble.”
“It does sound much better, doesn't it!” she said. “Well, am I refined enough, do you think?”
“I shall be only too happy if you will join us,” said Mr Pilkington promptly.
The long-haired composer looked doubtful. He struck a note up in the treble, then whirled round on his stool.
“If you don't mind my mentioning it, Otie, we have twelve girls already.”
“Then we must have thirteen,” said Otis Pilkington firmly.
“Unlucky number,” argued Mr Trevis.
“I don't care. We must have Miss Mariner. You can see for yourself that she is exactly the type we need.”
He spoke feelingly. Ever since the business of engaging a company had
begun, he had been thinking wistfully of the evening when “The Rose of America”
had had its opening performance—at his aunt's house at Newport last Summer—with
an all-star cast of society favorites and an ensemble recruited entirely from
debutantes and matrons of the Younger Set. That was the sort of company he had
longed to assemble for the piece's professional career, and until this
afternoon he had met with nothing but disappointment. Jill seemed to be the
only girl in theatrical
“Thank you very much,” said Jill.
There was another pause. The social note crept into the atmosphere again. Jill felt the hostess' desire to keep conversation circulating.
“I hear,” she said, “that this piece is a sort of Gilbert and Sullivan opera.”
Mr Pilkington considered the point.
“I confess,” he said, “that, in writing the book, I had Gilbert before me as a model. Whether I have in any sense succeeded in —”
“The book,” said Mr Trevis, running his fingers over the piano, “is as good as anything Gilbert ever wrote.”
“Oh come, Rolie!” protested Mr Pilkington modestly.
“Better,” insisted Mr Trevis. “For one thing, it is up-to-date.”
“I do try to strike the modern tone,” murmured Mr Pilkington.
“And you have avoided Gilbert's mistake of being too fanciful.”
“He was fanciful,” admitted Mr Pilkington. “The music,” he added, in a generous spirit of give and take, “has all Sullivan's melody with a newness of rhythm peculiarly its own. You will like the music.”
“It sounds,” said Jill amiably, “as though the piece is bound to be a tremendous success.”
“We hope so,” said Mr Pilkington. “We feel that the time has come when the public is beginning to demand something better than what it has been accustomed to. People are getting tired of the brainless trash and jingly tunes which have been given them by men like Wallace Mason and George Bevan. They want a certain polish. — It was just the same in Gilbert and Sullivan's day. They started writing at a time when the musical stage had reached a terrible depth of inanity. The theatre was given over to burlesques of the most idiotic description. The public was waiting eagerly to welcome something of a higher class. It is just the same today. But the managers will not see it. 'The Rose of America' went up and down Broadway for months, knocking at managers' doors.”
“It should have walked in without knocking, like me,” said Jill. She got up. “Well, it was very kind of you to see me when I came in so unceremoniously. But I felt it was no good waiting outside on that landing. I'm so glad everything is settled. Good-bye.”
“Good-bye, Miss Mariner.” Mr Pilkington took her outstretched hand devoutly. “There is a rehearsal called for the ensemble at—when is it, Rolie?”
“Eleven o'clock, day after tomorrow, at Bryant Hall.”
“I'll be there,” said Jill. “Good-bye, and thank you very much.”
The silence which had fallen upon the room as she left it, was broken by Mr Trevis.
“Some pip!” observed Mr Trevis.
Otis Pilkington awoke from day-dreams with a start.
“What did you say?”
“That girl — I said she was some pippin!”
“Miss Mariner,” said Mr Pilkington icily, “is a most charming, refined, cultured, and vivacious girl, if you mean that.”
“Yes,” said Mr Trevis. “That was what I meant!”
Jill walked out into
The address which Nelly had given her was on the east side of
She reached the
For a moment he was so near to her that, but for the closed window, she could have touched him. Then the polar-bear at the wheel, noting a gap in the traffic, stepped on the accelerator and slipped neatly through. The car moved swiftly on and disappeared.
Jill drew a deep breath. The Stop-and-Go sign swung round again. She crossed the avenue, and set out once more to find Nelly Bryant. It occurred to her, five minutes later, that a really practical and quick-thinking girl would have noted the number of the limousine.
The rehearsals of a musical comedy—a term which embraces “musical fantasies”—generally begin in a desultory sort of way at that curious building, Bryant Hall, on Sixth Avenue just off Forty-second Street. There, in a dusty, uncarpeted room, simply furnished with a few wooden chairs and some long wooden benches, the chorus—or, in the case of “The Rose of America,” the ensemble—sit round a piano and endeavor, with the assistance of the musical director, to get the words and melodies of the first-act numbers into their heads. This done, they are ready for the dance director to instil into them the steps, the groupings, and the business for the encores, of which that incurable optimist always seems to expect there will be at least six. Later, the principals are injected into the numbers. And finally, leaving Bryant Hall and dodging about from one unoccupied theatre to another, principals and chorus rehearse together, running through the entire piece over and over again till the opening night of the preliminary road tour.
To Jill, in the early stages, rehearsing was just like being back at school. She could remember her first school-mistress, whom the musical director somewhat resembled in manner and appearance, hammering out hymns on a piano and leading in a weak soprano an eager, baying pack of children, each anxious from motives of pride to out-bawl her nearest neighbor.
The proceedings began on the first morning with the entrance of Mr Saltzburg, the musical director, a brisk, busy little man with benevolent eyes behind big spectacles, who bustled over to the piano, sat down, and played a loud chord, designed to act as a sort of bugle blast, rallying the ladies Of the ensemble from the corners where they sat in groups, chatting. For the process of making one another's acquaintance had begun some ten minutes before with mutual recognitions between those who knew each other from having been together in previous productions. There followed rapid introductions of friends. Nelly Bryant had been welcomed warmly by a pretty girl with red hair, whom she introduced to Jill as Babe: Babe had a willowy blonde friend, named Lois: and the four of them had seated themselves on one of the benches and opened a conversation; their numbers being added to a moment later by a dark girl with a Southern accent and another blonde. Elsewhere other groups had formed, and the room was filled with a noise like the chattering of starlings. In a body by themselves, rather forlorn and neglected, half a dozen solemn and immaculately dressed young men were propping themselves up against the wall and looking on, like men in a ball-room who do not dance.
Jill listened to the conversation without taking any great part in it herself. She felt as she had done on her first day at school, a little shy and desirous of effacing herself. The talk dealt with clothes, men, and the show business, in that order of importance. Presently one of the young men sauntered diffidently across the room and added himself to the group with the remark that it was a fine day. He was received a little grudgingly, Jill thought, but by degrees succeeded in assimilating himself. A second young man drifted up; reminded the willowy girl that they had worked together in the western company of “You're the One”; was recognized and introduced; and justified his admission to the circle by a creditable imitation of a cat-fight. Five minutes later he was addressing the Southern girl as “honey,” and had informed Jill that he had only joined this show to fill in before opening on the three-a-day with the swellest little song-and-dance act which he and a little girl who worked in the cabaret at Geisenheimer's had fixed up.
On this scene of harmony and good-fellowship Mr Saltzburg's chord intruded jarringly. There was a general movement, and chairs and benches were dragged to the piano. Mr Saltzburg causing a momentary delay by opening a large brown music-bag and digging in it like a terrier at a rat-hole, conversation broke out again.
Mr Saltzburg emerged from the bag, with his hands full of papers, protesting.
“Childrun! Chil-drun! If you please, less noise and attend to me!” He distributed sheets of paper. “Act One, Opening Chorus. I will play the melody three—four times. Follow attentively. Then we will sing it la-la-la, and after that we will sing the words. So!”
He struck the yellow-keyed piano a vicious blow, producing a tinny and complaining sound. Bending forward with his spectacles almost touching the music, he plodded determinedly through the tune, then encored himself, and after that encored himself again. When he had done this, he removed his spectacles and wiped them. There was a pause.
“Izzy,” observed the willowy young lady chattily, leaning across Jill and addressing the Southern girl's blonde friend, “has promised me a sunburst!”
A general stir of interest and a coming close together of heads.
“He's just landed the hat-check privilege at the St Aurea!”
“You don't say!”
“He told me so last night and promised me the sunburst. He was,” admitted the willowy girl regretfully, “a good bit tanked at the time, but I guess he'll make good.” She mused awhile, a rather anxious expression clouding her perfect profile. She looked like a meditative Greek Goddess. “If he doesn't,” she added with maidenly dignity, “it's the las' time I go out with the big stiff. I'd tie a can to him quicker'n look at him!”
A murmur of approval greeted this admirable sentiment.
“Childrun!” protested Mr Saltzburg. “Chil-drun! Less noise and chatter of conversation. We are here to work! We must not waste time! So! Act One, Opening Chorus. Now, all together. La-la-la —”
Mr Saltzburg pressed his hands to his ears in a spasm of pain.
“No, no, no! Sour! Sour! Sour!— Once again. La-la-la —”
A round-faced girl with golden hair and the face of a wondering cherub interrupted, speaking with a lisp.
“Now what is it, Miss Trevor?”
“What sort of a show is this?”
“A musical show,” said Mr Saltzburg severely, “and this is a rehearsal of it, not a conversazione. Once more, please —”
The cherub was not to be rebuffed.
“Is the music good, Mithter Thalzburg?”
“When you have rehearsed it, you shall judge for yourself. Come, now —”
“Is there anything in it as good as that waltz of yours you played us when we were rehearthing 'Mind How You Go?' You remember. The one that went —”
A tall and stately girl, with sleepy brown eyes and the air of a duchess in the servants' hall, bent forward and took a kindly interest in the conversation.
“Oh, have you composed a varlse, Mr Saltzburg?” she asked with pleasant condescension. “How interesting, really! Won't you play it for us?”
The sentiment of the meeting seemed to be unanimous in favor of shelving work and listening to Mr Saltzburg's waltz.
“Oh, Mr Saltzburg, do!”
“Some one told me it was a pipterino!”
“I cert'nly do love waltzes!”
“Please, Mr Saltzburg!”
Mr Saltzburg obviously weakened. His fingers touched the keys irresolutely.
“I am sure it would be a great pleasure to all of us,” said the duchess graciously, “if you would play it. There is nothing I enjoy more than a good varlse.”
Mr Saltzburg capitulated. Like all musical directors he had in his leisure
moments composed the complete score of a musical play and spent much of his
time waylaying librettists on the
“You wish it?” he said. “Well, then! This waltz, you will understand, is the theme of a musical romance which I have composed. It will be sung once in the first act by the heroine, then in the second act as a duet for heroine and hero. I weave it into the finale of the second act, and we have an echo of it, sung off stage, in the third act. What I play you now is the second-act duet. The verse is longer. So! The male voice begins.”
A pleasant time was had by all for ten minutes.
“Ah, but this is not rehearsing, childrun!” cried Mr Saltzburg remorsefully at the end of that period. “This is not business. Come now, the opening chorus of act one, and please this time keep on the key. Before, it was sour, sour. Come! La-la-la —”
“There was an awfully thweet fox-trot you used to play us. I do wish —”
“Some other time, some other time! Now we must work. Come! La-la-la —”
“I wish you could have heard it, girls,” said the cherub regretfully. “Honetht, it wath a lalapalootha!”
The pack broke into full cry.
“Oh, Mr Saltzburg!”
“Please, Mr Saltzburg!”
“Do play the fox-trot, Mr Saltzburg!”
“If it is as good as the varlse,” said the duchess, stooping once more to the common level, “I am sure it must be very good indeed.” She powdered her nose. “And one so rarely hears musicianly music nowadays, does one?”
“Which fox-trot?” asked Mr Saltzburg weakly.
“Play 'em all!” decided a voice on the left.
“Yes, play 'em all,” bayed the pack.
“I am sure that that would be charming,” agreed the duchess, replacing her powder-puff.
Mr Saltzburg played 'em all. This man by now seemed entirely lost to shame. The precious minutes that belonged to his employers and should have been earmarked for “The Rose of America” flitted by. The ladies and gentlemen of the ensemble, who should have been absorbing and learning to deliver the melodies of Roland Trevis and the lyrics of Otis Pilkington, lolled back in their seats. The yellow-keyed piano rocked beneath an unprecedented onslaught. The proceedings had begun to resemble not so much a rehearsal as a home evening, and grateful glances were cast at the complacent cherub. She had, it was felt, shown tact and discretion.
Pleasant conversation began again.
“— And I walked a couple of blocks, and there was exactly the same model in Schwartz and Gulderstein's window at twenty-six fifty —”
“— He got on at
“— 'Even if you are my sister's husband,' I said to him. Oh, I suppose I got a temper. It takes a lot to arouse it, y'know, but I c'n get pretty mad —”
“— You don't know the half of it, dearie, you don't know the half of it! A one-piece bathing suit! Well, you could call it that, but the cop on the beach said it was more like a baby's sock. And when —”
“— So I said 'Listen, Izzy, that'll be about all from you! My father was a gentleman, though I don't suppose you know what that means, and I'm not accustomed —'“
A voice from the neighborhood of the door had cut into the babble like a knife into butter; a rough, rasping voice, loud and compelling, which caused the conversation of the members of the ensemble to cease on the instant. Only Mr Saltzburg, now in a perfect frenzy of musicianly fervor, continued to assault the decrepit piano, unwitting of an unsympathetic addition to his audience.
“What I play you now is the laughing trio from my second act. It is a building number. It is sung by tenor, principal comedian, and soubrette. On the second refrain four girls will come out and two boys. The girls will dance with the two men, the boys with the soubrette. So! On the encore, four more girls and two more boys. Third encore, solo-dance for specialty dancer, all on stage beating time by clapping their hands. On repeat, all sing refrain once more, and off-encore, the three principals and specialty dancer dance the dance with entire chorus. It is a great building number, you understand. It is enough to make the success of any musical play, but can I get a hearing? No! If I ask managers to listen to my music, they are busy! If I beg them to give me a libretto to set, they laugh—ha! ha!” Mr Saltzburg gave a spirited and lifelike representation of a manager laughing ha-ha when begged to disgorge a libretto. “Now I play it once more!”
“Like hell you do!” said the voice. “Say, what is this, anyway? A concert?”
Mr Saltzburg swung round on the music-stool, a startled and apprehensive man, and nearly fell off it. The divine afflatus left him like air oozing from a punctured toy-balloon, and, like such a balloon, he seemed to grow suddenly limp and flat. He stared with fallen jaw at the new arrival.
Two men had entered the room. One was the long Mr Pilkington. The other, who looked shorter and stouter than he really was beside his giraffe-like companion, was a thickset, fleshy man in the early thirties with a blond, clean-shaven, double-chinned face. He had smooth yellow hair, an unwholesome complexion, and light green eyes, set close together. From the edge of the semi-circle about the piano, he glared menacingly over the heads of the chorus at the unfortunate Mr Saltzburg,
“Why aren't these girls working?”
Mr Saltzburg, who had risen nervously from his stool, backed away apprehensively from his gaze, and, stumbling over the stool, sat down abruptly on the piano, producing a curious noise like Futurist music.
“I—We—Why, Mr Goble —”
Mr Goble turned his green gaze on the concert audience, and spread discomfort as if it were something liquid which he was spraying through a hose. The girls who were nearest looked down flutteringly at their shoes: those further away concealed themselves behind their neighbors. Even the duchess, who prided herself on being the possessor of a stare of unrivalled haughtiness, before which the fresh quailed and those who made breaks subsided in confusion, was unable to meet his eyes: and the willowy friend of Izzy, for all her victories over that monarch of the hat-checks, bowed before it like a slim tree before a blizzard.
Only Jill returned the manager's gaze. She was seated on the outer rim of the semi-circle, and she stared frankly at Mr Goble. She had never seen anything like him before, and he fascinated her. This behavior on her part singled her out from the throng, and Mr Goble concentrated his attention on her.
For some seconds he stood looking at her; then, raising a stubby finger, he let his eye travel over the company, and seemed to be engrossed in some sort of mathematical calculation.
“Thirteen,” he said at length. “I make it thirteen.” He rounded on Mr Pilkington. “I told you we were going to have a chorus of twelve.”
Mr Pilkington blushed and stumbled over his feet.
“Ah, yes — yes,” he murmured vaguely. “Yes!”
“Well, there are thirteen here. Count 'em for yourself.” He whipped round on Jill. “What's your name? Who engaged you?”
A croaking sound from the neighborhood of the ceiling indicated the clearing of Mr Pilkington's throat.
“I—er—I engaged Miss Mariner, Mr Goble.”
“Oh, you engaged her?”
He stared again at Jill. The inspection was long and lingering, and affected Jill with a sense of being inadequately clothed. She returned the gaze as defiantly as she could, but her heart was beating fast. She had never yet beer frightened of any man, but there was something reptilian about this fat, yellow-haired individual which disquieted her; much as cockroaches had done in her childhood. A momentary thought flashed through her mind that it would be horrible to be touched by him. He looked soft and glutinous.
“All right,” said Mr Goble at last, after what seemed to Jill many minutes. He nodded to Mr Saltzburg. “Get on with it! And try working a little this time! I don't hire you to give musical entertainments.”
“Yes, Mr Goble, yes. I mean no, Mr Goble!”
“You can have the
Outside the door, he turned to Mr Pilkington.
“That was a fool trick of yours, hiring that girl. Thirteen! I'd as soon
walk under a ladder on a Friday as open in
“She—ah—came into the office, when you were out. She struck me as being essentially the type we required for our ensemble, so I—er—engaged her. She—” Mr Pilkington gulped. “She is a charming, refined girl!”
“She's darned pretty,” admitted Mr Goble, and went on his way wrapped in thought, Mr Pilkington following timorously. It was episodes like the one that had just concluded which made Otis Pilkington wish that he possessed a little more assertion. He regretted wistfully that he was not one of those men who can put their hat on the side of their heads and shoot out their chins and say to the world “Well, what about it!” He was bearing the financial burden of this production. If it should be a failure, his would be the loss. Yet somehow this coarse, rough person in front of him never seemed to allow him a word in the executive policy of the piece. He treated him as a child. He domineered and he shouted, and behaved as if he were in sole command. Mr Pilkington sighed. He rather wished he had never gone into this undertaking.
Inside the room, Mr Saltzburg wiped his forehead, spectacles, and his hands. He had the aspect of one wakes from a dreadful dream.
“Childrun!” he whispered brokenly. “Childrun! If yoll please, once more. Act One, Opening Chorus. Come! La-la-la!”
“La-la-la!” chanted the subdued members of the ensemble.
By the time the two halves of the company, ensemble and principals, melted into one complete whole, the novelty of her new surroundings had worn off, and Jill was feeling that there had never been a time when she had not been one of a theatrical troupe, rehearsing. The pleasant social gatherings round Mr Saltzburg's piano gave way after a few days to something far less agreeable and infinitely more strenuous, the breaking-in of the dances under the supervision of the famous Johnson Miller. Johnson Miller was a little man with snow-white hair and the india-rubber physique of a juvenile acrobat. Nobody knew actually how old he was, but he certainly looked much too advanced in years to be capable of the feats of endurance which he performed daily. He had the untiring enthusiasm of a fox-terrier, and had bullied and scolded more companies along the rocky road that leads to success than any half-dozen dance-directors in the country, in spite of his handicap in being almost completely deaf. He had an almost miraculous gift of picking up the melodies for which it was his business to design dances, without apparently hearing them. He seemed to absorb them through the pores. He had a blunt and arbitrary manner, and invariably spoke his mind frankly and honestly—a habit which made him strangely popular in a profession where the language of equivoque is cultivated almost as sedulously as in the circles of international diplomacy. What Johnson Miller said to your face was official, not subject to revision as soon as your back was turned: and people appreciated this.
Izzy's willowy friend summed him up one evening when the ladies of the ensemble were changing their practise-clothes after a particularly strenuous rehearsal, defending him against the Southern girl, who complained that he made her tired.
“You bet he makes you tired,” she said. “So he does me. I'm losing my girlish curves, and I'm so stiff I can't lace my shoes. But he knows his business and he's on the level, which is more than you can say of most of these guys in the show business.”
“That's right,” agreed the Southern girl's blonde friend. “He does know his business. He's put over any amount of shows which would have flopped like dogs without him to stage the numbers.”
The duchess yawned. Rehearsing always bored her, and she had not been greatly impressed by what she had seen of “The Rose of America.”
“One will be greatly surprised if he can make a success of this show! I confess I find it perfectly ridiculous.”
“Ithn't it the limit, honetht!” said the cherub, arranging her golden hair at the mirror. “It maketh me thick! Why on earth is Ike putting it on?”
The girl who knew everything—there is always one in every company—hastened to explain.
“I heard all about that. Ike hasn't any of his own money in the thing. He's getting twenty-five per cent of the show for running it. The angel is the long fellow you see jumping around. Pilkington his name is.”
“Well, it'll need to be Rockefeller later on,” said the blonde.
“Oh, they'll get thomebody down to fixth it after we've out on the road a couple of days,” said the cherub, optimistically. “They alwayth do. I've seen worse shows than this turned into hits. All it wants ith a new book and lyrics and a different thcore.”
“And a new set of principals,” said the red-headed Babe. “Did you ever see such a bunch?”
The duchess, with another tired sigh, arched her well-shaped eyebrows and studied the effect in the mirror.
“One wonders where they pick these persons up,” she assented languidly. “They remind me of a headline I saw in the paper this morning—'Tons of Hams Unfit for Human Consumption.' Are any of you girls coming my way? I can give two or three of you a lift in my limousine.”
“Thorry, old dear, and thanks ever so much,” said the cherub, “but I instructed Clarence, my man, to have the street-car waiting on the corner, and he'll be tho upset if I'm not there.”
Nelly had an engagement to go and help one of the other girls buy a Spring
suit, a solemn rite which it is impossible to conduct by oneself: and Jill and
the cherub walked to the corner together. Jill had become very fond of the
little thing since rehearsals began. She reminded her of a
“Limouthine!” snorted the cherub. The duchess' concluding speech evidently still rankled. “She gives me a pain in the gizthard!”
“Hasn't she got a limousine?” asked Jill.
