THE sound of a banjo badly played carried on the river air. It was just possible to glean the fact that the unseen musician had desires in the direction of 'Tommy Atkins.' The audience consisted of two people in a boat—a man and a woman.
"Fred, what does it all mean?" said the latter.
"It means," returned the man grimly, "that we are unexpectedly returning to the house-boat a full hour before our time. It means that the servants are entertaining company, Ella."
Fred Galton swished the dinghy along under the side of the houseboat Diana, and assisted his wife to gain the deck. Then he strode along to the liliputian kitchen, and threw the door open wide.
"I should like to know what all this means," he demanded.
Neither of the four listeners responded to the conundrum. Two of the party were black-gowned and smartly cuffed and collared. The soiree was completed by two gentlemen in scarlet.
"If you please, sir," Cook commenced, defiantly falsetto, "we did not think you were coming back for some time."
"I believe that," Galton interrupted, grimly. "Turn these two blackguards out at once, and put those supper things away. How dare you take my banjo from the cabin. Your mistress will settle with you presently."
"Very well, sir," Cook responded, with a strained politeness that would have alarmed a more seasoned householder than Galton. "I daresay me and Hemly will know what to do, sir."
The two sons of Mars sneaked out of the kitchen and over the side into the boat awaiting them. Then they splashed off in the darkness, cursing each other with mutual heartiness.
"You'd better go and see those girls," Galton remarked to his wife. "Put your foot down, Ella, and don't stand any nonsense."
Galton swung into the cabin and lighted a cigarette. For the first time during his tenancy of the 'Diana' he felt a little disenchanted. When Jones, his rich stockbroker friend, had offered him the loan of the boat for a couple of months he had accepted almost with rapture. A life like that on the broad bosom of the river in leafy June and languid July was an ideal one for a novelist just making his way to the front. There was another reason also why the offer was accepted with alacrity. There is no exchequer that fluctuates more than that of the average literary man, and a 'slump' in letters had brought Galton to a sense of the folly of living up to the top of his income.
Therefore the pretty little house at Crouch End had been let furnished for a time, and cook and Emily transferred to the Diana. There were scores of other house-boats close by, and many attractions chez Pangbourne, which accounted for the backsliding of the domestics and the feasting of Her Majesty's soldiery. Galton began to wish himself well out of it.
"If I and Beck come to terms," he muttered, "I'll chuck this. I'm getting tired of sleeping with my feet in the river and my head in the bookcase."
A great deal depended upon this 'if.' Galton had begun to realise the uncertainty of ephemeral literature, and to look out for something in the way of an editorship, where he could have a good fixed income and plenty of time to write besides. And when fortune threw Jossa J. Beck across his path hope beat high.
Mr. Beck was an American millionaire with a taste for literature. A man of culture and education, he had settled down in England, where he had purchased a big newspaper or two plus a trio of magazines, over which he was delighted to lose no more than 500 a month. Certes, no journals were better served or 'got up' than his. Beck was a queer, cranky kind of man, whose plentiful milk of human kindness was soured by the polluting stream of chronic dyspepsia, but where he took, Beck was a friend indeed.
Galton had great hopes in this quarter. Beck had told him personally that the editorship of the 'British Monthly' would soon be vacant, and incidentally that Simes, the present man, got 800 a year. Galton asked boldly for the appointment. But Beck could promise nothing. "I'll see," he responded, playing, as he did incessantly, with the big intaglio ring on his little finger. "No time wasted. Ain't you at Pangbourne? On the 'Diana?' Tell you what, I'll come there and lunch with you on Friday, and we will try and fix up things."
Needless to say, Galton jumped at the suggestion. A few hours from the present moment and he would know his fate. To-morrow was the pregnant Friday. He forgot all about Ella and the recreant domestics in the dwarf kitchen. The dainty little luncheon, the mayonnaise, the chicken cutlets, the pomard and salad, were all gathered for the coming of the lion from the west. Then Ella swept in. Her pretty face was pale, something like a tear dimmed her blue eye. Napoleon had lost her domestic Waterloo.
"Well?" Galton asked impatiently.
"It is anything but well," Ella replied with the calmness of despair. "They were both extremely insolent, and I had to be quite firm. The consequence is that they are both going the first thing in the morning."
Galton groaned. Many husbands would have promptly laid the blame upon the wife; but the glamour of the honeymoon was still upon them both.
