A Safety Match/Chapter 13

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THE COUNTERSTROKE.

I

The scene is the Restaurant International, a palatial house of refreshment in Regent Street; the time, half-past one. At a table in the corner of the Grand Salle-à-Manger, set in a position calculated to extract full value from the efforts of a powerful orchestra, a waiter of majestic mien, with a powdered head, and a gold tassel on his left shoulder, stands towering over two recently arrived patrons with the menu.

The patrons, incredible as it may appear, are Stephen Blasius Vereker and Veronica Elizabeth Vereker. Stiffy, in the gala dress of a schoolboy of eighteen, is perspiring freely under the gaze of the overpowering menial at his elbow; Nicky, in a new hat of colossal but correct dimensions (the gift of her eldest sister), with her hair gathered into the usual ne plus ultra of the "flapper,"—a constricted pigtail tied with a large black bow of ribbon,—is entirely unruffled.

How they got there will appear presently.

"Will you lunch à la carte or table d'hôte, sir?" inquired the waiter, much as an executioner might say—"Will you be drawn or quartered?"

The flustered Stiffy gazed helplessly at his sister.

"He means, will you pay for what you eat or eat what you pay for, dear," explained that experienced and resourceful young person. "You must excuse him," she added, turning her round and trustful orbs upon the waiter. "He is not accustomed to being given a choice of dishes."

The waiter, realising that here was a worthy opponent, maintained a countenance of wood and repeated the question.

"You had better give me the menu," said Miss Vereker. "How much is the table d'hôte lunch?"

"Four shillings, madam."

Madam mused.

"Let me see," she said thoughtfully. "Can we run to it, dear?"

"Of course!" said Stiffy in an undertone, reddening with shame. "You know Daphne gave me—"

Nicky smiled joyfully.

"So she did. I had forgotten. Two and nine, wasn't it?"

Stiffy, with a five-pound-note crackling in his pocket, merely gaped.

"Then," continued Nicky, calculating on her fingers, "there is the three and a penny which we got out of the missionary-box. That makes five and tenpence. And there is that shilling that slipped down into your boot, Stiffy. You can easily get under the table and take it off. Six and tenpence. I have elevenpence in stamps, and that, with the threepenny-bit we picked up off the floor of the bus, makes eight shillings. We can just do it. Thank you," she intimated to the waiter with a seraphic smile—"we will take table d'hôte. I suppose," she added wistfully, "there would be no reduction if I took my little boy on my knee?"

"None, madam."

And the waiter, still unshaken, departed to bring the hors d'œuvres.

"Nicky, don't play the goat!" urged the respectable Stephen in a low and agitated voice. "That blighter really believes we are going to pay him in stamps. We shall get flung out, for a cert!"

"It's all right," said Nicky. "I am only going to try and make him laugh."

"You'll fail," said her brother with conviction.

At this moment a mighty tray, covered with such inducements to appetite as anchovies, sliced tomatoes, sardines, radishes, chopped celery, Strasburg sausage, et hoc genus omne—all equally superfluous in the case of a schoolboy up in town on an exeat—was laid before him with a stately flourish. Then the waiter came stiffly and grimly to attention, and stood obviously expectant. Hors d'œuvres are rather puzzling things. Here was a chance for the tyros before him to show their mettle.

They showed it.

"One gets tired of these everlasting things," mused Nicky wearily. "I'll just peck at one or two. You can fetch the soup, waiter: we shall be ready for it immediately."

"Thick or clear soup, madam?"

"We'll have thick to begin with, please: then clear," replied Nicky calmly. "Stiffy, I will take an anchovy."

The waiter was not more than two minutes absent, but ere he returned a lightning transformation scene had been enacted.

Certainly the Briton, with all his faults, surpasses the foreigner in the control of the emotions. What a Gaul or a Teuton would have done on witnessing the sight which met the eyes of the imperturbable Ganymede of the Restaurant International when he returned with the thick soup, it is difficult to say. The first would probably have wept, the second have sent for a policeman. For lo! the richly dight hors d'œuvres tray had become a solitude—the component parts thereof were duly discovered by the charwoman next morning amid the foliage of an adjacent palm—and the tail of the last radish was disappearing into Stiffy's mouth. Stiffy, once roused, made an excellent accomplice, though he had no initiative of his own.

The waiter's face twitched ever so slightly, and there was an undulating movement in the region of his scarlet waistcoat. But he recovered himself in time, and having served the thick soup, departed unbidden in search of the clear.

"Nicky," said Stiffy in a concerned voice, "are we really going to have everything on the menu?"