“Of course she hasn't. She's engaged to be married to a demonstrator in
the Speedwell Auto Company, and he thneaks off when he can get away and gives
her joy-rides. That's all the limousine she's got. It beats me why girls in the
show business are alwayth tho crazy to make themselves out vamps with a dozen
millionaires on a string. If Mae wouldn't four-flush and act like the Belle of
the Moulin Rouge, she'd be the nithest girl you ever met. She's mad about the
fellow she's engaged to, and wouldn't look at all the millionaires in
“That's funny,” said Jill. “I should never have thought it. I swallowed the limousine whole.”
The cherub looked at her curiously. Jill puzzled her. Jill had, indeed, been the subject of much private speculation among her colleagues.
“This is your first show, ithn't it?” she asked.
“Thay, what are you doing in the chorus, anyway?”
“Getting scolded by Mr Miller mostly, it seems to me.”
“Thcolded by Mr Miller! Why didn't you say 'bawled out by Johnny?' That'th what any of the retht of us would have said.”
“Well, I've lived most of my life in
“I thought you were English. You've got an acthent like the fellow who plays the dude in thith show. Thay, why did you ever get into the show business?”
“Well — well, why did you? Why does anybody?”
“Why did I? Oh, I belong there. I'm a regular Broadway rat. I wouldn't be
happy anywhere elthe. I was born in the show business. I've got two thithters
in the two-a-day and a brother in thtock out in
“But there is. I've no money, and I can't do anything to make it.”
“That's tough.” The cherub pondered, her round eyes searching Jill's face. “Why don't you get married?”
“Nobody's asked me.”
“Somebody thoon will. At least, if he's on the level, and I think he is. You can generally tell by the look of a guy, and, if you ask me, friend Pilkington's got the license in hith pocket and the ring all ordered and everything.”
“Pilkington!” cried Jill, aghast.
She remembered certain occasions during rehearsals, when, while the chorus
idled in the body of the theatre and listened to the principals working at
their scenes, the elongated Pilkington had suddenly appeared in the next seat
and conversed sheepishly in a low voice. Could this be love? If so, it was a
terrible nuisance. Jill had had her experience in
“Oh, no!” cried Jill.
“Oh, yeth!” insisted the cherub, waving imperiously to an approaching street-car. “Well, I must be getting uptown. I've got a date. Thee you later.”
“I'm sure you're mistaken.”
“But what makes you think so?”
The cherub placed a hand on the rail of the car, preparatory to swinging herself on board.
“Well, for one thing,” she said, “he'th been stalking you like an Indian ever since we left the theatre! Look behind you. Good-bye, honey. Thend me a piece of the cake!”
The street-car bore her away. The last that Jill saw of her was a wide and amiable grin. Then, turning, she beheld the snake-like form of Otis Pilkington towering at her side.
Mr Pilkington seemed nervous but determined. His face was half hidden by the silk scarf that muffled his throat, for he was careful of his health and had a fancied tendency to bronchial trouble. Above the scarf a pair of mild eyes gazed down at Jill through their tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles. It was hopeless for Jill to try to tell herself that the tender gleam behind the glass was not the love-light in Otis Pilkington's eyes. The truth was too obvious.
“Good evening, Miss Mariner,” said Mr Pilkington, his voice sounding muffled and far away through the scarf. “Are you going up-town?”
“No, down-town,” said Jill quickly.
“So am I,” said Mr Pilkington.
Jill felt annoyed, but helpless. It is difficult to bid a tactful farewell to a man who has stated his intention of going in the same direction as yourself. There was nothing for it but to accept the unspoken offer of Otis Pilkington's escort. They began to walk down Broadway together.
“I suppose you are tired after the rehearsal?” enquired Mr Pilkington in his precise voice. He always spoke as if he were weighing each word and clipping it off a reel.
“A little. Mr Miller is very enthusiastic.”
“About the piece?” Her companion spoke eagerly.
“No; I meant hard-working.”
“Has he said anything about the piece?”
“Well, no. You see, he doesn't confide in us a great deal, except to tell us his opinion of the way we do the steps. I don't think we impress him very much, to judge from what he says. But the girls say he always tells every chorus he rehearses that it is the worst he ever had anything to do with.”
“And the chor—the—er—ladies of the ensemble? What do they think of the piece?”
“Well, I don't suppose they are very good judges, are they?” said Jill diplomatically.
“You mean they do not like it?”
“Some of them don't seem quite to understand it.”
Mr Pilkington was silent for a moment.
“I am beginning to wonder myself whether it may not be a little over the heads of the public,” he said ruefully. “When it was first performed —”
“Oh, has it been done before?”
“By amateurs, yes, at the house of my aunt, Mrs Waddesleigh Peagrim, at
Jill was feeling immensely relieved. After all, it seemed, this poor young man merely wanted sympathy, not romance. She had been mistaken, she felt, about that gleam in his eyes. It was not the love-light: it was the light of panic. He was the author of the play. He had sunk a large sum of money in its production, he had heard people criticizing it harshly, and he was suffering from what her colleagues in the chorus would have called cold feet. It was such a human emotion and he seemed so like an overgrown child pleading to be comforted that her heart warmed to him. Relief melted her defences. And when, on their arrival at Thirty-fourth Street Mr Pilkington suggested that she partake of a cup of tea at his apartment, which was only a couple of blocks away off Madison Avenue, she accepted the invitation without hesitating.
On the way to his apartment Mr Pilkington continued in the minor key. He
was a great deal more communicative than she herself would have been to such a
comparative stranger as she was, but she knew that men were often like this.
“It isn't that I'm dependent on Aunt Olive or anything like that,” he vouchsafed, as he stirred the tea in his Japanese-print hung studio. “But you know how it is. Aunt Olive is in a position to make it very unpleasant for me if I do anything foolish. At present, I have reason to know that she intends to leave me practically all that she possesses. Millions!” said Mr Pilkington, handing Jill a cup. “I assure you, millions! But there is a hard commercial strain in her. It would have the most prejudicial effect upon her if, especially after she had expressly warned me against it, I were to lose a great deal of money over this production. She is always complaining that I am not a business man like my late uncle. Mr Waddesleigh Peagrim made a fortune in smoked hams.” Mr Pilkington looked at the Japanese prints, and shuddered slightly. “Right up to the time of his death he was urging me to go into the business. I could not have endured it. But, when I heard those two men discussing the play, I almost wished that I had done so.”
Jill was now completely disarmed. She would almost have patted this unfortunate young man's head, if she could have reached it.
“I shouldn't worry about the piece,” she said. “I've read somewhere or heard somewhere that it's the surest sign of a success when actors don't like a play.”
Mr Pilkington drew his chair an imperceptible inch nearer.
“How sympathetic you are!”
Jill perceived with chagrin that she had been mistaken after all. It was the love-light. The tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles sprayed it all over her like a couple of searchlights. Otis Pilkington was looking exactly like a sheep, and she knew from past experience that that was the infallible sign. When young men looked like that, it was time to go.
“I'm afraid I must be off,” she said. “Thank you so much for giving me tea. I shouldn't be a bit afraid about the play. I'm sure it's going to be splendid. Good-bye.”
“You aren't going already?”
“I must. I'm very late as it is. I promised —”
Whatever fiction Jill might have invented to the detriment of her soul was interrupted by a ring at the bell. The steps of Mr Pilkington's Japanese servant crossing the hall came faintly to the sitting-room.
“Mr Pilkington in?”
Otis Pilkington motioned pleadingly to Jill.
“Don't go!” he urged. “It's only a man I know. He has probably come to remind me that I am dining with him tonight. He won't stay a minute. Please don't go.”
Jill sat down. She had no intention of going now. The cheery voice at the front door had been the cheery voice of her long-lost uncle, Major Christopher Selby.
Uncle Chris walked breezily into the room, flicking a jaunty glove. He stopped short on seeing that Mr Pilkington was not alone.
“Oh, I beg your pardon! I understood —” He peered at Jill uncertainly. Mr Pilkington affected a dim, artistic lighting-system in his studio, and people who entered from the great outdoors generally had to take time to accustom their eyes to it. “If you're engaged —”
“Er—allow me — Miss Mariner — Major Selby.”
“Hullo, Uncle Chris!” said Jill.
“God bless my soul!” ejaculated that startled gentleman adventurer, and collapsed onto a settee as if his legs had been mown from under him.
“I've been looking for you all over
Mr Pilkington found himself unequal to the intellectual pressure of the conversation.
“Uncle Chris?” he said with a note of feeble enquiry in his voice.
“Major Selby is my uncle.”
“Are you sure?” said Mr Pilkington. “I mean —”
Not being able to ascertain, after a moment's self-examination, what he did mean, he relapsed into silence.
“Whatever are you doing here?” asked Uncle Chris.
“I've been having tea with Mr Pilkington.”
“But — but why Mr Pilkington?”
“Well, he invited me.”
“But how do you know him?”
“We met at the theatre.”
Otis Pilkington recovered his power of speech.
“Miss Mariner is rehearsing with a little play in which I am interested,” he explained.
Uncle Chris half rose from the settee. He blinked twice in rapid succession. Jill had never seen him so shaken from his customary poise.
“Don't tell me you have gone on the stage, Jill!”
“I have. I'm in the chorus —”
“Ensemble,” corrected Mr Pilkington softly.
“I'm in the ensemble of a piece called 'The Rose of America.' We've been rehearsing for ever so long.”
Uncle Chris digested this information in silence for a moment. He pulled at his short mustache.
“Why, of course!” he said at length. Jill, who know him so well, could
tell by the restored ring of cheeriness in his tone that he was himself again.
He had dealt with this situation in his mind and was prepared to cope with it.
The surmise was confirmed the next instant when he rose and stationed himself
in front of the fire. Mr Pilkington detested steam-heat and had scoured the
city till he had found a studio apartment with an open fireplace. Uncle Chris
spread his legs and expanded his chest. “Of course,” he said. “I remember now
that you told me in your letter that you were thinking of going on the stage.
My niece,” explained Uncle Chris to the attentive Mr Pilkington, “came over
“Oh, that was it?” said Mr Pilkington. He had been wondering.
“There is no finer training,” resumed Uncle Chris, completely at his ease
once more, “than the chorus. How many of the best-known actresses in
“Exactly,” assented Mr Pilkington.
“The term 'chorus'—”
“I dislike it intensely myself.”
“It suggests —”
Uncle Chris inflated his chest again, well satisfied.
“Capital!” he said. “Well, I only dropped in to remind you, my boy, that you and your aunt are dining with me tonight. I was afraid a busy man like you might forget.”
“I was looking forward to it,” said Mr Pilkington, charmed at the description.
“You remember the address?
“So that was why I couldn't find you at the other place,” said Jill. “The man at the door said he had never heard of you.”
“Stupid idiot!” said Uncle Chris testily. “These
“Good-bye, Mr Pilkington,” said Jill.
“Good-bye for the present, Miss Mariner,” said Mr Pilkington, bending down to take her hand. The tortoiseshell spectacles shot a last soft beam at her.
As the front door closed behind them, Uncle Chris heaved a sigh of relief.
“Whew! I think I handled that little contretemps with diplomacy! A certain amount of diplomacy, I think!”
“If you mean,” said Jill severely, “that you told some disgraceful fibs —”
“Fibs, my dear,—or shall we say, artistic mouldings of the unshapely clay of truth—are the — how shall I put it?— Well, anyway, they come in dashed handy. It would never have done for Mrs Peagrim to have found out that you were in the chorus. If she discovered that my niece was in the chorus, she would infallibly suspect me of being an adventurer. And while,” said Uncle Chris meditatively, “of course I am, it is nice to have one's little secrets. The good lady has had a rooted distaste for girls in that perfectly honorable but maligned profession ever since our long young friend back there was sued for breach of promise by a member of a touring company in his sophomore year at college. We all have our prejudices. That is hers. However, I think we may rely on our friend to say nothing about the matter — But why did you do it? My dear child, whatever induced you to take such a step?”
“That's practically what Mr Miller said to me when we were rehearsing one
of the dances this afternoon, only he put it differently.” She linked her arm
in his. “What else could I do? I was alone in
“But why didn't you stay down at Brookport with your Uncle Elmer?”
“Have you ever seen my Uncle Elmer?”
“No. Curiously enough, I never have.”
“If you had, you wouldn't ask. Brookport! Ugh! I left when they tried to get me to understudy the hired man, who had resigned.”
“Yes, they got tired of supporting me in the state to which I was accustomed—I don't blame them!—so they began to find ways of making me useful about the home. I didn't mind reading to Aunt Julia, and I could just stand taking Tibby for walks. But, when it came to shoveling snow, I softly and silently vanished away.”
“But I can't understand all this. I suggested to your uncle—diplomatically—that you had large private means.”
“I know you did. And he spent all his time showing me over houses and telling me I could have them for a hundred thousand dollars cash down.” Jill bubbled. “You should have seen his face when I told him that twenty dollars was all I had in the world!”
“You didn't tell him that!”
Uncle Chris shook his head, like an indulgent father disappointed in a favorite child.
“You're a dear girl, Jill, but really you do seem totally lacking in — how shall I put it?—finesse. Your mother was just the same. A sweet woman, but with no diplomacy, no notion of handling a situation. I remember her as a child giving me away hopelessly on one occasion after we had been at the jam-cupboard. She did not mean any harm, but she was constitutionally incapable of a tactful negative at the right time.” Uncle Chris brooded for a moment on the past. “Oh, well, it's a very fine trait, no doubt, though inconvenient. I don't blame you for leaving Brookport if you weren't happy there. But I wish you had consulted me before going on the stage.”
“Shall I strike this man?” asked Jill of the world at large. “How could I
consult you? My darling, precious uncle, don't you realize that you had
vanished into thin air, leaving me penniless? I had to do something. And, now
that we are on the subject, perhaps you will explain your movements. Why did
you write to me from that place on
Uncle Chris cleared his throat.
“In a sense — when I wrote — I was there.”
“I suppose that means something, but it's beyond me. I'm not nearly as intelligent as you think, Uncle Chris, so you'll have to explain.”
“Well, it was this way, my dear. I was in a peculiar position you must
remember. I had made a number of wealthy friends on the boat and it is possible
that—unwittingly—I have them the impression that I was as comfortably off as
themselves. At any rate, that is the impression they gathered, and it hardly
seemed expedient to correct it. For it is a deplorable trait in the character
of the majority of rich people that they only—er—expand,—they only show the
best and most companionable side of themselves to those whom they imagine to be
as wealthy as they are. Well, of course, while one was on the boat, the fact
that I was sailing under what a purist might have termed false colors did not
matter. The problem was how to keep up the—er—innocent deception after we had
“But how on earth could you afford to pay for an apartment in a place like that?”
Uncle Chris coughed.
“I didn't say I paid for it. I said I took it. That is, as one might say, the point of my story. My old friend, grateful for favors received and wishing to do me a good turn consented to become my accomplice in another—er—innocent deception. I gave my friends the address and telephone number of the apartment-house, living the while myself in surroundings of a somewhat humbler and less expensive character. I called every morning for letters. If anybody rang me up on the telephone, the admirable man answered in the capacity of my servant, took a message, and relayed it on to me at my boarding-house. If anybody called, he merely said that I was out. There wasn't a flaw in the whole scheme, my dear, and its chief merit was its beautiful simplicity.”
“Then what made you give it up? Conscience?”
“Conscience never made me give up anything,” said Uncle Chris
firmly. “No, there were a hundred chances to one against anything going wrong,
and it was the hundredth that happened. When you have been in
“Leaving you homeless!”
“As you say, homeless—temporarily. But, fortunately,—I have been amazingly lucky all through; it really does seem as if you cannot keep a good man down—fortunately my friend had a friend who was janitor at a place on East Forty-First Street, and by a miracle of luck the only apartment in the building was empty. It is an office-building, but, like some of these places, it has one small bachelor's apartment on the top floor.”
“And you are the small bachelor?”
“Precisely. My friend explained matters to his friend—a few financial details were satisfactorily arranged—and here I am, perfectly happy with the cosiest little place in the world, rent free. I am even better off than I was before, as a matter of fact, for my new ally's wife is an excellent cook, and I have been enabled to give one or two very pleasant dinners at my new home. It lends verisimilitude to the thing if you can entertain a little. If you are never in when people call, they begin to wonder. I am giving dinner to your friend Pilkington and Mrs Peagrim there tonight. Homey, delightful, and infinitely cheaper than a restaurant.”
“And what will you do when the real owner of the place walks in in the middle of dinner?”
“Out of the question. The janitor informs me that he left for
“Well, you certainly think of everything.”
“Whatever success I may have achieved,” replied Uncle Chris, with the dignity of a Captain of Industry confiding in an interviewer, “I attribute to always thinking of everything.”
Jill gurgled with laughter. There was that about her uncle which always acted on her moral sense like an opiate, lulling it to sleep and preventing it from rising up and becoming critical. If he had stolen a watch and chain, he would somehow have succeeded in convincing her that he had acted for the best under the dictates of a benevolent altruism.
“What success have you achieved?” she asked, interested. “When you left me, you were on your way to find a fortune. Did you find it?”
“I have not actually placed my hands upon it yet,” admitted Uncle Chris. “But it is hovering in the air all round me. I can hear the beating of the wings of the dollar-bills as they flutter to and fro, almost within reach. Sooner or later I shall grab them. I never forget, my dear, that I have a task before me,—to restore to you the money of which I deprived you. Some day—be sure—I shall do it. Some day you will receive a letter from me, containing a large sum—five thousand—ten thousand—twenty thousand—whatever it may be, with the simple words 'First Instalment'.” He repeated the phrase, as if it pleased him. “First Instalment!”
Jill hugged his arm. She was in the mood in which she used to listen to him ages ago telling her fairy stories.
“Go on!” she cried. “Go on! It's wonderful! Once upon a time Uncle Chris was walking along Fifth Avenue, when he happened to meet a poor old woman gathering sticks for firewood. She looked so old and tired that he was sorry for her, so he gave her ten cents which he had borrowed from the janitor, and suddenly she turned into a beautiful girl and said 'I am a fairy! In return for your kindness I grant you three wishes!' And Uncle Chris thought for a moment, and said, 'I want twenty thousand dollars to send to Jill!' And the fairy said, 'It shall be attended to. And the next article?'“
“It is all very well to joke,” protested Uncle Chris, pained by this flippancy, “but let me tell you that I shall not require magic assistance to become a rich man. Do you realize that at houses like Mrs Waddesleigh Peagrim's I am meeting men all the time who have only to say one little word to make me a millionaire? They are fat, gray men with fishy eyes and large waistcoats, and they sit smoking cigars and brooding on what they are going to do to the market next day. If I were a mind-reader I could have made a dozen fortunes by now. I sat opposite that old pirate, Bruce Bishop, for over an hour the very day before he and his gang sent Consolidated Pea-Nuts down twenty points! If I had known what was in the wind, I doubt if I could have restrained myself from choking his intentions out of the fellow. Well, what I am trying to point out is that one of these days one of these old oysters will have a fleeting moment of human pity and disgorge some tip on which I can act. It is that reflection that keeps me so constantly at Mrs Peagrim's house.” Uncle Chris shivered slightly. “A fearsome woman, my dear! Weighs a hundred and eighty pounds and as skittish as a young lamb in springtime! She makes me dance with her!” Uncle Chris' lips quivered in a spasm of pain, and he was silent for a moment. “Thank heaven I was once a footballer!” he said reverently.
“But what do you live on?” asked Jill. “I know you are going to be a millionaire next Tuesday week, but how are you getting along in the meantime?”
Uncle Chris coughed.
“Well, as regards actual living expenses, I have managed by a shrewd business stroke to acquire a small but sufficient income. I live in a boarding-house—true—but I contrive to keep the wolf away from its door,—which, by the by, badly needs a lick of paint. Have you ever heard of Nervino?”
“I don't think so. It sounds like a patent medicine.”
“It is a patent medicine.” Uncle Chris stopped and looked anxiously at her. “Jill, you're looking pale, my dear.”
“Am I? We had rather a tiring rehearsal.”
“Are you sure,” said Uncle Chris seriously, “that it is only that? Are you sure that your vitality has not become generally lowered by the fierce rush of metropolitan life? Are you aware of the things that can happen to you if you allow the red corpuscles of your blood to become devitalised? I had a friend —”
“Stop! You're scaring me to death!”
Uncle Chris gave his mustache a satisfied twirl. “Just what I meant to do, my dear. And, when I had scared you sufficiently—you wouldn't wait for the story of my consumptive friend! Pity! It's one of my best!—I should have mentioned that I had been having much the same trouble myself until lately, but the other day I happened to try Nervino, the great specific — I was giving you an illustration of myself in action, my dear. I went to these Nervino people—happened to see one of their posters and got the idea in a flash—I went to them and said, 'Here am I, a presentable man of persuasive manners and a large acquaintance among the leaders of New York Society. What would it be worth to you to have me hint from time to time at dinner parties and so forth that Nervino is the rich man's panacea?' I put the thing lucidly to them. I said, 'No doubt you have a thousand agents in the city, but have you one who does not look like an agent and won't talk like an agent? Have you one who is inside the houses of the wealthy, at their very dinner-tables, instead of being on the front step, trying to hold the door open with his foot? That is the point you have to consider.' They saw the idea at once. We arranged terms—not as generous as I could wish, perhaps, but quite ample. I receive a tolerably satisfactory salary each week, and in return I spread the good word about Nervino in the gilded palaces of the rich. Those are the people to go for, Jill. They have been so busy wrenching money away from the widow and the orphan that they haven't had time to look after their health. You catch one of them after dinner, just as he is wondering if he was really wise in taking two helpings of the lobster Newburg, and he is clay in your hands. I draw my chair up to his and become sympathetic and say that I had precisely the same trouble myself until recently and mention a dear old friend of mine who died of indigestion, and gradually lead the conversation round to Nervino. I don't force it on them. I don't even ask them to try it. I merely point to myself, rosy with health, and say that I owe everything to it, and the thing is done. They thank me profusely and scribble the name down on their shirt-cuffs. And there your are! I don't suppose,” said Uncle Chris philosophically, “that the stuff can do them any actual harm.”
