Roy Glashan's Library.
Non sibi sed omnibus
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ERLE COX (1873-1950) was a Melbourne journalist, book and film reviewer who wrote three novels and a number of short stories for his newspapers, The Argus and The Australasian.
His first novel, Out of the Silence (1919), was for many years listed as one of the classics of the genre. Its lustre has faded now, but its status as the first Australia science fiction novel to stride the world's stage remains.
First published as a serial in The Argus, a Melbourne daily newspaper, in 1919, it subsequently made it into book form (Vidler, Melbourne), (Hamilton, London) and (Librairie des Champs Elysées, Paris), all in 1925, and Henkle, New York in 1928. It was turned into a comic strip serialised in The Argus in 1934, and the same year adapted to an Australian radio serial. The novel was reprinted several times in the 1930s and 1940s and has recently been revived both in print and e-book form.
His second novel is Fools' Harvest (1938). This seems to be science fiction in the "alternate history" mode, but really its roots lie in the "awful warning, wake-up" novels which abounded before World War I, postulating various forms of the invasion of Britain. William Le Queux, Edgar Wallace and several others wrote on this theme. This book, published as Japan was tearing through China and aiming south, tells of the rapid, Blitzkrieg conquest of Australia by the Japanese (lightly disguised as "Cambasians") from the viewpoint of fleeing refugees from the cities, some of whom become resistance fighters.
His third novel is a comic take on the "Faust" theme, entitled The Missing Angel (1946), in which a henpecked, downtrodden man accidentally summons the Devil, with farcical complications. The devil assumes the guise of a suave man-about- town named Nicholas Senior (from the euphemism "Old Nick"), rather than the cloven-footed horned version.
COX's short stories are equally varied in theme and type. The Mendax stories tell of an abrasive scientist and his mad schemes; they are comic, and sometimes a little cruel in tone: Grimm's fairy tales for grownups.
The others range from straight romance through social comedy to fantasy. The short stories are mostly set in or around Melbourne and all reflect a pre-war, and even pre-first-war, Australia that is long lost. Some of the colloquial language and references used will be unfamiliar even to modern Australian readers, never mind non-Australians. The very first story in this collection was, after all, published a century ago.
I have included brief above-the-title teasers in the manner of pulp science fiction and detective story magazines of the period. They are unique to this collection and not part of the original stories as published.
The first-publication credit is included under the story's title.
—Terry Walker, May 2018
Meet Cupid's mother...
MARK PEARSON MAITLAND COURTNEY (remember he was only one man) slid from by his saddle and closed the gates of the home paddock, and turned with the bridle over his arm to watch some 3,000 sheep spread fanwise from him towards the timber and water of the creek.
If you were to open up the red and gold covers of Burke you would find the above named gentleman mentioned, after several columns of condensed history, all more or less disreputable did you know the facts, as "6th. B July 16th., 1888."
Australians have been said, rather unjustly, to be rather reserved in referring to any of their ancestors who died suddenly, but Mark, English born and bred, was entirely without conceit except on one point: he could prove conclusively that three of his progenitors had ended their mortal careers suddenly on Tower Hill, in a manner not unconnected with an axe. Once, after three whiskies (he hadn't much of a head), he was heard to say that it was a pity his father hadn't made a fourth.
It was rumoured that his father, who was a very respectable peer as peers go, had coldly discouraged Mark's early aspirations to bankrupt all the bookmakers in England, and as a consequence Australia was the gainer, when hard work had modified his exalted ideas, by a valuable citizen. Mark was rather proud, too, of the fact that one could scarcely mention the name of a castle in the United Kingdom in which one or other of his forefathers had not done time. The fourth Earl had gone into well deserved retirement for fifteen years for being connected with a plan to create a vacancy in the Sacred College by poisoning Cardinal Wolsey. Morals and manners are only relative after all, and time graciously tones down the unpleasant features of such incident, still it is hard to think that the future Burke of the Commonwealth would find space even in its advertising columns for the name of the person who used prussic acid as a political expedient, whatever the provocation.
However, Courtney stood watching the sheep until his horse gave a sudden jump and pull on the bridle without any apparent cause, The man drew on some years Australian experience to remonstrate with the animal, and it was proof of his adaptability that his remarks would have done credit to a native.
He was considering further eloquence when a small green apple passed the horse's withers, and struck him where his necktie should have been. Several words on his lips were checked as he glanced up and saw on the other side of the hedge a picture that had been in his mind since he had left the out-farm. The face would have stopped a saint at his prayers, let alone a mere man's whole-souled remarks at his horse's uncalled for agitation.
First, there was a shapeless broad-rimmed straw hat, torn in places, through which a gleam of gold showed against the dusty brown, and underneath a face bright with successful mischief. The red mouth curved into smiles below a pair of eyes that in the shade looked black but were really blue, and just in the middle of the chin was a dimple that Courtney had sworn to subjugate. He formed endless designs for the conquest of that dimple, designs that seemed flawless when he turned them over in his mind. When away from its devastating influence its downfall seemed merely a matter of determination and self-assertion. In its presence, however, his courage melted, and his carefully built plans ended in confusion. Even now, as he looked, a quickening of his pulses warned him of coming defeat.
"Oh, you do look tired," said the owner of the dimple, as her eyes took in the dust covered figure of Courtney as he stepped from behind his horse.
"Your judgment is faultless," he laughed, glancing at the watch on his wrist. "I started at five, and it is now half-past four. I plead guilty, Miss Rita."
There was something more than sympathy in the girl's eyes, could he have but read it.
"I have something for you." Two shapely hands held up a brimming basin over the hedge. "It's half milk and half soda—much better than anything else."
"To the Gods," said Courtney, and spilled a few drops on the ground before he raised the bowl to his lips and returned it empty. "I thank you, Miss Rita, for watching for me. You have given me new life."
"Watching for you, indeed!" The dimple flickered a moment, and disappeared. "You flatter yourself, most noble Mr. Courtney. It was only the dust raised by those wretched sheep that reminded me of your existence, and made me think you might be thirsty."
Of course the man did not know that she was angry with herself because her heart beat so quickly, and that nervousness and the exquisite coquetry of maidenhood made her say the words that she felt least like saying.
He swung into the saddle, thinking that her words expressed her real thoughts, and hat in hand, made a bow that his cavalier ancestors might have envied. "Nevertheless it was extremely kind of you," he said stiffly, and as the horse clattered towards the stables he never turned in his saddle. He might have lingered had he been able to see the eyes of the girl as they followed him, or had he known of the sigh that she would hardly have confessed to herself.
Courtney made his way forwards the creek, after seeing to his horse, in a frame of mind that was rare with him. He considered it an affront to the whole of his race that a dimple and two dark eyes, to say nothing of a perfect mouth, should destroy his peace of mind.
He flung himself down on the grass tussocks at the edge of the creek, and through a break in the green leaves high above him watched a speck that he knew to be an eagle, almost motionless in the eternal blue. The silence of the closing day settled over all as he stared upwards. He was aching in every limb, and did not realise how absolutely worn out he felt until he relaxed himself from the strain of his day-long ride.
He wondered vaguely why his temples throbbed so painfully, and why the leaves on the branches blurred at one moment and the next stood out with photographic detail. Then he became aware that the bird he was watching was slowly settling earthward. The circles narrowed, and with tense interest, scarcely daring to move, he saw it come to rest on a charred stump not thirty yards away.
At the moment it alighted he became aware he was not alone. There was a stir and shiver amongst the grass, and just beside him he saw a boy, such a boy as he had never dreamt of before. He was exquisitely formed and completely nude, except for a belt that held a quiver full of arrows to his side. The body seemed transparent, as if fire and not blood pulsed through it, and a glow of strange lambent light seemed to emanate from his whole being. A mass of tumbled hair crowned a face that held in its wilful expression the simplicity and mischief of a child, blended in some strange way with awful and age-long knowledge. One chubby hand held an ivory bow, and his eyes were fixed on the great bird.
With infinite cunning and stealth, the child fitted an arrow to the cord of the bow. There was a soft twang, and the dart broke on the stiff-feathered wing pinions of the bird. What followed, Courtney never really knew. He saw the eagle rise and swoop savagely at the boy. He sprang to his feet with a yell, and, seizing a stick, struck wildly at the bird, which came to earth with one wing dragging helplessly on the ground. It was still full of fight, however, for hissing, and, with its claws out-turned, it watched the child that had taken refuge between his feet with baleful yellow eyes.
"You brute! You brute!" gasped the man, as he sent the stick smashing down on the evil head, and then stood dazed as he saw the eagle was dead at his feet.
For a few moments he was aware of the child's clinging arms about his leg; and then he became conscious of a strange awe that held him. What had he done? Where was he? He became conscious of some unearthly and terrible music that blended with the sound of the wind through the leaves overhead. The golden atmosphere around him seemed to liquefy in quivering robes of splendour. All the colour of the opal was in the sound and sight, and in the midst of all there was a Presence.
Dazed and dumbstricken he watched motionless, while his senses reeled before the majesty of that awful being. The love of this world, the world above, and the world below shone from her eyes. Maidenhood and maternity were there, and the all-embracing love of the almighty gods, and with them the wisdom of the ages and the pity of a Madonna.
"Thou hast done well, mortal. My son is very dear." He heard the words come to him through the music wonderful that surrounded him. "Speak, and do not fear. What would you?" Through his dazzled senses ran the thought, "What can it be?"
The answer to his unspoken words came slowly and with infinite sweetness.
"I am she whom men call Love, and swine call Harlot. I am the life of mortals and their power. For once I will answer your prayer."
"Give me the one I love," came the ready thought.
"Think, mortal. If I grant your heart's desire it may bring earthly sorrow, and the gift once granted cannot be recalled. I can give you peace without her."
"Give me the one I love." Courtney knew his soul answered, for his lips were dumb.
"Then let it be so. She will be yours for ever. Sorrow and trial shall ye know, but this I grant, wherever the sorrow and trial may fall, the love I give will heal the wounds. Hand-in- hand along the path of life shall ye go together, shielding each other by the way, and hand-in-hand shall ye go into the shadows. The love I give will glorify all, and last, not only here but beyond. Farewell."
The vision of the Presence seemed to fade, but the dazzling splendour grew in a hurricane of fire that split and rolled together with a crash of thunder, and Mark Pearson Maitland Courtney dropped forward with a broken stick in his hand and great dead eagle-hawk beneath him.
A doctor summoned by a frantic girl, who had not stayed to saddle her horse, called it a mild attack of sunstroke, but he didn't attempt to account for the bird. If you ask Rita, she will tell you that she thinks the doctor was an old stupid. If you ask Courtney he will say he doesn't know what happened, and, further, as things have turned out, he doesn't care.
An amused look at the arrival of women's swimsuits with short legs and without sleeves, scandalously skimpy in 1921.
"NOTHING," she said decisively, "will make me agree that it is either right or proper."
It is not much use arguing with Muriel when she speaks thus, and I dropped the subject for the moment. The sun, which looked as if it had been drinking heavily for the past week, had disappeared in a red haze, and the crowd of miscellaneously dressed people along the foreshore grew momentarily. The individual cries from the bathers blended as their numbers grew into an ear-satisfying volume of sound. Then half-a-dozen splendid, clean-limbed Australian girls broke from a group in the crowd, deployed on the water's edge with clasped hands, and went forward with a run, their clear, ringing laughter rising for a while, till it and they were swallowed up in the throng in the water.
"Now," I asked, returning to the charge, "what's wrong with that?"
"Nothing, and everything. To my mind, it is demoralising, and at any rate I'm not going to follow their example."
The deep-rooted Puritan strain in Muriel has its attractive side, but there have been times when I have found it inconvenient. To lay down the law that broad-mindedness is merely an excuse for behaviour that is not conventional may be all right, theoretically, but a too strict adherence to its letter spoils a lot of fun.
I tossed off my dressing-gown and stood up. "But wouldn't you care to come?"
"Indeed, no. I've been to bathe twice today, and I'm quite cool enough."
I trust this kind of fib is not permanently recorded, or my Muriel is in a parlous state. "Please yourself, my good woman," I retorted, and made for the water. I wonder why a good woman should think it be offensive to be called a "good woman." I should probably have heard if I had stayed.
Friday night came. I lounged on the sand, waiting for Muriel (waiting for Muriel is chronic). At length she arrived.
Fortunately I had enough self-possession not to comment on the fact that she was wearing a raincoat, and that her slippers covered bare feet.
"Don't go in yet," she said uneasily, "wait until it is darker," and so when the hazy gloom settled she nerved herself for the plunge.
It needed nerve too. I don't know where she had obtained that garment. I imagine it was an heirloom. It was just made in one piece of some khaki coloured material, and looked like canvas. There were bands of Turkey red about the neck, knees, and cut off sleeves. But the most demented tailor in Bedlam could not have achieved a more atrocious shape. However, it was modest beyond the imaginings of the sternest moralist, and most infernally (the only word) ugly.
Muriel, if you please, prides herself too, on ordinary occasions, on being a little ahead of the latest mode. But as I pride myself on knowing just when to be silent, I said nothing vigorously.
Half an hour later we had rejoined the crowd on the sand, the peace of the water upon us. All round were chattering groups, many of them flashing into view for a few seconds as the match of a smoker lit up their faces. Presently three girls pattered up the sand from the water, and stopped at a small pile of garments and towels beside us. They seemed supremely happy and unconscious of the white limbs that gleamed vaguely in the dark.
In a few minutes I found myself unconsciously listening to them. It was hardly fair perhaps, but it would have been difficult not to hear.
"Oh, Millie! I wish you had been down earlier, and you would have seen her," said one.
"What was she like?" came from the depths of a towel.
"Well, just like a bag of potatoes tied up with Turkey red," came the answer that took my breath away. There followed a chorus of delighted giggles, and I felt the start that Muriel gave as she sat upright.
"Was she old?" came the question in another voice.
"Well, I don't think she really was, but she looked about 55 to 60. You never saw such a fright. Poor thing, I was sorry for her. It was just the colour of mustard." Then after a pause. "The man with her was awfully decent looking too; it's a wonder he didn't get her to put more ginger into it." I failed to follow the finishing phrase, but I thanked Providence for the kindly dark that hid my face from Muriel.
I turned to my wife. She was sitting bolt upright, staring straight ahead.
"About time we were going, I think."
Without a word she stood up, disregarding my proffered assistance, and we made our way homeward. I had a wild desire to return and embrace those three merry damsels; indeed I would have done so but for the fear of being misunderstood. As we walked on in silence, I mentally took the three of them to afternoon tea every day for a week, and fed them on ices and strawberries and cream, and all that could delight the heart of a maid.
As I sat on the edge of the bed later, smoking a final concessionary cigarette, the humour of the situation became irresistible.
Muriel standing in white before the dressing-table, turned on me with flashing eyes. I sobered myself rapidly. "If you laugh again, you creature, I'll throw this brush at you."
I wasn't afraid of her hitting me, but those silver toilet things dent so easily. "And look here," she went on, "if you dare to tell your sisters I won't dine there on Sunday."
It was most disappointing, but I forced myself to say that I had not the remotest intention of retailing the incident to anyone. As I watched her, I felt pleased to think that it was her own hair that Muriel was combing, not mine. Then she went on to make a few remarks that made me feel more pleased that those three merry maidens were not in her power for the moment; had they been I fear the brush would have been used for other than its legitimate purpose.
One Saturday evening after we had washed up, (like the rest of our friends we are maidless), I put the usual question to Muriel.
"No I can't come yet. I have a few things to do about the house. Don't wait for me."
All the morning in the office I had been hungering for the moment, and fled, like a boy released from school. It was only 7 o'clock, but the beach was thronged. For nearly an hour I splashed round in perfect enjoyment, then I made for the beach. Thirty yards from the edge I paused. There in the half light, coming straight towards me, superb and unafraid, was a figure semi-clad in an emerald green Canadian, banded with yellow.
"Holy Smoke!" I gasped us she came up with me, "Muriel!"
She fled past me. "Come on, boy, I feel as if there were a thousand eyes on me, and I want to hide in the water."
"Two thousand would be nearer the mark," I answered as we splashed off together.
Presently she turned to me, "What are you laughing at, you great stupid?"
"I was just thinking," I said, "how demoralising it all is. Just four days' hot weather, and where are your scruples?"
"In the water, here with Caesar," she answered laughing. "Anyhow I'd like to see that minx who pitied me the other night, I'd show her something."
"Indeed you would, my dear," I replied with meaning.
"Oh! not that way, you creature," she laughed as we dived.
And now with Kipling, and the late lamented Sir Anthony Gloster, I repeat, "Anyhow, women are queer."
The Archbishop was a man of great learning...
TO begin with, I have no desire to mislead anyone into thinking that I have ever been on speaking terms with an archbishop. I have little doubt that all archbishops are companionable beings in their lighter hours, but I have less doubt that an archiepiscopal atmosphere would prove too rarefied for my comfort. What Father Duret did not know about them, however, was not worth knowing.
Because the coach was late in starting it most naturally followed that we broke a tyre while still ten miles out from St. Hildas, and we arrived at that deplorable township, with the back axle supported by a sapling, just about an hour after the only train had left. The day was just the sort of day on which such things happen.
I crawled down from my perch on the box half-frozen, and made for the bar. Larry Burns, who knew me, pushed across the essentials of life without waiting for me to speak. When I felt a little better he went across to the letter-rack, and pushed across a non-essential in the form of a telegram.
"Guessed you would be on board. This came along yesterday," he observed.
I read the message, and Larry and the driver, who had arrived a bad second, listened to my remarks in respectful silence. Said Burns when I paused for breath, "That's one of the advantages of travel, a man does pick up some language. What is it? Only murder, or twins?"
"Pretty nearly as bad as both in a heap," I growled. "I must get down to Ringbar this afternoon. Fix me up with a feed, Larry, and then I must have a trap."
"The feed's ready, but as for the trap, well, I don't like your chance."
"You don't? And why not?"
"Races at Dovertown—everything with a wheel on it, or anything that would pull it, went down there this morning. I'd be there myself only someone had to stay at home."
The obligation of getting to Ringbar that day, and the vision of a 16-mile tramp to do so, detonated my reserve language. "Hang it all, Larry, don't stand there grinning, don't you suggest anything?"
"Nothing better than hoofing it—unless you see his reverence," he added as an afterthought.
I failed to see any advantage in spiritual consolation, and said so. Anyhow, what had his reverence to do with the case?
"Dunno; we always go to him when we're in a hole," answered Larry stolidly.
I shelved the question for the time being, and went to the big, empty, dining-room. When I came out half an hour later Larry met me.
"Come along here. I've been talking to his reverence." Before I could enter a protest he opened a door and called out, "Here's the gent, Father," pushed me inside and closed the door after me.
There and then I discovered what Father Christmas does when he is not crawling down chimneys.
In an armchair was Father Christmas in the flesh; rosy cheeks, white hair and whiskers, and twinkling grey eyes all complete. He had changed his red furred cloak to the outfit of a Roman Catholic cleric.
Only his dancing eyes betrayed his amusement at my embarrassment, as I tried to apologise for my intention. "Larry's methods are a little crude," he interrupted, "but his intentions are excellent. I hear you are in a fix."
I pointed out that I had no earthly right to worry him with my misfortunes, but he insisted gently. So I explained that a man in Melbourne to whom I owed obedience had wired me that the important man would he in Ringbar next day in pursuit of a contract that we regarded as our own. Therefore I must be at Ringbar before him, even if I had to walk.
He nodded a complete understanding, staring into the fire. Then he looked at the drizzling rain.
"I think I can manage it for you," he said presently, and he stood up and reached for his overcoat. I entered a guilty protest. It was too much to ask any man to leave such a fire on such a day. He waved my protest aside with, "I knew I was too comfortable; it is better this way." He spoke and acted like a man whose actions are seldom challenged.
We went out though the muddy, wet lanes, and found a cottage where a sour faced woman was feeding some draggled chickens.
Her face lit up when His Reverence spoke to her. Yes, of course he could have the horse and trap but the horse was in the paddock, and would His Reverence step inside while she caught it? But Father Duret would do nothing of the kind.
The catching of that horse left the two of us pretty limp. With me the limpness was due as much to laughter as exertion. I found neither rain nor discomfort could damp that man's irrepressible humour.
We harnessed the animal to a spring-cart and drove back to the hotel. I put my baggage on board, and commenced to thank my rescuer, who was still seated in the cart holding the reins. He smiled down at me through his whiskers.
"My son, if I borrow a horse, I drive it. Not that I doubt that you would take every care of it, but it's a matter of principle. Come, get in."
I stood back; this was too much.
"But it's sixteen miles to Ringbar," I wailed, feeling an utter criminal.
"And sixteen miles back," he answered serenely, still smiling.
"But I can't. It's an outrage—I—" I broke off, looking helplessly at Larry, who stood by grinning.
"Better do what he tells you," said Larry, "we all do in the end."
It seemed there was nothing else for it; so I climbed into the cart again, thinking of painful ways in which to slay Burns.
Off we went, jolting down one of the worst roads in a State notorious for its roads. That drive lives in my memory. It should have stood out as the worst of many bad ones; but as a matter of fact, I began to laugh when I left St. Hildas and scarcely stopped till we reached Ringbar.
