In a day in June, at the hour when London moves abroad in quest of lunch, a young man stood at the entrance of the Bandolero Restaurant looking earnestly up Shaftesbury Avenue--a large young man in excellent condition, with a pleasant, good-humoured, brown, clean-cut face. He paid no attention to the stream of humanity that flowed past him. His mouth was set and his eyes wore a serious, almost a wistful expression. He was frowning slightly. One would have said that here was a man with a secret sorrow.
William FitzWilliam Delamere Chalmers, Lord Dawlish, had no secret sorrow. All that he was thinking of at that moment was the best method of laying a golf ball dead in front of the Palace Theatre. It was his habit to pass the time in mental golf when Claire Fenwick was late in keeping her appointments with him. On one occasion she had kept him waiting so long that he had been able to do nine holes, starting at the Savoy Grill and finishing up near Hammersmith. His was a simple mind, able to amuse itself with simple things.
As he stood there, gazing into the middle distance, an individual of dishevelled aspect sidled up, a vagrant of almost the maximum seediness, from whose midriff there protruded a trayful of a strange welter of collar-studs, shoe-laces, rubber rings, buttonhooks, and dying roosters. For some minutes he had been eyeing his lordship appraisingly from the edge of the kerb, and now, secure in the fact that there seemed to be no policeman in the immediate vicinity, he anchored himself in front of him and observed that he had a wife and four children at home, all starving.
This sort of thing was always happening to Lord Dawlish. There was something about him, some atmosphere of unaffected kindliness, that invited it.
In these days when everything, from the shape of a man's hat to his method of dealing with asparagus, is supposed to be an index to character, it is possible to form some estimate of Lord Dawlish from the fact that his vigil in front of the Bandolero had been expensive even before the advent of the Benedict with the studs and laces. In London, as in New York, there are spots where it is unsafe for a man of yielding disposition to stand still, and the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Piccadilly Circus is one of them. Scrubby, impecunious men drift to and fro there, waiting for the gods to provide something easy; and the prudent man, conscious of the possession of loose change, whizzes through the danger zone at his best speed, 'like one that on a lonesome road doth walk in fear and dread, and having once turned round walks on, and turns no more his head, because he knows a frightful fiend doth close behind him tread.' In the seven minutes he had been waiting two frightful fiends closed in on Lord Dawlish, requesting loans of five shillings till Wednesday week and Saturday week respectively, and he had parted with the money without a murmur.
A further clue to his character is supplied by the fact that both these needy persons seemed to know him intimately, and that each called him Bill. All Lord Dawlish's friends called him Bill, and he had a catholic list of them, ranging from men whose names were in 'Debrett' to men whose names were on the notice boards of obscure clubs in connexion with the non-payment of dues. He was the sort of man one instinctively calls Bill.
The anti-race-suicide enthusiast with the rubber rings did not call Lord Dawlish Bill, but otherwise his manner was intimate. His lordship's gaze being a little slow in returning from the middle distance--for it was not a matter to be decided carelessly and without thought, this problem of carrying the length of Shaftesbury Avenue with a single brassy shot--he repeated the gossip from the home. Lord Dawlish regarded him thoughtfully.
'It could be done,' he said, 'but you'd want a bit of pull on it. I'm sorry; I didn't catch what you said.'
The other obliged with his remark for the third time, with increased pathos, for constant repetition was making him almost believe it himself.
'Four starving children?'
'Four, guv'nor, so help me!'
'I suppose you don't get much time for golf then, what?' said Lord Dawlish, sympathetically.
It was precisely three days, said the man, mournfully inflating a dying rooster, since his offspring had tasted bread.
This did not touch Lord Dawlish deeply. He was not very fond of bread. But it seemed to be troubling the poor fellow with the studs a great deal, so, realizing that tastes differ and that there is no accounting for them, he looked at him commiseratingly.
