Author of “Clayhanger,” etc.
I THE NEW POOR
II FROM THE DEAD
III THE LAW
IV EVE’S HEADACHE
VII THE SYMPATHETIC QUACK
VIII SISSIE’S BUSINESS
X THE THEORY OF IDLENESS
XI NEURASTHENIA CURED
XII THE PRACTICE OF IDLENESS
XIII FURTHER IDLENESS
XIV END OF AN IDLE DAY
XV THE HEAVY FATHER
XVI TRANSFER OF MIMI
XVIII A HOMELESS NIGHT
XIX THE RECEPTION
XX THE SILENT TOWER
XXI EVE’S MARTYRDOM
XXII MR. PROHACK’S TRIUMPH
XXIII THE YACHT
THE NEW POOR
Arthur Charles Prohack came downstairs at eight thirty, as usual, and found breakfast ready in the empty dining-room. This pleased him, because there was nothing in life he hated more than to be hurried. For him, hell was a place of which the inhabitants always had an eye on the clock and the clock was always further advanced than they had hoped.
The dining-room, simply furnished with reproductions of chaste Chippendale, and chilled to the uncomfortable low temperature that hardy Britons pretend to enjoy, formed part of an unassailably correct house of mid-Victorian style and antiquity; and the house formed part of an unassailably correct square just behind Hyde Park Gardens. (Taxi-drivers, when told the name of the square, had to reflect for a fifth of a second before they could recall its exact situation.)
Mr. Prohack was a fairly tall man, with a big head, big features, and a beard. His characteristic expression denoted benevolence based on an ironic realisation of the humanity of human nature. He was forty-six years of age and looked it. He had been for more than twenty years at the Treasury, in which organism he had now attained a certain importance. He was a Companion of the Bath. He exulted in the fact that the Order of the Bath took precedence of those bumptious Orders, Star of India, St. Michael and St. George, Indian Empire, Royal Victorian and British Empire; but he laughed at his wife for so exulting. If the matter happened to be mentioned he would point out that in the table of precedence Companions of the Bath ranked immediately below Masters in Lunacy.
He was proud of the Treasury’s war record. Other departments of State had swollen to amazing dimensions during the war. The Treasury, while its work had been multiplied a hundredfold, had increased its personnel by only a negligible percentage. It was the cheapest of all the departments, the most efficient, and the most powerful. The War Office, the Admiralty, and perhaps one other department presided over by a personality whom the Prime Minister feared, did certainly defy and even ignore the Treasury. But the remaining departments (and especially the “mushroom ministries”) might scheme as much as they liked,–they could do nothing until the Treasury had approved their enterprises. Modest Mr. Prohack was among the chief arbiters of destiny for them. He had daily sat in a chair by himself and approved or disapproved according to his conscience and the rules of the Exchequer; and his fiats, in practice, had gone forth as the fiats of the Treasury. Moreover he could not be bullied, for he was full of the sense that the whole constitution and moral force of the British Empire stood waiting to back him. Scarcely known beyond the Treasury, within the Treasury he had acquired a reputation as “the terror of the departments.” Several times irritated Ministers or their high subordinates had protested that the Treasury’s (Mr. Prohack’s) passion for rules, its demands for scientific evidence, and its sceptical disposition were losing the war. Mr. Prohack had, in effect retorted: “Departmentally considered, losing the war is a detail.” He had retorted: “Wild cats will not win the war.” And he had retorted: “I know nothing but my duty.”
In the end the war was not lost, and Mr. Prohack reckoned that he personally, by the exercise of courage in the face of grave danger, had saved to the country five hundred and forty-six millions of the country’s money. At any rate he had exercised a real influence over the conduct of the war. On one occasion, a chief being absent, he had had to answer a summons to the Inner Cabinet. Of this occasion he had remarked to his excited wife: “They were far more nervous than I was.”
Despite all this, the great public had never heard of him. His portrait had never appeared in the illustrated papers. His wife’s portrait, as “War-worker and wife of a great official,” had never appeared in the illustrated papers. No character sketch of him had ever been printed. His opinions on any subject had never been telephonically or otherwise demanded by the editors of up-to-date dailies. His news-value indeed was absolutely nil. In _Who’s Who_ he had only four lines of space.
Mr. Prohack’s breakfast consisted of bacon, dry toast, coffee, marmalade, _The Times_ and _The Daily Picture_. The latter was full of brides and bridegrooms, football, enigmatic murder trials, young women in their fluffy underclothes, medicines, pugilists, cinema stars, the biggest pumpkin of the season, uplift, and inspired prophecy concerning horses and company shares; together with a few brief unillustrated notes about civil war in Ireland, famine in Central Europe, and the collapse of realms.
“Ah! So I’ve caught you!” said his wife, coming brightly into the room. She was a buxom woman of forty-three. Her black hair was elaborately done for the day, but she wore a roomy peignoir instead of a frock; it was Chinese, in the Imperial yellow, inconceivably embroidered with flora, fauna, and grotesques. She always thus visited her husband at breakfast, picking bits off his plate like a bird, and proving to him that her chief preoccupation was ever his well-being and the satisfaction of his capricious tastes.
“Many years ago,” said Mr. Prohack.
“You make a fuss about buying _The Daily Picture_ for me. You say it humiliates you to see it in the house, and I don’t know what. But I catch you reading it yourself, and before you’ve opened _The Times_! Dear, dear! That bacon’s a cinder and I daren’t say anything to her.”
“Lady,” replied Mr. Prohack, “we all have something base in our natures. Sin springs from opportunity. I cannot resist the damned paper.” And he stuck his fork into the fair frock-coat of a fatuous bridegroom coming out of church.
“My fault again!” the wife remarked brightly.
The husband changed the subject:
“I suppose that your son and daughter are still asleep?”
“Well, dearest, you know that they were both at that dance last night.”
“They ought not to have been. The popular idea that life is a shimmy is a dangerous illusion.” Mr. Prohack felt the epigram to be third-rate, but he carried it off lightly.
“Sissie only went because Charlie wanted to go, and all I can say is that it’s a nice thing if Charlie isn’t to be allowed to enjoy himself now the war’s over–after all he’s been through.”
“You’re mixing up two quite different things. I bet that if Charlie committed murder you’d go into the witness-box and tell the judge he’d been wounded twice and won the Military Cross.”
“This is one of your pernickety mornings.”
“Seeing that your debauched children woke me up at three fifteen–!”
“They woke me up too.”
“That’s different. You can go to sleep again. I can’t. You rather like being wakened up, because you take a positively sensual pleasure in turning over and going to sleep again.”
“You hate me for that.”
“I make you very unhappy sometimes, don’t I?”
“Eve, you are a confounded liar, and you know it. You have never caused me a moment’s unhappiness. You may annoy me. You may exasperate me. You are frequently unspeakable. But you have never made me unhappy. And why? Because I am one of the few exponents of romantic passion left in this city. My passion for you transcends my reason. I am a fool, but I am a magnificent fool. And the greatest miracle of modern times is that after twenty-four years of marriage you should be able to give me pleasure by perching your stout body on the arm of my chair as you are doing.”
“Arthur, I’m not stout.”
“Yes, you are. You’re enormous. But hang it, I’m such a morbid fool I like you enormous.”
Mrs. Prohack, smiling mysteriously, remarked in a casual tone, as she looked at _The Daily Picture_:
“Why _do_ people let their photographs get into the papers? It’s awfully vulgar.”
“It is. But we’re all vulgar to-day. Look at that!” He pointed to the page. “The granddaughter of a duke who refused the hand of a princess sells her name and her face to a firm of ship-owners who keep newspapers like their grandfathers kept pigeons…. But perhaps I’m only making a noise like a man of fifty.”
“You aren’t fifty.”
“I’m five hundred. And this coffee is remarkably thin.”
“Let me taste it.”
“Yes, you’d rob me of my coffee now!” said Mr. Prohack, surrendering his cup. “Is it thin, or isn’t it? I pride myself on living the higher life; my stomach is not my inexorable deity; but even on the mountain top which I inhabit there must be a limit to the thinness of the coffee.”
Eve (as he called her, after the mother and prototype of all women–her earthly name was Marian) sipped the coffee. She wrinkled her forehead and then glanced at him in trouble.
“Yes, it’s thin,” she said. “But I’ve had to ration the cook. Oh, Arthur, I _am_ going to make you unhappy after all. It’s impossible for me to manage any longer on the housekeeping allowance.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before, child?”
“I have told you ‘before,'” said she. “If you hadn’t happened to mention the coffee, I mightn’t have said anything for another fortnight. You started to give me more money in June, and you said that was the utmost limit you could go to, and I believed it was. But it isn’t enough. I hate to bother you, and I feel ashamed–“
“That’s ridiculous. Why should you feel ashamed?”
“Well, I’m like that.”
“You’re revelling in your own virtuousness, my girl. Now in last week’s _Economist_ it said that the Index Number of commodity prices had slightly fallen these last few weeks.”
“I don’t know anything about indexes and the _Economist_,” Eve retorted. “But I know what coffee is a pound, and I know what the tradesmen’s books are–“
At this point she cried without warning.