Once I said to him, "But why should you do this for a total stranger? Why, I am not even one of your creed?"
The grey eyes twinkled as he turned to me. "Ah! my son. Then you're in for a bad time hereafter so I must do what I can for your comfort in this world."
When we reached Ringbar I begged him to be my guest for the night, but he shook his head. There was an early service on the following morning. He must go back. He stayed with me for dinner, rather on the horse's account than his own, and afterwards he rattled off into the darkness on the lonely drive home, cutting short with a jest every attempt of mine to thank him.
So far nothing about archbishops. I merely wanted to introduce you to Father Duret before touching on his ecclesiastical chief. When one meets a man like Father Duret one does not like to miss a chance of seeing more of him. Whenever I went into that district afterwards I made a point of putting up for the night at St. Hildas, and always the old man welcomed me. Some of the evenings I spent at the presbytery were good to remember. He was always a fresh delight. In some of the world's doings his simplicity was childlike, while in the ways of men and their motives his knowledge was appalling. He had come from France over forty years before, and had been in the one parish ever since. And the hardest bitten coal-miner in the district would have eaten out of his hand.
We were sitting opposite one another one night. The stem of his pipe was between his lips. Its great meerschaum bowl was resting on his lap, and at intervals he emitted fragrant smoke and fragments of his own inimitable philosophy. He liked a good listener, and I filled the part, merely dropping a question here and there, as he described it, to "prod his thinking works".
He had caught a look in my eye after some chance phrase he had used.
"What was it my son?" he queried.
"Nothing of moment," I answered, "it was your accent just now."
"French?" With raised eyebrows.
"No, Irish—undoubtedly Irish. I have not heard a trace of French yet," I answered.
He chuckled, a chuckle that rippled all over him. "Ah! that was not mine but Kitty Riley's, bless her ould soul. I'll never lose it so long as I live."
Then he told me how, when he had arrived in the country first, his knowledge of English was in inverse ratio to his zeal to learn, and Kitty Riley, his housekeeper, had laboured to impart instruction. He had told her to correct him whenever she heard him make a mistake. "Say pase, yer rivirince, say pase," she had said over, his shoulder in a stage whisper one night at dinner when he had asked a guest to have some more peas.
"It must have been pretty uphill work for a start under these conditions," I commented, for he had given me a few sidelights on his early troubles.
"It was, and—" he paused reflectively, "the worst, of it was that in my innocence I picked up some of the language I could well have done without."
"That was hard luck."
"You see," he explained, "this place was so far out of the way then that I had no one to guide me in my excursions into colloquial English," and he chuckled again, reminiscently. Then he spoke suddenly: "I'll tell you about it, and I've not told half a dozen people since it happened."
With his beard in his hands and between clouds of smoke, he went on:
"The archbishop used to have a dozen of us at a time on an annual visit. It was more of an honour than a pleasure," he explained, dryly, "for His Grace was a disciplinarian of no mean calibre. But he had one weakness, and that weakness was whist. Not solo or bridge, they were unknown, but the old-fashioned, long whist. And I'll tell you this, there are a number of unpleasant things I would have done rather than sit out a game with him. Whist wasn't his religion exactly, but it came a good second. He'd choose three men each night, and each night he played a rubber, and one night to my undoing he chose me. When we cut for partners I was against him, and that was a little satisfaction, for the man who was his partner had a sorry hour to go through. It was a great rubber we had that night. Game each, and one hand to get the odd trick, and His Grace was in a good humour almost. The game was so close that the other men stood round the table to see the finish. He was getting the fall of my lead, and every time that evening I had played a king he had an ace for it. It was the last hand, and almost the last lead, when I got his king of trumps with an ace, and as I threw down the card I said, almost shouted, in fact—" here he leaned forward and whispered in my ear words of lurid and amazing profanity.
"Scott! Father! You didn't! You couldn't!" I gasped, rocking with laughter and horror.
"But I could, my son, and did. Those very words I hurled at the Archbishop across his own table." I sat back, and laughed till the tears came to my eyes, and he rumbled in sympathy.
"What happened?" I asked at last.
"Well, at first the group round the table was too stunned to do anything but gape. I felt some catastrophe had happened without knowing what. But remember they were all Irishmen except me, and suddenly one of them whooped, and the whole flock went off into fits of laughter, all except the Archbishop. His face was like a marble image of retribution, and it sobered them up quickly enough when they got a glimpse of it."
"He glared round the group. 'You will all retire, I will speak of this further in the morning.' I rose to follow the others, but he snapped, 'You will remain,' so I sat down again."
"My son, one night I lay out in the scrub with a compound fracture of the leg, but I'd go through that again rather than that half hour with his Grace."
"He explained in detail the exact nature of my exclamations, and insisted on knowing where I had learned them; whether I used them habitually, and whether I knew any more. The first two questions I could answer. The third—well, as I explained, any word used might be better left unsaid, through my ignorance of colloquial English. He took my point and thought it over. Then he commenced to comb out my vocabulary. To a listener unaware of the circumstances it must have been an astounding proceeding. Picture the big bare room. The Archbishop and I stood at the card table strewn with cards, and the candles between us, and using swear words at one another as if for a wager."
He paused, and his eyes twinkled across at me through the smoke.
"And my son, believe me or not, but the Archbishop knew a great deal more than I had ever heard then, or have heard since!"
The wheels of love turn slowly... or do they?
"OH! How lovely!" the mother exclaimed from her end of the breakfast table, over her paper. The father looked up from his eggs with a mild inquiry in his eyes. "It's Kitty Dumereque. She has a little daughter."
The man returned to his breakfast unmoved by the announcement, and there was no shadow of interest in his voice when he inquired who Kitty Dumereque might be. He only smiled at his wife's explanation that she and Kitty had been at school together, and she was sure he had heard her spoken of dozens of times. "Anyhow," his wife continued, "you never take any interest in things."
"Well," answered the husband, "it's pretty hard to work up instant enthusiasm over the new-born infant of a woman one's never seen. However," he went on soothingly, "if you like I'll say it's glorious news, and I'm sorry it's not twins."
"But Kitty was the prettiest girl in the school. She was married just about the time Tony was born," the wife went on as though to urge the two points as a claim on his interest. Tony, aged five, hearing his name mentioned, looked up from his bowl of bread and milk, but, seeing the grownups were engaged in one of their totally uninteresting talks he returned to more important matters.
The husband laughed lightly. "Upon my word, old girl, those schoolmates of yours are the most patriotic crowd in the Commonwealth. I am prepared to swear and take oath, that scarcely a week passes without your announcing at breakfast that one or other of them is responsible for another citizen."
"But this was Kitty, she was the pret—"
"Right-oh!" he interrupted, "It should have been triplets."
"You horror!" and a table napkin fluttered across the table.
The man chuckled and handed the missile back. "That's a nice example to set your son. Assaulting his father in his presence, and telling most outrageous fibs at the same time."
"Fibs! What fibs?"
"Well she couldn't possible have been the prettiest girl in the school," he answered, smiling across at her meaningly.
"Oh you goose!" his wife smiled back. "But she was nevertheless."
The man stood up, and at the same instant the clock chimed the half-hour. "Great Scott! Late again!" he exclaimed, "bother your friends and their babies. I'll miss my train." A few minutes later he departed tempestuously, and his wife returned to her interrupted meal. Unheeded by both, two cogs in the mighty machine of fate had engaged for a moment, and the wheels had rolled on.
EIGHT years passed before the wheels swung round again. Before the train had well stopped, a boy of 13 or 14 sprang from a carriage on to the suburban platform, and hurried towards the wicket. He was wearing the cap and badge of one of the big public schools, and was, from the pace he made, in a desperate hurry. Just as he reached the wicket, a woman, holding a small girl by the hand, ran through and made for the nearest carriage. She turned the door handle, but the door had jammed, and the train was on the point of starting. In one jump the boy was at her side; with a wrench, and a heave of a pair of shoulders that already gave promise of a mighty growth, the door was opened. The woman turned to thank him as he closed it after her, and as she spoke the boy noticed for the moment what nice shiny eyes they were that smiled on him. "Just like mum's," he thought. He raised his cap and turned away bent on some boy's business of desperate importance. Had anyone asked him a moment later what he thought of the little girl he had just seen, his probable reply would have been: "Oh, that kid? I didn't notice her."
None the less, true to the second, the machine had brought the cogs together at the appointed time.
A GREAT queen had reigned for 60 years, and at night the City blazed in her honour. At a point where two streets intersected, a mighty torrent of people whirled and eddied. The torrent reached from wall to wall, and the volition of the human units that composed it was merged into that of the mass. In the thick of the press, two men, each a total stranger to the other, met face to face. The younger, amused at the involuntary encounter, smiled as he said cheerfully, "Pretty thick, is it not?"
The elder nodded. "Too thick to be pleasant. I'm trying to get out. I have my daughter here and she is getting crushed."
The younger looked down, and bearing backward with mighty strength, he made a shelter between them for the slight figure of the girl. Then raising his head above the crowd, he looked over the singing mass. When he turned again he said, "It looks clearer over at the south corner, shall we try for it? I'll be only too glad to help."
The elder man thanked him heartily, and they commenced their struggle. It took ten minutes to cover the sixty feet to their objective. The younger man only knew that some tender, helpless being was committed to his care, and was sheltering beneath his arms, and exulting in his strength, he used it to the full in protecting her from the crowding mass that surrounded them.
When they reached the corner of the building where the throng thinned out slightly, and their progress was assured, he nodded a cheerful farewell to the elder man and in a moment was swallowed up again in the crowd.
An hour later father and daughter were again beneath their own roof.
"I'm glad you didn't come with us, Kitty," said the man to his wife. "The crowd was terrific, and we got caught near the Town Hall. Faith! I think we'd be there yet if it hadn't been for a young giant who came to the rescue.
"How did you get on, Babs?" asked the mother, turning to the girl.
"I was nearly squeezed to pieces," answered the maid. "I think I would have been if Daddy's giant had not come to the rescue. Then he put out his arms over me, and I was saved."
"What was he like?" inquired the mother, with interest.
"Couldn't say, mummy. His head was miles in the air, but his coat was rough and scratchy, and he smelt of nice cigars, so I think he must have been a nice man." She smothered a yawn daintily. "Anyhow, I'm going to bed now. Battling with the entire population of the city has simply unravelled me. Good night, dears," and she departed.
THE man lay back in an armchair, book in hand, but many minutes had passed since his eyes had fallen on its pages. To him entered his sister, hatted and veiled, drawing on the second glove.
"Tony!" she exclaimed in dismay, "not dressed yet, and its nearly three."
"No reason to get excited, dear child," he answered calmly. "Fact of the matter is that I'm not going."
"But, you promised," she said, angrily.
"Provisionally. Don't forget, provisionally."
"Pooh!" she said derisively; "I suppose you've got hold of some horrible book."
He looked at the offending volume reflectively. "Well, that depends on the viewpoint; the book deals with skin diseases mainly, but, to tell the truth, I'm not very interested in it. I was just trying to decide when you er—exploded into the room, whether I should go after schnapper or down to the hospital. Now which would you recommend?"
She held out her wrist, disdaining to answer. "Here, fasten, that glove for me, please; and remember this, it will be many a long day before I go to the trouble of getting an invitation for you to meet the prettiest girl in Melbourne. There are men who would give their eyes for the chance."
He laughed quietly as he fastened the glove. "Same old tale. I've fallen in too often. Does she pose, or gush? I think I'll make it schnapper."
"Do come, Tony," she said coaxingly, making a last attempt to break down his indifference.
"Schnapper, my dear," was the only answer the brother made.
"All right! You can go killing fishes or humans, whichever you please; it was silly of me to bother about such a superior person," and she fled wrathfully. The man looked after her thoughtfully.
"By Jove!" he said half aloud, "the little sister does get into a paddy easily—I wonder who the girl is?" Then he strolled off to change for his fishing, and the matter dropped out of his mind.
THREE years passed before the unerring machine brought the cogs together again!
In the early morning of a perfect day a liner passed through the Heads and nosed her way up the channel. A man, lying indolently smoking in the stern of a small motor launch, watched her idly as she neared him, with the newly risen sun blazing on her white upper works, and turning the long lines of ports to dazzling gold.
As she drew abreast she came almost close enough for the man to distinguish the faces of the people on her decks. He followed her with his eyes without turning his body, and noticed with momentary interest that someone was waving to him, and apparently endeavouring to attract his attention. For a moment he felt inclined to reply, but to get at his handkerchief he would have had to turn over. Why, he thought, should he inconvenience himself for a total stranger, who chose to flap at him from a passing steamer, so he watched the tiny white speck with indifferent eyes until its fluttering presently ceased.
On the steamer's deck a young woman was leaning over the rail, watching the passing shore with eyes alight with pleasure. She made such a picture that the Captain paused beside her on his way from the bridge.
"You are an early riser this morning, Miss Dumereque."
"I've been up since daylight to see the first of home. Isn't it splendid? Look, there is Sorrento. It's been a lovely trip, Captain; and everyone has been so kind, but I can't help being glad that I'm home again."
The skipper smiled at the radiant face.
"Do you know that if all my unmarried officers desert in Melbourne I'll hold you personally responsible?"
"They're dears, all of them, but it's hardly fair to bring such a charge against me."
"Oh," he laughed, "I didn't say it was done with malice aforethought. It's just the corollary of certain natural manifestations."
The girl laughed heartily. "I don't think it's quite nice to be called a natural manifestation, besides it's not true. I've just been waving my arms tired at the first of my countrymen I've seen in nearly three years, and he took not the slightest notice. So you see—" she paused.
"Yes," went on the skipper, "I do see, and had he seen with my eyes he would have upset his boat in an endeavour to wave something in reply. In fact, I think by now he would he swimming after us."
The dimples on the girl's cheeks melted into laughter. "Now that's enough to make me hope the skipper will desert with the crew."
"Retro me Satanus," he said, with twinkling eyes, and he passed on, followed by her exclamation of mock protest.
WITH a small tea table between, two young women were seated on the veranda of a house set some way back from the street, but close enough to it for them to be able to distinguish the casual passers-by. They were indulging in tea and gossip in proportions in which the tea had a very insignificant part.
Suddenly the elder of the two paused with the words she was speaking cut short on her lips, and with more than passing interest in her eyes she watched the movements of a man who was approaching from the opposite side of the street. "What's the excitement, Biddy?" inquired the younger, watching her curiously.
"Oh, Babs! It's a man, and I think he's coming here."
"How provoking," said her friend, sitting up; "just as we were so comfy, too. Shoo him off." Biddy made no answer at the moment, and both continued to watch the approaching figure. The man crossed the street leisurely, and walked to the gate, At the instant he reached it a hooting motor car stopped with a jerk in a cloud of dust beside the footpath, and its driver jumped out. The newcomer crossed the footpath in two strides.
"The very man I'm after, Tony. I just called at your house, and missed you. Look here—" and here followed a technical, and, to a layman, unpleasant description of badly mangled humanity—"it's the chance of a lifetime," he wound up; "I want you to give a hand with the rays. Will you come?"
"Will a duck swim," answered Tony, eagerly. "Hop in," and he followed the other lightly into the car that sped away in an odour of petrol. The two on the verandah were too far off to hear a word of what had passed between the two men.
"Saved!" exclaimed. Babs, as the car started. "Who is he?"
Biddy gave a little exclamation of disgust. "Now, isn't that too bad," she said; "he would have been inside the gate in another second. I did want you to meet him."
"I'll survive the loss. There are quite a few others in the world. Might I remind you that you haven't told me who or what he is."
"Oh, Tony!" answered Biddy, turning back to her tea. "I forgot you've been away so long you don't know him. Tony's a medicine man of sorts. He's a most fascinating devil to know, but he's shy of women. I'm one of the few he visits, and, my dear, if you knew him, you'd realise why I preen my plumage on that account."
"Perhaps he saw I was here, and bolted," said Babs.
Biddy shook her head. "The man in the car was Doctor Gray- Forbes, and I expect he has taken Tony to help him cut some poor creature into little bits. He and Tony get more inside knowledge of society than any other men in Melbourne."
Babs made a little face. "Horrid! Is he married?"
"Confirmed bachelor, Babs," answered Biddy. "He's got heaps of money, too. Cissie Farmer says he's got no heart—nothing but an automatic muscular organ in his chest, and a stony glare in his eye. What are you grinning at?"
Babs laughed lightly. "Rich bachelors have no right to existence, in that form at any rate; still, I was just wondering how Cissie made the discovery."
"She's not the only one who went exploring in that direction. But none of them ever returned. I'm married; so I suppose he thinks I'm safe!"
"I wonder—now I wonder if he's really immune. I'd like—" Babs paused and smiled introspectively.
Biddy caught the look in her eye. "Babs Dumereque," she cried, threatening her with a teaspoon, "you're a menace to the safety of the public. If I catch you trying any of your tricks on Tony I'll most certainly warn him beforehand."
"Oh! keep your precious Tony, I don't want him," Babs laughed.
Biddy looked rather seriously. "Do you know, Babs, I think girls like you ought to be handicapped. You should be compelled by law to wear curl papers in public and calico frocks, and never be allowed to talk to a nice man unless masked. It's not fair to the rest of us."
The lovely brown eyes sparkled mischievously.
"I can't help them falling down in battalions, dear. Perhaps you might persuade your Tony to take, say, an inch off my nose to even things up."
Meanwhile Tony, because the time was not yet come, was busied with other mysteries. But the wheels of the tale were moving more swiftly now.
"TONY," said the father from the head of the table, "I consider you are shirking your just responsibilities. At my age, I should be the one to stay at home, and you should be taking your womenkind out."
Tony only laughed. "Dad, you're younger than I am, and if you'll only be honest, you'll confess you actually like these kiddy doings. The customs and manners of the tribes in these parts don't appeal to me."
"Pooh!" from his sister, "Diogenes the Cynic lived in a tub."
Tony took not the slightest notice of the interruption. "I've been talking things over with Forbes, and I've definitely decided on the European trip."
"Oh! When?" asked the mother eagerly.
"No use wasting time now. If I can get a passage tomorrow, I'll leave next week. You see, if the rest of you are going next year we can all meet somewhere." As he was speaking a maid brought a note, which she handed to his father, who read it with an exclamation of annoyance.
"Tony, my boy, luck's against you. You'll have to take my place tonight, after all. Carter finds he must leave in the morning, and I must see him before he goes. There is no chance of our getting our yabber over before midnight, either."
The sister laughed merrily. "Just time to dress, Tony, and put on a party face. What a lovely time we'll have! You look so delighted at the prospect of taking us out."
Tony rose and turned to leave the room. "Hang Carter, dad; but I suppose it can't be helped. We men do suffer for our womenkind, don't we?"
Two hours later he was standing alone at the door of a great ballroom watching the whirling crowd with absent eyes. He seldom danced, and he felt supremely bored, and his thoughts turned longingly to certain books he had brought home with him that day, and which were still unopened. He did not notice that his hostess was beside him until she spoke.
"Tony, you poor boy, you look bored to death."
He attempted a protest, but she shook a finger at him, laughing.
"I know you too well, and too long, Tony. In your heart of hearts you are calling me anything but blessed."
Again he protested, and again she laughed.
"I'm going to punish you, and I'm doing it deliberately. There's a girl just arrived late, and you're going to look after her for me, like a good boy. Discipline of the kind is good for you. Here she comes now."
He turned quickly, and the hostess murmured two names, and left them; He looked straight into the upturned eyes of the girl, and then for a space of time, for two people in it, the world stood still.
NEXT day at lunch, striving desperately to keep a casual tone in his voice, he said, "After all, I think I'll change my mind, and wait till next year to go to Europe with you people."
"Why, Tony," said the mother with amazement, "What has happened? Last night you were so keen on leaving immediately."
"Oh!" he said carelessly; "it will be rather lonely by myself, so I may as well wait."
The mother looked at him in perplexity, but the sister stood up, pointing the finger of derision. "Diogenes, the Cynic, lived in a tub. I know! I know! I counted. Four times, and you sat out as well. Habet! Habet! Thumbs down!" and she suited the action to the word.
He stood up with dignity. "My dear child, what you require is a tonic, and complete rest. I've always had my suspicions about your mental balance," and before she could retort he left the room. She followed tumultuously, while the parents, used to the family outbreaks, looked on bewildered, but without comment.
Presently the sister returned, looking flushed, but happy.
"The wretch," she exclaimed, "He locked his door, and when I went round to the window to commiserate with him he pulled down the blind."
"May I be permitted to inquire," asked the father mildly, "the cause of this unseemly riot?"
The girl laughed. "He lonely! Why, its Babs Dumereque. He met her last night. All the men are mad over her." Then, after a pause. "Still, old Tony's got more sense than I thought he had."
SIX months later they were standing together watching the ferry lights weaving networks of jewels across the moonlit waters of the harbour.
"Just we two together, Tony, and to think that six months ago neither of us had ever heard of the existence of the other."
He held her closer. "Had my father had not been prevented from going to the dance that night we would never have met."
Then Fate, who sometimes listens to the prattle of mortals, smiled—almost.
Some say black cats are good luck. Mr Pinceman differs...
