Story type: Literature
THE COMEDY THAT WROTE ITSELF AS RELATED BY G. A. RICHARDSON.
How pleasant it is to have money, heigho!
How pleasant it is to have money!
Sings (I think) Clough. Well, I had money, and more of it than I felt any desire to spend; which is as much as any reasonable man can want. My age was five-and-twenty, my health good, my conscience moderately clean, and my appetite excellent: I had fame in some degree, and a fair prospect of adding to it: and I was unmarried. In later life a man may seek marriage for its own sake, but at five-and-twenty he marries against his will–because he has fallen in love with a woman; and this had not yet happened to me. I was a bachelor, and content to remain one.
To come to smaller matters–The month was early June, the weather perfect, the solitude of my own choosing, and my posture comfortable enough to invite drowsiness. I had bathed and, stretched supine in the shade of a high sand-bank, was smoking the day’s first cigarette. Behind me lay Ambleteuse; before me, the sea. On the edge of it, their shrill challenges softened by the distance to music, a score of children played with spades and buckets, innocently composing a hundred pretty groups of brown legs, fluttered hair, bright frocks and jerseys, and innocently conspiring with morning to put a spirit of youth into the whole picture. Beyond them the blue sea flashed with its own smiles, and the blue heaven over them with the glancing wings of gulls. On this showing it is evident that I, George Anthony Richardson, ought to have been happy; whereas, in fact, Richardson was cheerful enough, but George Anthony restless and ill-content: by reason that Richardson, remembering the past, enjoyed by contrast the present, and knew himself to be jolly well off; while George Anthony, likewise remembering the past, felt gravely concerned for the future.
Let me explain. A year ago I had been a clerk in the Office of the Local Government Board–a detested calling with a derisory stipend. It was all that a University education (a second in Moderations and a third in Literae Humaniores) had enabled me to win, and I stuck to it because I possessed no patrimony and had no ‘prospects’ save one, which stood precariously on the favour of an uncle–my mother’s brother, Major-General Allan Mclntosh, C.B. Now the General could not be called an indulgent man. He had retired from active service to concentrate upon his kinsfolk those military gifts which even on the wide plains of Hindostan had kept him the terror of his country’s foes and the bugbear of his own soldiery. He had an iron sense of discipline and a passion for it; he detested all forms of amusement; in religion he belonged to the sect of the Peculiar People; and he owned a gloomy house near the western end of the Cromwell Road, where he dwelt and had for butler, valet, and factotum a Peculiar Person named Trewlove.
In those days I found my chief recreation in the theatre; and by-and-by, when I essayed to write for it, and began to pester managers with curtain-raisers, small vaudevilles, comic libretti and the like, you will guess that in common prudence I called myself by a nom de guerre. Dropping the ‘Richardson,’ I signed my productions ‘George Anthony,’ and as ‘George Anthony’ the playgoing public now discusses me. For some while, I will confess, the precaution was superfluous, the managers having apparently entered into league to ensure me as much obscurity as I had any use for. But at length in an unguarded moment the manager of the Duke of Cornwall’s Theatre (formerly the Euterpe) accepted a three-act farce. It was poorly acted, yet for some reason it took the town. ‘Larks in Aspic, a Farcical Comedy by George Anthony,’ ran for a solid three hundred nights; and before it ceased my unsuspecting uncle had closed his earthly career, leaving me with seventy thousand pounds (the bulk of it invested in India Government stock), the house in the Cromwell Road, and, lastly, in sacred trust, his faithful body-servant, William John Trewlove.
Here let me pause to deplore man’s weakness and the allurement of splendid possessions. I had been happy enough in my lodgings in Jermyn Street, and, thanks to Larks in Aspic, they were decently furnished. At the prompting, surely, of some malignant spirit, I exchanged them for a house too large for me in a street too long for life, for my uncle’s furniture (of the Great Exhibition period), and for the unnecessary and detested services of Trewlove.
This man enjoyed, by my uncle’s will, an annuity of fifty pounds. He had the look, too, of one who denied himself small pleasures, not only on religious grounds, but because they cost money. Somehow, I never doubted that he owned a balance at the bank, or that, after a brief interval spent in demonstrating that our ways were uncongenial, he would retire on a competence and await translation to join my uncle in an equal sky–equal, that is, within the fence of the elect. But not a bit of it! I had been adjured in the will to look after him: and at first I supposed that he clung to me against inclination, from a conscientious resolve to give me every chance. By-and-by, however, I grew aware of a change in him; or, rather, of some internal disquiet, suppressed but volcanic, working towards a change. Once or twice he staggered me by answering some casual question in a tone which, to say the least of it, suggested an ungainly attempt at facetiousness. A look at his sepulchral face would reassure me, but did not clear up the mystery. Something was amiss with Trewlove.
The horrid truth broke upon me one day as we discussed the conduct of one of my two housemaids. Trewlove, returning one evening (as I gathered) from a small reunion of his fellow-sectarians in the Earl’s Court Road, had caught her in the act of exchanging railleries from an upper window with a trooper in the 2nd Life Guards, and had reported her.
“Most unbecoming,” said I.
“Unwomanly,” said Trewlove, with a sudden contortion of the face; “unwomanly, sir!–but ah, how like a woman!”
I stared at him for one wild moment, and turned abruptly to the window. The rascal had flung a quotation at me–out of Larks in Aspic! He knew, then! He had penetrated the disguise of “George Anthony,” and, worse still, he meant to forgive it. His eye had conveyed a dreadful promise of complicity. Almost–I would have given worlds to know, and yet I dared not face it–almost it had been essaying a wink!
I dismissed him with instructions–not very coherent, I fear–to give the girl a talking-to, and sat down to think. How long had he known?–that was my first question, and in justice to him it had to be considered: since, had he known and kept the secret in my uncle’s lifetime, beyond a doubt, and unpleasant as the thought might be, I was enormously his debtor. That stern warrior’s attitude towards the playhouse had ever been uncompromising. Stalls, pit, and circles–the very names suggested Dantesque images and provided illustrations for many a discourse. Themselves verbose, these discourses indicated A Short Way with Stage-players, and it stood in no doubt that the authorship of Larks in Aspic had only to be disclosed to him to provide me with the shortest possible cut out of seventy thousand pounds.
