WHEN Alicia Penton entered the chaste establishment of Max Brabazin in Holland Park Gardens, she did so after consultation with Tressa.
'Uncle is wholly impossible, and I wouldn't stay at Penton Court, not if I were the heiress to millions—which, as a matter of fact, my dear Tressa, I'm not.'
'You're rather young to be a governess,' murmured Tressa who, knowing all the circumstances, could not honestly advise her against the step. 'And besides, Ralph really isn't too bad.'
'Uncle Ralph is a smug,' said Alicia hotly. 'He hates everything I like and the other day he turned out a gardener who had worked for him for twenty years because he had a bet on the Lincolnshire Handicap! And when I told him I had a bet on every big race, he nearly threw a fit. He said that people who betted were either thieves or fools; they were people who were trying to get money for nothing. He said that cupidity and stupidity were the basis of all gambling, and then he said some horrible things about father—poor daddy did rather overrun the Constable, as we know, but there's no reason why his own brother should sneer about his slow racehorses. But anyway, I'm going to this creature's perfectly awful house to teach. Brabazin and his wife are most impossible people, and the little boy has the manners of a pig—'
'It looks as though you're going to have quite a good time,' said Tressa. 'Don't you think it would be better if you stayed on at Penton Court and endured Ralph?'
Alicia shook her head.
'I can't,' she said emphatically. 'When he isn't talking about the evils of betting, he's talking about the excessive taxation which made him so poor that he'd have been obliged to leave Penton Court only, with his usual luck, somebody induced him to put five thousand pounds into an agency business—or at least he answered an advertisement or something of the sort—and he's been drawing fat dividends ever since. No, Tressa, I'm going to earn my living. The only thing I ask of you is that, when I am fired, or I hit the oleaginous Mr. Brabazin over the head, you give me a bed for two or three nights, until I find something better.'
She shivered. 'Penton Court is a palace of gloom at any time, but at the present moment it is a palace of horror.'
Since Penton Court went Methodist, for reasons best known to itself, in the enthusiastic days of Wesley's ministry, it had observed an attitude—no less—of personal conduct which may best be described as serious. Sir Ralph Penton had absorbed all the gloom religion had to impart, pictured hell in detail with the assurance of one who himself would never secure a closer inspection than the lofty crags of heaven afforded, revelled in the Book of Revelations, and found sheer joy in the Mysteries of Vessels which would be unsealed out of the Angel's Trump. He spoke familiarly of the great and sacred figures of Christianity; was, so you might think from his diction, much in God's confidence, moving his mind on even trivial matters.
Thus Sir Ralph knew positively that God did not like bridge at anything over 5d. a hundred. He did not approve of the Socialist Party. He abhorred strikes and the Sunday opening of cinemas. Aviation was directly contrary to the wisdom of providence; 'For,' said Sir Ralph with the emphasis of one who was enunciating an original theme, 'if it had been intended that man should fly, God would have given him wings.'
This was too excellent an illustration to devote to one unnatural habit. Sir Ralph also remarked on many occasions that, if men had been intended to smoke, God would have given him a chimney-pot instead of a head.
In what manner the deity would have acted on any occasion, however trifling, was no secret to Sir Ralph, and rightly, for he justified Voltaire's cynicism in that he had created God after his own image.
Sir Ralph was a tall man, broad of shoulder, bushy of beard. He stood well above six feet four. His conception of the saints, of apostles, of the big and bloodthirsty, holy figures of the Old Testament, was that they too were men of six feet odd, broad of shoulder, heavily bearded. He confessed that he had no desire to live contrary to their precepts and examples, and accordingly laid to their charge and upon them the responsibility for his own eccentricities of charity.
Twenty shillings in one pound—and not a penny more. His justice was depressing. He did that which was right in God's eyes, he said, and inferred that he shared vision with the Divinity.
He hated gambling, drinking, dancing and horse-racing, and found no hope of grace in the exponents of either vice.
