The Triumph of Tony
THE TRIUMPH OF TONY.
By CHARLES BEADLE.
THE old adage that "birds of a feather flock together" is undoubtedly founded upon the social law, and it is particularly noticeable amongst human bipeds who go down to the sea in ships on long voyages.
The first-class passengers of the steamship Rajput, homeward bound from Colombo, had behaved according to their kind—the social cliques were well defined. At the head of each was, of course, the eternal feminine. But Miss Mercy P. Tobbs, by reason of her dollars and beauty, was the acknowledged sun—at all events, by the masculine portion of the company—around which circled the lesser social systems, much to the secret indignation of would-be rivals.
Attached to the greater luminary were her devoted satellites, all—with the exception of "momma," who did not count, and Miss Sadie Blitter, who served as a foil—of the male persuasion, of whom two were the much-envied moons.
Mercy was a young lady of great self-possession and possessions—fabulous dollars made by devoted "poppa" out of old sardine tins, or something equally prosaic. Now, Mercy unfortunately was suffering from an adolescent disease—romance.
She had got it real bad, probably because her parents had about as much romance as one of their own sardine tins or the weird product thereof. The Tobbs family had "done Europe," and were returning after having subjected the Far East to the same terrible process. They had left Wayback City, County Pa, wherever that may be, with the firm intention of providing Mercy with a suitable husband, with a handle or prospect of same attached. But that was Mr. P. Tobbs's idea. "Momma" was not particularly struck upon the titled aristocracy since she had read several accounts of mere actresses' marriages to members of that august body.
However, to return to our sheep, numerous suitors of all ranks, ages, sizes, and colours had been marshalled for Mercy's benefit; but she, pining for a Leander, turned down her pretty thumb with monotonous regularity. They did not die immediately, although many swore that they would; and, perhaps, if one had had the pluck to carry out his threat, charming Mercy might have relented—too late, perhaps, to benefit the courageous suitor, but so romantic for Mercy. She would have wanted to marry his statue out of gratitude.
But her parents—"poppa," particularly—were becoming tired of trying to satisfy Mercy's fastidious taste. He, in fact, had stated in the smoking-room that he was "fed up with the whole outfit," and the sooner "Murrey" got a young man, the better he would be pleased. Mr. Tobbs was overwhelmed with sympathy. With the irony of life, every bachelor and widower on the ship was only too anxious to help the old man—as Mr. Bunn put it: "Men, men everywhere, and not anyone to marry!"
The whole ship—masculine—were deeply interested in the matrimonial future of Miss Mercy P. Tobbs. They felt it a point of honour to have her engaged before Plymouth. There were two favourites in the running for the dollar and beauty stakes—Mr. Anthony Bunn and Captain the Hon. Claude Terridge. The betting had fluctuated considerably during the first week out, had drawn to evens on the two favourites, then two to one on Tony; and after the previous evening, when, by a stroke of genius, Tony had hidden Mercy's chair and manœuvred that the soldier-man wasted over ten minutes in a solemn attempt to find it, thereby allowing Tony a full quarter of an hour's tête-à-tête with Mercy, all duly noted by competent and enthusiastic observers, the odds had jumped to five to one on Tony. Tony was a hot favourite.
Tony Bunn, although labouring under a really appalling name, was by way of being a wag. Under ordinary circumstances he might have been a humorist, but the combined effect of love and the sea air was too much for him, and he ran past himself. For instance, the first time he proposed to Mercy, he prefaced his remarks by observing that she really deserved to take the cake, and then offered himself instead. Well, men have been shot for less; and when Mercy, although smiling a weary smile for sake of politeness, refused him, he only got far less than he deserved. Otherwise, Tony was quite a good fellow, with sound views upon hygiene—that is, was clean-shaven, well-built, and good-looking generally, had knocked about the world and told big game stories which he did not expect anybody to believe—and nobody disappointed him.
