THE story of the much discussed sketch in the new De Courville revue, "The Whirligig" at the Palace Theatre, of which Edgar Wallace is part author. Mr. Wallace as a writer of comedy is very much in demand at the present moment, since it has become a theatrical tradition that his dialogue secures three laughs a minute.
MRS. ARRIS dreamt of a day, a Sunday morning preferably, when she would open her News of the World and discover a large portrait of herself set amidst closely-printed columns dealing with a cause célèbre. If she had any further preference it was for a murder case of a sensational character, and it is perfectly true that the possibility of figuring in a divorce case never occurred to her. When such a splendid possibility dawned upon her mind it left her dazed and for the moment speechless.
The circumstances were as follows.
Donald Prendegast came back to his flat near Regent's Park unexpectedly. He had left Nairobi after a twelve months' residence in that thriving city and had written out a cablegram announcing his departure. He had found that cablegram in his pocket when he packed his clothes at Southampton.
So Prendegast came to his flat at eleven o'clock at night unannounced and unheralded, and found Mrs. Arris on the point of leaving. It was rather late for Mrs. Arris, who was a daily help, vulgarly described as a "char," but there had been certain distressing happenings at the flat that evening, and she had hovered round a weeping girl, offering her such rough help and sympathy as her experience suggested. It is true that the only material comfort she could suggest was "a drop of grool," but then Mrs. Arris had complete faith in the recuperative and therapeutical value of oatmeal.
Prendegast stared at the dumpy figure in the nondescript uniform of chardom. That his wife would be out he had expected. Evelyn made a point of dining on Wednesdays with his mother.
Mrs. Arris stared back at him.
"Halloa, young man!" she said, suspiciously.
"Halloa!" smiled Prendegast. "Who the devil are you?"
"Language, language!" said the shocked Mrs. Arris. "Where did you come from, if I might be so bold to ask?"
"Well, since you're so infernally inquisitive, I've come from Nairobi, which is in Central Africa.''
"Oh, indeed!" said Mrs. Arris, uncomprehendingly, for the only "robi" she knew spelt his name quite differently and was called "George."
Prendegast walked to the fire, switched on the wall lights, and warmed his hands.
"You are surprised to see me, eh?" he smiled. "You're the skivvy, I suppose?" A word abhorrent to Mrs. Arris, and she drew herself up.
"Pardon me!" she replied, not without dignity. "I am the lady that helps the woman that owns this flat, and without a word of a lie I am surprised to see you."
"I expect other people will be too," he laughed. "By Jove! It's good to be back in the old flat. Nothing changed, nothing gone!"
Mrs. Arris blinked. In a mat-bag resting on the sideboard and ready packed to take away were certain odds and ends of food which she had carefully collected before departure. They included an egg or two, an odd packet of tea, a few tins of milk, and the like, for Mrs. Arris had argued that in the condition in which her young mistress found herself the sight of superfluous food might distress her. So Mrs. Arris blinked and changed the subject.
"Might I ask, sir, who you are?" she demanded, with some justification.
"Of course. I'm Mr. Prendegast."
A light dawned on Mrs. Arris.
"Oh, indeed!" she said. "Why, there's a letter for you in the 'all. It's been there the best part of a week. I ought to have posted it before, but I forgot it."
Prendegast, in a forgiving mood, wagged an admonitory finger.
"So you're the person who kept my letters back. Get it for me, will you?"
When she had gone he looked round the pleasant sitting-room. Then he sniffed. Cigars?
Who had been smoking cigars? Evelyn hated the smell of cigar smoke.
Mrs. Arris came back with the letter—it was addressed in Evelyn's hand.
"Excuse me, sir," said Mrs. Arris, a persistent woman and not wholly satisfied.
"Are you any relation to Mrs.——" She snapped her fingers in an effort of memory and explained. "I can never remember the name of a missus till I've been in the house a week, and I've never been in a house for a whole week."
"Any relation? I'm her husband, that's all!"
Mrs. Arris swayed and put a trembling hand to her somewhat discoloured face. Prendegast did not notice the movement, for his senses were otherwise engaged.
"There's a peculiar smell here," he said. "Has anybody been smoking cigars?"
He heard her gasp, and turned quickly.
"What's the matter with you? You haven't been smoking cigars?" he accused.
Mrs. Arris shook her head. There was something in her face that made the man's breath come quickly.
