Story type: Literature
Historians of the social life of the later Roman Empire speak of a certain young man of Ariminum, who would jump into rivers and swim in ’em. When his friends said, ‘You fish!’ he would answer, ‘Oh, pish! Fish can’t swim like me, they’ve no vim in ’em.’
Just such another was George Barnert Callender.
On land, in his land clothes, George was a young man who excited little remark. He looked very much like other young men. He was much about the ordinary height. His carriage suggested the possession of an ordinary amount of physical strength. Such was George–on shore. But remove his clothes, drape him in a bathing-suit, and insert him in the water, and instantly, like the gentleman in The Tempest, he ‘suffered a sea-change into something rich and strange.’ Other men puffed, snorted, and splashed. George passed through the ocean with the silent dignity of a torpedo. Other men swallowed water, here a mouthful, there a pint, anon, maybe, a quart or so, and returned to the shore like foundering derelicts. George’s mouth had all the exclusiveness of a fashionable club. His breast-stroke was a thing to see and wonder at. When he did the crawl, strong men gasped. When he swam on his back, you felt that that was the only possible method of progression.
George came to Marvis Bay at about five o’clock one evening in July. Marvis Bay has a well-established reputation as a summer resort, and, while not perhaps in every respect the paradise which the excitable writer of the local guide-book asserts it to be, on the whole it earns its reputation. Its sands are smooth and firm, sloping almost imperceptibly into the ocean. There is surf for those who like it, and smoother water beyond for those whose ideals in bathing are not confined to jumping up and down on a given jelly-fish. At the northern end of the beach there is a long pier. It was to this that George made his way on his arrival.
It was pleasant on the pier. Once you had passed the initial zareba of fruit stands, souvenir stands, ice-cream stands, and the lair of the enthusiast whose aim in life it was to sell you picture post-cards, and had won through to the long walk where the seats were, you were practically alone with Nature. At this hour of the day the place was deserted; George had it to himself. He strolled slowly along. The water glittered under the sun-rays, breaking into a flurry of white foam as it reached the beach. A cool breeze blew. The whole scenic arrangements were a great improvement on the stuffy city he had left. Not that George had come to Marvis Bay with the single aim of finding an antidote to metropolitan stuffiness. There was a more important reason. In three days Marvis Bay was to be the scene of the production of Fate’s Footballs, a comedy in four acts by G. Barnert Callender. For George, though you would not have suspected it from his exterior, was one of those in whose cerebra the grey matter splashes restlessly about, producing strong curtains and crisp dialogue. The company was due at Marvis Bay on the following evening for the last spasm of rehearsals.
George’s mind, as he paced the pier, was divided between the beauties of Nature and the forthcoming crisis in his affairs in the ratio of one-eighth to the former and seven-eighths to the latter. At the moment when he had left London, thoroughly disgusted with the entire theatrical world in general and the company which was rehearsing Fate’s Footballs in particular, rehearsals had just reached that stage of brisk delirium when the author toys with his bottle of poison and the stage-manager becomes icily polite. The Footpills–as Arthur Mifflin, the leading juvenile in the great play, insisted upon calling it, much to George’s disapproval–was his first piece. Never before had he been in one of those kitchens where many cooks prepare, and sometimes spoil, the theatrical broth. Consequently the chaos seemed to him unique. Had he been a more experienced dramatist, he would have said to himself, ‘Twas ever thus.’ As it was, what he said to himself–and others–was more forcible.
He was trying to dismiss the whole thing from his mind–a feat which had hitherto proved beyond his powers–when Fate, in an unusually kindly mood, enabled him to do so in a flash by presenting to his jaundiced gaze what, on consideration, he decided was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. ‘When a man’s afraid,’ shrewdly sings the bard, ‘a beautiful maid is a cheering sight to see’. In the present instance the sight acted on George like a tonic. He forgot that the lady to whom an injudicious management had assigned the role of heroine in Fate’s Footballs invariably–no doubt from the best motives–omitted to give the cynical roue his cue for the big speech in Act III His mind no longer dwelt on the fact that Arthur Mifflin, an estimable person in private life, and one who had been a friend of his at Cambridge, preferred to deliver the impassioned lines of the great renunciation scene in a manner suggesting a small boy (and a sufferer from nasal catarrh at that) speaking a piece at a Sunday-school treat. The recollection of the hideous depression and gloom which the leading comedian had radiated in great clouds fled from him like some grisly nightmare before the goddess of day. Every cell in his brain was occupied, to the exclusion of all other thoughts, by the girl swimming in the water below.
