Lord Dawlish sat in the New York flat which had been lent him by his friend Gates. The hour was half-past ten in the evening; the day, the second day after the exodus of Nutty Boyd from the farm. Before him on the table lay a letter. He was smoking pensively.
Lord Dawlish had found New York enjoyable, but a trifle fatiguing. There was much to be seen in the city, and he had made the mistake of trying to see it all at once. It had been his intention, when he came home after dinner that night, to try to restore the balance of things by going to bed early. He had sat up longer than he had intended, because he had been thinking about this letter.
Immediately upon his arrival in America, Bill had sought out a lawyer and instructed him to write to Elizabeth Boyd, offering her one-half of the late Ira Nutcombe's money. He had had time during the voyage to think the whole matter over, and this seemed to him the only possible course. He could not keep it all. He would feel like the despoiler of the widow and the orphan. Nor would it be fair to Claire to give it all up. If he halved the legacy everybody would be satisfied.
That at least had been his view until Elizabeth's reply had arrived. It was this reply that lay on the table--a brief, formal note, setting forth Miss Boyd's absolute refusal to accept any portion of the money. This was a development which Bill had not foreseen, and he was feeling baffled. What was the next step? He had smoked many pipes in the endeavour to find an answer to this problem, and was lighting another when the door-bell rang.
He opened the door and found himself confronting an extraordinarily tall and thin young man in evening-dress.
Lord Dawlish was a little startled. He had taken it for granted, when the bell rang, that his visitor was Tom, the liftman from downstairs, a friendly soul who hailed from London and had been dropping in at intervals during the past two days to acquire the latest news from his native land. He stared at this changeling inquiringly. The solution of the mystery came with the stranger's first words--
'Is Gates in?'
He spoke eagerly, as if Gates were extremely necessary to his well-being. It distressed Lord Dawlish to disappoint him, but there was nothing else to be done.
'Gates is in London,' he said.
'What! When did he go there?'
'About four months ago.'
'May I come in a minute?'
'Yes, rather, do.'
He led the way into the sitting-room. The stranger gave abruptly in the middle, as if he were being folded up by some invisible agency, and in this attitude sank into a chair, where he lay back looking at Bill over his knees, like a sorrowful sheep peering over a sharp-pointed fence.
'You're from England, aren't you?'
'Been in New York long?'
'Only a couple of days.'
The stranger folded himself up another foot or so until his knees were higher than his head, and lit a cigarette.
'The curse of New York,' he said, mournfully, 'is the way everything changes in it. You can't take your eyes off it for a minute. The population's always shifting. It's like a railway station. You go away for a bit and come back and try to find your old pals, and they're all gone: Ike's in Arizona, Mike's in a sanatorium, Spike's in jail, and nobody seems to know where the rest of them have got to. I came up from the country two days ago, expecting to find the old gang along Broadway the same as ever, and I'm dashed if I've been able to put my hands on one of them! Not a single, solitary one of them! And it's only six months since I was here last.'
Lord Dawlish made sympathetic noises.
'Of course,' proceeded the other, 'the time of year may have something to do with it. Living down in the country you lose count of time, and I forgot that it was July, when people go out of the city. I guess that must be what happened. I used to know all sorts of fellows, actors and fellows like that, and they're all away somewhere. I tell you,' he said, with pathos, 'I never knew I could be so infernally lonesome as I have been these last two days. If I had known what a rotten time I was going to have I would never have left Brookport.'
'It's a place down on Long Island.'
Bill was not by nature a plotter, but the mere fact of travelling under an assumed name had developed a streak of wariness in him. He checked himself just as he was about to ask his companion if he happened to know a Miss Elizabeth Boyd, who also lived at Brookport. It occurred to him that the question would invite a counter-question as to his own knowledge of Miss Boyd, and he knew that he would not be able to invent a satisfactory answer to that offhand.
'This evening,' said the thin young man, resuming his dirge, 'I was sweating my brain to try to think of somebody I could hunt up in this ghastly, deserted city. It isn't so easy, you know, to think of fellows' names and addresses. I can get the names all right, but unless the fellow's in the telephone-book, I'm done. Well, I was trying to think of some of my pals who might still be around the place, and I remembered Gates. Remembered his address, too, by a miracle. You're a pal of his, of course?'
'Yes, I knew him in London.'
'Oh, I see. And when you came over here he lent you his flat? By the way, I didn't get your name?'
'My name's Chalmers.'
'Well, as I say, I remembered Gates and came down here to look him up. We used to have a lot of good times together a year ago. And now he's gone too!'