“No,” murmured Mr. Prohack, soothingly, caressingly. “You mustn’t baptise me. I couldn’t bear it.” And he kissed her eyes.
“I _know_ we can’t afford any more for housekeeping,” she whispered, sniffing damply. “And I’m ashamed I can’t manage, and I knew I should make you unhappy. What with idle and greedy working-men, and all these profiteers…! It’s a shame!”
“Yes,” said Mr. Prohack. “It’s what our Charlie fought for, and got wounded twice for, and won the M.C. for. That’s what it is. But you see we’re the famous salaried middle-class that you read so much about in the papers, and we’re going through the famous process of being crushed between the famous upper and nether millstones. Those millstones have been approaching each other–and us–for some time. Now they’ve begun to nip. That funny feeling in your inside that’s causing you still to baptise me, in spite of my protest–that’s the first real nip.”
She caught her breath.
“Arthur,” she said. “If you go on like that I shall scream.”
“Do,” Mr. Prohack encouraged her. “But of course not too loud. At the same time don’t forget that I’m a humourist. Humourists make jokes when they’re happy, and when they’re unhappy they make jokes.”
“But it’s horribly serious.”
Mrs. Prohack slipped off the arm of the chair. Her body seemed to vibrate within the Chinese gown, and she effervesced into an ascending and descending series of sustained laughs.
“That’s hysteria,” said Mr. Prohack. “And if you don’t stop I shall be reluctantly compelled to throw the coffee over you. Water would be better, but there is none.”
Then Eve ceased suddenly.
“To think,” she remarked with calmness, “that you’re called the Terror of the Departments, and you’re a great authority on finance, and you’ve been in the Government service for nearly twenty-five years, and always done your duty–“
“Child,” Mr. Prohack interrupted her. “Don’t tell me what I know. And try not to be surprised at any earthly phenomena. There are people who are always being astonished by the most familiar things. They live on earth as if they’d just dropped from Mars on to a poor foreign planet. It’s not a sign of commonsense. You’ve lived on earth now for–shall we say?–some twenty-nine or thirty years, and if you don’t know the place you ought to. I assure you that there is nothing at all unusual in our case. We are perfectly innocent; we are even praiseworthy; and yet–we shall have to suffer. It’s quite a common case. You’ve read of thousands and millions of such cases; you’ve heard of lots personally; and you’ve actually met a few. Well, now, you yourself _are_ a case. That’s all.”
Mrs. Prohack said impatiently:
“I consider the Government’s treated you shamefully. Why, we’re much worse off than we were before the war.”
“The Government has treated me shamefully. But then it’s treated hundreds of thousands of men shamefully. All Governments do.”
“But we have a position to keep up!”
“True. That’s where the honest poor have the advantage of us. You see, we’re the dishonest poor. We’ve been to the same schools and universities and we talk the same idiom and we have the same manners and like the same things as people who spend more in a month or a week than we spend in a year. And we pretend, and they pretend, that they and we are exactly the same. We aren’t, you know. We’re one vast pretence. Has it occurred to you, lady, that we’ve never possessed a motor-car and most certainly never shall possess one? Yet look at the hundreds of thousands of cars in London alone! And not a single one of them ours! This detail may have escaped you.”
“I wish you wouldn’t be silly, Arthur.”
“I am not silly. On the contrary, my real opinion is that I’m the wisest man you ever met in your life–not excepting your son It remains that we’re a pretence. A pretence resembles a bladder. It may burst. We probably shall burst. Still, we have one great advantage over the honest poor, who sometimes have no income at all; and also over the rich, who never can tell how big their incomes are going to be. _We know exactly where we are_. We know to the nearest sixpence.”
“I don’t see that that helps us. I consider the Government has treated you shamefully. I wonder you important men in the Treasury haven’t formed a Trade Union before now.”
“Oh, Eve! After all you’ve said about Trade Unions this last year! You shock me! We shall never he properly treated until we do form a Trade Union. But we shall never form a Trade Union, because we’re too proud. And we’d sooner see our children starve than yield in our pride. That’s a fact.”
“There’s one thing–we can’t move into a cheaper house.”
“No,” Mr. Prohack concurred. “Because there isn’t one.”
Years earlier Mr. Prohack had bought the long lease of his house from the old man who, according to the logical London system, had built the house upon somebody else’s land on the condition that he paid rent for the land and in addition gave the house to the somebody else at the end of a certain period as a free gift. By a payment of twelve pounds per annum Mr. Prohack was safe for forty years yet and he calculated that in forty years the ownership of the house would be a matter of some indifference both to him and to his wife.
“Well, as you’re so desperately wise, perhaps you’ll kindly tell me what we _are_ to do.”
“I might borrow money on my insurance policy–and speculate,” said Mr. Prohack gravely.
“Oh! Arthur! Do you really think you–” Marian showed a wild gleam of hope.
“Or I might throw the money into the Serpentine,” Mr. Prohack added.
“Oh! Arthur! I could kill you. I never know how to take you.”
“No, you never do. That’s the worst of a woman like you marrying a man like me.”
They discussed devices. One servant fewer. No holiday. Cinemas instead of theatres. No books. No cigarettes. No taxis. No clothes. No meat. No telephone. No friends. They reached no conclusion. Eve referred to Adam’s great Treasury mind. Adam said that his great Treasury mind should function on the problem during the day, and further that the problem must be solved that very night.
“I’ll tell you one thing I shall do,” said Mrs. Prohack in a decided tone as Mr. Prohack left the table. “I shall countermand Sissie’a new frock.”
“If you do I shall divorce you,” was the reply.
Mr. Prohack answered:
“In 1917 I saw that girl in dirty overalls driving a thundering great van down Whitehall. Yesterday I met her in her foolish high heels and her shocking openwork stockings and her negligible dress and her exposed throat and her fur stole, and she was so delicious and so absurd and so futile and so sure of her power that–that–well, you aren’t going to countermand any new frock. That chit has the right to ruin me–not because of anything she’s done, but because she _is_. I am ready to commit peccadilloes, but not crimes. Good morning, my dove.”
And at the door, discreetly hiding her Chinese raiment behind the door, Eve said, as if she had only just thought of it, though she had been thinking of it for quite a quarter of an hour:
“Darling, there’s your clubs.”
“What about my clubs?”
“Don’t they cost you a lot of money?”
“No. Besides I lunch at my clubs–better and cheaper than at any restaurant. And I shouldn’t have time to come home for lunch.”
“But do you need two clubs?”
“I’ve always belonged to two clubs. Every one does.”
“But why _two_?”
“A fellow must have a club up his sleeve.”
“_Couldn’t_ you give up one?”
“Lady, it’s unthinkable. You don’t know what you’re suggesting. Abandon one of my clubs that my father put me up for when I was a boy! I’d as soon join a Trade Union. No! My innocent but gluttonous children shall starve first.”
“I shall give up _my_ club!”
“Ah! But that’s different.”
“How is it different?” “You scarcely ever speak to a soul in your club. The food’s bad in your club. They drink liqueurs before dinner at your club. I’ve seen ’em. Your club’s full every night of the most formidable spinsters each eating at a table alone. Give up your club by all means. Set fire to it and burn it down. But don’t count the act as a renunciation. You hate your club. Good morning, my dove.”
One advantage of the situation of Mr. Prohack’s house was that his path therefrom to the Treasury lay almost entirely through verdant parks–Hyde Park, the Green Park, St. James’s Park. Not infrequently he referred to the advantage in terms of bland satisfaction. True, in wet weather the advantage became a disadvantage.
During his walk through verdant parks that morning, the Terror of the Departments who habitually thought in millions was very gloomy. Something resembling death was in his heart. Humiliation also was certainly in his heart, for he felt that, no matter whose the fault, he was failing in the first duty of a man. He raged against the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He sliced off the head of the Chancellor of the Exchequer with his stick. (But it was only an innocent autumn wildflower, perilously blooming.) And the tang in the air foretold the approach of winter and the grip of winter–the hell of the poor.
Near Whitehall he saw the advertisement of a firm of shop-specialists:
“BRING YOUR BUSINESS TROUBLES TO US.”
FROM THE DEAD
“WELL, Milton, had a good holiday?” said Mr. Prohack to the hall-porter on entering his chief club for lunch that day.
“No, sir,” said the hall-porter, who was a realist.
“Ah, well,” said Mr. Prohack soothingly. “Perhaps not a bad thing. There’s nothing like an unsatisfactory holiday for reconciling us all to a life of toil, is there?”
“No, sir,” said Milton, impassively, and added: “Mr. Bishop has just called to see you, sir. I told him you’d probably be in shortly. He said he wouldn’t wait but he might look in again.”
“Thanks,” said Mr. Prohack. “If he does, I shall be either in the coffee-room or upstairs.”
Mr. Prohack walked into the majestic interior of the Club, which had been closed, rather later than usual, for its annual cleaning. He savoured anew and more sharply the beauty and stateliness of its architecture, the elaboration of its conveniences, the severe splendour of its luxury. And he saw familiar and congenial faces, and on every face was a mild joy similar to the joy which he himself experienced in the reopening of the Club. And he was deliciously aware of the “club feeling,” unlike, and more agreeable than, any other atmosphere of an organism in the world.