Captain the Hon. Claude Terridge, on the other hand, was a man of very different calibre—tall, aggressively military, with fierce cow-with-the-crumpled-horn moustaches, blue eyes, and, oh, so very serious. He had all the external makings of an ideal hero, but, as Tony wallowed in humour, he would not have dealings with anything so trivial. He proposed to Mercy on the first and each successive occasion with all the nervous brusqueness of the melodramatic soldier: "Will you marry me? I love you. I am a simple soldier." He fired sentences at her like a human pom-pom. "I shall always love you. Be mine! I lay my—my tiny love—at your great feet—um—hah!" Mercy laughed hysterically; he grew more nervous and angry, sulked in his cabin until lunch next day, and proposed with clockwork regularity every night afterwards. Yet Mercy liked him immensely. She admired his soldierly bearing, decorations, simple, straightforward mind, and—and his family connections. Tony she liked, too; Tony was bright, clever—when he didn't run over himself—travelled, and amusing.
They were the only two Mercy had cared at all for, and she couldn't determine which had the greater attraction. Yet neither came near her ideal—the man who would really do something, be a hero.
About three in the afternoon, as they steamed through the Straits of Messina, Mercy and Sadie Blitter were seated in a deck-chair under the lee of a boat on the upper deck, Mercy's wealth of dark hair and creamy complexion showing to the greatest advantage against a deep red cushion. Around them, grouped on rugs and cushions, were the two favourites and lesser satellites. Not far away dozed the amiable parents. Mr. Tobbs snored with infinite enjoyment, his favourite and incongruous yachting cap on his knees, indecently exposing what appeared like a withered turnip with pendant roots—goatee beard—to the gaze of the world. His wife, in a frivolous hat into enormous dimensions, covered up a contented deck-chair with her ample proportions.
The Hon. Claude had held the floor—quite unusually for him—for some time with a splendidly accurate but appallingly dull account of miscellaneous craft, from the the galleys of Tyre to the modern liner, which had come to grief between Charybdis and Scylla. To these excerpts from Baedeker Mr. Bunn had contributed at intervals, much to the annoyance of the narrator. The company were developing signs of restlessness as the noble captain exhibited symptoms of getting £he bit between his teeth and galloping right into a morass of moral homilies.
"And," he was saying, "personally, I have no doubt that, as from so many other physical facts in Nature, a very fine moral can be drawn. Ethically speaking, doncherknow, I should certainly liken this famous whirlpool to—to——"
Tony looked appealingly at the goddess. She smiled bewitchingly and graciously inverted her thumb. Tony shook himself and waded in with glee to the verbal annihilation of his hated rival.
"Forgive me," chipped in Tony, "to the one who was so intoxicated with the exuberance of his own rhetorical verbosity that he constituted himself a bore—a tidal bore-not titled, you understand—a tidal bore, to continue the metaphor, which, racing eternally round its own ego—axis, pedantically speaking—literally—that is to say, with literary gilt effect—literally engulfing all the unfortunate craft brought by the passing current of circumstances in the vortex of—er—scintillating sound emanating, or appearing to emanate, from the dark-haired siren—or sirens—sitting on the bore—or ought-to-be-if-they're not—I should say, rock of the world-famous verbal whirlpool of Scylla and Charybdis, hence the one and only perfect, not-to-be-beaten-in the-two-hemispheres simile: will-you-come-and-have-a-game-of-deck-billiards-Miss-Tobbs?"
But Mercy, laughing undisguisedly, refused the invitation. The gallant captain, after two ineffectual attempts to regain his lead, had, with the aid of a fierce scowl and a pair of binoculars, developed a sudden interest in the Italian shore.
As Tony paused for breath, Terridge wheeled upon him. Said he—
"Some people spend their lives in—to use your phrase, Bunn—in giving rein to the 'exuberance of their own verbosity' irrespective of social amenities."
The others sat up expectantly; they always enjoyed the sparring of the chosen twain, and it was so seldom that the soldier attempted a retort. Tony licked his lips in preparation as the other continued—
"Personally, I prefer a man who can do something other than chatter."
"And I agree with you, Captain Terridge," said Miss Tobbs, with a malicious smile at Tony, and before he could fire in his repartee. "Guess he's the man I've been wanting to meet for ages. I've never met one yet," she added—"at least, not worth writing home about."
"But," cut in a mellow voice, "you're all Shavians—talk, talk, talk, and nothing happens."
A roar met this sally from the dramatic star who had been standing by, amused by the little comedy.
"Bully!" exclaimed Miss Tobbs. "Don't you agree with me, Miss Vardred, that men seldom do anything but talk? Why, if the ship started in to sink right here, what would happen? Would anybody seize me in their manly arms and swim heroically with me to the land right there?"
