Three Men and a Maid/Chapter 8
A WEEK after the liner Atlantic had docked at Southampton, Sam Marlowe might have been observed—and was observed by various of the residents—sitting on a bench on the esplanade of that repellent watering-place, Bingley-on-the-Sea, in Sussex. All watering-places on the South Coast of England are blots on the landscape, but, though I am aware that by saying it I shall offend the civic pride of some of the others, none are so peculiarly foul as Bingley-on-the-Sea. The asphalt on the Bingley esplanade is several degrees more depressing than the asphalt on other esplanades. The Swiss waiters at the Hotel Magnificent, where Sam was stopping, are in a class of bungling incompetence by themselves, the envy and despair of all the other Swiss waiters at all the other Hotels Magnificent along the coast. For dreariness of aspect Bingley-on-the-Sea stands alone. The very waves that break on the shingle seem to creep up the beach reluctantly, as if it revolted them to come to such a place.
Why, then, was Sam Marlowe visiting this ozone-swept Gehenna? Why, with all the rest of England at his disposal, had he chosen to spend a week at breezy, blighted Bingley?
Simply because he had been disappointed in love. He had sought relief by slinking off alone to the most benighted spot he knew, in the same spirit as other men in similar circumstances had gone off to the Rockies to shoot grizzly-bears.
To a certain extent the experiment had proved successful. If the Hotel Magnificent had not cured his agony, the service and the cooking there had at least done much to take his mind off it. His heart still ached, but he felt equal to going to London and seeing his father, which, of course, he ought to have done immediately upon his arrival in England.
He rose from his bench, and, going back to the hotel to enquire about trains, observed a familiar figure in the lobby. Eustace Hignett was leaning over the counter, in conversation with the desk-clerk.
“Hullo, Eustace!” said Sam.
“Hullo, Sam!” said Eustace.
There was a brief silence. The conversational opening had been a little unfortunately chosen, for it reminded both men of a painful episode in their recent lives.
“What are you doing here?” asked Eustace.
“What are you doing here?” asked Sam.
“I came to see you,” said Eustace, leading his cousin out of the lobby and onto the bleak esplanade. A fine rain had begun to fall, and Bingley looked, if possible, worse than ever. “I asked for you at your club, and they told me you had come down here.”
“What did you want to see me about?”
“The fact is, old man, I'm in a bit of a hole.”
“What's the matter?”
“It's rather a long story,” said Eustace deprecatingly.
“I don't know where to begin.”
“Have a dash at starting at the beginning.”
Eustace stared gloomily at a stranded crab on the beach below. The crab stared gloomily back.
“Well, you remember my telling you about the girl I met on the boat?”
“Jane Hubbard,” said Eustace reverently. “Sam, I love that girl.”
“I know. You told me.”
“But I didn't tell her. I tried to muster up the nerve, but we got to Southampton without my having clicked. What a dashed difficult thing a proposal is to bring off, isn't it! I didn't bring it off, and it began to look to me as though I was in the soup. And then she told me something which gave me an idea. She said the Bennetts had invited her to stay with them in the country when she got to England, Old Mr. Bennett and his pal Mortimer, Bream's father, were trying to get a house somewhere which they could share. Only so far they hadn't managed to find the house they wanted. When I heard that, I said 'Ha!'”
“You said what?” asked Sam.
“I said 'Ha!'”
“Because I had an idea. Don't interrupt, old man, or you'll get me muddled. Where was I?”
“I don't know.”
“I remember. I'd just got the idea. I happened to know, you see, that Bennett and Mortimer were both frightfully keen on getting Windles for the summer, but my mother wouldn't hear of it and gave them both the miss-in-baulk. It suddenly occurred to me that mother was going to be away in America all the summer, so why shouldn't I make a private deal, let them the house, and make it a stipulation that I was to stay there to look after things? And, to cut a long story short, that's what I did.”
“You let Windles?”
“Yes. Old Bennett was down on the dock at Southampton to meet Wilhelmina, and I fixed it up with him then and there. He was so bucked at the idea of getting the place that he didn't kick for a moment at the suggestion that I should stick on at the house. Said he would be delighted to have me there, and wrote out a fat check on the spot. We hired a car and drove straight over—it's only about twenty miles from Southampton, you know,—and we've been there ever since. Bennett sent a wire to Mortimer, telling him to join us, and he came down next day.”
He paused, and looked at Sam as though desiring comment. Sam had none to offer.