They had come to the corner of
“If you want to go and take a look at my little nest, you can let yourself in. It's on the twenty-second floor. Don't fail to go out on the roof and look at the view. It's worth seeing. It will give you some idea of the size of the city. A wonderful, amazing city, my dear, full of people who need Nervino. I shall go on and drop in at the club for half an hour. They have given me a fortnight's card at the Avenue. Capital place. Here's the key.”
Jill turned down
It was a small room, but furnished with a solid comfort which soothed her.
For the first time since she had arrived in
Jill possessed in an unusual degree that instinct for exploration which is implanted in most of us. She was frankly inquisitive, and could never be two minutes in a strange room without making a tour of it and examining its books, pictures, and photographs. Almost at once she began to prowl.
The mantelpiece was her first objective. She always made for other people's mantelpieces, for there, more than anywhere else, is the character of a proprietor revealed. This mantelpiece was sprinkled with photographs, large, small, framed and unframed. In the center of it, standing all alone and looking curiously out of place among its large neighbors, was a little snapshot.
It was dark by the mantelpiece. Jill took the photograph, to the window, where the fading light could fall on it. Why, she could not have said, but the thing interested her. There was mystery about it. It seemed in itself so insignificant to have the place of honor.
The snapshot had evidently been taken by an amateur, but it was one of those lucky successes which happen at rare intervals to amateur photographers to encourage them to proceed with their hobby. It showed a small girl in a white dress cut short above slim, black legs, standing in the porch of an old house, one hand swinging a sunbonnet, the other patting an Irish terrier which had planted its front paws against her waist and was looking up into her face with that grave melancholy characteristic of Irish terriers. The sunlight was evidently strong, for the child's face was puckered in a twisted though engaging grin. Jill's first thought was “What a jolly kid!” And then, with a leaping of the heart that seemed to send something big and choking into her throat, she saw that it was a photograph of herself.
With a swooping hound memory raced hack over the years. She could feel the hot sun on her face, hear the anxious voice of Freddie Rooke—then fourteen and for the first time the owner of a camera—imploring her to stand just like that because he wouldn't be half a minute only some rotten thing had stuck or something. Then the sharp click, the doubtful assurance of Freddie that he thought it was all right if he hadn't forgotten to shift the film (in which case she might expect to appear in combination with a cow which he had snapped on his way to the house), and the relieved disappearance of Pat, the terrier, who didn't understand photography. How many years ago had that been? She could not remember. But Freddie had grown to long-legged manhood, she to an age of discretion and full-length frocks, Pat had died, the old house was inhabited by strangers — and here was the silent record of that sun-lit afternoon, three thousand miles away from the English garden in which it had come into existence.
The shadows deepened. The top of the great building swayed gently, causing the pendulum of the grandfather-clock to knock against the sides of its wooden case. Jill started. The noise, coming after the dead silence, frightened her till she realized what it was. She had a nervous feeling of not being alone. It was as if the shadows held goblins that peered out at the intruder. She darted to the mantelpiece and replaced the photograph. She felt like some heroine of a fairy-story meddling with the contents of the giant's castle. Soon there would come the sound of a great footstep, thud—thud —
Jill's heart gave another leap. She was perfectly sure she had heard a sound. It had been just like the banging of a door. She braced herself, listening, every muscle tense. And then, cleaving the stillness, came a voice from down the passage—
“Just see them
Dolled up with scented waters
Bought with their dimes and quarters!
See, here they come! Here they come!”
For an instant Jill could not have said whether she was relieved or more frightened than ever. True, that numbing sense of the uncanny had ceased to grip her, for Reason told her that spectres do not sing rag-time songs. On the other hand, owners of apartments do, and she would almost as readily have faced a spectre as the owner of this apartment. Dizzily, she wandered how in the world she was to explain her presence. Suppose he turned out to be some awful, choleric person who would listen to no explanations.
“Oh, see those starched-up collars!
Hark how their captain hollers
'Keep time! Keep time!'
It's worth a thousand dollars
To see those tip-collectors —“
Very near now. Almost at the door.
“Those upper-berth inspectors,
Pullmanporters on parade!”
A dim, shapeless figure in the black of the doorway, scrabbling of fingers on the wall.
“Where are you, dammit?” said the voice, apparently addressing the electric-light switch.
Jill shrank back, desperate fingers pressing deep into the back of an arm-chair. Light flashed from the wall at her side. And there, in the doorway, stood Wally Mason in his shirt-sleeves.
In these days of rapid movement, when existence has become little more
than a series of shocks of varying intensity, astonishment is the
shortest-lived of all the emotions. The human brain has trained itself to
elasticity and recovers its balance in the presence of the unforeseen with a
speed almost miraculous. The man who says 'I am surprised!' really means
'I was surprised a moment ago, but now I have adjusted myself to the
situation.' There was an instant in which Jill looked at Wally and Wally at
Jill with the eye of total amazement, and then, almost simultaneously, each
began—the process was sub-conscious—to regard this meeting not as an isolated
and inexplicable event, but as something resulting from a perfectly logical
chain of circumstances. Jill perceived that the presence in the apartment of
that snap-shot of herself should have prepared her for the discovery that the
place belonged to someone who had known her as a child, and that there was no
reason for her to be stunned by the fact that this someone was Wally Mason.
Wally, on his side, knew that Jill was in
“Hello!” he said.
“Hullo!” said Jill.
It was not a very exalted note on which to pitch the conversation, but it had the merit of giving each of them a little more time to collect themselves.
“This is — I wasn't expecting you!” said Wally.
“I wasn't expecting you!” said Jill.
There was another pause, in which Wally, apparently examining her last words and turning them over in his mind found that they did not square with his preconceived theories.
“You weren't expecting me?”
“I certainly was not!”
“But — but you knew I lived here?”
Jill shook her head. Wally reflected for an instant, and then put his finger, with a happy inspiration, on the very heart of the mystery.
“Then how on earth did you get here?”
He was glad he had asked that. The sense of unreality which had come to him in the first startling moment of seeing her and vanished under the influence of logic had returned as strong as ever. If she did not know he lived in this place, how in the name of everything uncanny had she found her way here? A momentary wonder as to whether all this was not mixed up with telepathy and mental suggestion and all that sort of thing came to him. Certainly he had been thinking of her all the time since their parting at the Savoy Hotel that night three weeks had more back — No, that was absurd. There must be some sounder reason for her presence. He waited for her to give it.
Jill for the moment felt physically incapable of giving it. She shrank from the interminable explanation which confronted her as a weary traveller shrinks from a dusty, far-stretching desert. She simply could not go into all that now. So she answered with a question.
“When did you land in
“This afternoon. We were supposed to dock this morning, but the boat was late.” Wally perceived that he was pushed away from the main point, and jostled his way to it. “But what are you doing here?”
“It's such a long story.”
Her voice was plaintive. Remorse smote Wally. It occurred to him that he
had not been sufficiently sympathetic. Not a word had he said on the subject of
her change of fortunes. He had just stood and gaped and asked questions. After
all, what the devil did it matter how she came to be here? He had anticipated a
long and tedious search for her through the labyrinth of
“Never mind,” he said. “You can tell me what you feel like it.” He looked at her eagerly. Time seemed to have wiped away that little misunderstanding under the burden of which they had parted. “It's too wonderful finding you like this!” He hesitated. “I heard about—everything,” he said awkwardly.
“My—” Jill hesitated too. “My smash?”
“Yes. Freddie Rooke told me. I was terribly sorry.”
“Thank you,” said Jill.
There was a pause. They were both thinking of that other disaster which
had happened. The presence of
“Jolly place, this, isn't it?”
Jill perceived that an opening for those tedious explanations had been granted her.
“Uncle Chris thinks so,” she said demurely.
Wally looked puzzled.
“Uncle Chris? Oh, your uncle?”
“But—he has never been here.”
“Oh, yes. He's giving a dinner party here tonight!”
“He's — what did you say?”
“It's all right. I only began at the end of the story instead of the beginning. I'll tell you the whole thing, then — then I suppose you will be terribly angry and make a fuss.”
“I'm not much of a lad, as Freddie Rooke would say, for making fusses. And I can't imagine being terribly angry with you.”
“Well, I'll risk it. Though, if I wasn't a brave girl, I should leave Uncle Chris to explain for himself and simply run away.”
“Anything is better than that. It's a miracle meeting you like this, and I don't want to be deprived of the fruits of it. Tell me anything, but don't go.”
“You'll be furious.”
“Not with you.”
“I should hope not with me. I've done nothing. I am the innocent heroine. But I'm afraid you will be very angry with Uncle Chris.”
“If he's your uncle, that passes him. Besides, he once licked the stuffing out of me with a whangee. That forms a bond. Tell me all.”
Jill considered. She had promised to begin at the beginning, but it was difficult to know what was the beginning.
“Have you ever heard of Captain Kidd?” she asked at length.
“You're wandering from the point, aren't you?”
“No, I'm not. Have you heard of Captain Kidd?”
“The pirate? Of course.”
“Well, Uncle Chris is his direct lineal descendant. That really explains the whole thing.”
Wally looked at her enquiringly.
“Could you make it a little easier?” he said.
“I can tell you everything in half a dozen words, if you like. But it will sound awfully abrupt.”
“Uncle Chris has stolen your apartment.”
Wally nodded slowly.
“I see. Stolen my apartment.”
“Of course you can't possibly understand. I shall have to tell you the whole thing, after all.”
Wally listened with flattering attention as she began the epic of Major
Christopher Selby's doings in
“So that's how it all happened,” concluded Jill.
For a moment Wally said nothing. He seemed to be digesting what he had heard.
“I see,” he said at last. “It's a variant of those advertisements they print in the magazines. 'Why pay rent? Own somebody else's home!'“
“That does rather sum it up,” said Jill.
Wally burst into a roar of laughter.
“He's a corker!”
Jill was immensely relieved. For all her courageous bearing, she had not relished the task of breaking the news to Wally. She knew that he had a sense of humor, but a man may have a sense of humor and yet not see anything amusing in having his home stolen in his absence.
“I'm so glad you're not angry.”
“Of course not.”
“Most men would be.”
“Most men are chumps.”
“It's so wonderful that it happened to be you. Suppose it had been an utter stranger! What could I have done?”
“It would have been the same thing. You would have won him over in two minutes. Nobody could resist you.”
“That's very sweet of you.”
“I can't help telling the truth.
“Then you don't mind Uncle Chris giving his dinner-party here tonight?”
“He has my blessing.”
“You really are an angel,” said Jill gratefully. “From what he said, I think he looks on it as rather an important function. He has invited a very rich woman, who has been showing him a lot of hospitality,—a Mrs Peagrim —”
“Mrs Waddesleigh Peagrim?”
“Yes? Why, do you know her?”
“Quite well. She goes in a good deal for being Bohemian and knowing people who write and paint and act and so on. That reminds me. I gave Freddie Rooke a letter of introduction to her.”
“Yes. He suddenly made up his mind to come over. He came to me for advice
about the journey. He sailed a couple of days before I did. I suppose he's
Jill was conscious of a sudden depression. Much as she liked Freddie, he
belonged to a chapter in her life which was closed and which she was trying her
hardest to forget. It was impossible to think of Freddie without thinking of
Derek, and to think of Derek was like touching an exposed nerve. The news that
Freddie was in
She knew Freddie so well. There was not a dearer or a better-hearted youth in the world, but he had not that fine sensibility which pilots a man through the awkwardnesses of life. He was a blunderer. Instinct told her that, if she met Freddie, he would talk of Derek, and, if thinking of Derek was touching an exposed nerve, talking of him would like pressing on that nerve with a heavy hand. She shivered.
Wally was observant.
“There's no need to meet him, if you don't want to,” he said.
“No,” said Jill doubtfully.
Jill looked at him gratefully. He was no blunderer. Her desire to avoid Freddie Rooke was, he gave her tacitly to understand, her business, and he did not propose to intrude on it. She liked him for dismissing the subject so easily.
“No, I think he told me he doesn't.”
“Well, that's something, isn't it! I call that darned nice of him! I wonder if I could drop back here somewhere about eleven o'clock. Are the festivities likely to be over by then? If I know Mrs Peagrim, she will insist on going off to one of the hotels to dance directly after dinner. She's a confirmed trotter.”
“I don't know how to apologize,” began Jill remorsefully.
“Please don't. It's absolutely all right.” His eye wandered to the mantelpiece, as it had done once or twice during the conversation. In her hurry Jill had replaced the snapshot with its back to the room, and Wally had the fidgety air of a man whose most cherished possession is maltreated. He got up now and, walking across, turned the photograph round. He stood for a moment, looking at it.
Jill had forgotten the snapshot. Curiosity returned to her.
“Where did you get that?” she asked.
“Oh, did you see this?”
“I was looking at it just before you nearly frightened me to death by appearing so unexpectedly.”
“Freddie Rooke sold it to me fourteen years ago.”
“Fourteen years ago!”
“Next July,” added Wally. “I gave him five shillings for it.”
“Five shillings! The little brute!” cried Jill indignantly “It must have been all the money you had in the world!”
“A trifle more, as a matter of fact. All the money I had in the world was
three-and-six. But by a merciful dispensation of
“You poor thing!”
“It was worth it.”
“And you've had it ever since!”
“I wouldn't part with it for all Mrs Waddesleigh Peagrim's millions,” said Wally with sudden and startling vehemence, “if she offered me them.” He paused. “She hasn't, as a matter of fact.”
There was a silence. Jill looked at Wally furtively, as he returned to his seat. She was seeing him with new eyes. It was as if this trifling incident had removed some sort of a veil. He had suddenly become more alive. For an instant she had seen right into him, to the hidden deeps of his soul. She felt shy and embarrassed.
“Pat died,” she said, at length. She felt the necessity of saying something.
“I liked Pat.”
“He picked up some poison, poor darling — How long ago those days seem, don't they!”
“They are always pretty vivid to me. I wonder who has that old house of yours now.”
“I heard the other day,” said Jill more easily. The odd sensation of embarrassment was passing. “Some people called — what was the name?— Debenham, I think.”
Silence fell again. It was broken by the front-door bell, like an alarm-clock that shatters a dream.
Wally got up.
“Your uncle,” he said.
“You aren't going to open the door?”
“That was the scheme.”
“But he'll get such a shock when he sees you.”
“He must look on it in the light of rent. I don't see why I shouldn't have a little passing amusement from this business.”
He left the room. Jill heard the front door open. She waited breathlessly. Pity for Uncle Chris struggled with the sterner feeling that it served him right.
“Hullo!” she heard Wally say.
“Hullo-ullo-ullo!” replied an exuberant voice. “Wondered if I'd find you in, and all that sort of thing. I say, what a deuce of a way up it is here. Sort of gets a chap into training for going to heaven, what? I mean, what?”
Jill looked about her like a trapped animal. It was absurd, she felt, but every nerve in her body cried out against the prospect of meeting Freddie. His very voice had opened old wounds and set them throbbing.
She listened in the doorway. Out of sight down the passage, Freddie seemed by the sounds to be removing his overcoat. She stole out and darted like a shadow down the corridor that led to Wally's bedroom. The window of the bedroom opened onto the wide roof which Uncle Chris had eulogized. She slipped noiselessly out, closing the window behind her.
“I say, Mason, old top,” said Freddie, entering the sitting-room, “I hope
you don't mind my barging in like this but the fact is things are a bit thick.
I'm dashed worried and I didn't know another soul I could talk it over with. As
a matter of fact, I wasn't sure you were in
“I've been here two or three days. Well, it's a bit of luck catching you. You see, what I want to ask your advice about —”
Wally looked at his watch. He was not surprised to find that Jill had taken to flight. He understood her feelings perfectly, and was anxious to get rid of the inopportune Freddie as soon as possible.
“You'll have to talk quick, I'm afraid,” he said. “I've lent this place to a man for the evening, and he's having some people to dinner. What's the trouble?”
“It's about Jill.”
“Jill Mariner, you know. You remember Jill? You haven't forgotten my telling
you all that? About her losing her money and coming over to
“No. I remember you telling me that.”
Freddie seemed to miss something in his companion's manner, some note of excitement and perturbation.
“Of course,” he said, as if endeavoring to explain this to himself, “you hardly knew her, I suppose. Only met once since you were kids and all that sort of thing. But I'm a pal of hers and I'm dashed upset by the whole business, I can tell you. It worries me, I mean to say. Poor girl, you know, landed on her uppers in a strange country. Well, I mean, it worries me. So the first thing I did when I got here was to try to find her. That's why I came over, really, to try to find her. Apart from anything else, you see, poor old Derek is dashed worried about her.”
“Need we bring Underhill in?”
“Oh, I know you don't like him and think he behaved rather rummily and so forth, but that's all right now.”
“It is, is it?” said Wally drily.
“Oh, absolutely. It's all on again.”
“What's all on again?”
“Why, I mean he wants to marry Jill. I came over to find her and tell her so.”
Wally's eyes glowed.
“If you have come over as an ambassador —”
“That's right. Jolly old ambassador. Very word I used myself.”
“I say, if you have come over as an ambassador with the idea of reopening negotiations with Jill on behalf of that infernal swine —”
“Old man!” protested Freddie, pained. “Pal of mine, you know.”
“If he is, after what's happened, your mental processes are beyond me.”
“My what, old son?”
“Your mental processes.”
“Oh, ah!” said Freddie, learning for the first time that he had any.
Wally looked at him intently. There was a curious expression on his rough-hewn face.
“I can't understand you, Freddie. If ever there was a fellow who might have been expected to take the only possible view of Underhill's behavior in this business, I should have said it was you. You're a public-school man. You've mixed all the time with decent people. You wouldn't do anything that wasn't straight yourself to save your life, it seems to have made absolutely no difference in your opinion of this man Underhill that he behaved like an utter cad to a girl who was one of your best friends. You seem to worship him just as much as ever. And you have travelled three thousand miles to bring a message from him to Jill—Good God! Jill!—to the effect, as far as I understand it, that he has thought it over and come to the conclusion that after all she may possibly be good enough for him!”
Freddie recovered the eye-glass which the raising of his eyebrows had caused to fall, and polished it in a crushed sort of way. Rummy, he reflected, how chappies stayed the same all their lives as they were when they were kids. Nasty, tough sort of chap Wally Mason had been as a boy, and here he was, apparently, not altered a bit. At least, the only improvement he could detect was that, whereas in the old days Wally, when in an ugly mood like this, would undoubtedly have kicked him, he now seemed content with mere words. All the same, he was being dashed unpleasant. And he was all wrong about poor old Derek. This last fact he endeavored to make clear.
“You don't understand,” he said. “You don't realize. You've never met
“What has she got to do with it?”
“Everything, old bean, everything. If it hadn't been for her, there wouldn't have been any trouble of any description, sort, or order. But she barged in and savaged poor old Derek till she absolutely made him break off the engagement.”
“If you call him 'poor old Derek' again, Freddie,” said Wally viciously, “I'll drop you out of the window and throw your hat after you! If he's such a gelatine-backboned worm that his mother can —”
“You don't know her, old thing! She's the original hellhound!”
“I don't care what —”
“Must be seen to be believed,” mumbled Freddie.
“I don't care what she's like! Any man who could —”
“Once seen, never forgotten!”
“Damn you! Don't interrupt every time I try to get a word in!”
“Sorry, old man! Shan't occur again!”
Wally moved to the window, and stood looking out. He had had much more to
say on the subject of
“Well, all I can say is,” he remarked savagely, “that, if you have come over here as an ambassador to try and effect a reconciliation between Jill and Underhill, I hope to God you'll never find her.”
Freddie emitted a weak cough, like a very far-off asthmatic old sheep. He
was finding Wally more overpowering every moment. He had rather forgotten the
dear old days of his childhood, but this conversation was beginning to refresh
his memory: and he was realizing more vividly with every moment that passed how
very Wallyish Wally was,—how extraordinarily like the Wally who had dominated
his growing intellect when they were both in
“I have found her!”
Wally spun round.
“When I say that, I don't absolutely mean. I've seen her. I mean I know where she is. That's what I came round to see you about. Felt I must talk it over, you know. The situation seems to me dashed rotten and not a little thick. The fact is, old man, she's gone on the stage. In the chorus, you know. And, I mean to say, well, if you follow what I'm driving at, what, what?”
“In the chorus!”
“In the chorus!”
“How do you know?”
Freddie groped for his eye-glass, which had fallen again.
He regarded it a trifle sternly. He was fond of the little chap, but it was always doing that sort of thing. The whole trouble was that, if you wanted to keep it in its place, you simply couldn't register any sort of emotion with the good old features: and, when you were chatting with a fellow like Wally Mason, you had to be registering something all the time.
“Well, that was a bit of luck, as a matter of fact. When I first got here,
you know, it seemed to me the only thing to do was to round up a merry old
detective and put the matter in his hands, like they do in stories. You know!
Ring at the bell. 'And this, if I mistake not, Watson, is my client now.' And
then in breezes client and spills the plot. I found a sleuth in the classified
telephone directory, and toddled round. Rummy chaps, detectives! Ever met any?
I always thought they were lean, hatchet-faced Johnnies with inscrutable
smiles. This one looked just like my old Uncle Ted, the one who died of
apoplexy. Jovial, puffy-faced bird, who kept bobbing up behind a fat cigar.
Have you ever noticed what whacking big cigars these fellows over here smoke? Rummy
“Couldn't you keep your Impressions of America for the book you're going to write, and come to the point?” said Wally rudely.
“Sorry, old chap,” said Freddie meekly. “Glad you reminded me. Well — Oh, yes. We had got as far as the jovial old human bloodhound, hadn't we? Well, I put the matter before this chappie. Told him I wanted to find a girl, showed him a photograph, and so forth. I say,” said Freddie, wandering off once more into speculation, “why is it that coves like that always talk of a girl as 'the little lady'? This chap kept saying 'We'll find the little lady for you!' Oh, well, that's rather off the rails, isn't it? It just floated across my mind and I thought I'd mention it. Well, this blighter presumably nosed about and made enquiries for a couple of days, but didn't effect anything that you might call substantial. I'm not blaming him, mind you. I shouldn't care to have a job like that myself. I mean to say, when you come to think of what a frightful number of girls there are in this place, to have to — well, as I say, he did his best but didn't click; and then this evening, just before I came here, I met a girl I had known in England—she was in a show over there—a girl called Nelly Bryant —”
“Nelly Bryant? I know her.”