"You are, my son," replied Nicky. "I, being a lady, will make use of this palm-tub."

The waiter brought the clear soup, and asked for instructions with regard to the fish.

"What sort of fish have you?"

The man proffered the card.

"Sole: Sauce Tartare. That means sole with tartar sauce," Nicky translated glibly for the benefit of her untutored relative. "We had better not have that.—Tartar sauce always makes him sick," she explained to the waiter, indicating the fermenting Stiffy. "What else is there? Let me see—ah! Blanchailles!—er—Blanchailles! A very delicate fish! Quite so. You may bring us"—her brain worked desperately behind a smiling face, but fruitlessly—"a blanchaille, waiter."

There was an ominous silence. Then the waiter asked, in a voice tinged with polite incredulity:—

"A whole one each, madam?"

"Certainly," said madam in freezing tones.

The waiter bowed deferentially, and departed.

"Stiffy," inquired Nicky in agonised tones, "what is a blanchaille? Don't say it's a cod!"

Stiffy devoted three hours a-week to the study of Modern Languages, but so far no blanchaille has swum into his vocabulary.

"I've a notion," he said after a prolonged mental effort, "that it is a sturgeon."

"How big is a sturgeon?"

"It's about the size of a shark, I think."

But their capacity was not to be taxed after all. The waiter returned, and with the nonchalant demeanour of a hardened clubman playing out an unexpected ace of trumps, laid down two plates. In the centre of each reposed a single forlorn diminutive whitebait.

But it was here that Veronica Elizabeth Vereker rose to her greatest heights. She inspected her own portion and then her brother's.

"Waiter," she said at last, "will you kindly take away this young gentleman's fish and ask the cook to give you a rather longer one? About three-quarters of an inch, I should say. The child"—indicating her hirsute and crimson senior—"gets very peevish and fretful if his portion is smaller than any one else's."

Without a word the waiter picked up Stiffy's plate and bore it away. His broad back had become slightly bowed, and his finely chiselled legs had a warped and bandy appearance. The strain was telling.

Stiffy gazed upon his sister in rapt admiration.

"Nicky, you ripper!" he said.

After this it was mere child's play to request a stout gentleman with a chain round his neck to submit the wine list—an imposing volume of many pages—and after a heated and highly technical discussion on the respective merits of Pommery and Cliquot, to order one stone-ginger and two glasses.

Nicky next instructed the waiter to present her compliments to the leader of the band, and to request as a special favour that he and his colleagues would oblige with a rendering of Shall We Gather at the River? The waiter returned with a reply to the effect that the chef d'orchestre would be delighted. Unfortunately he had not the full score by him at the moment, but had sent along to the Café Royal to borrow a copy. Everything would be in readiness about teatime. It was then a little after two, and it was admitted by both Nicky and Stiffy that honours on this occasion were divided.

So far both sides, as the umpires say on Territorial field-days, had acquitted themselves in a manner deserving great credit; but the waiter scored the odd and winning trick a little later, in a particularly subtle manner. Age and experience always tell. Nicky, unduly inflated by early success, insisted upon Stiffy ordering a liqueur with his coffee. Green Chartreuse was finally selected and brought.

"Shall I pour it into your coffee, sir?" asked the waiter respectfully.

"Please," said the unsuspecting Stiffy.

The man obeyed, and directly afterwards emitted a sound which caused both children to glance up suddenly. They glared suspiciously, first at one another, then at the back of the retreating foe.

"Do people drink Green Chartreuse in their coffee?" asked Nicky apprehensively.

"I don't know," said Stiffy. He tasted the compound. "No, I'm blowed if they do! Nicky, we've been had. He's one up!"

"It would score him off," replied the undefeated Nicky, "if you could manage to be sick."

But Stiffy held out no hope of this happy retaliation; and they ultimately produced the five-pound note and paid the score with somewhat chastened mien, adding a douceur which was as excessive as it was unnecessary. Waiters do not get much entertainment out of serving meals as a rule.


II.

"Now we must meet Daphne," said Stiffy, as they left the restaurant and hailed a cab.

They were in town for an all-too-brief sojourn of twenty-four hours, to assist at the inspection of Daphne's new house. It was now February, and Lady Carr had not seen her husband since the eruption at Belton last summer. Juggernaut had made no attempt to prevent her going home, and when she wrote later, requesting that Master Brian Vereker Carr might be sent to her, had despatched him without remonstrance. No one save Cilly and her beloved Godfrey—least of all the Rector—knew of the true state of affairs; and all during that autumn and winter Daphne was happier in a fashion than she had ever been. To a large extent she resumed command of the household, setting Cilly free for other very right and natural diversions; and a sort of édition de luxe of the old days came into being, with first-hand food at every meal and a boy to clean the boots and drive the pony.