She swam well. His practised eye saw that. Her strong, easy strokes carried her swiftly over the swell of the waves. He stared, transfixed. He was a well-brought-up young man, and he knew how ill-bred it was to stare; but this was a special occasion. Ordinary rules of conventional etiquette could not apply to a case like this. He stared. More, he gaped. As the girl passed on into the shadow of the pier he leaned farther over the rail, and his neck extended in joints like a telescope.
At this point the girl turned to swim on her back. Her eyes met his. Hers were deep and clear; his, bulging. For what seemed an eternity to George, she continued to look at him. Then, turning over again, she shot past under the pier.
George’s neck was now at its full stretch. No power of will or muscle could add another yard to it. Realizing this, he leaned farther over the rail, and farther still. His hat slid from his hand. He grabbed at it, and, overbalancing, fell with a splash into the water.
Now, in ordinary circumstances, to fall twelve feet into the ocean with all his clothes on would have incommoded George little. He would hardly have noticed it. He would have swum to shore with merely a feeling of amused self-reproach akin to that of the man who absent-mindedly walks into a lamp-post in the street. When, therefore, he came to the surface he prepared without agitation to strike out in his usual bold fashion. At this moment, however, two hands, grasping him beneath the arms, lifted his head still farther from the waves, and a voice in his ear said, ‘Keep still; don’t struggle. There’s no danger.’
George did not struggle. His brain, working with the cool rapidity of a buzz-saw in an ice-box, had planned a line of action. Few things are more difficult in this world for a young man than the securing of an introduction to the right girl under just the right conditions. When he is looking his best he is presented to her in the midst of a crowd, and is swept away after a rapid hand-shake. When there is no crowd he has toothache, or the sun has just begun to make his nose peel. Thousands of young lives have been saddened in this manner.
How different was George’s case! By this simple accident, he reflected, as, helping the good work along with an occasional surreptitious leg-stroke, he was towed shorewards, there had been formed an acquaintanceship, if nothing more, which could not lightly be broken. A girl who has saved a man from drowning cannot pass him by next day with a formal bow. And what a girl, too! There had been a time, in extreme youth, when his feminine ideal was the sort of girl who has fuzzy, golden hair, and drops things. Indeed in his first year at the University he had said–and written–as much to one of the type, the episode concluding with a strong little drama, in which a wrathful, cheque-signing father had starred, supported by a subdued, misogynistic son. Which things, aided by the march of time, had turned George’s tastes towards the healthy, open-air girl, who did things instead of dropping them.
The pleasantest functions must come to an end sooner or later; and in due season George felt his heels grate on the sand. His preserver loosed her hold. They stood up and faced each other. George began to express his gratitude as best he could–it was not easy to find neat, convincing sentences on the spur of the moment–but she cut him short.
‘Of course, it was nothing. Nothing at all,’ she said, brushing the sea-water from her eyes. ‘It was just lucky I happened to be there.’
‘It was splendid,’ said the infatuated dramatist. ‘It was magnificent. It–‘
He saw that she was smiling.
‘You’re very wet,’ she said.
George glanced down at his soaked clothes. It had been a nice suit once.
‘Hadn’t you better hurry back and change into something dry?’
Looking round about him, George perceived that sundry of the inquisitive were swooping down, with speculation in their eyes. It was time to depart.
‘Have you far to go?’
‘Not far. I’m staying at the Beach View Hotel.’
‘Why, so am I. I hope we shall meet again.’
‘We shall,’ said George confidently.
‘How did you happen to fall in?’
‘I was–er–I was looking at something in the water.’
‘I thought you were,’ said the girl, quietly.
‘I know,’ he said, ‘it was abominably rude of me to stare like that; but–‘
‘You should learn to swim,’ interrupted the girl. ‘I can’t understand why every boy in the country isn’t made to learn to swim before he’s ten years old. And it isn’t a bit difficult, really. I could teach you in a week.’
The struggle between George and George’s conscience was brief. The conscience, weak by nature and flabby from long want of exercise, had no sort of chance from the start.
