A grey sadness surged over Bill Dawlish. The sun hid itself behind a cloud, the sky took on a leaden hue, and a chill wind blew through the world. He scanned Shaftesbury Avenue with a jaundiced eye, and thought that he had never seen a beastlier thoroughfare. Piccadilly, however, into which he shortly dragged himself, was even worse. It was full of men and women and other depressing things.
He pitied himself profoundly. It was a rotten world to live in, this, where a fellow couldn't say noblesse oblige without upsetting the universe. Why shouldn't a fellow say noblesse oblige? Why--? At this juncture Lord Dawlish walked into a lamp-post.
The shock changed his mood. Gloom still obsessed him, but blended now with remorse. He began to look at the matter from Claire's viewpoint, and his pity switched from himself to her. In the first place, the poor girl had rather a rotten time. Could she be blamed for wanting him to make money? No. Yet whenever she made suggestions as to how the thing was to be done, he snubbed her by saying
noblesse oblige. Naturally a refined and sensitive young girl objected to having things like noblesse oblige said to her. Where was the sense in saying noblesse oblige? Such a confoundedly silly thing to say. Only a perfect ass would spend his time rushing about the place saying noblesse oblige to people.
'By Jove!' Lord Dawlish stopped in his stride. He disentangled himself from a pedestrian who had rammed him on the back. 'I'll do it!'
He hailed a passing taxi and directed the driver to make for the Pen and Ink Club.
The decision at which Bill had arrived with such dramatic suddenness in the middle of Piccadilly was the same at which some centuries earlier Columbus had arrived in the privacy of his home.
'Hang it!' said Bill to himself in the cab, 'I'll go to America!' The exact words probably which Columbus had used, talking the thing over with his wife.
Bill's knowledge of the great republic across the sea was at this period of his life a little sketchy. He knew that there had been unpleasantness between England and the United States in seventeen-something and again in eighteen-something, but that things had eventually been straightened out by Miss Edna May and her fellow missionaries of the Belle of New York Company, since which time there had been no more trouble. Of American cocktails he had a fair working knowledge, and he appreciated ragtime. But of the other great American institutions he was completely ignorant.
He was on his way now to see Gates. Gates was a comparatively recent addition to his list of friends, a New York newspaperman who had come to England a few months before to act as his paper's London correspondent. He was generally to be found at the Pen and Ink Club, an institution affiliated with the New York Players, of which he was a member.
Gates was in. He had just finished lunch.
'What's the trouble, Bill?' he inquired, when he had deposited his lordship in a corner of the reading-room, which he had selected because silence was compulsory there, thus rendering it possible for two men to hear each other speak. 'What brings you charging in here looking like the Soul's Awakening?'
'I've had an idea, old man.'
'Oh! Well, you remember what you were saying about America?'
'What was I saying about America?'
'The other day, don't you remember? What a lot of money there was to be made there and so forth.'
'I'm going there.'
'To make money?'
Gates nodded--sadly, it seemed to Bill. He was rather a melancholy young man, with a long face not unlike a pessimistic horse.
'Gosh!' he said.
Bill felt a little damped. By no mental juggling could he construe
'Gosh!' into an expression of enthusiastic approbation.
Gates looked at Bill curiously. 'What's the idea?' he said. 'I could have understood it if you had told me that you were going to New York for pleasure, instructing your man Willoughby to see that the trunks were jolly well packed and wiring to the skipper of your yacht to meet you at Liverpool. But you seem to have sordid motives. You talk about making money. What do you want with more money?'
'Why, I'm devilish hard up.'
'Tenantry a bit slack with the rent?' said Gates sympathetically.
'My dear chap, I don't know what on earth you're talking about. How much money do you think I've got? Four hundred pounds a year, and no prospect of ever making more unless I sweat for it.'
'What! I always thought you were rolling in money.'
'What gave you that idea?'
'You have a prosperous look. It's a funny thing about England. I've known you four months, and I know men who know you; but I've never heard a word about your finances. In New York we all wear labels, stating our incomes and prospects in clear lettering. Well, if it's like that it's different, of course. There certainly is more money to be made in America than here. I don't quite see what you think you're going to do when you get there, but that's up to you.
'There's no harm in giving the city a trial. Anyway, I can give you a letter or two that might help.'
'That's awfully good of you.'
'You won't mind my alluding to you as my friend William Smith?'
'You can't travel under your own name if you are really serious about getting a job. Mind you, if my letters lead to anything it will probably be a situation as an earnest bill-clerk or an effervescent office-boy, for Rockefeller and Carnegie and that lot have swiped all the soft jobs. But if you go over as Lord Dawlish you won't even get that. Lords are popular socially in America, but are not used to any great extent in the office. If you try to break in under your right name you'll get the glad hand and be asked to stay here and there and play a good deal of golf and dance quite a lot, but you won't get a job. A gentle smile will greet all your pleadings that you be allowed to come in and save the firm.'
'We may look on Smith as a necessity.'
'Do you know, I'm not frightfully keen on the name Smith. Wouldn't something else do?'
'Sure. We aim to please. How would Jones suit you?'
'The trouble is, you know, that if I took a name I wasn't used to I might forget it.'
'If you've the sort of mind that would forget Jones I doubt if ever you'll be a captain of industry.'
'Why not Chalmers?'
'You think it easier to memorize than Jones?'
'It used to be my name, you see, before I got the title.'
'I see. All right. Chalmers then. When do you think of starting?'
'You aren't losing much time. By the way, as you're going to New York you might as well use my flat.'
'It's awfully good of you.'
'Not a bit. You would be doing me a favour. I had to leave at a moment's notice, and I want to know what's been happening to the place. I left some Japanese prints there, and my favourite nightmare is that someone has broken in and sneaked them. Write down the address--Forty-blank East Twenty-seventh Street. I'll send you the key to Brown's to-night with those letters.'
Bill walked up the Strand, glowing with energy. He made his way to Cockspur Street to buy his ticket for New York. This done, he set out to Brown's to arrange with the committee the details of his departure.
He reached Brown's at twenty minutes past two and left it again at twenty-three minutes past; for, directly he entered, the hall porter had handed him a telephone message. The telephone attendants at London clubs are masters of suggestive brevity. The one in the basement of Brown's had written on Bill's slip of paper the words: '1 p.m. Will Lord Dawlish as soon as possible call upon Mr Gerald Nichols at his office?' To this was appended a message consisting of two words: 'Good news.'
It was stimulating. The probability was that all Jerry Nichols wanted to tell him was that he had received stable information about some horse or had been given a box for the Empire, but for all that it was stimulating.
Bill looked at his watch. He could spare half an hour. He set out at once for the offices of the eminent law firm of Nichols, Nichols, Nichols, and Nichols, of which aggregation of Nicholses his friend Jerry was the last and smallest.Next