The Club took no time at all to get into its stride after the closure. It opened its doors and was instantly its full self. For hundreds of grave men in and near London had risen that very morning from their beds uplifted by the radiant thought: “To-day I can go to the Club again.” Mr. Prohack had long held that the noblest, the most civilised achievement of the British character was not the British Empire, nor the House of Commons, nor the steam-engine, nor aniline dyes, nor the music-hall, but a good West End club. And somehow at the doors of a good West End club there was an invisible magic sieve, through which the human body could pass but through which human worries could not pass.
This morning, however, Mr. Prohack perceived that one worry could pass through the sieve, namely a worry concerning the Club itself…. Give up the Club? Was the sacrifice to be consummated? Impossible! Could he picture himself strolling down St. James’s Street without the right to enter the sacred gates–save as a guest? And supposing he entered as a guest, could he bear the hall-porter to say to him: “If you’ll take a seat, sir, I’ll send and see if Mr. Blank is in the Club. What name, sir?” Impossible! Yet Milton would be capable of saying just that. Milton would never pardon a defection…. Well, then, he must give up the other club. But the other–and smaller–Club had great qualities of its own. Indeed it was indispensable. And could he permit the day to dawn on which he would no longer be entitled to refer to “my other club”? Impossible! Nevertheless he had decided to give up his other club. He must give it up, if only to keep even with his wife. The monetary saving would be unimportant, but the act would be spectacular. And Mr. Prohack perfectly comprehended the value of the spectacular in existence.
He sat down to lunch among half a dozen cronies at one of the larger tables in a window-embrasure of the vaulted coffee-room with its precious portrait of that historic clubman, Charles James Fox, and he ordered himself the cheapest meal that the menu could offer, and poured himself out a glass of water.
“Same old menu!” remarked savagely Mr. Prohack’s great crony, Sir Paul Spinner, the banker, who suffered from carbuncles and who always drove over from the city in the middle of the day.
“Here’s old Paul grumbling again!” said Sims of Downing Street. “After all, this is the best club in London.”
“It certainly is,” said Mr. Prohack, “when it’s closed. During the past four weeks this club has been the most perfect institution on the face of the earth.”
They all laughed. And they began recounting to each other the unparalleled miseries and indignities which such of them as had remained in London had had to endure in the clubs that had “extended their hospitality” to members of the closed club. The catalogue of ills was terrible. Yes, there was only one club deserving of the name.
“Still,” said Sir Paul. “They might give us a rest from prunes and rice.”
“This club,” said Mr. Prohack, “like all other clubs, is managed by a committee of Methuselahs who can only digest prunes and rice.” And after a lot more talk about the idiosyncrasies of clubs he said, with a casual air: “For myself, I belong to too many clubs.”
Said Hunter, a fellow official of the Treasury:
“But I thought you only had two clubs, Arthur.”
“Only two. But it’s one too many. In fact I’m not sure if it isn’t two too many.”
“Are you getting disgusted with human nature?” Sims suggested.
“No,” said Mr. Prohack. “I’m getting hard up. I’ve committed the greatest crime in the world. I’ve committed poverty. And I feel guilty.”
And the truth was that he did feel guilty. He was entirely innocent; he was a victim; he had left undone nothing that he ought to have done; but he felt guilty, thus proving that poverty is indeed seriously a crime and that those who in sardonic jest describe it as a crime are deeper philosophers than they suppose.
“Never say die,” smiled the monocled Mixon, a publisher of scientific works, and began to inveigh against the Government as an ungrateful and unscrupulous employer and exploiter of dutiful men in an inferno of rising prices. But the rest thought Mixon unhappy in his choice of topic. Hunter of the Treasury said nothing. What was there to say that would not tend to destroy the true club atmosphere? Even the beloved Prohack had perhaps failed somewhat in tact. They all understood, they all mildly sympathised, but they could do no more–particularly in a miscellaneous assemblage of eight members. No, they felt a certain constraint; and in a club constraint should be absolutely unknown. Some of them glanced uneasily about the crowded, chattering room.
It was then, that a remarkable coincidence occurred.
“I saw Bishop at Inverness last week,” said Sir Paul Spinner to Mr. Prohack, apropos of nothing whatever. “Seems he’s got a big moor this year in Sutherlandshire. So I suppose he’s recovered from his overdose of shipping shares.”
Bishop (Fred Ferrars) was a financier with a cheerful, negligent attitude towards the insecurities and uncertainties of a speculative existence. He was also a close friend of Prohack, of Sir Paul, and of several others at the table, and a member of Prohack’s secondary club, though not of his primary club.
“That’s strange,” said Mr. Prohack. “I hear he’s in London.”
“He most positively isn’t in London,” said Sir Paul. “He’s not coming back until November.”
“Then that shows how little the evidence of the senses can be relied upon,” remarked Mr. Prohack gently. “According to the hall-porter he called here for me a few minutes ago, and he may call again.”
The banker grunted. “The deuce he did! Does that mean he’s in some fresh trouble, I wonder?”
At the same moment a page-girl, the smart severity of whose uniform was mitigated by a pig-tail and a bow of ribbon, approached Mr. Prohack’s chair, and, bending her young head to his ear, delivered to him with the manner of a bearer of formidable secrets:
“Mr. Bishop to see you, sir.”
“There he is!” exclaimed Mr. Prohack. “Now he’s bound to want lunch. Why on earth can’t we bring guests in here? Waitress, have the lunch I’ve ordered served in the guests’ dining-room, please…. No doubt Bishop and I’ll see you chaps upstairs later.”
He went off to greet and welcome Bishop, full of joy at the prospect of tasting anew the rich personality of his old friend. It is true that he had a qualm about the expense of standing Bishop a lunch–a fellow who relished his food and drink and could distinguish between the best and the second best; but on the other hand he could talk very freely to Bishop concerning the crisis in which he found himself; and he knew that Bishop would not allow Bishop’s affairs, however troublesome they might be, unduly to bother _him_.
Bishop was not on the bench in the hall where visitors were appointed to wait. Only one man was on the bench, a spectacled, red-faced person. Mr. Prohack glanced about. Then the page-girl pointed to the spectacled person, who jumped up and approached Mr. Prohack somewhat effusively.
“How d’ye do, Prohack?”
“Well, _Bishop_!” Mr. Prohack responded. “It’s _you_!”
It was another Bishop, a Bishop whom he had forgotten, a Bishop who had resigned from the club earlier and disappeared. Mr. Prohack did not like him. Mr. Prohack said to himself: “This fellow is after something, and I always knew he was an adventurer.”
“Funny feeling it gives you to be asked to wait in the hall of a club that you used to belong to!” said Bishop.
The apparently simple words, heavy with sinister significance, sank like a depth-charge into Mr. Prohack’s consciousness.
“Among other things,” said Mr. Prohack to himself, “this fellow is very obviously after a free lunch.”
Now Mr. Prohack suffered from a strange form of insincerity, which he had often unsuccessfully tried to cure, partly because it advantaged unsympathetic acquaintances at his expense, and partly because his wife produced unanswerable arguments against it with mortal effect. Although an unconceited man (as men go), and a very honest man, he could not help pretending to like people whom he did not like. And he pretended with a histrionic skill that deceived everybody–sometimes even himself. There may have been some good-nature in this moral twist of his; but he well knew that it originated chiefly in three morbid desires,–the desire to please, the desire to do the easiest thing, and the desire to nourish his reputation for amiability.
So that when the unexpected Mr. Bishop (whose Christian name was Softly) said to him: “I won’t keep you now. Only I was passing and I want you to be kind enough to make an early appointment with me at some time and place entirely convenient to yourself,” Mr. Prohack proceeded to persuade Mr. Bishop to stay to lunch, there being no sort of reason in favour of such a course, and various sound reasons against it. Mr. Prohack deceived Mr. Softly Bishop as follows:
“No time and place like the present. You must stay to lunch. This is your old club and you must stay to lunch.”
“But you’ve begun your lunch,” Bishop protested.
“I’ve not. The fact is, I was half expecting you to look in again. The hall-porter told me….” And Mr. Prohack actually patted Mr. Bishop on the shoulder–a trick he had. “Come now, don’t tell me you’ve got another lunch appointment. It’s twenty-five to two.” And to himself, leading Mr. Bishop to the strangers’ dining-room, he said: “Why should I further my own execution in this way?”
He ordered a lunch as copious and as costly as he would have ordered for the other, the real Bishop. Powerful and vigorous in some directions, Mr. Prohack’s mentality was deplorably weak in at least one other.
Mr. Softly Bishop was delighted with his reception, and Mr. Prohack began to admit that Mr. Bishop had some personal charm. Nevertheless when the partridge came, Mr. Prohack acidly reflected:
“I’m offering this fellow a portion of my daughter’s new frock on a charger!”
They talked of the club, Mr. Bishop as a former member being surely entitled to learn all about it, and then they talked about clubs in the United States, where Mr. Bishop had spent recent years. But Mr. Bishop persisted in giving no hint of his business.