I might, and did, mentally consign Trewlove to all manner of painful places, as, for instance, the bottom of the sea; but I could not will away this obligation. After cogitating for awhile I rang for him.
“Trewlove,” said I, “you know, it seems, that I have written a play.”
“Yessir! Larks in Aspic, sir.”
I winced. “Since when have you known this?”
The dog, I am sure, took the bearings of this question at once. But he laid his head on one side, and while he pulled one whisker, as if ringing up the information, his eyes grew dull and seemed to be withdrawing into visions of a far-away past. “I have been many times to see it, Mr. George, and would be hard put to it to specify the first occasion. But it was a mattinay.”
“That is not what I asked, Trewlove. I want to know when you first suspected or satisfied yourself that I was the author.”
“Oh, at once, sir! The style, if I may say so, was unmistakable: in-nimitable, sir, if I may take the libbaty.”
“Excuse me,” I began; but he did not hear. He had passed for the moment beyond decorum, and his eyes began to roll in a manner expressive of inward rapture, but not pretty to watch.
“I had not listened to your talk, sir, in private life–I had not, as one might say, imbibed it–for nothink. The General, sir–your lamented uncle–had a flow: he would, if allowed, and meaning no disrespect, talk the hind leg off a jackass; but I found him lacking in ‘umour. Now you, Mr. George, ‘ave ‘umour. You ‘ave not your uncle’s flow, sir–the Lord forbid! But in give-and-take, as one might say, you are igstreamly droll. On many occasions, sir, when you were extra sparkling I do assure you it required pressure not to igsplode.”
“I thank you, Trewlove,” said I coldly. “But will you, please, waive these unsolicited testimonials and answer my question? Let me put it in another form. Was it in my uncle’s lifetime that you first witnessed my play?”
Trewlove’s eyes ceased to roll, and, meeting mine, withdrew themselves politely behind impenetrable mists. “The General, sir, was opposed to theatre-going in toto; anathemum was no word for what he thought of it. And if it had come to Larks in Aspic, with your permission I will only say ‘Great Scot!’”
“I may take it then that you did not see the play and surprise my secret until after his death?”.
Trewlove drew himself up with fine reserve and dignity. “There is such a thing, sir, I ‘ope, as Libbaty of Conscience.”
With that I let him go. The colloquy had not only done me no service, but had positively emboldened him–or so I seemed to perceive as the weeks went on–in his efforts to cast off his old slough and become a travesty of me, as he had been a travesty of my uncle. I am willing to believe that they caused him pain. A crust of habit so inveterate as his cannot be rent without throes, to the severity of which his facial contortions bore witness whenever he attempted a witticism. Warned by them, I would sometimes admonish him–
“Mirth without vulgarity, Trewlove!”
“Yessir,” he would answer, and add with a sigh, “it’s the best sort, sir– ad-mittedly.”
But if painful to him, this metamorphosis was torture to my nerves. I should explain that, flushed with the success of Larks in Aspic, I had cheerfully engaged myself to provide the Duke of Cornwall’s with a play to succeed it. At the moment of signing the contract my bosom’s lord had sat lightly on its throne, for I felt my head to be humming with ideas. But affluence, or the air of the Cromwell Road, seemed uncongenial to the Muse.
Three months had slipped away. I had not written a line. My ideas, which had seemed on the point of precipitation, surrendering to some centrifugal eddy, slipped one by one beyond grasp. I suppose every writer of experience knows these vacant terrifying intervals; but they were strange to me then, and I had not learnt the virtue of waiting. I grew flurried, and saw myself doomed to be the writer of one play.
In this infirmity the daily presence of Trewlove became intolerable. There arrived an evening when I found myself toying with the knives at dinner, and wondering where precisely lay the level of his fifth rib at the back of my chair.
I dropped the weapon and pushed forward my glass to be refilled. “Trewlove,” said I, “you shall pack for me to-morrow, and send off the servants on board wages. I need a holiday. I–I trust this will not be inconvenient to you?”
“I thank you, sir; not in the least.” He coughed, and I bent my head, some instinct forewarning me.
“I shall be away for three months at least,” I put in quickly. (Five minutes before I had not dreamed of leaving home.)
But the stroke was not to be averted. For months it had been preparing.
“As for inconvenience, sir–if I may remind you–the course of Trewlove never did–“
“For three months at least,” I repeated, rapping sharply on the table.
Next day I crossed the Channel and found myself at Ambleteuse.
I chose Ambleteuse because it was there that I had written the greater part of Larks in Aspic. I went again to my old quarters at Madame Peyron’s. As before, I eschewed company, excursions, all forms of violent exercise. I bathed, ate, drank, slept, rambled along the sands, or lay on my back and stared at the sky, smoking and inviting my soul. In short, I reproduced all the old conditions. But in vain! At Ambleteuse, no less than in London, the Muse either retreated before my advances, or, when I sat still and waited, kept her distance, declining to be coaxed.
Matters were really growing serious. Three weeks had drifted by with not a line and scarcely an idea to show for them; and the morning’s post had brought me a letter from Cozens, of the Duke of Cornwall’s, begging for (at least) a scenario of the new piece. My play (he said) would easily last this season out; but he must reopen in the autumn with a new one, and–in short, weren’t we beginning to run some risk?
I groaned, crushed the letter into my pocket, and by an effort of will put the tormenting question from me until after my morning bath. But now the time was come to face it. I began weakly by asking myself why the dickens I–with enough for my needs–had bound myself to write this thing within a given time, at the risk of turning out inferior work. For that matter, why should I write a comedy at all if I didn’t want to? These were reasonable questions, and yet they missed the point. The point was that I had given my promise to Cozens, and that Cozens depended on it. Useless to ask now why I had given it! At the time I could have promised cheerfully to write him three plays within as many months.