Sir Ralph did not often come to the flat in Piccadilly Circus—it is a remarkable tribute to Tressa's catholicity of tastes and the wide range of her acquaintanceships that he came at all. Alicia Penton had been installed in the Brabazin household for two months when he called one afternoon, in time for tea, and had the good fortune to find Tressa alone. He grumbled over his cup at the high cost of living, at iniquitous taxations, at the extraordinary demands of agricultural workers: he complained bitterly of the Labour Government, and when he had finished, he asked gruffly:
'Have you any news of Alicia?'
'I believe she's very comfortable,' said Tressa. 'I had a note from her the other day, saying that she was getting on well.'
Sir Ralph grunted.
'It was no wish of mine that she should be earning her living,' he said. 'London to me is the very pit of the devil. It is filled with temptation for young and old. I find it difficult to walk along Piccadilly without meeting leering and wanton eyes—'
Tressa sighed wearily.
'My dear Ralph,' she said, with admirable patience, 'are you in the category of those curiously archaic individuals who believe that Piccadilly is the haunt of vice, and Leicester Square the breeding place of sin? You are twenty years behind the times! I think you must have been reading books on the subject, and I rather guess the book is out of print and was bought from one of the secondhand stalls. I have such a large circle of acquaintances that I can almost tell you the real haunts. Do you know that girls who are arrested in Leicester Square are taken to Bow Street and get a month, and that girls arrested in Lisle Street, which is just behind Leicester Square, go to Marlborough Street and are fined? In those circumstances do you imagine that Leicester Square would be filled with these undesirable creatures?'
'Happily, I know nothing about it,' said Sir Ralph hastily, getting off a subject which he regarded as so delicate that it might not be discussed except in the clouded privacy of a smoking-room and a respectable smoking-room at that. 'Anyway, London is horrible.'
'London is beautiful,' said Tressa calmly. 'Have you walked through Hyde Park when the daffodils are out, or when the rhododendron bushes are in bloom? If you haven't, you've missed something. Or have you looked southward across the lake in Green Park? Or driven down Kingsway in the early hours of the morning?'
'I haven't,' said Sir Ralph, and added: 'I have no desire to. I'm worried about Alicia,' he went on. 'I fear that her father's vices are inherited by that unfortunate girl. Do you know that I discovered that she was making surreptitious bets on a horse-race and, when I questioned her, she told me she always backed the horse in the Derby that ran fourth in the Guineas? Do you know that she won thirty pounds on an animal called Captain Kettle, or something of the sort?'
'She was lucky,' said Tressa wilfully. 'I backed the second!'
Sir Ralph made a little noise of disapproval.
'Is there a possibility of my seeing her?' he said at last. 'I shall be up next Wednesday.'
Tressa shook her head.
'I don't know,' she said, 'but I'll ask her to come.'
It so happened that the invitation was unnecessary, for things were happening in Holland Park Gardens. One bright spring morning Mr. Brabazin pushed back his chair from the desk. Incidentally he also pushed himself back for, at the moment, he was occupying the chair.
This feat constituted no small exhibition of what Mr. Brabazin described as his 'latent strength'; he was on the wrong side of sixteen stone. He was of middle height and hotly dressed. His purple tie, his claret socks and his russet shoes were all on the sultry side. His head was big and his hair well seccotined and brushed. As to his face, it was red and stout—he was one of those men who invariably perspire on the chin; his short, thick nose was retroussť and his sharp, dark eyes set close together under a somewhat blank and unnecessarily expansive forehead.
The 'den'—so described by him—in which he sat had been furnished by him 'to his taste'. These are the exact terms of his boast, so that the responsibility was all his. The carpet that covered the floor was an expensive Axminster, and the scheme of colour was comprehended in two shades of red, four of yellow, with a peacock-blue motif. The furniture was dark red leather. The walls were covered with a red and gold paper, the mantelpiece was of dark mahogany, the desk of varnished pine and that, I think, is a fairly charitable description of the den in which Brabazin sat when he was not occupying an even more beautiful office in Cockspur Street.
Photographs of beautiful actresses adorned the walls—each signed hilariously, familiarly or coyly, according to the temperament or the contract of the signer. There were two telephones in the den, a large painting of Ormonde, and a weedy girl who wore glasses was Mr. Brabazin's secretary, and was invariably addressed as 'Miss O.'
It is possible that she had another name, but in Mr. Brabazin's records there was no evidence of the fact.