“It must be something rather big and annoying,” thought Mr. Prohack, and ordered another portion of his daughter’s new frock in the shape of excellent cigars.
“You don’t mean to say we can smoke _here_,” exclaimed Mr. Bishop.
“Yes,” said Mr. Prohack. “Not in the members’ coffee-room, but we can here. Stroke of genius on the part of the Committee! You see it tends to keep guests out of the smoking-room, which for a long time has been getting uncomfortably full after lunch.”
“Good God!” murmured Mr. Bishop simply.
And he added at once, as he lighted the Corona Corona: “Well, I’d better tell you what I’ve come to see you about. You remember that chap, Silas Angmering?”
“Silas Angmering? Of course I do. Used to belong here. He cleared off to America ages ago.”
“He did. And you lent him a hundred pounds to help him to clear off to America.”
“Who told you?”
“He did,” said Mr. Bishop, with a faint, mysterious smile.
“What’s happened to him?”
“Oh! All sorts of things. He made a lot of money out of the war. He established himself in Cincinnati. And there were opportunities….”
“How came he to tell you that I’d lent him anything?” Mr. Prohack interrupted sharply.
“I had business with him at one time–before the war and also just after the war began. Indeed I was in partnership with him.” Mr. Bishop spoke with a measured soothing calmness.
“And you say he’s made a lot of money out of the war. What do you mean–a lot?”
“Well,” said Mr. Bishop, looking at the tablecloth through his glittering spectacles, “I mean a _lot_.”
His tone was confidential; but then his tone was always confidential. He continued: “He’s lost it all since.”
“Pity he didn’t pay me back my hundred pounds while he’d got it! How did he lose his money?”
“In the same way as most rich men lose their money,” answered Mr. Bishop. “He died.”
Although Mr. Prohack would have been capable of telling a similar story in a manner very similar to Mr. Bishop’s, he didn’t quite relish his guest’s theatricality. It increased his suspicion of his guest, and checked the growth of friendliness which the lunch had favoured. Still, he perceived that there was a good chance of getting his hundred pounds back, possibly with interest–and the interest would mount up to fifty or sixty pounds. And a hundred and fifty pounds appeared to him to be an enormous sum. Then it occurred to him that probably Mr. Bishop was not indeed “after” anything and that he had been unjust to Mr. Bishop.
“Married?” he questioned, casually.
“Angmering? No. He never married. You know as well as anybody, I expect, what sort of a card he was. No relations, either.”
“Then who’s come into his money?”
“Well,” said Mr. Bishop, with elaborate ease and smoothness of quiet delivery. “I’ve come into some of it. And there was a woman–actress sort of young thing–about whom perhaps the less said the better–she’s come into some of it. And you’ve come into some of it. We share it in equal thirds.”
“The deuce we do!”
“How long’s he been dead?”
“About five weeks or less. I sailed as soon as I could after he was buried. I’d arranged before to come. I daresay I ought to have stayed a bit longer, as I’m the executor under the will, but I wanted to come, and I’ve got a very good lawyer over there–and over here too. I landed this morning, and here I am. Strictly speaking I suppose I should have cabled you. But it seemed to me that I could explain better by word of mouth.”
“I wish you would explain,” said Mr. Prohack. “You say he’s been rich a long time, but he didn’t pay his debt to me, and yet he goes and makes a will leaving me a third of his fortune. Wants some explaining, doesn’t it?”
Mr. Bishop replied:
“It does and it doesn’t. You knew he was a champion postponer, poor old chap. Profoundly unbusinesslike. It’s astonishing how unbusinesslike successful men are! He was always meaning to come to England to see you; but he never found time. He constantly talked of you–“
“But do you know,” Mr. Prohack intervened, “that from that day to this I’ve never heard one single word from him? Not even a picture-postcard. And what’s more I’ve never heard a single word _of_ him.”
“Just like Silas, that was! Just!… He died from a motor accident. He was perfectly conscious and knew he’d only a few hours to live. Spine. He made his will in hospital, and died about a couple of hours after he’d made it. I wasn’t there myself. I was in New York.”
“Well, well!” muttered Mr. Prohack. “Poor fellow! Well, well! This is the most amazing tale I ever heard in my life.”
“It _is_ rather strange,” Mr. Bishop compassionately admitted.
A silence fell–respectful to the memory of the dead. The members’ coffee-room seemed to Mr. Prohack to be a thousand miles off, and the chat with his cronies at the table in the window-embrasure to have happened a thousand years ago. His brain was in anarchy, and waving like a flag above the anarchy was the question: “How much did old Silas leave?” But the deceitful fellow would not permit the question to utter itself,–he had dominion over himself at any rate to that extent. He would not break the silence; he would hide his intense curiosity; he would force Softly Bishop to divulge the supreme fact upon his own initiative.
And at length Mr. Bishop remarked, musingly:
“Yes. Thanks to the exchange being so low, you stand to receive at the very least a hundred thousand pounds clear–after all deductions have been made.”
“Do I really?” said Mr. Prohack, also musingly.
His tranquil tone disguised the immense anarchy within. Silas Angmering had evidently been what is called a profiteer. He had made his money “out of the war.” And Silas was an Englishman. While Englishmen, and–later–Americans, had given up lives, sanity, fortunes, limbs, eyesight, health, Silas had gained riches. There was nothing highly unusual in this. Mr. Prohack had himself seen, in the very club in which he was now entertaining Softly Bishop, a man who had left an arm in France chatting and laughing with a man who had picked up over a million pounds by following the great principle that a commodity is worth what it will fetch when people want it very badly and there is a shortage of it. Mr. Prohack too had often chatted and laughed with this same picker-up of a million, who happened to be a quite jolly and generous fellow. Mr. Prohack would have chatted and laughed with Barabbas, convinced as he was that iniquity is the result of circumstances rather than of deliberate naughtiness. He seldom condemned. He had greatly liked Silas Angmering, who was a really educated and a well-intentioned man with a queer regrettable twist in his composition. That Silas should have profiteered when he got the chance was natural. Most men would do the same. Most heroes would do the same. The man with one arm would conceivably do the same.
But between excusing and forgiving a brigand (who has not despoiled _you_), and sharing his plunder, there was a gap, a chasm.
Few facts gave Mr. Prohack a more serene and proud satisfaction than the fact that he had materially lost through the war. He was positively glad that he had lost, and that the Government, his employer, had treated him badly…. And now to become the heir of a profiteer! Nor was that all! To become the co-heir with a woman of dubious renown, and with Mr. Softly Bishop! He knew nothing about the woman, and would think nothing. But he knew a little about Mr. Softly Bishop. Mr. Bishop, it used to be known and said in the club, had never had a friend. He had the usual number of acquaintances, but no relationship more intimate. Mr. Prohack, in the old days, had not for a long time actively disliked Mr. Bishop; but he had been surprised at the amount of active dislike which contact with Mr. Bishop engendered in other members of the club. Why such dislike? Was it due to his fat, red face, his spectacles, his conspiratorial manner, tone and gait, the evenness of his temper, his cautiousness, his mysteriousness? Nobody knew. In the end Mr. Prohack also had succeeded in disliking him. But Mr. Prohack produced a reason, and that reason was Mr. Bishop’s first name. On it being pointed out to Mr. Prohack by argufiers that Mr. Bishop was not responsible for his first name, Mr. Prohack would reply that the mentality of parents capable of bestowing on an innocent child the Christian name of Softly was incomprehensible and in a high degree suspicious, and that therefore by the well-known laws of heredity there must be something devilish odd in the mentality of their offspring–especially seeing that the offspring pretended to glory in the Christian name as being a fine old English name. No! Mr. Prohack might stomach co-heirship with a far-off dubious woman; but could he stomach co-heirship with Softly Bishop? It would necessitate friendship with Mr. Bishop. It would bracket him for ever with Mr. Bishop.
These various considerations, however, had little to do with the immense inward anarchy that Mr. Prohack’s tone had concealed as he musingly murmured: “Do I really?” The disturbance was due almost exclusively to a fierce imperial joy in the prospect of immediate wealth. The origin of the wealth scarcely affected him. The associations of the wealth scarcely affected him. He understood in a flash the deep wisdom of that old proverb (whose truth he had often hitherto denied) that money has no smell. Perhaps there might be forty good reasons against his accepting the inheritance, but they were all ridiculous. Was he to abandon his share of the money to Softly Bishop and the vampire-woman? Such a notion was idiotic. It was contrary to the robust and matter-of-fact commonsense which always marked his actions–if not his theories. No more should his wife be compelled to scheme out painfully the employment of her housekeeping allowance. Never again should there be a question about a new frock for his daughter. He was conscious, before anything else, of a triumphant protective and spoiling tenderness for his women. He would be absurd with his women. He would ruin their characters with kindness and with invitations to be capricious and exacting and expensive and futile. They nobly deserved it. He wanted to shout and to sing and to tell everybody that he would not in future stand any d—-d nonsense from anybody. He would have his way.
“Why!” thought he, pulling himself up. “I’ve developed all the peculiarities of a millionaire in about a minute and a half.”
