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Chapter 24 


The man who had alighted from the automobile was young and cheerful. He wore a flannel suit of a gay blue and a straw hat with a coloured ribbon, and he looked upon a world which, his manner seemed to indicate, had been constructed according to his own specifications through a single eyeglass. When he spoke it became plain that his nationality was English.

Nutty regarded his beaming countenance with a lowering hostility. The indecency of anyone being cheerful at such a time struck him forcibly. He would have liked mankind to have preserved till further notice a hushed gloom. He glared at the young man.

Elizabeth, such was her absorption in her thoughts, was not even aware of his presence till he spoke to her.

'I beg your pardon, is this Flack's?'

She looked up and met that sunny eyeglass.

'This is Flack's,' she said.

'Thank you,' said the young man.

The automobile, a stout, silent man at the helm, throbbed in the nervous way automobiles have when standing still, suggesting somehow that it were best to talk quick, as they can give you only a few minutes before dashing on to keep some other appointment. Either this or a natural volatility lent a breezy rapidity to the visitor's speech. He looked at Elizabeth across the gate, which it had not occurred to her to open, as if she were just what he had expected her to be and a delight to his eyes, and burst into speech.

'My name's Nichols--J. Nichols. I expect you remember getting a letter from me a week or two ago?'

The name struck Elizabeth as familiar. But he had gone on to identify himself before she could place it in her mind.

'Lawyer, don't you know. Wrote you a letter telling you that your Uncle Ira Nutcombe had left all his money to Lord Dawlish.'

'Oh, yes,' said Elizabeth, and was about to invite him to pass the barrier, when he began to speak again.

'You know, I want to explain that letter. Wrote it on a sudden impulse, don't you know. The more I have to do with the law, the more it seems to hit me that a lawyer oughtn't to act on impulse. At the moment, you see, it seemed to me the decent thing to do--put you out of your misery, and so forth--stop your entertaining hopes never to be realized, what? and all that sort of thing. You see, it was like this: Bill--I mean Lord Dawlish--is a great pal of mine, a dear old chap. You ought to know him. Well, being in the know, you understand, through your uncle having deposited the will with us, I gave Bill the tip directly I heard of Mr Nutcombe's death. I sent him a telephone message to come to the office, and I said: "Bill, old man, this old buster"--I beg your pardon, this old gentleman--"has left you all his money." Quite informal, don't you know, and at the same time, in the same informal spirit, I wrote you the letter.' He dammed the torrent for a moment. 'By the way, of course you are Miss Elizabeth Boyd, what?'

'Yes.'

The young man seemed relieved.

'I'm glad of that,' he said. 'Funny if you hadn't been. You'd have wondered what on earth I was talking about.'

In spite of her identity, this was precisely what Elizabeth was doing. Her mind, still under a cloud, had been unable to understand one word of Mr Nichols's discourse. Judging from his appearance, which was that of a bewildered hosepipe or a snake whose brain is being momentarily overtaxed, Nutty was in the same difficulty. He had joined the group at the gate, abandoning the pebble which he had been kicking in the background, and was now leaning on the top bar, a picture of silent perplexity.

'You see, the trouble is,' resumed the young man, 'my governor, who's the head of the firm, is all for doing things according to precedent. He loves red tape--wears it wrapped round him in winter instead of flannel. He's all for doing things in the proper legal way, which, as I dare say you know, takes months. And, meanwhile, everybody's wondering what's happening and who has got the money, and so on and so forth. I thought I would skip all that and let you know right away exactly where you stood, so I wrote you that letter. I don't think my temperament's quite suited to the law, don't you know, and if he ever hears that I wrote you that letter I have a notion that the governor will think so too. So I came over here to ask you, if you don't mind, not to mention it when you get in touch with the governor. I frankly admit that that letter, written with the best intentions, was a bloomer.'

With which manly admission the young man paused, and allowed the rays of his eyeglass to play upon Elizabeth in silence. Elizabeth tried to piece together what little she understood of his monologue.

'You mean that you want me not to tell your father that I got a letter from you?'

'Exactly that. And thanks very much for not saying "without prejudice," or anything of that kind. The governor would have.'

'But I don't understand. Why should you think that I should ever mention anything to your father?'

'Might slip out, you know, without your meaning it.'

'But when? I shall never meet your father.'

'You might quite easily. He might want to see you about the money.'

'The money?'

The eyebrow above the eyeglass rose, surprised.

'Haven't you had a letter from the governor?'

'No.'

The young man made a despairing gesture.

'I took it for granted that it had come on the same boat that I did. There you have the governor's methods! Couldn't want a better example. I suppose some legal formality or other has cropped up and laid him a stymie, and he's waiting to get round it. You really mean he hasn't written?

'Why, dash it,' said the young man, as one to whom all is revealed, 'then you can't have understood a word of what I've been saying!'

For the first time Elizabeth found herself capable of smiling. She liked this incoherent young man.

'I haven't,' she said.

'You don't know about the will?'