So full my head was then, and so empty now! A grotesque and dreadful suspicion took me. While Trewlove tortured himself to my model, was I, by painful degrees, exchanging brains with him? I laughed; but I was unhinged. I had been smoking too many cigarettes during these three weeks, and the vampire thought continued to flit obscenely between me and the pure seascape. I saw myself the inheritor of Trewlove’s cast-off personality, his inelegancies of movement, his religious opinions, his bagginess at the knees, his mournful, pensile whiskers–
This would never do! I must concentrate my mind on the play. Let me see–The title can wait. Two married couples have just been examined at Dunmow, and awarded the ‘historic’ flitch for conjugal happiness. Call them A and Mrs. A, B and Mrs. B. On returning to the hotel with their trophies, it is discovered that B and Mrs. A are old flames, while each finds a mistaken reason to suspect that A and Mrs. B have also met years before, and at least dallied with courtship. Thus while their spouses alternately rage with suspicion and invent devices to conceal their own defaults, A and Mrs. B sit innocently nursing their illusions and their symbolical flitches. The situation holds plenty of comedy, and the main motive begins to explain itself. Now then for anagnorisis, comic peripeteia, division into acts, and the rest of the wallet!
I smoked another two cigarettes and flung away a third in despair. Useless! The plaguey thing refused to take shape. I sprang up and paced the sands, dogged by an invisible Cozens piping thin reproaches above the hum of the breakers.
Suddenly I came to a halt. Why this play? Why expend vain efforts on this particular complication when in a drawer at home lay two acts of a comedy ready written, and the third and final act sketched out? The burden of months broke its straps and fell from me as I pondered. My Tenant was the name of the thing, and I had thrust it aside only when the idea of Larks in Aspic occurred to me–not in any disgust. And really, now, what I remembered of it seemed to me astonishingly good!
I pulled out my watch, and as I did so there flashed on me–in that sudden freakish way which the best ideas affect–a new and brilliant idea for the plot of My Tenant. The whole of the third and concluding act spread itself instantaneously before me. I knew then and there why the play had been laid aside. It had waited for this, and it wanted only this. I held the thing now, compact and tight, within my five fingers: as tight and compact as the mechanism of the watch in my hand.
But why had I pulled out the watch? Because the manuscript of My Tenant lay in the drawer of my writing-table in the Cromwell Road, and I was calculating how quickly a telegram would reach Trewlove with instructions to find and forward it. Then I bethought me that the lock was a patent one, and that I carried the key with me on my private key-chain. Why should I not cross from Calais by the next boat and recover my treasure? It would be the sooner in my possession. I might be reading it again that very night in my own home and testing my discovery. I might return with it on the morrow–that is, if I desired to return. After all, Ambleteuse had failed me. In London, I could shut myself up and work at white heat. In London, I should be near Cozens: a telegram would fetch him out to South Kensington within the hour, to listen and approve. (I had no doubt of his approval.) In London, I should renew relations with the real Trewlove–the familiar, the absurd. I will not swear that for the moment I thought of Trewlove at all: but he remained at the back of my mind, and at Calais I began the process of precipitating him (so to speak) by a telegram advertising him of my return, and requesting that my room might be prepared.
I had missed the midday boat, and reached Dover by the later and slower one as the June night began to descend. From Victoria I drove straight to my club, and snatched a supper of cold meats in its half-lit dining-room. Twenty minutes later I was in my hansom again and swiftly bowling westward–I say ‘bowling’ because it is the usual word, and I was in far too fierce a hurry to think of a better.
I had dropped back upon London in the fastest whirl of the season, and at the hour when all the world rolls homeward from the theatres. Two hansoms raced with mine, and red lights by the score dotted the noble slope of Piccadilly. To the left the street-lamps flung splashes of theatrical green on the sombre boughs of the Green Park. In one of the porticos to the right half a dozen guests lingered for a moment and laughed together before taking their leave. One of them stood on the topmost steps, lighting a cigarette: he carried his silk-lined Inverness over his arm–so sultry the night was–and the ladies wore but the slightest of wraps over their bright frocks and jewels. One of them as we passed stepped forward, and I saw her dismissing her brougham. A night for walking, thought the party: and a fine night for sleeping out of doors, thought the road-watchman close by, watching them and meditatively smoking behind his barricade hung with danger-lanterns. Overhead rode the round moon.
It is the fashion to cry down London, and I have taken my part in the chorus; but always–be the absence never so short–I come back to her with the same lift of the heart. Why did I ever leave her? What had I gone a-seeking in Ambleteuse?–a place where a man leaves his room only to carry his writing-desk with him and plant it by the sea. London offered the only true recreation. In London a man might turn the key on himself and work for so long as it pleased him. But let him emerge, and–pf!–the jostle of the streets shook his head clear of the whole stuffy business. No; decidedly I would not return to Madame Peyron’s. London for me, until my comedy should be written, down to the last word on the last page!
We were half way down the Cromwell Road when I took this resolution, and at once I was aware of a gathering of carriages drawn up in line ahead and close beside the pavement. At intervals the carriages moved forward a few paces and the line closed up; but it stretched so far that I soon began to wonder which of my neighbours could be entertaining on a scale so magnificent.
“What number did you say, sir?” the cabman asked through his trap.
“Number 402,” I called up.
“Blest if I can get alongside the pavement then,” he grumbled. He was a surly man.
“Never mind that. Pull up opposite Number 402 and I’ll slip between. I’ve only my bag to carry.”
“Didn’t know folks was so gay in these outlyin’ parts,” he commented sourly, and closed the trap, but presently opened it again. His horse had dropped to a walk. “Did you say four-nought-two?” he asked.
“Oh, confound it–yes!” I was growing impatient.
He pulled up and began to turn the horse’s head.
“Hi! What are you doing?”
“Goin’ back to the end of the line–back to take our bloomin’ turn,” he answered wearily. “Four-nought-two, you said, didn’t you?”
“Yes, yes; are you deaf? What have I to do with this crowd?”
“I hain’t deaf, but I got eyes. Four-nought-two’s where the horning’s up, that’s all.”
“The horning? What’s that?”
“Oh, I’m tired of egsplanations. A horning’s a horning, what they put up when they gives a party; leastways,” he added reflectively, “Hi don’t.”
“But there’s no party at Number 402,” I insisted. “The thing’s impossible.”
“Very well, then; I’m a liar, and that ends it.” He wheeled again and began to walk his horse sullenly forward. “‘Oo’s blind this time?” he demanded, coming to a standstill in front of the house.