And again, he cried to himself, in the vast and imperfectly explored jungle that every man calls his heart:
“Ah! I could not have borne to give up either of my clubs! No! I was deceiving myself. I could not have done it! I could not have done it! Anything rather than that. I see it now…. By the way, I wonder what all the fellows will say when they know! And how shall I break it to them? Not to-day! Not to-day! To-morrow!”
At the moment when Mr. Prohack ought to have been resuming his ill-remunerated financial toil for the nation at the Treasury, Bishop suggested in his offhand murmuring style that they might pay a visit to the City solicitor who was acting in England for him and the Angmering estate. Mr. Prohack opposingly suggested that national duty called him elsewhere.
“Does that matter–now?” said Bishop, and his accents were charged with meaning.
Mr. Prohack saw that it did not matter, and that in future any nation that did not like his office-hours would have to lump them. He feared greatly lest he might encounter some crony-member on his way out of the club with Bishop. If he did, what should he say, how should he carry off the situation? (For he was feeling mysteriously guilty, just as he had felt guilty an hour earlier. Not guilty as the inheritor of profiteering in particular, but guilty simply as an inheritor. It might have been different if he had come into the money in reasonable instalments, say of five thousand pounds every six months. But a hundred thousand unearned increment at one coup…!) Fortunately the cronies were still in the smoking-room. He swept Bishop from the club, stealthily, swiftly. Bishop had a big motor-car waiting at the door.
He offered no remark as to the car, and Mr. Prohack offered no remark. But Mr. Prohack was very interested in the car–he who had never been interested in cars. And he was interested in the clothes and in the deportment of the chauffeur. He was indeed interested in all sorts of new things. The window of a firm of house-agents who specialised in country houses, the jewellers’ shops, the big hotels, the advertisements of theatres and concerts, the establishments of trunk-makers and of historic second-hand booksellers and of equally historic wine-merchants. He saw them all with a fresh eye. London suddenly opened to him its possibilities as a bud opens its petals.
“Not a bad car they; hired out to me,” said Bishop at length, with casual approval.
“You’ve hired it?”
And shortly afterwards Bishop said:
“It’s fantastic the number of cars there are in use in America. You know it’s a literal fact that almost every American family has a car. For instance, whenever there’s a big meeting of strikers in New York, all the streets near the hall are blocked with cars.”
Mr. Prohack had food for reflection. His outlook upon life was changed.
And later Bishop said, again apropos of nothing:
“Of course it’s only too true that the value of money has fallen by about half. But on the other hand interest has about doubled. You can get ten per cent on quite safe security in these days. Even Governments have to pay about seven–as you know.”
“Yes,” concurred Mr. Prohack.
Ten thousand pounds a year!
And then he thought:
“What an infernal nuisance it would be if there was a revolution! Oh! But there couldn’t be. It’s unthinkable. Revolution everywhere, yes; but not in England or America!”
And he saw with the most sane and steady insight that the final duty of a Government was to keep order. Change there must be, but let change come gradually. Injustices must be remedied, naturally, but without any upheaval! Yet in the club some of the cronies (and he among them), after inveighing against profiteers and against the covetousness of trades unions, had often held that “a good red revolution” was the only way of knocking sense into the heads of these two classes.
The car got involved in a block of traffic near the Mansion House, and rain began to fall. The two occupants of the car watched each other surreptitiously, mutually suspicious, like dogs. Scraps of talk were separated by long intervals. Mr. Prohack wondered what the deuce Softly Bishop had done that Angmering should leave him a hundred thousand pounds. He tried to feel grief for the tragic and untimely death of his old friend Angmering, and failed. No doubt the failure was due to the fact that he had not seen Angmering for so many years.
At last Mr. Prohack, his hands in his pockets, his legs stretched out, his gaze uplifted, he said suddenly:
“I suppose it’ll hold water?”
“What? The roof of the car?”
“No. The will.”
Mr. Softly Bishop gave a short laugh, but made no other answer.
The car halted finally before an immense new block of buildings, and the inheritors floated up to the fifth floor in a padded lift manned by a brilliantly-uniformed attendant. Mr. Prohack saw “Smathe and Smathe” in gilt on a glass door. The enquiry office resembled the ante-room of a restaurant, as the whole building resembled a fashionable hotel. Everywhere was mosaic flooring.
“Mr. Percy Smathe?” demanded Bishop of a clerk whose head glittered in the white radiance of a green-shaded lamp.
“I’ll see, sir. Please step into the waiting-room.” And he waved a patronising negligent hand. “What name?” he added.
“Have you forgotten my name already?” Mr. Bishop retorted sharply. “Bishop. Tell Mr. Percy Smathe I’m here. At once, please.”
And he led Mr. Prohack to the waiting-room, which was a magnificent apartment with stained glass windows, furnished in Chippendale similar to, but much finer than, the furnishing of Mr. Prohack’s own house. On the table were newspapers and periodicals. Not _The Engineering Times_ of April in the previous year or a _Punch_ of the previous decade, and _The Vaccination Record_; but such things as the current _Tatler, Times, Economist_, and _La Vie Parisienne._
Mr. Prohack had uncomfortable qualms of apprehension. For several minutes past he had been thinking: “Suppose there _is_ something up with that will!” He had little confidence in Mr. Softly Bishop. And now the aspect of the solicitors’ office frightened him. It had happened to him, being a favourite trustee of his relations and friends, to visit the offices of some of the first legal firms in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. You entered these lairs by a dirty door and a dirty corridor and another dirty door. You were interrogated by a shabby clerk who sat on a foul stool at a foul desk in a foul office. And finally after an interval in a cubby hole that could not boast even _The Anti-Vaccination Record_, you were driven along a dirtier passage into a dirtiest room whose windows were obscured by generations of filth, and in that room sat a spick and span lawyer of great name who was probably an ex-president of the Incorporated Law Society. The offices of Smathe and Smathe corresponded with alarming closeness to Mr. Prohack’s idea of what a bucket-shop might be. Mr. Prohack had the gravest fears for his hundred thousand pounds.
“This is the solicitor’s office new style,” said Bishop, who seemed to have an uncanny gift of reading thoughts. “Very big firm. Anglo-American. Smathe and Smathe are two cousins. Percy’s American. English mother. They specialise in what I may call the international complication business, pleasant and unpleasant.”
Mr. Prohack was not appreciably reassured. Then a dapper, youngish man with a carnation in his buttonhole stepped neatly into the room, and greeted Bishop in a marked American accent.
“Here I am again,” said Bishop curtly. “Mr. Prohack, may I introduce Mr. Percy Smathe?”
“Mr. Prohack, I’m delighted to make your acquaintance.”
Mr. Prohack beheld the lawyer’s candid, honest face, heard his tones of extreme deference, and noted that he had come to the enquiry room to fetch his clients.
“There’s only one explanation of this,” said Mr. Prohack to himself. “I’m a genuinely wealthy person.”
And in Mr. Percy Smathe’s private room he listened but carelessly to a long legal recital. Details did not interest him. He knew he was all right.
That afternoon Mr. Prohack just got back to his bank before closing time. He had negligently declined to comprehend a very discreet hint from Mr. Percy Smathe that if he desired ready money he could have it–in bulk. Nevertheless he did desire to feel more money than usual in his pocket, and he satisfied this desire at the bank, where the September quarter of his annual salary lay almost intact. His bank was near Hanover Square, a situation inconvenient for him, but he had chosen that particular branch because its manager happened to be a friend of his. The Prohack account did no good to the manager personally, and only infinitesimal good to the vast corporation of which the branch-manager was the well-dressed, well-spoken serf. The corporation was a sort of sponge prodigiously absorbent but incapable of being squeezed. The manager could not be of the slightest use to Mr. Prohack in a financial crisis, for the reason that he was empowered to give no accommodation whatever without the consent of the head office. Still, Mr. Prohack, being a vigorous sentimentalist, as all truly wise men are, liked to bank with a friend. On the present occasion he saw the branch-manager, Insott by name, explained that he wanted some advice, and made an appointment to meet the latter at the latter’s club, the Oriental, at six-thirty.
Thereupon he returned to the Treasury, and from mere high fantasy spread the interesting news that he had broken a back tooth at lunch and had had to visit his dentist at Putney. His colleague, Hunter, remarked to him that he seemed strangely gay for a man with a broken tooth, and Mr. Prohack answered that a philosopher always had resources of fortitude within himself. He then winked–a phenomenon hitherto unknown at the Treasury. He stayed so late at his office that he made the acquaintance of two charwomen, whom he courteously chaffed. He was defeated in the subsequent encounter, and acknowledged the fact by two half-crowns.
At the Oriental Club he told Insott that he might soon have some money to invest; and he was startled and saddened to discover that Insott knew almost nothing about exciting investments, or about anything at all, except the rigours of tube travel to Golder’s Green. Insott had sunk into a deplorable groove. When, confidential, Insott told him the salary of a branch-manager of a vast corporation near Hanover Square, and incidentally mentioned that a bank-clerk might not marry without the consent in writing of the vast corporation, Mr. Prohack understood and pardoned the deep, deplorable groove. Insott could afford a club simply because his father, the once-celebrated authority on Japanese armour, had left him a hundred and fifty a year. Compared to the ruck of branch-managers Insott was a free and easy plutocrat.
