In the days that followed their interrupted love-scene at Reigelheimer's Restaurant that night of Lord Dawlish's unfortunate encounter with the tray-bearing waiter, Dudley Pickering's behaviour had perplexed Claire Fenwick. She had taken it for granted that next day at the latest he would resume the offer of his hand, heart, and automobiles. But time passed and he made no move in that direction. Of limousine bodies, carburettors, spark-plugs, and inner tubes he spoke with freedom and eloquence, but the subject of love and marriage he avoided absolutely. His behaviour was inexplicable.
Claire was piqued. She was in the position of a hostess who has swept and garnished her house against the coming of a guest and waits in vain for that guest's arrival. She made up her mind what to do when Dudley Pickering proposed to her next time, and thereby, it seemed to her, had removed all difficulties in the way of that proposal. She little knew her Pickering!
Dudley Pickering was not a self-starter in the motordrome of love. He needed cranking. He was that most unpromising of matrimonial material, a shy man with a cautious disposition. If he overcame his shyness, caution applied the foot-brake. If he succeeded in forgetting caution, shyness shut off the gas. At Reigelheimer's some miracle had made him not only reckless but un-self-conscious. Possibly the Dream of Psyche had gone to his head. At any rate, he had been on the very verge of proposing to Claire when the interruption had occurred, and in bed that night, reviewing the affair, he had been appalled at the narrowness of his escape from taking a definite step. Except in the way of business, he was a man who hated definite steps. He never accepted even a dinner invitation without subsequent doubts and remorse. The consequence was that, in the days that followed the Reigelheimer episode, what Lord Wetherby would have called the lamp of love burned rather low in Mr Pickering, as if the acetylene were running out. He still admired Claire intensely and experienced disturbing emotions when he beheld her perfect tonneau and wonderful headlights; but he regarded her with a cautious fear. Although he sometimes dreamed sentimentally of marriage in the abstract, of actual marriage, of marriage with a flesh-and-blood individual, of marriage that involved clergymen and 'Voices that Breathe o'er Eden,' and giggling bridesmaids and cake, Dudley Pickering was afraid with a terror that woke him sweating in the night. His shyness shrank from the ceremony, his caution jibbed at the mysteries of married life. So his attitude toward Claire, the only girl who had succeeded in bewitching him into the opening words of an actual proposal, was a little less cordial and affectionate than if she had been a rival automobile manufacturer.
Matters were in this state when Lady Wetherby, who, having danced classical dances for three months without a break, required a rest, shifted her camp to the house which she had rented for the summer at Brookport, Long Island, taking with her Algie, her husband, the monkey Eustace, and Claire and Mr Pickering, her guests. The house was a large one, capable of receiving a big party, but she did not wish to entertain on an ambitious scale. The only other guest she proposed to put up was Roscoe Sherriff, her press agent, who was to come down as soon as he could get away from his metropolitan duties.
It was a pleasant and romantic place, the estate which Lady Wetherby had rented. Standing on a hill, the house looked down through green trees on the gleaming waters of the bay. Smooth lawns and shady walks it had, and rustic seats beneath spreading cedars. Yet for all its effect on Dudley Pickering it might have been a gasworks. He roamed the smooth lawns with Claire, and sat with her on the rustic benches and talked guardedly of lubricating oil. There were moments when Claire was almost impelled to forfeit whatever chance she might have had of becoming mistress of thirty million dollars and a flourishing business, for the satisfaction of administering just one whole-hearted slap on his round and thinly-covered head.
And then Roscoe Sherriff came down, and Dudley Pickering, who for days had been using all his resolution to struggle against the siren, suddenly found that there was no siren to struggle against. No sooner had the press agent appeared than Claire deserted him shamelessly and absolutely. She walked with Roscoe Sherriff. Mr Pickering experienced the discomfiting emotions of the man who pushes violently against an abruptly-yielding door, or treads heavily on the top stair where there is no top stair. He was shaken, and the clamlike stolidity which he had assumed as protection gave way.
Night had descended upon Brookport. Eustace, the monkey, was in his little bed; Lord Wetherby in the smoking-room. It was Sunday, the day of rest. Dinner was over, and the remainder of the party were gathered in the drawing-room, with the exception of Mr Pickering, who was smoking a cigar on the porch. A full moon turned Long Island into a fairyland.
Gloom had settled upon Dudley Pickering and he smoked sadly. All rather stout automobile manufacturers are sad when there is a full moon. It makes them feel lonely. It stirs their hearts to thoughts of love. Marriage loses its terrors for them, and they think wistfully of hooking some fair woman up the back and buying her hats. Such was the mood of Mr Pickering, when through the dimness of the porch there appeared a white shape, moving softly toward him.
'Is that you, Mr Pickering?'
Claire dropped into the seat beside him. From the drawing-room came the soft tinkle of a piano. The sound blended harmoniously with the quiet peace of the night. Mr Pickering let his cigar go out and clutched the sides of his chair
Oi'll--er--sing thee saw-ongs ov Arrabee,
Und--ah ta-ales of farrr Cash-mee-eere,
Und charrrrm thee to-oo a tear-er.
Claire gave a little sigh.
'What a beautiful voice Mr Sherriff has!'
Dudley Pickering made no reply. He thought Roscoe Sherriff had a beastly voice. He resented Roscoe Sherriff's voice. He objected to Roscoe Sherriff's polluting this fair night with his cacophony.
'Don't you think so, Mr Pickering?'
'That doesn't sound very enthusiastic. Mr Pickering, I want you to tell me something. Have I done anything to offend you?'
Mr Pickering started violently.
'I have seen so little of you these last few days. A little while ago we were always together, having such interesting talks. But lately it has seemed to me that you have been avoiding me.'