"Has anybody been here? Any visitors?" he demanded.
"Oh, sir!" wailed Mrs. Arris, appealingly.
"What is it?" demanded Prendegast, harshly. "Speak out! There's something wrong here."
"Did you say you was the lady's 'usband?" asked Mrs. Arris, faintly.
"Of course I'm the lady's husband. Why?"
For answer Mrs. Arris staggered to a chair and dropped into it.
"To think I should ever get mixed up in a scandal like this!"
"Scandal!" gasped the man.
"At my time o' life," she moaned, "when I don't even know what number bus passes the Divorce Court. I've always wanted to be in the News of the World!"
Prendegast went white.
"Divorce Court? Great heavens, you don't mean No, no, that couldn't be! that couldn't be!"
She nodded her melancholy confirmation of his worst fears.
"You smelt a cigar," she said, huskily. "It was 'im!"
"'Im? Him, I mean. What him?"
"The man who—" Mrs. Arris's voice failed.
"Speak up! The man who what?" asked the man, hoarsely.
"He's here all the time."
"All the time? Merciful heavens! You don't mean he lives here?"
She nodded, and Prendegast staggered back, covering his eyes.
"This can't be true!" he groaned. "And I came home six weeks ahead of my time thinking to give her a surprise, picturing her delight. My God! It's awful!"
"My Gawd! It is awful!" quivered Mrs. Arris, to whom the tremendous possibilities of a sensational development were now apparent.
Prendegast leapt up, his face white.
"Where is he now?" he demanded.
Mrs. Arris lowered her voice.
"He's gone to Manchester by the night train—there was an awful scene before he went, sir."
The man swallowed hard.
"Tell me the worst," he said, quietly, and Mrs. Arris shivered with pleasurable excitement.
"He's so jealous of her, and he's a good-looking young chap, too, and he kept saying that she was in love with somebody else, and he threatened—"
"He threatened, did he?" roared Prendegast, pacing the room. "He threatened! Let me lay my hands on him and I'll strangle him!"
"She's been crying all the evening, poor soul!" snivelled Mrs. Arris, in sympathy.
"This is awful! I must think!" He paced the room in his agitation. "It was all my fault, all my fault. I shouldn't have gone away for such a long time. It isn't fair to a woman."
Mrs. Arris sniffed her agreement. "I don't know what I should do if I was left alone all that time. You know," she confessed, "we women are devils!"
"I ought to have foreseen this!" Prendegast turned on her suddenly. "What does this man call himself?"
"His name?" She knit her forehead. "Let me think. I know it as well as I know my own. His name—I've got it!—it's Pinder!"
"Pinder! I'll remember that!" Prendegast resumed his pacing. If he talked, it was not to the frowzy old woman who watched him in rapturous contemplation. To her he was the chief figure in a drama in which she was to play no inconsiderable part. To him she had no existence.
This news was terrible, terrible—and he had never dreamt of it. Every letter she had written breathed love and affection. He must forgive her. He must ask for forgiveness, he who had put such a terrible temptation in the poor girl's way.
"Where is she?" he asked.
Mrs. Arris pointed to a door leading from the sitting-room.
"In the old room, eh?" he said, with a bitter smile, and walked to the door.
Mrs. Arris was by now mistress of ceremonies. Torn between a natural desire to shield a representative of her own sex and the beckoning finger of the glory which would be hers when she stepped soberly to a witness-box, the observed of all observers, her inclinations weighed on the side of humanity.
"If you put your ear to the key-hole," she whispered, huskily, "you can hear her sobbing something awful." She laid her grimy hand on his arm. "Don't be 'ard on her, sir. Remember you was young yourself once."
He opened the door. The room was in darkness, and mechanically he felt for the switch. The low sobbing of the room's occupant came to him and touched something in his heart. He clicked down the switch, but no light came. Then he heard a flustered explanation at his elbow, the "refuse wires is broke," and Went in, closing the door behind him.
Mrs. Arris turned back discreetly.
"It's very 'ard," she muttered. "I suppose I'd better put a couple of those eggs back—he may be an egg-eater, coming from foreign parts. Oh, it's very 'ard on her, poor dear! The woman always pays." She hesitated with one egg in her hand. "He don't look as if he'd eat more than one egg." She put the egg back into the basket. "Anyway, I don't suppose he'll have an appetite even for one. Drink's what he'll want."