MR. ALBERT PINCEMAN was perfectly happy. It was Saturday afternoon, and the afternoon was fine, and to make his happiness complete Mrs. Pinceman had gone to the pictures. He was sitting on his back doorstep overlooking his back garden. The front, he knew, was a picture that arrested the steps of every passerby. There were a few ragged fringes round his lawns at the back that he purposed to remedy, and as he sat with his pipe between his teeth he worked industriously at putting a razor edge on a pair of sheep shears.
He was a metal engraver, not only by trade, but by instinct, and the long sensitive fingers, as delicate as a woman's, that held the stone, carried out their office almost of their own accord. Nature, who had made Pinceman a superb craftsman, had been niggardly in the matter of brains, but generous in the endowment of his body. Given the proper costume, he would have passed as one of Ouida's guardsmen, both physically and intellectually.
He was not a vain man, and had long ago found that the same good looks that had won him his wife were the cause of that lady's ceaseless jealousy and their almost ceaseless domestic friction. Indeed, Albert sometimes wished he were as insignificant in appearance as that scrubby little animal Hicks, who lived next door, and whose wife, according to Lydia, spent her time in endeavouring to capture Albert's affections.
Neither Mrs. Hicks nor Lydia perceived how remote was the prospect of success in such a venture, for, from the sounds that occasionally came across the fence, Pinceman knew that Hicks had even a worse time than he had himself, which was some consolation.
Presently Pinceman tested the edges of the shears on his thumb nail, and was satisfied. He picked up a sack that lay beside him, and strolled across his garden. Beside one bed he stopped, and scowling angrily breathed a few such words as are written on a slip of paper and handed up for the inspection of virtuous J.P.'s. The tomato plants which he had cherished through a sickly infancy to a vigorous youth had been infamously treated. Four were completely out of the earth, and lay wilting in the sun. No need to ask the culprit's name; it was that blanked cat, Diddums.
Lydia owned Diddums, a black she-cat, for luck, and Diddums owned the house. It was Diddums who was responsible for the frieze of toms of all sizes and colours that decorated the back fence all day and made night one long classical concert, and he loathed Diddums from the innermost recesses of his soul. He replaced the plants, gloomily, wondering whether they would survive the outrage, and cursing the criminal. Then he turned to his lawns.
Squatting on the bag he had brought with him, Pinceman trimmed the edges of the lawns with the same care as a barber would bestow upon a head of hair. As he worked, his irritation died down, and peace returned. For half an hour there was no other sound in the garden save the grating ring of the shears.
Then he happened to look up, and contentment vanished. Thirty feet away from him on the tomato-bed, he saw Diddums, and Diddums was gardening on her own account. Albert sat up and yelled, "Shoo!" Diddums remained calm, and went on with her work. He looked round for something to throw; but his garden was bare of stick or stone.
Then, in his anger, he hurled the shears.
He had no intention of hurting the brute; he merely wished to frighten her; but he reckoned without his hands: those hands that had been trained for a lifetime and met the commands of his brain with unerring accuracy. The twin blades whirled flashing through the air. From the corner of her eye Diddums saw them coming, and stretched her neck for flight. Too late! Even as she moved her fate was upon her; a point of the shears drove down on either side of her slim neck, and deep into the ground.
Pinceman sat paralysed at the success of his endeavour. Then he breathed one word: "Gosh!" and rose to his feet.
The guillotine could not have severed the head more completely or neatly. On one side lay the sleek black body, scarcely twitching, and on the other the small black head. Seldom had Albert thought more quickly than he did then. Diddums was deceased; that was one outstanding fact. Another was that the means of her decease must remain for ever unknown to Lydia. She had enough ammunition for nagging already without his providing such a tit-bit as the murder of Diddums.
"A black cat for luck" murmured Pinceman, looking down on his handiwork, "I wonder whose luck, mine or Lydia's or Diddums'?" Then he made a swift resolution to bury his victim deeply, and profess not only ignorance of her whereabouts, but intense sympathy for her loss.
Swiftly he went to his tool shed, glancing as he did towards the attic in the window of Hicks's house, where Mrs. Hicks sometimes sat working in the afternoon. He knew the sensations of a murderer and feared a witness. He took a spade and returned to the scene of his crime. As he turned the corner of the shed, he stood wide eyed and speechless.
Reclining on the grass beside the bed was a woman.
That in itself was sufficient to stagger Mr. Pinceman, but as his slow brain took in the details of her appearance his eyes fairly goggled with amazement. She was young, not more than 20, and beautiful.
Yes she was beautiful enough to make Albert feel almost dizzy. She was more beautiful than her costume was scandalous in the eyes of the owner of Namecnip Lodge. He wondered vaguely if mortal woman could possess such large and melting brown—no, black, eyes, as gazed up at him, or how could it be possible that the owner of such eyes could possess such a tiny scarlet flower for a mouth. Her hair (there were storm-cloud masses of it) was loosely bound with a blazing band of jewels, pendants of which fell across her forehead. About her neck was a thin band of rubies that looked almost like a streak of blood. The roundness of her bosom was tightly confined in pink gauze thickly covered with flashing gems. Below this was a hiatus; her costume petered out completely, until it recommenced with a heavy rose and gold sash about her slim waist and hips, and instead of skirts she wore trousers of pink gauze that were banded closely at her ankles. On the tiny, the absurdly tiny feet, were dainty slippers with curled up toes. Across her waist was a thin gold chain, from which hung a small jewelled knife.
Taken all in all, she was not the lady that the ordinary suburban householder would expect to find in his back garden on a fine Saturday afternoon.
For a long minute he stood gazing at her, while the vision smiled up at him unabashed. Then the spade dropped from his hand, and with dragging feet he moved towards her trying to find words. He paused beside her. The only speech he could find blurted out: "Who the dickens are you?"
The answer came unhesitatingly: "I am Miriam, daughter of Ben Hafiz Ben Sadi. Do you not remember?"
To Albert the only thing mundane that resembled her voice was iced beer being poured into a crystal goblet on a hot day. But he steeled his heart, and thought of Lydia.
"Are you?" he said, shortly. "Well, all I can say is, it's a pity Ben doesn't look after you better. Don't you know you could be had up for coming out in those togs? You get back to your theatre quick and lively."
The girl laughed lightly, and sat up supporting herself impudently with both hands on the grass behind her. "Don't you really remember?"
"Don't be a fool," he answered irritably, "as though a man who had met you once would forget you.".
She looked up at him, still smiling mischievously. "And yet, Selim, jeweller to my lord the King Solomon, you once swore under the orange-trees that death itself could not make you forget. Ah, you men! you men!"
The sign and the glance made him quiver to his fingertips. The two were so absorbed that neither heard the gasp of astonishment from the attic of the house of Hicks, whence its overlady had obtained her first amazed view of the scene below.
The delicate flattery of the glance was turned aside by a thought of Lydia. "Now, dinkum!" said Mr. Pinceman. "What are you trying to come at? Who are you?"
"Forgotten! Forgotten!" she sighed, "that I will tell. Our great lord King Solomon, the wisest of men, had 700 wives, and 300 of us, and I was his favourite."
The much married Pinceman interrupted. "The wisest of men—seven hun—Strewth! Must have been balmy as a bandicoot."
The girl went on without noticing the interjection, just altering her attitude to clasp her hands across her knees, and Albert unconsciously sank beside her on the grass, to the edification of Mrs. Hicks, who now had an uninterrupted view of the scene.
"We were lovers, you and I, Selim, before they took me to the palace, and you swore that you would never forget, but you never heard what happened to me."
He looked at her helplessly. "All right, have it your own way. Though mind, I'll swear I never laid eyes on you before."
She shook her head. "I was the favourite, beloved of our lord the king. He would have made me his wife also, but those others poisoned his mind with lies against me; horrible lies, and he believed, but would have pardoned me, but those wives urged and begged him night and day to punish me."
"Excuse me, Miss," broke in Pinceman, "How many wives did you say?"
"Seven hundred," she answered, "and the King yielded."
Mr. Pinceman nodded with complete understanding. "My oath he would!" he muttered.
"And Selim—" "Name's Albert, please Miss, if you don't mind," he interrupted)—"Can you guess the punishment?"
Pinceman shook his head.
"I was transformed into a black cat by the magic of the King, who laid it upon me that I could never regain my human form until two blades on the one hilt struck off my head at a single blow."
Had anyone mentioned transmigration in the hearing of Mr. Pinceman, he would have wondered, for which race it had been entered. A wiser head might have been pardoned for doubting the sanity of his visitor, and Albert doubted frankly.
"Look here miss," he said sharply, "I don't know where you come from, but you're clean batty in the nut. You go home like a good girl."
For answer a hand fluttered like a white jewelled moth to his sleeve. "Ah! Selim, can you not understand? I was Diddums, and you have broken the spell. You are my deliverer, and I still love you."
For the first time since he had seen the girl he remembered the tragedy, and looked at the spot where the body of his victim lay. The shears were still sticking in the ground, but the remains had vanished.
"Somebody's pinched my dead cat!" he gasped; then remembering that a dead cat was not a negotiable security, he turned to stare at the girl.
"Yes, Selim, my beloved," she went on, and again the soft cooing voice brought the vision of iced beer to Albert's mind. "Your hand has freed me, and you and I will live together for ever."
Consternation fell on the man at this announcement.
"Here!" he said aghast, "I'm married; what about my missus?"
She pouted deliciously. "Phoo! That fat cow, Selim! I can poison her. I'm quite good at poisoning. I learned from my lord the King."
The amazing suggestion made Albert overlook the disparaging description of his wife.
"Cripes!" he gasped, "You're a bit hot, ain't you miss? Nice sort of bird that King must have been." Gradually it had filtered into his mind that there might be truth in the girl's statements.
"Oh, well," said his visitor airily, "You can keep her if you wish. I don't mind. Marry me and she will be our slave."
Said Mr Pinceman, more to himself than her, "A bonzer time I'll have, I don't think."
Up in the attic Mrs. Hicks was straining her senses to a point that threatened serious consequences in her endeavour to catch the words of the murmuring voices. Down in the yard she could see Hicks with his eye glued to a hole in the palings.
"Now look here, my girl—"
"Miriam," she corrected softly.
"All right, Miriam if you like. How long ago do you think this King business happened?"
"Three thousand years ago, my Selim. Three thousand years have I lived waiting for release."
"Rats!" said Mr. Pinceman indignantly. "Why, Lydia got you as a kitten not two years ago from her sister Maggie. Cats have nine lives, but you can't kid me they live 3,000 years."
She nodded her head. "That was the worst of my punishment. Nearly 2000 times have I been born a cat. Over 700 times I have been drowned as a kitten. I know, Selim, girl cats are not loved by human beings. And all this time I waited for the blow from a double-bladed hilt, and now—" She paused and looked up into his eyes.
Mr. Pinceman felt his pulses beat quicker as she did so, but thought of Lydia saved him. He pulled himself together with an effort, and drew away. There was a shade of vexation in the girl's eyes for a moment. Then she smiled at him again.
"Can you not remember, Selim?"
"No!" he said, shortly. "I'm blowed if I can. Just remember I'm married and I don't hold with carrying on with girls."
"Once," she said, softly, "you loved to see me dance. You said I was like a moonbeam glancing on a rippling stream of foam- flecked golden wine of Persia."
Albert looked at her in amazement.
"Did I ever say that, miss?" he inquired incredulously.
"Aye," she answered, "that and more."
"Then," he said, with deep conviction, "I must have been shickered."
She shook her head and laughed.
"Yet Selim, your tongue was very ready with sweet soft words in those days. But watch, even now I may be able to waken the old memories."
She sprang to her feet and with a wriggle of her ankles, discarded the pink slippers and stood balanced lightly before him with outstretched arms. Glancing at her tiny white feet Albert grew hot all over at an almost irresistible desire to tell her that they looked like orange blossoms dropped upon the sward. Never before had such ideas entered his head.
With half-closed eyes Miriam commenced to sway her body from the hips. Now there are some Oriental dances that may be performed before the most censorious of Occidentals without giving cause for uneasiness, and then again there are others. And the performance of Miriam, daughter of Hafiz Ben Sadi, in the back garden of Mr Pinceman in broad daylight was one of the others.
Albert sat glued to the grass. Not for a bank full of money could he have moved. But the dance had an entirely contrary effect on the shocked Mrs. Hicks. It stung her into activity. Safety first, however, was her motto, and who could blame her? Downstairs she fled, and swiftly and silently her hands pounced on the heel of Mr. Hicks, who still bent with protruding eye at the crack in the fence.
"Not a sound," she hissed, and led him indoors.
"In there, and stay there," she said as she pushed him into the sitting-room and turned the key in the door. Then she fled to the grocer's shop at the corner, where there was a public telephone. She sent her message over the wires, and sped homeward. Even before she reached her gate on the screen of a suburban picture theatre there flashed a message. "Mrs. Pinceman—Honeysuckle street—Wanted home urgently. Take a cab."
MRS. HICKS, on arriving home, was breathless with exertion and indignation, and there was Hicks back at the palings again. He had escaped through the window. The brute! Again she descended on him like a hissing fury, and sat him in a far corner of the attic, while she returned to her post.
All her strict, hopelessly commonplace training was in arms at what she saw. She breathed words like "Hussy" and "Shameless minx," and occasionally turned to call Hicks a low brute, over her shoulder and all the time she listened for the sound of wheels. But if a thunderbolt had fallen beside Pinceman at the moment it would have passed unheeded, for he was witnessing a display of temptation that had turned a much wiser head than his.
He had risen to his feet, when or how he had no notion. Gradually the swaying figure drew closer to him. The strange perfume of her hair wakened memories undreamed of. His senses reeled before the out-stretched arms and the appealing, white, jewelled hands.
Before he knew it Miriam was nestling closely to him, and his arms were about her slim body. Resistlessly his head bent and his lips hovered over the red parted lips of the girl.
Then the storm smote him. One mighty avenging hand reached his ear, and another wrenched at the collar of his shirt and drew him backward as he released the girl.
"You devil!" his wife almost shrieked. "You dastardly beast! In your own home, no sooner than my back is turned. Who is this vile creature?"
The two women glared furiously at each other. Miriam's hand fell on the hilt of her knife. Albert was at no time ready- witted, and the magnitude of the disaster scattered his senses to the four winds. He just gaped.
"Who is she?" snorted Lydia.
Pinceman found his voice. A really satisfactory lie was out of the question, so he told the truth. "She's the cat, Liddy."
The disengaged hand landed swiftly on his ear. "Cat! Cat! Of course she's a cat, as if I couldn't see that. What's her name?"
"Diddums!" answered the worm feebly.
Here Miriam intervened. "He speaks the truth, you fat cow! By chance he slew your cat, and I am his reward. Peace, fool! For henceforth he is mine."
The mighty bosom of Mrs. Pinceman heaved like a blacksmith's bellows, and her face grew purple.
"Fat cow!" she gasped. "Yours!" She released her husband and made one stride towards the girl.
Albert threw an arm round her and checked her momentum with an effort.
"Don't listen to her, Liddy, she's mad! I never saw her till an hour ago. I'll swear it."
Again the wrath of the outraged woman fell on him. "So, for an undressed hussy like that, you forget me in an hour!"
Here a shriek from the girl cut into her speech.
"My hour is passing. My lord the King gave me but an hour to win a kiss from the man who released me, or die a cat! Selim—" she flung herself upon him, and her arms about his neck. "Selim, my beloved, kiss me. Kiss me but once—"
Albert wrenched the arms from around his neck.
"Be blowed if I do," he said simply.
Speech failed Lydia, but her feelings found vent in action, and she landed one full-handed slap just where she thought it would have the greatest moral effect. The girl spun around, and a knife flashed in her hand.
"I go!" she hissed, "I go; but I take you to Gehenna with me!"
Mrs Pinceman's courage failed before the fury in the eyes, and she fled.
Up in the attic Mrs. Hicks had watched with keen enjoyment: but this new development spurred her into action, and again she fled to the grocer's shop, and this time her message sent a constable flying to his motorcycle.
Mrs. Pinceman screamed. Miriam darted after her, but Albert threw himself across her track. To dodge him the girl ran across the tomato-bed, and as she did so the shears, still sticking upright, caught her foot. She tumbled—fell—and Albert Pinceman stood staring at the ground. There was no jewelled fury there, but the body of Diddums, still twitching slightly as it lay.
Mrs. Pinceman had locked herself in the woodshed.
An intense relief filled the soul of Albert.
"Liddy! Liddy!" he called. "It's all right, she's gone."
The door of the shed opened, and the white face his wife peered out.
HALF an hour later a constable made a report at the station to the sergeant.
"Nothing doing," he said, hanging up his helmet and laughing. "Chap named Pinkhman or something, killed his wife's cat, and when I got up there she'd hauled about three handfuls of hair out of the poor devil. I had to pull her off, or she'd have got it all. Seems he'd been cuddling a chorus girl as well. I couldn't get the hang of it altogether. No charge, anyway. Sorry for him."
The sergeant nodded sympathetically. He, too, had a Lydia.
"Dashed unlucky to kill a cat!"
Sometimes accuracy is everything...
SHE had seated herself on the arm of his chair; one bare arm was round his neck, and one soft hand had pushed his head back so that his eyes could not avoid hers even had they so wished; Jim Benton, who still loved his wife desperately, although they had been married a whole month, found the position becoming increasingly untenable. It would have been hard enough to refuse Betty anything she asked in ordinary circumstances, but to have to deny Betty her heart's desire—with Betty's eyes, with a slight mist of tears in them, looking down into his—was, as Jim thought, "the very devil." Still, because he did love her, he steeled his heart and tried to look inflexible.
"Jimmy," she said mournfully, "I believe you've stopped loving me."
Jim tried to draw her to his knees, but she resisted stubbornly. "I don't sit on the knees of a man who doesn't love me, even if he is my husband."
Benton laughed and shrugged his shoulders. "Aren't you satisfied with being on committees and things, without going on the platform to be heckled by any rotter in the crowd who likes to attend a meeting?"
"That's just why I want to do it," she put in defiantly.
"Well, all I've to say is that it's a queer perversion of taste."
"Oh, Jim, won't you see it from my point of view? The easy things are not worth doing. It's the difficulties that appeal to me. I want to be one of the leaders, not one of the mob." And she threw out one small hand in appeal.
Benton dropped one arm over the back of his chair, and stared at the half-written page on the table before him for a moment. "Jove! Betty, if I had my way, I'd close the universities against women. Here you are a B.A., and your head full of fantastic theories that wouldn't run two pennyweights to the 100 tons for practical application."
She bridled. "Oh, yes, close the universities to women, by all means, my lord the Sultan."
"All right; Sultan if you like, Betty; but I hear what other men think of the woman politician, and if the newspapers are not kind they're just."
She went on without heeding his interruption. "Any way, if women couldn't do better than men, they couldn't make a worse hash of government. Where have we ever failed when we had the chance? Look at—"
"Oh, yes, I know," he broke in; "I've heard the whole list before, from Boadicea and Joan of Arc down to Ella Wheeler Wilcox and the Pankhursts."
The frown vanished from her forehead for a moment as she laughed. "Oh, you bear! It's nothing but masculine jealousy. But it's no use, Jim; we've got to stand with you as equals in everything." The hobby-horse had the bit between its teeth now. "We're your equals in science now. Look at Madame Curie. We have broken into law and medicine, and we'll lead you there in the end. Aren't women going more and more into business every day?"
"Humph!" he growled. "They are. I've had four typists in three months, and I couldn't say whether their ideas of business or their spelling were the more remarkable."
She waved his words away. "Phoo! the ruck's the same whether they're men or women. I mean in the big things. Jim, if we set our minds to it, there's nothing on earth we can't do as well as or better than men. Nothing! Nothing! Look!" she said, pointing to the attaché case on the table at his hand, "there's a case in point. I'll wager that if you had had a woman accountant with an ounce of brains that blunder would never have occurred."
He looked at the case sourly. "That, my dear girl, is the gist of what I intend to tell the usually impeccable Mr. Percy Lincoln at a quarter past nine in my office in the morning. I'll admit that drawing nearly £300 too much for the wages at the mine for me to bring home again is over the odds. Still, accidents will happen."
"Any excuse so long as it's a man who makes the mistake."
"Lincoln will have to find a much better one, I can assure you of that." He picked up his pen.
"You re not going on with that tonight, Jim? It's after eleven."
"Must," he said, bending over the table.
"Get off to bed, there's a dear girl—I'm absolutely, dog-tired—up till two this morning, and seven hours in the car today. Still the meeting's at 10 am, and I must have the report ready for the board."
"Bother the board! Your rest's more important than that wretched report," she said, standing up.
He smiled at her. "Betty, one half of you—no, one quarter of you—is B.A. and Women's Rational League, but the rest, praise be, is good, sound, illogical woman. Trot off to bed."
Standing beside him she pressed her lips to his hair. "May I, Jimmy?"
He reached up and took the hand that rested on his shoulder. "Please yourself, Betty. It's unfashionable for a man to give orders to his wife these days, and besides," he went on with a shake of his head, "it is rather a waste of good orders."
"I'll make you very proud of me in the end, Jim," she said, bending over him tenderly.
"I'm all that now, chick," he said, "still, if it makes you happy—"
"Good night, you dear. Shall I close the window before I go?"