'Of course, if they like bread, that makes it rather rotten, doesn't it? What are you going to do about it?'
'Buy a dying rooster, guv'nor,' he advised. 'Causes great fun and laughter.'
Lord Dawlish eyed the strange fowl without enthusiasm.
'No,' he said, with a slight shudder.
There was a pause. The situation had the appearance of being at a deadlock.
'I'll tell you what,' said Lord Dawlish, with the air of one who, having pondered, has been rewarded with a great idea: 'the fact is, I really don't want to buy anything. You seem by bad luck to be stocked up with just the sort of things I wouldn't be seen dead in a ditch with. I can't stand rubber rings, never could. I'm not really keen on buttonhooks. And I don't want to hurt your feelings, but I think that squeaking bird of yours is about the beastliest thing I ever met. So suppose I give you a shilling and call it square, what?'
'Gawd bless yer, guv'nor.'
'Not at all. You'll be able to get those children of yours some bread--I expect you can get a lot of bread for a shilling. Do they really like it? Rum kids!'
And having concluded this delicate financial deal Lord Dawlish turned, the movement bringing him face to face with a tall girl in white.
During the business talk which had just come to an end this girl had been making her way up the side street which forms a short cut between Coventry Street and the Bandolero, and several admirers of feminine beauty who happened to be using the same route had almost dislocated their necks looking after her. She was a strikingly handsome girl. She was tall and willowy. Her eyes, shaded by her hat, were large and grey. Her nose was small and straight, her mouth, though somewhat hard, admirably shaped, and she carried herself magnificently. One cannot blame the policeman on duty in Leicester Square for remarking to a cabman as she passed that he envied the bloke that that was going to meet.
Bill Dawlish was this fortunate bloke, but, from the look of him as he caught sight of her, one would have said that he did not appreciate his luck. The fact of the matter was that he had only just finished giving the father of the family his shilling, and he was afraid that Claire had seen him doing it. For Claire, dear girl, was apt to be unreasonable about these little generosities of his. He cast a furtive glance behind him in the hope that the disseminator of expiring roosters had vanished, but the man was still at his elbow. Worse, he faced them, and in a hoarse but carrying voice he was instructing Heaven to bless his benefactor.
'Halloa, Claire darling!' said Lord Dawlish, with a sort of sheepish breeziness. 'Here you are.'
Claire was looking after the stud merchant, as, grasping his wealth, he scuttled up the avenue.
'Only a bob,' his lordship hastened to say. 'Rather a sad case, don't you know. Squads of children at home demanding bread. Didn't want much else, apparently, but were frightfully keen on bread.'
'He has just gone into a public-house.'
'He may have gone to telephone or something, what?'
'I wish,' said Claire, fretfully, leading the way down the grillroom stairs, 'that you wouldn't let all London sponge on you like this. I keep telling you not to. I should have thought that if any one needed to keep what little money he has got it was you.'
Certainly Lord Dawlish would have been more prudent not to have parted with even eleven shillings, for he was not a rich man. Indeed, with the single exception of the Earl of Wetherby, whose finances were so irregular that he could not be said to possess an income at all, he was the poorest man of his rank in the British Isles.
It was in the days of the Regency that the Dawlish coffers first began to show signs of cracking under the strain, in the era of the then celebrated Beau Dawlish. Nor were his successors backward in the spending art. A breezy disregard for the preservation of the pence was a family trait. Bill was at Cambridge when his predecessor in the title, his Uncle Philip, was performing the concluding exercises of the dissipation of the Dawlish doubloons, a feat which he achieved so neatly that when he died there was just enough cash to pay the doctors, and no more. Bill found himself the possessor of that most ironical thing, a moneyless title. He was then twenty-three.