She gestured dramatically. "No, everybody would talk—chatter. Why, it would be like drowning a cage full of monkeys!"
"That's all they are—monkeys!" said Miss Vardred, laughing.
"What a charming monkey your father must have been!" exclaimed Tony.
"Oh," declared the Captain sententiously, "no man could say exactly what he would do under given moments of stress and danger."
"There you are!" commented Miss Tobbs. "Just like a man—wants to talk about what he wouldn't do!"
"Well, that's better than a woman who suggests what couldn't happen," said Tony. "You suggest that I take you in my arms——"
"I didn't!" protested Miss Tobbs.
"Take you in my arms, take you in my arms," he repeated sentimentally, "take you in my arms——"
"Gee! Ain't you going to get on?" inquired Miss Tobbs impatiently.
"Take you—can't let you go, y'know," continued Tony solemnly. "Take you—all right"—dodging an avenging cushion—"and swim to yonder shore. It would be impossible. Just like a woman! And we should get caught in the whirlpool which Terridge has told us so very much about, and go whirling round and round for all eternity, but how nice—with you in my arms!"
"Now, just what would you men do," inquired Miss Tobbs, "if Miss Vardred there or I fell overboard?"
"Jump in after you," chorused the crowd.
"Yes, rather," assented Tony, "every man Jack, and then what a tragedy! Everybody in the water, and nobody to look after the ship."
"Reckon you're too smart," said Miss Tobbs, amid the laughter. "Captain Terridge would—say, now?"
"I did not say so, Miss Tobbs," returned the soldier. "I wouldn't be so foolish——"
Another shout of merriment.
"I mean, of course," commented the Captain, glaring about him, "that I would not dare to say exactly what I would or would not do."
"But surely, Captain Terridge, supposing I was leaning on the rail right here, talking to you, and the rail broke and I fell overboard, you would jump to save me? You can swim?"
"Yes, I can swim, and—and I hope I should do as you suggest. But I won't say that I would, because I maintain that no man——"
"Yes, yes, I know that," she returned, with affectation of great solemnity, "but I—I am disappointed. You would, wouldn't you, Mr. Bunn?"
"Oh, come now," replied Tony, smiling, "that's not fair. Not holding Terridge's theory, I can't reply."
Captain Terridge had risen as they spoke, and walked away to lean over the rail brooding. He took everything seriously; Miss Tobbs's affected disappointment was a tragedy to him.
That evening he made no attempt to propose to her.
By the morning he was almost praying earnestly that the ship would go down, or Miss Tobbs would fall overboard and permit him to save her, as he was quite confident that he would do, although he would not confess it in defiance of his pet theory.
Tony, meanwhile, thought to make hay whilst the sun shone. Feeling that his rival was at rather a disadvantage, he proposed again. Mercy refused to give a definite answer. She laughed as she said—
"Oh, Tony, you are a nuisance! No, it's perfectly impossible. You make me laugh, and I daren't laugh at a real hero!"
So Tony departed crestfallen, and sadly contemplated an existence upon an inadequate income.
Mercy, with the delightful perversity of women, after having deliberately wounded the soldier's feelings, suddenly came to the conclusion that he held her greatest affection. Moreover, the fact of his having refrained for the one night only from proposing to her piqued her vanity, although she would not recognise the fact. Therefore the Hon. Claude was agreeably surprised to receive a shower of sunny smiles and to notice an unmistakable flatness in the effervescing Tony. His self-confidence and hope returned, and immediately after lunch he seized an opportune moment to press his suit again. He further proceeded to enter into an involved explanation of his pet theory, hinting that in practice he had no doubt whatever.
A new Mercy was revealed to him as the whimsical lips straightened into severity; she cut him short.
"You do not seem to realise that I was only joking. I admire you immensely, Captain Terridge."
"But I love you——" he began involuntarily, pulling his moustache.
"I believe you, Captain, and I promise you——"
"I promise you," continued Mercy thoughtfully, "that if I feel towards you when we reach London as I do now, I will say 'Yes.' And that means," she added, smiling, "unless I meet my hero. Now let's forget the subject."
So the Hon. Claude was very pleased with himself and the world at large. He was not a believer in the romantic, and mentally scouted the idea of any melodrama on the prosaic journey from Marseilles to London. And had things been allowed to take their natural course, no doubt all would have been as the gallant lover wished it.