“Yes? Fancy that! She was in a thing called 'Follow the Girl' in
“Get on! Get on! I wrote it,”
“You wrote it?” Freddie beamed simple-hearted admiration. “My dear old chap, I congratulate you! One of the ripest and most all-wool musical comedies I've ever seen. I went twenty-four times. Rummy I don't remember spotting that you wrote it. I suppose one never looks at the names on the programme. Yes, I went twenty-four times. The first time I went was with a couple of chappies from —”
“Listen, Freddie!” said Wally feverishly. “On some other occasion I should dearly love to hear the story of your life, but just now —”
“Absolutely, old man. You're perfectly right. Well, to cut a long story short, Nelly Bryant told me that she and Jill were rehearsing with a piece called 'The Rose of America.'“
“'The Rose of
“I think that was the name of it.”
“That's Ike Goble's show. He called me up on the phone about it half an hour ago. I promised to go and see a rehearsal of it tomorrow or the day after. And Jill's in that?”
“Yes. How about it? I mean, I don't know much about this sort of thing, but do you think it's the sort of thing Jill ought to be doing?”
Wally was moving restlessly about the room. Freddie's news had disquieted him. Mr Goble had a reputation.
“I know a lot about it,” he replied, “and it certainly isn't.” He scowled at the carpet. “Oh, damn everybody!”
Freddie paused to allow him to proceed, if such should be his wish, but Wally had apparently said his say. Freddie went on to point out an aspect of the matter which was troubling him greatly.
“I'm sure poor old Derek wouldn't like her being in the chorus!”
Wally started so violently that for a moment Freddie was uneasy.
“I mean Underhill,” he corrected himself hastily.
“Freddie,” said Wally, “you're an awfully good chap, but I wish you would exit rapidly now! Thanks for coming and telling me, very good of you. This way out!”
“But, old man — !”
“I thought we were going to discuss this binge and decide what to do and all that sort of thing.”
“Some other time. I want to think about it.”
“Oh, you will think about it?”
“Yes, I'll think about it.”
“Topping! You see, you're a brainy sort of feller, and you'll probably hit something.”
“I probably shall, if you don't go.”
“Eh? Oh, ah, yes!” Freddie struggled into his coat. More than ever did the adult Wally remind him of the dangerous stripling of years gone by. “Well, cheerio!”
“Same to you!”
“You'll let me know if you scare up some devilish fruity wheeze, won't you? I'm at the Biltmore.”
“Very good place to be. Go there now.”
“Right ho! Well, toodle-oo!”
“The elevator is at the foot of the stairs,” said Wally. “You press the bell and up it comes. You hop in and down you go. It's a great invention! Good night!”
“Oh, I say. One moment —”
“Good night!” said Wally.
He closed the door, and ran down the passage.
“Jill!” he called. He opened the bedroom window and stepped out. “Jill!”
There was no reply.
“Jill!” called Wally once again, but again there was no answer.
Wally walked to the parapet, and looked over. Below him the vastness of
the city stretched itself in a great triangle, its apex the harbor, its sides
the dull silver of the East and Hudson rivers. Directly before him, crowned
with its white lantern, the
Spring, whose coming the breeze had heralded to Wally as he smoked upon
the roof, floated graciously upon
The gaiety of Otis was not, however, entirely or even primarily due to the improvement in the weather. It had its source in a conversation which had taken place between himself and Jill's Uncle Chris on the previous night. Exactly how it had come about, Mr Pilkington was not entirely clear, but, somehow, before he was fully aware of what he was saying, he had begun to pour into Major Selby's sympathetic ears the story of his romance. Encouraged by the other's kindly receptiveness, he had told him all—his love for Jill, his hopes that some day it might be returned, the difficulties complicating the situation owing to the known prejudices of Mrs Waddesleigh Peagrim concerning girls who formed the personnel of musical comedy ensembles. To all these outpourings Major Selby had listened with keen attention, and finally had made one of those luminous suggestions, so simple yet so shrewd, which emanate only from your man of the world. It was Jill's girlish ambition, it seemed from Major Selby's statement, to become a force in the motion-picture world. The movies were her objective. When she had told him of this, said Uncle Chris, he had urged her, speaking in her best interests, to gain experience by joining in the humblest capacity the company of some good musical play, where she could learn from the best masters so much of the technique of the business. That done, she could go about her life-work, fortified and competent.
What, he broke off to ask, did Pilkington think of the idea?
Pilkington thought the idea splendid. Miss Mariner, with her charm and looks, would be wonderful in the movies.
There was, said Uncle Chris, a future for a girl in the movies.
Mr Pilkington agreed cordially. A great future.
“Look at Mary Pickford!” said Uncle Chris. “Millions a year!”
Mr Pilkington contemplated Miss Pickford, and agreed again. He instanced other stars—lesser luminaries, perhaps, but each with her thousands a week. There was no doubt about it—a girl's best friend was the movies.
“Observe,” proceeded Uncle Chris, gathering speed and expanding his chest as he spread his legs before the fire, “how it would simplify the whole matter if Jill were to become a motion-picture artist and win fame and wealth in her profession. And there can be no reasonable doubt, my boy, that she would. As you say, with her appearance and her charm — Which of these women whose names you see all along Broadway in electric lights can hold a candle to her? Once started, with the proper backing behind her, her future would be assured. And then. — Of course, as regards her feelings I cannot speak, as I know nothing of them, but we will assume that she is not indifferent to you — what then? You go to your excellent aunt and announce that you are engaged to be married to Jill Mariner. There is a momentary pause. 'Not the Jill Mariner?' falters Mrs Peagrim. 'Yes, the famous Miss Mariner!' you reply. Well, I ask you, my boy, can you see her making an objection? Such a thing would be absurd. No, I can se no flaw in the project whatsoever.” Here Uncle Chris, as he had pictured Mrs Peagrim doing, paused for a moment. “Of course, there would be the preliminaries.”
Uncle Chris' voice became a melodious coo. He beamed upon Mr Pilkington.
“Well, think for yourself, my boy! These things cannot be done without money. I do not propose to allow my niece to waste her time and her energy in the rank and file of the profession, waiting years for a chance that might never come. There is plenty of room at the top, and that, in the motion-picture profession, is the place to start. If Jill is to become a motion-picture artist, a special company must be formed to promote her. She must be made a feature, a star, from the beginning. That is why I have advised her to accept her present position temporarily, in order that she may gain experience. She must learn to walk before she runs. She must study before she soars. But when the moment arrives for her to take the step, she must not be hampered by lack of money. Whether,” said Uncle Chris, smoothing the crease of his trousers, “you would wish to take shares in the company yourself —”
“Oo — !”
“— is a matter,” proceeded Uncle Chris, ignoring the interruption, “for you yourself to decide. Possibly you have other claims on your purse. Possibly this musical play of yours has taken all the cash you are prepared to lock up. Possibly you may consider the venture too speculative. Possibly — there are a hundred reasons why you may not wish to join us. But I know a dozen men—I can go down Wall Street tomorrow and pick out twenty men—who will be glad to advance the necessary capital. I can assure you that I personally shall not hesitate to risk—if one can call it risking—any loose cash which I may have lying idle at my banker's.”
He rattled the loose cash which he had lying idle in his trouser-pocket—fifteen cents in all—and stopped to flick a piece of fluff off his coat-sleeve. Mr Pilkington was thus enabled to insert a word.
“How much would you want?” he enquired.
“That,” said Uncle Chris meditatively, “is a little hard to say. I should have to look into the matter more closely in order to give you the exact figures. But let us say for the sake of argument that you put up—what shall we say?—a hundred thousand? fifty thousand?— no, we will be conservative. Perhaps you had better not begin with more than ten thousand. You can always buy more shares later. I don't suppose I shall begin with more than ten thousand myself.”
“I could manage ten thousand all right.”
“Excellent. We make progress, we make progress. Very well, then. I go to my Wall Street friends—I would give you their names, only for the present, till something definite has been done, that would hardly be politic—I go to my Wall Street friends, and tell them about the scheme, and say 'Here is ten thousand dollars! What is your contribution?' It puts the affair on a business-like basis, you understand. Then we really get to work. But use your own judgment my boy, you know. Use your own judgment. I would not think of persuading you to take such a step, if you felt at all doubtful. Think it over. Sleep on it. And, whatever you decide to do, on no account say a word about it to Jill. It would be cruel to raise her hopes until we are certain that we are in a position to enable her to realize them. And, of course, not a word to Mrs Peagrim.”
“Very well, then, my boy.” said Uncle Chris affably. “I will leave you to turn the whole thing over in your mind. Act entirely as you think best. How is your insomnia, by the way? Did you try Nervino? Capital! There's nothing like it. It did wonders for me! Good-night, good-night!”
Otis Pilkington had been turning the thing over in his mind, with an interval for sleep, ever since. And the more he thought of it, the better the scheme appeared to him. He winced a little at the thought of the ten thousand dollars, for he came of prudent stock and had been brought up in habits of parsimony, but, after all, he reflected, the money would be merely a loan. Once the company found its feet, it would be returned to him a hundred-fold. And there was no doubt that this would put a completely different aspect on his wooing of Jill, as far as his Aunt Olive was concerned. Why, a cousin of his—young Brewster Philmore—had married a movie-star only two years ago, and nobody had made the slightest objection. Brewster was to be seen with his bride frequently beneath Mrs Peagrim's roof. Against the higher strata of Bohemia Mrs Peagrim had no prejudice at all. Quite the reverse, in fact. She liked the society of those whose names were often in the papers and much in the public mouth. It seemed to Otis Pilkington, in short, that Love had found a way. He sipped his tea with relish, and when the Japanese valet brought in the toast all burned on one side, chided him with a gentle sweetness which, one may hope, touched the latter's Oriental heart and inspired him with a desire to serve this best of employers more efficiently.
At half-past ten, Otis Pilkington removed his dressing-gown and began to put on his clothes to visit the theatre. There was a rehearsal-call for the whole company at eleven. As he dressed, his mood was as sunny as the day itself.
And the day, by half-past ten, was as sunny as ever Spring day had been in a country where Spring comes early and does its best from the very start, The blue sky beamed down on a happy city. To and fro the citizenry bustled, aglow with the perfection of the weather. Everywhere was gaiety and good cheer, except on the stage of the Gotham Theatre, where an early rehearsal, preliminary to the main event, had been called by Johnson Miller in order to iron some of the kinks out of the “My Heart and I” number, which, with the assistance of the male chorus, the leading lady was to render in act one.
On the stage of the Gotham gloom reigned—literally, because the stage was wide and deep and was illumined only by a single electric light: and figuratively, because things were going even worse than usual with the “My Heart and I” number, and Johnson Miller, always of an emotional and easily stirred temperament, had been goaded by the incompetence of his male chorus to a state of frenzy. At about the moment when Otis Pilkington shed his flowered dressing-gown and reached for his trousers (the heather-mixture with the red twill), Johnson Miller was pacing the gangway between the orchestra pit and the first row of the orchestra chairs, waving one hand and clutching his white locks with the other, his voice raised the while in agonized protest.
“Gentlemen, you silly idiots,” complained Mr Miller loudly, “you've had three weeks to get these movements into your thick heads, and you haven't done a damn thing right! You're all over the place! You don't seem able to turn without tumbling over each other like a lot of Keystone Kops! What's the matter with you? You're not doing the movements I showed you; you're doing some you have invented yourselves, and they are rotten! I've no doubt you think you can arrange a number better than I can, but Mr Goble engaged me to be the director, so kindly do exactly as I tell you. Don't try to use your own intelligence, because you haven't any. I'm not blaming you for it. It wasn't your fault that your nurses dropped you on your heads when you were babies. But it handicaps you when you try to think.”
Of the seven gentlemanly members of the male ensemble present, six looked wounded by this tirade. They had the air of good men wrongfully accused. They appeared to be silently calling on Heaven to see justice done between Mr. Miller and themselves. The seventh, a long-legged young man in faultlessly-fitting tweeds of English cut, seemed, on the other hand, not so much hurt as embarrassed. It was this youth who now stepped down to the darkened footlights and spoke in a remorseful and conscience-stricken manner.
Mr Miller, that martyr to deafness, did not hear the pathetic bleat. He had swung off at right angles and was marching in an overwrought way up the central aisle leading to the back of the house, his india rubber form moving in convulsive jerks. Only when he had turned and retraced his steps did he perceive the speaker and prepare to take his share in the conversation.
“What?” he shouted. “Can't hear you!”
“I say, you know, it's my fault, really.”
“I mean to say, you know —”
“What? Speak up, can't you?”
Mr Saltzburg, who had been seated at the piano, absently playing a melody from his unproduced musical comedy, awoke to the fact that the services of an interpreter were needed. He obligingly left the music-stool and crept, crablike, along the ledge of the stage-box. He placed his arm about Mr Miller's shoulders and his lips to Mr Miller's left ear, and drew a deep breath.
“He says it is his fault!”
Mr Miller nodded adhesion to this admirable sentiment.
“I know they're not worth their salt!” he replied.
Mr Saltzburg patiently took in a fresh stock of breath.
“This young man says it is his fault that the movement went wrong!”
“Tell him I only signed on this morning, laddie,” urged the tweed-clad young man.
“He only joined the company this morning!”
This puzzled Mr Miller.
“How do you mean, warning?” he asked.
Mr Saltzburg, purple in the face, made a last effort.
“This young man is new,” he bellowed carefully, keeping to words of one syllable. “He does not yet know the steps. He says this is his first day here, so he does not yet know the steps. When he has been here some more time he will know the steps. But now he does not know the steps.”
“What he means,” explained the young man in tweeds helpfully, “is that I don't know the steps.”
“He does not know the steps!” roared Mr Saltzburg.
“I know he doesn't know the steps,” said Mr Miller. “Why doesn't he know the steps? He's had long enough to learn them.”
“He is new!”
“Why the devil is he new?” cried Mr Miller, awaking suddenly to the truth and filled with a sense of outrage. “Why didn't he join with the rest of the company? How can I put on chorus numbers if I am saddled every day with new people to teach? Who engaged him?”
“Who engaged you?” enquired Mr Saltzburg of the culprit.
“Mr Pilkington,” shouted Mr Saltzburg.
Mr Miller waved his hands in a gesture of divine despair, spun round, darted up the aisle, turned, and bounded back. “What can I do?” he wailed. “My hands are tied! I am hampered! I am handicapped! We open in two weeks, and every day I find somebody new in the company to upset everything I have done. I shall go to Mr Goble and ask to be released from my contract. I shall — Come along, come along, come along now!” he broke off suddenly. “Why are we wasting time? The whole number once more. The whole number once more from the beginning!”
The young man tottered back to his gentlemanly colleagues, running a finger in an agitated manner round the inside of his collar. He was not used to this sort of thing. In a large experience of amateur theatricals he had never encountered anything like it. In the breathing-space afforded by the singing of the first verse and refrain by the lady who played the heroine of “The Rose of America,” he found time to make an enquiry of the artist on his right.
“I say! Is he always like this?”
“The sportsman with the hair that turned white in a single night. The barker on the skyline. Does he often get the wind up like this?”
His colleague smiled tolerantly.
“Why, that's nothing!” he replied. “Wait till you see him really cut loose! That was just a gentle whisper!”
“My God!” said the newcomer, staring into a bleak future. The leading lady came to the end of her refrain, and the gentlemen of the ensemble, who had been hanging about up-stage, began to curvet nimbly down towards her in a double line; the new arrival, with an eye on his nearest neighbor, endeavouring to curvet as nimbly as the others. A clapping of hands from the dark auditorium indicated—inappropriately— that he had failed to do so. Mr Miller could be perceived—dimly— with all his fingers entwined in his hair.
“Clear the stage!” yelled Mr Miller. “Not you!” he shouted, as the latest addition to the company began to drift off with the others. “You stay!”
“Yes, you. I shall have to teach you the steps by yourself, or we shall get nowhere. Go on-stage. Start the music again, Mr Saltzburg. Now, when the refrain begins, come down. Gracefully! Gracefully!”
The young man, pink but determined, began to come down gracefully. And it was while he was thus occupied that Jill and Nelly Bryant, entering the wings which were beginning to fill up as eleven o'clock approached, saw him.
“Whoever is that?” said Nelly.
“New man,” replied one of the chorus gentlemen. “Came this morning.”
Nelly turned to Jill.
“He looks just like Mr Rooke!” she exclaimed.
“He is Mr Rooke!” said Jill.
“He can't be!”
“But what is he doing here?”
Jill bit her lip.
“That's just what I'm going to ask him myself,” she said.
The opportunity for a private conversation with Freddie did not occur immediately. For ten minutes he remained alone on the stage, absorbing abusive tuition from Mr Miller: and at the end of that period a further ten minutes was occupied with the rehearsing of the number with the leading lady and the rest of the male chorus. When, finally, a roar from the back of the auditorium announced the arrival of Mr Goble and at the same time indicated Mr Goble's desire that the stage should be cleared and the rehearsal proper begin, a wan smile of recognition and a faint “What ho!” was all that Freddie was able to bestow upon Jill, before, with the rest of the ensemble, they had to go out and group themselves for the opening chorus. It was only when this had been run through four times and the stage left vacant for two of the principals to play a scene that Jill was able to draw the Last of the Rookes aside in a dark corner and put him to the question.
“Freddie, what are you doing here?”
Freddie mopped his streaming brow. Johnson Miller's idea of an opening chorus was always strenuous. On the present occasion, the ensemble were supposed to be guests at a Long Island house-party, and Mr Miller's conception of the gathering suggested that he supposed house-party guests on Long Island to consist exclusively of victims of St Vitus' dance. Freddie was feeling limp, battered, and. exhausted: and, from what he had gathered, the worst was yet to come.
“Eh?” he said feebly.
“What are you doing here?”
“Oh, ah, yes! I see what you mean! I suppose you're surprised to find me
“I'm not surprised to find you in
“I say,” said Freddie in an awed voice. “He's a bit of a nut, that lad, what! He reminds me of the troops of Midian in the hymn. The chappies who prowled and prowled around. I'll bet he's worn a groove in the carpet. Like a jolly old tiger at the Zoo at feeding time. Wouldn't be surprised at any moment to look down and find him biting a piece out of my leg!”
Jill seized his arm and shook it.
“Don't ramble, Freddie! Tell me how you got here.”
“Oh, that was pretty simple. I had a letter of introduction to this chappie Pilkington who's running this show, and, we having got tolerably pally in the last few days, I went to him and asked him to let me join the merry throng. I said I didn't want any money and the little bit of work I would do wouldn't make any difference, so he said 'Right ho!' or words to that effect, and here I am.”
“But why? You can't be doing this for fun, surely?”
“Fun!” A pained expression came into Freddie's face. “My idea of fun isn't anything in which jolly old Miller, the bird with the snowy hair, is permitted to mix. Something tells me that that lad is going to make it his life-work picking on me. No, I didn't do this for fun. I had a talk with Wally Mason the night before last, and he seemed to think that being in the chorus wasn't the sort of thing you ought to be doing, so I thought it over and decided that I ought to join the troupe too. Then I could always be on the spot, don't you know, if there was any trouble. I mean to say, I'm not much of a chap and all that sort of thing, but still I might come in handy one of these times. Keep a fatherly eye on you, don't you know, and what not!”
Jill was touched.
“You're a dear, Freddie!”
“I thought, don't you know, it would make poor old Derek a bit easier in his mind.”
“I don't want to talk about Derek, Freddie, please.”
“Oh, I know what you must be feeling. Pretty sick, I'll bet, what? But if you could see him now —”
“I don't want to talk about him!”
“He's pretty cut up, you know. Regrets bitterly and all that sort of thing. He wants you to come back again.”
“I see! He sent you to fetch me?”
“That was more or less the idea.”
“It's a shame that you had all the trouble. You can get messenger-boys to go anywhere and do anything nowadays. Derek ought to have thought of that.”
Freddie looked at her doubtfully.
“You're spoofing, aren't you? I mean to say, you wouldn't have liked that!”
“I shouldn't have disliked it any more than his sending you.”
“Oh, but I wanted to pop over. Keen to see
Jill looked past him at the gloomy stage. Her face was set, and her eyes sombre.
“Can't you understand, Freddie? You've known me a long time. I should have thought that you would have found out by now that I have a certain amount of pride. If Derek wanted me back, there was only one thing for him to do—come over and find me himself.”
“Rummy! That's what Mason said, when I told him. You two don't realize how dashed busy Derek is these days.”
Something in her face seemed to tell Freddie that he was not saying the right thing, but he stumbled on.
“You've no notion how busy he is. I mean to say, elections coming on and so forth. He daren't stir from the metrop.”
“Of course I couldn't expect him to do anything that might interfere with his career, could I?”
“Absolutely not. I knew you would see it!” said Freddie, charmed at her reasonableness. All rot, what you read about women being unreasonable. “Then I take it it's all right, eh?”
“I mean you will toddle home with me at the earliest opp. and make poor old Derek happy?”
Jill laughed discordantly.
“Poor old Derek!” she echoed. “He has been badly treated, hasn't he?”
“Well, I wouldn't say that,” said Freddie doubtfully. “You see, coming down to it, the thing was more or less his fault, what?”
“More or less!”
“I mean to say —”
“More or less!”
Freddie glanced at her anxiously. He was not at all sure now that he liked the way she was looking or the tone in which she spoke. He was not a keenly observant young man, but there did begin at this point to seep through to his brain-centers a suspicion that all was not well.
“Let me pull myself together!” said Freddie warily to his immortal soul. “I believe I'm getting the raspberry!” And there was silence for a space.
The complexity of life began to weigh upon Freddie. Life was like one of
those shots at squash which seem so simple till you go to knock the cover off
the ball, when the ball sort of edges away from you and you miss it. Life,
Freddie began to perceive, was apt to have a nasty back-spin on it. He had
never had any doubt when he had started, that the only difficult part of his
He proceeded to approach the matter from another angle.