As he departed from the Oriental Mr. Prohack sighed: “Poor Insott!” A sturdy and even exultant cheerfulness was, however, steadily growing in him. Poor Insott, unaware that he had been talking to a man with an assured income of ten thousand pounds a year, had unconsciously helped that man to realise the miracle of his own good fortune.
Mr. Prohack’s route home lay through a big residential square or so and along residential streets of the first quality. All the houses were big, and they seemed bigger in the faint October mist. It was the hour after lighting up and before the drawing of blinds and curtains. Mr. Prohack had glimpses of enormous and magnificent interiors,–some right in the sky, some on the ground–with carved ceilings, rich candelabra, heavily framed pictures, mighty furniture, statuary, and superb and nonchalant menials engaged in the pleasant task of shutting away those interiors from the vulgar gaze. The spectacle continued furlong upon furlong, monotonously. There was no end to the succession of palaces of the wealthy. Then it would be interrupted while Mr. Prohack crossed a main thoroughfare, where scores of young women struggled against a few men for places in glittering motor-buses that were already packed with successful fighters for room in them. And then it would be resumed again in its majesty.
The sight of the street-travellers took Mr. Prohack’s mind back to Insott. He felt a passionate sympathy for the Insotts of the world, and also for the Prohacks of six hours earlier. Once Mr. Prohack had been in easier circumstances; but those circumstances, thanks to the ambitions of statesmen and generals, and to the simplicity of publics, had gradually changed from easy to distressed. He saw with terrible clearness from what fate the Angmering miracle had saved him and his. He wanted to reconstruct society in the interest of those to whom no miracle had happened. He wanted to do away with all excessive wealth; and by “excessive” he meant any degree of wealth beyond what would be needed for the perfect comfort of himself, Mr. Prohack,–a reasonable man if ever there was one! Ought he not to devote his fortune to the great cause of reconstructing society? Could he enjoy his fortune while society remain unreconstructed? Well, societies were not to be reconstructed by the devoting of fortunes to the work. Moreover, if he followed such an extreme course he would be regarded as a crank, and he could not have borne to be regarded as a crank. He detested cranks more than murderers or even profiteers. As for enjoying his fortune in present circumstances, he thought that he might succeed in doing so, and that anyhow it was his duty to try. He was regrettably inconsistent.
Having entered his house as it were surreptitiously, and avoided his children, Mr. Prohack peeped through the half-open door between the conjugal bedroom and the small adjoining room, which should Lave been a dressing-room, but which Mrs. Prohack styled her boudoir. He espied her standing sideways in front of the long mirror, her body prettily curved and her head twisted over her shoulder so that she could see three-quarters of her back in the mirror. An attitude familiar to Mr. Prohack and one that he liked! She was wearing the Chinese garment of the morning, but he perceived that she had done something to it. He made a sharp noise with the handle of the door. She shrieked and started, and as soon as she had recovered she upbraided him, and as soon as she had upbraided him she asked him anxiously what he thought of the robe, explaining that it was really too good for a dressing-gown, that with careful treatment it would wear for ever, that it could not have been bought now for a hundred pounds or at least eighty, that it was in essence far superior to many frocks worn by women who had more money and less taste than herself, that she had transformed it into a dinner-dress for quiet evenings at home, and that she had done this as part of her part of the new economy scheme. It would save all her other frocks, and as for a dressing-gown, she had two old ones in her reserves.
Mr. Prohack kissed her and told her to sit down on the little sofa.
“To see the effect of it sitting down?” she asked.
“If you like,” said he.
“Then you don’t care for it? You think it’s ridiculous?” said she anxiously, when she had sat down.
He replied, standing in front of her:
“You know that Oxford Concise Dictionary that I bought just before the war? Where is it?”
“Arthur!” she said. “What’s the matter with you? You look so queer. I suppose the dictionary’s where you keep it. _I_ never touch it.”
“I want you to be sure to remind me to cross the word ‘economy’ out of it to-night. In fact I think I’d better tear out the whole page.”
“Arthur!” she exclaimed again. “Are you ill? Has anything serious happened? I warn you I can’t stand much more to-day.”
“Something very serious has happened,” answered the incorrigible Mr. Prohack. “It may be all for the best; it may be all for the worst. Depends how you look at it. Anyway I’m determined to tell you. Of course I shouldn’t dream of telling anybody else until I’d told you.” He seated himself by her side. There was just space enough for the two of them on the sofa.
“Oh, dear!” sighed Mrs. Prohack, with apprehension, and instinctively she stretched her arm out and extinguished one of the lights.
He had been touched by her manoeuvre, half economy and half coquetry, with the Chinese dress. He was still more touched by the gesture of extinguishing a light. For a year or two past Mrs. Prohack had been putting forward a theory that an average degree of illumination tried her eyes, and the household was now accustomed to twilit rooms in the evening. Mr. Prohack knew that the recent taste for obscurity had nothing to do with her eyes and everything to do with her years, but he pretended to be deceived by her duplicity. Not for millions would he have given her cause to suspect that he was not perfectly deceived. He understood and sympathised with her in all her manifestations. He did not select choice pieces of her character for liking, and dislike or disapprove of the rest. He took her undivided, unchipped, and liked the whole of her. It was very strange.
When he married her he had assumed, but was not sure, that he loved her. For thirteen or fourteen years she had endangered the bond between them by what seemed to him to be her caprices, illogicalities, perversities, and had saved it by her charming demonstrations of affection. During this period he had remained as it were neutral–an impassive spectator of her union with a man who happened to be himself. He had observed and weighed all her faults, and had concluded that she was not worse than other wives whom he respected. He continued to wonder what it was that held them together. At length, and very slowly indeed, he had begun to have a revelation, not of her but of himself. He guessed that he must be profoundly in love with her and that his original assumption was much more than accurate,–it was a bull’s-eye. His love developed into a passion, not one of your eruptive, scalding affairs, but something as placid as an English landscape, with white heat far, far below the surface.
He felt how fine and amusing it was to have a genuine, incurable, illogical passion for a woman,–a passion that was almost an instinct. He deliberately cultivated it and dwelt on it and enjoyed it. He liked reflecting upon it. He esteemed that it must be about the most satisfying experience in the entire realm of sentiment, and that no other earthly experience of any sort could approach it. He made this discovery for himself, with the same sensations as if he had discovered a new star or the circulation of the blood. Of course he knew that two-thirds of the imaginative literature of the world was based on, and illustrative of, this great human discovery, and therefore that he was not exactly a pioneer. No matter! He was a pioneer all the same.
“Do you remember a fellow named Angmering?” he began, on a note of the closest confiding intimacy–a note which always flattered and delighted his wife.
“What was he like?”
“Wasn’t he the man that started to run away with Ronnie Philps’ wife and thought better of it and got her out of the train at Crewe and put her into the London train that was standing at the other platform and left her without a ticket? Was it Crewe or Rugby–I forget which?”
“No, no. You’re all mixed up. That wasn’t Angmering.”
“Well, you have such funny friends, darling. Tell me, then.”
“Angmering never ran away with anybody except himself. He went to America and before he left I lent him a hundred pounds.”
“Arthur, I’ll swear you never told me that at the time. In fact you always said positively you wouldn’t lend money to anybody. You promised me. I hope he’s paid you back.”
“He hasn’t. And I’ve just heard he’s dead.”
“I felt that was coming. Yes. I knew from the moment you began to talk that it was something of that kind. And just when we could do with that hundred pounds–heaven knows! Oh, Arthur!”
“He’s dead,” said Mr. Prohack clinchingly, “but he’s left me ten thousand a year. Ha, ha!–Ha, ha!” He put his hand on her soft shoulder and gave a triumphant wink.
* * * * *
“Dollars, naturally,” said Mrs. Prohack, after listening to various romantic details.
“And do you believe it? Are you sure this man Bishop isn’t up to some game? You know anybody can get the better of you, sweetest.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Prohack. “I know I’m the greatest and sweetest imbecile that the Almighty ever created. But I believe it.”
“But _why_ should he leave you all this money? It doesn’t stand to reason.”
“It doesn’t. But you see the poor fellow had to leave it to _some_ one. And he’d no time to think. I expect he just did the first thing that came into his head and was glad to get it over. I daresay he rather enjoyed doing it, even if he was in great pain, which I don’t think he was.”
“And who do you say the woman is that’s got as much as you have?”
“I don’t say because I don’t know.”
“I guarantee _she_ hadn’t lent him a hundred pounds,” said Mrs. Prohack with finality. “And you can talk as long as you like about real property in Cincinnati–what is real property? Isn’t all property real?–I shall begin to believe in the fortune the day you give me a pearl necklace worth a thousand pounds. And not before.”
“Lady,” replied Mr. Prohack, “then I will never give you a pearl necklace.”
Mrs. Prohack laughed.
“I know that,” she said.
After a long meditative pause which her husband did not interrupt, she murmured: “So I suppose we shall be what you call rich?”
“Some people will undoubtedly call us rich. Others won’t.”
“You know we shan’t be any happier,” she warned him.