But Tony Bunn was very quickly aware of his rival's changed demeanour. He put two and two together, and discovered with customary brilliance that they made four. He did not despair, and the annoyance caused him by learning that he had dropped out of the betting spurred him to greater efforts.
That evening he did not attempt to worship at the feet of the divinity. Miss Vardred noticed this, and sat herself beside him, laughingly inquiring how the course of true love ran.
"Very stormy," said Tony, smiling. "A nor'-easterly gale right in my teeth, and a deuce of a heavy swell on," he added, laughing at his own jest.
Miss Vardred smiled. She was a merry Bohemian spirit and liked a kindred soul. The Captain was too serious and phlegmatic to arouse her sympathy.
"Refused?" she inquired.
"Yes," said Tony, grimacing. "Said I wasn't a hero—that I only made her laugh."
"Poor Mercy," said she, "she is so young! He'll bore her to death. She'll make a bad mistake if she marries him."
"I'm with you there," agreed Tony, with a sardonic laugh.
"Yes, I suppose you are. Now, why don't you do something?"
"Well, ain't I been thinkin' at high pressure?"
"Well, I'll tell. Mercy's got romance badly. She wants a hero. Give her what she wants. Simple as ABC."
"Oh, is it?" groaned Tony. "D'you think I have a bundle of heroes on tap?"
"You're dense to-day, Tony—love's got to your head. Rescue somebody overboard, of course."
"Jove!" exclaimed Tony, sitting up. "Whom? You?"
"Je ne pense pas!" laughed the other. "You might let me drown. No, rescue a property passenger."
Tony sat back and chortled.
"Thanks!" he gasped at length. "Oh, I say, what a hoax, though! It would be a shame."
"Not at all," retorted the other. "All's fair in love and war, you know. I want to see you two make a match of it. And she would see the joke afterwards—when you're safely married, I mean. Will you do it?"
"Yes, by Jove, I will!" declared Tony. "But how are we going to manage it?"
"Oh, fix up a dummy woman and dive in after it. I'll shriek 'Man overboard!' Then—then—yes, I have it. I'll tell her afterwards that I did it to see who was the braver man."
"M'm!" muttered Tony doubtfully. "But supposing Terridge dives——"
"No, no!" exclaimed Miss Vardred, sitting up and excitedly tapping his knee. "Brilliant—positively brilliant idea!"
"I'll suggest to Terridge the dummy idea. See?"
"No, I'm hanged if I do!"
"Oh, you are slow! Terridge is too dull to see—he will scornfully reject the idea. I can imagine it. 'No'"—Miss Vardred imitating him—"'I cannot stoop to deception—ugh!'"
"Why, you silly thing, the dummy falls overboard, you dive, the Captain won't—knowing it to be a dummy."
"Oh, you're unutterably stupid! You rescue the wretched thing at the risk of your silly life. The Captain will say he didn't go because be knew it was only a dummy! See? But she won't believe him. You're the hero. Now d'you see?"
"M'm, yes," said Tony doubtfully.
"Oh," said Miss Vardred petulantly, throwing herself back in the chair, "'pon my word, you're not worth helping."
"Please, I'll be good," said Tony penitently. "The chance is better than none at all. We must do it to-morrow night; we arrive at Marseilles the next morning, you know."
As Tony dressed for dinner, he chuckled hugely to himself as he chose his oldest clothes, pumps, and a soft shirt. "Nothing like being prepared," said he to his mirror. "Hope the water isn't cold!"
Miss Vardred had entered into the plot with zest. She had with great tact approached the Hon. Claude, suggesting with a laugh that they should throw a dummy overboard to see whether Mr. Bunn would act up to his word, and the gallant Captain had proved the accuracy of her judgment of character. The whole of that afternoon she had been immersed in her state-room, working hard, with the assistance of her maid, upon a really artistic property heroine.
At dinner the captain of the ship, next to whom she sat, thought her more charming than ever, little suspecting the mischief lurking in her mind.
Fortunately, it was a fine, still evening. The vessel seemed to glide through the placid waters at an appalling speed—at least, Tony thought so as he took a preliminary view of the scene of operations. The dummy, with a white shawl over its head, leaned naturally against the rail of the upper deck. Tony, deeply immersed in conversation with this fair companion as Miss Tobbs and her escort, the gallant Captain, sauntered by, laughed uproariously.
