Something New (Wodehouse)/Chapter 3
The Earl of Emsworth stood in the doorway of the Senior Conservative Club's vast diningroom, and beamed with a vague sweetness on the two hundred or so Senior Conservatives who, with much clattering of knives and forks, were keeping body and soul together by means of the coffee-room luncheon. He might have been posing for a statue of Amiability. His pale blue eyes shone with a friendly light through their protecting glasses; the smile of a man at peace with all men curved his weak mouth; his bald head, reflecting the sunlight, seemed almost to wear a halo.
Nobody appeared to notice him. He so seldom came to London these days that he was practically a stranger in the club; and in any case your Senior Conservative, when at lunch, has little leisure for observing anything not immediately on the table in front of him. To attract attention in the dining-room of the Senior Conservative Club between the hours of one and two-thirty, you have to be a mutton chop—not an earl.
It is possible that, lacking the initiative to make his way down the long aisle and find a table for himself, he might have stood there indefinitely, but for the restless activity of Adams, the head steward. It was Adams' mission in life to flit to and fro, hauling would-be lunchers to their destinations, as a St. Bernard dog hauls travelers out of Alpine snowdrifts. He sighted Lord Emsworth and secured him with a genteel pounce.
"A table, your lordship? This way, your lordship." Adams remembered him, of course. Adams remembered everybody.
Lord Emsworth followed him beamingly and presently came to anchor at a table in the farther end of the room. Adams handed him the bill of fare and stood brooding over him like a providence.
"Don't often see your lordship in the club," he opened chattily.
It was business to know the tastes and dispositions of all the five thousand or so members of the Senior Conservative Club and to suit his demeanor to them. To some he would hand the bill of fare swiftly, silently, almost brusquely, as one who realizes that there are moments in life too serious for talk. Others, he knew, liked conversation; and to those he introduced the subject of food almost as a sub-motive.
Lord Emsworth, having examined the bill of fare with a mild curiosity, laid it down and became conversational.
"No, Adams; I seldom visit London nowadays. London does not attract me. The country—the fields—the woods—the birds——"
Something across the room seemed to attract his attention and his voice trailed off. He inspected this for some time with bland interest, then turned to Adams once more.
"What was I saying, Adams?"
"The birds, your lordship."
"Birds! What birds? What about birds?"
"You were speaking of the attractions of life in the country, your lordship. You included the birds in your remarks."
"Oh, yes, yes, yes! Oh, yes, yes! Oh, yes—to be sure. Do you ever go to the country, Adams?"
"Generally to the seashore, your lordship—when I take my annual vacation."
Whatever was the attraction across the room once more exercised its spell. His lordship concentrated himself on it to the exclusion of all other mundane matters. Presently he came out of his trance again.
"What were you saying, Adams?"
"I said that I generally went to the seashore, your lordship."
"For my annual vacation, your lordship."
"My annual vacation, your lordship."
"What about it?"
Adams never smiled during business hours—unless professionally, as it were, when a member made a joke; but he was storing up in the recesses of his highly respectable body a large laugh, to be shared with his wife when he reached home that night. Mrs. Adams never wearied of hearing of the eccentricities of the members of the club. It occurred to Adams that he was in luck to-day. He was expecting a little party of friends to supper that night, and he was a man who loved an audience.
You would never have thought it, to look at him when engaged in his professional duties, but Adams had built up a substantial reputation as a humorist in his circle by his imitations of certain members of the club; and it was a matter of regret to him that he got so few opportunities nowadays of studying the absent-minded Lord Emsworth. It was rare luck—his lordship coming in to-day, evidently in his best form.
"Adams, who is the gentleman over by the window—the gentleman in the brown suit?"
"That is Mr. Simmonds, your lordship. He joined us last year."
"I never saw a man take such large mouthfuls. Did you ever see a man take such large mouthfuls, Adams?"
Adams refrained from expressing an opinion, but inwardly he was thrilling with artistic fervor. Mr. Simmonds eating, was one of his best imitations, though Mrs. Adams was inclined to object to it on the score that it was a bad example for the children. To be privileged to witness Lord Emsworth watching and criticizing Mr. Simmonds was to collect material for a double-barreled character study that would assuredly make the hit of the evening.
"That man," went on Lord Emsworth, "is digging his grave with his teeth. Digging his grave with his teeth, Adams! Do you take large mouthfuls, Adams?"
"No, your lordship."
"Quite right. Very sensible of you, Adams—very sensible of you. Very sen—— What was I saying, Adams?" "About my not taking large mouthfuls, your lordship."
"Quite right—quite right! Never take large mouthfuls, Adams. Never gobble. Have you any children, Adams?" "Two, your lordship."
"I hope you teach them not to gobble. They pay for it in later life. Americans gobble when young and ruin their digestions. My American friend, Mr. Peters, suffers terribly from indigestion."
Adams lowered his voice to a confidential murmur: "If you will pardon the liberty, your lordship—I saw it in the paper—"
"About Mr. Peters' indigestion?"
"About Miss Peters, your lordship, and the Honorable Frederick. May I be permitted to offer my congratulations?" "Eh, Oh, yes—the engagement. Yes, yes, yes! Yes—to be sure. Yes; very satisfactory in every respect. High time he settled down and got a little sense. I put it to him straight. I cut off his allowance and made him stay at home. That made him think—lazy young devil!"
Lord Emsworth had his lucid moments; and in the one that occurred now it came home to him that he was not talking to himself, as he had imagined, but confiding intimate family secrets to the head steward of his club's dining-room. He checked himself abruptly, and with a slight decrease of amiability fixed his gaze on the bill of fare and ordered cold beef. For an instant he felt resentful against Adams for luring him on to soliloquize; but the next moment his whole mind was gripped by the fascinating spectacle of Mr. Simmonds dealing with a wedge of Stilton cheese, and Adams was forgotten.
The cold beef had the effect of restoring his lordship to complete amiability, and when Adams in the course of his wanderings again found himself at the table he was once more disposed for light conversation.
"So you saw the news of the engagement in the paper, did you, Adams?" "Yes, your lordship, in the Mail. It had quite a long piece about it. And the Honorable Frederick's photograph and the young lady's were in the Mirror. Mrs. Adams clipped them out and put them in an album, knowing that your lordship was a member of ours. If I may say so, your lordship—a beautiful young lady."
"Devilish attractive, Adams—and devilish rich. Mr. Peters is a millionaire, Adams."
"So I read in the paper, your lordship."
"Damme! They all seem to be millionaires in America. Wish I knew how they managed it. Honestly, I hope. Mr. Peters is an honest man, but his digestion is bad. He used to bolt his food. You don't bolt your food, I hope, Adams?"
"No, your lordship; I am most careful."
"The late Mr. Gladstone used to chew each mouthful thirty-three times. Deuced good notion if you aren't in a hurry. What cheese would you recommend, Adams?"
"The gentlemen are speaking well of the Gorgonzola."
"All right, bring me some. You know, Adams, what I admire about Americans is their resource. Mr. Peters tells me that as a boy of eleven he earned twenty dollars a week selling mint to saloon keepers, as they call publicans over there. Why they wanted mint I cannot recollect. Mr. Peters explained the reason to me and it seemed highly plausible at the time; but I have forgotten it. Possibly for mint sauce. It impressed me, Adams. Twenty dollars is four pounds. I never earned four pounds a week when I was a boy of eleven; in fact, I don't think I ever earned four pounds a week. His story impressed me, Adams. Every man ought to have an earning capacity. I was so struck with what he told me that I began to paint."
"Landscapes, your lordship?"
