“Practically all of it in B. and O. P. Rails. It is a devilish good thing. A pal of mine put me onto it.”
“Tell her that you have a pile of money in B. and O. P., then. She’ll take it for granted it’s a legacy. A spiritual girl like Miss Nugent isn’t likely to inquire further.”
“Reggie, I believe you’re right. It cuts both ways, that spiritual gag. I’ll do it.”
* * * * *
They were married quietly. I held the towel for Archie, and a spectacled girl with a mouth like a rat-trap, who was something to do with the Woman’s Movement, saw fair play for Eunice. And then they went off to Scotland for their honeymoon. I wondered how the Doughnuts were going to get on in old Archie’s absence, but it seemed that he had buckled down to it and turned out three months’ supply in advance. He told me that long practice had enabled him to Doughnut almost without conscious effort. When he came back to London he would give an hour a week to them and do them on his head. Pretty soft! It seemed to me that the marriage was going to be a success.
One gets out of touch with people when they marry. I am not much on the social-call game, and for nearly six months I don’t suppose I saw Archie more than twice or three times. When I did, he appeared sound in wind and limb, and reported that married life was all to the velvet, and that he regarded bachelors like myself as so many excrescences on the social system. He compared me, if I remember rightly, to a wart, and advocated drastic treatment.
It was perhaps seven months after he had told Eunice that he endowed her with all his worldly goods–she not suspecting what the parcel contained–that he came to me unexpectedly one afternoon with a face so long and sick-looking that my finger was on the button and I was ordering brandy and soda before he had time to speak.
“Reggie,” he said, “an awful thing has happened. Have you seen the paper today?”
“Did you read the Stock Exchange news? Did you see that some lunatic has been jumping around with a club and hammering the stuffing out of B. and O. P.? This afternoon they are worth practically nothing.”
“By jove! And all your money was in it. What rotten luck!” Then I spotted the silver lining. “But, after all, it doesn’t matter so very much. What I mean is, bang go your little savings and all that sort of thing; but, after all, you’re making quite a good income, so why worry?”
“I might have known you would miss the point,” he said. “Can’t you understand the situation? This morning at breakfast Eunice got hold of the paper first. ‘Archie,’ she said, ‘didn’t you tell me all your money was in B. and O. P.?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Why?’ ‘Then we’re ruined.’ Now do you see? If I had had time to think, I could have said that I had another chunk in something else, but I had committed myself, I have either got to tell her about those infernal Doughnuts, or else conceal the fact that I had money coming in.”
“Great Scot! What on earth are you going to do?”
“I can’t think. We can struggle along in a sort of way, for it appears that she has small private means of her own. The idea at present is that we shall live on them. We’re selling the car, and trying to get out of the rest of our lease up at the flat, and then we’re going to look about for a cheaper place, probably down Chelsea way, so as to be near my studio. What was that stuff I’ve been drinking? Ring for another of the same, there’s a good fellow. In fact, I think you had better keep your finger permanently on the bell. I shall want all they’ve got.”
* * * * *
The spectacle of a fellow human being up to his neck in the consomme is painful, of course, but there’s certainly what the advertisements at the top of magazine stories call a “tense human interest” about it, and I’m bound to say that I saw as much as possible of poor old Archie from now on. His sad case fascinated me. It was rather thrilling to see him wrestling with New Zealand mutton-hash and draught beer down at his Chelsea flat, with all the suppressed anguish of a man who has let himself get accustomed to delicate food and vintage wines, and think that a word from him could send him whizzing back to the old life again whenever he wished. But at what a cost, as they say in the novels. That was the catch. He might hate this new order of things, but his lips were sealed.
I personally came in for a good deal of quiet esteem for the way in which I stuck to him in his adversity. I don’t think Eunice had thought much of me before, but now she seemed to feel that I had formed a corner in golden hearts. I took advantage of this to try and pave the way for a confession on poor old Archie’s part.
“I wonder, Archie, old top,” I said one evening after we had dined on mutton-hash and were sitting round trying to forget it, “I wonder you don’t try another line in painting. I’ve heard that some of these fellows who draw for the comic papers—-“
Mrs. Archie nipped me in the bud.
“How can you suggest such a thing, Mr. Pepper? A man with Archie’s genius! I know the public is not educated up to his work, but it is only a question of time. Archie suffers, like all pioneers, from being ahead of his generation. But, thank Heaven, he need not sully his genius by stooping—-“
“No, no,” I said. “Sorry. I only suggested it.”