An awning stretched down from the front door and across the pavement, where two policemen guarded the alighting guests from pressure by a small but highly curious crowd. Overhead, the first-floor windows had been flung wide; the rooms within were aflame with light; and, as I grasped the rail of the splashboard, and, straightening myself up, gazed over the cab-roof with a wild surmise into the driver’s face, a powerful but invisible string band struck up the ‘Country Girl’ Lancers!
“‘Oo’s a liar now?” He jerked his whip towards the number “402” staring down at me from the illuminated pane above the awning.
“But it ‘is my own house!” I gasped.
“Hoh?” said he. “Well, it may be. I don’t conteraddict.”
“Here, give me my bag!” I fumbled in my pocket for his fare.
“Cook giving a party? Well, you’re handy for the Wild West out here–good old Earl’s Court!” He jerked his whip again towards the awning as a North American Indian in full war-paint passed up the steps and into the house, followed by the applause of the crowd.
I must have overpaid the man extravagantly, for his tone changed suddenly as he examined the coins in his hand. “Look here, guvnor, if you want any little ‘elp, I was barman one time at the ‘Elephant’–“
But I caught up my bag, swung off the step, and, squeezing between a horse’s wet nose and the back of a brougham, gained the pavement, where a red-baize carpet divided the ranks of the crowd.
“Hullo!” One of the policemen put out a hand to detain me.
“It’s all right,” I assured him; “I belong to the house.” It seemed a safer explanation than that the house belonged to me.
“Is it the ices?” he asked.
But I ran up the porchway, eager to get to grips with Trewlove.
On the threshold a young and extremely elegant footman confronted me.
“Where is Trewlove?” I demanded.
The footman was glorious in a tasselled coat and knee-breeches, both of bright blue. He wore his hair in powder, and eyed me with suspicion if not with absolute disfavour.
“Where is Trewlove?” I repeated, dwelling fiercely on each syllable.
The ass became lightly satirical. “Well we may wonder,” said he; “search the wide world over! But reely and truly you’ve come to the wrong ‘ouse this time. Here, stand to one side!” he commanded, as a lady in the costume of La Pompadour, followed by an Old English Gentleman with an anachronistic Hebrew nose, swept past me into the hall. He bowed deferentially while he mastered their names, “Mr. and Mrs. Levi-Levy!” he cried, and a second footman came forward to escort them up the stairs. To convince myself that this was my own house I stared hard at a bust of Havelock–my late uncle’s chief, and for religious as well as military reasons his beau ideal of a British warrior.
The young footman resumed. “When you’ve had a good look round and seen all you want to see–“
“I am Mr. Richardson,” I interrupted; “and up to a few minutes ago I supposed myself to be the owner of this house. Here–if you wish to assure yourself–is my card.”
His face fell instantly, fell so completely and woefully that I could not help feeling sorry for him. “I beg pardon, sir–most ‘umbly, I do indeed. You will do me the justice, sir–I had no idea, as per description, sir, being led to expect a different kind of gentleman altogether.
“You had my telegram, then?”
“Telegram, sir?” He hesitated, searching his memory.
“Certainly–a telegram sent by me at one o’clock this afternoon, or thereabouts–“
Here, with an apology, he left me to attend to a new arrival–a Yellow Dwarf with a decidedly music-hall manner, who nudged him in the stomach and fell upon his neck exclaiming, “My long-lost brother!”
“Cert’nly, sir. You will find the company upstairs, sir.” The young man disengaged himself with admirable dignity and turned again to me. “A telegram did you say–“
“Addressed to ‘Trewlove, 402, Cromwell Road.’”
“William!” He summoned another footman forward. “This gentleman is inquiring for a telegram sent here this afternoon, addressed ‘Trewlove’.”
“There was such a telegram,” said William. “I heard Mr. Horrex a-discussing of it in the pantry. The mistress took the name for a telegraphic address, and sent it back to the office, saying there must be some mistake.”
“But I sent it myself!”
“It contained an order to get my room ready.”
“This gentleman is Mr. Richardson,” explained the younger footman.
“Indeed, sir?” William’s face brightened. “In that case there’s no ‘arm done, for your room is ready, and I laid out your dress myself. Mr. ‘Erbert gave particular instructions before going out.”
“Mr. Herbert?” I gazed around me blankly. Who in the name of wonder was Mr. Herbert?
“If you will allow me, sir,” suggested William, taking my bag, while the other went back to his post.
“Thank you,” said I, “but I know my own room, I hope.”
He shook his head. “The mistress made some alterations at the last moment, and you’re on the fourth floor over the street. Mr. ‘Erbert’s last words were that if you arrived before him I was to ‘ope you didn’t mind being so near the roof.”
Well, of one thing at least I could be sure: I was in my own house. For the rest, I might be Rip van Winkle or the Sleeper Awakened. Who was this lady called “the mistress “? Who was Mr. Herbert? How came they here? And–deepest mystery of all–how came they to be expecting me? Some villainy of Trewlove’s must be the clue of this tangle; and, holding to this clue, I resolved to follow whither fate might lead.
William lifted my bag and led the way. On the first landing, where the doors stood open and the music went merrily to the last figure of the Lancers, we had to pick our way through a fantastic crowd which eyed me with polite curiosity. Couples seated on the next flight drew aside to let us pass. But the second landing was empty, and I halted for a moment at the door of my own workroom, within which lay my precious manuscript.
“This room is unoccupied?”
“Indeed, no, sir. The mistress considers it the cheerfullest in the ‘ouse.”
“Our tastes agree then.”
“She had her bed moved in there the very first night.”
“Indeed.” I swung round on him hastily. “By-the-by, what is your mistress’s name?”
He drew back a pace and eyed me with some embarrassment. “You’ll excuse me, sir, but that ain’t quite a fair question as between you and me.”
“No? I should have thought it innocent enough.”
“Of course, it’s a hopen secret, and you’re only askin’ it to try me. But so long as the mistress fancies a hincog–“
“Lead on,” said I. “You are an exemplary young man, and I, too, am playing the game to the best of my lights.”