He looked up at the French window opened on to the veranda. "No, I'll lock up when I have finished. Let me have all the air I can. It will keep me from going to sleep."
Long after she had vanished through the curtains that fell across the doorway behind, he stared before him musing as a million million others have done over the eternal feminine riddle.
BETTY went to her room. Her fingers rested for a moment on the switch of the electric light, but the splash of moonlight across the floor drew her irresistibly. She crossed over, and settling herself in the window seat sat looking out into the garden. The night could justly have been described as perfect—still and cool after a hot day, with a cloudless sky and a full moon. The silence was unbroken except for the occasional distant hoot of a honking motor-car.
In spite of her desire to lead nations, Betty, because she was young, and because she loved her obstinate husband, let herself drift away in the romance of the moonlight. Dreaming dreams, she smiled to herself, thinking of her interview with Jim. He was a perfect dear, and there was not another man in the world to equal him (that was a discovery of her own that would startle the world some day), but in some things he was "horribly" (her adverb) conservative. She wouldn't let the words "old fashioned" shape themselves in her mind in connection with Jim. Still she was not content with the result of her petition. True, Jim had consented; but unwillingly. Not because he had thought it right for her to go on the platform, but because her womanhood had lured it from his manhood.
Her eyebrows came together slightly, and she gave a little sigh. He would go on thinking all the time she was wrong. That was what she wanted to overcome, that "spoiled child" idea. She wanted a consent given not only enthusiastically, but proudly. He had been proud enough of her swimming and tennis and riding. She wanted to show him that, in spite of her sex, she was equal to any emergency. She did not want to be considered something to coddle, but Jim's equal in everything as well as his wife. She felt there would be no pleasure in using the consent as it had been won, but only if it were given ungrudgingly.
How? That was the question she sat turning over in her mind. How to convince Jim?
Time had ceased to exist for Betty. The magic of the moon held her. Truly she saw the garden in its light, but as truly she was unconscious of its existence, had drifted into another world where she had triumphed over every obstacle; to another world where women ruled and were led by a Betty Benton, who was Prime Minister of Australia, and the moon light made it seem quite feasible.
Then she came back to life and found herself standing staring into the night, with one hand pressed to a heart that stilled for a moment, then bounded like a racing engine. She had seen the figure of a man detach itself from some bushes, and run, bent low, towards the house.
In a moment she found herself on her feet.
Two thoughts rushed to her mind—Jim, and the money. Then came a discovery, a splendid discovery, she was not frightened. Excited, yes—the leaping heart told that, but there was no trace of fear. Betty moved to the door, but, swiftly as she moved, another thought had time to shape itself. Here was her chance. Dare she take it?
She paused. There was no irresolution, no hesitation. Her thoughts came clearly and in proper sequence. She knew there was no weapon in the house, but she must have one of some kind.
Without a sound she crossed the room again to the mantelpiece. So sure were her movements that her outstretched hand fell on what it sought in the darkness at first attempt, and her fingers closed round the piece of silver-lead ore which she knew Jim had left there. It was small enough to fit her hand easily yet it weighed nearly two pounds. The weight of it brought her comfort. With that in her hand, she felt she was ready to face anything.
Then she turned and glided into the passage. She had no plan of action. Something rose in her and told her that she would be ready to meet any contingency as soon as it arose. Holding her skirts closely in her left hand to hide the sound of her movements, she made her way swiftly to the front of the house. The passage was in darkness, except for the thin streak of yellow light that lay across the polished floor, from between the curtains of Jim's study door. She stooped quickly and drew off her slippers, so that the sound would not betray her when she left the rugs, and a moment later gained the curtains and peered between them into the room.
The tableau before her eyes was one that stamped itself into her brain with photographic detail. Jim was still at his table, but his head was lying against the padded back of his chair, and his body was relaxed in sleep.
Beside him the attaché case lay open. Half hidden by a blue print, but terribly conspicuous, she could see the roll of notes, with its rubber band. On top of the blue print lay Jim's collar and tie that he had discarded for the sake of comfort. She even noticed the tiny star of light reflected from the gold band of the fountain pen that lay on the unfinished report.
But it was the other occupant of the room that fascinated her. He was quite unlike her conception of a criminal—a tall, slight figure, with clear-cut features. He was not badly dressed, and it was only for a second, when he raised his eyes from her husband, that she realised the relentless cruelty in them. He was within two feet of Jim's chair, and directly behind it, and not fear, but a storm of anger, rose in Betty's heart when she saw the short thick baton the right hand held. He had bent forward, with his left hand outstretched, to the open case. Caution fled. With one swift sweep of her hand, Betty dashed the curtains aside, and stepped into the room.
At the ring and rattle of her entrance, the intruder straightened up, staring at her, and at the same instant Jim's eyes opened on her with mild surprise and question at the tense expression on her face. What followed was not a matter of seconds, but fractions of seconds.
"Jim!" she gasped. Then—"You brute! You unspeakable brute!" As she spoke she stepped forward and hurled her weighty weapon with all the strength of her arm at the burglar's head.
The direction was splendid; but, alas! the elevation was a woman's, and that flying chunk of metal took Jim Benton like a shell fragment, and thudded fairly on the third button of his waistcoat, and Jim's eyes closed again to the sound of grunts, but not in sleep. By the time he had recovered himself and partially revived a hysterical wife, a burglar whose hip pocket bulged with loot, was leaning against a fence more than half a mile away, shaking with unrighteous but heartfelt mirth.
Now, if there be a moral to this parable, dearly beloved sisters, it may be in that your aim, although directed by the best intentions, is not always as straight as you think it may be.
Kean, the intrepid world adventurer, meets his Waterloo...
BECAUSE Holcroft spent most of his time on a sofa, his remarkable circle of friends used his smoking-room as a club. Two or three at least would drop in every evening, and sometimes as many as a dozen would be spread out in Holcroft's easy chairs, exchanging anecdotes of the unconventional domestic policies of little-known nations, and hair-raising stories of the underworld of international diplomacy.
They told their yarns in slow even voices, and with little emphasis or adornment, and what was more amazing than the stories themselves was that they were all true.
In Holcroft's smoking-room were discussed the lives and deeds of international celebrities in detail that would never appear in any obituary notice or biography. There I heard the true story of the now almost forgotten Dogger Bank incident, from one who had taken part in it. I heard the rotund, innocent Macrae tell without a smile on his face why certain great oil concessions were cancelled, and his part in the matter, to an audience that rocked with mirth.
Most of Holcroft's friends were men who had done the actual work, taking their lives in their hands, for which statesmen at home and in Europe had received the credit and rewards. They had gone alone into strange places, and, escaping by miracles themselves, had seen men die horribly. All ordinary emotions seemed to have burnt out of them. To them, the amazing was commonplace, and what would stir a normal man to the depths left them unmoved and cold.
It followed, naturally that they viewed life from unusual angles. Because they had lived and worked in outlandish places and among savage men, they were strangely "woman-shy." Their ideas of woman dated back to the early nineties, and she of the third decade of this century was something beyond their comprehension, Rossiter, who had lived five years in Moscow with a price on his head, and thought little of it, was stricken dumb one day when I introduced him to Kitty Carew, and apparently suffered agonies until he excused himself awkwardly and fled. Kitty was certainly rather overpowering, but few men wished to fly from her presence; indeed the effect of her personality was usually the reverse.
One night at Holcroft's I heard Kean raging against the progress of science and all its works, and the lunacy of a French confrère who had introduced it into their peculiar brand of diplomacy. The incident concerned the involved policies of some native state near Chitral, and the iniquities of one Nazim El- Mulk, its ruler, whom, for some reason, both England and France wished to remove from his throne during the war. In that part of the world, it appeared from Kean, a natural death was so unusual as to excite comment, assassination was a dignified profession, and treachery was regarded as a virtue (especially if successful).
Kean's idea of handling the situation was to finance a rather less blackguardly aspirant to the throne to get rid of Nazim El- Mulk by one of the orthodox local revolutionary methods. However, the Frenchman had brought with him a gaudy brass clock, the base of which was filled with high explosives. This he insisted on presenting to the simple ruler, who accepted it with childish gratitude.
"I knew he'd make a mess of things, and, by Jove! he did," said Kean, and went on to explain how one of El-Mulk's lady-loves saw the clock immediately, and persuaded him to give it to her. That night, instead of blowing Nazim El-Mulk to Jehennum, his harem and its inhabitants were spread thin over about five acres of ground by French science, and the infuriated monarch chased the two of them into Siberia, from where they had a little Hades of a time in making their way to Manchuria and comparative safety. I sympathised with Kean's conservatism, and agreed solemnly that old and tried methods were the best. It would scarcely have been safe to express any other opinion, for Kean saw nothing abnormal in the incident beyond his confrère's departure from established custom.
The emotion known as fear was the least likely to affect any of them. They had seen others die and a violent death as a termination of their work was always at their elbow while the work lasted. Now it was all over and they had come here; a little coterie, living on half pay or on what they had saved during their hectic careers, to settle down and dwell in peace—a crew with chilled steel nerves, and granite courage. Being a class apart, they lived apart, and mixed only with their kind.
As a friend of Holcroft's I had been accepted by them as part of the scheme of things, and gradually they came to discuss subjects before me where they would have been dumb in the presence of a stranger.
One night I had pulled my chair up to Holcroft's sofa, and was yarning quietly with him while half a dozen of the others talked spasmodically and filled the room with thick blue clouds of tobacco smoke. The reason why Holcroft stuck to his sofa was that his legs were in New Guinea. In an interval of other work he had undertaken to collect bugs and butterflies for one of the Rothschilds, a raiding party of natives, also collectors of a kind, had added Holcroft to their bag. He was not killed immediately, he explained, because they wanted him to keep "fresh," which he would not have done after death, very long, in that climate. But so that he should not escape they fractured both his legs with clubs. This necessitated their carrying him, of course, so they suspended him by wrists and ankles from a bamboo pole which they carried over their shoulders. When he talks about the episode at all, he will say that he was not often conscious during the two days he was being carried to his culinary destination, but he could still remember every resting-place, for his bearers used to throw the pole from their shoulders as though he had been a bunch of bananas.
Holcroft is somewhat of a Germanophile, because it was a survey party of Germans who fell in with his captors, and with true Teutonic thoroughness shot them down to the last man. "Now we," he would say, "would have let them all escape rather than plug one who was innocent, while the Germans laid out the whole lot rather than let a guilty one escape. The natives understand the Huns, but they think we are all cracked."
As we talked, occasional snatches of what the others were saying drifted to us through the smoke. Heavy-handed banter, and now and again a chuckle of laughter. Presently I noticed Kean's voice without actually hearing what he was saying, but from their silence the others were apparently deeply interested. Then the words, "I don't mind admitting that I was in a perspiring funk," made Holcroft straighten up in his cushions and me turn in my chair.
Kean was leaning back his thin leathery length in his seat, and speaking slowly. "It was the most beastly hole I was ever in in my life. I had completely lost my bearings, and knew I should never find my way out alone. Reminded me of a time when I was getting snakes for Jamrach's in Borneo in '93, and a gang of Dyaks had chased me into one of those old ruined temples away in the mountains, full of dark corridors and vaults, and I was in it for two hours before I got clear. The jolly place seemed to carry about two cobras to the square yard, and I cursed myself a good deal for an idiot for not staying to have it out with the Dyaks in the open with my rifle. Anyhow this was worse. I was thrashing round like an alligator on a hook, wondering what was going to happen next, when I lifted a curtain and turned into a big dim room. It was light enough though to see what I had stumbled against as I crossed the threshold—" He paused and bent forward towards the listening group. "It was half the body of a woman. The eyes were staring, up at me from the floor—just glazed, staring, empty eyes, and the lips were drawn back from the teeth in a grin."
"Phew! Jim, cut out the beastly details," broke in Rossiter. "Had she been a white woman?"
"Yes," replied Kean, "she was white—except where she was red," he added significantly. Then he went on, "and the arms were missing too. There was just the head with its wide staring eyes and the upper part of the trunk lying at my feet. That about finished me. I was feeling pretty pale before, and it only needed that to break my nerve—that and the grisly silence of the place just put me in a perspiring funk. I didn't know which way to turn, and anyhow I couldn't have moved if I did, because my knees had gone. Then as I looked up I saw the inhabitants of the Sheol, just as one of them looked up and saw me.
"Women no less! Four of them, all dressed in long black robes, and they had another in a chair practising some of their devilish work on her. Then the four of them turned and stared at me. Gad! Never in my life did I see anything more baleful and malignant than those faces. I couldn't see their victim properly, and I was glad of it; I had seen too much of their work already. I felt as if someone were rubbing my backbone with a chunk of ice. It wouldn't have been so bad if I'd had any means of defence, but I stood there as helpless as a child and watched the high-priestess come at me. She was a tall, gaunt woman, and her face—you remember Kipling's line, 'White and stale as a bone'—it fitted her like an old glove. Except for that, she reminded me of a black panther ready to strike. There was the same stealthy feline poise of body, and the same remorseless glare in the eyes. I'd have given a pension to be back in the old temple with the cobras; they would have been friendly in comparison. She walked—no, glided—to within a foot of me, and stared right into my face; it was only then my eye caught the gleam of steel in her hand. I wanted to explain, but couldn't, and stood there shivering and waiting for her to speak. Then it came."
"The haberdashery department is on the first floor; this is the millinery department. There is the lift," and she pointed to a door behind her with her scissors; "and, by Jove! I nearly fainted when I tumbled into it."
Sometimes a reporter earns a very hard dollar...
IT was sheer lunacy to turn into the office on Saturday morning to look at the letter rack, and it was worse to venture upstairs, but I only perceived this when I barged into the chief as he was mining out of his room. The pleasure of the meeting was all on his side.
"You'll do," he said; pushing a slip of paper at me; "Carton, of the Primitive Bethellists' Mission, was to have sent me in this chap's photograph today, and rang up to say he could not get one. Dig out the man himself. I want the photograph in here by midday at the latest."
He turned to go, but stayed to hear my wail that I was on my way to tennis, that I was already on the book for an afternoon and evening job, and that in any case he ought to catch a cub and send him instead.
The chief grinned, "Sorry, but I can't help that. I'll take you off the night job"—a pause—"You'll probably have as much exercise getting the photograph as you would at tennis," and he left me glaring at the slip of paper.
"The Reverend Horace Gorster, Evangelist," ran the legend; only that, and nothing more. I got Carton on the telephone, and inquired for the Gorster's address. Carton was "awfully sorry," but he did not know; if I inquired at the church there, the caretaker could tell me; and he went on to enlarge on the Reverend gentleman's piety and eloquence. He was a recent arrival, and had done some wonderful work in England.
I cut Carton short, and left for the church. The time was then 9.35. The caretaker did not know the address either, but if I called at the house where he formerly boarded, kept by "the widow of one of our ministers of the Gospel," I could find out. The caretaker was also inclined to tell me of Mr. Gorster's burning eloquence, and how the church had been crammed every night during the mission.
I made the widow's boarding-house by 10.15. She came to the door in person. She gave me the address, and then it occurred to me that the parson had infected everyone with whom he came into contact with his own flow of speech. The widow would have been talking of his amazing oratory still, I think, had I waited to listen. It would have taken me as long to reach a tram as to walk, so I followed the lady's directions on foot, through streets swarming with kids, whose average of complete seats in their pants was one in three.
Number 676 was a weatherboard cottage standing on land with a frontage of 25 feet, with a depth to a right-of-way, where a hawker was bellowing "Rabbi, wild rabbi!"
A pale woman, with pale eyes and pale hair, opened the door. Under cross-examination she admitted that the Reverend Horace Gorster lived there, and that he was at home. She took my card, and held the door open for me to enter. I had already made one idiotic error that morning in going into the office, but I made a worse one in accepting that invitation. From a 3ft. 6in. passage I was ushered into the operating theatre. It was a small room, and as stuffy as the inside of a church hassock. The dull tapestry-covered suite, with red plush embellishments, filled it so that navigation was hazardous. There was a wool and wax bouquet in the middle of the mantelpiece under a glass cover, and on either end was a white china poodle-looking dog, with black ears, a blue ribbon round its neck, and a vivid scarlet tongue hanging out. From the distant clash of crockery, it was evident that the pale woman was washing up. I glanced at my watch. It was then 10.35. Just bear that 10.35 in mind.
He slid into the room so quietly that I did not hear the door open, and he was beside me, blinking at me like a benevolent owl through his horn-rimmed glasses, before I knew of his presence. He certainly looked anything but the fiery evangelist of whom I had heard—a short, thick man with sandy hair, and a stubby sandy moustache. He had not shaved, and he wore no collar, and his baggy suit was snuff coloured. I had always thought that carpet slippers became extinct about the time when sub-editors began putting the boot into devouring element. Anyhow, he had a pair—carpet slippers, not boots. They were red, with a pink and green design on them. Providence only knows how he acquired them, for he did not look like the sort who would pilfer them from a museum.
Gently and persuasively I unfolded my mission. We needed his photograph for publication, and would be extremely grateful, etc. Now bishops, priests, and deacons had jumped at the distinction I was holding out to the Reverend Horace Gorster, Evangelist, and he just blinked at me and ruminated.
Presently he asked, "Is yours a daily publication?"
I remembered that he was a new arrival, but even then the question was disconcerting. In a few words I sketched for him what sort of a paper it was, and what it stood for.
He nodded, and continued to ruminate. Then, "And do you think, my friend, that if I do this for you I will advance the Lord's work?"
That would have been a poser had I been on oath, but as things were I took it in my stride. More rumination, and then he turned aside to a small table, and picked up a frame with a postcard-sized picture of himself on it. It would do splendidly. I told him, and held out my hand for the prize.
He replaced it on the table, however, and said, "Well, well! I shall let you have it. Now, my dear friend, tell me, have you our dear Lord in your heart? Have you really found Him?"
Whatever reputation I possess among my peers has not been gained either for or by exuberant piety, and having the question direct and searching, and demanding an immediate answer, hurled straight at my head, put me in an embarrassing position. Had I answered as the spirit moved me, he might have gone "cold" on the photograph, and that I had to get at all costs. There was nothing for it but evasion. I replied that perhaps my views might not agree with his, but I was very busy, and (pulling out my watch) would be glad to discuss the question with him at another time. I had something to learn, however, of the Reverend Horace Gorster, and I had come to the right man to teach me.
"My very dear friend, can you say, with absolute certainty that you will be alive tonight? No, no, you cannot. 'Now' is the appointed time. I feel that our dear Lord has sent you here to me that you may be saved. Hear me while I give you His message."
I quarrel with no man's creed; that is his own affair, and when I thought the matter over quietly afterwards, I had to admit to myself that Gorster's job was to convert me as much as it was mine to get his photograph; more, he was working overtime on a hopeless contract, and drawing no pay for it. So give him all that in—that, and his transparent sincerity of purpose. Where I did quarrel with him was in that he mixed my professional visit with his professional aims, and even an English evangelist should have known better than to try and convert a newspaper man; an American would not have wasted his breath. Why, even General William Booth apologised to a reporter whom he had inadvertently approached with similar intent.
The position then was that I had to sit tight, and take what was coming to me or lose the photograph. There was no second choice. So I sat tight. He had pressed me into a chair, and his own chair effectually barred the exit, even if I had wanted to grab the frame on the table and bolt—an alternative to which I gave serious consideration.
Now it is one thing to make one of a congregation from 500 to 1,000 in a church, and stand fire at a long range, from even the most incandescent evangelist, who ever hurled threats of damnation, or offered promissory-notes on the future, from the pulpit. But it is another thing to sit in a 10ft. by 12ft parlour, with china dogs poking out their tongues at one, and be the sole object of the same enthusiastic manifestations. What my informants had told me about his oratory was far, far short of the truth, glowing as were their tributes. Never had I conceived of a human being with such an amazing store of speech: or such a relentless flow of discourse. He sawed the air, and he pawed at me, and he talked, and he talked, and he talked, and the more he talked the more furious he grew. He was a wet orator, too, and as he was not more than three feet from we the verbosity was more like a nightmare of a demented gramophone with a Grinnell sprinkler attachment, than anything I know. The raucous voice filled the stuffy room until it vibrated under the strain. He forgot he was speaking to one and not a thousand, and more than once he sideslipped and called me "brethren." But he never paused, and burning charge and sentence flowed over my brain until it almost reeled.
It is a queer point of psychology that, in spite of my rage, and thoroughly mixed up with it, was a wild and almost uncontrollable desire for laughter;yyyyyy it had flashed through my mind how gladly some of my confrères would have been unseen witnesses to my plight, and how gladly I would have watched any of them under similar conditions; and I had fairly to wrench back the laughter that kept rising to the surface. At the same time my wrath was encouraging speculation as to what would be the extreme penalty for "outing" an evangelist with a china poodle.
I think a jury would have given me a strong recommendation to mercy at any rate, if they had had the case fairly presented to them. It seemed ages since the din commenced, and I thought that time had ceased and that the eternity he raved about had started. Then there came a ray of hope. He began to misfire, then gradually he slowed down and stopped. I think his petrol must have run out.