After that I gave more time than ever to trying to think of a solution. Sometimes I would lie awake at night, and my manner towards Wilberforce, my man, became so distrait that it almost caused a rift. He asked me one morning which suit I would wear that day, and, by Jove, I said, “Oh, any of them. I don’t mind.” There was a most frightful silence, and I woke up to find him looking at me with such a dashed wounded expression in his eyes that I had to tip him a couple of quid to bring him round again.
Well, you can’t go on straining your brain like that forever without something breaking loose, and one night, just after I had gone to bed, I got it. Yes, by gad, absolutely got it. And I was so excited that I hopped out from under the blankets there and then, and rang up old Archie on the phone.
“Archie, old scout,” I said, “can the misses hear what I’m saying? Well then, don’t say anything to give the show away. Keep on saying, ‘Yes? Halloa?’ so that you can tell her it was someone on the wrong wire. I’ve got it, my boy. All you’ve got to do to solve the whole problem is to tell her you’ve sold one of your pictures. Make the price as big as you like. Come and lunch with me tomorrow at the club, and we’ll settle the details.”
There was a pause, and then Archie’s voice said, “Halloa, halloa?” It might have been a bit disappointing, only there was a tremble in it which made me understand how happy I had made the old boy. I went back to bed and slept like a king.
* * * * *
Next day we lunched together, and fixed the thing up. I have never seen anyone so supremely braced. We examined the scheme from every angle and there wasn’t a flaw in it. The only difficulty was to hit on a plausible purchaser. Archie suggested me, but I couldn’t see it. I said it would sound fishy. Eventually I had a brain wave, and suggested J. Bellingwood Brackett, the American millionaire. He lives in London, and you see his name in the papers everyday as having bought some painting or statue or something, so why shouldn’t he buy Archie’s “Coming of Summer?” And Archie said, “Exactly–why shouldn’t he? And if he had had any sense in his fat head, he would have done it long ago, dash him!” Which shows you that dear old Archie was bracing up, for I’ve heard him use much the same language in happier days about a referee.
He went off, crammed to the eyebrows with good food and happiness, to tell Mrs. Archie that all was well, and that the old home was saved, and that Canterbury mutton might now be definitely considered as off the bill of fare.
He told me on the phone that night that he had made the price two thousand pounds, because he needed the money, and what was two thousand to a man who had been fleecing the widow and the orphan for forty odd years without a break? I thought the price was a bit high, but I agreed that J. Bellingwood could afford it. And happiness, you might say, reigned supreme.
I don’t know when I’ve had such a nasty jar as I got when Wilberforce brought me the paper in bed, and I languidly opened it and this jumped out and bit at me:
BELLINGWOOD BRACKETT DISCOVERS
PAYS STUPENDOUS PRICE FOR YOUNG ARTIST’S PICTURE —–
HITHERTO UNKNOWN FUTURIST RECEIVED 2,000 POUNDS
Underneath there was a column, some of it about Archie, the rest about the picture; and scattered over the page were two photographs of old Archie, looking more like Pa Doughnut than anything human, and a smudged reproduction of “The Coming of Summer”; and, believe me, frightful as the original of that weird exhibit looked, the reproduction had it licked to a whisper. It was one of the ghastliest things I have ever seen.
Well, after the first shock I recovered a bit. After all, it was fame for dear old Archie. As soon as I had had lunch I went down to the flat to congratulate him.
He was sitting there with Mrs. Archie. He was looking a bit dazed, but she was simmering with joy. She welcomed me as the faithful friend.
“Isn’t it perfectly splendid, Mr. Pepper, to think that Archie’s genius has at last been recognized? How quiet he kept it. I had no idea that Mr. Brackett was even interested in his work. I wonder how he heard of it?”
“Oh, these things get about,” I said. “You can’t keep a good man down.”
“Think of two thousand pounds for one picture–and the first he has ever sold!”
“What beats me,” I said, “is how the papers got hold of it.”
“Oh, I sent it to the papers,” said Mrs. Archie, in an offhand way.
“I wonder who did the writing up,” I said.
“They would do that in the office, wouldn’t they?” said Mrs. Archie.
“I suppose they would,” I said. “They are wonders at that sort of thing.”
I couldn’t help wishing that Archie would enter into the spirit of the thing a little more and perk up, instead of sitting there looking like a codfish. The thing seemed to have stunned the poor chappie.
“After this, Archie,” I said, “all you have to do is to sit in your studio, while the police see that the waiting line of millionaires doesn’t straggle over the pavement. They’ll fight—-“
“What’s that?” said Archie, starting as if someone had dug a red-hot needle into his calf.
It was only a ring at the bell, followed by a voice asking if Mr. Ferguson was at home.
“Probably an interviewer,” said Mrs. Archie. “I suppose we shall get no peace for a long time to come.”
