TO MARION CALDECOTT WITH THE AUTHOR'S HOMAGE
TO MARION CALDECOTT WITH THE AUTHOR'S HOMAGE
The author, who is merely an inventor of stories, may at little cost impress his readers with the scope of his general knowledge. For he may place the scene of his story in Milan at the Court of the Visconti and throw back the action half a thousand years, drawing across his stage splendid figures slimly silked or sombrely satined, and fill their mouths with such awesome oaths as "By Bacchus!" or "Sapristi!" and the like. He may also, does the fine fancy seize him, take for his villain no less a personage than Monseigneur, for hero a Florentine Count, as bright lady of the piece, a swooning flower of the Renaissance, all pink and white, with a bodice of plum velvet cut square at the breast, and showing the milk-white purity of her strong young throat.
It is indeed a more difficult matter when one is less of an inventor, than a painstaking recorder of facts.
When our characters are conventionally attired in trousers of the latest fashion, and ransacking mythology, the oath-makers can accept no god worthier of witness than High Jove.
Greatest of all disabilities consider this fact: that the scene must be laid in Brockley, S.E., a respectable suburb of London, and you realize the apparent hopelessness of the self-imposed task of the writer who would weave romance from such unpromising material.
It would indeed seem well-nigh hopeless to extract the exact proportions of tragedy and farce from Kymott Crescent that go to make your true comedy, were it not for the intervention of the Duke, of Hank, his friend, of Mr. Roderick Nape, of Big Bill Slewer of Four Ways, Texas, and last, but by no means least, Miss Alicia Terrill of "The Ferns," 66 Kymott Crescent.
The local directory is a useful institution to the stranger, but the intimate directory of suburbia, the libellous "Who's Who," has never and will never be printed. Set in parallel columns, it must be clear to the meanest intelligence that, given a free hand, the directory editor could produce a volume which, for sparkle and interest, would surpass the finest work that author has produced, or free library put into circulation. Thus:
44. Mr. A. B. Wilkes. Merchant.
Wilkes drinks: comes home in cabs which he can ill afford. Young George Wilkes is a most insufferable little beast, uses scent in large quantities. Mrs. W. has not had a new dress for years.
56. Mr. T. B. Coyter. Accountant.
Coyter has three stories which he will insist upon repeating. Mrs. C. smokes and is considered a little fast. No children: two cats, which Mrs. C. calls "her darlings." C. lost a lot of money in a ginger beer enterprise.
66. Mrs. Terrill.
Very close, not sociable, in fact, "stuck up ". Daughter rather pretty, but stand offish—believed to have lived in great style before Mr. T. died, but now scraping along on L200 a year. Never give parties and seldom go out.
74. Mr. Nape.
Retired civil servant. Son Roderick supposed to be very clever; never cuts his hair: a great brooder, reads too many trashy detective stories.
And so on ad infinitum, or rather until the portentous and grave pronouncement "Here is Kymott Terrace" shuts off the Crescent, its constitution and history. There are hundreds of Kymott Crescents in London Suburbia, populated by immaculate youths of a certain set and rigid pattern, of girls who affect open-worked blouses and short sleeves, of deliberate old gentlemen who water their gardens and set crude traps for the devastating caterpillar. And the young men play cricket in snowy flannels, and the girls get hot and messy at tennis, and the old gentle men foregather in the evening at the nearest open space to play bowls with some labour and no little dignity. So it was with the Crescent,
In this pretty thoroughfare with its L100 p.a. houses (detached), its tiny carriage drives, its white muslin curtains hanging stiffly from glittering brass bands, its window boxes of clustering geraniums and its neat lawns, it was a tradition that no one house knew anything about its next—door neighbour—or wanted to know. You might imagine, if you find yourself deficient in charity, that such a praiseworthy attitude was in the nature of a polite fiction, but you may judge for yourself.
The news that No. 64, for so long standing empty, and bearing on its blank windows the legend "To Let—apply caretaker," had at length found a tenant was general property on September 6. The information that the new people would move in on the 17th was not so widespread until two days before that date.
Master Willie Outram (of 6 "Fairlawn") announced his intention of "seeing what they'd got," and was very promptly and properly reproved by his mother.
"You will be good enough to remember that only rude people stare at other people's furniture when it is being carried into the house," she admonished icily; "be good enough to keep away, and if I see you near 64 when the van comes I shall be very cross."
Which gives the lie to the detractors of Kymott Crescent.
Her next words were not so happily chosen.
"You might tell me what She's like," she added thoughtfully.
To the disgust of Willie, the van did not arrive at 64 until dusk. He had kept the vigil the whole day to no purpose. It was a small van, damnably small, and I do not use the adverb as an expletive, but to indicate how this little pantechnicon might easily have inaffaceably stamped the penury of the new tenants.
And there was no She.
Two men came after the van had arrived.
They were both tall, both dressed in grey, but one was older than the other.
The younger man was clean-shaven, with a keen brown face and steady grey eyes that had a trick of laughing of themselves. The other might have been ten years older. He too was clean-shaven, and his skin was the hue of mahogany.