A feeling of helplessness swept over Mr Pickering. He was vaguely conscious of a sense of being treated unjustly, of there being a flaw in Claire's words somewhere if he could only find it, but the sudden attack had deprived him of the free and unfettered use of his powers of reasoning. He gurgled wordlessly, and Claire went on, her low, sad voice mingling with the moonlight in a manner that caused thrills to run up and down his spine. He felt paralyzed. Caution urged him to make some excuse and follow it with a bolt to the drawing-room, but he was physically incapable of taking the excellent advice. Sometimes when you are out in your Pickering Gem or your Pickering Giant the car hesitates, falters, and stops dead, and your chauffeur, having examined the carburettor, turns to you and explains the phenomenon in these words: 'The mixture is too rich.' So was it with Mr Pickering now. The moonlight alone might not have held him; Claire's voice alone might not have held him; but against the two combined he was powerless. The mixture was too rich. He sat and breathed a little stertorously, and there came to him that conviction that comes to all of us now and then, that we are at a crisis of our careers and that the moment through which we are living is a moment big with fate.
The voice in the drawing-room stopped. Having sung songs of Araby and tales of far Cashmere, Mr Roscoe Sherriff was refreshing himself with a comic paper. But Lady Wetherby, seated at the piano, still touched the keys softly, and the sound increased the richness of the mixture which choked Dudley Pickering's spiritual carburettor. It is not fair that a rather stout manufacturer should be called upon to sit in the moonlight while a beautiful girl, to the accompaniment of soft music, reproaches him with having avoided her.
'I should be so sorry, Mr Pickering, if I had done anything to make a difference between us--'
'Eh?' said Mr Pickering.
'I have so few real friends over here.'
Claire's voice trembled.
'I--I get a little lonely, a little homesick sometimes--'
She paused, musing, and a spasm of pity rent the bosom beneath Dudley Pickering's ample shirt. There was a buzzing in his ears and a lump choked his throat.
'Of course, I am loving the life here. I think America's wonderful, and nobody could be kinder than Lady Wetherby. But--I miss my home. It's the first time I have been away for so long. I feel very far away sometimes. There are only three of us at home: my mother, myself, and my little brother--little Percy.'
Her voice trembled again as she spoke the last two words, and it was possibly this that caused Mr Pickering to visualize Percy as a sort of little Lord Fauntleroy, his favourite character in English literature. He had a vision of a small, delicate, wistful child pining away for his absent sister. Consumptive probably. Or curvature of the spine.
He found Claire's hand in his. He supposed dully he must have reached out for it. Soft and warm it lay there, while the universe paused breathlessly. And then from the semi-darkness beside him there came the sound of a stifled sob, and his fingers closed as if someone had touched a button.
'We have always been such chums. He is only ten--such a dear boy! He must be missing me--'
She stopped, and simultaneously Dudley Pickering began to speak.
There is this to be said for your shy, cautious man, that on the rare occasions when he does tap the vein of eloquence that vein becomes a geyser. It was as if after years of silence and monosyllables Dudley Pickering was endeavouring to restore the average.
He began by touching on his alleged neglect and avoidance of Claire. He called himself names and more names. He plumbed the depth of repentance and remorse. Proceeding from this, he eulogized her courage, the pluck with which she presented a smiling face to the world while tortured inwardly by separation from her little brother Percy. He then turned to his own feelings.
But there are some things which the historian should hold sacred, some things which he should look on as proscribed material for his pen, and the actual words of a stout manufacturer of automobiles proposing marriage in the moonlight fall into this class. It is enough to say that Dudley Pickering was definite. He left no room for doubt as to his meaning.
She was in his arms. He was embracing her. She was his--the latest model, self-starting, with limousine body and all the newest. No, no, his mind was wandering. She was his, this divine girl, this queen among women, this--
From the drawing-room Roscoe Sherriff's voice floated out in unconscious comment--
I'm going to be married to-morrow.
I'm going from sunshine to sorrow.
Did a momentary chill cool the intensity of Dudley Pickering's ardour? If so he overcame it instantly. He despised Roscoe Sherriff. He flattered himself that he had shown Roscoe Sherriff pretty well who was who and what was what.
They would have a wonderful wedding--dozens of clergymen, scores of organs playing 'The Voice that Breathed o'er Eden,' platoons of bridesmaids, wagonloads of cake. And then they would go back to Detroit and live happy ever after. And it might be that in time to come there would be given to them little runabouts.
I'm going to a life
Of misery and strife,
So good-bye, boys!
Hang Roscoe Sherriff! What did he know about it! Confound him! Dudley Pickering turned a deaf ear to the song and wallowed in his happiness.
Claire walked slowly down the moonlit drive. She had removed herself from her Dudley's embraces, for she wished to be alone, to think. The engagement had been announced. All that part of it was over--Dudley's stammering speech, the unrestrained delight of Polly Wetherby, the facetious rendering of 'The Wedding Glide' on the piano by Roscoe Sherriff, and it now remained for her to try to discover a way of conveying the news to Bill.
It had just struck her that, though she knew that Bill was in America, she had not his address.
What was she to do? She must tell him. Otherwise it might quite easily happen that they might meet in New York when she returned there. She pictured the scene. She saw herself walking with Dudley Pickering. Along came Bill. 'Claire, darling!' ... Heavens, what would Dudley think? It would be too awful! She couldn't explain. No, somehow or other, even if she put detectives on his trail, she must find him, and be off with the old love now that she was on with the new.
She reached the gate and leaned over it. And as she did so someone in the shadow of a tall tree spoke her name. A man came into the light, and she saw that it was Lord Dawlish.Next