Daphne was entirely impervious to the gravity of the situation. There are certain women who are curiously wanting in all sense of responsibility. They preserve the child's lack of perspective and proportion even after they grow up, and the consequences are sometimes disastrous. If love arrives upon the scene no further harm ensues, for the missing qualities spring up, with that Jonah's-gourd-like suddenness which characterises so many feminine developments, at the first touch of the great newcomer's hand. The retarded faculties achieve maturity in a flash, and their owner becomes maternal, solicitous, Martha-like; and all is well.

Daphne was one of these women; but so far, unfortunately, she had failed to fall in love. Her marriage had never really touched her. Her husband had vibrated many strings in her responsive impulsive young heart—gratitude, affection, admiration,—but the great harmonious combination, the master-chord, had yet to be struck. Consequently she saw nothing unusual in living apart from her husband, financing her family with his money, and enjoying herself with friends whom he did not know.

Early in the year, however, it occurred to her that it would be pleasant to go home again for a time. Her elastic nature had entirely recovered from the stress of last summer's crisis, and she was frankly consumed with curiosity on the subject of the new house in Berkeley Square—and said so. It was perhaps an unfortunate reason for a wife to give for wishing to return to her husband, but this did not occur to her at the time. She received a brief note in reply, saying that the furnishing and decorating were now practically completed, and the house was ready for her inspection any time she cared to come up to town. Hence this joyous expedition.

Daphne had half expected to find her husband waiting for her at the house, for the Parliamentary recess was over and she knew he was almost certain to be in town. Instead, she was received by an overwhelmingly polite individual named Hibbins, from the house-furnishers. Mr Hibbins' appearance and deportment proved a sore trial to the composure of Nicky, who exploded at frequent and unexpected intervals throughout the afternoon, lamely alleging the fantastic design of some very ordinary wallpaper or the shortness of Stiffy's Sunday trousers in excuse.

It was essentially a masculine house, furnished in accordance with the man's ideas of solidity and comfort. The high oak panelling and dark-green frieze in the dining-room pleased Daphne, who recognised that glass and silver, well-illuminated, would show up bravely in such a setting. The drawing-room was perhaps a little too severe in its scheme of decoration: Daphne would have preferred something more feminine. "But that comes," she reflected characteristically, "of leaving the declaration to your partner!" There was a billiard-room in which Nicky declared it would be a sin to place a billiard-table, so perfectly was it adapted for waltzing after dinner.

Opening out of the billiard-room was a plainly furnished but attractive little set of apartments—"the bachelor suite" Mr Hibbins designated it—consisting of a snug study with an apartment adjoining, containing a small camp-bed and a large bath. Daphne's own rooms consisted of a bedroom and boudoir on the first floor, with wide bow-windows.

The nursery came last. It was a large irregular-shaped room at the top of the house, full of unexpected corners and curious alcoves such as children love, affording convenient caves for robbers and eligible lairs for wild beasts, fabulous or authentic. In addition to the regulation nursery furniture there was a miniature set, in green-stained wood—a table barely eighteen inches high, a tiny armchair, and a miniature sofa upon which Master Brian's friends might recline when they came to drink tea, or its equivalent. Round the whole room ran a brightly coloured dado covered with life-size figures of all the people we love when we are young—Jack the Giant-Killer, Old King Cole, Cinderella, and the Three Bears. Even Peter Pan, with residence and following, was there. The spectacle of Doctor Johnson taking a walk down Fleet Street would pale to insignificance compared with that of Master Brian Vereker Carr enjoying a constitutional along his own dado, encountering a new friend round every corner.

Daphne suddenly realised that here was yet another aspect of this strange, impenetrable husband of hers. The room in its way was a work of genius—the genius that understands children.

As they departed to catch the afternoon train to Snayling the obsequious Mr Hibbins produced a letter.

Sir John Carr, he explained, had called at the head office of their firm that morning—in person, Mr Hibbins added with a gratified smile—and requested that this letter should be handed to her ladyship in the afternoon. Sir John had also instructed Mr Hibbins to inform her ladyship that any improvements or alterations which she desired had only to be mentioned to be carried out.

Mr Hibbins having handed them into a cab and bidden them an unctuous farewell, they drove away to the station, Nicky atoning for previous aloofness by hanging out of the window and waving her handkerchief until they turned the corner.