The door opened, and the cook came in with a card. “‘Renshaw Liggett,'” said Mrs. Archie “I don’t know him. Do you, Archie? It must be an interviewer. Ask him to come in, Julia.”
And in he came.
My knowledge of chappies in general, after a fairly wide experience, is that some chappies seem to kind of convey an atmosphere of unpleasantness the moment you come into contact with them. Renshaw Liggett gave me this feeling directly he came in; and when he fixed me with a sinister glance and said, “Mr. Ferguson?” I felt inclined to say “Not guilty.” I backed a step or two and jerked my head towards Archie, and Renshaw turned the searchlight off me and switched it onto him.
“You are Mr. Archibald Ferguson, the artist?”
Archie nodded pallidly, and Renshaw nodded, as much as to say that you couldn’t deceive him. He produced a sheet of paper. It was the middle page of the _Mail_.
“You authorized the publication of this?”
Archie nodded again.
“I represent Mr. Brackett. The publication of this most impudent fiction has caused Mr. Brackett extreme annoyance, and, as it might also lead to other and more serious consequences, I must insist that a full denial be published without a moment’s delay.”
“What do you mean?” cried Mrs. Archie. “Are you mad?”
She had been standing, listening to the conversation in a sort of trance. Now she jumped into the fight with a vim that turned Renshaw’s attention to her in a second.
“No, madam, I am not mad. Nor, despite the interested assertions of certain parties whom I need not specify by name, is Mr. Brackett. It may be news to you, Mrs. Ferguson, that an action is even now pending in New York, whereby certain parties are attempting to show that my client, Mr. Brackett, is non compos and should be legally restrained from exercising control over his property. Their case is extremely weak, for even if we admit their contention that our client did, on the eighteenth of June last, attempt to walk up Fifth Avenue in his pyjamas, we shall be able to show that his action was the result of an election bet. But as the parties to whom I have alluded will undoubtedly snatch at every straw in their efforts to prove that Mr. Brackett is mentally infirm, the prejudicial effect of this publication cannot be over-estimated. Unless Mr. Brackett can clear himself of the stigma of having given two thousand pounds for this extraordinary production of an absolutely unknown artist, the strength of his case must be seriously shaken. I may add that my client’s lavish patronage of Art is already one of the main planks in the platform of the parties already referred to. They adduce his extremely generous expenditure in this direction as evidence that he is incapable of a proper handling of his money. I need scarcely point out with what sinister pleasure, therefore, they must have contemplated–this.”
And he looked at “The Coming of Summer” as if it were a black beetle.
I must say, much as I disliked the blighter, I couldn’t help feeling that he had right on his side. It hadn’t occurred to me in quite that light before, but, considering it calmly now, I could see that a man who would disgorge two thousand of the best for Archie’s Futurist masterpiece might very well step straight into the nut factory, and no questions asked.
Mrs. Archie came right back at him, as game as you please.
“I am sorry for Mr. Brackett’s domestic troubles, but my husband can prove without difficulty that he did buy the picture. Can’t you, dear?”
Archie, extremely white about the gills, looked at the ceiling and at the floor and at me and Renshaw Liggett.
“No,” he said finally. “I can’t. Because he didn’t.”
“Exactly,” said Renshaw, “and I must ask you to publish that statement in tomorrow’s papers without fail.” He rose, and made for the door. “My client has no objection to young artists advertising themselves, realizing that this is an age of strenuous competition, but he firmly refuses to permit them to do it at his expense. Good afternoon.”
And he legged it, leaving behind him one of the most chunky silences I have ever been mixed up in. For the life of me, I couldn’t see who was to make the next remark. I was jolly certain that it wasn’t going to be me.
Eventually Mrs. Archie opened the proceedings.
“What does it mean?”
Archie turned to me with a sort of frozen calm.
“Reggie, would you mind stepping into the kitchen and asking Julia for this week’s _Funny Slices_? I know she has it.”
He was right. She unearthed it from a cupboard. I trotted back with it to the sitting room. Archie took the paper from me, and held it out to his wife, Doughnuts uppermost.
“Look!” he said.
“I do them. I have done them every week for three years. No, don’t speak yet. Listen. This is where all my money came from, all the money I lost when B. and O. P. Rails went smash. And this is where the money came from to buy ‘The Coming of Summer.’ It wasn’t Brackett who bought it; it was myself.”
Mrs. Archie was devouring the Doughnuts with wide-open eyes. I caught a glimpse of them myself, and only just managed not to laugh, for it was the set of pictures where Pa Doughnut tries to fix the electric light, one of the very finest things dear old Archie had ever done.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“I draw these things. I have sold my soul.”
He winced, but stuck to it bravely.
