At half-past two of a sunny, sultry afternoon late in the month of August, Mr. Benjamin Staff sat at table in the dining-room of the Authors’ Club, moodily munching a morsel of cheese and a segment of cast-iron biscuit and wondering what he must do to be saved from the death-in-life of sheer ennui.
A long, lank gentleman, surprisingly thin, of a slightly saturnine cast: he was not only unhappy, he looked it. He was alone and he was lonely; he was an American and a man of sentiment (though he didn’t look that) and he wanted to go home; to sum up, he found himself in love and in London at one and the same time, and felt precisely as ill at ease in the one as in the other of these, to him, exotic circumstances.
Inconceivable as it may seem that any rational man should yearn for New York in August, that and nothing less was what Staff wanted with all his heart. He wanted to go home and swelter and be swindled by taxicab drivers and snubbed by imported head-waiters; he wanted to patronise the subway at peril of asphyxiation and to walk down Fifth Avenue at that witching hour when electric globes begin to dot the dusk of evening—pale moons of a world of steel and stone; he wanted to ride in elevators instead of lifts, in trolley-cars instead of trams; he wanted to go to a ball-game at the Polo Grounds, to dine dressed as he pleased, to insult his intelligence with a roof-garden show if he felt so disposed, and to see for himself just how much of Town had been torn down in the two months of his exile and what they were going to put up in its place. He wanted, in short, his own people; more specifically he wanted just one of them, meaning to marry her if she’d have him.
Now to be homesick and lovesick all at once is a tremendously disturbing state of affairs. So influenced, the strongest men are prone to folly. Staff, for instance, had excellent reason to doubt the advisability of leaving London just then, with an unfinished play on his hands; but he was really no more than a mere, normal human being, and he did want very badly to go home. If it was a sharp struggle, it was a short one that prefaced his decision.
Of a sudden he rose, called for his bill and paid it, called for his hat and stick, got them, and resolutely—yet with a furtive air, as one who would throw a dogging conscience off the scent—fled the premises of his club, shaping a course through Whitehall and Charing Cross to Cockspur Street, where, with the unerring instinct of a homing pigeon, he dodged hastily into the booking-office of a steamship company.
Now Mystery is where one finds it, and Romantic Adventure is as a rule to be come upon infesting the same identical premises. Mr. Staff was not seeking mysteries and the last rôle in the world in which he could fancy himself was that of Romantic Adventurer. But in retrospect he can see quite clearly that it was there, in the humdrum and prosaic setting of a steamship booking-office, that he first stumbled (all unwittingly) into the toils of his Great Adventure.
When he entered, there was but one other person on the outer or public side of the booking-counter; and he, sticking close in a far corner and inaudibly conferring with a clerk, seemed so slight and unpretending a body that Staff overlooked his existence altogether until circumstances obliged him to recognise it.
The ignored person, on the other hand, showed an instant interest in the appearance of Mr. Staff. You might have thought that he had been waiting for the latter to come in—absurd as this might seem, in view of the fact that Staff had made up his mind to book for home only within the last quarter-hour. None the less, on sight of him this other patron of the company, who had seemed till then to be of two minds as to what he wanted, straightened up and bent a freshened interest on the cabin-plot which the clerk had spread out upon the counter for his advisement. And a moment after Staff had audibly stated his wishes, the other prodded a certain spot of the chart with a thin and fragile forefinger.
“I’ll take this one,” he said quietly.
“Upper’r lower?” enquired his clerk.
“Then-Q,” said the clerk… .
Meanwhile Staff had caught the eye of an impregnable young Englishman behind the counter; and, the latter coming forward, he opened negotiations with a succinct statement:
“I want to book on the Autocratic, sailing tomorrow from Liverpool, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Quite so,” said his clerk, not without condescension. “For yourself, may I awsk?”
“For myself alone.”
“Then-Q.” The clerk fetched a cabin-plot.
“I’m afraid, sir,” he said, removing a pencil from behind his ear the better to make his meaning clear, “there’s not much choice. It’s quite late to book, you know; and this is the rush season for westbound traffic; everything’s just about full up.”
“I understand; but still you can make room for me somewhere, I hope.”
“Oh, yes. Quite so, indeed. It’s only a question of what you’d like. Now we have a cabine de luxe—”
“Not for me,” said Staff firmly.
“Then-Q… . The only other accommodation I can offer you is a two-berth stateroom on the main-deck.”