"And Beck is coming," Galton concluded. "What shall we do? Can you get anybody else? To put him off would be a most successful form of suicide."
"I quite see that, dear; and as to getting servants here within a week of Henley the thing is utterly impossible."
"Don't you think," Galton suggested, meekly, "that you might ask the girls—"
"No, I don't," Ella said crisply, "especially after the way they spoke to me. If you'd been there you would have sent them away now."
Galton advanced no further in that direction. He had a poor idea of using other people at the sacrifice of personal pride. There was only one thing to do under the circumstances and that he did—he laughed. Ella smiled also. She had a pretty sense of humour and a sweet audacity which was by no means the least of her charms.
"Fred," she said presently, "does Mr. Beck know you are married?"
"Upon my word I can't say. Why?"
"Because I have a plan. The more I think it over the easier it seems. And it would be a great deal off my mind. You won't say no?"
"My dearest girl, I won't say no to any way out of the difficulty. Once we get to-morrow over I don't care. If necessary, we could do the work of the boat ourselves. And if Beck turns out trumps, why we shall have to give up the 'Diana' in any case."
"Then make your mind easy," Ella laughed. "Everything shall go as merrily as the proverbial marriage bell."
BY slow degrees the cabin of the 'Diana' had been reduced to order. True, breakfast had not been exactly a function, neither did Galton's ideas of dusting tally with the views on that important task held by Ella.
"You're as black as a tinker," said the man of letters.
"I shall be blacker still," Ella responded, cheerfully, "before I have finished. If you will get out of my way I shall be so glad."
By the time Galton had consumed three cigarettes on the roof, the table in the cabin had been laid and decked with flowers. The luncheon had been spread out, and very nice and dainty it looked, Galton thought.
"No show or ostentation," he said, "and yet quite sufficient. If only we had a decent parlour-maid, the thing would be complete. But I say!"
"What is the matter now?"
"Why, you have only laid covers for two."
"Quite right. Don't ask any foolish questions. And now I am going to dress. Come down here again when I call you."
Half-an-hour passed before the summons came.
As Galton passed into the cabin, his eyes dilated with astonishment. Before him stood Ella, but no longer the idol of his dreams. The golden glossy hair had been pushed back under a snowy cap, the long strings of which dangled behind. Round Ella's throat was a deep white collar, her wrists were surrounded by turned-back cuffs. As to her dress, it was black, both rigid and plain. A daintier, more graceful little parlour-maid never handed round a dish. The half-bold, half-fearsome look in her eyes made the charm complete.
"How did you manage it?" Galton gasped.
"Petty larceny." Ella laughed. "I opened the box left by Emily till called for, and took the liberty of borrowing these things. You're not angry, Fred?"
"I couldn't be if I were to try," Galton responded. "Mind you, I don't like it. But when a girl shows pluck like that—and you look so deuced pretty, you know."
"Silly boy! You have knocked my cap all on one side. Now get away to Pangbourne and meet your tame millionaire, or you will be late. Nervous! Really, nothing to speak of."
Wherein Ella prevaricated; which was excusable under the circumstances. In due course Mr. Beck emerged from a first-class carriage at Pangbourne, and received a respectful greeting from his host. The man who can meet a millionaire on terms of equality has yet to be discovered. The lean shambling figure lounged along by Galton's side. Beck was less melancholy than usual, and Galton had tact enough not to mention business. They reached the house-boat at length, and a few cigarettes were consumed on the roof ere came the welcome announcement of luncheon.
Ella waited deftly and noiselessly. She managed to exchange a word or two with Galton when the plutocrat was washing his hands in the lavatory. Fortunately for Ella's peace of mind the visitor did not appear to notice her at all. Like most of his countrymen he had a good and rabid appetite, and at the end of the repast he was fain to confess that he had lunched well.
"One gets so tired of these big feeds," he said, lighting a cigar costing something like half-a-crown per inch. "Upon my word, Galton, you're better off than I am."
"If I could persuade my creditors the same thing," Galton said, dryly, "it would be a source of mutual happiness."
"Money does not mean happiness," Beck remarked, sententiously.
"Perhaps not; but you can have precious little fun without it. I don't suppose you would like to live upon 400 a year, earned fitfully as I do."
"Well, it don't amount to a pile, and that's a fact. A smart fellow like you ought to do a great deal better than that."
"I dare say I ought to, but I don't."
"And that's why you require an editorship?"