‘I wish you would,’ said George. And with those words he realized that he had definitely committed himself to his hypocritical role. Till that moment explanation would have been difficult, but possible. Now it was impossible.
‘I will,’ said the girl. ‘I’ll start tomorrow if you like.’ She waded into the water.
‘We’ll talk it over at the hotel,’ she said, hastily. ‘Here comes a crowd of horrid people. I’m going to swim out again.’
She hurried into deeper water, while George, turning, made his way through a growing throng of goggling spectators. Of the fifteen who got within speaking distance of him, six told him that he was wet. The other nine asked him if he had fallen.
* * * * *
Her name was Vaughan, and she was visiting Marvis Bay in company with an aunt. So much George ascertained from the management of the hotel. Later, after dinner, meeting both ladies on the esplanade, he gleaned further information–to wit, that her first name was Mary, that her aunt was glad to make his acquaintance, liked Marvis Bay but preferred Trouville, and thought it was getting a little chilly and would go indoors.
The elimination of the third factor had a restorative effect upon George’s conversation, which had begun to languish. In feminine society as a rule he was apt to be constrained, but with Mary Vaughan it was different. Within a couple of minutes he was pouring out his troubles. The cue-withholding leading lady, the stick-like Mifflin, the funereal comedian–up they all came, and she, gently sympathetic, was endeavouring, not without success, to prove to him that things were not so bad as they seemed.
‘It’s sure to be all right on the night,’ she said.
How rare is the combination of beauty and intelligence! George thought he had never heard such a clear-headed, well-expressed remark.
‘I suppose it will,’ he said, ‘but they were very bad when I left. Mifflin, for instance. He seems to think Nature intended him for a Napoleon of Advertising. He has a bee in his bonnet about booming the piece. Sits up at nights, when he ought to be sleeping or studying his part, thinking out new schemes for advertising the show. And the comedian. His speciality is drawing me aside and asking me to write in new scenes for him. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I just came away and left them to fight it out among themselves.’
‘I’m sure you have no need to worry. A play with such a good story is certain to succeed.’
George had previously obliged with a brief description of the plot of The Footpills.
‘Did you like the story?’ he said, tenderly.
‘I thought it was fine.’
‘How sympathetic you are!’ cooed George, glutinously, edging a little closer. ‘Do you know–‘
‘Shall we be going back to the hotel?’ said the girl.
* * * * *
Those noisome creatures, the hired murderers of Fate’s Footpills, descended upon Marvis Bay early next afternoon, and George, meeting them at the station, in reluctant pursuance of a promise given to Arthur Mifflin, felt moodily that, if only they could make their acting one-half as full of colour as their clothes, the play would be one of the most pronounced successes of modern times. In the forefront gleamed, like the white plumes of Navarre, the light flannel suit of Arthur Mifflin, the woodenest juvenile in captivity.
His woodenness was, however, confined to stage rehearsals. It may be mentioned that, once the run of a piece had begun, he was sufficiently volatile, and in private life he was almost excessively so–a fact which had been noted at an early date by the keen-eyed authorities of his University, the discovery leading to his tearing himself away from Alma Mater by request with some suddenness. He was a long, slender youth, with green eyes, jet-black hair, and a passionate fondness for the sound of his own voice.
‘Well, here we are,’ he said, kicking breezily at George’s leg with his cane.
‘I saw you,’ said George, coldly, side-stepping.
‘The whole team,’ continued Mr Mifflin; ‘all bright, bonny, and trained to the minute.’
‘What happened after I left?’ George asked. ‘Has anybody begun to act yet? Or are they waiting till the dress-rehearsal?’
‘The rehearsals,’ admitted Mr Mifflin, handsomely, ‘weren’t perfect; but you wait. It’ll be all right on the night.’
George thought he had never heard such a futile, vapid remark.
‘Besides,’ said Mr Mifflin, ‘I have an idea which will make the show. Lend me your ear–both ears. You shall have them back. Tell me: what pulls people into a theatre? A good play? Sometimes. But failing that, as in the present case, what? Fine acting by the leading juvenile? We have that, but it is not enough. No, my boy; advertisement is the thing. Look at all these men on the beach. Are they going to roll in of their own free wills to see a play like The Footpills? Not on your life. About the time the curtain rises every man of them will be sitting in his own private corner of the beach–‘
‘How many corners do you think the beach has?’