Right from the deepest depths of my being came a sigh of relief, and had he let me go then all would have been well with him, but in what followed he was "asking for it" fairly, and he got what he asked for. He rose and slipped the photograph from its frame and handed it to me. Then he said, shaking his unkempt head: "Not yet, my dear friend, not yet, but it will come." I slipped the card for which I had suffered so much into my wallet and picked up my hat, but—
"We will now pray," said the Rev. Horace Gorster, and before I had realised what was happening he had plumped on his knees before me, and barred my projected flight. If I looked such an ass as I felt, my expression must have been priceless. There at my feet was the untidy bulk, and as he knelt he fingered purposefully in his waistcoat pocket. I watched the proceeding with dazed curiosity. Presently he produced my card, the one I had handed to the pale woman. He held it up to his short-sighted eyes and read it carefully, and then he began. He commended me to the notice of the Almighty, calling me by name and address (I had not noticed that I had given him a card with my private address pencilled on it), and he told the Deity all he knew about me—how I was walking in darkness, and how I was a poor miserable sinner. (I admit I am poor, that I was infernally miserable at the time, and that I am not by any stretch of imagination a saint; but still, that did not justify the emphasis he laid on my spiritual condition).
From that he went on to speak to the Creator with more familiarity than he did to me, and in much the same way as you would tell Jenkins going home in the train at night of how Brown would not lock up his fowls, and how they got into your garden. He told of my stony heart, of my middle age (confound him), of my whitening hair (confound him again). He gave an interesting but embarrassing catalogue of my moral infirmities, as they appeared to him—not nearly as amply as I could have done myself; but still he did not do too badly. He made rather a fuss about my smoking, too. He must have deduced that from the aroma I generally have hanging around me. Then suddenly he switched off and began putting in a word for the paper. That was the last straw. There were men in the Trades Hall who could have told him that it was past praying for; it still did me good to think that I had been present on the only occasion in its history in which the ceremony had been performed. Strange to say, through my wild desire to yell, I found myself mentally adding a few words on behalf of the chief. They might not do any good, but they would not do much harm.
It was about then that I saw a light, and a light that flooded my injured spirit into a soothing balm. I saw my way to deal with Gorster, so let him pray on, which he did for a good 10 minutes until even he could not hold out longer, and I was "all in".
He saw me to the door, and grabbed my hand in his soft damp paw. "My dear friend, make me a promise. Come to my service tonight, and let me lead you to the light."
He stood in the doorway blinking, still holding my hand lest I should escape without giving an answer. I looked at him doubtfully, and murmured that I thought it would be scarcely expedient; indeed, hardly right.
"Why?" he demanded, earnestly.
Then I said slowly and very sweetly, "You see, Mr. Gorster, I am a member of the Jewish community."
He dropped my hand as if I had shot him and stepped back, and with a gay "Good morning," I fled.
It was only when I got round the nearest corner that I let myself go, though my watch showed 11.40. It had lasted one hour and five minutes. And I had only 20 minutes to reach the office: but I spent the first five of them in mirth.
An old colloquialism is put to the test...
IF there be any reason for relating this story as a Christmas story, it is because the main incident, in which I was concerned, happened on Christmas Day. It might just as easily have happened on Guy Faux Day. But for a miserable attempt on my part to be facetious it would never have happened at all.
The event which made the whole wretched business possible took place unknown to me in the first year of the present century, just before the period when the motor-car and the flapper combined to wreck the Victorian social order. In that year Henry Winston Clifford, articled clerk, was travelling by coach from Wonga to Ringunyah. He was the sole passenger, and he occupied the box seat with Simeon Rice, the driver, who was a humorist in a quiet way.
At Wonga someone had told Clifford, who knew little of wallabies and less of shooting, that wallabies were plentiful along the road and could be easily shot from the coach. For this reason Clifford carried a loaded Winchester across his knees; while Simeon, who knew there was not a wallaby within fifty miles, encouraged him cheerfully with the assurance that every turn in the road would open up wallaby. Simeon said afterwards that the sport lay in the anticipation of sport. It was only when a mile from Ringunyah, where the bush thinned out to the desolation of old diggings, that Clifford awoke to the fact that it was an off day for wallaby. Then, as the coach swung round a bend in the road, there happened that which was to affect vitally the remainder of his life.
About 100 yards ahead slightly off the road Clifford saw a most disreputable looking shanty. It was composed principally of kerosene-tins, packing-cases, and hessian, and it seemed to be as uninhabitable as it was ugly. A small door faced the road, and in one side was a very small square opening. Clifford had a cartridge in his rifle, and he was pining for a shot at something after his disappointment over the wallabies.
"I'll bet you," he said suddenly to Simeon, "I can put a bullet through that hole." Before Simeon could speak or change the reins from his left to his right hand, Clifford threw the rifle to his shoulder and fired.
"A fool's trick, young feller," snorted Simeon. "That's a chow's hut. You might have killed someone."
A moment later as the coach drew abreast of the hut the door opened violently and an excited and unprepossessing Chinaman stood framed in the doorway. He waved his arms widely and squealing "Whaffor? Whaffor you shoot my bally mate?"
Simeon swore deeply but softly as he reined in his team and leaped to the ground. The Chinaman still danced and reiterated his pertinent but unpleasant demand for information. Clifford sat on the box seat and his knees knocked together as he sat, while Simeon thrust the gibbering Chinaman aside and entered the hut, to reappear in a moment looking very white.
"Is he—?" gurgled Clifford.
"Slap between the eyes," answered Simeon.
One does not kill a Chinaman every day. It was a novel experience for Clifford, who there and then became exceedingly ill.
An influential uncle arrived at Ringunyah in answer to a frantic telegram and bailed Clifford out. The same uncle arranged for his defence when the coroner's court found a verdict of manslaughter. Being what it is, the law makes as much fuss over the sudden death of a tubercular and opium-sodden Louey Chee as over a useful citizen. Clifford's uncle retained the best criminal barrister in the State, and after one disagreement of the jury, on the second trial he obtained a verdict of "not guilty" directly in the face of the evidence and the judge's summing up. The judge raised his eyebrows, but made no comment. The foreman of the jury was heard to say later in the day that "they weren't going to jug a decent young bloke for a bloomin' chow."
Clifford was a naturally sensitive soul. The anxiety and the publicity of the case, apart from its cause, hit deeply into his character. Thereafter, with great circumspection, his friends avoided any reference to China or the Chinese in his presence. They spoke of porcelain rather than china, and were careful to offer him nothing but Ceylon tea.
AS they say in the theatre programmes, ten years have elapsed since act one. The scene of act two is Denny Morrisy's hotel at Whiting Bay. Denny was a bachelor by instinct and conviction. Women he would not have about the place, either as guests or servants. Denny ran his hotel solely for men who came there for the fishing, which was ideal, from year's end to year's end. Occasionally women did inflict themselves on Denny as guests, but they did not stay long. He was studiously polite and attentive, but never a woman who left in a hurry but had some hair-raising story of snakes to tell. The snakes were harmless, and Denny used to catch them himself for use as required.
Within reason visitors could do as they pleased. The same men used to make for Denny Morrisy's season after season. They could dress as they pleased, and if the spirit moved them to go to the kitchen at 2 o'clock in the morning to make Welsh rarebits no one worried. Denny's Japanese cook, too, was an artist in preparing any food that wore fins, scales, or shells.
A few days before Christmas I arrived at Denny's with Billy Garnett and Jack Mason. They were rather a godless pair, but they were sound on fishing. Anyhow, we went to the bay for whiting rather than morals. We found the usual cheery crowd, and accepted one another as members of a brotherhood, dropping into easy friendships. There was one man the others called Cliff who took my fancy. He was quiet almost to shyness. Though he never laughed outright at the nonsense of the crowd his eyes would dance with appreciation, and when he did drop a word or two into the riot it was to score heavily. He fished with us most of the time, and the more I saw of him the more I liked him.
Came Christmas evening. The day had been perfection. We were all tired and all fit for bed—all except Garnett. His guardian demon, never far from his shoulder, prompted him to propose a game of draw poker before we turned in. In vain we told him that it was an unhallowed pastime, unfitted to the day. He was a pertinacious brute. First Mason surrendered, and Cliff's good nature led him to follow. Two others joined them, and finally Garnett's jibes spurred me to make a sixth in the hope of winning his money.
As a game it was a wash-out. Never before or since did I see a man hold such cards as Cliff. The more we rushed him the worse the disaster. Coolly he raked in our cash; his eyes twinkling at our comments on his luck. By eleven o'clock, when Denny came in to leave what bottles and glasses we required, we told him that if he wanted his accounts settled when we left he'd have to apply to Cliff. We were permanently and hopelessly "broke."
Just about midnight the crisis arrived. The table rocked with laughter when Cliff calmly showed four sevens to my full hand, and relieved me of 15 shillings. Garnett picked up the cards and dealt.
"Gad! Cliff," growled Mason, picking up his hand, "I wish you'd show us how to do it?"
"Shame to take the money!" Garnet grinned. "Where do you get your luck, Cliff?"
Here my guardian angel must of got tired of her job. I was looking at my cards and said lightly, "Don't you know how he got his luck?"
There was a chorus of "Put him away?" "How?" "Or is it skill?"
Still looking at my cards and wondering whether to draw for a flush or throw in, I said, "One card, Billy," and added, "Don't you know the beggar killed a Chinaman. Didn't you Cliff?"
I had picked up the card Billy dealt me and for the moment, looking at my hand, I did not notice the silence that had fallen. It was the crash of a chair to the floor that made me look up. Cliff was standing glaring at me, his face white as paper. For a moment I thought he was going to strike. The other four sat staring at me in open-mouthed dismay. Then without a sound Cliff turned on his heel, flung open the door, strode through, and slammed it behind him.
The tension broke.
"You blazing idiot," gasped Mason. "Great Scott! You have torn it," from Garnett. "Red hot!" and "Help!" from the others.
"What the deuce—?" I began in bewilderment.
"Good Lord! Didn't you know he did?"
"Did what?" I gasped; "kill a Chinaman?"
"Plugged him with a Winchester, and nearly got into quod," growled Garnett, throwing three kings face up on the table in his excitement.
Then from the fragments told by all present I heard for the first time the story of the death of Louey Chee.
"And you, you flathead," wound up Mason, "go and rub his nose in it."
"How was I to know?" I demanded feebly. "Everyone says it's luck to kill a Chinaman. Anyhow, who'd expect that a man in a crowd like this had slaughtered a Mongolian, unless he were a doctor? I suppose I must try to apologise and live it down."
"Apologise my foot!" was Mason's rude comment. "Cliff's a sensitive bird, and you won't see him again. He'll be gone by morning."
Mason's surmise proved to be correct. At breakfast he was missing, and Denny enlightened us by telling how Cliff had roused him at daybreak, settled his account, and departed in his car in an atmosphere of gloom.
About eleven o'clock that morning the crowd was lounging about the hotel veranda, waiting for a favourable fishing tide. Most of them were making me the butt of their alleged wit. They complimented me on my tact, and made oblique references to my appalling "break."
Suddenly Garnett shouted, "He's coming back!" The chaff ceased, as all stopped to watch the approaching car. It was not Cliff, however, but Martin Burns, a relative of Mason.
Burns returned the hilarious greeting of the gang, as he scrambled from among his gear. "Any news, Mart?" asked Garnett.
"By Jove, yes—hullo, Denny, make it a full pint. News! You know Harry Clifford, the solicitor?"
There was a chorus of "Yes—he's just left here."
"Well, he's made a deuce of a mess of things."
Never did news-bearer have a more attentive audience.
"Get on with it, Mart; you can drink that afterwards," said someone, as Burns showed an inclination to pay more attention to the beer Denny had handed him than to his story.
Mart stood with the pint in his hand. "You know that S bend just this side of Montrose. I heard this as I came through the town—"
"Get on with it, dash you!" interjected Garnett, as Mart paused to dip his nose in the froth.
"Well, he swung his car wide to avoid another, and hit a cart coming up behind. Clifford's car went clean over the bank with Cliff underneath."
"Hurt?" barked half a dozen voices.
"Not a scratch," replied Burns. "Did you ever know such luck? What happened was that he absolutely did in the cart, and killed the Chinaman who was driving it."
Then he paused and gaped. It was not a matter for laughter, but every man in his audience doubled up with ill-timed mirth.
Beware of Distinguished Personages bearing gifts...
IT would be well perhaps not to go into the details of the service I was, by the merest chance, enabled to render to a very Distinguished Personage. The cost to me in time and trouble was very slight. It merely entailed opening a church door that had slammed violently before the Distinguished Personage was quite clear of it. His gratitude to me seemed to be so much out of proportion to my share in the incident that I have since thought that there were far greater issues involved than relief from temporary inconvenience and perhaps some pain. He was thanking me very courteously as we stepped from the darkness of the church porch into the light from a nearby standard, and for the first time I became aware of his identity, although I had never seen him before. I must confess that the disclosure startled me considerably. One might expect to find even an archbishop in the somewhat undignified plight of being caught in a church door, but not the distinguished personage. He evidently was aware that I recognised him, for he said, "Perhaps you would have hesitated to come to my assistance if you had known before."
I replied candidly that the knowledge would have made no difference, as I believed that he was by no means as black as he was painted, and that, so far as he was concerned, the Church seemed to consider that the ninth commandment did not exist.
"The old story," he said, and I think I caught a chuckle in his voice. "If you have no argument, abuse the other side. After all, publicity is everything nowadays, and I am in the debt of the clergy to that extent. However, to return to what I was saying, I would really like to give you some proof of my gratitude."
Although I was sincere in saying that I would have assisted him in any case, I felt that it was another matter to accept any token of his gratitude, even though the service had warranted it, and this service certainly did not. I hesitated, uncomfortably at a loss to reply. He saw my hesitation, and I have no doubt that he understood the reason for it. He smiled a kindly encouragement as he shook his head. "Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes,"* he said, and then he laughed outright. It was so true that denial was out of the question.
[*Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.]
"Well, well," he went on still smiling. "I assure you that in accepting some mark of my thanks you commit yourself to nothing. Come?"
I felt that his offer was genuine, but I knew of nothing that he could do for me, and I said so.
He looked at me reflectively for a moment. Then he said, "I think you are a journalist by profession?"
I pleaded guilty. The Distinguished Personage was not one with whom one would care to temporise, in spite of his friendly demeanour.
"Good." Then holding my eyes with his he said, "Now supposing I make you a gift. It is this: Once a week, but no oftener, I can give you the power of calling up any person who has lived on earth in the form in which he or she lived."
I caught my breath. "Do you mean to say that they would talk to me, answer questions," I said. "I mean, could I interview them?" My brain whirled at the prospect.
"That," he smiled, "was exactly my idea."
"And," I asked, scarcely able to find my voice, "could I take them about the city with me?"
He thought a moment. "Yes," he said slowly. "There could be no objection, only you will be under one slight disability. The term of their stay will be indefinite. It may be only thirteen minutes, or it may be four or five hours. You must take the risk of embarrassing situations."
There was no need to think, but there was one vague doubt still in my mind.
"And I in no way commit myself, you say?" I asked.
"You mean endanger your soul?" he replied, reading my thoughts.
"My dear friend," he said, and his dark eyes twinkled, "I should hate to hurt your feelings, but the soul of a journalist—we wouldn't use it even for kindling where I come from."
It was a more reassuring than a flattering estimate, but it decided me.
"I accept the offer," I said. "I accept it gratefully."
He held out his hand. "Then it is a pleasure to me to endow you with the gift. All you need do is to call on the name of the person you require three times—but, remember, no more than one a week." As he ceased speaking he vanished, and the hand that had held his a moment before was clasping empty air.
It was not until later that I awoke to the fact that while it was one thing to possess the power bestowed upon me it was another thing to make use of it. In certain exalted journalistic quarters I completely destroyed a not too distinguished reputation for veracity by submitting a perfectly priceless and absolutely genuine interview with Queen Victoria. Her Majesty was not pleased by my presumption, and she took no trouble whatever to conceal her feelings. Nevertheless she answered my questions, and the things she said about William II and Bismarck—
Was I thanked for my zeal? No! I was told that the expressions attributed to Queen Victoria and given them verbatim were simply scandalous. There were some further remarks to the effect that such hoaxes were in very bad taste, and that my claim that the interview was genuine was merely another of many manifestations of an apparently innate lack of veracity. I merely give the sense of the oration, the context of which could not very well appear in print. It was only after much pleading for a test of my ability to call up any of the great ones gone, that exalted personages gave a reluctant consent, to which was added a warning that if I were "leg-pulling" the offence would be regarded seriously. It was agreed, however, that I would be notified in due course of the name of someone known to fame by interviewing whom I must stand or fall.
The blow fell no later than last Wednesday. Without warning I was told by the editor, "Look here! You can interview one of the Brontes, say, about a column and a half."
"Good business," I answered cheerfully. "Great copy, too. I can ask her about her experiences in Australia."
There was astonishment as well as suspicion in his abrupt "What on earth are you talking about?"
"You said Lola Montez—" I began.
"I said 'one of the Brontes,' and I mean one of the Brontes," he cut in severely, "and no funny business, either. I'm coming along again presently to meet her." He conveyed as clearly as possible, without actually saying so, that he was convinced that I was perpetrating a fraud of no small magnitude. Even the way he closed the door expressed disapproval, not only of my claims, but of my character.
It was enough to give even a hardy optimist a pain. One of the Brontes! It would have to be Charlotte, of course. To think of it! With such material as Ninon de L'Enclos*, Catherine II of Russia, and the Borgia girl to be had. Even though interviews with them might need a good deal of "subbing" they would be worth meeting. Any man could learn something from one of them, but Charlotte Bronte! Of course Jane Eyre was considered "hot stuff" in its day, but not a flapper in the world would open it now. Well, it was no use kicking. They wanted Lottie, and they should have her. There was precious little enthusiasm in my voice as I called the name of Charlotte Bronte thrice, in the formula prescribed by the distinguished personage.
[ *Notorious French courtesan, intellectual, and author, 1620-1705.]
I had arisen from my chair as I spoke. For a moment or two I thought I had failed, and I was rather more relieved than disappointed. Then I heard a deprecatory little cough, and I swung round. Charlotte Bronte in the flesh was seated in my chair! I do not know what I really expected to see, but it certainly was not this tiny figure. She was neatly dressed in some dark material that swept the floor about her feet. Her black gloved hands, little larger than a child's, were folded in her lap. The unprepossessing face turned up to me was framed in a small, tight-fitting bonnet. With her big strange brown eyes staring shyly up at me, she reminded me more of a mouse than anything else. The only circumstance that in any way reconciled me to the situation was that she seemed to take her environment and myself as a matter of course.
I would have met, say, Miss Borgia, with even pulses, but what to do with this strange-looking, old-fashioned little creature was beyond me. Shy as she was, she was evidently quite self- possessed, and she returned my greeting quietly. At the same time it was apparent that while she was willing to answer questions she had no intention of initiating any conversation. To my inquiry whether she would kindly talk about her work, she bowed her assent. At that my troubled spirit landed me fairly in what is known in Australian idiom as "the soup." I had always contrived to get Charlotte Bronte mixed up with Jane Austen in my mind somehow, but that was no excuse for my remarking that, of course, Pride and Prejudice was her first novel.
There was a stiffening in the little figure as she said primly, "I have always been led to believe that Pride and Prejudice was written by Miss Jane Austen." It was not a pleasant situation to retrieve at the very outset, and there was very little grace in my hasty retreat on Jane Eyre. I could read her thoughts of me very plainly, and I trusted she could not read my views of him who had let me in for the interview.
Then I had a brain wave. Why not take a taxi and run her round the city, then give her afternoon tea somewhere? The jolt over Pride and Prejudice had wrecked my nerve for talking literature. Besides, her opinion of Melbourne would be worth publishing. She accepted the situation complacently, and remarked that she had no doubt that I would prove an able cicerone. Her tone implied very clearly that I might know more about the city than her work—at least she hoped so.
For what followed I accept no responsibility. Had I paused to consider the effect of the impact of 1928 on the 'forties of last century, I doubt whether I would have foreseen the disaster that overtook me. I took my hat and opened the door for her, followed her into the passage, and pressed the lift bell. Charlotte gazed at the glazed doors with patient expectancy. I heard swift footsteps coming along the corridor, and looked up, and the rest happened like a nightmare film produced in Hades under the special supervision of the Distinguished Personage.
The footsteps were those of Miss Kitty, one of the many damsels who inhabit the building between the hours of 9 o'clock and 5 in the evening. She was young and tall and comely, and she carried herself in her brief modern raiment like a young Diana. Me she always favoured with a wide and bright smile on our casual meetings. It was she who paused before the lift door. Both Charlotte and I looked up together. I am sorry that I did not see Charlotte's face. It must have been instructive. Miss Kitty's, as her eyes rested on the figure beside me changed from smiling greeting to round-eyed incredulous astonishment. I heard a small squawk, and Miss Kitty's, "Catch her! Quickly!" and turned just in time to catch Miss Charlotte Bronte to prevent her slumping to the rubber-covered floor.
I lifted her in my arms, bore her back to my room, and placed her in the chair, followed by the girl, expressing her sincere if somewhat amazed sympathy.