Until six months before, when he had become engaged to Claire Fenwick, he had found nothing to quarrel with in his lot. He was not the type to waste time in vain regrets. His tastes were simple. As long as he could afford to belong to one or two golf clubs and have something over for those small loans which, in certain of the numerous circles in which he moved, were the inevitable concomitant of popularity, he was satisfied. And this modest ambition had been realized for him by a group of what he was accustomed to refer to as decent old bucks, who had installed him as secretary of that aristocratic and exclusive club, Brown's in St James Street, at an annual salary of four hundred pounds. With that wealth, added to free lodging at one of the best clubs in London, perfect heath, a steadily-diminishing golf handicap, and a host of friends in every walk of life, Bill had felt that it would be absurd not to be happy and contented.
But Claire had made a difference. There was no question of that. In the first place, she resolutely declined to marry him on four hundred pounds a year. She scoffed at four hundred pounds a year. To hear her talk, you would have supposed that she had been brought up from the cradle to look on four hundred pounds a year as small change to be disposed of in tips and cab fares. That in itself would have been enough to sow doubts in Bill's mind as to whether he had really got all the money that a reasonable man needed; and Claire saw to it that these doubts sprouted, by confining her conversation on the occasions of their meeting almost entirely to the great theme of money, with its minor sub-divisions of How to get it, Why don't you get it? and I'm sick and tired of not having it.
She developed this theme to-day, not only on the stairs leading to the grillroom, but even after they had seated themselves at their table. It was a relief to Bill when the arrival of the waiter with food caused a break in the conversation and enabled him adroitly to change the subject.
'What have you been doing this morning?' he asked.
'I went to see Maginnis at the theatre.'
'I had a wire from him asking me to call. They want me to call. They want me to take up Claudia Winslow's part in the number one company.'
'Well--er--what I mean--well, isn't it? What I mean is, leading part, and so forth.'
'In a touring company?'
'Yes, I see what you mean,' said Lord Dawlish, who didn't at all. He thought rather highly of the number one companies that hailed from the theatre of which Mr Maginnis was proprietor.
'And anyhow, I ought to have had the part in the first place instead of when the tour's half over. They are at Southampton this week. He wants me to join them there and go on to Portsmouth with them.'
'You'll like Portsmouth.'
'Well--er--good links quite near.'
'You know I don't play golf.'
'Nor do you. I was forgetting. Still, it's quite a jolly place.'
'It's a horrible place. I loathe it. I've half a mind not to go.'
'Oh, I don't know.'
'What do you mean?'
Lord Dawlish was feeling a little sorry for himself. Whatever he said seemed to be the wrong thing. This evidently was one of the days on which Claire was not so sweet-tempered as on some other days. It crossed his mind that of late these irritable moods of hers had grown more frequent. It was not her fault, poor girl! he told himself. She had rather a rotten time.
It was always Lord Dawlish's habit on these occasions to make this excuse for Claire. It was such a satisfactory excuse. It covered everything. But, as a matter of fact, the rather rotten time which she was having was not such a very rotten one. Reducing it to its simplest terms, and forgetting for the moment that she was an extraordinarily beautiful girl--which his lordship found it impossible to do--all that it amounted to was that, her mother having but a small income, and existence in the West Kensington flat being consequently a trifle dull for one with a taste for the luxuries of life, Claire had gone on the stage. By birth she belonged to a class of which the female members are seldom called upon to earn money at all, and that was one count of her grievance against Fate. Another was that she had not done as well on the stage as she had expected to do. When she became engaged to Bill she had reached a point where she could obtain without difficulty good parts in the touring companies of London successes, but beyond that it seemed it was impossible for her to soar. It was not, perhaps, a very exhilarating life, but, except to the eyes of love, there was nothing tragic about it. It was the cumulative effect of having a mother in reduced circumstances and grumbling about it, of being compelled to work and grumbling about that, and of achieving in her work only a semi-success and grumbling about that also, that--backed by her looks--enabled Claire to give quite a number of people, and Bill Dawlish in particular, the impression that she was a modern martyr, only sustained by her indomitable courage.