'Did you want to see him about anything important?'
'Well, it's important to me. I wanted him to come out to supper. You see, it's this way: I'm giving supper to-night to a girl who's in that show at the Forty-ninth Street Theatre, a Miss Leonard, and she insists on bringing a pal. She says the pal is a good sport, which sounds all right--' Bill admitted that it sounded all right. 'But it makes the party three. And of all the infernal things a party of three is the ghastliest.'
Having delivered himself of this undeniable truth the stranger slid a little farther into his chair and paused. 'Look here, what are you doing to-night?' he said.
'I was thinking of going to bed.'
'Going to bed!' The stranger's voice was shocked, as if he had heard blasphemy. 'Going to bed at half-past ten in New York! My dear chap, what you want is a bit of supper. Why don't you come along?'
Amiability was, perhaps, the leading quality of Lord Dawlish's character. He did not want to have to dress and go out to supper, but there was something almost pleading in the eyes that looked at him between the sharply-pointed knees.
'It's awfully good of you--' He hesitated.
'Not a bit; I wish you would. You would be a life-saver.'
Bill felt that he was in for it. He got up.
'You will?' said the other. 'Good boy! You go and get into some clothes and come along. I'm sorry, what did you say your name was?'
'Mine's Boyd--Nutcombe Boyd.'
'Boyd!' cried Bill.
Nutty took his astonishment, which was too great to be concealed, as a compliment. He chuckled.
'I thought you would know the name if you were a pal of Gates's. I expect he's always talking about me. You see, I was pretty well known in this old place before I had to leave it.'
Bill walked down the long passage to his bedroom with no trace of the sleepiness which had been weighing on him five minutes before. He was galvanized by a superstitious thrill. It was fate, Elizabeth Boyd's brother turning up like this and making friendly overtures right on top of that letter from her. This astonishing thing could not have been better arranged if he had planned it himself. From what little he had seen of Nutty he gathered that the latter was not hard to make friends with. It would be a simple task to cultivate his acquaintance. And having done so, he could renew negotiations with Elizabeth. The desire to rid himself of half the legacy had become a fixed idea with Bill. He had the impression that he could not really feel clean again until he had made matters square with his conscience in this respect. He felt that he was probably a fool to take that view of the thing, but that was the way he was built and there was no getting away from it.
This irruption of Nutty Boyd into his life was an omen. It meant that all was not yet over. He was conscious of a mild surprise that he had ever intended to go to bed. He felt now as if he never wanted to go to bed again. He felt exhilarated.
In these days one cannot say that a supper-party is actually given in any one place. Supping in New York has become a peripatetic pastime. The supper-party arranged by Nutty Boyd was scheduled to start at Reigelheimer's on Forty-second Street, and it was there that the revellers assembled.
Nutty and Bill had been there a few minutes when Miss Daisy Leonard arrived with her friend. And from that moment Bill was never himself again.
The Good Sport was, so to speak, an outsize in Good Sports. She loomed up behind the small and demure Miss Leonard like a liner towed by a tug. She was big, blonde, skittish, and exuberant; she wore a dress like the sunset of a fine summer evening, and she effervesced with spacious good will to all men. She was one of those girls who splash into public places like stones into quiet pools. Her form was large, her eyes were large, her teeth were large, and her voice was large. She overwhelmed Bill. She hit his astounded consciousness like a shell. She gave him a buzzing in the ears. She was not so much a Good Sport as some kind of an explosion.
He was still reeling from the spiritual impact with this female tidal wave when he became aware, as one who, coming out of a swoon, hears voices faintly, that he was being addressed by Miss Leonard. To turn from Miss Leonard's friend to Miss Leonard herself was like hearing the falling of gentle rain after a thunderstorm. For a moment he revelled in the sense of being soothed; then, as he realized what she was saying, he started violently. Miss Leonard was looking at him curiously.
'I beg your pardon?' said Bill.
'I'm sure I've met you before, Mr Chalmers.'
'But I can't think where.'
'I'm sure,' said the Good Sport, languishingly, like a sentimental siege-gun, 'that if I had ever met Mr Chalmers before I shouldn't have forgotten him.'
'You're English, aren't you?' asked Miss Leonard.
The Good Sport said she was crazy about Englishmen.
'I thought so from your voice.'
The Good Sport said that she was crazy about the English accent.
'It must have been in London that I met you. I was in the revue at the Alhambra last year.'
'By George, I wish I had seen you!' interjected the infatuated Nutty.