‘Gazing into a girl’s eyes, singing, “Shine on, thou harvest moon”, and telling her how his boss is practically dependent on his advice. You know.’
‘I don’t,’ said George, coldly.
‘Unless,’ proceeded Mr Mifflin, ‘we advertise. And by advertise, I mean advertise in the right way. We have a Press-agent, but for all the good he does he might be back on the old farm, gathering in the hay. Luckily for us, I am among those present. I have brains, I have resource. What’s that?’
‘I said nothing.’
‘I thought you did. Well, I have an idea which will drag these people like a magnet. I thought it out coming down in the train.’
‘What is it?’
‘I’ll tell you later. There are a few details to be worked upon first. Meanwhile, let us trickle to the sea-front and take a sail in one of those boats. I am at my best in a boat. I rather fancy Nature intended me for a Viking.’
Matters having been arranged with the financier to whom the boat belonged, they set forth. Mr Mifflin, having remarked, ‘Yo-ho!’ in a meditative voice, seated himself at the helm, somewhat saddened by his failure to borrow a quid of tobacco from the Ocean Beauty’s proprietor. For, as he justly observed, without properties and make-up, where were you? George, being skilled in the ways of boats, was in charge of the sheet. The summer day had lost its oppressive heat. The sun no longer beat down on the face of the waters. A fresh breeze had sprung up. George, manipulating the sheet automatically, fell into a reverie. A moment comes in the life of every man when an inward voice whispers to him, ‘This is The One!’ In George’s case the voice had not whispered; it had shouted. From now onward there could be but one woman in the world for him. From now onwards–The Ocean Beauty gave a sudden plunge. George woke up.
‘What the deuce are you doing with that tiller?’ he inquired.
‘My gentle somnambulist,’ said Mr Mifflin, aggrieved, ‘I was doing nothing with this tiller. We will now form a commission to inquire into what you were doing with that sheet. Were you asleep?’
‘My fault,’ said George; ‘I was thinking.’
‘If you must break the habit of a lifetime,’ said Mr Mifflin, complainingly, ‘I wish you would wait till we get ashore. You nearly upset us.’
‘It shan’t happen again. They are tricky, these sailing boats–turn over in a second. Whatever you do, don’t get her broadside on. There’s more breeze out here than I thought there was.’
Mr Mifflin uttered a startled exclamation.
‘What’s the matter?’ asked George.
‘Just like a flash,’ said Mr Mifflin, complacently. ‘It’s always the way with me. Give me time, and the artistic idea is bound to come. Just some little thought, some little, apparently obvious, idea which stamps the man of genius. It beats me why I didn’t think of it before. Why, of course, a costume piece with a male star is a hundred times more effective.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘I see now,’ continued Mr Mifflin, ‘that there was a flaw in my original plan. My idea was this. We were talking in the train about the bathing down here, and Jane happened to say she could swim some, and it suddenly came to me.’
Jane was the leading woman, she who omitted to give cues.
‘I said to myself, “George is a sportsman. He will be delighted to do a little thing like that”.’
‘Like to do what?’
‘Why, rescue Jane.’
‘She and you,’ said Mr Mifflin, ‘were to go in swimming together, while I waited on the sands, holding our bone-headed Press-agent on a leash. About a hundred yards from the shore up go her arms. Piercing scream. Agitated crowds on the beach. What is the matter? What has happened? A touch of cramp. Will she be drowned? No! G. Barnert Callender, author of Fate’s Footballs, which opens at the Beach Theatre on Monday evening next, at eight-fifteen sharp, will save her. See! He has her. He is bringing her in. She is safe. How pleased her mother will be! And the public, what a bit of luck for them! They will be able to see her act at eight-fifteen sharp on Monday after all. Back you come to the shore. Cheering crowds. Weeping women. Strong situation. I unleash the Press-agent, and off he shoots, in time to get the story into the evening paper. It was a great idea, but I see now there were one or two flaws in it.’
‘You do, do you?’ said George.
‘It occurs to me on reflection that after all you wouldn’t have agreed to it. A something, I don’t know what, which is lacking in your nature, would have made you reject the scheme.’
‘I’m glad that occurred to you.’