"Furniture. It is unlikely that I shall ever be compelled to paint furniture for a living, but it is a consolation to me to feel that I could do so if called on. There is a fascination about painting furniture, Adams. I have painted the whole of my bedroom at Blandings and am now engaged on the museum. You would be surprised at the fascination of it. It suddenly came back to me the other day that I had been inwardly longing to mess about with paints and things since I was a boy. They stopped me when I was a boy. I recollect my old father beating me with a walking stick—Tell me, Adams, have I eaten my cheese?"
"Not yet, your lordship. I was about to send the waiter for it."
"Never mind. Tell him to bring the bill instead. I remember that I have an appointment. I must not be late." "Shall I take the fork, your lordship?"
"Your lordship has inadvertently put a fork in your coat pocket."
Lord Emsworth felt in the pocket indicated, and with the air of an inexpert conjurer whose trick has succeeded contrary to his expectations produced a silver-plated fork. He regarded it with surprise; then he looked wonderingly at Adams.
"Adams, I'm getting absent-minded. Have you ever noticed any traces of absent-mindedness in me before?"
"Oh, no, your lordship."
"Well, it's deuced peculiar! I have no recollection whatsoever of placing that fork in my pocket . . . Adams, I want a taxicab." He glanced round the room, as though expecting to locate one by the fireplace.
"The hall porter will whistle one for you, your lordship."
"So he will, by George!—so he will! Good day, Adams."
"Good day, your lordship."
The Earl of Emsworth ambled benevolently to the door, leaving Adams with the feeling that his day had been well-spent. He gazed almost with reverence after the slow-moving figure.
"What a nut!" said Adams to his immortal soul.
Wafted through the sunlit streets in his taxicab, the Earl of Emsworth smiled benevolently on London's teeming millions. He was as completely happy as only a fluffy-minded old man with excellent health and a large income can be. Other people worried about all sorts of things—strikes, wars, suffragettes, the diminishing birth rate, the growing materialism of the age, a score of similar subjects.
Worrying, indeed, seemed to be the twentieth-century specialty. Lord Emsworth never worried. Nature had equipped him with a mind so admirably constructed for withstanding the disagreeableness of life that if an unpleasant thought entered it, it passed out again a moment later. Except for a few of life's fundamental facts, such as that his check book was in the right-hand top drawer of his desk; that the Honorable Freddie Threepwood was a young idiot who required perpetual restraint; and that when in doubt about anything he had merely to apply to his secretary, Rupert Baxter—except for these basic things, he never remembered anything for more than a few minutes.
At Eton, in the sixties, they had called him Fathead.
His was a life that lacked, perhaps, the sublimer emotions which raise man to the level of the gods; but undeniably it was an extremely happy one. He never experienced the thrill of ambition fulfilled; but, on the other hand, he never knew the agony of ambition frustrated. His name, when he died, would not live forever in England's annals; he was spared the pain of worrying about this by the fact that he had no desire to live forever in England's annals. He was possibly as nearly contented as a human being could be in this century of alarms and excursions.
Indeed, as he bowled along in his cab and reflected that a really charming girl, not in the chorus of any West End theater, a girl with plenty of money and excellent breeding, had—in a moment, doubtless, of mental aberration—become engaged to be married to the Honorable Freddie, he told himself that life at last was absolutely without a crumpled rose leaf.
The cab drew up before a house gay with flowered window boxes. Lord Emsworth paid the driver and stood on the sidewalk looking up at this cheerful house, trying to remember why on earth he had told the man to drive there.
A few moments' steady thought gave him the answer to the riddle. This was Mr. Peters' town house, and he had come to it by invitation to look at Mr. Peters' collection of scarabs. To be sure! He remembered now—his collection of scarabs. Or was it Arabs?
Lord Emsworth smiled. Scarabs, of course. You couldn't collect Arabs. He wondered idly, as he rang the bell, what scarabs might be; but he was interested in a fluffy kind of way in all forms of collecting, and he was very pleased to have the opportunity of examining these objects; whatever they were. He rather thought they were a kind of fish.
There are men in this world who cannot rest; who are so constituted that they can only take their leisure in the shape of a change of work. To this fairly numerous class belonged Mr. J. Preston Peters, father of Freddie's Aline. And to this merit—or defect—is to be attributed his almost maniacal devotion to that rather unattractive species of curio, the Egyptian scarab.
Five years before, a nervous breakdown had sent Mr. Peters to a New York specialist. The specialist had grown rich on similar cases and his advice was always the same. He insisted on Mr. Peters taking up a hobby. "What sort of a hobby?" inquired Mr. Peters irritably. His digestion had just begun to trouble him at the time, and his temper now was not of the best.
"Now my hobby," said the specialist, "is the collecting of scarabs. Why should you not collect scarabs?"
"Because," said Mr. Peters, "I shouldn't know one if you brought it to me on a plate. What are scarabs?"
"Scarabs," said the specialist, warming to his subject, "the Egyptian hieroglyphs." "And what," inquired Mr. Peters, "are Egyptian hieroglyphs?"
The specialist began to wonder whether it would not have been better to advise Mr. Peters to collect postage stamps.
"A scarab," he said—"derived from the Latin scarabeus—is literally a beetle."
"I will not collect beetles!" said Mr. Peters definitely. "They give me the Willies."
"Scarabs are Egyptian symbols in the form of beetles," the specialist hurried on. "The most common form of scarab is in the shape of a ring. Scarabs were used for seals. They were also employed as beads or ornaments. Some scarabaei bear inscriptions having reference to places; as, for instance: 'Memphis is mighty forever.'"
Mr. Peters' scorn changed to active interest.
"Have you got one like that?"
"A scarab boosting Memphis. It's my home town."
"I think it possible that some other Memphis was alluded to."
"There isn't any other except the one in Tennessee," said Mr. Peters patriotically. The specialist owed the fact that he was a nerve doctor instead of a nerve patient to his habit of never arguing with his visitors.
"Perhaps," he said, "you would care to glance at my collection. It is in the next room." That was the beginning of Mr. Peters' devotion to scarabs. At first he did his collecting without any love of it, partly because he had to collect something or suffer, but principally because of a remark the specialist made as he was leaving the room.
"How long would it take me to get together that number of the things?" Mr. Peters inquired, when, having looked his fill on the dullest assortment of objects he remembered ever to have seen, he was preparing to take his leave.
The specialist was proud of his collection. "How long? To make a collection as large as mine? Years, Mr. Peters. Oh, many, many years."
"I'll bet you a hundred dollars I'll do it in six months!"
From that moment Mr. Peters brought to the collecting of scarabs the same furious energy which had given him so many dollars and so much indigestion. He went after scarabs like a dog after rats. He scooped in scarabs from the four corners of the earth, until at the end of a year he found himself possessed of what, purely as regarded quantity, was a record collection.
This marked the end of the first phase of—so to speak—the scarabaean side of his life. Collecting had become a habit with him, but he was not yet a real enthusiast. It occurred to him that the time had arrived for a certain amount of pruning and elimination. He called in an expert and bade him go through the collection and weed out what he felicitously termed the "dead ones." The expert did his job thoroughly. When he had finished, the collection was reduced to a mere dozen specimens.
"The rest," he explained, "are practically valueless. If you are thinking of making a collection that will have any value in the eyes of archeologists I should advise you to throw them away. The remaining twelve are good."
"How do you mean—good? Why is one of these things valuable and another so much punk? They all look alike to me."
And then the expert talked to Mr. Peters for nearly two hours about the New Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, Osiris, Ammon, Mut, Bubastis, dynasties, Cheops, the Hyksos kings, cylinders, bezels, Amenophis III, Queen Taia, the Princess Gilukhipa of Mitanni, the lake of Zarukhe, Naucratis, and the Book of the Dead. He did it with a relish. He liked to do it.