“Yes, I knew how you would feel about it, and that was why I didn’t dare to tell you, and why we fixed up this story about old Brackett. I couldn’t bear to live on you any longer, and to see you roughing it here, when we might be having all the money we wanted.”
Suddenly, like a boiler exploding, she began to laugh.
“They’re the funniest things I ever saw in my life,” she gurgled. “Mr. Pepper, do look! He’s trying to cut the electric wire with the scissors, and everything blazes up. And you’ve been hiding this from me all that time!”
Archie goggled dumbly. She dived at a table, and picked up a magazine, pointing to one of the advertisement pages.
“Read!” she cried. “Read it aloud.”
And in a shaking voice Archie read:
You think you are perfectly well, don’t you? You wake up in the morning and spring out of bed and say to yourself that you have never been better in your life. You’re wrong! Unless you are avoiding coffee as you would avoid the man who always tells you the smart things his little boy said yesterday, and drinking SAFETY FIRST MOLASSINE
for breakfast, you cannot be
It is a physical impossibility. Coffee contains an appreciable quantity of the deadly drug caffeine, and therefore—-
“I wrote _that_,” she said. “And I wrote the advertisement of the Spiller Baby Food on page ninety-four, and the one about the Preeminent Breakfast Sausage on page eighty-six. Oh, Archie, dear, the torments I have been through, fearing that you would some day find me out and despise me. I couldn’t help it. I had no private means, and I didn’t make enough out of my poetry to keep me in hats. I learned to write advertisements four years ago at a correspondence school, and I’ve been doing them ever since. And now I don’t mind your knowing, now that you have told me this perfectly splendid news. Archie!”
She rushed into his arms like someone charging in for a bowl of soup at a railway station buffet. And I drifted out. It seemed to me that this was a scene in which I was not on. I sidled to the door, and slid forth. They didn’t notice me. My experience is that nobody ever does–much.
THE TEST CASE
Well-meaning chappies at the club sometimes amble up to me and tap me on the wishbone, and say “Reggie, old top,”–my name’s Reggie Pepper–“you ought to get married, old man.” Well, what I mean to say is, it’s all very well, and I see their point and all that sort of thing; but it takes two to make a marriage, and to date I haven’t met a girl who didn’t seem to think the contract was too big to be taken on.
Looking back, it seems to me that I came nearer to getting over the home-plate with Ann Selby than with most of the others. In fact, but for circumstances over which I had no dashed control, I am inclined to think that we should have brought it off. I’m bound to say that, now that what the poet chappie calls the first fine frenzy has been on the ice for awhile and I am able to consider the thing calmly, I am deuced glad we didn’t. She was one of those strong-minded girls, and I hate to think of what she would have done to me.
At the time, though, I was frightfully in love, and, for quite a while after she definitely gave me the mitten, I lost my stroke at golf so completely that a child could have given me a stroke a hole and got away with it. I was all broken up, and I contend to this day that I was dashed badly treated.
Let me give you what they call the data.
One day I was lunching with Ann, and was just proposing to her as usual, when, instead of simply refusing me, as she generally did, she fixed me with a thoughtful eye and kind of opened her heart.
“Do you know, Reggie, I am in doubt.”
“Give me the benefit of it,” I said. Which I maintain was pretty good on the spur of the moment, but didn’t get a hand. She simply ignored it, and went on.
“Sometimes,” she said, “you seem to me entirely vapid and brainless; at other times you say or do things which suggest that there are possibilities in you; that, properly stimulated and encouraged, you might overcome the handicap of large private means and do something worthwhile. I wonder if that is simply my imagination?” She watched me very closely as she spoke.
“Rather not. You’ve absolutely summed me up. With you beside me, stimulating and all that sort of rot, don’t you know, I should show a flash of speed which would astonish you.”
“I wish I could be certain.”
“Take a chance on it.”
She shook her head.
“I must be certain. Marriage is such a gamble. I have just been staying with my sister Hilda and her husband—-“
“Dear old Harold Bodkin. I know him well. In fact, I’ve a standing invitation to go down there and stay as long as I like. Harold is one of my best pals. Harold is a corker. Good old Harold is—-“
“I would rather you didn’t eulogize him, Reggie. I am extremely angry with Harold. He is making Hilda perfectly miserable.”
“What on earth do you mean? Harold wouldn’t dream of hurting a fly. He’s one of those dreamy, sentimental chumps who—-“
“It is precisely his sentimentality which is at the bottom of the whole trouble. You know, of course, that Hilda is not his first wife?”
“That’s right. His first wife died about five years ago.”
“He still cherishes her memory.”
“Very sporting of him.”