"The poor little thing," cooed Miss Kitty. "Whatever happened to her? Wait!" She fluttered off and returned in a few moments with a bottle of ammonia. A man feels an utter fool in such a crisis, and I was true to form.
"Think I'd better get a doctor?" I asked in trepidation.
"No need," said the efficient and cool Miss Kitty. "She has only fainted, has she often done this before?" she went on, looking up for a moment.
"Blessed if I know," I replied a little curtly. "I've never seen her before today."
"I wonder what could have startled her, the quaint, little thing," murmured Miss Kitty, still busy with the ammonia bottle.
I had a pretty fair idea of the cause of the collapse, but I had no intention of putting my thoughts into words. At this moment the editor, true to his promise, entered the room. He surveyed the scene with suspicion and displeasure.
"What has happened?" he asked, turning to me.
"That," I replied, indicating the limp figure, "is Miss Charlotte Bronte, and she has fainted."
"Have you been telling her any of your stories?" he demanded.
The imputation hurt my feelings and I said so,
"Then," he asked, still suspiciously, "what else could have made her faint?"
At this juncture Miss Kitty silenced us with a frown. "She is coming round," she said warningly.
Miss Kitty stood aside as we bent over the figure in the chair. Charlotte opened her eyes, looked up at us for a moment, then asked very distinctly, "Has that very indelicate young person gone?"
I thought for a moment that Miss Kitty had not caught either the question or its implication.
"What was that?" she asked, stepping forward.
As she spoke Charlotte took one glance at her, gave another squawk, and fainted again.
"That," I announced, "has absolutely torn it."
"What on earth is the matter with her?" demanded Miss Kitty. Comprehension was dawning in her eyes. The editor looked distinctly puzzled.
There was no use in hiding the truth. I broke it as gently as possible.
"The fact of the matter is, Miss Kitty, that our drooping flower is unused to seeing so much girl at either end of a frock. Her views are conservative."
I could both sympathise with and excuse the indignation that flashed from Miss Kitty's eyes. "Indelicate young person! Am I? I did not faint when I saw her, and I might have. You can bring the old frump round yourself." And she stormed out of the room.
"She's taken the ammonia with her, too," I moaned. "What's to be done?"
"Get a doctor," suggested the Editor.
"Not on your life," I objected vigorously. "Don't you see that nothing can really affect her. Leave her alone and she will come round."
"Well, what are you going to do with her then?" he demanded impatiently.
I explained my idea of taking Charlotte for a spin round the city. "But that's off now," I added.
"Can't see that it will make any difference," he retorted.
"Oh, can't you? If she is going to faint every time she sees a flapper the only way to get her round the city that I can think of is in an ambulance with a nurse." I was beginning to feel a little warm.
"Have you got any copy at all from her?"
"Not a line," I answered shortly. I was not going to admit how I had crashed over Pride and Prejudice. "She is too shy to talk about her work."
He nodded comprehension. "She had a reputation for shyness."
"Gad!" I said feelingly, "she's added a bit to it this afternoon, too."
"Well, you'll have to get something from her when she comes round," he said decisively.
"What about having a shot at it yourself," I continued, "since you think her views would be so entrancing in print."
"You've undertaken to do it," he replied, dodging the responsibility.
"Because you forced me to," I answered tartly. "You don't think for a moment I'd have chosen Charlotte wilfully, do you?"
"No, Lola Montez would have been more in your line. Great Scott!" His face had changed from irritation to dazed astonishment. My eyes followed the direction of his. The chair was empty. Lottie had returned to the shadows.
"She's gone!" he gasped.
"And gone for good, too," I added. "Now, if you had only let me choose—"
"Pah!" he came back at me, "what's the good of going over it again. Here I was depending on you for an absolutely unique interview—something priceless and—" he waved his hands. His feelings were too deep for words.
"All your own fault."
There are some men with whom you cannot argue. He slammed the door after him. And how was I to blame because Lottie's constitution couldn't stand the shock of a twentieth century frock?
Who said all journeys end in lovers' meetings?
HE was aged barely nineteen years, and she was a bachelor of arts. She had taken honours in pure and mixed mathematics, and held an astonishing record for languages; but as she stood taking a laughing farewell of her hostess she looked none of these things. She was one of Nature's rare experiments—Tennyson's "Daughter of the gods, divinely tall" incarnate.
She was perfectly proportioned and stood almost six feet in height, and, since it was in the days when women were still women, the helm of burnished black hair she wore made her look still taller. Neither of the two boys, of her own age, who stood watching her was undersized, but both were short of her statuesque magnificence by inches. In the classic regularity of her features she was imposing rather than beautiful, but the humour and joy of living dancing in the wide brown eyes were purely human and feminine.
Turning, she saw her waiting escort and approached them with her hostess. "I've kept you waiting," she smiled; "I'm so sorry!"
"Don't worry, Jess," grinned Thornton. "We have not been standing here more than fifteen minutes."
"Anyway, we had the view to admire," was Payne's contribution. "Bingo loves magnificent scenery."
"You're a pair of conscienceless fibbers," she retorted; "you were not here five minutes ago." She turned to her hostess for confirmation.
"Don't mind them, Jessica, they're a pair of young ruffians." Then, to the boys, "I'm trusting you to see Jessica home, so behave yourselves."
"I'll see they do," chuckled the daughter of the gods.
"It will be all right, Mrs. Blades," answered Thornton. "Anyone who sees us will immediately assume that our nurse has called for us to bring us home."
"You impudent young imp," began Jessica.
"Young yourself! You're not six months older than we are," put in Payne.
"Silence, Tommy! The bachelor of arts speaks with the lips of Juno. Fall in, the escort, or there'll be trouble." Thornton came to attention beside her.
"If anything happens, Mrs. Blades, you can bear witness I did not begin it." Her eyes were dancing with mirth.
"Home, the three of you," laughed the hostess from the door. "There is not much to choose between any of you."
The three turned into the moonlit street, and Jessica Lawrence, a boy on each side, kept pace with them easily and swiftly, moving as a daughter of the gods should move. As they went they wrangled and laughed, as careless youth will. The boys chaffed her mercilessly on her intellectual triumphs, and Jessica thrust back swiftly and cleanly. It was Tommy who began the real trouble.
"It's all very well being a B.A., Jess," he ventured, "but have you ever been kissed—"
In an instant the womanhood in her sprang on guard. "Stop that, Tommy," she said, shortly.
"Why, we haven't begun yet," corrected Bingo.
"Better not, either." Her voice was ominous.
"But, Jess," protested the grinning Tommy, "you can't be a bachelor of arts all your life."
"You'll have to begin some time." Bingo spoke with the earnestness of one enunciating a great truth for the first time.
"If I ever do begin, it will not be with a pair of young demons like you." There was no fear in her voice, but an immense scorn, as she paused at the gate of her house.
"Jess, your young life has been wasted up till now, but—" As Bingo Thornton spoke she read the intention in his eyes. What happened, happened very swiftly. In the brief scuffle Payne had the lesser success, for not more than the cool lobe of her ear was his; but Bingo's kiss alighted just where all good kisses should alight. In almost the same instant Jessica's vigorous hand landed on Bingo where all nice girls hands should land when subject to similar treatment, and Bingo's head fairly rang under the impact. The next instant she was through the gate and turned towards them, speechless, her breath coming swiftly. It may have been all anger that shone from her eyes, but even Bingo's half dazed senses suspected a trace of mirth in them.
"After her, Tommy," he laughed. "She has almost fractured my jaw."
Jessica Lawrence, B.A., turned and fled. Their unfamiliarity with the gate fastening gave her a start, and before they reached the shadow of the wide veranda she was through the door. They could see her face and frock a white blur in the darkness as she turned towards them. Then came the voice of Jessica in a derisive 'Booh!' from her safety, and the door closed, quietly but decisively.
The two boys looked at the uncompromising blankness of the door for a moment and then at one another and slowly turned and went their way. But as they went Bingo Thornton, tenderly caressing a bruised cheek, paid little heed to Tommy's chatter. He was wondering. Now did she, or did she not, return that kiss?
And again and again at intervals for a few days he pondered on the problem, but never found a satisfactory answer.
Now this incident, slightly discreditable to two of its three participants, was enacted in the year of grace 1892. Let us skip the intervening years lightly and come down to 1932. In the interval Queen Victoria celebrated her second jubilee and was gathered to her forbears, and on the nature of that reunion it is not profitable to speculate. The Boer War was fought; Edward VII reigned and passed on; the Great War shook the world and shook down thrones; skirts dwindled almost to nothing, and burgeoned again; women lived to smoke, drink, and swear; some few even learned to play bridge; Tommy Payne married and died in '21. Bingo Thornton remained single and lived; several hundred million girls were kissed more or less willingly, in which activity Bingo had a fair share, and finally after an orgy of glad living the Nemesis of depression overtook the world.
It will be recognised, therefore, that one kiss, however well and truly placed, and one only partially successful, delivered as far back as 1892, does not loom very largely when compared with the events of the ensuing forty years.
Let us inspect Mr. Bernard Thornton, C.M.G.—to his very intimates Bingo—as he sits towards the close of 1932 at the dinner table of his cousin, Clare Langdon, the wife of an eminent specialist. The years have not used him ill. He has retained most of his hair, which is white and smooth clipped. There is a very slight widening of the once slim figure, and the rather lean and hawk-like face is scarcely lined. A stark knowledge of "big business" and the methods used by some of his fellow men in moneymaking have given him a somewhat cynical air, but this is modified, by the humour of the wise grey eyes, which show slight wrinkles of laughter at their corners. There is no stoop in the square shoulders as he bends forward a little to listen to Clare.
"Yon know, Bernard," she was saying. "I do feel a little guilty about letting you in for this, and I won't feel a bit put out if you would rather stay here and really Harry must go of course."
"Nonsense, Clare," he laughed, "I'll stick it out like a man. I have never yet attended such a joyous ceremony as the speech night of a girls' school, especially such a girls' school as Glendon, and I may never have another chance. Besides, I promised Madge."
"Good for you! Uncle Bingo," came the voice of that damsel from farther down the table—it was plain "Bingo" in her mother's absence—"you'll just adore the Valkyrie."
"Madge!" protested the mother, "How often am I to tell you not to use that absurd name in speaking of Miss Lawrence?" She turned to Thornton. "I'm tremendously fond of Jessica. She was my first teacher. You'll meet her later, as she has promised to have supper with us afterwards."
But Bernard Thornton scarcely heard her voice. As a bubble rises to the surface from black depths rose a memory through forty years to the surface of his mind, where it arrived with a "plop" he could almost hear. Unconsciously his left hand caressed his cheek. "Jessica Lawrence!" he thought as he remembered, but the face, trained through many emergencies, gave no visible sign of his interest.
"What is Miss Lawrence like, Madge?" he risked.
"Simply gorgeous," came the enthusiastic answer. "You'd just love her."
"Hump!" said Bingo, registering a mental doubt. "Is she strict?"
"In some things, terrifically." Madge had all the love of superlatives of her years. "But in others she's a perfect dear. She can be good fun too."
"But why the Valkyrie?" Madge would have been astonished had she read the curiosity behind the question.
"Oh! That's only for when there is big trouble in the school. Then she is—" the girl paused, feeling for the right words.
"Pretty tough," suggested her father.
"Pooh! what a silly description." Madge looked from her father to Thornton. "She's—she's"—then with a rush—"She's as terrible as an army with banners."
Both men leaned back in their chairs to laugh at their ease. It was Thornton who was able to speak first. "You mean the Salvation Army, of course, Madge?"
"No, I don't," answered the indignant maiden warmly. "I mean a real army in armour with oriflammes and pennants on their lances, and all sorts of things like that: charging into battle in a thunderstorm. That's what she's like."
"Lord! Madge," gasped Thornton, through his laughter. "Magnificent! That makes her perfectly visible. But I'm afraid I will not be able to adore her as you suggest. She must be an acquired taste."
Madge regarded her father and Thornton with unfeigned disgust. "Anyhow," she reiterated, "the Valykrie is a perfect dear."
Nor was she appeased when Thornton, half speaking and half singing, amended "Iolanthe":
"It seems she is Valkyrie.
And I took her for
Of a ladies' seminary."
Nevertheless, there was not one among the assemblage in the brightly lit school hall an hour later who observed Miss Jessica Lawrence, M.A., with a deeper interest than did Mr. Bernard Thornton, as she stood reading her annual report from the palm-decked stage.
Although she would not have recognised in the white-haired, upright Thornton, the Bingo of forty years ago, to him she was unmistakable.
"Wonderful!" he mused as he listened to the clear, precise diction. "She must be 59, and looks barely forty." There was a slight powder of grey in the dark mass of her hair. "She wouldn't be fool enough to have that shorn," thought Thornton as he admired the dignity and finish it gave to the stately head. Deep within him bubbled laughter as the memory of their last meeting of two score years ago returned to him.
"Terrible as an army with banners. Gad! Madge was inspired to think of that. She could be, too. The Valkyrie—apt, by Jove! Very! One can imagine her riding the storm clouds and selecting those about to be slain."
Miss Lawrence gave place to the Archbishop, who said all those things archbishops should say on such occasions. He was mildly facetious at first, and Bingo observed appreciatively how her smile lit the face of Jessica Lawrence. M.A. Then, in due course, the Archbishop deplored gravely the unwise latitude that parents of today permitted their daughters, and proceeded to indicate the correct lines for the training of girls, while Bingo reflected on what a thin time the youngsters would have if the good prelate had his way.
Then the Archbishop was followed by Senator the Honourable Sir Henry Deanwell, K.C.B.E., Federal Minister for Small Affairs, an old friend of Bingo's and a noted orator, Sir Henry was well into his stride on the subject of the future mothers of the nation when, in the fourth row from the platform, he caught the cold, sardonic, and unwed eye of the last man he expected to see in such a place. Then a number of people wondered why the usually fluent Sir Henry Deanwell gulped, repeated himself, floundered, and sat down without treating the audience to one of his famous perorations.
They would have known the cause of the senator's embarrassment had they heard the fierce, half-whispered epithet he hissed at Bingo as the assemblage broke up, and both the Archbishop and Miss Jessica Lawrence would have been horrified at the exchanges that took place so close to the group of which they were the centre.
For the graceless Bingo returned to the vernacular of youth to paint Sir Henry Deanwell's insincerity, while Sir Henry framed his retorts according to the best traditions of our troops in Flanders. It was Clare who unconsciously separated the combatants by asking Bingo to take Madge home, as the Archbishop had kindly offered to drop Clare and Miss Lawrence at their gate.
A little later, when Mr. Thornton was formally presented to Miss Lawrence by Clare, Bingo observed with satisfaction that there was not a flicker of recognition in the frank brown eyes that he, perforce, looked up to. Madge had been dismissed to her rest, and the elders settled to a quiet chat on the events of the evening. Jessica Lawrence accepted the stranger without reserve, and before long the quiet chat developed into a sprightly argument because of the gentle raillery of Miss Jessica Lawrence by Harry Langdon and Bingo on the rigidity of her views on the training of young girls.
Harry ventured the opinion that a reasonable latitude of association between growing boys and girls was good for both sides.
"Even," he said, "if there is an occasional sentimental kiss—what harm?"
"Impossible and beyond pardon, as was anything that tended ever so slightly to touch the bloom of a girl's self-respect," was the verdict of Miss Lawrence, "You men cannot or will not see the matter in its true perspective. I have been guiding and training girls for thirty-five years, and I should know," she wound up.
Mr. Bernard Thornton looked at Miss Jessica Lawrence, M.A., speculatively.
Then he said, "Do you know, Miss Lawrence, that I think we are not altogether strangers."
Jessica's hand moved toward her cup. "Do you mean that we have met before?"
"Yes," said Bingo gently. "It was quite a long time ago, but perhaps you can recall it. It was at Mrs. Blades's home at Fairmont. I was Bingo Thornton then."
Jessica's cup was half way to her lips, but for all the wealth of the Indies she could not have raised it farther. Bingo's memory of her had risen like a bubble to his mind; her memory of him burst with the shattering shock of a shell. Nevertheless she returned her cup gently to its saucer, and Bingo's admiration grew as he saw that the hand that replaced it did not quiver. It rose to dizzy heights when, after a thoughtful gaze, she shook her head slowly and said, "I think I remember the dance, but I'm afraid I cannot recall you. There were so many there, if you remember."
The intonation of that brazen fib was perfect, and Bingo admitted to himself that at his best he could not have done better.
Said Bingo, in smiling self-depreciation, "I could scarcely hope you would have remembered me in that crowd, but, if you do not mind my saying it, your figure is too striking to be forgotten easily." The slight, emphasis on the one word was lost on all but Miss Lawrence, as Bingo knew from the slight flicker of her lashes as he said it.
"Not at all," and there was genuine amusement in her light laugh. "I think I should feel flattered at leaving an impression that has endured for so many years." The slight caressing gesture of his hand on his cheek had not passed unnoticed.
At this moment a maid brought a whispered message to Harry Langdon, who rose with a groan of dismay. To Clare's protest he answered, "No use, dear; I must go. You married a doctor and you must take the consequences. Bingo will see Jessica home," And he went from among them blessing Nature and all her works.
It was in vain that a little later Jessica protested she had no need for an escort. Bingo was pleasantly insistent.
"I shall feel dreadfully hurt if you do not allow me to see you home." This, despite the veiled glance he received that indicated he was more likely to be dreadfully hurt if he did. Unconsciously Clare assisted in Bingo's mischief by assuring Jessica that she knew that Mr. Thornton would regard the walk as a pleasure rather than a duty. Bingo could not have put the case better himself. Finally Jessica accepted the inevitable, and of the three Clare alone was unaware with what bad grace the proffered service was regarded.
For the first fifty yards they walked side by side in silence. Occasionally Bingo glanced at the fine but uncompromising profile. Then he declaimed dramatically, "Out of her terrible dead past—the past she thought to be buried and forgotten—rose a spectre to haunt her."
"You idiot!" snapped the much-tried Jessica.
"But my dear Jessica—" he began.
"Mr. Thornton"—(wilful damsels had dissolved into quivering jelly at that voice)—"I consider your use of my first name as an unpardonable impertinence." It was the Valkyrie who spoke.
But Bingo was no damsel, and he had broken strong men to his will. Besides, he was enjoying the encounter immensely. "Well, considering our past tender association and my delightful recollections of it, I did not think you would insist on formalities when we were alone."
"Tut, tut, Jessica." he interrupted. "Remember your high office, and, besides, vituperation is not argument."
"Oh, very well." She was still the Valkyrie. "If you like to be an idiot, be an idiot. I think that common decency would have protected me from having that humiliating incident recalled."
"Perhaps I am an agent of Providence."
"An agent of Pro—" gasped Miss Jessica Lawrence, "Don't you think you flatter yourself a little?"
"Well, no." He appeared to consider the question carefully. "An agent of the devil would seriously rebuke self-righteousness."
"Well, of all the—the cheek!" The place of the Valkyrie had been taken by a very human woman.
Bingo chuckled appreciatively. "Now you are yourself again," he said, "I can explain that I thought that considering your own dark past you might be less intolerant with suffering charges."
At this audacity Miss Jessica Lawrence had some little difficulty in suppressing the gurgle of laughter that rose to her throat, "It is because I remember your brutality, and that of your precious friend, that I hold the views I do."
"My brutality?" Bingo's voice bore incredulous amazement. "Why, do you know that for a fortnight I had to pretend I had a gumboil, to explain my swollen face? You to talk of brutality!"
"Did I really hurt you. Mr. Thornton?" she asked with a shade of concern in her voice.
"Bingo," he corrected.
"Bingo," she conceded; and the gurgle came to the surface.
"You caught me a most frightful sock in the jaw," he admitted.
"I'm so glad," said Miss Jessica Lawrence, sedately.
"Really, Jessica, for a Valkyrie you are most delightfully human," was Bingo's amused comment.
"For a what?" she demanded.
"Valkyrie was the word I used. Didn't you know?"
"It's absurd, but of course I did. But I had no idea that you did. That imp Madge, I suppose?"
"No tales out of school, Jessica, but it suits as though it were moulded on you."
They walked in silence for perhaps fifty yards. Then Bingo said, "Jessica, ever since I saw you first on the platform this evening I've had something on my mind. May I ask you a question?"
She glanced at him suspiciously. "What is it?" she asked non- committally.
"I don't want you to misunderstand me, and it is not merely idle or impertinent curiosity. It is something in which I am really concerned." He paused. "You won't be angry?"
"I doubt if anger is any use with you," she smiled.
"Not much use, really," he agreed, "but what I want to know is if anyone has kissed you since that night."
Jessica stopped in her track as one paralysed. She turned towards Bingo and she laughed a laugh of unalloyed amusement. "Bingo!" she gasped. "Of all the—" her speech failed her.
"You are not angry?" he grinned up at her.
"Angry!" the laughter was still in her voice. "It is impudence so sublime that it rises above human emotion. But why? Why?" She moved on as she spoke.
"Well," he replied, falling into pace beside her, "I have some little reputation as an economist, and it seemed to me to be such dreadful waste of magnificent material if it had not been used."
Again mirth got the better of Jessica. When she could speak she demanded, "Do you think for a moment that I am in the habit of permitting that sort of thing?"
"Then, you did permit it in my case," he interposed.