When he had finished, Mr. Peters thanked him and went to the bathroom, where he bathed his temples with eau de Cologne.
That talk changed J. Preston Peters from a supercilious scooper-up of random scarabs to what might be called a genuine scarab fan. It does not matter what a man collects; if Nature has given him the collector's mind he will become a fanatic on the subject of whatever collection he sets out to make. Mr. Peters had collected dollars; he began to collect scarabs with precisely the same enthusiasm. He would have become just as enthusiastic about butterflies or old china if he had turned his thoughts to them; but it chanced that what he had taken up was the collecting of the scarab, and it gripped him more and more as the years went on.
Gradually he came to love his scarabs with that love, surpassing the love of women, which only collectors know. He became an expert on those curious relics of a dead civilization. For a time they ran neck and neck in his thoughts with business. When he retired from business he was free to make them the master passion of his life. He treasured each individual scarab in his collection as a miser treasures gold.
Collecting, as Mr. Peters did it, resembles the drink habit. It begins as an amusement and ends as an obsession. He was gloating over his treasures when the maid announced Lord Emsworth.
A curious species of mutual toleration—it could hardly be dignified by the title of friendship—had sprung up between these two men, so opposite in practically every respect. Each regarded the other with that feeling of perpetual amazement with which we encounter those whose whole viewpoint and mode of life is foreign to our own.
The American's force and nervous energy fascinated Lord Emsworth. As for Mr. Peters, nothing like the earl had ever happened to him before in a long and varied life. Each, in fact, was to the other a perpetual freak show, with no charge for admission. And if anything had been needed to cement the alliance it would have been supplied by the fact that they were both collectors.
They differed in collecting as they did in everything else. Mr. Peters' collecting, as has been shown, was keen, furious, concentrated; Lord Emsworth's had the amiable dodderingness that marked every branch of his life. In the museum at Blandings Castle you could find every manner of valuable and valueless curio. There was no central motive; the place was simply an amateur junk shop. Side by side with a Gutenberg Bible for which rival collectors would have bidden without a limit, you would come on a bullet from the field of Waterloo, one of a consignment of ten thousand shipped there for the use of tourists by a Birmingham firm. Each was equally attractive to its owner.
"My dear Mr. Peters," said Lord Emsworth sunnily, advancing into the room, "I trust I am not unpunctual. I have been lunching at my club."
"I'd have asked you to lunch here," said Mr. Peters, "but you know how it is with me . . . I've promised the doctor I'll give those nuts and grasses of his a fair trial, and I can do it pretty well when I'm alone with Aline; but to have to sit by and see somebody else eating real food would be trying me too high."
Lord Emsworth murmured sympathetically. The other's digestive tribulations touched a ready chord. An excellent trencherman himself, he understood what Mr. Peters must suffer.
"Too bad!" he said.
Mr. Peters turned the conversation into other channels.
"These are my scarabs," he said.
Lord Emsworth adjusted his glasses, and the mild smile disappeared from his face, to be succeeded by a set look. A stage director of a moving-picture firm would have recognized the look. Lord Emsworth was registering interest—interest which he perceived from the first instant would have to be completely simulated; for instinct told him, as Mr. Peters began to talk, that he was about to be bored as he had seldom been bored in his life.
Mr. Peters, in his character of showman, threw himself into his work with even more than his customary energy. His flow of speech never faltered. He spoke of the New Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, Osiris and Ammon; waxed eloquent concerning Mut, Bubastis, Cheops, the Hyksos kings, cylinders, bezels and Amenophis III; and became at times almost lyrical when touching on Queen Taia, the Princess Gilukhipa of Mitanni, the lake of Zarukhe, Naucratis and the Book of the Dead. Time slid by.
"Take a look at this, Lord Emsworth."
As one who, brooding on love or running over business projects in his mind, walks briskly into a lamppost and comes back to the realities of life with a sense of jarring shock, Lord Emsworth started, blinked and returned to consciousness. Far away his mind had been—seventy miles away—in the pleasant hothouses and shady garden walks of Blandings Castle. He came back to London to find that his host, with a mingled air of pride and reverence, was extending toward him a small, dingy-looking something.
He took it and looked at it. That, apparently, was what he was meant to do. So far, all was well.
"Ah!" he said—that blessed word; covering everything! He repeated it, pleased at his ready resource.
"A Cheops of the Fourth Dynasty," said Mr. Peters fervently.
"I beg your pardon?"
"A Cheops—of the Fourth Dynasty."
Lord Emsworth began to feel like a hunted stag. He could not go on saying "Ah!" indefinitely; yet what else was there to say to this curious little beastly sort of a beetle kind of thing?
"Dear me! A Cheops!"
"Of the Fourth Dynasty!"
"Bless my soul! The Fourth Dynasty!"
"What do you think of that—eh?"
Strictly speaking, Lord Emsworth thought nothing of it; and he was wondering how to veil this opinion in diplomatic words, when the providence that looks after all good men saved him by causing a knock at the door to occur. In response to Mr. Peters' irritated cry a maid entered.
"If you please, sir, Mr. Threepwood wishes to speak with you on the telephone."
Mr. Peters turned to his guest. "Excuse me for one moment."
"Certainly," said Lord Emsworth gratefully. "Certainly, certainly, certainly! By all means."
The door closed behind Mr. Peters. Lord Emsworth was alone. For some moments he stood where he had been left, a figure with small signs of alertness about it. But Mr. Peters did not return immediately. The booming of his voice came faintly from some distant region. Lord Emsworth strolled to the window and looked out.
The sun still shone brightly on the quiet street. Across the road were trees. Lord Emsworth was fond of trees; he looked at these approvingly. Then round the corner came a vagrom man, wheeling flowers in a barrow.
Flowers! Lord Emsworth's mind shot back to Blandings like a homing pigeon. Flowers! Had he or had he not given Head Gardener Thorne adequate instructions as to what to do with those hydrangeas? Assuming that he had not, was Thorne to be depended on to do the right thing by them by the light of his own intelligence? Lord Emsworth began to brood on Head Gardener Thorne.
He was aware of some curious little object in his hand. He accorded it a momentary inspection. It had no message for him. It was probably something; but he could not remember what. He put it in his pocket and returned to his meditations.
- * *
At about the hour when the Earl of Emsworth was driving to keep his appointment with Mr. Peters, a party of two sat at a corner table at Simpson's Restaurant, in the Strand. One of the two was a small, pretty, good-natured-looking girl of about twenty; the other, a thick-set young man, with a wiry crop of red-brown hair and an expression of mingled devotion and determination. The girl was Aline Peters; the young man's name was George Emerson. He, also, was an American, a rising member in a New York law firm. He had a strong, square face, with a dogged and persevering chin.
There are all sorts of restaurants in London, from the restaurant which makes you fancy you are in Paris to the restaurant which makes you wish you were. There are palaces in Piccadilly, quaint lethal chambers in Soho, and strange food factories in Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. There are restaurants which specialize in ptomaine and restaurants which specialize in sinister vegetable messes. But there is only one Simpson's.
Simpson's, in the Strand, is unique. Here, if he wishes, the Briton may for the small sum of half a dollar stupefy himself with food. The god of fatted plenty has the place under his protection. Its keynote is solid comfort.
It is a pleasant, soothing, hearty place—a restful temple of food. No strident orchestra forces the diner to bolt beef in ragtime. No long central aisle distracts his attention with its stream of new arrivals. There he sits, alone with his food, while white-robed priests, wheeling their smoking trucks, move to and fro, ever ready with fresh supplies.
