As the evening wore on–and one young man after another asked Jocelyn Montrevor if she were going to Ascot, what? or to Henley, what? or what?–she wondered more and more if this were all that life would ever hold for her. Would she never meet a man, a real man who had done something? These boys around her were very pleasant, she admitted to herself; very useful indeed, she added, as one approached her with some refreshment; but they were only boys.
“Here you are,” said Freddy, handing her an ice in three colours. “I’ve had it made specially cold for you. They only had the green, pink, and yellow jerseys left; I hope you don’t mind. The green part is arsenic, I believe. If you don’t want the wafer I’ll take it home and put it between the sashes of my bedroom window. The rattling kept me awake all last night. That’s why I’m looking so ill, by the way.”
Jocelyn smiled kindly and went on with her ice.
“That reminds me,” Freddy went on, “we’ve got a nut here to-night. The genuine thing. None of your society Barcelonas or suburban Filberts. One of the real Cob family; the driving-from-the-sixth-tee, inset-on-the-right, and New-Year’s-message-to-the-country touch. In short, a celebrity.”
“Who?” asked Jocelyn eagerly. Perhaps here was a man.
“Worrall Brice, the explorer. Don’t say you haven’t heard of him or Aunt Alice will cry.”
Heard of him? Of course she had heard of him. Who hadn’t?
Worrall Brice’s adventures in distant parts of the empire would have filled a book–had, in fact, already filled three. A glance at his flat in St. James’s Street gave you some idea of the adventures he had been through. Here were the polished spurs of his companion in the famous ride through Australia from south to north–all that had been left by the cannibals of the Wogga-Wogga River after their banquet. Here was the poisoned arrow which, by the merciful intervention of Providence, just missed Worrall and pierced the heart of one of his black attendants, the post-mortem happily revealing the presence of a new and interesting poison. Here, again, was the rope with which he was hanged by mistake as a spy in South America–a mistake which would certainly have had fatal results if he had not had the presence of mind to hold his breath during the performance. In yet another corner you might see his favourite mascot–a tooth of the shark which bit him off the coast of China. Spears, knives, and guns lined the walls; every inch of the floor was covered by skins. His flat was typical of the man–a man who had done things.
“Introduce him to me,” commanded Jocelyn. “Where is he?”
She looked up suddenly and saw him entering the ball-room. He was of commanding height and his face was the face of a man who has been exposed to the forces of Nature. The wind, the waves, the sun, the mosquito had set their mark upon him. Down one side of his cheek was a newly healed scar, a scratch from a hippopotamus in its last death-struggle. A legacy from a bison seared his brow.
He walked with the soft easy tread of the python, or the Pathan, or some animal with a “pth” in it. Probably I mean the panther. He bore himself confidently, and his mouth was a trap from which no superfluous word escaped. He was the strong silent man of Jocelyn’s dreams.
“Mr. Worrall Brice, Miss Montrevor,” said Freddy, and left them.
Worrall Brice bowed and stood beside her with folded arms, his gaze fixed above her head.
“I shall not expect you to dance,” said Jocelyn, with a confidential smile which implied that he and she were above such frivolities. As a matter of fact, he could have taught her the Wogga-Wogga one-step, the Bimbo, the Kiyi, the Ju-bu, the Head-hunter’s Hug, and many other cannibalistic steps which, later on, were to become the rage of London and the basis of a revue.
“I have often imagined you, as you kept watch over your camp,” she went on, “and I have seemed myself to hear the savages and lions roaring outside the circle of fire, what time in the swamps the crocodiles were barking.”
“Yes,” he said.
“It must be a wonderful life.”
“If I were a man I should want to lead such a life; to get away from all this,” and she waved her hand round the room, “back to Nature. To know that I could not eat until I had first killed my dinner; that I could not live unless I slew the enemy! That must be fine!”
“Yes,” said Worrall.
“I cannot get Freddy to see it. He is quite content to have shot a few grouse … and once to have wounded a beater. There must be more in life than that.”
“I suppose I am elemental. Beneath the veneer of civilization I am a savage. To wake up with the war-cry of the enemy in my ears, to sleep with the–er–barking of the crocodile in my dreams, that is life!”
Worrall Brice tugged at his moustache and gazed into space over her head. Then he spoke.
“Crocodiles don’t bark,” he said.
Jocelyn looked at him in astonishment. “But in your book, Through Trackless Paths!” she cried. “I know it almost by heart. It was you who taught me. What are the beautiful words? ‘On the banks of the sleepy river two great crocodiles were barking.’”
“Not ‘barking,’” said Worrall. “‘Basking.’ It was a misprint.”
“Oh!” said Jocelyn. She had a moment’s awful memory of all the occasions when she had insisted that crocodiles barked. There had been a particularly fierce argument with Meta Richards, who had refused to weigh even the printed word of Worrall Brice against the silence of the Reptile House on her last visit to the Zoo.
“Well,” smiled Jocelyn, “you must teach me about these things. Will you come and see me?”
“Yes,” said Worrall. He rather liked to stand and gaze into the distance while pretty women talked to him. And Jocelyn was very pretty.
“We live in South Kensington. Come on Sunday, won’t you? 99 Peele Crescent.”
“Yes,” said Worrall.
. . . . .
On Sunday Jocelyn waited eagerly for him in the drawing-room of Peele Crescent. Her father was asleep in the library, her mother was dead; so she would have the great man to herself for an afternoon. Later she would have him for always, for she meant to marry him. And when they were married she was not so sure that they would live with the noise of the crocodile barking or coughing, or whatever it did, in their ears. She saw herself in that little house in Green Street with the noise of motor-horns and taxi-whistles to soothe her to sleep.
Yet what a man he was! What had he said to her? She went over all his words…. They were not many.
At six o’clock she was still waiting in the drawing-room at Peele Crescent….
At six-thirty Worrall Brice had got as far as Peele Place….
At six-forty-five he found himself in Radcliffe Square again….
At seven o’clock, just as he was giving himself up for lost, he met a taxi and returned to St. James’s Street. He was a great traveller, but South Kensington had been too much for him.
Next week he went back unmarried to the jungle. It was the narrowest escape he had had.