III.

The journey from London to Snayling, involving as it does a run of forty miles by main line, a wait of indefinite duration at a junction furnished with no other facilities for recreation than a weighing-machine and a printed and detailed record of the fate which awaits persons who compass the awe-inspiring but cumbrous crime of travelling-by-a-class-superior-to-that-to-which-the-ticket-in-their-possession-entitles-them, and concluding with an interminable crawl along a branch line, is not at first sight an enterprise that promises much joyous adventure; but Nicky and Stiffy, who usually contrived to keep ennui at arm's length, had a very tolerable time of it.

Their efforts at first were directed to securing an apartment to themselves—an achievement which, when you come to think of it, fairly epitomises the Englishman's outlook on life in general.

"Hang your face out of the window, Stiffy, my lad," commanded Nicky, returning from an unsuccessful attempt to wheedle the guard into labelling their carriage "engaged"; "and play at Horatius Cocles till the train starts. That ought to do the trick."

But no. At the last moment a crusty-looking old gentleman wrenched the door open, nearly precipitating Horatius Cocles (and face) on to the platform, and sat down with great determination in the corner seat. He glared ferociously at the demure-looking pair before him, in a manner which intimated plainly that he was too old a customer to be kept out of his usual compartment by tricks of that kind. After this he produced the Westminster Gazette from a handbag and began to read it.

Nicky gave him five minutes. Then, turning to her brother and scrutinising his freckled countenance, she observed in clear and measured tones:—

"I think they have let you out rather soon, John."

Stiffy, realising that he was the person addressed and that some fresh game was afoot, looked as intelligent as possible, and waited. Daphne, in the far corner of the carriage, hurriedly opened her husband's letter and began to read it.

"The marks aren't all gone yet," continued Nicky, inspecting her brother anxiously. "Are you still peeling?"

"Yes—I think so," said Stiffy, groping for his cue.

"Ah!" Nicky nodded her head judicially. "We must give you a carbolic bath when we get you home."

The Westminster Gazette emitted a perceptible crackle.

"It will never do," pursued Nicky, getting into her stride, "to have you disfigured for life."

Stiffy, who was impervious to all reflections upon his personal appearance, grinned faintly. Opposite, a scared and bulging eye slid cautiously round the edge of the Westminster Gazette, and embarked upon a minute and apprehensive inspection of the plague-stricken youth. Nicky saw, and thrilled with gratification. She was on the point of continuing when the train dived into a tunnel. Having no desire that her schemes should go awry in the din, she waited.

The train came to a sudden and unexplained stop. Deathlike silence reigned, broken only by murmurs of conversation from next door. Presently in the gross darkness Nicky's voice was once more uplifted.

"By the way, is it infectious, or merely contagious? I meant to ask when I called for you at the Institute"—she was rather proud of that inspiration: an Institute sounded more terrifying and mysterious than a Hospital—"but in the excitement of that last fainting-fit of yours I forgot. Which is it?"

"Both, I think," said Stiffy, anxious to help.

"Ah! I feared as much. Still, things might be worse," commented Nicky philosophically. "So many of these complaints are infectious in the early stages, when no one suspects any trouble. Mumps, for instance, or scarlet fever. But others, like yours, are only dangerous in the convalescent stage, and then of course one knows exactly where one is."

There was a crumpling of paper in the darkness, accompanied by a shuffling of feet and a vibratory motion of the seat-cushions—all indicative of the presence of one who knows exactly where he is, and regrets the fact exceedingly.

"The air is very close in here," resumed Nicky's voice. "I wonder—" she whispered a sentence into Stiffy's ear, the only distinguishable word in which was "germs." "Of course, I have had it—slightly," she added in a relieved tone.

Something moved again in the darkness opposite to them, and then came a sound as of a window being cautiously slid open.

"Still, I think," replied Stiffy solicitously—as usual he was warming up to the game slowly but surely—"that it would be wiser for you to keep your mouth closed and breathe through your nose. One cannot be too careful."

"All right," said Nicky.

Once again silence reigned. But presently there fell upon the ears of the conspirators, rendered almost incredulous by joy, an unmistakable and stertorous sound, as of some heavy and asthmatic body taking in air through unaccustomed channels.

Five minutes later the train, groaning arthritically, resumed its way and crawled out of the tunnel into a station. Nicky and Stiffy, blinking in the sudden daylight, beheld the reward of their labours. A corpulent and rapidly ageing citizen, shrinking apprehensively into a corner of the compartment and holding a small handbag upon his knees as if with a view to instant departure, sat glaring malignantly upon them. His face was mottled, his mouth was firmly closed, and he breathed perseveringly through his nostrils.