“Is it! If you were a girl, how would you like to be married to a man who was always making you bear in mind that you were only number two in his affections; a man whose idea of a pleasant conversation was a string of anecdotes illustrating what a dear woman his first wife was. A man who expected you to upset all your plans if they clashed with some anniversary connected with his other marriage?”
“That does sound pretty rotten. Does Harold do all that?”
“That’s only a small part of what he does. Why, if you will believe me, every evening at seven o’clock he goes and shuts himself up in a little room at the top of the house, and meditates.”
“What on earth does he do that for?”
“Apparently his first wife died at seven in the evening. There is a portrait of her in the room. I believe he lays flowers in front of it. And Hilda is expected to greet him on his return with a happy smile.”
“Why doesn’t she kick?”
“I have been trying to persuade her to, but she won’t. She just pretends she doesn’t mind. She has a nervous, sensitive temperament, and the thing is slowly crushing her. Don’t talk to me of Harold.”
Considering that she had started him as a topic, I thought this pretty unjust. I didn’t want to talk of Harold. I wanted to talk about myself.
“Well, what has all this got to do with your not wanting to marry me?” I said.
“Nothing, except that it is an illustration of the risks a woman runs when she marries a man of a certain type.”
“Great Scott! You surely don’t class me with Harold?”
“Yes, in a way you are very much alike. You have both always had large private means, and have never had the wholesome discipline of work.”
“But, dash it, Harold, on your showing, is an absolute nut. Why should you think that I would be anything like that?”
“There’s always the risk.”
A hot idea came to me.
“Look here, Ann,” I said, “Suppose I pull off some stunt which only a deuced brainy chappie could get away with? Would you marry me then?”
“Certainly. What do you propose to do?”
“Do! What do I propose to do! Well, er, to be absolutely frank, at the moment I don’t quite know.”
“You never will know, Reggie. You’re one of the idle rich, and your brain, if you ever had one, has atrophied.”
Well, that seemed to me to put the lid on it. I didn’t mind a heart-to-heart talk, but this was mere abuse. I changed the subject.
“What would you like after that fish?” I said coldly.
You know how it is when you get an idea. For awhile it sort of simmers inside you, and then suddenly it sizzles up like a rocket, and there you are, right up against it. That’s what happened now. I went away from that luncheon, vaguely determined to pull off some stunt which would prove that I was right there with the gray matter, but without any clear notion of what I was going to do. Side by side with this in my mind was the case of dear old Harold. When I wasn’t brooding on the stunt, I was brooding on Harold. I was fond of the good old lad, and I hated the idea of his slowly wrecking the home purely by being a chump. And all of a sudden the two things clicked together like a couple of chemicals, and there I was with a corking plan for killing two birds with one stone–putting one across that would startle and impress Ann, and at the same time healing the breach between Harold and Hilda.
My idea was that, in a case like this, it’s no good trying opposition. What you want is to work it so that the chappie quits of his own accord. You want to egg him on to overdoing the thing till he gets so that he says to himself, “Enough! Never again!” That was what was going to happen to Harold.
When you’re going to do a thing, there’s nothing like making a quick start. I wrote to Harold straight away, proposing myself for a visit. And Harold wrote back telling me to come right along.
Harold and Hilda lived alone in a large house. I believe they did a good deal of entertaining at times, but on this occasion I was the only guest. The only other person of note in the place was Ponsonby, the butler.
Of course, if Harold had been an ordinary sort of chappie, what I had come to do would have been a pretty big order. I don’t mind many things, but I do hesitate to dig into my host’s intimate private affairs. But Harold was such a simple-minded Johnnie, so grateful for a little sympathy and advice, that my job wasn’t so very difficult.
It wasn’t as if he minded talking about Amelia, which was his first wife’s name. The difficulty was to get him to talk of anything else. I began to understand what Ann meant by saying it was tough on Hilda.
I’m bound to say the old boy was clay in my hands. People call me a chump, but Harold was a super-chump, and I did what I liked with him. The second morning of my visit, after breakfast, he grabbed me by the arm.
“This way, Reggie. I’m just going to show old Reggie Amelia’s portrait, dear.”
There was a little room all by itself on the top floor. He explained to me that it had been his studio. At one time Harold used to do a bit of painting in an amateur way.
“There!” he said, pointing at the portrait. “I did that myself, Reggie. It was away being cleaned when you were here last. It’s like dear Amelia, isn’t it?”
I suppose it was, in a way. At any rate, you could recognize the likeness when you were told who it was supposed to be.
He sat down in front of it, and gave it the thoughtful once-over.
“Do you know, Reggie, old top, sometimes when I sit here, I feel as if Amelia were back again.”