The Good Sport said that she was crazy about London.
'I seem to remember,' went on Miss Leonard, 'meeting you out at supper. Do you know a man named Delaney in the Coldstream Guards?'
Bill would have liked to deny all knowledge of Delaney, though the latter was one of his best friends, but his natural honesty prevented him.
'I'm sure I met you at a supper he gave at Oddy's one Friday night. We all went on to Covent Garden. Don't you remember?'
'Talking of supper,' broke in Nutty, earning Bill's hearty gratitude thereby, 'where's the dashed head-waiter? I want to find my table.'
He surveyed the restaurant with a melancholy eye.
'Everything changed!' He spoke sadly, as Ulysses might have done when his boat put in at Ithaca. 'Every darned thing different since I was here last. New waiter, head-waiter I never saw before in my life, different-coloured carpet--'
'Cheer up, Nutty, old thing!' said Miss Leonard. 'You'll feel better when you've had something to eat. I hope you had the sense to tip the head-waiter, or there won't be any table. Funny how these places go up and down in New York. A year ago the whole management would turn out and kiss you if you looked like spending a couple of dollars here. Now it costs the earth to get in at all.'
'Why's that?' asked Nutty.
'Lady Pauline Wetherby, of course. Didn't you know this was where she danced?'
'Never heard of her,' said Nutty, in a sort of ecstasy of wistful gloom. 'That will show you how long I've been away. Who is she?'
Miss Leonard invoked the name of Mike.
'Don't you ever get the papers in your village, Nutty?'
'I never read the papers. I don't suppose I've read a paper for years. I can't stand 'em. Who is Lady Pauline Wetherby?'
'She does Greek dances--at least, I suppose they're Greek. They all are nowadays, unless they're Russian. She's an English peeress.'
Miss Leonard's friend said she was crazy about these picturesque old English families; and they went in to supper.
Looking back on the evening later and reviewing its leading features, Lord Dawlish came to the conclusion that he never completely recovered from the first shock of the Good Sport. He was conscious all the time of a dream-like feeling, as if he were watching himself from somewhere outside himself. From some conning-tower in this fourth dimension he perceived himself eating broiled lobster and drinking champagne and heard himself bearing an adequate part in the conversation; but his movements were largely automatic.
Time passed. It seemed to Lord Dawlish, watching from without, that things were livening up. He seemed to perceive a quickening of the tempo of the revels, an added abandon. Nutty was getting quite bright. He had the air of one who recalls the good old days, of one who in familiar scenes re-enacts the joys of his vanished youth. The chastened melancholy induced by many months of fetching of pails of water, of scrubbing floors with a mop, and of jumping like a firecracker to avoid excited bees had been purged from him by the lights and the music and the wine. He was telling a long anecdote, laughing at it, throwing a crust of bread at an adjacent waiter, and refilling his glass at the same time. It is not easy to do all these things simultaneously, and the fact that Nutty did them with notable success was proof that he was picking up.
Miss Daisy Leonard was still demure, bat as she had just slipped a piece of ice down the back of Nutty's neck one may assume that she was feeling at her ease and had overcome any diffidence or shyness which might have interfered with her complete enjoyment of the festivities. As for the Good Sport, she was larger, blonder, and more exuberant than ever and she was addressing someone as 'Bill'.
Perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon of the evening, as it advanced, was the change it wrought in Lord Dawlish's attitude toward this same Good Sport. He was not conscious of the beginning of the change; he awoke to the realization of it suddenly. At the beginning of supper his views on her had been definite and clear. When they had first been introduced to each other he had had a stunned feeling that this sort of thing ought not to be allowed at large, and his battered brain had instinctively recalled that line of Tennyson: 'The curse is come upon me.' But now, warmed with food and drink and smoking an excellent cigar, he found that a gentler, more charitable mood had descended upon him.
He argued with himself in extenuation of the girl's peculiar idiosyncrasies. Was it, he asked himself, altogether her fault that she was so massive and spoke as if she were addressing an open-air meeting in a strong gale? Perhaps it was hereditary. Perhaps her father had been a circus giant and her mother the strong woman of the troupe. And for the unrestraint of her manner defective training in early girlhood would account. He began to regard her with a quiet, kindly commiseration, which in its turn changed into a sort of brotherly affection. He discovered that he liked her. He liked her very much. She was so big and jolly and robust, and spoke in such a clear, full voice. He was glad that she was patting his hand. He was glad that he had asked her to call him Bill.