All round the room—some at small tables, some at large tables —the worshipers sit, in their eyes that resolute, concentrated look which is the peculiar property of the British luncher, ex-President Roosevelt's man-eating fish, and the American army worm.
Conversation does not flourish at Simpson's. Only two of all those present on this occasion showed any disposition toward chattiness. They were Aline Peters and her escort.
"The girl you ought to marry," Aline was saying, "is Joan Valentine." "The girl I am going to marry," said George Emerson, "is Aline Peters." For answer, Aline picked up from the floor beside her an illustrated paper and, having opened it at a page toward the end, handed it across the table.
George Emerson glanced at it disdainfully. There were two photographs on the page. One was of Aline; the other of a heavy, loutish-looking youth, who wore that expression of pained glassiness which Young England always adopts in the face of a camera.
Under one photograph were printed the words: "Miss Aline Peters, who is to marry the Honorable Frederick Threepwood in June"; under the other: "The Honorable Frederick Threepwood, who is to marry Miss Aline Peters in June." Above the photographs was the legend: "Forthcoming International Wedding. Son of the Earl of Emsworth to marry American heiress." In one corner of the picture a Cupid, draped in the Stars and Stripes, aimed his bow at the gentleman; in the other another Cupid, clad in a natty Union Jack, was drawing a bead on the lady.
The subeditor had done his work well. He had not been ambiguous. What he intended to convey to the reader was that Miss Aline Peters, of America, was going to marry the Honorable Frederick Threepwood, son of the Earl of Emsworth; and that was exactly the impression the average reader got. George Emerson, however, was not an average reader. The subeditor's work did not impress him.
"You mustn't believe everything you see in the papers," he said. "What are the stout children in the one-piece bathing suits supposed to be doing?"
"Those are Cupids, George, aiming at us with their little bow— a pretty and original idea."
"Cupid is the god of love."
"What has the god of love got to do with it?"
Aline placidly devoured a fried potato. "You're simply trying to make me angry," she said; "and I call it very mean of you. You know perfectly well how fatal it is to get angry at meals. It was eating while he was in a bad temper that ruined father's digestion. George, that nice, fat carver is wheeling his truck this way. Flag him and make him give me some more of that mutton."
George looked round him morosely.
"This," he said, "is England—this restaurant, I mean. You don't need to go any farther. Just take a good look at this place and you have seen the whole country and can go home again. You may judge a country by its meals. A people with imagination will eat with imagination. Look at the French; look at ourselves, The Englishman loathes imagination. He goes to a place like this and says: 'Don't bother me to think. Here's half a dollar. Give me food—any sort of food—until I tell you to stop.' And that's the principle on which he lives his life. 'Give me anything, and don't bother me!' That's his motto."
"If that was meant to apply to Freddie and me, I think you're very rude. Do you mean that any girl would have done for him, so long as it was a girl?"
George Emerson showed a trace of confusion. Being honest with himself, he had to admit that he did not exactly know what he did mean—if he meant anything. That, he felt rather bitterly, was the worst of Aline. She would never let a fellow's good things go purely as good things; she probed and questioned and spoiled the whole effect. He was quite sure that when he began to speak he had meant something, but what it was escaped him for the moment. He had been urged to the homily by the fact that at a neighboring table he had caught sight of a stout young Briton, with a red face, who reminded him of the Honorable Frederick Threepwood. He mentioned this to Aline.
"Do you see that fellow in the gray suit—I think he has been sleeping in it—at the table on your right? Look at the stodgy face. See the glassy eye. If that man sandbagged your Freddie and tied him up somewhere, and turned up at the church instead of him, can you honestly tell me you would know the difference? Come, now, wouldn't you simply say, 'Why, Freddie, how natural you look!' and go through the ceremony without a suspicion?"
"He isn't a bit like Freddie."
"My dear girl, there isn't a man in this restaurant under the age of thirty who isn't just like Freddie. All Englishmen look exactly alike, talk exactly alike, and think exactly alike."
"And you oughtn't to speak of him as Freddie. You don't know him."
"Yes, I do. And, what is more, he expressly asked me to call him Freddie. 'Oh, dash it, old top, don't keep on calling me Threepwood! Freddie to pals!' Those were his very words." "George, you're making this up."
"Not at all. We met last night at the National Sporting Club. Porky Jones was going twenty rounds with Eddie Flynn. I offered to give three to one on Eddie. Freddie, who was sitting next to me, took me in fivers. And if you want any further proof of your young man's pin-headedness; mark that! A child could have seen that Eddie had him going. Eddie comes from Pittsburgh—God bless it! My own home town!"
"Did your Eddie win?"
"You don't listen—I told you he was from Pittsburgh. And afterward Threepwood chummed up with me and told me that to real pals like me he was Freddie. I was a real pal, as I understood it, because I would have to wait for my money. The fact was, he explained, his old governor had cut off his bally allowance."
"You're simply trying to poison my mind against him; and I don't think it's very nice of you, George."
"What do you mean—poison your mind? I'm not poisoning your mind; I'm simply telling you a few things about him. You know perfectly well that you don't love him, and that you aren't going to marry him—and that you are going to marry me."
"How do you know I don't love my Freddie?"
"If you can look me straight in the eyes and tell me you do, I will drop the whole thing and put on a little page's dress and carry your train up the aisle. Now, then!"
"And all the while you're talking you're letting my carver get away," said Aline.
George called to the willing priest, who steered his truck toward them. Aline directed his dissection of the shoulder of mutton by word and gesture.
"Enjoy yourself!" said Emerson coldly.
"So I do, George; so I do. What excellent meat they have in England!" "It all comes from America," said George patriotically. "And, anyway, can't you be a bit more spiritual? I don't want to sit here discussing food products."
"If you were in my position, George, you wouldn't want to talk about anything else. It's doing him a world of good, poor dear; but there are times when I'm sorry Father ever started this food-reform thing. You don't know what it means for a healthy young girl to try and support life on nuts and grasses."
"And why should you?" broke out Emerson. "I'll tell you what it is, Aline—you are perfectly absurd about your father. I don't want to say anything against him to you, naturally; but—"
"Go ahead, George. Why this diffidence? Say what you like."
"Very well, then, I will. I'll give it to you straight. You know quite well that you have let your father bully you since you were in short frocks. I don't say it is your fault or his fault, or anybody's fault; I just state it as a fact. It's temperament, I suppose. You are yielding and he is aggressive; and he has taken advantage of it.
"We now come to this idiotic Freddie-marriage business. Your father has forced you into that. It's all very well to say that you are a free agent and that fathers don't coerce their daughters nowadays. The trouble is that your father does. You let him do what he likes with you. He has got you hypnotized; and you won't break away from this Freddie foolishness because you can't find the nerve. I'm going to help you find the nerve. I'm coming down to Blandings Castle when you go there on Friday."
"Coming to Blandings!"
"Freddie invited me last night. I think it was done by way of interest on the money he owed me; but he did it and I accepted."
"But, George, my dear boy, do you never read the etiquette books and the hints in the Sunday papers on how to be the perfect gentleman? Don't you know you can't be a man's guest and take advantage of his hospitality to try to steal his fiancee away from him?"
A dreamy look came into Aline's eyes. "I wonder what it feels like, being a countess," she said.
"You will never know." George looked at her pityingly. "My poor girl," he said, "have you been lured into this engagement in the belief that pop-eyed Frederick, the Idiot Child, is going to be an earl some day? You have been stung! Freddie is not the heir. His older brother, Lord Bosham, is as fit as a prize-fighter and has three healthy sons. Freddie has about as much chance of getting the title as I have."
"George, your education has been sadly neglected. Don't you know that the heir to the title always goes on a yachting cruise, with his whole family, and gets drowned—and the children too? It happens in every English novel you read."