‘And a far greater flaw was that it was too altruistic. It boomed you and it boomed Jane, but I didn’t get a thing out of it. My revised scheme is a thousand times better in every way.’
‘Don’t say you have another.’
‘I have. And,’ added Mr Mifflin, with modest pride, ‘it is a winner. This time I unhesitatingly assert that I have the goods. In about one minute from now you will hear me exclaim, in a clear musical voice, the single word, “Jump!” That is your cue to leap over the side as quick as you can move, for at that precise moment this spanking craft is going to capsize.’
George spun round in his seat. Mr Mifflin’s face was shining with kindly enthusiasm. The shore was at least two hundred yards away, and that morning he had had his first swimming-lesson.
‘A movement of the tiller will do it. These accidents are common objects of the seashore. I may mention that I can swim just enough to keep myself afloat; so it’s up to you. I wouldn’t do this for everyone, but, seeing that we were boys together–Are you ready?’
‘Stop!’ cried George. ‘Don’t do it! Listen!’
‘Are you ready?’
The Ocean Beauty gave a plunge.
‘You lunatic! Listen to me. It–‘
‘Jump!’ said Mr Mifflin.
George came to the surface some yards from the overturned boat, and, looking round for Mr Mifflin, discovered that great thinker treading water a few feet away.
‘Get to work, George,’ he remarked.
It is not easy to shake one’s fist at a man when in deep water, but George managed it.
‘For twopence,’ he cried, ‘I’d leave you to look after yourself.’
‘You can do better than that,’ said Mr Mifflin. ‘I’ll give you threepence to tow me in. Hurry up. It’s cold.’
In gloomy silence George gripped him by the elbows. Mr Mifflin looked over his shoulder.
‘We shall have a good house,’ he said. ‘The stalls are full already, and the dress-circle’s filling. Work away, George, you’re doing fine. This act is going to be a scream from start to finish.’
With pleasant conversation he endeavoured to while away the monotony of the journey; but George made no reply. He was doing some rapid thinking. With ordinary luck, he felt bitterly, all would have been well. He could have gone on splashing vigorously under his teacher’s care for a week, gradually improving till he emerged into a reasonably proficient swimmer. But now! In an age of miracles he might have explained away his present performance; but how was he to–And then there came to him an idea–simple, as all great ideas are, but magnificent.
He stopped and trod water.
‘Tired?’ said Mr Mifflin. ‘Well, take a rest,’ he added, kindly, ‘take a rest. No need to hurry.’
‘Look here,’ said George, ‘this piece is going to be recast. We’re going to exchange parts. You’re rescuing me. See? Never mind why. I haven’t time to explain it to you now. Do you understand?’
‘No,’ said Mr Mifflin.
‘I’ll get behind you and push you; but don’t forget, when we get to the shore, that you’ve done the rescuing.’
Mr Mifflin pondered.
‘Is this wise?’ he said. ‘It is a strong part, the rescuer, but I’m not sure the other wouldn’t suit my style better. The silent hand-grip, the catch in the voice. You want a practised actor for that. I don’t think you’d be up to it, George.’
‘Never mind about me. That’s how it’s going to be.’
Mr Mifflin pondered once more.
‘No,’ he said at length, ‘it wouldn’t do. You mean well, George, but it would kill the show. We’ll go on as before.’
‘Will we?’ said George, unpleasantly. ‘Would you like to know what I’m going to do to you, then? I’m going to hit you very hard under the jaw, and I’m going to take hold of your neck and squeeze it till you lose consciousness, and then I’m going to drag you to the beach and tell people I had to hit you because you lost your head and struggled.’
Mr Mifflin pondered for the third time.
‘You are?’ he said.
‘I am,’ said George.
‘Then,’ said Mr Mifflin, cordially, ‘say no more. I take your point. My objections are removed. But,’ he concluded, ‘this is the last time I come bathing with you, George.’
Mr Mifflin’s artistic misgivings as to his colleague’s ability to handle so subtle a part as that of rescuee were more than justified on their arrival. A large and interested audience had collected by the time they reached the shore, an audience to which any artist should have been glad to play; but George, forcing his way through, hurried to the hotel without attempting to satisfy them. Not a single silent hand-shake did he bestow on his rescuer. There was no catch in his voice as he made the one remark which he did make–to a man with whiskers who asked him if the boat had upset. As an exhibition of rapid footwork his performance was good. In other respects it was poor.