“Yes, sir.” He led me up to a room prepared for me–with candles lit, hot water ready, and bed neatly turned down. On the bed lay the full costume of a Punchinello: striped stockings, breeches with rosettes, tinselled coat with protuberant stomach and hump, cocked hat, and all proper accessories–even to a false nose.
“Am I expected to get into these things?” I asked.
“If I can be of any assistance, sir–“
“Thank you: no.” I handed him the key of my bag, flung off coat and waistcoat, and sat down to unlace my boots. “Your mistress is in the drawing-room, I suppose, with her guests?”
“She is, sir.”
“And Mr. Herbert?”
“Mr. ‘Erbert was to have been ‘ome by ten-thirty. He is–as you know, sir–a little irregilar. But youth,”–William arranged my brushes carefully–“youth must ‘ave its fling. Oh, he’s a caution!” A chuckle escaped him; he checked it and was instantly demure. Almost, indeed, he eyed me with a look of rebuke. “Anything more, sir?”
“Nothing more, thank you.”
He withdrew. I thrust my feet into the dressing slippers he had set out for me, and, dropping into an armchair, began to take stock of the situation. “The one thing certain,” I told myself, “is that Trewlove in my absence has let my house. Therefore Trewlove is certainly an impudent scoundrel, and any grand jury would bring in a true bill against him for a swindler. My tenants are a lady whose servants may not reveal her name, and a young man–her husband perhaps–described as ‘a little irregilar.’ They are giving a large fancy-dress ball below–which seems to prove that, at any rate, they don’t fear publicity. And, further, although entire strangers to me, they are expecting my arrival and have prepared a room. Now, why?”
Here lay the real puzzle, and for some minutes I could make nothing of it. Then I remembered my telegram. According to William it had been referred back to the post office. But William on his own admission had but retailed pantry gossip caught up from Mr. Horrex (presumably the butler). Had the telegram been sent back unopened? William’s statement left this in doubt. Now supposing these people to be in league with Trewlove, they might have opened the telegram, and, finding to their consternation that I was already on the road and an exposure inevitable, have ordered my room to be prepared, trusting to throw themselves on my forgiveness, while Trewlove lay a-hiding or fled from vengeance across the high seas. Here was a possible explanation; but I will admit that it seemed, on second thoughts, an unlikely one. An irate landlord, returning unexpectedly and finding his house in possession of unauthorised tenants–catching them, moreover, in the act of turning it upside-down with a fancy-dress ball–would naturally begin to be nasty on the doorstep. The idea of placating him by a bedroom near the roof and the costume of a Punchinello was too bold altogether, and relied too much on his unproved fund of goodnature. Moreover, Mr. Herbert (whoever he might be) would not have treated the situation so cavalierly. At the least (and however ‘irregilar’), Mr. Herbert would have been waiting to deprecate vengeance. A wild suspicion occurred to me that ‘Mr. Herbert’ might be another name for Trewlove, and that Trewlove under that name was gaining a short start from justice. But no: William had alluded to Mr. Herbert as to a youth sowing his wild oats. Impossible to contemplate Trewlove under this guise! Where then did Trewlove come in? Was he, perchance, ‘Mr. Horrex,’ the butler?
I gave it up and began thoughtfully, and not without difficulty, to case myself in the disguise of Punchinello. I resolved to see this thing through. The costume had evidently not been made to my measure, and in the process of induing it I paused once or twice to speculate on the eccentricities of the figure to which it had been shaped or the abstract anatomical knowledge of the tailor who had shaped it. I declare that the hump seemed the one normal thing about it. But by this time my detective-hunger–not to call it a thirst for vengeance–was asserting itself above petty vanity. I squeezed myself into the costume; and then, clapping on the false nose, stood arrayed–as queer a figure, surely, as ever was assumed by retributive Justice.
So, with a heart hardened by indignation and prepared for the severest measures, I descended to the drawing-room landing. Two doors opened upon it–that of the drawing-room itself, which faced over a terrace roofing the kitchens and across it to a garden in the rear of the house, and that of a room overlooking the street and scarcely less spacious. This had been the deceased General’s bedroom, and in indolence rather than impiety I had left it unused with all its hideous furniture–including the camp-bed which his martial habits affected. And this was the apartment I entered, curious to learn how it had been converted into a reception-room for the throng which now filled it.
I recognised only the wall-paper. The furniture had been removed, the carpet taken up, the boards waxed to a high degree of slipperiness; and across the far end stretched a buffet-table presided over by a venerable person in black, with white hair, a high clear complexion, and a deportment which hit a nice mean between the military and the episcopal.
I had scarcely time to tell myself that this must be Mr. Horrex, before he looked up and caught sight of me. His features underwent a sudden and astonishing change; and almost dropping a bottle of champagne in his flurry, he came swiftly round the end of the buffet towards me.
I knew not how to interpret his expression: surprise was in it, and eagerness, and suppressed agitation, and an appeal for secrecy, and at the same time (if I mistook not) a deep relief.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” he began, in a sort of confidential whisper, very quick and low, “but I was not aware you had arrived.”
I gazed at him with stern inquiry.
“You are Mr. Richardson, are you not?” he asked. There could be no doubt of his agitation.
“I am; and I have been in this, my house, for some three-quarters of an hour.”
“They never told me,” he groaned. “And I left particular instructions –But perhaps you have already seen the mistress?”
“I have not. May I ask you to take me to her–since I have not the pleasure of her acquaintance?”
“Cert’nly, sir. Oh, at once! She is in the drawing-room putting the best face on it. Twice she has sent in to know if you have arrived, and I sent word, ‘No, not yet,’ though it cut me to the ‘eart.”
“She is anxious to see me?”
“She thinks to avoid exposure, then?” said I darkly, keeping a set face.
“She ‘opes, sir: she devoutly ‘opes.” He groaned and led the way. “It may, after all, be a lesson to Mr. ‘Erbert,” he muttered as we reached the landing.
“I fancy it’s going to be a lesson to several of you.”
“The things we’ve ‘ad to keep dark, sir–the goings-on!”
“I can well believe it.”
“I was in some doubts about you, sir–begging your pardon: but in spite of the dress, sir–which gives a larky appearance, if I may say it–and doubtless is so meant–you reassure me, sir: you do indeed. I feel the worst is over. We can put ourselves in your ‘ands.”