'Only what you told me in your letter.'

'Well, I'm hanged! Tell me--I hadn't the honour of knowing him personally--was the late Mr Nutcombe's whole life as eccentric as his will-making? It seems to me--'

Nutty spoke.

'Uncle Ira's middle name,' he said, 'was Bloomingdale. That,' he proceeded, bitterly, 'is the frightful injustice of it all. I had to suffer from it right along, and all I get, when it comes to a finish, is a miserable hundred dollars. Uncle Ira insisted on father and mother calling me Nutcombe; and whenever he got a new craze I was always the one he worked it off on. You remember the time he became a vegetarian, Elizabeth? Gosh!' Nutty brooded coldly on the past. 'You remember the time he had it all worked out that the end of the world was to come at five in the morning one February? Made me stop up all night with him, reading Marcus Aurelius! And the steam-heat turned off at twelve-thirty! I could tell you a dozen things just as bad as that. He always picked on me. And now I've gone through it all he leaves me a hundred dollars!'

Mr Nichols nodded sympathetically.

'I should have imagined that he was rather like that. You know, of course, why he made that will I wrote to you about, leaving all his money to Bill Dawlish? Simply because Bill, who met him golfing at a place in Cornwall in the off season, cured him of slicing his approach-shots! I give you my word that was the only reason. I'm sorry for old Bill, poor old chap. Such a good sort!'

'He's all right,' said Nutty. 'But why you should be sorry for him gets past me. A fellow who gets five million--'

'But he doesn't, don't you see?'

'How do you mean?'

'Why, this other will puts him out of the running.'

'Which other will?'

'Why, the one I'm telling you about.'

He looked from one to the other, apparently astonished at their slowness of understanding. Then an idea occurred to him.

'Why, now that I think of it, I never told you, did I? Yes, your uncle made another will at the very last moment, leaving all he possessed to Miss Boyd.'

The dead silence in which his words were received stimulated him to further speech. It occurred to him that, after that letter of his, perhaps these people were wary about believing anything he said.

'It's absolutely true. It's the real, stable information this time. I had it direct from the governor, who was there when he made the will. He and the governor had had a row about something, you know, and they made it up during those last days, and--Well, apparently your uncle thought he had better celebrate it somehow, so he made a new will. From what little I know of him, that was the way he celebrated most things. I took it for granted the governor would have written to you by this time. I expect you'll hear by the next mail. You see, what brought me over was the idea that when he wrote you might possibly take it into your heads to mention having heard from me. You don't know my governor. If he found out I had done that I should never hear the last of it. So I said to him: "Gov'nor, I'm feeling a bit jaded. Been working too hard, or something. I'll take a week or so off, if you can spare me." He didn't object, so I whizzed over. Well, of course, I'm awfully sorry for old Bill, but I congratulate you, Miss Boyd.'

'What's the time?' said Elizabeth.

Mr Nichols was surprised. He could not detect the connexion of ideas.

'It's about five to eleven,' he said, consulting his watch.

The next moment he was even more surprised, for Elizabeth, making nothing of the barrier of the gate, had rushed past him and was even now climbing into his automobile.

'Take me to the station, at once,' she was crying to the stout, silent man, whom not even these surprising happenings had shaken from his attitude of well-fed detachment.

The stout man, ceasing to be silent, became interrogative.

'Uh?'

'Take me to the station. I must catch the eleven o'clock train.'

The stout man was not a rapid thinker. He enveloped her in a stodgy gaze. It was only too plain to Elizabeth that he was a man who liked to digest one idea slowly before going on to absorb the next. Jerry Nichols had told him to drive to Flack's. He had driven to Flack's. Here he was at Flack's. Now this young woman was telling him to drive to the station. It was a new idea, and he bent himself to the Fletcherizing of it.

'I'll give you ten dollars if you get me there by eleven,' shouted Elizabeth.

The car started as if it were some living thing that had had a sharp instrument jabbed into it. Once or twice in his life it had happened to the stout man to encounter an idea which he could swallow at a gulp. This was one of them.

Mr Nichols, following the car with a wondering eye, found that Nutty was addressing him.

'Is this really true?' said Nutty.

'Absolute gospel.'

A wild cry, a piercing whoop of pure joy, broke the summer stillness.

'Come and have a drink, old man!' babbled Nutty. 'This wants celebrating!' His face fell. 'Oh, I was forgetting! I'm on the wagon.'

'On the wagon?'

'Sworn off, you know. I'm never going to touch another drop as long as I live. I began to see things--monkeys!'

'I had a pal,' said Mr Nichols, sympathetically, 'who used to see kangaroos.'

Nutty seized him by the arm, hospitable though handicapped.

'Come and have a bit of bread and butter, or a slice of cake or something, and a glass of water. I want to tell you a lot more about Uncle Ira, and I want to hear all about your end of it. Gee, what a day!'

'"The maddest, merriest of all the glad New Year,"' assented Mr Nichols. 'A slice of that old 'eighty-seven cake. Just the thing!'

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