“An outside room?”
“Yes, sir. You can see for yourself. Here it is: berths 432 and 433. You’ll find it quite cosy, I’m sure.”
Staff nodded, eyeing the cubicle indicated by the pencil-point.
“That’ll do,” said he. “I’ll take it.”
“Then-Q. Upper’r lower berth, sir?”
“Both,” said Staff, trying not to look conscious—and succeeding.
“Both, sir?”—in tones of pained expostulation.
“Both!”—reiterated in a manner that challenged curiosity.
“Ah,” said the clerk wearily, “but, you see, I thought I understood you to say you were alone.”
“I did; but I want privacy.”
“I see. Then-Q.”—as who should say: Another mad Amayrican.
With this the clerk took himself off to procure a blank ticket.
While he waited, Staff was entertained by snatches of a colloquy at the far end of the counter, where the other patron was being catechised as to his pedigree by the other booking-clerk. What he heard ran something to the following effect:
“What did you say the name was, sir?”
“If you please—”
“Your name, sir.”
“I didn’t say, did I?”
“Ah! I thought not.”
Pause; then the clerk, patiently: “Do you mind giving me your name, sir, so that I may fill in your ticket?”
“I’d r’ally rather not; but seein’ as it’s you and you make a point of it—Iff.”
Pause… . “Beg pardon?”
“If what, sir?”
“I-double-F, Iff: a name, not a joke. I-F-F—William Howard Iff. W. H. Iff, Whiff: joke.”
“But you needn’t laugh.”
With dignity: “I was not intending to laugh, sir.”
Staff could hardly refrain from refreshing himself with a glance at the individual so singularly labelled. Appraising him covertly, he saw a man whose stature was quite as much shorter than the normal as his own was longer, but hardly less thin. Indeed, Staff was in the habit of defining his own style of architecture as Gothic, and with reasonable excuse; but reviewing the physical geography of Mr. Iff, the word emaciation bobbed to the surface of the literary mentality: Iff was really astonishingly slight of build. Otherwise he was rather round-shouldered; his head was small, bird-like, thinly thatched with hair of a faded tow colour; his face was sensitively tinted with the faintest of flushes beneath a skin of natural pallor, and wore an expression curiously naive and yet shrewd—an effect manufactured by setting the eyes of a child, round and dimly blue, in a mask of weathered maturity.
Now while Staff was receiving this impression, Mr. Iff looked sharply round; their glances crossed. Primarily embarrassed to be caught rudely staring, Staff was next and thoroughly shocked to detect a distinct if momentary eclipse of one of Mr. Iff’s pale blue eyes. Bluntly, openly, deliberately, Mr. Iff winked at Mr. Staff, and then, having accomplished his amazement and discomfiture, returned promptly, twinkling, to the baiting of his clerk.
“Your age, sir?”
Mr. Iff enquired in simple surprise: “Do you really care to know?”
“It’s required, sir, by the—”
“Oh, well—if I must! But, mind you, strictly as man to man: you may write me down a freeborn American citizen, entitled to vote and more ’n half white.”
“I say, I am an adult—”
“Oh!” The clerk wrote; then, bored, resumed: “Married or single, please?”
“I’m a spinster—”
“Honestly—neither married nor unmarried.”
“Then-Q”—resignedly. “Your business—?”
But here Staff’s clerk touched the exasperated catechist on the shoulder and said something inaudible. The response, while equally inaudible, seemed to convey a sense of profound personal shock. Staff was conscious that Mr. Iff’s clerk glanced reproachfully in his direction, as if to suggest that he wouldn’t have believed it of him.
Divining that he and Mr. Iff were bargaining for the same accommodations, Staff endeavoured to assume an attitude of distinguished obliviousness to the entire proceeding; and would have succeeded but for the immediate and impatient action of Mr. Iff.
That latter, seizing the situation, glanced askance at dignified Mr. Staff, then smiled a whimsical smile, cocked his small head to one side and approached him with an open and ingenuous air.
“If it’s only a question of which berth,” said he, “I’m quite willing to forfeit my option on the lower, Mr. Staff.”
That gentleman started and stared.
“Oh, lord, man!” said Iff tolerantly—“as if your portrait hadn’t been published more times than you can remember!—as if all the world were unaware of Benjamin Staff, novelist!”