“It would be a bit awkward for you if she was.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, old lad, you happen to be married to someone else.”
A look of childlike enthusiasm came over his face.
“Reggie, I want to tell you how splendid Hilda is. Lots of other women might object to my still cherishing Amelia’s memory, but Hilda has been so nice about it from the beginning. She understands so thoroughly.”
I hadn’t much breath left after that, but I used what I had to say: “She doesn’t object?”
“Not a bit,” said Harold. “It makes everything so pleasant.”
When I had recovered a bit, I said, “What do you mean by everything?”
“Well,” he said, “for instance, I come up here every evening at seven and–er–think for a few minutes.”
“A few minutes?!”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, a few minutes isn’t long.”
“But I always have my cocktail at a quarter past.”
“You could postpone it.”
“And Ponsonby likes us to start dinner at seven-thirty.”
“What on earth has Ponsonby to do with it?”
“Well, he likes to get off by nine, you know. I think he goes off and plays bowls at the madhouse. You see, Reggie, old man, we have to study Ponsonby a little. He’s always on the verge of giving notice–in fact, it was only by coaxing him on one or two occasions that we got him to stay on–and he’s such a treasure that I don’t know what we should do if we lost him. But, if you think that I ought to stay longer—-?”
“Certainly I do. You ought to do a thing like this properly, or not at all.”
“It’s a frightful risk, but in future we’ll dine at eight.”
It seemed to me that there was a suspicion of a cloud on Ponsonby’s shining morning face, when the news was broken to him that for the future he couldn’t unleash himself on the local bowling talent as early as usual, but he made no kick, and the new order of things began.
My next offensive movement I attribute to a flash of absolute genius. I was glancing through a photograph album in the drawing-room before lunch, when I came upon a face which I vaguely remembered. It was one of those wide, flabby faces, with bulging eyes, and something about it struck me as familiar. I consulted Harold, who came in at that moment.
“That?” said Harold. “That’s Percy.” He gave a slight shudder. “Amelia’s brother, you know. An awful fellow. I haven’t seen him for years.”
Then I placed Percy. I had met him once or twice in the old days, and I had a brainwave. Percy was everything that poor old Harold disliked most. He was hearty at breakfast, a confirmed back-slapper, and a man who prodded you in the chest when he spoke to you.
“You haven’t seen him for years!” I said in a shocked voice.
“Thank heaven!” said Harold devoutly.
I put down the photograph album, and looked at him in a deuced serious way. “Then it’s high time you asked him to come here.”
Harold blanched. “Reggie, old man, you don’t know what you are saying. You can’t remember Percy. I wish you wouldn’t say these things, even in fun.”
“I’m not saying it in fun. Of course, it’s none of my business, but you have paid me the compliment of confiding in me about Amelia, and I feel justified in speaking. All I can say is that, if you cherish her memory as you say you do, you show it in a very strange way. How you can square your neglect of Percy with your alleged devotion to Amelia’s memory, beats me. It seems to me that you have no choice. You must either drop the whole thing and admit that your love for her is dead, or else you must stop this infernal treatment of her favorite brother. You can’t have it both ways.”
He looked at me like a hunted stag. “But, Reggie, old man! Percy! He asks riddles at breakfast.”
“I don’t care.”
“Hilda can’t stand him.”
“It doesn’t matter. You must invite him. It’s not a case of what you like or don’t like. It’s your duty.”
He struggled with his feelings for a bit. “Very well,” he said in a crushed sort of voice.
At dinner that night he said to Hilda: “I’m going to ask Amelia’s brother down to spend a few days. It is so long since we have seen him.”
Hilda didn’t answer at once. She looked at him in rather a curious sort of way, I thought. “Very well, dear,” she said.
I was deuced sorry for the poor girl, but I felt like a surgeon. She would be glad later on, for I was convinced that in a very short while poor old Harold must crack under the strain, especially after I had put across the coup which I was meditating for the very next evening.
It was quite simple. Simple, that is to say, in its working, but a devilish brainy thing for a chappie to have thought out. If Ann had really meant what she had said at lunch that day, and was prepared to stick to her bargain and marry me as soon as I showed a burst of intelligence, she was mine.
What it came to was that, if dear old Harold enjoyed meditating in front of Amelia’s portrait, he was jolly well going to have all the meditating he wanted, and a bit over, for my simple scheme was to lurk outside till he had gone into the little room on the top floor, and then, with the aid of one of those jolly little wedges which you use to keep windows from rattling, see to it that the old boy remained there till they sent out search parties.