"Listen, Aline! Let us get this thing straight: I have been in love with you since I wore knickerbockers. I proposed to you at your first dance—"
"But sincerely. Last year, when I found that you had gone to England, I came on after you as soon as the firm could spare me. And I found you engaged to this Freddie excrescence." "I like the way you stand up for Freddie. So many men in your position might say horrid things about him."
"Oh, I've nothing against Freddie. He is practically an imbecile and I don't like his face; outside of that he's all right. But you will be glad later that you did not marry him. You are much too real a person. What a wife you will make for a hard-working man!"
"What does Freddie work hard at?"
"I am alluding at the moment not to Freddie but to myself. I shall come home tired out. Maybe things will have gone wrong downtown. I shall be fagged, disheartened. And then you will come with your cool, white hands and, placing them gently on my forehead—"
Aline shook her head. "It's no good, George. Really, you had better realize it. I'm very fond of you, but we are not suited!"
"You are too overwhelming—too much like a bomb. I think you must be one of the supermen one reads about. You would want your own way and nothing but your own way. Now, Freddie will roll through hoops and sham dead, and we shall be the happiest pair in the world. I am much too placid and mild to make you happy. You want somebody who would stand up to you—somebody like Joan Valentine."
"That's the second time you have mentioned this Joan Valentine. Who is she?" "She is a girl who was at school with me. We were the greatest chums—at least, I worshiped her and would have done anything for her; and I think she liked me. Then we lost touch with one another and didn't meet for years. I met her on the street yesterday, and she is just the same. She has been through the most awful times. Her father was quite rich; he died suddenly while he and Joan were in Paris, and she found that he hadn't left a cent. He had been living right up to his income all the time. His life wasn't even insured. She came to London; and, so far as I could make out from the short talk we had, she has done pretty nearly everything since we last met. She worked in a shop and went on the stage, and all sorts of things. Isn't it awful, George!"
"Pretty tough," said Emerson. He was but faintly interested in Miss Valentine. "She is so plucky and full of life. She would stand up to you."
"Thanks! My idea of marriage is not a perpetual scrap. My notion of a wife is something cozy and sympathetic and soothing. That is why I love you. We shall be the happiest—"
"Dear old George! Now pay the check and get me a taxi. I've endless things to do at home. If Freddie is in town I suppose he will be calling to see me. Who is Freddie, do you ask? Freddie is my fiance, George. My betrothed. My steady. The young man I'm going to marry."
Emerson shook his head resignedly. "Curious how you cling to that Freddie idea. Never mind! I'll come down to Blandings on Friday and we shall see what happens. Bear in mind the broad fact that you and I are going to be married, and that nothing on earth is going to stop us."
- * *
It was Aline Peters who had to bear the brunt of her father's mental agony when he discovered, shortly after Lord Emsworth had left him, that the gem of his collection of scarabs had done the same. It is always the innocent bystander who suffers.
"The darned old sneak thief!" said Mr. Peters.
"Don't sit there saying 'Father!' What's the use of saying 'Father!'? Do you think it is going to help—your saying 'Father!'? I'd rather the old pirate had taken the house and lot than that scarab. He knows what's what! Trust him to walk off with the pick of the whole bunch! I did think I could leave the father of the man who's going to marry my daughter for a second alone with the things. There's no morality among collectors—none! I'd trust a syndicate of Jesse James, Captain Kidd and Dick Turpin sooner than I would a collector. My Cheops of the Fourth Dynasty! I wouldn't have lost it for five thousand dollars!"
"But, father, couldn't you write him a letter, asking for it back? He's such a nice old man! I'm sure he didn't mean to steal the scarab."
Mr. Peters' overwrought soul blew off steam in the shape of a passionate snort.
"Didn't mean to steal it! What do you think he meant to do—take it away and keep it safe for me for fear I should lose it? Didn't mean to steal it! Bet you he's well-known in society as a kleptomaniac. Bet you that when his name is announced his friends pick up their spoons and send in a hurry call to police headquarters for a squad to come and see that he doesn't sneak the front door. Of course he meant to steal it! He has a museum of his own down in the country. My Cheops is going to lend tone to that. I'd give five thousand dollars to get it back. If there's a man in this country with the spirit to break into that castle and steal that scarab and hand it back to me, there's five thousand waiting for him right here; and if he wants to he can knock that old safe blower on the head with a jimmy into the bargain."
"But, father, why can't you simply go to him and say it's yours and that you must have it back?"
"And have him come back at me by calling off this engagement of yours? Not if I know it! You can't go about the place charging a man with theft and ask him to go on being willing to have his son marry your daughter, can you? The slightest suggestion that I thought he had stolen this scarab and he would do the Proud Old English Aristocrat and end everything. He's in the strongest position a thief has ever been in. You can't get at him."
"I didn't think of that."
"You don't think at all. That's the trouble with you," said Mr. Peters. Years of indigestion had made Mr. Peters' temper, even when in a normal mood, perfectly impossible; in a crisis like this it ran amuck. He vented it on Aline because he had always vented his irritabilities on Aline; because the fact of her sweet, gentle disposition, combined with the fact of their relationship, made her the ideal person to receive the overflow of his black moods. While his wife had lived he had bullied her. On her death Aline had stepped into the vacant position.
Aline did not cry, because she was not a girl who was given to tears; but, for all her placid good temper, she was wounded. She was a girl who liked everything in the world to run smoothly and easily, and these scenes with her father always depressed her. She took advantage of a lull in Mr. Peters' flow of words and slipped from the room.
Her cheerfulness had received a shock. She wanted sympathy. She wanted comforting. For a moment she considered George Emerson in the role of comforter; but there were objections to George in this character. Aline was accustomed to tease and chat with George, but at heart she was a little afraid of him; and instinct told her that, as comforter, he would be too volcanic and supermanly for a girl who was engaged to marry another man in June. George, as comforter, would be far too prone to trust to action rather than to the soothing power of the spoken word. George's idea of healing the wound, she felt, would be to push her into a cab and drive to the nearest registrar's.
No; she would not go to George. To whom, then? The vision of Joan Valentine came to her—of Joan as she had seen her yesterday, strong, cheerful, self-reliant, bearing herself, in spite of adversity, with a valiant jauntiness. Yes; she would go and see Joan. She put on her hat and stole from the house.
Curiously enough, only a quarter of an hour before, R. Jones had set out with exactly the same object in view.
- * *
At almost exactly the hour when Aline Peters set off to visit her friend, Miss Valentine, three men sat in the cozy smoking-room of Blandings Castle.
They were variously occupied. In the big chair nearest the door the Honorable Frederick Threepwood—Freddie to pals—was reading. Next to him sat a young man whose eyes, glittering through rimless spectacles, were concentrated on the upturned faces of several neat rows of playing cards—Rupert Baxter, Lord Emsworth's invaluable secretary, had no vices, but he sometimes relaxed his busy brain with a game of solitaire. Beyond Baxter, a cigar in his mouth and a weak highball at his side, the Earl of Emsworth took his ease.
The book the Honorable Freddie was reading was a small paper-covered book. Its cover was decorated with a color scheme in red, black and yellow, depicting a tense moment in the lives of a man with a black beard, a man with a yellow beard, a man without any beard at all, and a young woman who, at first sight, appeared to be all eyes and hair. The man with the black beard, to gain some private end, had tied this young woman with ropes to a complicated system of machinery, mostly wheels and pulleys. The man with the yellow beard was in the act of pushing or pulling a lever. The beardless man, protruding through a trapdoor in the floor, was pointing a large revolver at the parties of the second part.