“You do love old Derek, don't you? I mean to say, you know what I mean, love him and all that sort of rot?”
“I don't know!”
“You don't know! Oh, I say, come now! You must know! Pull up your socks, old thing — I mean, pull yourself together! You either love a chappie or you don't.”
Jill smiled painfully.
“How nice it would be if everything were as simple and straightforward as that. Haven't you ever heard that the dividing line between love and hate is just a thread? Poets have said so a great number of times.”
“Oh, poets!” said Freddie, dismissing the genus with a wave of the hand. He had been compelled to read Shakespeare and all that sort of thing at school, but it had left him cold, and since growing to man's estate he had rather handed the race of bards the mitten. He liked Doss Chiderdoss' stuff in the Sporting Times, but beyond that he was not much of a lad for poets.
“Can't you understand a girl in my position not being able to make up her mind whether she loves a man or despises him?”
Freddie shook his head.
“No,” he said. “It sounds dashed silly to me!”
“Then what's the good of talking?” cried Jill. “It only hurts.”
“But—won't you come back to
“Oh, I say! Be a sport! Take a stab at it!”
Jill laughed again—another of those grating laughs which afflicted Freddie with a sense of foreboding and failure. Something had undoubtedly gone wrong with the works. He began to fear that at some point in the conversation—just where he could not say—he had been less diplomatic than he might have been.
“You speak as if you were inviting me to a garden-party! No, I won't take a stab at it. You've a lot to learn about women, Freddie!”
“Women are rum!” conceded that perplexed ambassador.
Jill began to move away.
“Don't go!” urged Freddie.
“Why not? What's the use of talking any more? Have you ever broken an arm or a leg, Freddie?”
“Yes,” said Freddie, mystified. “As a matter of fact, my last year at
“Like the deuce!”
“And then it began to get better, I suppose. Well, used you to hit it and twist it and prod it, or did you leave it alone to try and heal? I won't talk any more about Derek! I simply won't! I'm all smashed up inside, and I don't know if I'm ever going to get well again, but at least I'm going to give myself a chance. I'm working as hard as ever I can, and I'm forcing myself not to think of him. I'm in a sling, Freddie, like your wrist, and I don't want to be prodded. I hope we shall see a lot of each other while you're over here—you always were the greatest dear in the world—but you mustn't mention Derek again, and you mustn't ask me to go home. If you avoid those subjects, we'll be as happy as possible. And now I'm going to leave you to talk to poor Nelly. She has been hovering round for the last ten minutes, waiting for a chance to speak to you. She worships you, you know!”
Freddie started violently.
“Oh, I say! What rot!”
Jill had gone, and he was still gaping after her, when Nelly Bryant moved towards him—shyly, like a worshiper approaching a shrine.
“Hello, Mr Rooke!” said Nelly.
“Hullo-ullo-ullo!” said Freddie.
Nelly fixed her large eyes on his face. A fleeting impression passed through Freddie's mind that she was looking unusually pretty this morning: nor was the impression unjustified. Nelly was wearing for the first time a Spring suit which was the outcome of hours of painful selection among the wares of a dozen different stores, and the knowledge that the suit was just right seemed to glow from her like an inner light. She felt happy: and her happiness had lent an unwonted color to her face and a soft brightness to her eyes.
“How nice it is, your being here!”
Freddie waited for the inevitable question, the question with which Jill had opened their conversation; but it did not come. He was surprised, but relieved. He hated long explanations, and he was very doubtful whether loyalty to Jill could allow him to give them to Nelly. His reason for being where he was had to do so intimately with Jill's most private affairs. A wave of gratitude to Nelly swept through him when he realised that she was either incurious or else too delicate-minded to show inquisitiveness.
As a matter of fact, it was delicacy that kept Nelly silent. Seeing
Freddie here at the theatre, she had, as is not uncommon with fallible mortals,
put two and two together and made the answer four when it was not four at all.
She had been deceived by circumstantial evidence. Jill, whom she had left in
Such was Nelly's view of the matter, and sympathy gave to her manner a kind of maternal gentleness which acted on Freddie, raw from his late encounter with Mr Johnson Miller and disturbed by Jill's attitude in the matter of poor old Derek, like a healing balm. His emotions were too chaotic for analysis, but one thing stood out clear from the welter—the fact that he was glad to be with Nelly as he had never been glad to be with a girl before, and found her soothing as he had never supposed a girl could be soothing.
They talked desultorily of unimportant things, and every minute found Freddie more convinced that Nelly was not as other girls. He felt that he must see more of her.
“I say,” he said. “When this binge is over — when the rehearsal finishes, you know, how about a bite to eat?”
“I should love it. I generally go to the Automat.”
“The how-much? Never heard of it.”
“I was thinking of the Cosmopolis.”
“But that's so expensive.”
“Oh, I don't know. Much the same as any of the other places, isn't it?”
Nelly's manner became more motherly than ever. She bent forward and touched his arm affectionately.
“You haven't to keep up any front with me,” she said gently. “I don't care whether you're rich or poor or what. I mean, of course I'm awfully sorry you've lost your money, but it makes it all the easier for us to be real pals, don't you think so?”
“Lost my money!”
“Well, I know you wouldn't be here if you hadn't. I wasn't going to say anything about it, but, when you talked of the Cosmopolis, I just had to. You lost your money in the same thing Jill Mariner lost hers, didn't you? I was sure you had, the moment I saw you here. Who cares? Money isn't everything!”
Astonishment kept Freddie silent for an instant: after that he refrained from explanations of his own free will. He accepted the situation and rejoiced in it. Like many other wealthy and modest young men, he had always had a sneaking suspicion at the back of his mind that any girl who was decently civil to him was so from mixed motives—or more likely, motives that were not even mixed. Well, dash it, here was a girl who seemed to like him although under the impression that he was broke to the wide. It was an intoxicating experience. It made him feel a better chap. It fortified his self-respect.
“You know,” he said, stammering a little, for he found a sudden difficulty in controlling his voice. “You're a dashed good sort!”
“I'm awfully glad you think so.”
There was a silence—as far, at least, as he and she were concerned. In the outer world, beyond the piece of scenery under whose shelter they stood, stirring things, loud and exciting things, seemed to be happening. Some sort of an argument appeared to be in progress. The rasping voice of Mr Goble was making itself heard from the unseen auditorium. These things they sensed vaguely, but they were too occupied with each other to ascertain details.
“What was the name of that place again?” asked Freddie. “The what-ho-something?”
“That's the little chap! We'll go there, shall we?”
“The food's quite good. You go and help yourself out of slot-machines, you know.”
“My favorite indoor sport!” said Freddie with enthusiasm. “Hullo! What's up? It sounds as if there were dirty work at the cross-roads!”
The voice of the assistant stage-manager was calling—sharply excited, agitation in every syllable.
“All the gentlemen of the chorus on the stage, please! Mr Goble wants all the chorus—gentlemen on the stage!”
“Well, cheerio for the present,” said Freddie. “I suppose I'd better look into this.” He made his way onto the stage.
There is an insidious something about the atmosphere of a rehearsal of a
musical play which saps the finer feelings of those connected with it. Softened
by the gentle beauty of the Spring weather, Mr Goble had come to the Gotham
Theatre that morning in an excellent temper, firmly intending to remain in an
excellent temper all day. Five minutes of “The Rose of America” had sent him
back to the normal: and at ten minutes past eleven he was chewing his cigar and
glowering at the stage with all the sweetness gone from his soul. When Wally
Mason arrived at a quarter past eleven and dropped into the seat beside him,
the manager received him with a grunt and even omitted to offer him a cigar.
And when a
One may find excuses for Mr Goble. “The Rose of America” would have tested the equanimity of a far more amiable man: and on Mr Goble what Otis Pilkington had called its delicate whimsicality jarred profoundly. He had been brought up in the lower-browed school of musical comedy, where you shelved the plot after the opening number and filled in the rest of the evening by bringing on the girls in a variety of exotic costumes, with some good vaudeville specialists to get the laughs. Mr Goble's idea of a musical piece was something embracing trained seals, acrobats, and two or three teams of skilled buck-and-wing dancers, with nothing on the stage, from a tree to a lamp-shade, which could not suddenly turn into a chorus-girl. The austere legitimateness of “The Rose of America” gave him a pain in the neck. He loathed plot, and “The Rose of America” was all plot.
Why, then, had the earthy Mr. Goble consented to associate himself with
the production of this intellectual play? Because he was subject, like all
With most managers these spasms, which may be compared to twinges of conscience, pass as quickly as they come, and they go back to coining money with rowdy musical comedies, quite contented. But Otis Pilkington, happening along with the script of “The Rose of America" and the cash to back it, had caught Mr Goble in the full grip of an attack, and all the arrangements had been made before the latter emerged from the influence. He now regretted his rash act.
“Say, listen,” he said to Wally, his gaze on the stage, his words proceeding from the corner of his mouth, “you've got to stick around with this show after it opens on the road. We'll talk terms later. But we've got to get it right, don't care what it costs. See?”
“You think it will need fixing?”
Mr Goble scowled at the unconscious artists, who were now going through a particularly arid stretch of dialogue.
“Fixing! It's all wrong! It don't add up right! You'll have to rewrite it from end to end.”
“Well, I've got some ideas about it. I saw it played by amateurs last summer, you know. I could make a quick job of it, if you want me to. But will the author stand for it?”
Mr Goble allowed a belligerent eye to stray from the stage, and twisted it round in Wally's direction.
“Say, listen! He'll stand for anything I say. I'm the little guy that gives orders round here. I'm the big noise!”
As if in support of this statement he suddenly emitted a terrific bellow. The effect was magical. The refined and painstaking artists on the stage stopped as if they had been shot. The assistant stage-director bent sedulously over the footlights, which had now been turned up, shading his eyes with the prompt script.
“Take that over again!” shouted Mr Goble. “Yes, that speech about life being like a water-melon. It don't sound to me as though it meant anything.” He cocked his cigar at an angle, and listened fiercely. He clapped his hands. The action stopped again. “Cut it!” said Mr Goble tersely.
“Cut the speech, Mr Goble?” queried the obsequious assistant stage-director.
“Yes. Cut it. It don't mean nothing!”
Down the aisle, springing from a seat at the back, shimmered Mr Pilkington, wounded to the quick.
“Mr Goble! Mr Goble!”
“That is the best epigram in the play.”
“The best what?”
“Epigram. The best epigram in the play.”
Mr. Goble knocked the ash off his cigar. “The public don't want epigrams. The public don't like epigrams. I've been in the show business fifteen years, and I'm telling you! Epigrams give them a pain under the vest. All right, get on.”
Mr Pilkington fluttered agitatedly. This was his first experience of Mr Goble in the capacity of stage-director. It was the latter's custom to leave the early rehearsals of the pieces with which he was connected to a subordinate producer, who did what Mr Goble called the breaking-in. This accomplished, he would appear in person, undo most of the other's work, make cuts, tell the actors how to read their lines, and generally enjoy himself. Producing plays was Mr Goble's hobby. He imagined himself to have a genius in that direction, and it was useless to try to induce him to alter any decision to which he might have come. He regarded those who did not agree with him with the lofty contempt of an Eastern despot.
Of this Mr Pilkington was not yet aware.
“But, Mr Goble — !”
The potentate swung irritably round on him.
“What is it? What is it? Can't you see I'm busy?”
“That epigram —”
“But — !”
“Surely,” protested Mr Pilkington almost tearfully, “I have a voice —”
“Sure you have a voice,” retorted Mr Goble, “and you can use it any old place you want, except in my theatre. Have all the voice you like! Go round the corner and talk to yourself! Sing in your bath! But don't come using it here, because I'm the little guy that does all the talking in this theatre! That fellow gets my goat,” he added complainingly to Wally, as Mr Pilkington withdrew like a foiled python. “He don't know nothing about the show business, and he keeps butting in and making fool suggestions. He ought to be darned glad he's getting his first play produced and not trying to teach me how to direct it.” He clapped his hands imperiously. The assistant stage-manager bent over the footlights. “What was that that guy said? Lord Finchley's last speech. Take it again.”
The gentleman who was playing the part of Lord Finchley, an English
character actor who specialized in
“The speech about Omar Khayyam?” he enquired with suppressed irritation.
“I thought that was the way you said it. All wrong! It's Omar of Khayyam.”
“I think you will find that Omar Khayyam is the—ah—generally accepted version of the poet's name,” said the portrayer of Lord Finchley, adding beneath his breath. “You silly ass!”
“You say Omar of Khayyam,” bellowed Mr Goble. “Who's running this show, anyway?”
“Just as you please.”
Mr Goble turned to Wally.
“These actors —” he began, when Mr Pilkington appeared again at his elbow.
“Mr Goble! Mr Goble!”
“What is it now?“
“Omar Khayyam was a Persian poet. His name was Khayyam.”
“That wasn't the way I heard it,” said Mr Goble doggedly. “Did you?” he enquired of Wally. “I thought he was born at Khayyam.”
“You're probably quite right,” said Wally, “but, if so, everybody else has
been wrong for a good many years. It's usually supposed that the gentleman's
name was Omar Khayyam. Khayyam, Omar J. Born 1050 A.D., educated privately and
Mr Goble was impressed. He had a respect for Wally's opinion, for Wally had written “Follow the Girl” and look what a knock-out that had been. He stopped the rehearsal again.
“Go back to that Khayyam speech!” he said, interrupting Lord Finchley in mid-sentence.
The actor whispered a hearty English oath beneath his breath. He had been up late last night, and, in spite of the fair weather, he was feeling a trifle on edge.
“'In the words of Omar of Khayyam'—”
Mr Goble clapped his hands.
“Cut that 'of,'“ he said. “The show's too long, anyway.”
And, having handled a delicate matter in masterly fashion, he leaned back in his chair and chewed the end off another cigar.
For some minutes after this the rehearsal proceeded smoothly. If Mr Goble did not enjoy the play, at least he made no criticisms except to Wally. To him he enlarged from time to time on the pain which “The Rose of America” caused him.
“How I ever came to put on junk like this beats me,” confessed Mr Goble frankly.
“You probably saw that there was a good idea at the back of it,” suggested Wally. “There is, you know. Properly handled, it's an idea that could be made into a success.”
“What would you do with it?”
“Oh, a lot of things,” said Wally warily. In his younger and callower days he had sometimes been rash enough to scatter views on the reconstruction of plays broadcast, to find them gratefully absorbed and acted upon and treated as a friendly gift. His affection for Mr Goble was not so overpowering as to cause him to give him ideas for nothing now. “Any time you want me to fix it for you, I'll come along. About one and a half per cent of the gross would meet the case, I think.”
Mr Goble faced him, registering the utmost astonishment and horror.
“One and a half per cent for fixing a show like this? Why, darn it, there's hardly anything to do to it! It's—it's—in!”
“You called it junk just now.”
“Well, all I meant was that it wasn't the sort of thing I cared for myself. The public will eat it! Take it from me, the time is just about ripe for a revival of comic opera.”
“This one will want all the reviving you can give it. Better use a pulmotor.”
“But that long boob, that Pilkington — he would never stand for my handing you one and a half per cent.”
“I thought you were the little guy who arranged things round here.”
“But he's got money in the show.”
“Well, if he wants to get any out, he'd better call in somebody to rewrite it. You don't have to engage me if you don't want to. But I know I could make a good job of it. There's just one little twist the thing needs and you would have quite a different piece.”
“What's that?” enquired Mr Goble casually.
“Oh, just a little — what shall I say?— a little touch of what-d'you-call-it and a bit of thingummy. You know the sort of thing! That's all it wants.”
Mr Goble gnawed his cigar, baffled.
“You think so, eh?” he said at length.
“And perhaps a suspicion of je-ne-sais-quoi,” added Wally.
Mr Goble worried his cigar, and essayed a new form of attack.
“You've done a lot of work for me,” he said. “Good work!”
“Glad you liked it,” said Wally.
“You're a good kid! I like having you around. I was half thinking of
giving you a show to do this Fall. Corking book. French farce. Ran two years in
“Always useful, the earth. Good thing to have.”
“See here, if you'll fix up this show for half of one per cent, I'll give you the other to do.”
“You shouldn't slur your words so. For a moment I thought you said 'half of one per cent.' One and a half of course you really said.”
“If you won't take half, you don't get the other.”
“All right,” said Wally. “There are lots of other managers in
“Make it one per cent,” said Mr Goble, “and I'll see if I can fix it with Pilkington.”
“One and a half.”
“Oh, damn it, one and a half, then,” said Mr Goble morosely. “What's the good of splitting straws?”
“Forgotten Sports of the Past—Splitting the Straw. All right. If you drop me a line to that effect, legibly signed with your name, I'll wear it next my heart. I shall have to go now. I have a date. Good-bye. Glad everything's settled and everybody's happy.”
For some moments after Wally had left, Mr Goble sat hunched up in his
orchestra-chair, smoking sullenly, his mood less sunny than ever. Living in a
little world of sycophants, he was galled by the off-hand way in which Wally
always treated him. There was something in the latter's manner which seemed to
him sometimes almost contemptuous. He regretted the necessity of having to
employ him. There was, of course, no real necessity why he should have employed
Having decided that Wally had swelled head and not feeling much better, Mr Goble concentrated his attention on the stage. A good deal of action had taken place there during recently concluded business talk, and the unfortunate Finchley was back again, playing another of his scenes. Mr Goble glared at Lord Finchley. He did not like him, and he did not like the way he was speaking his lines.
The part of Lord Finchley was a non-singing role. It was a type part. Otis
Pilkington had gone to the straight stage to find an artist, and had secured
the not uncelebrated Wentworth Hill, who had come over from
“I beg your pardon?” said Mr. Hill, quietly but dangerously, stepping to the footlights.
“All wrong!” repeated Mr Goble.
“Really?” Wentworth Hill, who a few years earlier had spent several terms at Oxford University before being sent down for aggravated disorderliness, had brought little away with him from that seat of learning except the Oxford manner. This he now employed upon Mr Goble with an icy severity which put the last touch to the manager's fermenting state of mind. “Perhaps you would be kind enough to tell me just how you think that part should be played?”
Mr Goble marched down the aisle.
“Speak out to the audience,” he said, stationing himself by the orchestra pit. “You're turning your head away all the darned time.”
“I may be wrong,” said Mr Hill, “but I have played a certain amount, don't you know, in pretty good companies, and I was always under the impression that one should address one's remarks to the person one was speaking to, not deliver a recitation to the gallery. I was taught that that was the legitimate method.”
The word touched off all the dynamite in Mr Goble. Of all things in the theatre he detested most the “legitimate method.” His idea of producing was to instruct the cast to come down to the footlights and hand it to 'em. These people who looked up stage and talked to the audience through the backs of their necks revolted him.
“Legitimate! That's a hell of a thing to be! Where do you get that legitimate stuff? You aren't playing Ibsen!”
“Nor am I playing a knockabout vaudeville sketch.”
“Don't talk back at me!”
“Kindly don't shout at me! Your voice is unpleasant enough without your raising it.”
Open defiance was a thing which Mr Goble had never encountered before, and for a moment it deprived him of breath. He recovered it, however, almost immediately.
“On the contrary,” said Mr Hill, “I'm resigning.” He drew a green-covered script from his pocket and handed it with an air to the pallid assistant stage-director. Then, more gracefully than ever Freddie Rooke had managed to move downstage under the tuition of Johnson Miller, he moved upstage to the exit. “I trust that you will be able to find someone who will play the part according to your ideas!”
“I'll find,” bellowed Mr Goble at his vanishing back, “a chorus-man who'll play it a damned sight better than you!” He waved to the assistant stage-director. “Send the chorus-men on the stage!”
“All the gentlemen of the chorus on the stage, please!” shrilled the assistant stage-director, bounding into the wings like a retriever.
“Mr Goble wants all the chorus-gentlemen on the stage!”
There was a moment, when the seven male members of “The Rose of America”
ensemble lined up self-consciously before his gleaming eyes, when Mr Goble
repented of his brave words. An uncomfortable feeling passed across his mind
that Fate had called his bluff and that he would not be able to make good. All
chorus-men are exactly alike, and they are like nothing else on earth. Even Mr
Goble, anxious as he was to overlook their deficiencies, could not persuade
himself that in their ranks stood even an adequate Lord Finchley. And then,
just as a cold reaction from his fervid mood was about to set in, he perceived
“You at the end!”
“Me?” said the young man.
“Yes, you. What's your name?”
“Rooke. Frederick Rooke, don't you know.”
“You're English, aren't you?”
“Eh? Oh, yes, absolutely!”
“Ever played a part before?”
“Part? Oh, I see what you mean. Well, in amateur theatricals, you know, and all that sort of rot.”
His words were music to Mr Goble's ears. He felt that his Napoleonic action had justified itself by success. His fury left him. If he had been capable of beaming, one would have said that he beamed at Freddie.
“Well, you play the part of Lord Finchley from now on. Come to my office this afternoon for your contract. Clear the stage. We've wasted enough time.”
Five minutes later, in the wings, Freddie, receiving congratulations from Nelly Bryant, asserted himself.
“Not the Automat today, I think, what! Now that I'm a jolly old star and all that sort of thing, it can't be done. Directly this is over we'll roll round to the Cosmopolis. A slight celebration is indicated, what? Right ho! Rally round, dear heart, rally round!”
The lobby of the Hotel Cosmopolis is the exact center of New York, the spot where at certain hours one is sure of meeting everybody one knows. The first person that Nelly and Freddie saw, as they passed through the swing doors, was Jill. She was seated on the chair by the big pillar in the middle of the hall.
“What ho!” said Freddie. “Waiting for someone?”
“Hullo, Freddie. Yes, I'm waiting for Wally Mason. I got a note from him this morning, asking me to meet him here. I'm a little early. I haven't congratulated you yet. You're wonderful!”