There wasn’t a flaw in my reasoning. When Harold didn’t roll in at the sound of the dinner gong, Hilda would take it for granted that he was doing an extra bit of meditating that night, and her pride would stop her sending out a hurry call for him. As for Harold, when he found that all was not well with the door, he would probably yell with considerable vim. But it was odds against anyone hearing him. As for me, you might think that I was going to suffer owing to the probable postponement of dinner. Not so, but far otherwise, for on the night I had selected for the coup I was dining out at the neighboring inn with my old college chum Freddie Meadowes. It is true that Freddie wasn’t going to be within fifty miles of the place on that particular night, but they weren’t to know that.
Did I describe the peculiar isolation of that room on the top floor, where the portrait was? I don’t think I did. It was, as a matter of fact, the only room in those parts, for, in the days when he did his amateur painting, old Harold was strong on the artistic seclusion business and hated noise, and his studio was the only room in use on that floor.
In short, to sum up, the thing was a cinch.
Punctually at ten minutes to seven, I was in readiness on the scene. There was a recess with a curtain in front of it a few yards from the door, and there I waited, fondling my little wedge, for Harold to walk up and allow the proceedings to start. It was almost pitch-dark, and that made the time of waiting seem longer. Presently–I seemed to have been there longer than ten minutes–I heard steps approaching. They came past where I stood, and went on into the room. The door closed, and I hopped out and sprinted up to it, and the next moment I had the good old wedge under the wood–as neat a job as you could imagine. And then I strolled downstairs, and toddled off to the inn.
I didn’t hurry over my dinner, partly because the browsing and sluicing at the inn was really astonishingly good for a roadhouse and partly because I wanted to give Harold plenty of time for meditation. I suppose it must have been a couple of hours or more when I finally turned in at the front door. Somebody was playing the piano in the drawing room. It could only be Hilda who was playing, and I had doubts as to whether she wanted company just then–mine, at any rate.
Eventually I decided to risk it, for I wanted to hear the latest about dear old Harold, so in I went, and it wasn’t Hilda at all; it was Ann Selby.
“Hello,” I said. “I didn’t know you were coming down here.” It seemed so odd, don’t you know, as it hadn’t been more than ten days or so since her last visit.
“Good evening, Reggie,” she said.
“What’s been happening?” I asked.
“How do you know anything has been happening?”
“I guessed it.”
“Well, you’re quite right, as it happens, Reggie. A good deal has been happening.” She went to the door, and looked out, listening. Then she shut it, and came back. “Hilda has revolted!”
“Yes, put her foot down–made a stand–refused to go on meekly putting up with Harold’s insane behavior.”
“I don’t understand.”
She gave me a look of pity. “You always were so dense, Reggie. I will tell you the whole thing from the beginning. You remember what I spoke to you about, one day when we were lunching together? Well, I don’t suppose you have noticed it–I know what you are–but things have been getting steadily worse. For one thing, Harold insisted on lengthening his visits to the top room, and naturally Ponsonby complained. Hilda tells me that she had to plead with him to induce him to stay on. Then the climax came. I don’t know if you recollect Amelia’s brother Percy? You must have met him when she was alive–a perfectly unspeakable person with a loud voice and overpowering manners. Suddenly, out of a blue sky, Harold announced his intention of inviting him to stay. It was the last straw. This afternoon I received a telegram from poor Hilda, saying that she was leaving Harold and coming to stay with me, and a few hours later the poor child arrived at my apartment.”
You mustn’t suppose that I stood listening silently to this speech. Every time she seemed to be going to stop for breath I tried to horn in and tell her all these things which had been happening were not mere flukes, as she seemed to think, but parts of a deuced carefully planned scheme of my own. Every time I’d try to interrupt, Ann would wave me down, and carry on without so much as a semi-colon.
But at this point I did manage a word in. “I know, I know, I know! I did it all. It was I who suggested to Harold that he should lengthen the meditations, and insisted on his inviting Percy to stay.”
I had hardly got the words out, when I saw that they were not making the hit I had anticipated. She looked at me with an expression of absolute scorn, don’t you know.
“Well, really, Reggie,” she said at last, “I never have had a very high opinion of your intelligence, as you know, but this is a revelation to me. What motive you can have had, unless you did it in a spirit of pure mischief—-” She stopped, and there was a glare of undiluted repulsion in her eyes. “Reggie! I can’t believe it! Of all the things I loathe most, a practical joker is the worst. Do you mean to tell me you did all this as a practical joke?”
“Great Scott, no! It was like this—-“
I paused for a bare second to collect my thoughts, so as to put the thing clearly to her. I might have known what would happen. She dashed right in and collared the conversation.