“You have certainly done that,” said I. “As for the worst being over–“
We were within the drawing-room by this time, and he plucked me by the sleeve in his excitement, yet deferentially. “Yonder is the mistress, sir–in the yellow h’Empire satin–talking with the gentleman in sky-blue rationals. Ah, she sees you!”
She did. And I read at once in her beautiful eyes that while talking with her partner she had been watching the door for me. She came towards me with an eager catch of the breath–one so very like a cry of relief that in the act of holding out her hand she had to turn to the nearest guests and explain.
“It’s Mr. Richardson–‘George Anthony,’ you know–who wrote Larks in Aspic! I had set my heart on his coming, and had almost given him up. Why are you so cruelly late?” she demanded, turning her eyes on mine.
Her hand was still held out to me. I had meant to hold myself up stiffly and decline it; but somehow I could not. She was a woman, after all, and her look told me–and me only–that she was in trouble. Also I knew her by face and by report. I had seen her acting in more than one exceedingly stupid musical comedy, and wondered why ‘Clara Joy’ condescended to waste herself upon such inanities. I recalled certain notes in her voice, certain moments when, in the midst of the service of folly, she had seemed to isolate herself and stand watching, aloof from the audience and her fellow-actors, almost pathetically alone. Report said, too, that she was good, and that she had domestic troubles, though it had not reached me what these troubles were. Certainly she appeared altogether too good for these third-rate guests–for third-rate they were to the most casual eye. And the trouble, which signalled to me now in her look, clearly and to my astonishment included no remorse for having walked into a stranger’s house and turned it up-side down without so much as a by-your-leave. She claimed my goodwill confidently, without any appeal to be forgiven. I held my feelings under rein and took her hand.
As I released it she motioned me to give her my arm. “I must find you supper at once,” she said quietly, in a tone that warned me not to decline. “Not–not in there; we will try the library downstairs.”
Down to the library I led her accordingly, and somehow was aware–by that supernumerary sense which works at times in the back of a man’s head–of Horrex discreetly following us. At the library-door she turned to him. “When I ring,” she said. He bowed and withdrew.
The room was empty and dark. She switched on the electric light and nodded to me to close the door.
“Take that off, please,” she commanded.
“I beg your pardon? . . . Ah, to be sure!” I had forgotten my false nose.
“How did Herbert pick up with you?” she asked musingly. “His friends are not usually so–so–“
“Respectable?” I suggested.
“I think I meant to say ‘presentable.’ They are never respectable by any chance.”
“Then, happily, it still remains to be proved that I am one of them.”
“He seems, at any rate, to reckon you high amongst them, since he gave your name.”
“Gave my name? To whom?”
“Oh, I don’t know–to the magistrate–or the policeman–or whoever it is. I have never been in a police-cell myself,” she added, with a small smile.
“Is Herbert, then, in a police-cell?”
She nodded. “At Vine Street. He wants to be bailed out.”
“Himself in ten pounds and a friend in another ten. He gave your name; and the policeman is waiting for the answer.”
“I see,” said I; “but excuse me if I fail to see why, being apparently so impatient to bail him out, you have waited for me. To be sure (for reasons which are dark to me) he appears to have given my name to the police; but we will put that riddle aside for the moment. Any respectable citizen would have served, with the money to back him. Why not have sent Horrex, for example?”
“But I thought the–the–“
“Surety?” I suggested. “I thought he must be a householder. No,” she cried, as I turned away with a slight shrug of the shoulder, “that was not the real reason! Herbert is–oh, why will you force me to say it?”
“I beg your pardon,” said I. “He is at certain times not too tractable; Horrex, in particular, cannot be trusted to manage him; and–and in short you wish him released as soon as possible, but not brought home to this house until your guests have taken leave?”
She nodded at me with swimming eyes. She was passing beautiful, more beautiful than I had thought.
“Yes, yes; you understand! And I thought that–as his friend–and with your influence over him–“
I pulled out my watch. “Has Horrex a hansom in waiting?”
“A four-wheeler,” she corrected me. Our eyes met, and with a great pity I read in hers that she knew only too well the kind of cab suitable.
“Then let us have in the policeman. A four-wheeler will be better, as you suggest, since with your leave I am going to take Horrex with me. The fact is, I am a little in doubt as to my influence: for to tell you the plain truth, I have never to my knowledge set eyes on your husband.”
“My husband?” She paused with her hand on the bell-pull, and gazed at me blankly. “My husband?” She began to laugh softly, uncannily, in a way that tore my heart. “Herbert is my brother.”
“Oh!” said I, feeling pretty much of a fool.
“But what gave you–what do you mean–“
“Lord knows,” I interrupted her; “but if you will tell Horrex to get himself and the policeman into the cab, I will run upstairs, dress, and join them in five minutes.”
In five minutes I had donned my ordinary clothes again and, descending through the pack of guests to the front door, found a four-wheeler waiting, with Horrex inside and a policeman whom, as I guessed, he had been drugging with strong waters for an hour past in some secluded chamber of the house. The fellow was somnolent, and in sepulchral silence we journeyed to Vine Street. There I chose to be conducted to the cell alone, and Mr. Horrex, hearing my decision, said fervently, “May you be rewarded for your goodness to me and mine!”
I discovered afterwards that he had a growing family of six dependent on him, and think this must explain a gratefulness which puzzled me at the time.
“He’s quieter this last half-hour,” said the police sergeant, unlocking the cell and opening the door with extreme caution.
The light fell and my eyes rested on a sandy-haired youth with a receding chin, a black eye, a crumpled shirt-front smeared with blood, and a dress-suit split and soiled with much rolling in the dust.
“Friend of yours, sir, to bail you out,” announced the sergeant.
“I have no friends,” answered the prisoner in hollow tones. “Who’s this Johnny?”
“My name is Richardson,” I began.
“From the Grampian Hills? Al’ ri’, old man; what can I do for you?”
“Well, if you’ve no objection, I’ve come to bail you out.”