So Bill, being requested in a peevish voice to explain what he meant by saying, 'Oh, I don't know,' condoned the peevishness. He then bent his mind to the task of trying to ascertain what he had meant.
'Well,' he said, 'what I mean is, if you don't show up won't it be rather a jar for old friend Maginnis? Won't he be apt to foam at the mouth a bit and stop giving you parts in his companies?'
'I'm sick of trying to please Maginnis. What's the good? He never gives me a chance in London. I'm sick of being always on tour. I'm sick of everything.'
'It's the heat,' said Lord Dawlish, most injudiciously.
'It isn't the heat. It's you!'
'Me? What have I done?'
'It's what you've not done. Why can't you exert yourself and make some money?'
Lord Dawlish groaned a silent groan. By a devious route, but with unfailing precision, they had come homing back to the same old subject.
'We have been engaged for six months, and there seems about as much chance of our ever getting married as of--I can't think of anything unlikely enough. We shall go on like this till we're dead.'
'But, my dear girl!'
'I wish you wouldn't talk to me as if you were my grandfather. What were you going to say?'
'Only that we can get married this afternoon if you'll say the word.'
'Oh, don't let us go into all that again! I'm not going to marry on four hundred a year and spend the rest of my life in a pokey little flat on the edge of London. Why can't you make more money?'
'I did have a dash at it, you know. I waylaid old Bodger--Colonel Bodger, on the committee of the club, you know--and suggested over a whisky-and-soda that the management of Brown's would be behaving like sportsmen if they bumped my salary up a bit, and the old boy nearly strangled himself trying to suck down Scotch and laugh at the same time. I give you my word, he nearly expired on the smoking-room floor. When he came to he said that he wished I wouldn't spring my good things on him so suddenly, as he had a weak heart. He said they were only paying me my present salary because they liked me so much. You know, it was decent of the old boy to say that.'
'What is the good of being liked by the men in your club if you won't make any use of it?'
'How do you mean?'
'There are endless things you could do. You could have got Mr Breitstein elected at Brown's if you had liked. They wouldn't have dreamed of blackballing any one proposed by a popular man like you, and Mr Breitstein asked you personally to use your influence--you told me so.'
'But, my dear girl--I mean my darling--Breitstein! He's the limit! He's the worst bounder in London.'
'He's also one of the richest men in London. He would have done anything for you. And you let him go! You insulted him!'
'Didn't you send him an admission ticket to the Zoo?'
'Oh, well, yes, I did do that. He thanked me and went the following Sunday. Amazing how these rich Johnnies love getting something for nothing. There was that old American I met down at Marvis Bay last year--'
'You threw away a wonderful chance of making all sorts of money. Why, a single tip from Mr Breitstein would have made your fortune.'
'But, Claire, you know, there are some things--what I mean is, if they like me at Brown's, it's awfully decent of them and all that, but I couldn't take advantage of it to plant a fellow like Breitstein on them. It wouldn't be playing the game.'
Lord Dawlish looked unhappy, but said nothing. This matter of Mr Breitstein had been touched upon by Claire in previous conversations, and it was a subject for which he had little liking. Experience had taught him that none of the arguments which seemed so conclusive to him--to wit, that the financier had on two occasions only just escaped imprisonment for fraud, and, what was worse, made a noise when he drank soup, like water running out of a bathtub--had the least effect upon her. The only thing to do when Mr Breitstein came up in the course of chitchat over the festive board was to stay quiet until he blew over.
'That old American you met at Marvis Bay,' said Claire, her memory flitting back to the remark which she had interrupted; 'well, there's another case. You could easily have got him to do something for you.'
'Claire, really!' said his goaded lordship, protestingly. 'How on earth? I only met the man on the links.'
'But you were very nice to him. You told me yourself that you spent hours helping him to get rid of his slice, whatever that is.'