She closed the mouth of the bag quickly as Prendegast appeared in the doorway. He had taken off his coat and vest and he was visibly agitated.
"Get me a glass of water, will you?" he called, urgently. "My wife is simply hysterical. She won't even speak to me."
Mrs. Arris poured out the water with a shaking hand.
"Coax her, sir," she pleaded. "You know, us women are won by wooing, as the saying goes."
He took the water and went back into the bedroom, Mrs. Arris watching with glazed eyes. Yet the splendour of the situation could not be obliterated by any pity she might feel.
Scandal in high life! Intelligent charwoman makes amazing revelations! Sensation in court! Portrait of Mrs. Arris! These and other visions of a glittering publicity passed through her vague mind.
A key turning in the outer door aroused her and she gazed in dismay at the newcomer, who stamped into the room, throwing down his travelling bag.
It was the sinful Pinder.
"Halloa! Haven't you gone, Mrs. Arris?" he asked, with a frown.
"No, sir," said the almost inaudible Mrs. Arris.
"Well, clear out!" he snarled.
She found herself surprisingly breathless.
"Did you lose your train, sir?" she quavered.
"Yes—no—what the dickens is it to do with you?"
He brushed past her and was making for the bedroom when Mrs. Arris, with unsuspected agility, slipped between him and the door.
"Over my dead body!" she said, heroically. He scowled at her, then scowled at a decanter on the sideboard.
"Oh, you've been drinking, eh? And I thought I'd locked the tantalus. Now, you take my advice and get away before I send for a policeman."
Mrs. Arris bridled.
"And you take my advice and get away before I send for an ambulance."
Mr. Pinder was not a good-tempered man at the best of times. Now he was incoherent. Yet he had need of speech, for at that precise moment the bedroom door opened and Prendegast came out—
For a second both men glared at one another; then—
"So you're the brute!" they yelled in unison.
"What were you doing in that room?" hissed Pinder.
"What are you doing in this flat?" grated Prendegast.
Neither waited for an explanation, and the struggle which followed was disappointingly short—for the one spectator.
Prendegast was the heavier man and in better condition. In twenty seconds Mr. Pinder was flung bodily through the door and the door was slammed on him.
Prendegast came back to the table and sank into a chair.
"I wish I'd killed him!" he breathed.
Then his eyes fell upon the letter which Mrs. Arris had forgotten to post. It was her confession, he thought. How tragic that he had arrived home in time to intercept it! He kissed the envelope tenderly, tore open the flap, and began to read:—
"Dearest Donald,—As you will not be back for three months I have let the flat furnished to a nice couple—a Mr. and Mrs. Pinder...."
He repeated the words slowly, and his hair began to rise.
"....a Mr. and Mrs. Pinder. I am staying at the Grand Hotel until you come back."
It was the furious thumping on the door which brought him out of his trance. Then he beckoned Mrs. Arris. "What did you say the name of these people was?"
"Pinder. Mr. and Mrs. Pinder."
"Mr. and Mrs. Pinder!" repeated the other, hollowly. "Go into that room and get my coat and vest. Hurry!"
Mrs. Arris regarded him in amazement.
"Ain't yer staying?"
"Get my coat and vest!" whispered Prendegast, fiercely. "I'll give you a fiver."
He flew round the flat collecting his belongings, snatched his coat from the astounded Mrs. Arris, and thrust a banknote into her hand.
"Tell me—I've forgotten," he asked, quickly—"is there a fire-escape here?"
"Yes, sir, through this window. But don't go, sir. She'll never forgive you!" Prendegast threw up the window and stepped out on to a little iron balcony.
"When I am gone, open the door. I think you said you'd like your name in the News of the World?"
"Yes, sir, I would."
"Well," said the man, grimly, "it'll be in next Sunday."
"In a divorce case?" she asked, eagerly.
"No; in an inquest," said Prendegast, and disappeared.
She hesitated; then, as the door crashed open and the dishevelled Mr. Pinder flew into the room, she followed.
There was a maniacal glare in Mr. Pinder's eye.
"Gone!" he howled, and his eye fell upon the window.
Before he could follow his wife stepped into the room, a smile on her lips, the light of love in her eyes.
"Oh, Jack—kiss me again!" she murmured.
"'Again'!" moaned Mr. Pinder, and collapsed.