“Norra a bit of it. Go ‘way: I want t’other Richardson, good old larks-in-aspic! Sergeant–“
“I protest–you hear?–protest in sacred name of law; case of mish–case of mistaken ‘dentity. Not this Richardson–take him away! Don’t blame you: common name. Richardson I want has whiskers down to here, tiddy-fol-ol; calls ’em ‘Piccadilly weepers.’ Can’t mistake him. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
“Look here,” said I, “just you listen to this; I’m Richardson, and I’m here to bail you out.”
“Can’t do it, old man; mean well, no doubt, but can’t do it. One man lead a horse to the water–twenty can’t bail him out. Go ‘way and don’t fuss.”
I glanced at the sergeant. “You’ll let me deal with him as I like?” I asked.
He grinned. “Bless you, sir, we’re used to it. I ain’t listening.”
“Thank you.” I turned to the prisoner. “Now, then, you drunken little hog, stand up and walk,” said I, taking him by the ear and keeping my left ready.
I suppose that the drink suddenly left him weak, for he stood up at once.
“There’s some ho–horrible mistake,” he began to whimper. “But if the worst comes to the worst, you’ll adopt me, won’t you?”
Still holding him by the ear, I led him forth and flung him into the cab, in a corner of which the trembling Horrex had already huddled himself. He fell, indeed, across Horrex’s knees, and at once screamed aloud.
“Softly, softly, Master ‘Erbert,” whispered the poor man soothingly. “It’s only poor old Horrex, that you’ve known since a boy.”
“Horrex?” Master Herbert straightened himself up. “Do I understand you to say, sir, that your name is Horrex? Then allow me to tell you, Horrex, that you are no gentleman. You hear?” He spoke with anxious lucidity, leaning forward and tapping the butler on the knee. “No gentleman.”
“No, sir,” assented Horrex.
“That being the case, we’ll say no more about it. I decline to argue with you. If you’re waking, call me early–there’s many a black, black eye, Horrex, but none so black as mine. Call me at eleven-fifteen, bringing with you this gentleman’s blood in a bottle. Goo’-night, go to bye-bye. . . .”
By the fleeting light of a street-lamp I saw his head drop forward, and a minute later he was gently snoring.
It was agreed that on reaching home Master Herbert must be smuggled into the basement of No. 402 and put to rest on Horrex’s own bed; also that, to avoid the line of carriages waiting in the Cromwell Road for the departing guests, the cab should take us round to the gardens at the back. I carried on my chain a key which would admit us to these and unlock the small gate between them and the kitchens. This plan of action so delighted Horrex that for a moment I feared he was going to clasp my hands.
“If it wasn’t irreverent, sir, I could almost say you had dropped on me from heaven!”
“You may alter your opinion,” said I grimly, “before I’ve done dropping.”
At the garden entrance we paid and dismissed the cab. I took Master Herbert’s shoulders and Horrex his heels, and between us we carried his limp body across the turf–a procession so suggestive of dark and secret tragedy that I blessed our luck for protecting us from the casual intrusive policeman. Our entrance by the kitchen passage, however, was not so fortunate. Stealthily as we trod, our footsteps reached the ears in the servants’ hall, and we were met by William and a small but compact body of female servants urging him to armed resistance. A kitchen-maid fainted away as soon as we were recognised, and the strain of terror relaxed.
I saw at once that Master Herbert’s condition caused them no surprise. We carried him to the servants’ hall and laid him in an armchair, to rest our arms, while the motherly cook lifted his unconscious head to lay a pillow beneath it.
As she did so, a bell jangled furiously on the wall above.
“Good Lord!” Horrex turned a scared face up at it. “The library!”
“What’s the matter in the library?”
But he was gone: to reappear, a minute later, with a face whiter than ever.
“The mistress wants you at on’st, sir, if you’ll follow me. William, run out and see if you can raise another cab–four-wheeler.”
“What, at this time of night?” answered William. “Get along with you!”
“Do your best, lad.” Mr. Horrex appealed gently but with pathetic dignity. “If there’s miracles indoors there may be miracles outside. This way, sir!”
He led me to the library-door, knocked softly, opened it, and stood aside for me to enter.
Within stood his mistress, confronting another policeman!
Her hands rested on the back of a library-chair: and though she stood up bravely and held herself erect with her finger-tips pressed hard into the leather, I saw that she was swaying on the verge of hysterics, and I had the sense to speak sharply.
“What’s the meaning of this?” I demanded.
“This one–comes from Marlborough Street!” she gasped.
I stepped back to the door, opened it, and, as I expected, discovered Horrex listening.
“A bottle of champagne and a glass at once,” I commanded, and he sped. “And now, Miss Joy, if you please, the constable and I will do the talking. What’s your business?”
“Prisoner wants bail,” answered the policeman.
“George Anthony Richardson.”
“Yes, yes–but I mean the prisoner’s name.”
“That’s what I’m telling you. ‘George Anthony Richardson, four-nought-two, Cromwell Road’–that’s the name on the sheet, and I heard him give it myself.”
“And I thought, of course, it must be you,” put in Clara; “and I wondered what dreadful thing could have happened–until Horrex appeared and told me you were safe, and Herbert too–“
“I think,” said I, going to the door again and taking the tray from Horrex, “that you were not to talk. Drink this, please.”
She took the glass, but with a rebellious face. “Oh, if you take that tone with me–“
“I do. And now,” I turned to the constable, “what name did he give for his surety?”
“Herbert Jarmayne, same address.”
“Herbert Jarmayne?” I glanced at Clara, who nodded back, pausing as she lifted her glass! “Ah! yes–yes, of course. How much?”
“Deep answering deep. Drunk and disorderly, I suppose?”
“Blind. He was breaking glasses at Toscano’s and swearing he was Sir Charles Wyndham in David Garrick: but he settled down quiet at the station, and when I left he was talking religious and saying he pitied nine-tenths of the world, for they were going to get it hot.”
“Trewlove!” I almost shouted, wheeling round upon Clara.
“I beg your pardon?”
“No, of course–you wouldn’t understand. But all the same it’s Trewlove,” I cried, radiant. “Eh?”–this to Horrex, mumbling in the doorway–“the cab outside? Step along, constable: I’ll follow in a moment–to identify your prisoner, not to bail him out.” Then as he touched his hat and marched out after Horrex, “By George, though! Trewlove!” I muttered, meeting Clara’s eye and laughing.