"Precisely. A regular income relieves one from a deal of anxiety, and that means better work. It's all very well for fools to talk about the spur of adversity, but what's the use of spurring a laden horse?"
Beck nodded. This kind of philosophy was after his own heart.
"I have been making a good many inquiries about ye," he said, "and ye seem to be just the man I want. Simes isn't. He's groovy and intolerant of new ideas. I'm not going to promise anything definite yet. In the course of a few weeks you shall hear from me."
Galton smiled as pleasantly as possible. All the same, he didn't like it. Also he knew that Simes was leaving Beck almost immediately. And he had counted upon this appointment more than he knew. Then Beck took up the thread of conversation again.
"I daresay you have often heard me spoken of as a peculiar man," he said. "Well, I am. People in my position see a good deal of the sordid side of life, and we could form a 'corner' in human nature if necessary. If I figure a man up and like him, I'm his friend till he passes the tape, you bet. For all I say it, perhaps, who shouldn't, it's no bad thing for a young man to come to me."
"That is why I am so anxious to come," Galton responded.
"At 800 a year," Beck said drily. "Now where the deuce—"
The speaker paused, and looked helplessly at his right hand. Galton noticed that the big intaglio was no longer there.
"Guess I've lost my ring," Beck said resignedly. "I couldn't have done such a thing for a thousand. That ring, sir, belonged to Francis the First of France, and was given by him to Victoria Colonna. I knew that it would slip off my finger one of these days, and now it has."
"Then it's on the boat," Galton exclaimed, "because I'm prepared to swear that it was on your finger when we were smoking our cigarettes before luncheon. I noticed how plainly the head showed up in the sunshine."
"That's a fact, Mr. Galton?"
"I'm prepared take my oath to it anywhere."
Beck considered a moment, and then a shrewd smile crossed his face. He looked like a man who was having a joke at his own expense.
"I guess you are right," he said. "I could tell you the price that 'Centrals' stood this day twelve months, but for other things I've no memory to speak of. I remember now taking the ring off in the lavatory. I expect I left it there."
And Beck stepped away, covering with one stride the yard and a half that lay between the cabin and the lavatory. In a moment or two he had returned with the information that it was not there. Ella, in the act of removing the plates stood to listen.
"Young woman," Beck demanded, "have you been in there?"
Ella blushed to the roots of her hair. She had almost forgotten her role, and for an instant resented the tone of the speaker.
"Certainly I have," she retorted. "And I saw no ring there."
Beck appeared to be by no means satisfied. And his suspicions were aroused.
"I'll make an affidavit I left it there," he declared, "and nobody has been in the place but you. Now you look here, young woman, I guess you found that ring, and in the press of business forgot all about it."
"Do you dare to insinuate," Ella cried, "that I have stolen—"
"Simmer down. We'll leave all that to the police."
Instances of millionaires being the object of cases of assault and battery are happily rare. But no plutocrat ever came so measurably near a sound thrashing as Beck stood at that moment.
"I don't want to do anything unpleasant," he said, "but unless I get my intaglio, there's going to be trouble somewhere. Guess I'll fetch the police."
Ella dropped into a chair and promptly burst into tears. Galton laid a grip on Beck's arm that promptly checked further action.
"There's some diabolical mistake here," the author said, hoarsely. "Mr. Beck, the girl you take for a servant is my wife."
With his hands plunged into his waistcoat pockets Beck whistled. As he struck this attitude his face grew hot, his air was one of distress and shame. For a moment Galton did not see this.
"Our servants left us in the lurch last night," Galton explained. "We could not see our way to put you off. Hence my wife masquerading like this. But as to Ella stealing your ring, why I'd as soon accuse you of doing it yourself."
"Well, you'd be quite right to do so," said Beck, with a queer smile, "for the blamed thing is in my waistcoat pocket all the time. I've only just discovered the fact, and properly ashamed of myself I am. And if the lady will forget the gross insult—"
"Don't say any more, please," Ella implored.
"But I must," Beck replied. "I always make it a point to be especially polite to those in my employ. And to think that I should have so vilely treated the wife of the editor of 'The British Monthly' makes me feel hot all over."
A thrill of joy shot down Galton's spine. The threatened misfortune was a veritable blessing in disguise.
"Do you really mean that, sir?" he asked.
"Really and truly. Never more serious in my life. And if ye are as successful in life as ye are in the choice of a wife you'll rise to not only magazine editor but owner into the bargain."