Beneath this picture were the words: "Hands up, you scoundrels!"
Above it, in a meandering scroll across the page, was: "Gridley Quayle, Investigator. The Adventure of the Secret Six. By Felix Clovelly." The Honorable Freddie did not so much read as gulp the adventure of the Secret Six. His face was crimson with excitement; his hair was rumpled; his eyes bulged. He was absorbed.
This is peculiarly an age in which each of us may, if we do but search diligently, find the literature suited to his mental powers. Grave and earnest men, at Eton and elsewhere, had tried Freddie Threepwood with Greek, with Latin and with English; and the sheeplike stolidity with which he declined to be interested in the masterpieces of all three tongues had left them with the conviction that he would never read anything.
And then, years afterward, he had suddenly blossomed out as a student—only, it is true, a student of the Adventures of Gridley Quayle; but still a student. His was a dull life and Gridley Quayle was the only person who brought romance into it. Existence for the Honorable Freddie was simply a sort of desert, punctuated with monthly oases in the shape of new Quayle adventures. It was his ambition to meet the man who wrote them.
Lord Emsworth sat and smoked, and sipped and smoked again, at peace with all the world. His mind was as nearly a blank as it is possible for the human mind to be. The hand that had not the task of holding the cigar was at rest in his trousers pocket. The fingers of it fumbled idly with a small, hard object.
Gradually it filtered into his lordship's mind that this small, hard object was not familiar. It was something new—something that was neither his keys nor his pencil; nor was it his small change. He yielded to a growing curiosity and drew it out. He examined it. It was a little something, rather like a fossilized beetle. It touched no chord in him. He looked at it with amiable distaste.
"Now how in the world did that get there?" he said.
The Honorable Freddie paid no attention to the remark. He was now at the very crest of his story, when every line intensified the thrill. Incident was succeeding incident. The Secret Six were here, there and everywhere, like so many malignant June bugs.
Annabel, the heroine, was having a perfectly rotten time—kidnapped, and imprisoned every few minutes. Gridley Quayle, hot on the scent, was covering somebody or other with his revolver almost continuously. Freddie Threepwood had no time for chatting with his father. Not so Rupert Baxter. Chatting with Lord Emsworth was one of the things for which he received his salary. He looked up from his cards.
"I have found a curious object in my pocket, Baxter. I was wondering how it got there."
He handed the thing to his secretary. Rupert Baxter's eyes lit up with sudden enthusiasm. He gasped.
"Magnificent!" he cried. "Superb!"
Lord Emsworth looked at him inquiringly.
"It is a scarab, Lord Emsworth; and unless I am mistaken—and I think I may claim to be something of an expert—a Cheops of the Fourth Dynasty. A wonderful addition to your museum!"
"Is it? By Gad! You don't say so, Baxter!"
"It is, indeed. If it is not a rude question, how much did you give for it, Lord Emsworth? It must have been the gem of somebody's collection. Was there a sale at Christie's this afternoon?"
Lord Emsworth shook his head. "I did not get it at Christie's, for I recollect that I had an important engagement which prevented my going to Christie's. To be sure; yes—I had promised to call on Mr. Peters and examine his collection of—Now I wonder what it was that Mr. Peters said he collected!"
"Mr. Peters is one of the best-known living collectors of scarabs."
"Scarabs! You are quite right, Baxter. Now that I recall the episode, this is a scarab; and Mr. Peters gave it to me."
"Gave it to you, Lord Emsworth?"
"Yes. The whole scene comes back to me. Mr. Peters, after telling me a great many exceedingly interesting things about scarabs, which I regret to say I cannot remember, gave me this. And you say it is really valuable, Baxter?"
"It is, from a collector's point of view, of extraordinary value."
"Bless my soul!" Lord Emsworth beamed. "This is extremely interesting, Baxter. One has heard so much of the princely hospitality of Americans. How exceedingly kind of Mr. Peters! I shall certainly treasure it, though I must confess that from a purely spectacular standpoint it leaves me a little cold. However, I must not look a gift horse in the mouth—eh, Baxter?"
From afar came the silver booming of a gong. Lord Emsworth rose.
"Time to dress for dinner? I had no idea it was so late. Baxter, you will be going past the museum door. Will you be a good fellow and place this among the exhibits? You will know what to do with it better than I. I always think of you as the curator of my little collection, Baxter—ha-ha! Mind how you step when you are in the museum. I was painting a chair there yesterday and I think I left the paint pot on the floor."
He cast a less amiable glance at his studious son.
"Get up, Frederick, and go and dress for dinner. What is that trash you are reading?"
The Honorable Freddie came out of his book much as a sleepwalker wakes—with a sense of having been violently assaulted. He looked up with a kind of stunned plaintiveness.
"Make haste! Beach rang the gong five minutes ago. What is that you are reading?"
"Oh, nothing, gov'nor—just a book."
"I wonder you can waste your time on such trash. Make haste!"
He turned to the door, and the benevolent expression once more wandered athwart his face.
"Extremely kind of Mr. Peters!" he said. "Really, there is something almost Oriental in the lavish generosity of our American cousins."
- * *
It had taken R. Jones just six hours to discover Joan Valentine's address. That it had not taken him longer is a proof of his energy and of the excellence of his system of obtaining information; but R. Jones, when he considered it worth his while, could be extremely energetic, and he was a past master at the art of finding out things.
He poured himself out of his cab and rang the bell of Number Seven. A disheveled maid answered the ring. "Miss Valentine in?"
R. Jones produced his card.
"On important business, tell her. Half a minute—I'll write it."
He wrote the words on the card and devoted the brief period of waiting to a careful scrutiny of his surroundings. He looked out into the court and he looked as far as he could down the dingy passage; and the conclusions he drew from what he saw were complimentary to Miss Valentine.
"If this girl is the sort of girl who would hold up Freddie's letters," he mused, "she wouldn't be living in a place like this. If she were on the make she would have more money than she evidently possesses. Therefore, she is not on the make; and I am prepared to bet that she destroyed the letters as fast as she got them."
Those were, roughly, the thoughts of R. Jones as he stood in the doorway of Number Seven; and they were important thoughts inasmuch as they determined his attitude toward Joan in the approaching interview. He perceived that this matter must be handled delicately—that he must be very much the gentleman. It would be a strain, but he must do it.
The maid returned and directed him to Joan's room with a brief word and a sweeping gesture.
"Eh?" said R. Jones. "First floor?"
"Front," said the maid.
R. Jones trudged laboriously up the short flight of stairs. It was very dark on the stairs and he stumbled. Eventually, however, light came to him through an open door. Looking in, he saw a girl standing at the table. She had an air of expectation; so he deduced that he had reached his journey's end.
"Please come in."
R. Jones waddled in.
"Not much light on your stairs."
"No. Will you take a seat?"
One glance at the girl convinced R. Jones that he had been right. Circumstances had made him a rapid judge of character, for in the profession of living by one's wits in a large city the first principle of offense and defense is to sum people up at first sight. This girl was not on the make.
Joan Valentine was a tall girl with wheat-gold hair and eyes as brightly blue as a November sky when the sun is shining on a frosty world. There was in them a little of November's cold glitter, too, for Joan had been through much in the last few years; and experience, even though it does not harden, erects a defensive barrier between its children and the world.
Her eyes were eyes that looked straight and challenged. They could thaw to the satin blue of the Mediterranean Sea, where it purrs about the little villages of Southern France; but they did not thaw for everybody. She looked what she was—a girl of action; a girl whom life had made both reckless and wary—wary of friendly advances, reckless when there was a venture afoot.
Her eyes, as they met R. Jones' now, were cold and challenging. She, too, had learned the trick of swift diagnosis of character, and what she saw of R. Jones in that first glance did not impress her favorably.