“Thanks, old girl. Our young hero is making pretty hefty strides in his chosen profesh, what! Mr Rooke, who appears quite simple and unspoiled by success, replied to our representative's enquiry as to his future plans that he proposed to stagger into the grill-room and imbibe about eighteen dollars' worth of lunch. Yes, it is a bit of all right, taking it by and large, isn't it? I mean to say, the salary, the jolly old salary, you know — quite a help when a fellow's lost all his money!”
Jill was surprised to observe that the Last of the Rookes was contorting his face in an unsightly manner that seemed to be an attempt at a wink, pregnant with hidden meaning. She took her cue dutifully, though without understanding.
“Oh, yes,” she replied.
Freddie seemed grateful. With a cordial “Cheerio!” he led Nelly off to the grill-room.
“I didn't know Jill knew Mr Mason,” said Nelly, as they sat down at their table.
“No?” said Freddie absently, running an experienced eye over the bill-of-fare. He gave an elaborate order. “What was that? Oh, absolutely! Jill and I and Wally were children together.”
“How funny you should all be together again like this.”
“Yes. Oh, good Lord!”
“What's the matter?”
“It's nothing. I meant to send a cable to a pal of mine in
Freddie took out his handkerchief, and tied a knot in it. He was slightly
ashamed of the necessity of taking such a precaution, but it was better to be
on the safe side. His interview with Jill at the theatre had left him with the
conviction that there was only one thing for him to do, and that was to cable
poor old Derek to forget impending elections and all the rest of it and pop
Jill, left alone in the lobby, was finding the moments pass quite pleasantly. She liked watching the people as they came in. One or two of the girls of the company fluttered in like birds, were swooped upon by their cavaliers, and fluttered off to the grill-room. The red-headed Babe passed her with a genial nod, and, shortly after, Lois Denham, the willowy recipient of sunbursts from her friend Izzy of the hat-checks, came by in company with a sallow, hawk-faced young man with a furtive eye, whom Jill took—correctly—to be Izzy himself. Lois was looking pale and proud, and from the few words which came to Jill's ears as they neared her, seemed to be annoyed at having been kept waiting.
It was immediately after this that the swing-doors revolved rather more violently than usual, and Mr Goble burst into view.
There was a cloud upon Mr Goble's brow, seeming to indicate that his grievance against life had not yet been satisfactorily adjusted: but it passed as he saw Jill, and he came up to her with what he would probably have claimed to be an ingratiating smile.
“Hello!” said Mr Goble. “All alone?”
Jill was about to say that the condition was merely temporary when the manager went on.
“Come and have a bit of lunch.”
“Thank you very much,” said Jill, with the politeness of dislike, “but I'm waiting for someone.”
“Chuck him!” advised Mr Goble cordially.
“No, thanks, I couldn't, really.”
The cloud began to descend again upon Mr Goble's brow. He was accustomed to having these invitations of his treated as royal commands.
“I'm afraid it's impossible.”
Mr Goble subjected her to a prolonged stare, seemed about to speak, changed his mind, and swung off moodily in the direction of the grill-room. He was not used to this sort of treatment.
He had hardly gone, when Wally appeared.
“What was he saying to you?” demanded Wally abruptly, without preliminary greeting.
“He was asking me to lunch.”
Wally was silent for a moment. His good-natured face wore an unwonted scowl.
“He went in there, of course?” he said, pointing to the grill-room.
“Then let's go into the other room,” said Wally. He regained his good-humor. “It was awfully good of you to come. I didn't know whether you would be able to.”
“It was very nice of you to invite me.”
“How perfect our manners are! It's a treat to listen! How did you know
that that was the one hat in
“Oh, these things get about. Do you like it?”
“It's wonderful. Let's take this table, shall we?”
They sat down. The dim, tapestry-hung room soothed Jill. She was feeling a little tired after the rehearsal. At the far end of the room an orchestra was playing a tune that she remembered and liked. Her mind went back to the last occasion on which she and Wally had sat opposite each other at a restaurant. How long ago it seemed! She returned to the present to find Wally speaking to her.
“You left very suddenly the other night,” said Wally.
“I didn't want to meet Freddie.”
Wally looked at her commiseratingly.
“I don't want to spoil your lunch,” he said, “but Freddie knows all. He
has tracked you down. He met Nelly Bryant, whom he seems to have made friends
“You haven't heard?”
“Freddie got Mr Pilkington to put him in the chorus of the piece. He was rehearsing when I arrived at the theatre this morning, and having a terrible time with Mr Miller. And, later on, Mr Goble had a quarrel with the man who was playing the Englishman, and the man threw up his part and Mr Goble said he could get any one in the chorus to play it just as well, and he chose Freddie. So now Freddie is one of the principals, and bursting with pride!”
Wally threw his head back and uttered a roar of appreciation which caused a luncher at a neighboring table to drop an oyster which he was poising in mid-air.
“Don't make such a noise!” said Jill severely. “Everyone's looking at you.”
“I must! It's the most priceless thing I ever heard. I've always
maintained and I always will maintain that for pure lunacy nothing can touch
the musical comedy business. There isn't anything that can't happen in musical
“Have you felt that, too? That's exactly how I feel. It's like a perpetual 'Mad Hatter's Tea-Party.'“
“But what on earth made Freddie join the company at all?”
A sudden gravity descended upon Jill. The words had reminded her of the thing which she was perpetually striving to keep out of her thoughts.
“He said he wanted to be there to keep an eye on me.”
Gravity is infectious. Wally's smile disappeared. He, too, had been recalled to thoughts which were not pleasant.
Wally crumbled his roll. There was a serious expression on his face.
“Freddie was quite right. I didn't think he had so much sense.”
“Freddie was not right,” flared Jill. The recollection of her conversation with that prominent artist still had the power to fire her independent soul. “I'm not a child. I can look after myself. What I do is my own business.”
“I'm afraid you're going to find that your business is several people's business. I am interested in it myself. I don't like your being on the stage. Now bite my head off!”
“It's very kind of you to bother about me —”
“I said 'Bite my head off!' I didn't say 'Freeze me!' I take the license of an old friend who in his time has put worms down your back, and I repeat—I don't like your being on the stage.”
“I shouldn't have thought you would have been so”—Jill sought for a devastating adjective—“so mid-Victorian!”
“As far as you are concerned, I'm the middest Victorian in existence. Mid is my middle name.” Wally met her indignant gaze squarely. “I-do-not-like-your-being-on-the-stage! Especially in any company which Ike Goble is running.”
“Why Mr Goble particularly?”
“Because he is not the sort of man you ought to be coming in contact with.”
“It isn't nonsense at all. I suppose you've read a lot about the morals of theatrical managers —”
“Yes. And it seemed to be exaggerated and silly.”
“So it is. There's nothing wrong with most of them. As a general thing,
they are very decent fellows,—extraordinarily decent if you think of the
position they are in. I don't say that in a business way there's much they
won't try to put over on you. In the theatre, when it comes to business,
everything goes except biting and gouging. 'There's never a law of God or man
runs north of fifty-three.' If you alter that to 'north of
Wally broke off to allow the waiter to place a fried sole before him. Waiters always select the moment when we are talking our best to intrude themselves.
“As regards morals,” resumed Wally, “that is a different matter. Most managers are respectable, middle-aged men with wives and families. They are in the business to make money, and they don't want anything else out of it. The girls in their companies are like so many clerks to them, just machines that help to bring the money in. They don't know half a dozen of them to speak to. But our genial Ike is not like that.” Wally consumed a mouthful of sole. “Ike Goble is a bad citizen. He paws! He's a slinker and a prowler and a leerer. He's a pest and a worm! He's fat and soft and flabby. He has a greasy soul, a withered heart, and an eye like a codfish. Not knocking him, of course!” added Wally magnanimously. “Far be it from me to knock anyone! But, speaking with the utmost respect and viewing him in the most favorable light, he is a combination of tom-cat and the things you see when you turn over a flat stone! Such are the reasons why I am sorry that you are in his company.”
Jill had listened to this diatribe with a certain uneasiness.
Her brief encounters with Mr Goble told her that every word was probably true. She could still feel the unpleasant sensation of being inspected by the eye which Wally had compared—quite justly—to that of a codfish. But her pride forbade any admission of weakness.
“I can take care of myself,” she said.
“I don't doubt it,” said Wally. “And you could probably take care of yourself if you fell into a muddy pond. But I shouldn't like to stand on the bank and watch you doing it. I know what girls in the chorus have to go through. Hanging about for hours in draughts, doing nothing, while the principals go through their scenes, and yelled at if they try to relieve the tedium of captivity with a little light conversation —”
“Yes,” admitted Jill. “There has been a good lot of that.”
“There always is. I believe if the stage-carpenter was going to stick a screw in a flat, they would call a chorus-rehearsal to watch him do it — Jill, you must get out of it. It's no life for you. The work —”
“I like the work.”
“While it's new, perhaps, but —”
Jill interrupted him passionately.
“Oh, can't you understand!” she cried. “I want the work. I need it. I want
something to do, something to occupy my mind. I hate talking about it, but you
know how things are with me. Freddie must have told you. Even if he didn't, you
must have guessed, meeting me here all alone and remembering how things were
when we last met. You must understand! Haven't you ever had a terrible shock or
a dreadful disappointment that seemed to smash up the whole world? And didn't
you find that the only possible thing to do was to work and work and work as
hard as ever you could? When I first came to
“They are toughened to it.”
“Then I must get toughened to it. What else is there for me to do? I must do something.”
“Marry me!” said Wally, reaching across the table and putting his hand on hers. The light in his eyes lit up his homely face like a lantern.
The suddenness of it startled Jill into silence. She snatched her hand away and drew back, looking at him in wonderment. She was confusedly aware of a babble of sound,—people talking, people laughing, the orchestra playing a lively tune. All her senses seemed to have become suddenly more acute. She was intensely alive to small details. Then, abruptly, the whole world condensed itself into two eyes that were fastened upon hers,—compelling eyes which she felt a panic desire to avoid.
She turned her head away, and looked out into the restaurant. It seemed incredible that all these people, placidly intent upon their food and their small talk, should not be staring at her, wondering what she was going to say; nudging each other and speculating. Their detachment made her feel alone and helpless. She was nothing to them and they did not care what happened to her, just as she had been nothing to those frozen marshes down at Brookport. She was alone in an indifferent world, with her own problems to settle for herself.
Other men had asked Jill to marry them,—a full dozen of them, here and
there in country houses and at
Yet, now that the shock of it was dying away, she began to remember signs she would have noticed, speeches which ought to have warned her —
“Wally!” she gasped.
She found that he affected her in an entirely different fashion from the
luckless dozen of those
“Let me take you out of it all! You aren't fit for this sort of life. I can't bear to see you —”
Jill bent forward and touched his hand. He started as though he had been burned. The muscles of his throat were working.
“Wally, it's—” She paused for a word. “Kind” was horrible. It would have sounded cold, almost supercilious. “Sweet” was the sort of thing she could imagine Lois Penham saying to her friend Izzy. She began her sentence again. “You're a dear to say that, but —”
Wally laughed chokingly.
“You think I'm altruistic? I'm not. I'm just as selfish and self-centered
as any other man who wants a thing very badly. I'm as altruistic as a child
crying for the moon. I want you to marry me because I love you, because there
never was anybody like you, because you're the whole world, because I always
have loved you. I've been dreaming about you for a dozen years, thinking about
you, wondering about you—wondering where you were, what you were doing, how you
looked. I used to think that it was just sentimentality, that you merely stood
for a time of my life when I was happier than I have ever been since. I used to
think that you were just a sort of peg on which I was hanging a pleasant
sentimental regret for days which could never come back. You were a memory that
seemed to personify all the other memories of the best time of my life. You
were the goddess of old associations. Then I met you in
Jill turned her face to the wall beside her. A man at the next table, a corpulent red-faced man, had begun to stare. He could have heard nothing, for Wally had spoken in a low voice; but plainly he was aware that something more interesting was happening at their table than at any of the other tables, and he was watching with a bovine inquisitiveness which affected Jill with a sense of outrage. A moment before, she had resented the indifference of the outer world. Now, this one staring man seemed like a watching multitude. There were tears in her eyes, and she felt that the red-faced man suspected it.
“Wally —” Her voice broke. “It's impossible.”
“Why? Why, Jill?”
“Because — Oh, it's impossible!”
There was a silence.
“Because —” He seemed to find a difficulty in speaking, “Because of Underhill?”
Jill nodded. She felt wretched. The monstrous incongruity of her surroundings oppressed her. The orchestra dashed into a rollicking melody, which set her foot tapping in spite of herself. At a near-by table somebody was shouting with laughter. Two waiters at a service-stand were close enough for her to catch snatches of their talk. They were arguing about an order of fried potatoes. Once again her feelings veered round, and she loathed the detachment of the world. Her heart ached for Wally. She could not look at him, but she knew exactly what she would see if she did,—honest, pleading eyes searching her face for something which she could not give.
“Yes,” she said.
The table creaked. Wally was leaning further forward. He seemed like something large and pathetic,—a big dog in trouble. She hated to be hurting him. And all the time her foot tapped accompaniment to the rag-time tune.
“But you can't live all your life with a memory,” said Wally.
Jill turned and faced him. His eyes seemed to leap at her, and they were just as she had pictured them.
“You don't understand,” she said gently. “You don't understand.”
“It's ended. It's over.”
Jill shook her head.
“You can't still love him, after what has happened!”
“I don't know,” said Jill unhappily.
The words seemed to bewilder Wally as much as they had bewildered Freddie.
“You don't know!”
Jill shut her eyes tight. Wally quivered. It was a trick she had had as a child. In perplexity, she had always screwed up her eyes just like that, as if to shut herself up in herself.
“Don't talk for a minute, Wally,” she said. “I want to think.”
Her eyes opened.
“It's like this,” she said. He had seen her look at him exactly the same way a hundred times. “I don't suppose I can make you understand, but this is how it is. Suppose you had a room, and it was full of things. Furniture. And there wasn't any space left. You—you couldn't put anything else in till you had taken all that out, could you? It might not be worth anything, but it would still be there taking up all the room.”
“Yes,” he said. “I see.”
“My heart's full, Wally dear. I know it's just lumber that's choking it up, but it's difficult to get it out. It takes time getting it out. I put it in, thinking it was wonderful furniture, the most wonderful in the world, and—I was cheated. It was just lumber. But it's there. It's still there. It's there all the time. And what am I to do?”
The orchestra crashed, and was silent. The sudden stillness seemed to break a spell. The world invaded the little island where they sat. A chattering party of girls and men brushed past them. The waiter, judging that they had been there long enough, slipped a strip of paper, decorously turned upside down, in front of Wally. He took the money, and went away to get change.
Wally turned to Jill.
“I understand,” he said. “All this hasn't happened, and we're just as good pals as before?”
“But —” He forced a laugh — “mark my words, a time may come, and then — !”
“I don't know,” said Jill.
“A time may come,” repeated Wally. “At any rate, let me think so. It has nothing to do with me. It's for you to decide, absolutely. I'm not going to pursue you with my addresses! If ever you get that room of yours emptied, you won't have to hang out a 'To Let' sign. I shall be waiting and you will know where to find me. And, in the meantime, yours to command, Wallace Mason. Is that clear?”
“Quite clear.” Jill looked at him affectionately. “There's nobody I'd rather open that room to than you, Wally. You know that.”
“Is that the solemn truth?”
“The solemn truth!”
“Then,” said Wally, “in two minutes you will see a startled waiter. There will be about fourteen dollars change out of that twenty he took away. I'm going to give it all to him.”
“Every cent!” said Wally firm. “And the young Greek brigand who stole my hat at the door is going to get a dollar! That, as our ascetic and honorable friend Goble would say, is the sort of little guy I am!”
The red-faced man at the next table eyed them as they went out, leaving behind them a waiter who clutched totteringly for support at the back of a chair.
“Had a row,” he decided, “but made it up.”
He called for a toothpick.
On the boardwalk at Atlantic City, that much-enduring seashore resort which has been the birthplace of so many musical plays, there stands an all-day and all-night restaurant, under the same management and offering the same hospitality as the one in Columbus Circle at which Jill had taken her first meal on arriving in New York. At least, its hospitality is noisy during the waking and working hours of the day; but there are moments when it has an almost cloistral peace, and the customer, abashed by the cold calm of its snowy marble and the silent gravity of the white-robed attendants, unconsciously lowers his voice and tries to keep his feet from shuffling, like one in a temple. The members of the chorus of “The Rose of America,” dropping in by ones and twos at six o'clock in the morning about two weeks after the events recorded in the last chapter, spoke in whispers and gave their orders for breakfast in a subdued undertone.
The dress-rehearsal had just dragged its weary length to a close. It is the custom of the dwellers in Atlantic City, who seem to live entirely for pleasure, to attend a species of vaudeville performance—incorrectly termed a sacred concert—on Sunday nights: and it had been one o'clock in the morning before the concert scenery could be moved out of the theatre and the first act set of “The Rose of America” moved in. And, as by some unwritten law of the drama no dress-rehearsal can begin without a delay of at least an hour and a half, the curtain had not gone up on Mr Miller's opening chorus till half past two. There had been dress-parades, conferences, interminable arguments between the stage-director and a mysterious man in shirtsleeves about the lights, more dress-parades, further conferences, hitches with regard to the sets, and another outbreak of debate on the subject of blues, ambers, and the management of the “spot,” which was worked by a plaintive voice, answering to the name of Charlie, at the back of the family circle. But by six o'clock a complete, if ragged, performance had been given, and the chorus, who had partaken of no nourishment since dinner on the previous night, had limped off round the corner for a bite of breakfast before going to bed.
They were a battered and a draggled company, some with dark circles beneath their eyes, others blooming with the unnatural scarlet of the make-up which they had been too tired to take off. The Duchess, haughty to the last, had fallen asleep with her head on the table. The red-headed Babe was lying back in her chair, staring at the ceiling. The Southern girl blinked like an owl at the morning sunshine out on the boardwalk.
The Cherub, whose triumphant youth had brought her almost fresh through a sleepless night, contributed the only remark made during the interval of waiting for the meal.
“The fascination of a thtage life! Why girls leave home!” She looked at her reflection in the little mirror of her vanity-bag. “It is a face!” she murmured reflectively. “But I should hate to have to go around with it long!”
A sallow young man, with the alertness peculiar to those who work on the night-shifts of restaurants, dumped a tray down on the table with a clatter. The Duchess woke up. Babe took her eyes off the ceiling. The Southern girl ceased to look at the sunshine. Already, at the mere sight of food, the extraordinary recuperative powers of the theatrical worker had begun to assert themselves. In five minutes these girls would be feeling completely restored and fit for anything.
Conversation broke out with the first sip of coffee, and the calm of the restaurant was shattered. Its day had begun.
“It's a great life if you don't weaken,” said the Cherub, hungrily attacking her omelette. “And the wortht is yet to come! I thuppose all you old dears realithe that this show will have to be rewritten from end to end, and we'll be rehearthing day and night all the time we're on the road.”
“Why?” Lois Denham spoke with her mouth full. “What's wrong with it?”
The Duchess took a sip of coffee.
“Don't make me laugh!” she pleaded. “What's wrong with it? What's right with it, one would feel more inclined to ask!”
“One would feel thtill more inclined,” said the Cherub, “to athk why one was thuch a chump as to let oneself in for this sort of thing when one hears on all sides that waitresses earn thixty dollars a month.”
“The numbers are all right,” argued Babe. “I don't mean the melodies, but Johnny has arranged some good business.”
“He always does,” said the Southern girl. “Some more buckwheat cakes, please. But what about the book?”
“I never listen to the book.”
The Cherub laughed.
“You're too good to yourself! I listened to it right along and take it
from me it's sad! Of courthe they'll have it fixed. We can't open in
Jill, who had been listening in a dazed way to the conversation, fighting against the waves of sleep which flooded over her, woke up.
“Was Wally—was Mr Mason there?”
“Sure. Sitting at the back.”
Jill couldn't have said whether she was glad or sorry. She had not seen Wally since that afternoon when they lunched together at the Cosmopolis, and the rush of the final weeks of rehearsals had given her little opportunity for thinking of him. At the back of her mind had been the feeling that sooner or later she would have to think of him, but for two weeks she had been too tired and too busy to re-examine him as a factor in her life. There had been times when the thought of him had been like the sunshine on a winter day, warming her with almost an impersonal glow in moments of depression. And then some sharp, poignant memory of Derek would come to blot him out. She remembered the image she had used to explain Derek to Wally, and the truth of it came home to her more strongly than ever. Whatever Derek might have done, he was in her heart and she could not get him out.
She came out of her thoughts to find that the talk had taken another turn.
“And the wortht of it is,” the Cherub was saying, “we shall rehearthe all day and give a show every night and work ourselves to the bone, and then, when they're good and ready, they'll fire one of us!”
“That's right!” agreed the Southern girl.
“They couldn't!” Jill cried.
“You wait!” said the Cherub. “They'll never open in
“But they wouldn't do a thing like that after we've all worked so hard!”
There was a general burst of sardonic laughter. Jill's opinion of the chivalry of theatrical managers seemed to be higher than that of her more experienced colleagues. “They'll do anything,” the Cherub assured her. “You don't know the half of it, dearie,” scoffed Lois Denham. “You don't know the half of it!”
“Wait till you've been in as many shows as I have,” said Babe, shaking her
red locks. “The usual thing is to keep a girl slaving her head off all through
the road-tour and then fire her before the
“But it's a shame! It isn't fair!”
“If one is expecting to be treated fairly,” said the Duchess with a prolonged yawn, “one should not go into the show-business.”
And, having uttered this profoundly true maxim, she fell asleep again.
The slumber of the Duchess was the signal for a general move. Her somnolence was catching. The restorative effects of the meal were beginning to wear off. There was a call for a chorus-rehearsal at four o'clock, and it seemed the wise move to go to bed and get some sleep while there was time. The Duchess was roused from her dreams by means of a piece of ice from one of the tumblers; checks were paid; and the company poured out, yawning and chattering, into the sunlight of the empty boardwalk.
Jill detached herself from the group, and made her way to a seat facing the ocean. Tiredness had fallen upon her like a leaden weight, crushing all the power out of her limbs, and the thought of walking to the boarding-house where, from motives of economy, she was sharing a room with the Cherub, paralyzed her.