“No,” Mr. Prohack agreed. “It’s a great trial, besides being a great bore. But we must stick it.”
“_I_ shan’t be any different. So you mustn’t expect it.”
“I never have expected it.”
“I wonder what the children will say. Now, Arthur, don’t go and tell them at dinner while the maid’s there. I think I’ll fetch them up now.”
“You’ll do nothing of the kind,” said Mr. Prohack sharply.
“Because I can’t stand the strain of telling them to-night. Ha-ha!” He laughed. “I intend to think things over and tell them to-morrow. I’ve had quite enough strain for one day.”
“Strain. These extremes of heat and cold would try a stronger man than me.”
“Extremes of heat and cold, darling?”
“Well, just think how cold it was this morning and how warm it is to-night.”
“You quaint boy!” she murmured, admiring him. “I quite understand. Quite. How sensitive you are! But then you always were. Now listen here. Shall _I_ tell the children?” She gave him a long kiss.
“No,” said he, making prods at her cheek with his finger, and smiling vaguely. “No. You’ll do nothing of the kind. But there’s something you _can_ do for me.”
“Will you do it?”
“Whatever it is?”
“If you aren’t going to play a trick on me.”
“No. It’s no trick.
“Very well, then.”
“First, you must have one of your best headaches. Second, you must go to bed at once. Third, you must sprinkle some eau-de-cologne on the bed, to deceive the lower orders. Fourth, you must be content with some soup for your dinner, and I’ll smuggle you up some dessert in my pocket if you’re hungry. Fifth, you must send word to those children of yours that you don’t wish to be disturbed.”
“But you want to treat me like a baby.”
“And supposing I do! For once, can’t you be a baby to oblige me?”
“But it’s too ridiculous! Why do you want me to go to bed?”
“You know why. Still, I’ll tell you. You always like to be told what you know,–for instance, that I’m in love with you. I can’t tell those kids to-night, and I’m not going to. The rumpus, the conflict of ideas, the atmospheric disturbance when they do get to know will be terrific, and I simply won’t have it to-night. I must have a quiet evening to think in or else I shan’t sleep. On the other hand, do you suppose I could sit through dinner opposite you, and you knowing all about it and me knowing all about it, and both of us pretending that there was nothing unusual in the air? It’s impossible. Either you’d give the show away, or I should. Or I should burst out laughing. No! I can manage the situation alone, but I can’t manage it if you’re there. Hence, lady, you will keep your kind promise and hop into bed.”
Without another word, but smiling in a most enigmatic manner, Mrs. Prohack passed into the bedroom. The tyrant lit a cigarette, and stretched himself all over the sofa. He thought:
“She’s a great woman. She understands. Or at any rate she acts as if she did. Now how many women in similar circumstances would have–” Etc. Etc.
He listened to her movements. He had not told her everything, for example, the profiteering origin of the fortune, and he wondered whether he had behaved quite nicely in not doing so.
“Arthur,” she called from the bedroom.
“I do think this is really too silly.”
“You’re not paid to think, my girl.”
“Arthur,” she called from the bedroom.
“You’re sure you won’t blurt it out to them when I’m not there?”
He only replied: “I’m sorry you’ve got such a frightful headache, Marian. You wouldn’t have these headaches if you took my advice.”
“I’m in bed.”
“All right. Stay there.”
When he had finished his cigarette, he went into the bedroom. Yes, she was veritably in bed.
“You are a pig, Arthur. I wonder how many wives–“
He put his hand over her mouth.
“Stop,” he said. “I’m not like you. I don’t need to be told what I know already.”
“But really–!” She dropped her head on one side and began to laugh, and continued to laugh, rather hysterically, until she could not laugh any more. “Oh, dear! We are the queerest pair!”
“It is possible,” said he. “You’re forgotten the eau-de-cologne.” He handed her the bottle. “It is quite possible that we’re the queerest pair, but this is a very serious day in the history of the Prohack family. The Prohack family has been starving, and some one’s given it an enormous beefsteak. Now it’s highly dangerous to give a beefsteak to a starving person. The consequences might be fatal. That’s why it’s so serious. That’s why I must have time to think.”
The sound of Sissie playing a waltz on the piano came up from the drawing-room. Mr. Prohack started to dance all by himself in the middle of the bedroom floor.
When Mr. Prohack, in his mature but still rich velvet jacket, came down to dinner, he found his son Charlie leaning against the mantelpiece in a new dark brown suit, and studying _The Owner-Driver_. Charlie seemed never to read anything but motor-car and light-car and side-car and motor-bicycle periodical literature; but he read it conscientiously, indefatigably, and completely–advertisements and all. He read it as though it were an endless novel of passion and he an idle woman deprived of the society her heart longed for. He possessed a motor-bicycle which he stabled in a mews behind the Square. He had possessed several such machines; he bought, altered, and sold them, apparently always with profit to himself. He had no interest in non-mechanical literature or in any of the arts.
“Your mother’s gone to bed with a headache,” said Mr. Prohack, with a fair imitation of melancholy.
“Oh!” said the young man apathetically. His face had a wearied, disillusioned expression.
“Is this the latest?” asked his father, indicating the new brown suit. “My respectful congratulations. Very smart, especially at the waist.”
For a youth who had nothing in the world but what remained of his wound gratuity and other trifling military emoluments, and what he made out of commerce in motor-bicycles, Charlie spent a lot in clothes. His mother had advised his father to “speak to him about it.” But his father had declined to offer any criticism, on the ground that Charlie had fought in Mesopotamia, Italy and France. Moreover, Charlie had scotched any possible criticism by asserting that good clothes were all that stood between him and the ruin of his career. “If I dressed like the dad,” he had once grimly and gloomily remarked, “it would be the beginning of the end for me.”
“Smart?” he now exclaimed, stepping forward. “Look at that.” He advanced his right leg a little. “Look at that crease. See where it falls?” The trouser-crease, which, as all wise men know, ought to have fallen exactly on the centre of the boot-lacing, fell about an inch to the left thereof. “And I’ve tried this suit on four times! All the bally tailors in London seem to think you’ve got nothing else to do but call and try on and try on and try on. Never seems to occur to them that they don’t know their business. It’s as bad as staff work. However, if this fellow thinks I’m going to stick these trousers he’ll have the surprise of his life to-morrow morning.” The youth spoke in a tone of earnest disgust.
“My boy,” said Mr. Prohack, “you have my most serious sympathy. Your life must be terribly complicated by this search for perfection.”
“Yes, that’s all very well,” said Charlie.
“Hanged if I know!”
“I heard her playing the piano not five minutes since.”
“So did I.”
Machin, the house-parlourmaid, then intervened:
“Miss Sissie had a telephone call, and she’s gone out, sir.”
“She didn’t say, sir. She only said she wouldn’t be in for dinner, sir. I made sure she’d told you herself, sir.”
The two men, by means of their eyes, transmitted to each other a unanimous judgment upon the whole female sex, and sat down to dine alone in the stricken house. The dinner was extremely frugal, this being the opening day of Mrs. Prohack’s new era of intensive economy, but the obvious pleasure of Machin in serving only men brightened up somewhat its brief course. Charlie was taciturn and curt, though not impolite. Mr. Prohack, whose private high spirits not even the amazing and inexcusable absence of his daughter could impair, pretended to a decent woe, and chatted as he might have done to a fellow-clubman on a wet Sunday night at the Club.
At the end of the meal Charlie produced the enormous widow’s cruse which he called his cigarette-case and offered his father a cigarette.
“Doing anything to-night?” asked Mr. Prohack, puffing.
“No,” answered desperately Charlie, puffing.
“Ring the bell, will you?”
While Charlie went to the mantelpiece Mr. Prohack secreted an apple for his starving wife.
“Machin,” said he to the incoming house-parlourmaid, “see if you can find some port.”
Charlie raised his fatigued eyebrows.
“Yes, sir,” said the house-parlourmaid, vivaciously, and whisked away her skirts, which seemed to remark:
“You’re quite right to have port. I feel very sorry for you two attractive gentlemen taking a poor dinner all alone.”
Charlie drank his port in silence and Mr. Prohack watched him.
* * * * *
Mr. Prohack’s son was, in some respects, a great mystery to him. He could not understand, for instance, how his own offspring could be so unresponsive to the attractions of the things of the mind, and so interested in mere machinery and the methods of moving a living or a lifeless object from one spot on the earth’s surface to another. Mr. Prohack admitted the necessity of machinery, but an automobile had for him the same status as a child’s scooter and no higher. It was an ingenious device for locomotion. And there for him the matter ended. On the other hand, Mr. Prohack sympathised with and comprehended his son’s general attitude towards life. Charlie had gone to war from Cambridge at the age of nineteen. He went a boy, and returned a grave man. He went thoughtless and light-hearted, and returned full of magnificent and austere ideals. Six months of England had destroyed these ideals in him. He had expected to help in the common task of making heaven in about a fortnight. In the war he had learnt much about the possibilities of human nature, but scarcely anything about its limitations. His father tried to warn him, but of course failed. Charlie grew resentful, then cynical. He saw in England nothing but futility, injustice and ingratitude. He refused to resume Cambridge, and was bitterly sarcastic about the generosity of a nation which, through its War Office, was ready to pay to studious warriors anxious to make up University terms lost in a holy war decidedly less than it paid to its street-sweepers. Having escaped from death, the aforesaid warriors were granted the right to starve their bodies while improving their minds. He might have had sure situations in vast corporations. He declined them. He spat on them. He called them “graves.” What he wanted was an opportunity to fulfil himself. He could not get it, and his father could not get it form him. While searching for it, he frequently met warriors covered with ribbons but lacking food and shelter not only for themselves but for their women and children. All this, human nature being what it is, was inevitable, but his father could not convincingly tell him so. All that Mr. Prohack could effectively do Mr. Prohack did,–namely, provide the saviour of Britain with food and shelter. Charlie was restlessly and dangerously waiting for his opportunity. But he had not developed into a revolutionist, nor a communist, nor anything of the sort. Oh, no! Quite the reverse. He meditated a different revenge on society.