There was subtle flattery in this; and flattery (we are told) will warm the most austere of authors—which Staff was not. He said “Oh!” and smiled his slow, wry smile; and Mr. Iff, remarking these symptoms of a thaw with interest and encouragement, pressed his point.
“I don’t mind an upper, really—only chose the lower because the choice was mine, at the moment. If you prefer it—”
“The trouble is,” Staff interrupted, “I want the whole room.”
“Oh!… Friend with you?”
“No; but I had some notion of doing a little work on the way over.”
“Writing? I see. But if that’s all—!” Mr. Iff routed a negligible quibble with an airy flirt of his delicate hand. “Trust me; you’ll hardly ever be reminded of my existence—I’m that quiet. And besides, I spend most of my time in the smoking-room. And I don’t snore, and I’m never seasick… . By the way,” he added anxiously, “do or are you?”
“Then we’ll get along famously. I’ll cheerfully take the upper, and even should I tumble out on top of you, you’d never know it: my weight is nothing—hardly that. Now what d’ you say? Is it a go?”
“But—I don’t know you—”
“Business of making a noise like an Englishman!” commented Mr. Iff with bitter scorn.
“—well enough to accept such a favour from you. I’ll take second choice myself—the upper, I mean.”
“You won’t; but we’ll settle that on shipboard,” said Mr. Iff promptly. “As for knowing me—business of introducing myself. Mr. Staff, I want you to shake hands with my friend, Mr. Iff. W. H. Iff, Whiff: sometimes so-called: merry wheeze based on my typographical make-up; once a joke, now so grey with age I generally pull it myself, thus saving new acquaintances the mental strain. Practical philanthropy—what? Whim of mine.”
“Believe me. You’ve no notion how folks suffer in the first throes of that giddy pun. And then when it falls flat—naturally I can’t laugh like a fool at it any longer—blooie!” said Mr. Iff with expression—“like that—blooie!—they do feel so cheap. Wherefore I maintain I do humanity a service when I beat it to that moth-eaten joke. You follow me?”
“Then it’s all settled. Good! We shan’t be in one another’s way. You’ll see.”
“Unless you talk in your sleep, too.”
Mr. Iff looked unspeakable reproach. “You’ll soon get accustomed to me,” he said, brightening—“won’t mind my merry prattle any more ’n the song of a giddy humming-bird.”
He turned and saw their booking-clerks in patient waiting behind the counter. “Ah, there you are, eh? Well, it’s all settled… .”
Thus was the thing accomplished.
And shortly thereafter these two paused in parting at the door.
“Going my way?” enquired Mr. Iff.
Staff named whatever destination he had in mind.
“Sorry. I go t’other way. Take care of yourself. See you tomorrow.”
“Good-bye,” said Staff, and took himself briskly off.
But Mr. Iff did not at once go in the opposite direction. In fact, he moved no more than a door or two away, and then stopped, apparently fascinated by an especially stupid shop-window show.
He had very quick eyes, had Mr. Iff, so alert and observant that they had made him alive to a circumstance which had altogether escaped Staff’s notice—a trifling incident that took place just as they were on the point of parting.
While still they were standing in the doorway, a motor-cab, plunging down Haymarket, had swooped in a wide curve as if meaning to pull in at the curb in front of the steamship company’s office. The cab carried a solitary passenger—a remarkably pretty young woman—and on its roof a remarkably large and ornate bandbox.
It was, in fact, the bandbox which had first fixed the interest of Mr. Iff. Only an introspective vision, indeed, such as that of the imaginative and thoughtful Mr. Staff, could have overlooked the approach of a bandbox so big and upstanding, so profusely beflowered and so prominently displayed.
Now before the cab could stop, its fare, who had been bending forward and peering out of the window as if anxious to recognise her destination, started still farther forward, seized the speaking-tube and spoke into its mouthpiece in a manner of sharp urgency. And promptly the driver swerved out from the curb and swung his car away down Pall Mall.
If it was mere inquisitiveness that held Mr. Iff rooted to the spot, gaping at that uninteresting window show, it served to discover him in the guise of an admirably patient person. Fully fifteen minutes elapsed before the return of the motor-cab was signalled unmistakably by the blatant bandbox bobbing back high above the press of traffic. And when this happened, Mr. Iff found some further business with the steamship company, and quietly and unobtrusively slipped back into the booking-office.
As he did so the cab stopped at the curb and the pretty young woman jumped out and followed Mr. Iff across the threshold—noticing him no more than had Mr. Staff, to begin with.