“So you’ve said,” she agreed doubtfully; “but it seems a funny sort of explanation.”
“It’s as simple as A B C,” I assured her. “The man at Marlborough Street is the man who let you this house.”
“I took it through an agent.”
“I’m delighted to hear it. Then the man at Marlborough Street is the man for whom the agent let the house.”
“Then you are not Mr. Richardson–not ‘George Anthony’–and you didn’t write Larks in Aspic?” said she, with a flattering shade of disappointment in her tone.
“Oh! yes, I did.”
“Then I don’t understand in the least–unless–unless–” She put out two deprecating hands. “You don’t mean to tell me that this is your house, and we’ve been living in it without your knowledge! Oh! why didn’t you tell me?”
“Come, I like that!” said I. “You’ll admit, on reflection, that you haven’t given me much time.”
But she stamped her foot. “I’ll go upstairs and pack at once,” she declared.
“That will hardly meet the case, I’m afraid. You forget that your brother is downstairs: and by his look, when I left him, he’ll take a deal of packing.”
“Herbert?” She put a hand to her brow. “I was forgetting. Then you are not Herbert’s friend after all?”
“I have made a beginning. But in fact, I made his acquaintance at Vine Street just now. Trewlove–that’s my scoundrel of a butler–has been making up to him under my name. They met at the house-agent’s, probably. The rogue models himself upon me: but when it comes to letting my house– By the way, have you paid him by cheque?”
“I paid the agent. I knew nothing of you until Herbert announced that he’d made your acquaintance–“
“Pray go on,” said I, watching her troubled eyes. “It would be interesting to hear how he described me.”
“He used a very funny word. He said you were the rummiest thing in platers he’d struck for a long while. But, of course, he was talking of the other man.”
“Of course,” said I gravely: whereupon our eyes met, and we both laughed.
“Ah, but you are kind!” she cried. “And when I think how we have treated you–if only I could think–” Her hand went up again to her forehead.
“It will need some reparation,” said I. “But we’ll discuss that when I come back.”
“Was–was Herbert very bad?” She attempted to laugh, but tears suddenly brimmed her eyes.
“I scarcely noticed,” said I; and, picking up my hat, went out hurriedly.
Trewlove in his Marlborough Street cell was a disgusting object– offensive to the eye and to one’s sense of the dignity of man. At sight of me he sprawled, and when the shock of it was over he continued to grovel until the sight bred a shame in me for being the cause of it. What made it ten times worse was his curious insensibility–even while he grovelled–to the moral aspect of his behaviour.
“You will lie here,” said I, “until to-morrow morning, when you will probably be fined fifty shillings and costs, plus the cost of the broken glass at Toscano’s. I take it for granted that the money will be paid?”
“I will send, sir, to my lodgings for my cheque-book.”
“It’s a trifling matter, no doubt, but since you will be charged under the name of William John Trewlove, it will be a mistake to put ‘G. A. Richardson’ on the cheque.”
“It was an error of judgment, sir, my giving your name here.”
“It was a worse one,” I assured him, “to append it to the receipt for Miss Jarmayne’s rent.”
“You don’t intend to prosecute, Mr. George?”
“But you don’t, sir; something tells me that you don’t.”
Well, in fact (as you may have guessed), I did not. I had no desire to drag Miss Jarmayne into further trouble; but I resented that the dog should so count on my clemency without knowing the reason of it.
“In justice to myself, sir, I ‘ave to tell you that I shouldn’t ‘ave let the ‘ouse to hany-body. It was only that, she being connected with the stage, I saw a hopening. Mr. ‘Erbert was, as you might say, a hafterthought: which, finding him so affable, I thought I might go one better. He cost me a pretty penny first and last. But when he offered to introjuice me–and me, at his invite, going back to be put up at No. 402 like any other gentleman–why, ‘ow could I resist it?”
“If I forbear to have you arrested, Trewlove, it will be on condition that you efface yourself. May I suggest some foreign country, where, in a colony of the Peculiar People–unacquainted with your past–“
“I’m tired of them, sir. Your style of life don’t suit me–I’ve tried it, as you see, and I give it up–I’m too late to learn; but I’ll say this for it, it cures you of wantin’ to go back and be a Peculiar. Now, if you’ve no objection, sir, I thought of takin’ a little public down Putney way.”
“You mean it?” asked Clara, a couple of hours later.
“I mean it,” said I.
“And I am to live on here alone as your tenant?”
“As my tenant, and so long as it pleases you.” I struck a match to light her bedroom candle, and with that we both laughed, for the June dawn was pouring down on us through the stairway skylight.
“Shall I see you to-morrow, to say good-bye?”
“I expect not. We shall catch the first boat.”
“The question is, will you get Herbert awake in time to explain matters?”
“I’ll undertake that. Horrex has already packed for him. Oh, you needn’t fear: he’ll be right enough at Ambleteuse, under my eye.”
“It’s good of you,” she said slowly; “but why are you doing it?”
“Can’t say,” I answered lightly.
“Well, good-bye, and God bless you!” She put out her hand. “There’s nothing I can say or do to–“
“Oh, yes, by the way, there is,” I interrupted, tugging a key off my chain. “You see this? It unlocks the drawers of a writing-table in your room. In the top left-hand drawer you will find a bundle of papers.”
She passed up the stair before me and into the room. “Is this what you want?” she asked, reappearing after a minute with my manuscript in her hand. “What is it? A new comedy?”
“The makings of one,” said I. “It was to fetch it that I came across from Ambleteuse.”
“And dropped into another.”
“Upon my word,” said I, “you are right, and to-night’s is a better one–up to a point.”
“What are you going to call it?”
For a moment she seemed to be puzzled. “But I mean the other,” said she, nodding towards the manuscript in my hand.
“Indeed, that is its name,” said I, and showed her the title on the first page. “And I’ve a really splendid idea for the third act,” I added, as we shook hands.
I mounted the stairs to my room, tossed the manuscript into a chair, and began to wind up my watch.
“But this other wants a third act too!” I told myself suddenly.
You will observe that once or twice in the course of this narrative my pen has slipped and inadvertently called Miss Jarmayne “Clara.”