'Miss O.,' snapped Max Brabazin.
The apologetic girl at the door clutched her notebook and pencil nervously and said in a pale voice:
'The young lady has come down, sir.'
Mr. Brabazin nibbled the forefinger of his clenched hand in thought.
'Show her in, Miss O.'
Mr. Brabazin settled back in his chair and waited the advent of 'the young lady' with that placid contentment which is the common property of gods and employers of labour who are about to discharge dispensable hands.
The door opened and Alicia came in. She was slim and pretty, plainly but neatly dressed, and she bore on her face that look of superiority which was very annoying to Mr. Brabazin.
'Well, Miss Penton,' he said briskly, 'so here you are! Will you sit down? I shan't keep you long.'
He looked at his watch, for no valid reason, since the morning was all his and he had no appointments within the next hour. Possibly he wished her to appreciate the fact that he could give her any time at all.
The girl seated herself on the edge of one of the chairs which were ranged with geometrical precision all round the walls, and waited.
'You have been with us for six months,' said Mr. Brabazin, 'and I admit, Miss Penton, that I have nothing against you, your erudition or your general conduct. It grieves me to part with you, but the fact is, Miss Penton, my kid can't stand you any longer.'
He added this with a frank and hearty smile, accompanied by the expressive out-throw of hands which was intended to neutralise the undoubted offensiveness of his remarks.
'I'm very sorry, Mr. Brabazin,' said Alicia mildly, 'but Willie has been rather trying.'
'All children are trying,' said Mr. Brabazin sententiously. 'I was trying as a child, and probably you were too. Boys will be boys.'
'Some boys can be little fiends, Mr. Brabazin,' said the girl, and Brabazin raised a pained and arresting hand.
'I will hear no word against my child,' he said, and his voice rose to a bellow. 'Not a word, I tell you—you're simply the wrong kind of governess, and my wife says—however, we won't quarrel.'
'I hope we won't,' said Alicia. 'But on the whole, I prefer you more in a quarrelsome mood than in those tender moments when you have invited me to spend my evening out with you at a little Soho restaurant.'
Mr. Brabazin's neck went red, but before he could frame an indignant retort, she went on:
'Certainly I have no quarrel with your child, who merely inherits the peculiar qualities of his parent,' she said outrageously. 'Most of the bookmakers I have known have been gentlemen.'
Mr. Brabazin was apoplectic with anger. He could pass over the charge of not being a gentleman, but that his calling could be so vulgarly described was beyond forgiveness.
'Let me tell you, miss,' he spluttered, 'that when you call me a bookmaker you are going a bit too far. I am connected with an eminent firm of commission agents, I admit, but that is neither here nor there. We lay and we pay. Nobody can ever raise the finger of scorn'—here he became incoherent, thrust a cheque towards her, and pointed to the door. 'You are an ill-mannered young woman,' he said, 'and if you apply to me for a reference—'
'Is it likely?' said the scornful Alicia and, going upstairs, superintended the removal of her trunk.
'I'm fired,' she announced as she came into Tressa's bedroom. 'And oh, Tressa, I'm a Christian martyr! What I've endured! I'm going to stay a week with you, and I'll be able to go to the theatre, and could you, like an angel, persuade the Olivers to let me have a seat in their box at Epsom? I'm told Greek Bachelor is a certainty for the City and Suburban!'
Tressa took off her horn-rimmed glasses—she had been reading when the interruption came.
I'm afraid there's one drawback to staying here: you can't very well miss seeing your admirable relative. He's calling this afternoon.' Alicia's face fell.
'Uncle Ralph?' she asked.
'He's very anxious for you to go back to Penton Court.'
'I will do many things, but not that,' said the girl, 'I'll let him take me to dinner at the Savoy—I'll even let him take me to see a play. But go back to Penton Court I won't!'