He had just changed his wet clothes–it seemed to him that he had been doing nothing but change his wet clothes since he had come to Marvis Bay–when Mr Mifflin entered in a bathrobe.
‘They lent me this downstairs,’ he explained, ‘while they dried my clothes. They would do anything for me. I’m the popular hero. My boy, you made the mistake of your life when you threw up the rescuer part. It has all the fat. I see that now. The rescuer plays the other man off the stage every time. I’ve just been interviewed by the fellow on the local newspaper. He’s correspondent to a couple of London papers. The country will ring with this thing. I’ve told them all the parts I’ve ever played and my favourite breakfast food. There’s a man coming up to take my photograph tomorrow. Footpills stock has gone up with a run. Wait till Monday and see what sort of a house we shall draw. By the way, the reporter fellow said one funny thing. He asked if you weren’t the same man who was rescued yesterday by a girl. I said of course not–that you had only come down yesterday. But he stuck to it that you were.’
‘He was quite right.’
Mr Mifflin sat down on the bed.
‘This fellow fell off the pier, and a girl brought him in.’
‘And that was you?’
Mr Mifflin’s eyes opened wide.
‘It’s the heat,’ he declared, finally. ‘That and the worry of rehearsals. I expect a doctor could give the technical name for it. It’s a what-do-you-call-it–an obsession. You often hear of cases. Fellows who are absolutely sane really, but cracked on one particular subject. Some of them think they’re teapots and things. You’ve got a craving for being rescued from drowning. What happens, old man? Do you suddenly get the delusion that you can’t swim? No, it can’t be that, because you were doing all the swimming for the two of us just now. I don’t know, though. Maybe you didn’t realize that you were swimming?’
George finished lacing his shoe and looked up.
‘Listen,’ he said; ‘I’ll talk slow, so that you can understand. Suppose you fell off a pier, and a girl took a great deal of trouble to get you to the shore, would you say, “Much obliged, but you needn’t have been so officious. I can swim perfectly well?”‘
Mr Mifflin considered this point. Intelligence began to dawn in his face. ‘There is more in this than meets the eye,’ he said. ‘Tell me all.’
‘This morning’–George’s voice grew dreamy–‘she gave me a swimming-lesson. She thought it was my first. Don’t cackle like that. There’s nothing to laugh at.’
Mr Mifflin contradicted this assertion.
‘There is you,’ he said, simply. ‘This should be a lesson to you, George. Avoid deceit. In future be simple and straightforward. Take me as your model. You have managed to scrape through this time. Don’t risk it again. You are young. There is still time to make a fresh start. It only needs will-power. Meanwhile, lend me something to wear. They are going to take a week drying my clothes.’
* * * * *
There was a rehearsal at the Beach Theatre that evening. George attended it in a spirit of resignation and left it in one of elation. Three days had passed since his last sight of the company at work, and in those three days, apparently, the impossible had been achieved. There was a snap and go about the piece now. The leading lady had at length mastered that cue, and gave it out with bell-like clearness. Arthur Mifflin, as if refreshed and braced by his salt-water bath, was infusing a welcome vigour into his part. And even the comedian, George could not help admitting, showed signs of being on the eve of becoming funny. It was with a light heart and a light step that he made his way back to the hotel.
In the veranda were a number of basket-chairs. Only one was occupied. He recognized the occupant.
‘I’ve just come back from a rehearsal,’ he said, seating himself beside her.
‘The whole thing is different,’ he went on, buoyantly. ‘They know their lines. They act as if they meant it. Arthur Mifflin’s fine. The comedian’s improved till you wouldn’t know him. I’m awfully pleased about it.’
George felt damped.
‘I thought you might be pleased, too,’ he said, lamely.
‘Of course I am glad that things are going well. Your accident this afternoon was lucky, too, in a way, was it not? It will interest people in the play.’
‘You heard about it?’
‘I have been hearing about nothing else.’
‘Curious it happening so soon after–‘
‘And so soon before the production of your play. Most curious.’
There was a silence. George began to feel uneasy. You could never tell with women, of course. It might be nothing; but it looked uncommonly as if–
He changed the subject.