"Oh you—I mean, submit to it," she corrected.
"Then you admit you submitted," he persisted.
She put out her hands, helplessly. "Oh, you creature! You know very well what I mean."
"But, Jessica, I don't," he chuckled. "For a specialist in languages you use words so ambiguously."
"You're enough to make saints blaspheme," laughter getting the better of her exasperation. They had reached the wide gates of the drive into Glendon. "This will do. I can go on by myself now," she said, holding out her hand.
"I must complete my duties as escort," said Bingo, moving on. "And, besides, you have not answered my question."
"Do you really expect an answer?" she asked.
"Why not?" urged Bingo. "Since my interest is purely academic."
"Bingo, you are absolutely incorrigible." Then, after a pause, "Since you must know, I am thankful to answer with an emphatic and grateful No."
"Good Lord!" said Bingo, shocked into amazed but credulous sobriety. "What a dreadfully dull life you have had, Jessica!"
The mass of the buildings of Glendon Girls' School loomed up before them. A light shone through the fanlight above the front door, and a faint streak of light beneath it showed the door was ajar.
They had halted by the low steps when some sixth sense warned Jessica Lawrence of danger. She glanced swiftly at Bingo.
"Don't you dare! Don't you dare!" and her voice was smothered momentarily, and there was a sound as though someone had viciously slain a mosquito. A moment later Miss Jessica Lawrence. M.A., breathless, reached the safety of her front door.
"Jessica! Jessica! Wait a moment," begged a voice from the dark.
"Don't tell me you're attempting to apologise?" she demanded. She scarcely recognised her own voice.
"Apologise be hanged!" came the injured voice of Mr. Bernard Thornton. C.M.G. "What I wanted to suggest it that we make it a regular celebration. I'll be round again in 1972."
There was a brief pause. Then came a sound in which mirth had overcome wrath.
"Booh!" said Miss Jessica Lawrence, M.A. and principal of Glendon. And the great door closed quietly but decisively.
Bingo turned and walked slowly down the drive, gently caressing a smarting cheek. In the street he paused and looked up at the moon.
Then he chuckled softly. "Even the Valkyrie. Even the Valkyrie."
An alien culture is just that—alien.
"I ENVY you, Gray; you don't know how much!" said Tarrant, head of the Commonwealth Astronomical Department. "Think of your chance! Youth, in the first place, and then the bridge we have built for you. You're 32 now, with perhaps 35 priceless years in front, and tonight you start. Oh yes. I envy you!"
Warren Gray, the international officer in charge of the Mount Kosciusko Stellascope, walked smartly over the snow to the great circular building that crowned the summit. Tonight, for the first time, he was to take sole charge of that wonder of the age. Chosen for the task from more than a thousand candidates by an international committee, his task was to carry on, to the best of his powers, the work of formulating practicable means of communication between the earth and Mars that the great Barstow's invention had made possible, and to give the results of his investigations to the world. The work was one of tremendous difficulty, on account of the almost entire absence of a basis to work on and the great dissimilarity of the conditions of life existing on the two planets.
Gray nodded good-evening to the two assistants in the ante-room, and passed straight on to the instrument chamber. This was a vast domed apartment, 150ft from wall to wall unbroken by a single pillar; but the great size was dwarfed by the tube of a giant telescope, some 20ft. in diameter, that was reared to the open roof, its muzzle being almost lost in a maze of guys and stays that held it in position. Radiating from the main column ran a series of stands, each bearing its appointed instrument, many of them under glass, all glittering like an array of jewellers' treasures under the steady glow of the electric light.
Gray wandered amongst them with keenly observant eyes—here adjusting a screw with delicate touch, there noting carefully the reading of some beautiful piece of mechanism with anxious precision.
Satisfied at last, he walked to the frame and unveiled a circular reflector, 15ft. across, that was set in it, then took his place in an easy-chair some 10ft. away, and busied himself with the array of delicate machinery on a table beside him. All around were telephone-receivers, speaking tubes, and buttons. He frowned over the reading of a thermometer, and called down a tube that the temperature of the observation chamber was three-tenths of a degree too high. Even that variation affected the adjustment of the instruments that were built for absolute accuracy at 60 degrees Centigrade. His face cleared only when the mercury receded the offending fractions and became stationary.
At last his critical survey was complete. Gray leaned back in his chair, and, taking up a telephone receiver, gave a few brief orders. Each was followed by a movement through the room as the great telescope slowly picked up its appointed spot in the heavens. A small voice from the receiver told him that his orders were carried out. Then he switched off all the lights in the room, except a carefully-shaded one at his elbow, and as the velvety darkness settled down, the reflector glowed with a soft light.
Gradually the light became brighter, and vast distorted images began to flit across the polished surface—images that became clearer every moment, until they showed a weird and fleeting landscape, as from a great height in a balloon. Seas and lands, cities and rivers, sped past in the field of view in bewildering succession. Gray still held the receiver, and as he caught sight of a familiar mark, his orders altered the movement of the stellascope.
At last a great city spun into view, and was held in answer to a swift call. Reaching his hand in the dark his fingers worked swiftly on screws and buttons. The towered and domed buildings seemed to rush upwards to meet him. In the midst of all was one of tremendous proportions and Gray worked it swiftly into the centre of the reflector. Nearer and nearer it came. First the reflector held it all, then only the central dome, then only a window-like aperture in the roof, until at last the whole interior was exposed and then Warren saw in the mirror a view of a portion of a room almost the exact counterpart of the one he occupied, except for strange and subtle differences of detail of workmanship and architecture. Practically the instruments were the same, and he knew he was in contact with what was officially known as the No. 10 Martian Observatory, at that time some one hundred and twenty millions of miles away from the earth.
A glance showed him that the chair in front of the reflector was empty, and Gray turned impatiently to a chronometer on the table. It wanted three minutes to the half hour.
"My friend is nothing if not punctual," he murmured to himself, and settled to wait with an occasional glance at the large hand on the clock. Precisely as it touched the point of the half hour there was a movement on the reflector, and a man clad in a long, dark robe stepped into view and faced him. He was below the average terrestrial height, and would pass for perhaps 60 on this planet. His long hair was quite white, and under his high, round forehead were two dark, deep-set eyes, as brilliant as an eagle's. The face was hairless, and showed a straight, firm mouth, under his thin, hooked nose. It was a stern face, almost cruel, but one that told of great intellectual force. Gray had become familiar with the man's appearance during his probationary period under Tarrant. Tonight, however, he regarded him with keener interest.
He arose from his chair as the Martian stopped and held out both arms towards him in salutation. Warren repeated the action with a nod and a smile, and then each took his seat. The far-off observer seemed quite unaffected by the absence of Tarrant, and gravely commenced to carry out a chemical experiment for the edification of Gray, who watched every movement with close attention. It was by means of such demonstrations that much of the common knowledge of the two planets was made manifest.
WARREN followed the progress of the work, judging from experience and results the chemicals used, and subsequently he repeated the work under the eyes of the Martian, to show that the formula was known on earth, and understood. Sometimes they would come to a deadlock, as some operation foreign to one or the other was uncomprehended, and then would follow an earnest search for the missing link in the chain. It often happened that weeks were spent over some trifling detail, until the solution of the trouble was found.
They usually worked for about five hours, and succeeding nights were much like the first, the only breaks being due to meteorological troubles on the earth that prevented free observation, and this time was utilised by Gray to write up his notes and reports, and to compare them with those of other stations. Six months passed, and left Warren Gray still as far as ever from the faintest clue to the work he had promised himself to undertake.
The Martian observer absolutely ignored all overtures towards elucidation of their social code. Gray had prepared an elaborate series of enlarged photographs of scenes from our everyday work and occupations, and exhibited them to his far-off vis-à-vis. Some were examined with curious care, but others in which women figured always had the one result. The Martian immediately covered his face with the flowing sleeve of his robe—a decided hint that the subject was distasteful, and would not be investigated—and on such occasions Gray swore vividly at the reflector.
He instructed Mars in the use of photography, in the hope that the result would give him a clue. It took three months' hard work, and when the Martian observer proved he had mastered the art he quietly but firmly dropped it. About this time, too, Gray had another annoyance to contend with, for the observer in No. 10 Martian station on several occasions went to sleep at his post. At first Warren was able to rouse him when he nodded by flashing a magnesium lamp, the sudden glare recalling him to his senses, but at other times the man slept for two or three hours, leaving the terrestrial observer in a state of helpless anger.
Then came a wonderful night. Gray had started early, and after an hour's work the old observer nodded and finally sank to sleep. Warren shook his fist at the unconscious figure, and started to write quietly by the shaded lamp. For an hour he worked, when a movement on the reflector brought him to his feet with a start. For the first time on record there was a second figure imaged in the Martian observatory. Gray held his breath with astonishment. It was a woman! She was leaning over the man in the chair. She was veiled, as was usual, from head to foot, not even her hands were uncovered, but Gray knew from her attitude that she was intently watching the sleeper. Apparently she had not yet noticed the reflector. As he watched her she straightened herself, and as she did so her figure seemed to start with astonishment under the robes. He could see every movement with perfect distinctness, even the quick heaving of her breast.
Gray held out his arm in salute, but the figure remained motionless. He cursed his inability to make her understand. He caught up a rug from his chair, and, throwing it over his head, he suddenly tossed it back, as though unveiling. He saw his meaning was understood from the start she gave. For a moment she bent over the sleeper again, and then turned her back and made as though to leave. Gray threw out his arms in entreaty. Suddenly, almost as she was lost to view, the woman paused, turned, and walked slowly back again.
WATCHING her, Gray commenced in his excitement to speak aloud: "Ye gods! What a chance. Daughters of Eve! She hesitates. They're the same all over the universe! I win! I win! She'll do it!"
The figure had paused behind the sleeping man and bent again, alert intentness in her every attitude. She appeared to be listening to his breathing. As though satisfied, she stood erect. Gray saw the hands moving under the veil. Then, while he scarcely drew breath from anxiety, she paused a moment. Then suddenly two slender white hands parted the shimmering fabric from head to foot, and Warren gave a gasp of mingled pleasure and amazement. He was looking straight into the woman's eyes.
From that moment onwards Gray know he was a changed man. In a second his office and his training were forgotten. Science and the work he was living for, which had hitherto occupied the sole place in his thoughts, fell into a distant background, and in their place was the image of a woman. He could always remember her as he saw her then shadowed in the great mirror. Her pale oval face was framed in the soft folds of the parted veil. Its wonderful, its appealing beauty, and changing expressions of timid curiosity and surprise moulded themselves on his memory. He never knew how long they stood watching each other. He knew that she feared something, for her glance went uneasily now and again to the sleeper, and he realised that she was listening as though for some unseen danger.
Once when he involuntarily held his arms towards her she placed her finger on her lips as though to warn him to silence, not realising the vast gulf that parted them. But across the gulf the man bowed his heart in mute worship of the being whose voice he could never hear, and who could never be more than an intangible shadow in his life. Minute after minute went by. He was wondering vaguely what fascination kept her there, until slowly she held her arms towards him and then let the veil drop forward till it hid her completely, and turned with halting footsteps and disappeared.
It was long before Gray roused himself from the stupor that held him, and sank into his chair with his mind in a whirling hurricane of self-questioning. His first rational action was to work swiftly at an elaborate calculation, and when he finally solved the problem he sat staring first at the figures and then at the reflection of the Martian station in the mirror.
HITHERTO he had looked on the constantly varying space that separated the two planets as merely a scientific fact on which comment was unnecessary. Now, for the first time, he realised its meaning. Between himself and that woman who had so suddenly flashed into his life lay the awful distance of one hundred and twenty three million miles of space! The whole idea was monstrous. He was mad, he told himself. What was the woman to him? He would never see her again.
Hours passed, but still he sat there gazing straight before him, with unseeing eyes, one moment feeling the intoxication of passionate love and the next all the despair of its absolute hopelessness. At last he roused himself, and seeing the Martian still sleeping he left his post. Next night he waited anxiously for signs of weariness in the old observer, but quite a month passed before he fell from grace and dozed again; but even then, although Gray waited eagerly, watching for a sign of her coming, his hopes were unrewarded, and so they remained for three months and then she came once more.
With beating heart he saw her advancing through the gloom. This time she went straight to the sleeper, and, after bending over him and satisfying herself that he was unconscious, she threw back her veil and faced him. To his famished eyes she appeared more beautiful than ever. Her expression was alert, and she moved quickly as with a fixed purpose. She held a scroll in her hands, which she unrolled and held towards him. Gray saw at a glance that it was a rough but accurate chart of the solar system, on which the earth and Mars were deeply ringed with red. She indicated first Mars, and then touched her breast, and then the earth and pointed to him as though to verify her ideas.
Gray nodded in affirmation, and she let the chart fall to her feet. She smiled at him with infinite sadness, realising the gulf that separated them. Then, to his great wonder, she held out her arms to him and slowly sank to her knees. There was no need of spoken word to read her meaning. There is just one language that is formed neither of sounds nor written characters, but is most eloquent to those who have learned it, and that language passed between this man and this woman through countless miles of infinite space.
It was the commencement of the strangest wooing the worlds have ever known. For over an hour that night she stayed with him, but he understood by her restless anxiety that there was risk in the meeting, and, though he feared her departure, he began to fear still more for her in staying. At last she went, lingering as though loath to leave him, but he knew she would come again.
For three days after, a storm that forbade work howled round the summit of Mount Kosciusko, and Gray raged with increasing impatience. The storm passed, and Gray was early at his post. The familiar old observer came as usual. They started their work, but in ten minutes the Martian was in the deepest slumber. In ten more the impatient man saw the girl beside him. This time there was no hesitation. She immediately commenced to shake the sleeper vigorously, but without rousing him. Then, being apparently quite satisfied, she stood before him unveiled and smiling. After their first mute greeting she took a metal vessel, and, pointing to the sleeping observer, raised it to her lips as though drinking. Next she rested her face in her hands and closed her eyes in imitation of sleep. Then she looked up laughing merrily, and shook the Martian again. Gray knew that she had drugged the watcher to clear the way for their meeting, and signalled his appreciation.
That night was the first of many. The man was too deeply in love to stop to ask himself where it would end. He was living only in the present. With a speed far beyond his hopes a thorough understanding was established, but the understanding was one that Gray considered would not interest the inhabitants of the earth. They formed hundreds of ways of recording their impressions. Every night a splendid spray of flowers was laid before the girl as an offering, and she never failed to express her delight with them. She learned to kiss the tips of her dainty fingers to her terrestrial lover, and taught him many quaint devices that gave them both infinite amusement. They even quarrelled once, because he was late at the tryst and had kept her waiting. For an hour or more she declined to move the veil from her face, in spite of his entreaties. Then he turned his back in anger, and when he looked again she was standing with tearful eyes, an exquisite picture of penitence, and did not smile until she read full forgiveness in his face.
IN Melbourne, Tarrant, head of the Astronomical Department, reading Gray's reports, observed uneasily the frequency of interruption through neglect at No. 10 Martian station. It was not so in his time, and he was worried. Not that there was any falling off in Gray's work; it was always keen and brilliant, but latterly it had become woefully brief, but one day, when Gray wrote asking him to purchase and forward a diamond ring costing over a month's pay and enclosing a cheque for the money. Tarrant did as he was asked, but packed his bags for a visit to Mount Kosciusko.
"Some infernal woman," he said to himself. "I must investigate. We can't afford to spoil so good a man."
Gray's greeting, though warm, did not deceive his old friend. There was something being kept back, a reticence that could only be due to one cause. Over dinner that evening Tarrant boldly taxed his chum with the heinous crime of being in love. He did it not unkindly, but firmly as between father and son.
Gray squirmed and floundered hopelessly, and finally confessed to his amazed hearer the truth of the matter. Warming up to the subject, he raved as only a lover can to a sympathetic friend.
"It's no use, Tarrant," he concluded. "It would kill me if I lost her. I'm only living now to watch for her coming. She's my life, and all there is in it. Don't laugh, old man; it must sound mad to you, but it's all in all to me."
Tarrant listened with increasing gravity. Never did a man feel less like laughing. Ahead he saw inevitable tragedy.
"What is the end to be?" was all he said.
"I haven't dared to think of the end. I simply dare not," was the answer he got.
He would have asked to be present at a meeting between the two, but he knew that Warren would never consent, and therefore his anxiety made him decide to prolong indefinitely a visit he had only intended to last for a few hours. Something warned him that the end was not far off, and that Gray would want him then. The end was nearer than even Tarrant dreamed. That very evening he sat up before the fire long after Gray had left to take up his post at the observatory. He was nearly dozing. The hour was after midnight, when suddenly a furious ring at the telephone brought him to his feet. He snatched the receiver to his ear.
"What? What, Gray? Yes! Yes! Right! I'm coming!"
Without waiting for hat or cloak he ran from the house to the observatory. There was something in the agonised cry from the far end of the wire that told of disaster.
Gray met him at the door of the instrument-room, wild-eyed and with his face deathly pale. He seized Tarrant's arm without a word and hurried him to the reflector. There a strange scene met his gaze.
Crouched on the floor was the cowering figure of a veiled woman, and over her stood, storming with furious gestures, the old Martian observer. His face was twisting with rage. With impassioned violence he was evidently addressing a dozen or more men grouped round him, pointing first at the shivering woman and then at the mirror. When he saw Gray he shook his fist savagely, and looked as though spitting venom in his fury. To the two watchers, helpless as they were to interfere, it seemed like a vile dream. Though they knew they were confronted with a terrible crisis, the very silence of it all appalled them. When he ceased his harangue a man much older than all present stepped forward, and, after first speaking a few words to the old Martian, he looked down on the girl at his feet. He held out one hand over her.
"Some infernal woman," he said to himself.
They saw his lips moving, and as she spoke she rose slowly and stood before him with bowed head. The others closed round her, as though preparing to move her away, but as they did so she broke from amongst them, and swiftly tore her veil aside and faced the reflector, and for a brief moment stood gazing at Gray in mute farewell. Then, with a rush, the men closed on her and dragged her from view.
When they were gone Tarrant heard the story, told in a voice alternating between rage and despair. They had met as usual. The old Martian was apparently soundly asleep. Gray was trying to make the girl understand the significance of the ring he had procured, when suddenly he observed that the man was only feigning sleep, and was observing their every action. Gray had tried, but in vain, to warn her of the danger, when suddenly the man had sprung to his feet and flung her to the floor, and the others had rushed in.
Tarrant persuaded Gray to return to his quarters. Nothing could be done, and they could only await events, but there was no sleep for either that night. Tarrant had a terrible foreboding that he dared not mention to his friend.
With keen anxiety they awaited the night, and when the time came they found the No. 10 Martian station empty. Gray refused to leave the observatory, and Tarrant stayed out of sympathy.
The night dragged on, until in the small hours of the morning a telephone bell broke the aching silence. Gray mechanically picked up the receiver. It was the Singapore station speaking. It reported an unusual excitement in the city in which the No. 10 station was situated. He repeated this message to Tarrant, who grew pale when he heard it.
"Gray, you had better go," he said.
Tarrant was thinking of the one time previously he had seen an unveiled woman in Mars. "I must know," said Gray. "The doubt would be worse than the truth. Turn the instrument on to the great square."
Tarrant obeyed, and then almost wished he had refused to humour his friend. Each one of the Martian cities had this feature in common—an enormous square in its midst, and in the centre of it a cone-shaped mound of dark stone. When it swung into the field of the reflector both the watchers saw that it was occupied by countless thousands of men, and the cone, usually sombre and forbidding, was wreathed and festooned with masses of vivid scarlet flowers.
Tarrant knew his surmise was correct, and the memory of a similar awful scene came back to him. At all costs Gray must be spared the end.
"Gray, you must go."
"No. Tarrant, I'll see her once more if it kills me. I must stop."
Even as he spoke the head of a procession appeared, and the crowd fell back to right and left to give it room. Straight for the cone it came, and parted on each side. Tarrant saw the girl's figure separate from the rest, and again he urged Gray to leave, but the other remained staring into the reflector, rigid and motionless. Then she stood alone on the summit, and as she threw back her veil the thronging thousands fell prostrate.
Gray made no sound or movement, but an involuntary cry of wonder came from Tarrant. On the supremely beautiful face there was no sign of fear. Her gaze turned upwards as though seeking something above her, and her eyes were so full of pride. So she raised her arms as though in signal. Then came a blazing blue flash, but Tarrant had shut out the scene with his hands. When he turned again he saw that Gray was sitting smiling vacantly, and when he realised what had happened he was glad, for he knew that it was not good for a man to see what they had seen and live to remember it.
Be careful what you wish for. You may get it...
"AND so," said the Lord of Wrotham, "it is Hertford who has added to the charter that Wrotham descends through the female line."
"And therefore the walking wine-sack would be my husband." The glint in Lady Anne's eyes suggested that such a marriage would not mean unalloyed happiness for the Earl of Hertford.
In an age when heiresses were State pawns, the suggested alliance was more normal than exceptional. It was the revolt of clean and splendid youth against the threat of debauched middle age that lit the fires of battle in her eyes. Besides, there was Sir Hugh Daventry to be considered, and Hugh—well, he was Hugh, and that meant her universe to Lady Anne.