"You wished to see me on business?"
"Yes," said R. Jones. "Yes. . . . Miss Valentine, may I begin by begging you to realize that I have no intention of insulting you?"
Joan's eyebrows rose. For an instant she did her visitor the injustice of suspecting that he had been dining too well.
"I don't understand."
"Let me explain: I have come here," R. Jones went on, getting more gentlemanly every moment, "on a very distasteful errand, to oblige a friend. Will you bear in mind that whatever I say is said entirely on his behalf?"
By this time Joan had abandoned the idea that this stout person was a life-insurance tout, and was inclining to the view that he was collecting funds for a charity.
"I came here at the request of the Honorable Frederick Threepwood." "I don't quite understand."
"You never met him, Miss Valentine; but when you were in the chorus at the Piccadilly Theatre, I believe, he wrote you some very foolish letters. Possibly you have forgotten them?"
"I certainly have."
"You have probably destroyed them—-eh?"
"Certainly! I never keep letters. Why do you ask?"
"Well, you see, Miss Valentine, the Honorable Frederick Threepwood is about to be married; and he thought that possibly, on the whole, it would be better that the letters—and poetry—which he wrote you were nonexistent."
Not all R. Jones' gentlemanliness—and during this speech he diffused it like a powerful scent in waves about him—could hide the unpleasant meaning of the words.
"He was afraid I might try to blackmail him?" said Joan, with formidable calm.
R. Jones raised and waved a fat hand deprecatingly.
"My dear Miss Valentine!"
Joan rose and R. Jones followed her example. The interview was plainly at an end.
"Please tell Mr. Threepwood to make his mind quite easy. He is in no danger."
"Exactly—exactly; precisely! I assured Threepwood that my visit here would be a mere formality. I was quite sure you had no intention whatever of worrying him. I may tell him definitely, then, that you have destroyed the letters?"
"Good-evening, Miss Valentine."
The closing of the door behind him left him in total darkness, but he hardly liked to return and ask Joan to reopen it in order to light him on his way. He was glad to be out of her presence. He was used to being looked at in an unfriendly way by his fellows, but there had been something in Joan's eyes that had curiously discomfited him.
R. Jones groped his way down, relieved that all was over and had ended well. He believed what she had told him, and he could conscientiously assure Freddie that the prospect of his sharing the fate of poor old Percy was nonexistent. It is true that he proposed to add in his report that the destruction of the letters had been purchased with difficulty, at a cost of just five hundred pounds; but that was a mere business formality.
He had almost reached the last step when there was a ring at the front door. With what he was afterward wont to call an inspiration, he retreated with unusual nimbleness until he had almost reached Joan's door again. Then he leaned over the banister and listened.
The disheveled maid opened the door. A girl's voice spoke:
"Is Miss Valentine in?"
"She's in; but she's engaged."
"I wish you would go up and tell her that I want to see her. Say it's Miss Peters—Miss Aline Peters."
The banister shook beneath R. Jones' sudden clutch. For a moment he felt almost faint. Then he began to think swiftly. A great light had dawned on him, and the thought outstanding in his mind was that never again would he trust a man or woman on the evidence of his senses. He could have sworn that this Valentine girl was on the level. He had been perfectly satisfied with her statement that she had destroyed the letters. And all the while she had been playing as deep a game as he had come across in the whole course of his professional career! He almost admired her. How she had taken him in!
It was obvious now what her game was. Previous to his visit she had arranged a meeting with Freddie's fiancee, with the view of opening negotiations for the sale of the letters. She had held him, Jones, at arm's length because she was going to sell the letters to whoever would pay the best price. But for the accident of his happening to be here when Miss Peters arrived, Freddie and his fiancee would have been bidding against each other and raising each other's price. He had worked the same game himself a dozen times, and he resented the entry of female competition into what he regarded as essentially a male field of enterprise.
As the maid stumped up the stairs he continued his retreat. He heard Joan's door open, and the stream of light showed him the disheveled maid standing in the doorway.
"Ow, I thought there was a gentleman with you, miss."
"He left a moment ago. Why?"
"There's a lady wants to see you. Miss Peters, her name is."
"Will you ask her to come up?"
The disheveled maid was no polished mistress of ceremonies. She leaned down into the void and hailed Aline.
"She says will you come up?"
Aline's feet became audible on the staircase. There were greetings.
"Whatever brings you here, Aline?"
"Am I interrupting you, Joan, dear?"
"No. Do come in! I was only surprised to see you so late. I didn't know you paid calls at this hour. Is anything wrong? Come in."
The door closed, the maid retired to the depths, and R. Jones stole cautiously down again. He was feeling absolutely bewildered. Apparently his deductions, his second thoughts, had been all wrong, and Joan was, after all, the honest person he had imagined at first sight. Those two girls had talked to each other as though they were old friends; as though they had known each other all their lives. That was the thing which perplexed R. Jones.
With the tread of a red Indian, he approached the door and put his ear to it. He found he could hear quite comfortably.
Aline, meantime, inside the room, had begun to draw comfort from Joan's very appearance, she looked so capable. Joan's eyes had changed the expression they had contained during the recent interview. They were soft now, with a softness that was half compassionate, half contemptuous. It is the compensation which life gives to those whom it has handled roughly in order that they shall be able to regard with a certain contempt the small troubles of the sheltered. Joan remembered Aline of old, and knew her for a perennial victim of small troubles. Even in their schooldays she had always needed to be looked after and comforted. Her sweet temper had seemed to invite the minor slings and arrows of fortune. Aline was a girl who inspired protectiveness in a certain type of her fellow human beings. It was this quality in her that kept George Emerson awake at nights; and it appealed to Joan now.
Joan, for whom life was a constant struggle to keep the wolf within a reasonable distance from the door, and who counted that day happy on which she saw her way clear to paying her weekly rent and possibly having a trifle over for some coveted hat or pair of shoes, could not help feeling, as she looked at Aline, that her own troubles were as nothing, and that the immediate need of the moment was to pet and comfort her friend. Her knowledge of Aline told her the probable tragedy was that she had lost a brooch or had been spoken to crossly by somebody; but it also told her that such tragedies bulked very large on Aline's horizon.
Trouble, after all, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder; and Aline was far less able to endure with fortitude the loss of a brooch than she herself to bear the loss of a position the emoluments of which meant the difference between having just enough to eat and starving.
"You're worried about something," she said. "Sit down and tell me all about it."
Aline sat down and looked about her at the shabby room. By that curious process of the human mind which makes the spectacle of another's misfortune a palliative for one's own, she was feeling oddly comforted already. Her thoughts were not definite and she could not analyze them; but what they amounted to was that, though it was an unpleasant thing to be bullied by a dyspeptic father, the world manifestly held worse tribulations, which her father's other outstanding quality, besides dyspepsia—wealth, to wit—enabled her to avoid.
It was at this point that the dim beginnings of philosophy began to invade her mind. The thing resolved itself almost into an equation. If father had not had indigestion he would not have bullied her. But, if father had not made a fortune he would not have had indigestion. Therefore, if father had not made a fortune he would not have bullied her. Practically, in fact, if father did not bully her he would not be rich. And if he were not rich—
She took in the faded carpet, the stained wall paper and the soiled curtains with a comprehensive glance. It certainly cut both ways. She began to be a little ashamed of her misery.
"It's nothing at all; really," she said. "I think I've been making rather a fuss about very little."