It was a perfect morning, clear and cloudless, with the warm freshness of a day that means to be hotter later on. The sea sparkled in the sun. Little waves broke lazily on the gray sand. Jill closed her eyes, for the brightness of sun and water was trying; and her thoughts went back to what the Cherub had said.
If Wally was really going to rewrite the play, they would be thrown together. She would be obliged to meet him, and she was not sure that she was ready to meet him. Still, he would be somebody to talk to on subjects other than the one eternal topic of the theatre, somebody who belonged to the old life. She had ceased to regard Freddie Rooke in this light: for Freddie, solemn with his new responsibilities as a principal, was the most whole-hearted devotee of “shop” in the company. Freddie nowadays declined to consider any subject for conversation that did not have to do with “The Rose of America” in general and his share in it in particular. Jill had given him up, and he had paired off with Nelly Bryant. The two were inseparable. Jill had taken one or two meals with them, but Freddie's professional monologues, of which Nelly seemed never to weary, were too much for her. As a result she was now very much alone. There were girls in the company whom she liked, but most of them had their own intimate friends, and she was always conscious of not being really wanted. She was lonely, and, after examining the matter as clearly as her tired mind would allow, she found herself curiously soothed by the thought that Wally would be near to mitigate her loneliness.
She opened her eyes, blinking. Sleep had crept upon her with an insidious suddenness, and she had almost fallen over on the seat. She was just bracing herself to get up and begin the long tramp to the boarding-house, when a voice spoke at her side.
“Hullo! Good morning!”
Jill looked up.
“Surprised to see me?”
“No. Milly Trevor said she had seen you at the rehearsal last night.”
Wally came round the bench and seated himself at her side. His eyes were tired, and his chin dark and bristly.
“Yes, thanks. Have you?”
“Not yet. How are you feeling?”
“I wonder you're not dead. I've been through a good many dress-rehearsals,
but this one was the record. Why they couldn't have had it comfortably in
“I couldn't face the walk. I suppose I ought to be going, though.”
She half rose, then sank back again. The glitter of the water hypnotized her. She closed her eyes again. She could hear Wally speaking, then his voice grew suddenly faint and far off, and she ceased to fight the delicious drowsiness.
Jill awoke with a start. She opened her eyes, and shut them again at once. The sun was very strong now. It was one of those prematurely warm days of early Spring which have all the languorous heat of late summer. She opened her eyes once more, and found that she was feeling greatly refreshed. She also discovered that her head was resting on Wally's shoulder.
“Have I been asleep?”
“You have been having what you might call a nap.” He massaged his left arm vigorously. “You needed it. Do you feel more rested now?”
“Good gracious! Have I been squashing your poor arm all the time? Why didn't you move?”
“I was afraid you would fall over. You just shut your eyes and toppled sideways.”
“What's the time?”
Wally looked at his watch.
“Just on ten.”
“Ten!” Jill was horrified. “Why, I have been giving you cramp for about three hours! You must have had an awful time!”
“Oh, it was all right. I think I dozed off myself. Except that the birds didn't come and cover us with leaves; it was rather like the 'Babes in the Wood.'“
“But you haven't had any breakfast! Aren't you starving?”
“Well, I'm not saying I wouldn't spear a fried egg with some vim if it happened to float past. But there's plenty of time for that. Lots of doctors say you oughtn't to eat breakfast, and Indian fakirs go without food for days at a time in order to develop their souls. Shall I take you back to wherever you're staying? You ought to get a proper sleep in bed.”
“Don't dream of taking me. Go off and have something to eat.”
“Oh, that can wait. I'd like to see you safely home.”
Jill was conscious of a renewed sense of his comfortingness. There was no doubt about it, Wally was different from any other man she had known. She suddenly felt guilty, as if she were obtaining something valuable under false pretences.
“You—you oughtn't to be so good to me!”
“Nonsense! Where's the harm in lending a hand—or, rather, an arm—to a pal in trouble?”
“You know what I mean. I can't — that is to say — it isn't as though — I mean —”
Wally smiled a tired, friendly smile.
“If you're trying to say what I think you're trying to say, don't! We had all that out two weeks ago. I quite understand the position. You mustn't worry yourself about it.” He took her arm, and they crossed the boardwalk. “Are we going in the right direction? You lead the way. I know exactly how you feel. We're old friends, and nothing more. But, as an old friend, I claim the right to behave like an old friend. If an old friend can't behave like an old friend, how can an old friend behave? And now we'll rule the whole topic out of the conversation. But perhaps you're too tired for conversation?”
“Then I will tell you about the sad death of young Mr Pilkington.”
“Well, when I say death, I use the word in a loose sense. The human
giraffe still breathes, and I imagine, from the speed with which he legged it
back to his hotel when we parted, that he still takes nourishment. But really
he is dead. His heart is broken. We had a conference after the dress-rehearsal,
and our friend Mr Goble told him in no uncertain words—in the whole course of
my experience I have never heard words less uncertain—that his damned rotten
high-brow false-alarm of a show—I am quoting Mr Goble—would have to be
rewritten by alien hands. And these are them! On the right, alien right hand.
On the left, alien left hand. Yes, I am the instrument selected for the murder
of Pilkington's artistic aspirations. I'm going to rewrite the show. In fact, I
have already rewritten the first act and most of the second. Goble foresaw this
contingency and told me to get busy two weeks ago, and I've been working hard
ever since. We shall start rehearsing the new version tomorrow and open in
“I like work,” said Jill. “But I'm sorry for Mr Pilkington.”
“He's all right. He owns seventy per cent of the show. He may make a fortune.
He's certain to make a comfortable sum. That is, if he doesn't sell out his
interest in pique—or dudgeon, if you prefer it. From what he said at the close
of the proceedings, I fancy he would sell out to anybody who asked him. At
least, he said that he washed his hands of the piece. He's going back to
“Another tragedy! Unavoidable, but pathetic. Poor old Freddie! He's out!”
“Out!” repeated Wally firmly.
“But didn't you think he was good last night?”
“He was awful! But that isn't why. Goble wanted his part rewritten as a Scotchman, so as to get McAndrew, the fellow who made such a hit last season in 'Hoots, Mon!' That sort of thing is always happening in musical comedy. You have to fit parts to suit whatever good people happen to be available at the moment. When you've had one or two experiences of changing your Italian count to a Jewish millionaire—invariably against time: they always want the script on Thursday next at noon—and then changing him again to a Russian Bolshevik, you begin to realize what is meant by the words 'Death, where is thy sting?' My heart bleeds for Freddie, but what can one do? At any rate he isn't so badly off as a fellow was in one of my shows. In the second act he was supposed to have escaped from an asylum, and the management, in a passion for realism, insisted that he should shave his head. The day after he shaved it, they heard that a superior comedian was disengaged and fired him. It's a ruthless business.”
“The girls were saying that one of us would be dismissed.”
“Oh, I shouldn't think that's likely.”
“I hope not.”
“So do I. What are we stopping for?” Jill had halted in front of a shabby-looking house, one of those depressing buildings which spring up overnight at seashore resorts and start to decay the moment the builders have left them.
“I live here.”
“Here!” Wally looked at her in consternation. “But —”
“We working-girls have got to economize. Besides, it's quite comfortable—fairly comfortable—inside, and it's only for a week.” She yawned. “I believe I'm falling asleep again. I'd better hurry in and go to bed. Good-bye, Wally dear. You've been wonderful. Mind you go and get a good breakfast.”
When Jill arrived at the theatre at four o'clock for the chorus rehearsal, the expected blow had not fallen. No steps had apparently been taken to eliminate the thirteenth girl whose presence in the cast preyed on Mr. Goble's superstitious mind. But she found her colleagues still in a condition of pessimistic foreboding. “Wait!” was the gloomy watchword of “The Rose of America” chorus.
The rehearsal passed off without event. It lasted until six o'clock, when Jill, the Cherub, and two or three of the other girls went to snatch a hasty dinner before returning to the theatre to make up. It was not a cheerful meal. Reaction had set in after the overexertion of the previous night, and it was too early for first-night excitement to take its place. Everybody, even the Cherub, whose spirits seldom failed her, was depressed, and the idea of an overhanging doom had grown. It seemed now to be merely a question of speculating on the victim, and the conversation gave Jill, as the last addition to the company and so the cause of swelling the ranks of the chorus to the unlucky number, a feeling of guilt. She was glad when it was time to go back to the theatre.
The moment she and her companions entered the dressing-room, it was made clear to them that the doom had fallen. In a chair in the corner, all her pretence and affectation swept away in a flood of tears, sat the unhappy Duchess, the center of a group of girls anxious to console but limited in their ideas of consolation to an occasional pat on the back and an offer of a fresh pocket-handkerchief.
“It's tough, honey!” somebody was saying as Jill came in.
Somebody else said it was fierce, and a third girl declared it to be the limit. A fourth girl, well-meaning but less helpful than she would have liked to be, was advising the victim not to worry.
The story of the disaster was brief and easily told. The Duchess, sailing in at the stage-door, had paused at the letter-box to see if Cuthbert, her faithful auto-salesman, had sent her a good-luck telegram. He had, but his good wishes were unfortunately neutralized by the fact that the very next letter in the box was one from the management, crisp and to the point, informing the Duchess that her services would not be required that night or thereafter. It was the subtle meanness of the blow that roused the indignation of “The Rose of America” chorus, the cunning villainy with which it had been timed.
“Poor Mae, if she'd opened tonight, they'd have had to give her two weeks' notice or her salary. But they can fire her without a cent just because she's only been rehearsing and hasn't given a show!”
The Duchess burst into fresh flood of tears.
“Don't you worry, honey!” advised the well-meaning girl, who would have been in her element looking in on Job with Bildad the Shuhite and his friends. “Don't you worry!”
“It's tough!” said the girl, who had adopted that form of verbal consolation.
“It's fierce!” said the girl who preferred that adjective.
The other girl, with an air of saying something new, repeated her
statement that it was the limit. The Duchess cried forlornly throughout. She
had needed this engagement badly. Chorus salaries are not stupendous, but it is
possible to save money by means of them during a
Jill had been the only girl in the room who had spoken no word of consolation. This was not because she was not sorry for the Duchess. She had never been sorrier for any one in her life. The pathos of that swift descent from haughtiness to misery had bitten deep into her sensitive heart. But she revolted at the idea of echoing the banal words of the others. Words were no good, she thought, as she set her little teeth and glared at an absent management,—a management just about now presumably distending itself with a luxurious dinner at one of the big hotels. Deeds were what she demanded. All her life she had been a girl of impulsive action, and she wanted to act impulsively now. She was in much the same Berserk mood as had swept her, raging, to the defence of Bill the parrot on the occasion of his dispute with Henry of London. The fighting spirit which had been drained from her by the all-night rehearsal had come back in full measure.
“What are you going to do?” she cried. “Aren't you going to do something?”
Do? The members of “The Rose of America” ensemble looked doubtfully at one another. Do? It had not occurred to them that there was anything to be done. These things happened, and you regretted them, but as for doing anything, well, what could you do?
Jill's face was white and her eyes were flaming. She dominated the roomful of girls like a little Napoleon. The change in her startled them. Hitherto they had always looked on her as rather an unusually quiet girl. She had always made herself unobtrusively pleasant to them all. They all liked her. But they had never suspected her of possessing this militant quality. Nobody spoke, but there was a general stir. She had flung a new idea broadcast, and it was beginning to take root. Do something? Well, if it came to that, why not?
“We ought all to refuse to go on tonight unless they let her go on!” Jill declared.
The stir became a movement. Enthusiasm is catching, and every girl is at heart a rebel. And the idea was appealing to the imagination. Refuse to give a show on the opening night! Had a chorus ever done such a thing? They trembled on the verge of making history.
“Strike?” quavered somebody at the back.
“Yes, strike!” cried Jill.
“Hooray! That's the thtuff!” shouted the Cherub, and turned the scale. She was a popular girl, and her adherence to the Cause confirmed the doubters. “Thtrike!”
Jill turned to the Duchess, who had been gaping amazedly at the demonstration. She no longer wept, but she seemed in a dream.
“Dress and get ready to go on,” Jill commanded. “We'll all dress and get ready to go on. Then I'll go and find Mr Goble and tell him what we mean to do. And, if he doesn't give in, we'll stay here in this room, and there won't be a performance!”
Mr Goble, with a
“Get out of the light!” bellowed Mr Goble, always a man of direct speech, adding “Damn you!” for good measure.
“Please move to one side,” interpreted the stage-director. “Mr Goble is looking at the set.”
The head carpenter, who completed the little group, said nothing. Stage carpenters always say nothing. Long association with fussy directors has taught them that the only policy to pursue on opening nights is to withdraw into the silence, wrap themselves up in it, and not emerge until the enemy has grown tired and gone off to worry somebody else.
“It don't look right!” said Mr Goble, cocking his head on one side.
“I see what you mean, Mr Goble,” assented the stage-director obsequiously. “It has perhaps a little too much—er—not quite enough—yes, I see what you mean!”
“It's too—damn—BLUE!” rasped Mr Goble, impatient of this vacillating criticism. “That's what's the matter with it.”
The head carpenter abandoned the silent policy of a lifetime. He felt impelled to utter. He was a man who, when not at the theatre, spent most of his time in bed, reading all-fiction magazines: but it so happened that once, last summer, he had actually seen the sky; and he considered that this entitled him to speak almost as a specialist on the subject.
“The sky is blue!” he observed huskily. “Yessir! I seen it!”
He passed into the silence again, and, to prevent a further lapse, stopped up his mouth with a piece of chewing-gum.
Mr Goble regarded the silver-tongued orator wrathfully. He was not accustomed to chatter-boxes arguing with him like this. He would probably have said something momentous and crushing, but at this point Jill intervened.
The manager swung round on her.
“What is it?”
It is sad to think how swiftly affection can change to dislike in this world. Two weeks before, Mr Goble had looked on Jill with favor. She had seemed good in his eyes. But that refusal of hers to lunch with him, followed by a refusal some days later to take a bit of supper somewhere, had altered his views on feminine charm. If it had been left to him, as most things were about his theatre, to decide which of the thirteen girls should be dismissed, he would undoubtedly have selected Jill. But at this stage in the proceedings there was the unfortunate necessity of making concessions to the temperamental Johnson Miller. Mr Goble was aware that the dance-director's services would be badly needed in the re-arrangement of the numbers during the coming week or so, and he knew that there were a dozen managers waiting eagerly to welcome him if he threw up his present job, so he had been obliged to approach him in quite a humble spirit and enquire which of his female chorus could be most easily spared. And, as the Duchess had a habit of carrying her haughty languor onto the stage and employing it as a substitute for the chorea which was Mr. Miller's ideal, the dancer-director had chosen her. To Mr Goble's dislike of Jill, therefore, was added now something of the fury of the baffled potentate.
“'Jer want?” he demanded.
“Mr Goble is extremely busy,” said the stage-director. “Ex-tremely.”
A momentary doubt as to the best way of approaching her subject had troubled Jill on her way downstairs, but, now that she was on the battle-field confronting the enemy, she found herself cool, collected, and full of a cold rage which steeled her nerves without confusing her mind.
“I came to ask you to let Mae D'Arcy go on tonight.”
“Who the hell's Mae D'Arcy?” Mr Goble broke off to bellow at a
scene-shifter who was depositing the wall of Mrs Stuyvesant van Dyke's
“You gave her her notice this evening,” said Jill.
“Well, what about it?”
“We want you to withdraw it.”
“The other girls and myself.”
Mr Goble jerked his head so violently that the
“Oh, so you don't like it? Well, you know what you can do —”
“Yes,” said Jill, “we do. We are going to strike.”
“If you don't let Mae go on, we shan't go on. There won't be a performance tonight, unless you like to give one without a chorus.”
“Are you crazy!”
“Perhaps. But we're quite unanimous.”
Mr Goble, like most theatrical managers, was not good at words of over two syllables.
“We've talked it over, and we've all decided to do what I said.”
Mr Goble's hat shot off again, and gambolled away into the wings, with the stage-director bounding after it like a retriever.
“Whose idea's this?” demanded Mr Goble. His eyes were a little foggy, for his brain was adjusting itself but slowly to the novel situation.
“Oh, yours! I thought as much!”
“Well,” said Jill, “I'll go back and tell them that you will not do what we ask. We will keep our make-up on in case you change your mind.”
She turned away.
Jill proceeded toward the staircase. As she went, a husky voice spoke in her ear.
“Go to it, kid! You're all right!”
The head-carpenter had broken his Trappist vows twice in a single evening, a thing which had not happened to him since the night three years ago, when, sinking wearily onto a seat in a dark corner for a bit of a rest, he found that one of his assistants had placed a pot of red paint there.
To Mr Goble, fermenting and full of strange oaths, entered Johnson Miller. The dance-director was always edgey on first nights, and during the foregoing conversation had been flitting about the stage like a white-haired moth. His deafness had kept him in complete ignorance that there was anything untoward afoot, and he now approached Mr Goble with his watch in his hand.
“Eight twenty-five,” he observed. “Time those girls were on stage.”
Mr Goble, glad of a concrete target for his wrath, cursed him in about two hundred and fifty rich and well-selected words.
“Huh?” said Mr Miller, hand to ear.
Mr Goble repeated the last hundred and eleven words, the pick of the bunch.
“Can't hear!” said Mr Miller, regretfully. “Got a cold.”
The grave danger that Mr Goble, a thick-necked man, would undergo some sort of a stroke was averted by the presence-of-mind of the stage-director, who, returning with the hat, presented it like a bouquet to his employer, and then his hands being now unoccupied, formed them into a funnel and through this flesh-and-blood megaphone endeavored to impart the bad news.
“The girls say they won't go on!”
Mr Miller nodded.
“I said it was time they were on.”
“They're on strike!”
“It's not,” said Mr Miller austerely, “what they like, it's what they're paid for. They ought to be on stage. We should be ringing up in two minutes.”
The stage director drew another breath, then thought better of it. He had a wife and children, and, if dadda went under with apoplexy, what became of the home, civilization's most sacred product? He relaxed the muscles of his diaphragm, and reached for pencil and paper.
Mr Miller inspected the message, felt for his spectacle-case, found it, opened it, took out his glasses, replaced the spectacle-case, felt for his handkerchief, polished the glasses, replaced the handkerchief, put the glasses on, and read. A blank look came into his face.
“Why?” he enquired.
The stage director, with a nod of the head intended to imply that he must be patient and all would come right in the future, recovered the paper, and scribbled another sentence. Mr Miller perused it.
“Because Mae D'Arcy has got her notice?” he queried, amazed. “But the girl can't dance a step.”
The stage director, by means of a wave of the hand, a lifting of both eyebrows, and a wrinkling of the nose, replied that the situation, unreasonable as it might appear to the thinking man, was as he had stated and must be faced. What, he enquired—through the medium of a clever drooping of the mouth and a shrug of the shoulders—was to be done about it?
Mr Miller remained for a moment in meditation.
“I'll go and talk to them,” he said.
He flitted off, and the stage director leaned back against the asbestos curtain. He was exhausted, and his throat was in agony, but nevertheless he was conscious of a feeling of quiet happiness. His life had been lived in the shadow of the constant fear that some day Mr Goble might dismiss him. Should that disaster occur, he felt, there was always a future for him in the movies.
Scarcely had Mr Miller disappeared on his peace-making errand, when there was a noise like a fowl going through a quickset hedge, and Mr Saltzburg, brandishing his baton as if he were conducting an unseen orchestra, plunged through the scenery at the left upper entrance and charged excitedly down the stage. Having taken his musicians twice through the overture, he had for ten minutes been sitting in silence, waiting for the curtain to go up. At last, his emotional nature cracking under the strain of this suspense, he had left his conductor's chair and plunged down under the stage by way of the musician's bolthole to ascertain what was causing the delay.
“What is it? What is it? What is it? What is it?” enquired Mr Saltzburg. “I wait and wait and wait and wait and wait. — We cannot play the overture again. What is it? What has happened?”
Mr Goble, that overwrought soul, had betaken himself to the wings, where he was striding up and down with his hands behind his back, chewing his cigar. The stage director braced himself once more to the task of explanation.
“The girls have struck!”
Mr Saltzburg blinked through his glasses.
“The girls?” he repeated blankly.
“Oh, damn it!” cried the stage director, his patience at last giving way. “You know what a girl is, don't you?”
“They have what?”
“Struck! Walked out on us! Refused to go on!”
Mr Saltzburg reeled under the blow.
“But it is impossible! Who is to sing the opening chorus?”
In the presence of one to whom he could relieve his mind without fear of consequences, the stage director became savagely jocular.
“That's all arranged,” he said. “We're going to dress the carpenters in skirts. The audience won't notice anything wrong.”
“Should I speak to Mr Goble?” queried Mr Saltzburg doubtfully.
“Yes, if you don't value your life,” returned the stage director.
Mr Saltzburg pondered.
“I will go and speak to the children,” he said. “I will talk to them. They know me! I will make them be reasonable.”
He bustled off in the direction taken by Mr Miller, his coattails flying behind him. The stage director, with a tired sigh, turned to face Wally, who had come in through the iron pass-door from the auditorium.
“Hullo!” said Wally cheerfully. “Going strong? How's everybody at home? Fine! So am I! By the way, am I wrong or did I hear something about a theatrical entertainment of some sort here tonight?” He looked about him at the empty stage. In the wings, on the prompt side, could be discerned the flannel-clad forms of the gentlemanly members of the male ensemble, all dressed up for Mrs Stuyvesant van Dyke's tennis party. One or two of the principals were standing perplexedly in the lower entrance. The O. P. side had been given over by general consent to Mr Goble for his perambulations. Every now and then he would flash into view through an opening in the scenery. “I understood that tonight was the night for the great revival of comic opera. Where are the comics, and why aren't they opping?”
The stage director repeated his formula once more.
“The girls have struck!”
“So have the clocks,” said Wally. “It's past nine.”
“The chorus refuse to go on.”
“No, really! Just artistic loathing of the rotten piece, or is there some other reason?”