Her father watched the flushed, angry face, understanding. "It's a sorry affair, Anne. Though he did not put it in words, Hertford means to have you and Wrotham or the King will not sign the charter."
"But what brings the dog here in such haste? What's afoot?" Anne tapped a small foot impatiently among the rushes on the floor.
"He rode in with the Bishop of Bury but an hour since, with a score of men—"
"Those cutthroats I saw in the yard?" Anne interrupted.
Wrotham nodded. "He said he rode ahead of Henry to warn me that the King would be at Wrotham till Monday. They ride west—to school the Welsh chiefs."
"And our good bishop? Why does he herd in such company?" Anne asked.
Her father shook his head. "I had no chance for speech with him. Mayhap Stephen scented trouble and came as watchdog."
Ann took a step forward and laid a white hand on her father's shoulder gently. "What must be, must be. I will obey if you command."
With his hand grasping his grizzled beard Wrotham stared before him a moment. Then the old warrior suddenly stood erect and brought his hand smashing to the trestle beside him. "No!" he almost shouted. "Must I peddle my daughter for my land at the bidding of Hertford?"
Anne shook her head sadly. "Cross Hertford, dear old wolf, and you go landless. He holds us in a cleft stick."
For a minute Wrotham strode to and fro across the narrow chamber. Then stopped and said resolutely. "Better that than live beneath his hand. There is always France. Phillip would give me Vaux for my allegiance. Listen, Anne! The choice is yours. I am old and little matters for me. Choose as you please!"
"Aye! Mean it and will stand by you." Anne stood irresolute, but Wrotham urged her on. "Go, Anne! He is in the lower tower chamber, where he roosts, talking some King's business with Stephen."
BUT Lady Anne did not go directly to Hertford. First she made her way to her own stone-walled, tapestry-hung room, and dismissed the women she found there. Then she flung herself on her couch. For nearly half an hour she lay pondering over the disaster that threatened her life.
Slowly a thought took shape. With closed eyes she lay, testing its every desperate turn, so still that she appeared to be asleep. That morning Lady Anne had arisen from her couch a happy girl, without a care in the world. She rose from it the second time that day a woman—a woman, steel-nerved by an inflexible purpose. With head erect, imperious and splendid, she passed to the lower tower room. By its low arched doorway one of Hertford's cutthroats stood on guard. Leering at her as she paused, the man dropped his pike across her path. The Lady Anne of an hour ago would have shrunk back. The Lady Anne of the moment turned blazing eyes on the guard and hissed—"Would you hang? You dog!"
The pike jerked erect. At a peremptory motion of her hand the man drew aside the leather curtain, and Anne swept past him into the room.
Two torches on the walls and a thick candle on a heavy table lit the small, circular chamber. On one side of the table lounged Hertford. Opposite him, with parchments spread before him, sat Stephen, Bishop of Bury. To him Anne bowed reverently. The two men had been taken by surprise at Anne's unceremonious entrance. Hertford sat twirling, by the stem, a dull and dented silver wine cup. His dark green, velvet robe was marked in front by stains of food and wine. Against the wall beside him lay the mail he had put off.
Stephen had greeted her with a smile. Hertford glowered up at her without moving, and Anne recognised the intentional insolence that he assumed to overawe her. It was Hertford who broke the silence. "Your pardon, Lady Anne, but we are deep in the King's business." There was a curt dismissal in his tone.
"Then the King's business can wait on mine." Hertford gaped, but there was a smile mingled with the astonishment on the Bishop's face as he surveyed a new and surprising Lady Anne.
Hertford scrabbled in his thick, unkempt beard with stubby fingers. "Oh!" he sneered, "since my Lady Anne Wrotham's affairs are greater than King's let us hear them."
Anne smiled over sweetly at the Bishop, and, nodding in Hertford's direction, murmured, "A truly gallant lover, my Lord Bishop."
Hertford sat erect. "Our affairs may rest till another time," he snapped.
"They will not." Her voice was decisive, and she continued, "My father tells me that the Earl of Hertford has offered me the insult of marriage. Better one of our swineherds!"
Anne caught a warning glance from the Bishop as a dark flush spread over Hertford's face. He half arose from the settle, but recovered himself before his almost involuntary outburst of anger. When he spoke again his voice was cool and even.
"Still, I think you will accept my insult, Lady Anne."
Stretching his arm across the table Hertford tapped one of the parchments that lay before the Bishop. "It is the King's will, as well as my own—"
"So," interrupted the Bishop, and his voice was icy, "that is the real reason for withholding the charter."
Hertford nodded, "A State matter, my Lord. There are wings to be clipped. Wrotham, with his nest of knights about him, such as Daventry, carries himself a little high. Henry would have Wrotham in safe hands."
"Safe hands!" Anne's voice cut like a knife. "The safe hands of the man who urged four knights to a foul deed at Canterbury, before its altar." The two men sat frozen. Spoken by a man, the words Anne had uttered would have been a death warrant. For it was common talk that Hertford's hand had been behind the murder of Becket.
When at last Hertford found his voice, though he controlled it, he was trembling with rage. "Still will you marry me," he said hoarsely.
"And, if I still refuse?"
"Then your father goes landless!"
Anne tossed her head defiantly. "A small price for such an escape!"
Hertford bent forward, and as Anne looked at his eyes they reminded her of those of a wicked wild boar. "Listen, you pink and white fool," he growled. "You forget—I am Earl Marshal of England and answer for the safety of the King's Grace. Do I not know of the lands in France your father claims, at Vaux? Do I wait like a dolt while a discontented and dispossessed Baron crosses over to France—a traitor?"
Anne drew a deep breath. "You mean?"
"I mean the loss of Wrotham is but part of the price you will pay; and your father will pay."
Suddenly Anne felt very cold. "I must have time to think." she muttered.
Hertford banged his hand on the table. "No," he thundered. "You demanded your business comes before the King's and so it shall. Your answer?"
LADY ANNE gazed blankly at the narrow arrow slot before her, and her heart missed a beat as she glimpsed a knight in mail ride by. It was Sir Hugh Daventry. For all their sakes she must carry out her desperate plan. Inwardly, she prayed for strength.
She bowed with a humility she was far from feeling. "I agree!" she said quietly.
"Then the marriage takes place tomorrow, when the King is here," said Hertford.
Anne held up a slender white hand.
"One moment, my lord. I agree, but on my own terms. You will accept those, or I choose, and choose cheerfully, the worst you can do." There was no mistaking her inflexible determination.
"And your precious terms?" Hertford grunted.
"First, the charter of Wrotham is sealed by the King. Second, that the marriage does not take place until the week after Holy Week."
Hertford spluttered a vicious oath. "Do you think you deal with a page or a ninny? What safeguard have I that you will keep your word, with Holy Week nigh on six months away."
"This," replied Anne calmly. "On Sunday, at High Mass, before the King and his lords, I will swear on the Holy Elements to give you my hand during the week after Holy Week, if the charter is sealed, and if not to you I will give it to none other."
Hertford thought deeply and then turned to the bishop. "What think you, my lord?"
The bishop, who had watched the scene with increasing anxiety, answered with an edge on his voice. "I think much, but this I say, that vow will bind our Lady Anne faster than steel could bind her."
"Have your way," he snorted at Anne.
Without another glance at Hertford, Anne bowed low before the bishop, asking his blessing, and then, head high, she left the chamber.
BUT Anne swept down the passage until she came on a page dicing with Simon, the captain of her father's horse. It was a forbidden pastime for the page, and at another time would have won swift retribution.
"Boy," she ordered hastily. "Go, find Sir Hugh Daventry and bid him come to me at—" she paused to think, "at the stillroom, and let none hear the message."
Then to Simon: "I need help, Simon. Let Sir Hugh pass through, and then wait near the stillroom lest any of Hertford's cut- throats trouble us."
Simon clanked after her, and a few moments later, as Sir Hugh hurried by, nodded him cheerfully towards the stillroom door.
Between Hugh and the Lady Anne, their greetings were likely to be prolonged, because they had been separated for nearly 24 hours. But with a lover's sensitiveness, Hugh recognised the anxiety in her face. The speedily told story sent Hugh's hand to the hilt of his great sword, and his wrath blazed up in a pious desire to hew Hertford into pieces.
But Lady Anne's arms clung about his neck. "Oh, Hugh. I love you for it, but it is madness," she cried. "Would you play Hertford's game for him? Suppose you killed him, what of the King?"
Hugh paused in his struggle to free himself. "But, dear heart," he said, "if you take that oath we are parted."
Anne stepped back, shaking her head, and smiling a little sadly. "Force is useless. You and my father are a pair—dear fighting blunderers alike. Cannot you see we can only meet guile with guile and cunning with cunning? It will take a woman's wit to beat Hertford."
"But—" he began, bewildered.
Anne's hand sought a fine gold chain about her neck. By it she drew from her bosom a small gold crucifix, rudely formed in the art of the day. "Listen, my dear love," she said gently; then, holding the crucifix before her she went on, "I swear by the body of our dear Lord that in the week following Holy Week I will wed you and none other," and she sealed the vow by raising the cross to her lips.
"But," he protested, "the oath you make before the altar!"
Lady Anne put her arms about him and laughed softly. "Hugh, my lover, there is but small joy in hugging a man in mail—" then, after a moment, "the oath before the altar I will take also." Then, seeing his bewilderment, she said, "Hugh, will you trust me and help me?"
"Both trust and help you with life itself, if need be," he answered fervently.
Hugh nodded emphatically.
"Well, all you have to do is to do all I ask without question or hesitation."
"But, Anne! two such oaths!"
They lived in a day when faith was more simple and religion more a vital force than it is to-day. Hugh was even more anxious than perplexed.
"I will keep both vows," smiled Anne, and stifling further protest with her soft, pink fingers she said, "Remember, you promised to trust me, but I dare not trust you or anyone else."
Hugh surrendered with a lover's grace. "Your orders, my lady?" he asked.
"Only this—guard jealously your peace with Hertford, and when the King comes tomorrow beg permission from him to ride with him into Wales. With you near him, Hertford's suspicions, if he has any, will be lulled."
"And you, dearest?" he ventured.
"What's a lover's promise worth?" she laughed. "You were to ask no questions. But this I will tell you. Until the Monday after Holy Week I take refuge with the Abbess of St. Albans. And now, dear heart, you must go."
NEXT day Henry came to Wrotham, and in the castle for three days there was high revel. On the Saturday Henry sealed the charter of Wrotham, and on the Sunday, before the King and his lords, Anne made her vow in the chapel, where the Bishop of Bury held the Holy Elements.
It was with nothing short of consternation that Bishop Stephen heard the story of Anne's conflicting oaths. His admonishment, stern and uncompromising, was listened to with more levity than reverence.
"But Anne, my dear child," he expostulated, "you have done a terrible wrong."
"If I keep both vows?" Anne smiled.
"That were beyond the wit of man," countered the Bishop between anger and pity.
The Lady Anne held up her hand, on which gleamed a great ruby, set there by Hertford in the chapel. "But not beyond the wit of woman, an' it please my lord." Then she added after a pause "That is, if a certain gruff, cross, but rather dear Bishop will help me."
"Help you to keep both vows and fool Hertford," he demanded.
"That is what I thought you would be clever enough to understand," murmured Ann.
"To foil Hertford I would—" he broke off his restless pacing and faced her. "Mind you, Anne! I'll take no part in evil of the sacrilege of broken oaths."
Impudently Anne kissed his cheek—"You old dear, all I ask is a parchment giving protection of the Church to all who help, so their help does no hurt to canon law or the law of the King."
He stared at her irresolute for a moment. "Faith! you baggage," he said at last, "Much would I like to know what's in your mind."
"Best not, my Lord," she laughed, "then you can declare so to Hertford and the King with a clear conscience."
Without another word to Anne the Bishop turned to Brother Martin and dictated the protection Anne demanded. When he had signed it and sealed it with his own signet he passed it to Anne, who again kissed him and, with a hearty word of gratitude, fled.
As his Lordship watched the swaying curtain through which Lady Anne had passed, he said: "Brother Martin, we who serve our Lord through His Church have many blessings. But of those blessings, my son, the greatest, I think, is celibacy."
ON the Monday a peace fell on Wrotham. Henry departed, and in his train took Hertford, whereat my Lady Anne was much pleased, and also Sir Hugh Daventry, at which she was by no means pleased, though she had so ordered it.
On the day following Lady Anne entered her horse litter, and, accompanied by two of her women and an escort led by Simon, made her journey to the nunnery of St. Albans. By the way she paused for a long space at the home, half-hut and half-cave, of the hermit, Bernard. For the hermit Bernard was a very wise and a very holy man, who had great repute in those parts also as a leech, for he had studied in France and Rome, and cured the wounds and the ills of all for miles around Wrotham, and what Lady Anne said to the hermit only he knows, but it was clear to those who watched that Bernard did not like what he heard.
It was only after Lady Anne had shown him the Bishop's parchment that she left well contented. But long after she had passed on her way Bernard, the hermit, knelt before his simple altar in profound prayer.
IT was on the Thursday of Holy Week that Henry and his court descended on Wrotham and there kept the fast of Good Friday. That year Easter fell late and spring came early. The whole countryside round Wrotham was ablaze with new life.
None the less there were still three anxious and worried men in the castle. Both Sir Hugh and Stephen of Bury sought news from Wrotham, but beyond that she was well he could tell them no more than they themselves knew.
On the Sunday after evensong, as the Bishop paced the castle wall, there fell into step beside him Sir Hugh, limping slightly from a wound from a Welsh arrow. Question and answer told that neither knew more than the other.
"Hugh, my son," sighed the Bishop, "my mind is vexed, for I fear some madcap trick that may bring sorrow to her—and mayhap shame."
"Never shame, my Lord," defended Hugh stoutly. "But I, too, am heavy at heart. What may hap to me is nothing, but if Hertford does her harm—" here his hand crept across to the heavy hilt of his sword.
"None of that, my son," said the Bishop sternly. "Anne is right, only guile can defeat the guile of Hertford." Then pausing he looked along the wall and exclaimed "But what ails Simon," for the grim old captain was hovering uncertainly 20 feet away.
Seeing he was noticed, Simon approached. "What news, Simon?" demanded Sir Hugh.
The captain hesitated, staring from one to the other. "For me?" asked Hugh, and Simon nodded.
"Then I had best get beyond earshot," said the Bishop, turning, after exchanging glances with Hugh.
"From my Lady Anne, Sir Hugh. She bids you wait her at the cot of Bernard the hermit at noon tomorrow, and not to forget your promise." Simon recited a well-learned lesson and took himself off without waiting for an answer.
The Bishop rejoined Hugh. "A message from—?"
Hugh nodded gravely. "I cannot understand."
"I ask nothing, Hugh," replied the Bishop, "but whatever she may desire, obey without question."
Hugh laughed grimly. "You and she have minds alike, my Lord, for she has wrenched a promise from me that I obey her blindly. The devil's in it all."
NEXT day at noon, Hugh, an hour before his time, greeted Anne with a glad heart as her escort of a dozen men, headed by Simon and her litter, came to a halt before the hermit's hut.
Anne waved the escort away, and turned with Hugh into the hermit's hut, bidding her women wait outside. Under her arm she bore a small carved cedar casket, which she placed upon the altar. Then for a few precious moments she lay quiet in his arms, before she drew herself gently free.
"Hugh, there is no moment to waste! For this one hour you must promise blind obedience." Then she smiled up at him gravely. "After that, for all my life, dear one, will I obey you."
"As you please, Anne, and what next?"
"Bernard, we are ready," called Anne to the hermit, who stood aside with his head bowed.
"Your women, my Lady," said the hermit, and Anne called them into the hut.
Then while the castle of Wrotham rang with the roar and bustle of preparation for the marriage of Lady Anne and Hertford, at the hermit's hut was that same Lady Anne wed to Sir Hugh—a bewildered and enraptured Sir Hugh—as fast as the Church could bind them.
When the groom walked into the open air Anne turned to him. "Now is your moment of trial, Hugh."
"I have promised, Lady Anne——," he added with a happy laugh.
"Then for two hours we part," commanded the bride, "for I must keep my vow to that black dog Hertford."
"No buts, my husband—nothing but obedience," said Anne gaily. "You ride alone to——manor. Leave me Simon and the escort, and in two hours I will be with you. Go now, my dear, my dear, or I can never let you go!"
For a second Hugh hesitated, then he stooped and kissed her, and flung himself across his horse.
"Ride, and ride fast," she cried as he turned his horse, and as Hugh spurred across the meadow to the woodland she stood watching him until he was out of sight, her hand pressed to her breast.
Then slowly she turned to Simon and said; "Simon, my friend, there is a grave mission for you. Remember, I trust you."
"Have I ever failed my Lady Anne?" he grinned under his bushy beard.
"Never, Simon, but least of all can you fail me now. I have business with the hermit. When that is done I will pass to my litter, not speaking to you. With me go to——the escort and my women. You will remain here, and take your orders from Bernard, as from me. You understand?"
"Trust me, my lady," growled the old war dog, and Anne turned away content.
At the door of his hut the hermit awaited her. "My lady," he said gently, "and is your will the same? Your heart still set?"
"Now more than ever," said Anne decisively. "Do swiftly and without fear what is to be done."
She passed into the hut with Bernard, calling her women in with her, and its frail door was closed.
FOR nearly an hour, while the men of the escort diced on, a cloak thrown on the grass, Simon stood in the warm sunlight. No sound came from the hut. He heard nothing but the buzzing of bees in the clover at his feet. Then as the door shook he barked the escort to their saddles as Lady Anne came from the hut, and with her face half-veiled by her cloak took her place in the litter.
As she had said, she neither spoke to Simon nor looked towards him. He watched the little troop and the litter, with the two women pacing beside it, follow the path taken by Hugh, until it too disappeared. Again Simon stood, waiting.
Then suddenly Bernard appeared, and Simon swung himself heavily into his saddle. The hermit bore under his arm the casket that Lady Anne had brought with her, and in his hand a small roll of parchment. "Take these with care, Simon," he ordered, "and place them yourself in the hands of his Lordship the Earl of Hertford at Wrotham. Giving him greetings from our Lady Anne."
Without a word Simon took the casket, and horse and man lumbered creaking and clanking toward Wrotham.
IN the great hall of the castle, at the high table, sat Henry. With him sat Hertford, Wrotham, and the Bishop of Bury, and about them stood a dozen nobles of the Court.
All looked up as Simon clanked his way to the dais and halted before Hertford.
"My Lord Earl Marshal," boomed Simon. "Greeting from our Lady Anne, who bade me place these before your lordship with my own hands." And Simon deposited casket and parchment on the trestle. Then he saluted abruptly and departed, his duty done.
"Ho!" laughed Henry, "a gift from the bride, Hertford!"
His Majesty was in high good humour, and called for a health to the Lady Anne.
Hertford took up the parchment and snapped the silken thread about it testily. "Does she take me for a monk, to read her writing? Here, my lord bishop, please you to be my clerk for the moment."
Stephen, more curious than the rest, opened the scroll eagerly as Hertford fumbled with the lid of the cedar casket.
And this is what Stephen of Bury read aloud to the listening group:—
"To my Lord the Erle of Hertforde:—
"Greeting from Anne—
"My Lord will have in minde how on the bodie and bloode of our Dere Lord did I take oathe that on the weeke next after Holie Week would I give him my hand, and so mine oathe I kyp, and purge me of my vowe before our Lord.—Anne."
As he was reading Hertford had opened the casket, from which he had taken a small white silken bundle. As Stephen finished reading the last fold of the silk fell away from what it held.
As their eyes fell on what lay before them every man gasped and remained for a little space as though frozen. Only Stephen moved, as he crossed himself with eyes involuntarily closed. Then he broke the silence, his voice hard and relentless.
"My Lord Hertford. I bear witness before God and man that Lady Anne has kept her vow. Remember, my Lord, the cloak of the Church is about her and hers; harm her at your peril." And slowly the Bishop of Bury went from the hall with bowed head.
But as he moved Hertford burst out with a terrible oath. "Fooled, by God!" he shouted, dashing his cup to the table. "Am I to be cheated by—"
In a second Wrotham was on his feet, with his sword drawn gleaming in the torchlight. "Silence, you—"
But Hertford's sword, too, was out.
What Wrotham might have said was cut short by a burst of that terrible Plantagenet rage, against which no man among them dared stand.
"Up swords! Up swords, I say!" thundered Henry, "Is Wrotham Castle a tavern, that you dare to brawl before your King?"
In the silence as he paused the blades could be heard grating into the scabbards. Then he turned to Hertford.
"Your work, my Lord, and foul work!" he hissed, pointing towards the table. "Hear me, Hertford. My cloak also is about Lady Anne and her people. One move against them and your head answers for it. You have what you bargained for—take it." There was bitter scorn in the King's voice.
But my Lord Hertford did not take what was his. He shrunk backwards—for there on the table, whiter than the silk on which it lay, waxen and exquisite, was the severed left hand of Lady Anne. On its third finger gleamed evilly the great ruby which Hertford had set upon it.
That night the Earl of Hertford got drunker than usual, and those who knew the Earl Marshal best regarded that as a notable achievement.
Roy Glashan's Library.
Non sibi sed omnibus
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