‘How is your aunt this evening, Miss Vaughan?’
‘Quite well, thank you. She went in. She found it a little chilly.’
George heartily commended her good sense. A little chilly did not begin to express it. If the girl had been like this all the evening, he wondered her aunt had not caught pneumonia. He tried again.
‘Will you have time to give me another lesson tomorrow?’ he said.
She turned on him.
‘Mr Callender, don’t you think this farce has gone on long enough?’
Once, in the dear, dead days beyond recall, when but a happy child, George had been smitten unexpectedly by a sportive playmate a bare half-inch below his third waistcoat-button. The resulting emotions were still green in his memory. As he had felt then, so did he feel now.
‘Miss Vaughan! I don’t understand.’
‘What have I done?’
‘You have forgotten how to swim.’
A warm and prickly sensation began to manifest itself in the region of George’s forehead.
‘Forgotten. And in a few months. I thought I had seen you before, and today I remembered. It was just about this time last year that I saw you at Hayling Island swimming perfectly wonderfully, and today you are taking lessons. Can you explain it?’
A frog-like croak was the best George could do in that line.
She went on.
‘Business is business, I suppose, and a play has to be advertised somehow. But–‘
‘You don’t think–‘ croaked George.
‘I should have thought it rather beneath the dignity of an author; but, of course, you know your own business best. Only I object to being a conspirator. I am sorry for your sake that yesterday’s episode attracted so little attention. Today it was much more satisfactory, wasn’t it? I am so glad.’
There was a massive silence for about a hundred years.
‘I think I’ll go for a short stroll,’ said George.
* * * * *
Scarcely had he disappeared when the long form of Mr Mifflin emerged from the shadow beyond the veranda.
‘Could you spare me a moment?’
The girl looked up. The man was a stranger. She inclined her head coldly.
‘My name is Mifflin,’ said the other, dropping comfortably into the chair which had held the remains of George.
The girl inclined her head again more coldly; but it took more than that to embarrass Mr Mifflin. Dynamite might have done it, but not coldness.
‘The Mifflin,’ he explained, crossing his legs. ‘I overheard your conversation just now.’
‘You were listening?’ said the girl, scornfully.
‘For all I was worth,’ said Mr Mifflin. ‘These things are very much a matter of habit. For years I have been playing in pieces where I have had to stand concealed up stage, drinking in the private conversation of other people, and the thing has become a second nature to me. However, leaving that point for a moment, what I wish to say is that I heard you–unknowingly, of course–doing a good man a grave injustice.’
‘Mr Callender could have defended himself if he had wished.’
‘I was not referring to George. The injustice was to myself.’
‘I was the sole author of this afternoon’s little drama. I like George, but I cannot permit him to pose in any way as my collaborator. George has old-fashioned ideas. He does not keep abreast of the times. He can write plays, but he needs a man with a big brain to boom them for him. So, far from being entitled to any credit for this afternoon’s work, he was actually opposed to it.’
‘Then why did he pretend you had saved him?’ she demanded.
‘George’s,’ said Mr Mifflin, ‘is essentially a chivalrous nature. At any crisis demanding a display of the finer feelings he is there with the goods before you can turn round. His friends frequently wrangle warmly as to whether he is most like Bayard, Lancelot, or Happy Hooligan. Some say one, some the other. It seems that yesterday you saved him from a watery grave without giving him time to explain that he could save himself. What could he do? He said to himself, “She must never know!” and acted accordingly. But let us leave George, and return–‘
‘Thank you, Mr Mifflin.’ There was a break in her laugh. ‘I don’t think there is any necessity. I think I understand now. It was very clever of you.’
‘It was more than cleverness,’ said Mr Mifflin, rising. ‘It was genius.’
* * * * *
A white form came to meet George as he re-entered the veranda.
‘I’m very sorry I said such horrid things to you just now. I have been talking to Mr Mifflin, and I want to say I think it was ever so nice and thoughtful of you. I understand everything.’
George did not, by a good deal; but he understood sufficient for his needs. He shot forward as if some strong hand were behind him with a needle.
‘I think I hear aunt calling,’ said she.
* * * * *
But a benevolent Providence has ordained that aunts cannot call for ever; and it is on record that when George entered his box on the two hundredth night of that great London success, Fate’s Footballs, he did not enter it alone.