“They're sore because one of them has been given her notice, and they say they won't give a show unless she's taken back. They've struck. That Mariner girl started it.”
“She did!” Wally's interest became keener. “She would!” he said approvingly. “She's a heroine!”
“Little devil! I never liked that girl!”
“Now there,” said Wally, “is just the point on which we differ. I have always liked her, and I've known her all my life. So, shipmate, if you have any derogatory remarks to make about Miss Mariner, keep them where they belong—there!” He prodded the other sharply in the stomach. He was smiling pleasantly, but the stage director, catching his eye, decided that his advice was good and should be followed. It is just as bad for the home if the head of the family gets his neck broken as if he succumbs to apoplexy.
“You surely aren't on their side?” he said.
“Me!” said Wally. “Of course I am. I'm always on the side of the down-trodden and oppressed. If you know of a dirtier trick than firing a girl just before the opening, so that they won't have to pay her two weeks' salary, mention it. Till you do, I'll go on believing that it is the limit. Of course I'm on the girls' side. I'll make them a speech if they want me to, or head the procession with a banner if they are going to parade down the boardwalk. I'm for 'em, Father Abraham, a hundred thousand strong. And then a few! If you want my considered opinion, our old friend Goble has asked for it and got it. And I'm glad—glad—glad, if you don't mind my quoting Pollyanna for a moment. I hope it chokes him!”
“You'd better not let him hear you talking like that!”
“An contraire, as we say in the
Like the vanguard of a defeated army, Mr Saltzburg was coming dejectedly across the stage.
“Well?” said the stage-director.
“They would not listen to me,” said Mr Saltzburg brokenly. “The more I talked, the more they did not listen!” He winced at a painful memory. “Miss Trevor stole my baton, and then they all lined up and sang the 'Star-Spangled Banner'!”
“Not the words?” cried Wally incredulously. “Don't tell me they knew the words!”
“Mr Miller is still up there, arguing with them. But it will be of no use. What shall we do?” asked Mr Saltzburg helplessly. “We ought to have rung up half an hour ago. What shall we do-oo-oo?”
“We must go and talk to Goble,” said Wally. “Something has got to be settled quick. When I left, the audience was getting so impatient that I thought he was going to walk out on us. He's one of those nasty, determined-looking men. So come along!”
Mr Goble, intercepted as he was about to turn for another walk up-stage, eyed the deputation sourly and put the same question that the stage director had put to Mr Saltzburg.
Wally came briskly to the point.
“You'll have to give in,” he said, “or else go and make a speech to the audience, the burden of which will be that they can have their money back by applying at the box-office. These Joans of Arc have got you by the short hairs!”
“I won't give in!”
“Then give out!” said Wally. “Or pay out, if you prefer it. Trot along and tell the audience that the four dollars fifty in the house will be refunded.”
Mr Goble gnawed his cigar.
“I've been in the show business fifteen years —”
“I know. And this sort of thing has never happened to you before. One gets new experiences.”
Mr Goble cocked his cigar at a fierce angle, and glared at Wally. Something told him that Wally's sympathies were not wholly with him.
“They can't do this sort of thing to me,” he growled.
“Well, they are doing it to someone, aren't they,” said Wally, “and, if it's not you, who is it?”
“I've a damned good mind to fire them all!”
“A corking idea! I can't see a single thing wrong with it except that it would hang up the production for another five weeks and lose you your bookings and cost you a week's rent of this theatre for nothing and mean having all the dresses made over and lead to all your principals going off and getting other jobs. These trifling things apart, we may call the suggestion a bright one.”
“You talk too damn much!” said Mr Goble, eyeing him with distaste.
“Well, go on, you say something. Something sensible.”
“It is a very serious situation —” began the stage director.
“Oh, shut up!” said Mr Goble.
The stage director subsided into his collar.
“I cannot play the overture again,” protested Mr Saltzburg. “I cannot!”
At this point Mr Miller appeared. He was glad to see Mr Goble. He had been looking for him, for he had news to impart.
“The girls,” said Mr Miller, “have struck! They won't go on!”
Mr Goble, with the despairing gesture of one who realizes the impotence of words, dashed off for his favorite walk up stage. Wally took out his watch.
“Six seconds and a bit,” he said approvingly, as the manager returned. “A very good performance. I should like to time you over the course in running-kit.”
The interval for reflection, brief as it had been, had apparently enabled Mr Goble to come to a decision.
“Go,” he said to the stage director, “and tell 'em that fool of a D'Arcy girl can play. We've got to get that curtain up.”
“Yes, Mr Goble.”
The stage director galloped off.
“Get back to your place,” said the manager to Mr Saltzburg, “and play the overture again.”
“Perhaps they didn't hear it the first two times,” said Wally.
Mr Goble watched Mr Saltzburg out of sight. Then he turned to Wally.
“That damned Mariner girl was at the bottom of this! She started the whole thing! She told me so. Well, I'll settle her! She goes tomorrow!”
“Wait a minute,” said Wally. “Wait one minute! Bright as it is, that idea is out!“
“What the devil has it got to do with you?”
“Only this, that, if you fire Miss Mariner, I take that neat script which
I've prepared and I tear it into a thousand fragments. Or nine hundred. Anyway,
I tear it. Miss Manner opens in
Mr Goble's green eyes glowed.
“Oh, you're stuck on her, are you?” he sneered. “I see!”
“Listen, dear heart,” said Wally, gripping the manager's arm, “I can see
that you are on the verge of introducing personalities into this very pleasant
little chat. Resist the impulse! Why not let your spine stay where it is
instead of having it kicked up through your hat? Keep to the main issue. Does
Miss Mariner open in
There was a tense silence. Mr Goble permitted himself a swift review of his position. He would have liked to do many things to Wally, beginning with ordering him out of the theatre, but prudence restrained him. He wanted Wally's work. He needed Wally in his business: and, in the theatre, business takes precedence of personal feelings.
“All right!” he growled reluctantly.
“That's a promise,” said Wally. “I'll see that you keep it.” He looked over his shoulder. The stage was filled with gayly-colored dresses. The mutineers had returned to duty. “Well, I'll be getting along. I'm rather sorry we agreed to keep clear of personalities, because I should have liked to say that, if ever they have a skunk-show at Madison Square Garden, you ought to enter—and win the blue ribbon. Still, of course, under our agreement my lips are sealed, and I can't even hint at it. Good-bye. See you later, I suppose?”
Mr Goble, giving a creditable imitation of a living statue, was plucked from his thoughts by a hand upon his arm. It was Mr Miller, whose unfortunate ailment had prevented him from keeping abreast of the conversation.
“What did he say?” enquired Mr Miller, interested. “I didn't hear what he said!”
Mr Goble made no effort to inform him.
Otis Pilkington had left
Clothing — 187.45
At this Otis Pilkington uttered a stifled cry, so sharp and so anguished that an old lady in the next seat, who was drinking a glass of milk, dropped it and had to refund the railway company thirty-five cents for breakages. For the remainder of the journey she sat with one eye warily on Mr Pilkington, waiting for his next move.
This misadventure quieted Otis Pilkington down, if it did not soothe him. He returned blushingly to a perusal of his bill of costs, nearly every line of which contained some item that infuriated and dismayed him. “Shoes” ($213.50) he could understand, but what on earth was “Academy. Rehl. $105.50”? What was “Cuts — $15”? And what in the name of everything infernal was this item for “Frames,” in which mysterious luxury he had apparently indulged to the extent of ninety-four dollars and fifty cents? “Props” occurred on the list no fewer than seventeen times. Whatever his future, at whatever poor-house he might spend his declining years, he was supplied with enough props to last his lifetime.
Otis Pilkington stared blankly at the scenery that fitted past the train winds. (Scenery! There had been two charges for scenery! “Friedmann, Samuel — Scenery — $3711” and “Unitt and Wickes — Scenery — $2120"). He was suffering the torments of the ruined gamester at the roulette-table. Thirty-two thousand eight hundred and fifty-nine dollars, sixty-eight cents! And he was out of pocket ten thousand in addition from the check he had handed over two days ago to Uncle Chris as his share of the investment of starting Jill in the motion-pictures. It was terrible! It deprived one of the power of thought.
The power of thought, however, returned to Mr Pilkington almost immediately: for, remembering suddenly that Roland Trevis had assured him that no musical production, except one of those elaborate girl-shows with a chorus of ninety, could possibly cost more than fifteen thousand dollars at an outside figure, he began to think about Roland Trevis, and continued to think about him until the train pulled into the Pennsylvania Station.
For a week or more the stricken financier confined himself mostly to his
rooms, where he sat smoking cigarettes, gazing at Japanese prints, and trying
not to think about “props” and “rehl.” Then, gradually, the almost maternal
yearning to see his brain-child once more, which can never be wholly crushed
out of a young dramatist, returned to him—faintly at first, then getting
stronger by degrees till it could no longer be resisted. True, he knew that
when he beheld it, the offspring of his brain would have been mangled almost
out of recognition, but that did not deter him. The mother loves her crippled
child, and the author of a musical fantasy loves his musical fantasy, even if
rough hands have changed it into a musical comedy and all that remains of his
work is the opening chorus and a scene which the assassins have overlooked at
the beginning of act two. Otis Pilkington, having instructed his Japanese valet
to pack a few simple necessaries in a suitcase, took a cab to the Grand Central
Station and caught an afternoon train for
Looking into his club on the way, to cash a check, the first person he encountered was Freddie Rooke.
“Good gracious!” said Otis Pilkington. “What are you doing here?”
Freddie looked up dully from his reading. The abrupt stoppage of his professional career—his life-work, one might almost say—had left Freddie at a very loose end: and so hollow did the world seem to him at the moment, so uniformly futile all its so-called allurements, that, to pass the time, he had just been trying to read the National Geographic Magazine.
“Hullo!” he said. “Well, might as well be here as anywhere, what?” he replied to the other's question.
“But why aren't you playing?”
“They sacked me!” Freddie lit a cigarette in the sort of way in which the strong, silent, middle-aged man on the stage lights his at the end of act two when he has relinquished the heroine to his youthful rival. “They've changed my part to a bally Scotchman! Well, I mean to say, I couldn't play a bally Scotchman!”
Mr Pilkington groaned in spirit. Of all the characters in his musical fantasy on which he prided himself, that of Lord Finchley was his pet. And he had been burked, murdered, blotted out, in order to make room for a bally Scotchman!
“The character's called 'The McWhustle of McWhustle' now!” said Freddie sombrely.
The McWhustle of McWhustle! Mr Pilkington almost abandoned his trip to
“He comes on in act one in kilts!”
“In kilts! At Mrs Stuyvesant van Dyke's lawn-party! On
“It isn't Mrs Stuyvesant van Dyke any longer, either,” said Freddie. “She's been changed to the wife of a pickle manufacturer.”
“A pickle manufacturer!”
“Yes. They said it ought to be a comedy part.”
If agony had not caused Mr Pilkington to clutch for support at the back of a chair, he would undoubtedly have wrung his hands.
“But it was a comedy part!” he wailed. “It was full of the subtlest, most
delicate satire on Society. They were delighted with it at
“Rotten!” said Freddie, and returned to his National Geographic Magazine.
Otis Pilkington tottered into his cab. He was shattered by what he had
heard. They had massacred his beautiful play, and, doing so, had not even made
a success of it by their own sordid commercial lights. Business at
“Hey!” cried the taxi-driver.
Otis Pilkington turned.
“Sixty-five cents, mister, if you please! Forgetting I'm not your private shovoor, wasn't you?”
Mr Pilkington gave him a dollar. Money—money! Life was just one long round of paying out and paying out.
The day which Mr Pilkington had selected for his visit to the provinces
was a Tuesday. “The Rose of America” had opened at
It is to be doubted, however, if even crowded houses would have aroused
much response from the principals and chorus of “The Rose of America.” For two
weeks without a break they had been working under forced draught, and they were
weary in body and spirit. The new principals had had to learn parts in exactly
half the time usually given for that purpose, and the chorus, after spending
five weeks assimilating one set of steps and groupings, had been compelled to
forget them and rehearse an entirely new set. From the morning after the first
Jill, standing listlessly in the wings while the scene-shifters arranged the second act set, was aware of Wally approaching from the direction of the pass-door.
“Miss Mariner, I believe?” said Wally. “I suppose you know you look
perfectly wonderful in that dress? All
Jill smiled. Wally was like a tonic to her during these days of overwork. He seemed to be entirely unaffected by the general depression, a fact which he attributed himself to the happy accident of being in a position to sit back and watch the others toil. But in reality Jill knew that he was working as hard as any one. He was working all the time, changing scenes, adding lines, tinkering with lyrics, smoothing over principals whose nerves had become strained by the incessant rehearsing, keeping within bounds Mr Goble's passion for being the big noise about the theatre. His cheerfulness was due to the spirit that was in him, and Jill appreciated it. She had come to feel very close to Wally since the driving rush of making over “The Rose of America” had begun.
“They seemed quite calm tonight,” she said. “I believe half of them were asleep.”
“They're always like that in
Jill took the letter, and glanced at the writing. It was from Uncle Chris. She placed it on the axe over the fire-buckets for perusal later.
“The man at the box-office gave it to me,” said Wally, “when I looked in there to find out how much money there was in the house tonight. The sum was so small that he had to whisper it.”
“I'm afraid the piece isn't a success.”
“Nonsense! Of course it is! We're doing fine. That brings me to section (b) of my discourse. I met poor old Pilkington in the lobby, and he said exactly what you have just said, only at greater length.”
“Is Mr Pilkington here?”
“He appears to have run down on the afternoon train to have a look at the
show. He is catching the next train back to
“Poor Mr Pilkington!”
“Once more you say exactly what he said, only more crisply. I comforted him as well as I could, told him all for the best and so on, and he flung the box-office receipts in my face and said that the piece was as bad a failure commercially as it was artistically. I couldn't say anything to that, seeing what a house we've got tonight, except to bid him look out to the horizon where the sun will shortly shine. In other words, I told him that business was about to buck up and that later on he would be going about the place with a sprained wrist from clipping coupons. But he refused to be cheered, cursed me some more for ruining his piece, and ended by begging me to buy his share of it cheap.”
“You aren't going to?”
“No, I am not—but simply and solely for the reason that, after that fiasco in London, I raised my right hand—thus—and swore an oath that never, as long as I lived, would I again put up a cent for a production, were it the most obvious cinch on earth. I'm gun-shy. But if he does happen to get hold of any one with a sporting disposition and a few thousands to invest, that person will make a fortune. This piece is going to be a gold-mine.”
Jill looked at him in surprise. With anybody else but Wally she would have attributed this confidence to author's vanity. But with Wally, she felt, the fact that the piece, as played now, was almost entirely his own work did not count. He viewed it dispassionately, and she could not understand why, in the face of half-empty houses, he should have such faith in it.
“But what makes you think so? We've been doing awfully badly so far.”
“And we shall do awfully badly in
“There's another thing to think of. It so happens that we shall go into
If Otis Pilkington was not actually doing that, he was doing something
like it. Sunk in gloom, he bumped up and down on an uncomfortable seat,
wondering why he had ever taken the trouble to make the trip to
And “The Rose of America,” after a disheartening Wednesday matinee and a
not much better reception on the Wednesday night, packed its baggage and moved
The spirits of the company revived. Optimism reigned. Principals smiled
happily and said they had believed in the thing all along. The ladies and
gentlemen of the ensemble chattered contentedly of a year's run in
Of these things Otis Pilkington was not aware. He had sold his interest in the piece two weeks ago for ten thousand dollars to a lawyer acting for some client unknown, and was glad to feel that he had saved something out of the wreck.
The violins soared to one last high note: the bassoon uttered a final
moan: the pensive person at the end of the orchestra-pit, just under Mrs
Waddesleigh Peagrim's box, whose duty it was to slam the drum at stated
intervals, gave that much-enduring instrument a concluding wallop; and, laying
aside his weapons, allowed his thoughts to stray in the direction of cooling
drinks. Mr Saltzburg lowered the baton which he had stretched quivering towards
the roof and sat down and mopped his forehead. The curtain fell on the first
act of “The Rose of America,” and simultaneously tremendous applause broke out
from all over the Gotham Theatre, which was crammed from floor to roof with
that heterogeneous collection of humanity which makes up the audience of a
The house-lights went up. The audience began to move up the aisles to stretch its legs and discuss the piece during the intermission. There was a general babble of conversation. Here, a composer who had not got an interpolated number in the show was explaining to another composer who had not got an interpolated number in the show the exact source from which a third composer who had got an interpolated number in the show had stolen the number which he had got interpolated. There, two musical comedy artistes who were temporarily resting were agreeing that the prima donna was a dear thing but that, contrary as it was to their life-long policy to knock anybody, they must say that she was beginning to show the passage of the years a trifle and ought to be warned by some friend that her career as an ingenue was a thing of the past. Dramatic critics, slinking in twos and threes into dark corners, were telling each other that “The Rose of America” was just another of those things but it had apparently got over. The general public was of the opinion that it was a knock-out.
“Otie darling,” said Mrs Waddesleigh Peagrim, leaning her ample shoulder on Uncle Chris' perfectly fitting sleeve and speaking across him to young Mr Pilkington, “I do congratulate you, dear. It's perfectly delightful! I don't know when I have enjoyed a musical piece so much. Don't you think it's perfectly darling, Major Selby?”
“Capital!” agreed that suave man of the world, who had been bored as near extinction as makes no matter. “Congratulate you, my boy!”
“You clever, clever thing!” said Mrs Peagrim, skittishly striking her nephew on the knee with her fan. “I'm proud to be your aunt! Aren't you proud to know him, Mr Rooke?”
The fourth occupant of the box awoke with a start from the species of stupor into which he had been plunged by the spectacle of the McWhustle of McWhustle in action. There had been other dark moments in Freddie's life. Once, back in London, Parker had sent him out into the heart of the West End without his spats and he had not discovered their absence till he was half-way up Bond Street. On another occasion, having taken on a stranger at squash for a quid a game, he had discovered too late that the latter was an ex-public-school champion. He had felt gloomy when he had learned of the breaking-off of the engagement between Jill Mariner and Derek Underhill, and sad when it had been brought to his notice that London was giving Derek the cold shoulder in consequence. But never in his whole career had he experienced such gloom and such sadness as had come to him that evening while watching this unspeakable person in kilts murder the part that should have been his. And the audience, confound them, had roared with laughter at every damn silly thing the fellow had said!
“Eh?” he replied. “Oh, yes, rather, absolutely!”
“We're all proud of you, Otie darling,” proceeded Mrs Peagrim. “The
piece is a wonderful success. You will make a fortune out of it. And just
think, Major Selby, I tried my best to argue the poor, dear boy out of putting
it on! I thought it was so rash to risk his money in a theatrical venture. But
then,” said Mrs Peagrim in extenuation, “I had only seen the piece when it was
done at my house at
She slapped him smartly once more with her fan, ignorant of the gashes she was inflicting. Poor Mr Pilkington was suffering twin torments, the torture of remorse and the agonized jealousy of the unsuccessful artist. It would have been bad enough to have to sit and watch a large audience rocking in its seats at the slap-stick comedy which Wally Mason had substituted for his delicate social satire: but, had this been all, at least he could have consoled himself with the sordid reflection that he, as owner of the piece, was going to make a lot of money out of it. Now, even this material balm was denied him. He had sold out, and he was feeling like the man who parts for a song with shares in an apparently goldless gold mine, only to read in the papers next morning that a new reef has been located. Into each life some rain must fall. Quite a shower was falling now into young Mr. Pilkington's.
“Of course,” went on Mrs Peagrim, “when the play was done at my house, it was acted by amateurs. And you know what amateurs are! The cast tonight is perfectly splendid. I do think that Scotchman is the most killing creature! Don't you think he is wonderful, Mr. Rooke?”
We may say what we will against the upper strata of Society, but it cannot
be denied that breeding tells. Only by falling back for support on the
traditions of his class and the solid support of a gentle upbringing was the
Last of the Rookes able to crush down the words that leaped to his lips and to
substitute for them a politely conventional agreement. If Mr Pilkington was
feeling like a too impulsive seller of gold-mines, Freddie's emotions were akin
to those of the Spartan boy with the fox under his vest. Nothing but
“Oh, rather! Priceless!”
“Wasn't that part an Englishman before?” asked Mrs Peagrim. “I thought so. Well, it was a stroke of genius changing it. This Scotchman is too funny for words. And such an artist!”
Freddie rose shakily. One can stand just so much.
“Think,” he mumbled, “I'll be pushing along and smoking a cigarette.”
He groped his way to the door.
“I'll come with you, Freddie my boy,” said Uncle Chris, who felt an imperative need of five minutes' respite from Mrs Peagrim. “Let's get out into the air for a moment. Uncommonly warm it is here.”
Freddie assented. Air was what he felt he wanted most.
Left alone in the box with her nephew, Mrs Peagrim continued for some moments in the same vein, innocently twisting the knife in the open wound. It struck her from time to time that darling Otie was perhaps a shade unresponsive, but she put this down to the nervous strain inseparable from a first night of a young author's first play.
“Why,” she concluded, “you will make thousands and thousands of dollars out of this piece. I am sure it is going to be another 'Merry Widow.'“
“You can't tell from a first night audience,” said Mr Pilkington sombrely, giving out a piece of theatrical wisdom he had picked up at rehearsals.
“Oh, but you can. It's so easy to distinguish polite applause from the
real thing. No doubt many of the people down here have friends in the company
or other reasons for seeming to enjoy the play, but look how the circle and the
gallery were enjoying it! You can't tell me that that was not genuine. They
love it. How hard,” she proceeded commiseratingly, “you must have worked, poor
boy, during the tour on the road to improve the piece so much! I never liked to
say so before, but even you must agree with me now that that original version
of yours, which was done down at
“What!” cried Otis Pilkington, startled out of his lethargy by this appalling suggestion. Was he, the man who, after planking down thirty-two thousand eight hundred and fifty-nine dollars, sixty-eight cents for “props” and “frames” and “rehl,” had sold out for a paltry ten thousand, to be still further victimized?