Mr. Prohack knew nothing of this meditated revenge, did not suspect it. If he had suspected it, he might have felt less compassion than, on this masculine evening with the unusual port, he did in fact feel. For he was very sorry for Charlie. He longed to tell him about the fortune, and to exult with him in the fortune, and to pour, as it were, the fortune into his lap. He did not care a fig, now, about advisable precautions. He did not feel the slightest constraint at the prospect of imparting the tremendous and gorgeous news to his son. He had no desire to reflect upon the proper method of telling. He merely and acutely wanted to tell, so that he might see the relief and the joyous anticipation on his son’s enigmatic and melancholy face. But he could not tell because it had been tacitly agreed with his wife that he should not tell in her absence. True, he had given no verbal promise, but he had given something just as binding.
“Nothing exciting to-day, I suppose,” he said, when the silence had begun to distress him in his secret glee.
“No,” Charlie replied. “I got particulars of an affair at Glasgow, but it needs money.”
“What sort of an affair?”
“Oh! Rather difficult to explain. Buying and selling. Usual thing.”
“What money is needed?”
“I should say three hundred or thereabouts. Might as well be three thousand so far as I’m concerned.”
“Where did you hear of it?”
Charlie belonged to a little club in Savile Place where young warriors told each other what they thought of the nature of society.
Mr. Prohack drew in his breath with an involuntary gasp, and then said:
“I expect I could let you have three hundred.”
“I expect I could.” Mr. Prohack had never felt so akin to a god. It seemed to him that he was engaged in the act of creating a future, yea, a man. Charlie’s face changed. He had been dead. He was now suddenly alive.
“Well, any time.”
Charlie looked at his watch.
“Well, I’m much obliged,” he said.
* * * * *
Mr. Prohack had brought a new cheque-book from the Bank. It lay in his hip-pocket. He had no alternative but to write out a cheque. Three hundred pounds would nearly exhaust his balance, but that did not matter. He gave Charlie the cheque. Charlie offered no further information concerning the “affair” for which the money was required. And Mr. Prohack did not choose to enquire. Perhaps he was too proud to enquire. The money would probably be lost. And if it were lost no harm would be done. Good, rather, for Charlie would have gained experience. The lad was only a child, after all.
The lad ran upstairs, and Mr. Prohack sat solitary in delightful meditation. After a few minutes the lad re-appeared in hat and coat. Mr. Prohack thought that he had heard a bag dumped in the hall.
“Where are you off to?” he asked.
“Glasgow. I shall catch the night-train.”
He rang the bell.
“Machin, run out and get me a taxi, sharp.”
“Yes, sir.” Machin flew. This was the same girl of whom Mrs. Prohack dared to demand nothing. Mr. Prohack himself would have hesitated to send her for a taxi. But Charlie ordered her about like a slave and she seemed to like it.
“Rather sudden this, isn’t it?” said Mr. Prohack, extremely startled by the turn of events.
“Well, you’ve got to be sudden in this world, guv’nor,” Charlie replied, and lit a fresh cigarette.
Mr. Prohack was again too proud to put questions. Still, he did venture upon one question:
“Have you got loose money for your fare?”
The lad laughed. “Oh, don’t let that worry you, guv’nor…!” He looked at his watch once more. “I wonder whether that infernal girl is manufacturing that taxi or only fetching it.”
“What must I say to your mother?” demanded Mr. Prohack.
“Give her my respectful regards.”
The taxi was heard. Machin dashed into the house, and dashed out again with the bag. The lad clasped his father’s hand with a warm vigour that pleased and reassured Mr. Prohack in his natural bewilderment. It was not consistent with the paternal dignity to leave the dining-room and stand, valedictory, on the front-doorstep.
“Well, I’m dashed!” Mr. Prohack murmured to himself as the taxi drove away. And he had every right to be dashed.
“Had any dinner?” Mr. Prohack asked his daughter.
“Aren’t you hungry?”
Sissie seized the last remaining apple from the dessert-dish, and bit into it with her beautiful and efficient teeth. She was slim, and rather taller than necessary or than she desired to be. A pretty girl, dressed in a short-skirted, short-sleeved, dark blue, pink-heightened frock that seemed to combine usefulness with a decent perverse frivolity, and to carry forward the expression of her face. She had bright brown hair. She was perfectly mistress of the apple.
“In bed with a headache.”
“Didn’t she have dinner with you?”
“She did not. And she doesn’t want to be disturbed.”
“Oh! I shan’t disturb her, poor thing. I told her this afternoon she would have one of her headaches.”
“Well,” said Mr. Prohack, “that’s one of the most remarkable instances of sound prophecy that I ever came across.”
“Father, what’s amusing you?”
“Yes, something is. You’ve got your funny smile, and you were smiling all to yourself when I came in.”
“I was thinking. My right to think is almost the only right I possess that hasn’t yet been challenged in this house.”
“Gone to Glasgow.”
“Gone to _Glasgow_?”
“What, just now?”
“Ten minutes ago.”
“Whatever has he gone to _Glasgow_ for?”
“I don’t know,–any more than I know why you went out before dinner and came back after dinner.”
“Would you like to know why I went out?” Sissie spoke with sudden ingratiatingness.
“No, not at all. But I should like to know why you went out without telling anybody. When people are expected to dinner and fail to appear they usually give notice of the failure.”
“But, father, I told Machin.”
“I said ‘anybody.’ Don’t you know that the whole theory of the society which you adorn is based on the assumption that Machin is nobody?”
“I was called away in a frightful hurry, and you and mother were gossiping upstairs, and it’s as much as one’s life is worth to disturb you two when you are together.”
“Oh! That’s news.”
“Besides, I should have had to argue with mother, and you know what she is.”
“You flatter me. I don’t even know what _you_ are, and you’re elementary compared to your mother.”
“Anyhow, I’m glad mother’s in bed with a headache. I came in here trembling just now. Mother would have made such a tremendous fuss although she’s perfectly aware that it’s not the slightest use making a fuss…. Only makes me stupid and obstinate. Showers and showers of questions there’d have been, whereas you haven’t asked a single one.”
“Yes, you’re rather upset by my lack of curiosity. But let me just point out that it is not consistent with my paternal duty to sit here and listen to you slanging your mother. As a daughter you have vast privileges, but you mustn’t presume on them. There are some things I couldn’t stand from any woman without protest.”
“But you must admit that mother _is_ a bit awful when she breaks loose.”
“No. I’ve never known your mother awful, or even a bit awful.”
“You aren’t being intellectually honest, dad.”
“Ah! Well, of course she only shows her best side to _you_.”
“She has no other side. In that sense she is certainly one-sided. Here! Have another.” Mr. Prohack took the apple from his pocket, and threw it across the table to Sissie, who caught it.
Mr. Prohack was extremely happy; and Sissie too, in so far as concerned the chat with her father, was extremely happy. They adored each other, and they adored the awful woman laid low with a headache. Sissie’s hat and cloak, which she had dropped carelessly on a chair, slipped to the floor, the hat carried away by the cloak. Mr. Prohack rose and picked them up, took them out of the room, and returned.
“So now you’ve straightened up, and you’re pleased with yourself,” observed Sissie.
“So now,” said he. “Perhaps I may turn on my curiosity tap.”
“Don’t,” said Sissie. “I’m very gloomy. I’m very disappointed. I might burst into tears at any moment…. Yes, I’m not joking.”
“Out with it.”
“Oh, it’s nothing! It’s only that I saw a chance of making some money and it hasn’t come off.”
“But what do you want to make money for?”
“I like that. Hasn’t mother been telling me off and on all day that something will have to be done?”
“Done about what?”
“About economy, naturally.” Sissie spoke rather sharply.
“But you don’t mean your mother has spent the day in urging you to go forth and earn money!”
“Of course she hasn’t, father. How absurd you are! You know very well mother would hate the idea of me earning money. Hate it! But I mean to earn some. Surely it’s much better to bring more money in than to pinch and scrape. I loathe pinching and scraping.”
“It’s a sound loathing.”
“And I thought I’d got hold of a scheme. But it’s too big. I have fifty pounds odd of my own, but what use is fifty pounds when a hundred’s needed? It’s all off and I’m in the last stage of depression.”