People were dancing now. It has been claimed by patriots that American dyspeptics lead the world. This supremacy, though partly due, no doubt, to vast supplies of pie absorbed in youth, may be attributed to a certain extent also to the national habit of dancing during meals. Lord Dawlish had that sturdy reverence for his interior organism which is the birthright of every Briton. And at the beginning of supper he had resolved that nothing should induce him to court disaster in this fashion. But as the time went on he began to waver.
The situation was awkward. Nutty and Miss Leonard were repeatedly leaving the table to tread the measure, and on these occasions the Good Sport's wistfulness was a haunting reproach. Nor was the spectacle of Nutty in action without its effect on Bill's resolution. Nutty dancing was a sight to stir the most stolid.
Bill wavered. The music had started again now, one of those twentieth-century eruptions of sound that begin like a train going through a tunnel and continue like audible electric shocks, that set the feet tapping beneath the table and the spine thrilling with an unaccustomed exhilaration. Every drop of blood in his body cried to him 'Dance!' He could resist no longer.
'Shall we?' he said.
Bill should not have danced. He was an estimable young man, honest, amiable, with high ideals. He had played an excellent game of football at the university; his golf handicap was plus two; and he was no mean performer with the gloves. But we all of us have our limitations, and Bill had his. He was not a good dancer. He was energetic, but he required more elbow room than the ordinary dancing floor provides. As a dancer, in fact, he closely resembled a Newfoundland puppy trying to run across a field.
It takes a good deal to daunt the New York dancing man, but the invasion of the floor by Bill and the Good Sport undoubtedly caused a profound and even painful sensation. Linked together they formed a living projectile which might well have intimidated the bravest. Nutty was their first victim. They caught him in mid-step--one of those fancy steps which he was just beginning to exhume from the cobwebbed recesses of his memory--and swept him away. After which they descended resistlessly upon a stout gentleman of middle age, chiefly conspicuous for the glittering diamonds which he wore and the stoical manner in which he danced to and fro on one spot of not more than a few inches in size in the exact centre of the room. He had apparently staked out a claim to this small spot, a claim which the other dancers had decided to respect; but Bill and the Good Sport, coming up from behind, had him two yards away from it at the first impact. Then, scattering apologies broadcast like a medieval monarch distributing largesse, Bill whirled his partner round by sheer muscular force and began what he intended to be a movement toward the farther corner, skirting the edge of the floor. It was his simple belief that there was more safety there than in the middle.
He had not reckoned with Heinrich Joerg. Indeed, he was not aware of Heinrich Joerg's existence. Yet fate was shortly to bring them together, with far-reaching results. Heinrich Joerg had left the Fatherland a good many years before with the prudent purpose of escaping military service. After various vicissitudes in the land of his adoption--which it would be extremely interesting to relate, but which must wait for a more favourable opportunity--he had secured a useful and not ill-recompensed situation as one of the staff of Reigelheimer's Restaurant. He was, in point of fact, a waiter, and he comes into the story at this point bearing a tray full of glasses, knives, forks, and pats of butter on little plates. He was setting a table for some new arrivals, and in order to obtain more scope for that task he had left the crowded aisle beyond the table and come round to the edge of the dancing-floor.
He should not have come out on to the dancing-floor. In another moment he was admitting that himself. For just as he was lowering his tray and bending over the table in the pursuance of his professional duties, along came Bill at his customary high rate of speed, propelling his partner before him, and for the first time since he left home Heinrich was conscious of a regret that he had done so. There are worse things than military service!
It was the table that saved Bill. He clutched at it and it supported him. He was thus enabled to keep the Good Sport from falling and to assist Heinrich to rise from the morass of glasses, knives, and pats of butter in which he was wallowing. Then, the dance having been abandoned by mutual consent, he helped his now somewhat hysterical partner back to their table.
Remorse came upon Bill. He was sorry that he had danced; sorry that he had upset Heinrich; sorry that he had subjected the Good Sport's nervous system to such a strain; sorry that so much glass had been broken and so many pats of butter bruised beyond repair. But of one thing, even in that moment of bleak regrets, he was distinctly glad, and that was that all these things had taken place three thousand miles away from Claire Fenwick. He had not been appearing at his best, and he was glad that Claire had not seen him.
As he sat and smoked the remains of his cigar, while renewing his apologies and explanations to his partner and soothing the ruffled Nutty with well-chosen condolences, he wondered idly what Claire was doing at that moment.
Claire at that moment, having been an astonished eye-witness of the whole performance, was resuming her seat at a table at the other end of the room.Next