“Why do you say you're in a hole?” he asked. “It seems to me as though you had done yourself a bit of good. You've got the check, and you're in the same house with Miss Hubbard. What more do you want?”
“But suppose mother gets to hear about it?”
“She'd be sorer than a sunburned neck.”
“Probably. But why should she hear of it?”
“Ah! I'm coming to that.”
“Is there some more of the story?”
“Quite a lot.”
“Charge on,” said Sam resignedly.
Eustace Hignett fixed a despondent gaze on the shingle, up which the gray waves were crawling with their usual sluggish air of wishing themselves elsewhere. A rain-drop fell down the back of his neck, but he did not notice it.
“It was the weather that really started it,” he said.
“The trouble. What sort of weather have you been having here?”
“I haven't noticed.”
“Well, down at Windles it has been raining practically all the time, and after about a couple of days it became fairly clear to me that Bennett and Mortimer were getting a bit fed. I mean to say, having spent all their lives in America, don't you know, they weren't used to a country where it rained all the time, and pretty soon it began to get on their nerves. They started quarrelling. Nothing bad at first, but hotting up more and more, till at last they were hardly on speaking terms. Every little thing that happened seemed to get the wind up them. There was that business of Smith, for instance.”
“Mortimer's bull-dog. Old Bennett is scared of him, and wants him kept in the stables, but Mortimer insists on letting him roam about the house. Well, they scrapped a goodish bit about that. And then there was the orchestrion. You remember the orchestrion?”
“I haven't been down at Windles since I was a kid.”
“That's right. I forgot that. Well, my pater had an orchestrion put in the drawing-room. One of these automatic things you switch on, you know. Makes a devil of a row. Bennett can't stand it, and Mortimer insists on playing it all day. Well, they hotted up a goodish bit over that.”
“Well, I don't see how all this affects you. If they want to scrap, why not let them?”
“Yes, but, you see, the most frightful thing has happened. At least, it hasn't happened yet, but it may any day. Bennett's talking about taking legal advice to see if he can't induce Mortimer to cheese it by law as he can't be stopped any other way. And the deuce of it is, your father's Bennett's legal representative over in England, and he's sure to go to him.”
“Well, that'll do the pater a bit of good. Legal fees.”
Eustace Hignett waved his arms despairingly at his cousin's obtuseness.
“But don't you see? If Bennett goes to your father about this binge, your father will get onto the fact that Windles has been let, and he'll nose about and make enquiries, and the first thing that'll happen will be that mother will get to hear of it, and then where shall I be?”
“Yes, there's that,” he admitted.
“Well, now you see what a hole I'm in.”
“Yes, you are. What are you going to do about it?”
“You're the only person who can help me.”
“What can I do?”
“Why, your father wants you to join the firm, doesn't he? Well, for goodness sake, buck up and join it. Don't waste a minute. Dash up to London by the next train, and sign on. Then, if Bennett does blow in for advice, you can fix it somehow that he sees you instead of your father, and it'll be all right. You can easily work it. Get the office-boy or somebody to tell Bennett that your father's engaged, but that you are on the spot. He won't mind so long as he sees somebody in the firm.”
“But I don't know anything about the law. What shall I say to him?”
“That's all right. I've been studying it up a bit. As far as I can gather, this legal advice business is quite simple. Anything that isn't a tort is a misdemeanour. You've simply got to tell old Bennett that in your opinion the whole thing looks jolly like a tort.”
“What's the word again?”
“What does it mean?”
“I don't know. Probably nobody knows. But it's a safe card to play. Tort. Don't forget it.”
“Tort. Right ho!”
“Well, then, come along and pack your things. There's a train to London in about an hour.”
They walked back to the hotel. Sam gulped once or twice.
“Oh, by the way,” he said, “Er—how is—er—Miss Bennett?”
“Oh, she's all right.” Eustace Hignett hummed a gay air. Sam's ready acquiescence in his scheme had relieved his apprehensive mind.
“Going strong?” said Sam, after a pause.
“Oh, absolutely. We're quite good friends again now. No use being in the same house and not being on speaking terms. It's rummy how the passage of time sort of changes a fellow's point of view. Why, when she told me about her engagement, I congratulated her as cheerfully as dammit! And only a few weeks ago ...”
“Her engagement!” exclaimed Sam, leaping like a stricken blanc-mange. “Her en-gug-gug-gagement!”
“To Bream Mortimer, you know,” said Eustace Hignett. “She got engaged to him the day before yesterday.”