Next moment he had flung open the door and was out upon the platform, inhaling great gulps of vernal air and looking for the station-master.

"Stiffy, you darling! I'll never call you a fathead again!" declared Nicky, enthusiastically embracing her complacent accomplice. "That notion of yours was simply It! Daph, wasn't it splen—Hallo! Bless me, Stiffy, if Daph isn't breathing through her nose too! Look!"

Certainly Daphne's lips were tightly compressed, but she turned to her companions and smiled faintly.

"It's all right, kids," she said; "I think this carriage is overheated or something. I shall be all right in a minute. Keep that window open, Stiffy dear."

She was very white, but on emphatically declining Nicky's offer of first aid she was left to herself, while her brother and sister discussed the course to be followed in the event of another invasion of the carriage. Like true artists, they scorned to achieve the same effect by the same means twice running.

Meanwhile Daphne re-read her husband's letter.

". . . I have waited six months, and as you display no inclination to look facts in the face, I am compelled to take the initiative myself. As far as I can gather from your attitude, you seem to consider that things are very well as they are. On this point I beg to differ from you. The present situation must end. We must either come together again or part for good on some definitely arranged terms.

". . . As you have exhibited no desire to reconcile yourself to me—your letter indicates that your sole object in returning home is to play with your latest toy, the new house,—I conclude that you wish to remain your own mistress. I therefore place the new house entirely at your disposal. You can draw money as you require it from Coutts', and I will see to it that there is always an adequate balance. I think, if you have no objection, that it would be as well if I occasionally came to the house, and occupied the bachelor suite off the billiard-room; but I shall come and go without troubling you. I think we ought to make this concession to appearances. I should not like your father, for instance, to be made unhappy by the knowledge that his daughter and her husband found it better to go their several ways.

"... As for the custody of the boy—"

A long, slow shudder rippled down Daphne's spine. Custody! There was a horrible legal, end-of-all-things, divorce-court flavour about the word.

"I think it would be a good scheme, Stiffy dear," broke in Nicky's cheerful voice, "for you to pretend this time that you have just been discharged from an asylum. I will be taking you home, and—" Her voice faded.

". . . You will naturally like to have him with you while he is a mere child. I will therefore leave him in your hands for the present. Later, when he goes to a public school and University, I think I should like him to be with me during his holidays. When he grows up altogether, he must please himself about—"

Public School! University! Daphne turned sick and faint. Were the provisions of this merciless letter to cover all eternity? What had she done to deserve this?

"It would be a bright thought," continued Nicky's voice, returning from a great distance, "to roll up your handkerchief into a ball and put it right into your mouth. Then do something to attract their attention, and when they are all looking, pull it right out with a jerk, and mop and mow. Can you mop and mow, Stiffy? Mop, anyhow! Just before a station, you know, so that they can get out. If that doesn't work, roll about on the cushions, and—"

Daphne detached her gaze from the flying landscape, and finished the letter.

"Forgive me if I appear to have resorted to extreme or harsh measures. I suppose I am a hard man; at any rate, I am not pliable. I dare say if I had been differently built I might have played the part of the modern husband with fair success, and you could have picked your companions at will. Unfortunately, I would rather die than permit you to impose such a régime upon me, as you seem prepared to do. The thing is degrading. To my mind there can be no compromise, no half-measures, between man and wife. It must be all in all, or not at all.

"Lastly, Daphne, let me say how sorry I am that things have come to this pass. I realise that it is my fault. I should not have asked a young and inexperienced girl to marry me. You could not be expected to know better: I might and should. And it is because I realise and admit that the fault is mine, that I refrain from "attaching any blame to you or uttering any reproaches. All I can do is to say that I am sorry, and make it possible for you to go your way, unhampered as far as may be by the ties of a marriage which should never have taken place.

"If I can at any time be of service to you, command me. I can never forget that we have had our happy hours together."

Daphne folded up the letter with mechanical deliberation. The first numbness was over. Her brain was clear again, and thoughts were crowding in upon her. But two things overtopped all the others for the moment.

The first was the realisation of the truth of her husband's words. The old situation had been impossible—as impossible as the new one was inevitable. She saw that—at last. "All in all, or not at all," he had said, and he was right.

The second was a sudden awakening to the knowledge that we never begin really to want a thing in this world until we find we cannot have it.