'We happened to be the only two down there at the time, so I was as civil as I could manage. If you're marooned at a Cornish seaside resort out of the season with a man, you can't spend your time dodging him. And this man had a slice that fascinated me. I felt at the time that it was my mission in life to cure him, so I had a dash at it. But I don't see how on the strength of that I could expert the old boy to adopt me. He probably forgot my existence after I had left.'
'You said you met him in London a month or two afterwards, and he hadn't forgotten you.'
'Well, yes, that's true. He was walking up the Haymarket and I was walking down. I caught his eye, and he nodded and passed on. I don't see how I could construe that into an invitation to go and sit on his lap and help myself out of his pockets.'
'You couldn't expect him to go out of his way to help you; but probably if you had gone to him he would have done something.'
'You haven't the pleasure of Mr Ira Nutcombe's acquaintance, Claire, or you wouldn't talk like that. He wasn't the sort of man you could get things out of. He didn't even tip the caddie. Besides, can't you see what I mean? I couldn't trade on a chance acquaintance of the golf links to--'
'That is just what I complain of in you. You're too diffident.'
'It isn't diffidence exactly. Talking of old Nutcombe, I was speaking to Gates again the other night. He was telling me about America. There's a lot of money to be made over there, you know, and the committee owes me a holiday. They would give me a few weeks off any time I liked.
'What do you say? Shall I pop over and have a look round? I might happen to drop into something. Gates was telling me about fellows he knew who had dropped into things in New York.'
'What's the good of putting yourself to all the trouble and expense of going to America? You can easily make all you want in London if you will only try. It isn't as if you had no chances. You have more chances than almost any man in town. With your title you could get all the directorships in the City that you wanted.'
'Well, the fact is, this business of taking directorships has never quite appealed to me. I don't know anything about the game, and I should probably run up against some wildcat company. I can't say I like the directorship wheeze much. It's the idea of knowing that one's name would be being used as a bait. Every time I saw it on a prospectus I should feel like a trout fly.'
Claire bit her lip.
'It's so exasperating!' she broke out. 'When I first told my friends that I was engaged to Lord Dawlish they were tremendously impressed. They took it for granted that you must have lots of money. Now I have to keep explaining to them that the reason we don't get married is that we can't afford to. I'm almost as badly off as poor Polly Davis who was in the Heavenly Waltz Company with me when she married that man, Lord Wetherby. A man with a title has no right not to have money. It makes the whole thing farcical.
'If I were in your place I should have tried a hundred things by now, but you always have some silly objection. Why couldn't you, for instance, have taken on the agency of that what-d'you-call-it car?'
'What I called it would have been nothing to what the poor devils who bought it would have called it.'
'You could have sold hundreds of them, and the company would have given you any commission you asked. You know just the sort of people they wanted to get in touch with.'
'But, darling, how could I? Planting Breitstein on the club would have been nothing compared with sowing these horrors about London. I couldn't go about the place sticking my pals with a car which, I give you my honest word, was stuck together with chewing-gum and tied up with string.'
'Why not? It would be their fault if they bought a car that wasn't any good. Why should you have to worry once you had it sold?'
It was not Lord Dawlish's lucky afternoon. All through lunch he had been saying the wrong thing, and now he put the coping-stone on his misdeeds. Of all the ways in which he could have answered Claire's question he chose the worst.
'Er--well,' he said, 'noblesse oblige, don't you know, what?'
For a moment Claire did not speak. Then she looked at her watch and got up.
'I must be going,' she said, coldly.
'But you haven't had your coffee yet.'
'I don't want any coffee.'
'What's the matter, dear?'
'Nothing is the matter. I have to go home and pack. I'm going to Southampton this afternoon.'
She began to move towards the door. Lord Dawlish, anxious to follow, was detained by the fact that he had not yet paid the bill. The production and settling of this took time, and when finally he turned in search of Claire she was nowhere visible.
Bounding upstairs on the swift feet of love, he reached the street. She had gone.Next