Joan was relieved. The struggling life breeds moods of depression, and such a mood had come to her just before Aline's arrival. Life, at that moment, had seemed to stretch before her like a dusty, weary road, without hope. She was sick of fighting. She wanted money and ease, and a surcease from this perpetual race with the weekly bills. The mood had been the outcome partly of R. Jones' gentlemanly-veiled insinuations, but still more, though she did not realize it, of her yesterday's meeting with Aline.
Mr. Peters might be unguarded in his speech when conversing with his daughter—he might play the tyrant toward her in many ways; but he did not stint her in the matter of dress allowance, and, on the occasion when she met Joan, Aline had been wearing so Parisian a hat and a tailor-made suit of such obviously expensive simplicity that green-eyed envy had almost spoiled Joan's pleasure at meeting this friend of her opulent days.
She had suppressed the envy, and it had revenged itself by assaulting her afresh in the form of the worst fit of the blues she had had in two years.
She had been loyally ready to sink her depression in order to alleviate Aline's, but it was a distinct relief to find that the feat would not be necessary.
"Never mind," she said. "Tell me what the very little thing was."
"It was only father," said Aline simply.
Joan cast her mind back to the days of school and placed father as a rather irritable person, vaguely reputed to be something of an ogre in his home circle.
"Was he angry with you about something?" she asked.
"Not exactly angry with me; but—well, I was there."
Joan's depression lifted slightly. She had forgotten, in the stunning anguish of the sudden spectacle of that hat and that tailor-made suit, that Paris hats and hundred-and-twenty-dollar suits not infrequently had what the vulgar term a string attached to them. After all, she was independent. She might have to murder her beauty with hats and frocks that had never been nearer Paris than the Tottenham Court Road; but at least no one bullied her because she happened to be at hand when tempers were short.
"What a shame!" she said. "Tell me all about it."
With a prefatory remark that it was all so ridiculous, really, Aline embarked on the narrative of the afternoon's events. Joan heard her out, checking a strong disposition to giggle. Her viewpoint was that of the average person, and the average person cannot see the importance of the scarab in the scheme of things. The opinion she formed of Mr. Peters was of his being an eccentric old gentleman, making a great to-do about nothing at all. Losses had to have a concrete value before they could impress Joan. It was beyond her to grasp that Mr. Peters would sooner have lost a diamond necklace, if he had happened to possess one, than his Cheops of the Fourth Dynasty.
It was not until Aline, having concluded her tale, added one more strand to it that she found herself treating the matter seriously.
"Father says he would give five thousand dollars to anyone who would get it back for him."
The whole story took on a different complexion for Joan. Money talks. Mr. Peters' words might have been merely the rhetorical outburst of a heated moment; but, even discounting them, there seemed to remain a certain exciting substratum. A man who shouts that he will give five thousand dollars for a thing may very well mean he will give five hundred, and Joan's finances were perpetually in a condition which makes five hundred dollars a sum to be gasped at.
"He wasn't serious, surely!"
"I think he was," said Aline.
"But five thousand dollars!"
"It isn't really very much to father, you know. He gave away a hundred thousand a year ago to a university."
"But for a grubby little scarab!"
"You don't understand how father loves his scarabs. Since he retired from business, he has been simply wrapped up in them. You know collectors are like that. You read in the papers about men giving all sorts of money for funny things."
Outside the door R. Jones, his ear close to the panel, drank in all these things greedily. He would have been willing to remain in that attitude indefinitely in return for this kind of special information; but just as Aline said these words a door opened on the floor above, and somebody came out, whistling, and began to descend the stairs.
R. Jones stood not on the order of his going. He was down in the hall and fumbling with the handle of the front door with an agility of which few casual observers of his dimensions would have deemed him capable. The next moment he was out in the street, walking calmly toward Leicester Square, pondering over what he had heard.
Much of R. Jones' substantial annual income was derived from pondering over what he had heard.
In the room Joan was looking at Aline with the distended eyes of one who sees visions or has inspirations. She got up. There are occasions when one must speak standing.
"Then you mean to say that your father would really give five thousand dollars to anyone who got this thing back for him?"
"I am sure he would. But who could do it?"
"I could," said Joan. "And what is more, I'm going to!"
Aline stared at her helplessly. In their schooldays, Joan had always swept her off her feet. Then, she had always had the feeling that with Joan nothing was impossible. Heroine worship, like hero worship, dies hard. She looked at Joan now with the stricken sensation of one who has inadvertently set powerful machinery in motion.
"But, Joan!" It was all she could say.
"My dear child, it's perfectly simple. This earl of yours has taken the thing off to his castle, like a brigand. You say you are going down there on Friday for a visit. All you have to do is to take me along with you, and sit back and watch me get busy."
"Where's the difficulty?"
"I don't see how I could take you down very well."
"Oh, I don't know."
"But what is your objection?"
"Well—don't you see?—if you went down there as a friend of mine and were caught stealing the scarab, there would be just the trouble father wants to avoid—about my engagement, you see, and so on."
It was an aspect of the matter that had escaped Joan. She frowned thoughtfully.
"I see. Yes, there is that; but there must be a way."
"You mustn't, Joan—really! don't think any more about it."
"Not think any more about it! My child, do you even faintly realize what five thousand dollars—or a quarter of five thousand dollars—means to me? I would do anything for it—anything! And there's the fun of it. I don't suppose you can realize that, either. I want a change. I've been grubbing away here on nothing a week for years, and it's time I had a vacation. There must be a way by which you could get me down—Why, of course! Why didn't I think of it before! You shall take me on Friday as your lady's maid!"
"But, Joan, I couldn't!"
Joan advanced on her where she sat and grasped her firmly by the shoulders. Her face was inflexible.
"Aline, my pet, it's no good arguing. You might just as well argue with a wolf on the trail of a fat Russian peasant. I need that money. I need it in my business. I need it worse than anybody has ever needed anything. And I'm going to have it! From now on, until further notice, I am your lady's maid. You can give your present one a holiday."
Aline met her eyes waveringly. The spirit of the old schooldays, when nothing was impossible where Joan was concerned, had her in its grip. Moreover, the excitement of the scheme began to attract her.
"But, Joan," she said, "you know it's simply ridiculous. You could never pass as a lady's maid. The other servants would find you out. I expect there are all sorts of things a lady's maid has got to do and not do."
"My dear Aline, I know them all. You can't stump me on below-stairs etiquette. I've been a lady's maid!"
"It's quite true—three years ago, when I was more than usually impecunious. The wolf was glued to the door like a postage stamp; so I answered an advertisement and became a lady's maid."
"You seem to have done everything."
"I have—pretty nearly. It's all right for you idle rich, Aline—you can sit still and contemplate life; but we poor working girls have got to hustle."
"You know, you always could make me do anything you wanted in the old days, Joan. I suppose I have got to look on this as quite settled now?"
"Absolutely settled! Oh, Aline, there's one thing you must remember: Don't call me Joan when I'm down at the castle. You must call me Valentine."
She paused. The recollection of the Honorable Freddie had come to her. No; Valentine would not do!
"No; not Valentine," she went on—"it's too jaunty. I used it once years ago, but it never sounded just right. I want something more respectable, more suited to my position. Can't you suggest something?"
"Simpson! It's exactly right. You must practice it. Simpson! Say it kindly and yet distantly, as though I were a worm, but a worm for whom you felt a mild liking. Roll it round your tongue."
"Splendid! Now once again—a little more haughtily."
Joan regarded her with affectionate approval.
"It's wonderful!" she said. "You might have been doing it all your life."
"What are you laughing at?" asked Aline.
"Nothing," said Joan. "I was just thinking of something. There's a young man who lives on the floor above this, and I was lecturing him yesterday on enterprise. I told him to go and find something exciting to do. I wonder what he would say if he knew how thoroughly I am going to practice what I preach!"