“Well, never mind. As it happens, there is no harm done. Quite the reverse, in fact. Hilda left a note for Harold telling him what she had done and where she had gone and why she had gone, and Harold found it. The result was that, after Hilda had been with me for some time, in he came in a panic and absolutely grovelled before the dear child. It seems incredible but he had apparently had no notion that his absurd behavior had met with anything but approval from Hilda. He went on as if he were mad. He was beside himself. He clutched his hair and stamped about the room, and then he jumped at the telephone and called this house and got Ponsonby and told him to go straight to the little room on the top floor and take Amelia’s portrait down. I thought that a little unnecessary myself, but he was in such a whirl of remorse that it was useless to try and get him to be rational. So Hilda was consoled, and he calmed down, and we all came down here in the automobile. So you see—-“
At this moment the door opened, and in came Harold.
“I say–hello, Reggie, old man–I say, it’s a funny thing, but we can’t find Ponsonby anywhere.”
There are moments in a chappie’s life, don’t you know, when Reason, so to speak, totters, as it were, on its bally throne. This was one of them. The situation seemed somehow to have got out of my grip. I suppose, strictly speaking, I ought, at this juncture, to have cleared my throat and said in an audible tone, “Harold, old top, _I_ know where Ponsonby is.” But somehow I couldn’t. Something seemed to keep the words back. I just stood there and said nothing.
“Nobody seems to have seen anything of him,” said Harold. “I wonder where he can have got to.”
Hilda came in, looking so happy I hardly recognized her. I remember feeling how strange it was that anybody could be happy just then.
“_I_ know,” she said. “Of course! Doesn’t he always go off to the inn and play bowls at this time?”
“Why, of course,” said Harold. “So he does.”
And he asked Ann to play something on the piano. And pretty soon we had settled down to a regular jolly musical evening. Ann must have played a matter of two or three thousand tunes, when Harold got up.
“By the way,” he said. “I suppose he did what I told him about the picture before he went out. Let’s go and see.”
“Oh, Harold, what does it matter?” asked Hilda.
“Don’t be silly, Harold,” said Ann.
I would have said the same thing, only I couldn’t say anything.
Harold wasn’t to be stopped. He led the way out of the room and upstairs, and we all trailed after him. We had just reached the top floor, when Hilda stopped, and said “Hark!”
It was a voice.
“Hi!” it said. “Hi!”
Harold legged it to the door of the studio. “Ponsonby?”
From within came the voice again, and I have never heard anything to touch the combined pathos, dignity and indignation it managed to condense into two words.
“What on earth are you doing in there?”
“I came here, sir, in accordance with your instructions on the telephone, and—-“
Harold rattled the door. “The darned thing’s stuck.”
“How on earth did that happen?”
“I could not say, sir.”
“How _can_ the door have stuck like this?” said Ann.
Somebody–I suppose it was me, though the voice didn’t sound familiar– spoke. “Perhaps there’s a wedge under it,” said this chappie.
“A wedge? What do you mean?”
“One of those little wedges you use to keep windows from rattling, don’t you know.”
“But why—-? You’re absolutely right, Reggie, old man, there is!”
He yanked it out, and flung the door open, and out came Ponsonby, looking like Lady Macbeth.
“I wish to give notice, sir,” he said, “and I should esteem it a favor if I might go to the pantry and procure some food, as I am extremely hungry.”
And he passed from our midst, with Hilda after him, saying: “But, Ponsonby! Be reasonable, Ponsonby!”
Ann Selby turned on me with a swish. “Reggie,” she said, “did _you_ shut Ponsonby in there?”
“Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I did.”
“But why?” asked Harold.
“Well, to be absolutely frank, old top, I thought it was you.”
“You thought it was me? But why–what did you want to lock me in for?”
I hesitated. It was a delicate business telling him the idea. And while I was hesitating, Ann jumped in.
“I can tell you why, Harold. It was because Reggie belongs to that sub-species of humanity known as practical jokers. This sort of thing is his idea of humor.”
“Humor! Losing us a priceless butler,” said Harold. “If that’s your idea of—-“
Hilda came back, pale and anxious. “Harold, dear, do come and help me reason with Ponsonby. He is in the pantry gnawing a cold chicken, and he only stops to say ‘I give notice.'”
“Yes,” said Ann. “Go, both of you. I wish to speak to Reggie alone.”
That’s how I came to lose Ann. At intervals during her remarks I tried to put my side of the case, but it was no good. She wouldn’t listen. And presently something seemed to tell me that now was the time to go to my room and pack. Half an hour later I slid silently into the night.
Wasn’t it Shakespeare or somebody who said that the road to Hell–or words to that effect–was paved with good intentions? If it was Shakespeare, it just goes to prove what they are always saying about him–that he knew a bit. Take it from one who knows, the old boy was absolutely right.