Mercy, recognising Tony's figure, wondered, with a sense of unaccountable annoyance, who his amusing companion might be.
As the two promenaded, Miss Vardred suddenly appeared, searching for someone.
"Ah, Captain Terridge," she exclaimed, catching sight of them, "Colonel Playmore wants you a moment—to settle some argument, he said. He won't keep you, you know."
Terridge, apologising, hastened away, whilst Miss Vardred engaged Mercy in conversation.
Presently Terridge reappeared, having given his decision to a fictitious question invented by the wicked Colonel, who had consented to aid and abet the plotters.
Miss Vardred loudly exclaimed: "Oh, my ankle!"
Tony, upon hearing the prearranged cue, deftly tilted his companion overboard with a lift of his foot.
Miss Vardred shrieked wildly, Tony hacked at a life-buoy, Mercy rushed excitedly to the ship's side and, to Tony's horror, shot clean overboard. The low rail had merely acted as a pivot to somersault her into the sea. Tony, without an instant's hesitation, dived straight after her.
Miss Vardred, who had seen the unrehearsed act, lost her head and continued to shriek in earnest that Miss Tobbs had fallen overboard. The boat had intercepted the Captain's vision, so that he had not seen the tragedy, and, remembering Miss Vardred's suggestion of the dummy, he thought that it was all a trap to make a fool of him.
"Don't be hysterical," he told Miss Vardred sternly. "Where's Miss Tobbs?"
"Overboard—overboard!" gasped the chief plotter. "Oh, Captain, save her, save her!"
"I shall not be made a fool of," announced the Hon. Claude viciously, and, leaving her, commenced to search behind the boat and elsewhere, believing that Mercy was hiding. At this Miss Vardred collapsed upon the deck, shrieking hysterically with laughter and terror alternately. The passengers, headed by the Colonel, poured up the gangways, seeking the cause of the uproar.
"Mercy—overboard—man overboard!" shrieked Miss Vardred, sitting helplessly in the middle of the deck.
The Colonel commenced to laugh. "Oh, yes," said he, "but I know all about that! Very good indeed! Capital! Ha, ha, ha!"
"But I tell you she is!" gasped Miss Vardred. "Stop the ship—stop the shi-p!"
"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed the Colonel, doubling up with hilarity.
Tony, all mirth suddenly frozen within him, came up from his dive, and, seeing a bundle of clothes on the water, made for it frantically, to discover the wretched dummy. He cursed furiously as he sought anxiously for signs of Mercy. For a few moments he could distinguish nothing but the froth of the ship's wake, then a black dot bobbing in the creamy foam. He swam hard towards it, and caught Mercy from behind under the arms. She, almost spent with struggling, gasped and spluttered with relief.
"Oh, Claude!" she exclaimed as soon as she had breath to spare.
"No, Tony!" shouted that individual savagely.
Tony cast an anxious glance towards the ship, which, to his dismay, was steaming steadily away. He could not conceive what had happened.
Mercy, lying still in his arms whilst he trod water, had evidently realised his identity, for presently she said faintly—
"Where's the other?"
"There is no other," said Tony quickly.
"Oh, I thought—somebody else fell overboard."
The astute Tony did not reply.
"Is the ship coming, Tony?"
He looked again, and saw that at last she was steaming round in a great circle towards them.
For a while they remained silent, Tony treading water industriously. His legs were already beginning to tire with the double strain.
"Did you dive after me, Tony?" came the faint voice mixed with bubbles.
Tony thought it an unnecessary question.
"Yes," he said.
She sighed in his arms.
"Tony," she said, "do you know that I've found my hero at last?"
"You may kiss me, Tony," she murmured softly.
Tony kissed the back of her head, the only place he could reach, and felt that he did not care if the boat never came.
At length they heard the throb of the screw and the rattle of tackle lowering a boat. In a space that seemed all too short to Tony, she was lifted from his arms into the boat, and he quickly followed.
As she was carried up the gangway amid a throng of excited passengers, the Hon. Claude greeted her at the top. Said he anxiously—
"Are you quite safe, Miss Tobbs?"
"No thanks to you I am!" she said, brutally distinct.
"I—I thought you were a dummy!" stuttered the despairing Captain apologetically.
Never a word answered she, but with a look she wilted him.