This was the spirit which Sir Ralph encountered when he called in the afternoon. He listened, his tight lips set, his virtuous eyes half-closed, his immaculate finger-tips touching. When she finished a little breathlessly:
'Alicia, I will put the matter to you plainly,' he said, 'I am, as you know, childless, and you are my sole relative. Penton Court will be yours, and an income, largely curtailed by the wretched and inefficient government and reaching almost the vanishing point under the present abominable administration. Providing you return and take your place in county society, and promise never again to indulge in the pernicious practices which—er—marred our relationship. Quite by accident, I met Sir Bertram Oliver at my club, and was appalled to learn that you intended going to a race-meeting on Wednesday, that you had, in fact, begged a place in his box. That, of course, I cannot allow.'
'My dear Uncle Ralph'—her tone was calm and decisive—'I am going to Epsom on Wednesday and I am going to win a lot of money.'
'Ridiculous!' snorted Sir Ralph, and a light gleamed in the girl's eyes.
'If you think I am going to back the favourite, I agree it is ridiculous to take 7 to 4 about a horse that may not get more than a mile at racing pace. I've been talking to Johnnie Boulter, who's got a stable of horses at Newmarket, and he says that he's never known a Phalaris that could stay more than a mile. Now Greek Bachelor—'
'Greek grandmothers!' snapped Sir Ralph. 'Now listen to me, Alicia! Whether you win or lose at Epsom—'
'I shall win,' murmured his niece.
'Whether you win or lose at Epsom is wholly immaterial. I, happily, shall neither win nor lose. If you insist on working for your living, I will find you an opportunity. As you know, I have a large interest in the firm of Elvert, Card, Rice & Co., and I'll endeavour to secure a position for you, providing you agree to drop your ridiculous gambling—'
Alicia was staring at him.
'Uncle, do you ever bet?' she asked.
'Certainly not,' he replied scornfully. 'You know I don't. If I won or lost money by racing, I should certainly not be such a hypocrite as to object to your indulging in that disgraceful practice!'
Solemnly she put out her hand and grasped his warmly.
'Thank you,' she said.
Epsom Downs, with its banners, its mass movement, its roaring rings and queer air of unreality, was in a condition of hectic excitement when Alicia slipped out of the box and made her way down to the crowded Tattersall's ring. The crowd here was thick, for the runners in the City and Suburban were on their way to the post, and it was with some difficulty that she sidled up to a tall, saturnine man, who stood silently by the rails, a small betting book in his hand. He recognised her almost at once and lifted his hat.
'Good afternoon, Miss Penton,' he said, 'I hear you've left the governor?' She nodded.
'I want to have a bet,' she said, and he frowned.
'I didn't know you went in for that sort of thing, miss,' he said. 'What do you want to back?'
'Can you tell me a horse that can't possibly win?'
He frowned at her again.
'Yes, I can tell you that,' he said, and named an outsider.
'I want ten pounds on that, please.'
'But you'll lose your money.'
'I want to lose my money, Mr. Rice. You are the senior partner of your firm, aren't you?'
The bookmaker shook his head.
'No, Miss Penton, the senior partner is Brabazin. We still keep the name of Elvert, Card, Rice & Co., for old associations' sake. Besides it is much more respectable. Very few people know that we are bookmakers at all. As a matter of fact, we'd have been out of business a few years ago, we had such a bad time, only Mr. Card managed to raise a little capital from some gentlemen in the country, which put us on our feet. Brabazin must have told you that?'
He took her ten pounds and put it in his pocket.
'You'll lose,' he warned her.
She shook her head.
'Whatever happens, I shall win,' said Alicia Penton.
She telephoned Penton Court that night and explained to the agonised Sir Ralph the exact character of the firm he had been financing.
'And didn't you know that a commission agent is a bookmaker?' she asked sweetly. 'Poor dear! And to think that all these years you have been drawing dividends from poor, deluded punters! What will you do, uncle—will you send the money back?'
'I must consider my position,' said Sir Ralph shakily.
'Will you consider mine?' she asked, in the same dulcet tone. 'You said if you won money over the City and Suburban you'd change your point of view. Well, you've won ten pounds of mine!'
When Alicia went back to Penton Court, the subject of Sir Ralph's investment was tacitly avoided. Until, one day, going into the study, she found him reading The Sporting Life, which he hastily concealed under his chair. And when, later that day, he asked her casually which was the best of the Aga Khan's three, she knew that the largest shareholder in the firm of Elvert, Card, Rice & Co., had not severed his connections with the firm.