A close observer would not have failed to notice that the hands of both were big, as the hands of men used to manual labour.
They stood on either side of the tiled path that led through the strip of front garden to the door, and watched in silence the rapid unloading of their modest property.
Willie Outram, frankly a reporter, mentally noted the absence of piano, whatnot, mirror and all the paraphernalia peculiar to the Kymott Crescent drawing-room. He saw bundles of skins, bundles of spears, tomahawks (imagine his ecstasy!), war drums, guns, shields and trophies of the chase. Bedroom furniture that would disgrace a servant's attic, camp bedsteads, big lounge chairs and divans. Most notable absentee from the furnishings was She—a fact which might have served as food for discussion for weeks, but for the more important discovery he made later.
A man—servant busied himself directing the removers, and the elder of the two tenants at last said:
"That's finished, Duke."
He spoke with a drawling, lazy, American accent.
The young man nodded, and called the servant.
"We shall be back before ten," he said in a pleasant voice.
"Very—good, m'lord," replied the man with the slightest of bows.
The man looked round and saw Willie.
"Hank," he said, "there's the information bureau—find out things."
The elder jerked his head invitingly, and Willie sidled into the garden.
"Bud," said Hank, with a hint of gloom in his voice, "where's the nearest saloon?"
"Saloon, sir!" He did not quite comprehend.
"Pub," explained the young man, in a soft voice.
"Public-house, sir?" Willie faltered correctly.
Hank nodded, and the young man chuckled softly.
"There is," said the outraged youth, "a good—pull—up—for—carmen at the far end of Kymott Road, the far end," he emphasized carefully.
"At the far end, eh?" Hank looked round at his companion. "Duke, shall we walk or shall we take the pantechnicon?"
"Walk," said his grace promptly.
Willie saw the two walking away. His young brain was in a whirl. Here was an epoch—making happening, a tremendous revolutionary and unprecedented circumstance—nay, it was almost monstrous, that there should come into the ordered life of Kymott Crescent so disturbing a factor.
The agitated youth watched them disappearing, and as the consciousness of his own responsibility came to him, he sprinted after them.
They turned round.
"You—here I say!—you're not a duke, are you—not a real duke?" he floundered.
Hank surveyed him kindly.
"Sonny," he said impressively. "this is the realest duke you've ever seen: canned in the Dukeries an' bearin' the Government analyst's certificate."
"But—but," said the bewildered boy, "no larks—I say, are you truly a duke?"
He looked appealingly at the younger man whose eyes were dancing.
He nodded his head and became instantly grave.
"I'm a truly duke," he said sadly, "keep it dark."
He put his hand in his pocket and produced with elaborate deliberation a small card case. From this he extracted a piece of pasteboard and handed to Willie, who read:
"THE Due DE MONTVILLIER," and in a corner. "San Pio Ranch, Tex."
"I'm not," continued the young man modestly. "I'm not an English duke: if anything I'm rather superior to the average English duke: I've got royal blood in my veins, and I shall be very pleased to see you at No. 64."
"From 10 till 4," interposed the grave Hank.
"From 10 till 4," accepted the other, "which are my office hours."
"For duking," explained Hank.
"Exactly—for duking," said his grace.
Willie looked from one to the other.
"I say!" he blurted. "you're pulling my leg, aren't you? I say! you're rotting me."
"I told you so," murmured the Duke resentfully: "Hank, he thinks I'm rotting—he's certain I'm pulling his leg, Hank."
Hank said nothing.
Only he shook his head despairingly, and taking the other's arm, they continued their walk, their bowed shoulders eloquent of their dejection.
Willie watched them for a moment, then turned and sped homeward with the news.
The Earl of Windermere wrote to the Rev. Arthur Stayne, M.A., vicar of St. Magnus, Brockley:
"I have just heard that your unfortunate parish is to be inflicted with young de Montvillier. What process of reasoning led him to fix upon Brockley I cannot, dare not, fathom. You may be sure that this freak of his has some devilishly subtle cause—don't let him worry your good parishioners. He was at Eton with my boy Jim. I met him cow-punching in Texas a few years ago when I was visiting the States, and he was of some service to me. He belongs to one of the oldest families in France, but his people were chucked out at the time of the Revolution. He is as good as gold, as plucky as they make 'em, and, thanks to his father (the only one of the family to settle anywhere for long), thoroughly Anglicized in sympathies and in language. He is quite 'the compleat philosopher,' flippant, audacious and casual. His pal Hank, who is with him, is George Hankey, the man who discovered silver in Los Madeges. Both of them have made and lost fortunes, but I believe they have come back to England with something like a competence. Call on them. They will probably be very casual with you, but they are both worth cultivating."
The Rev. Arthur Stayne called and was admitted into the barely furnished hall by the deferential man—servant.
"His Grace will see you in the common—room," he said, and ushered the clergyman into the back parlour.
The Duke rose with a smile, and came towards him with outstretched hand.
Hank got up from his lounge chair, and waved away the cloud of smoke that hovered about his head.
"Glad to see you, sir," said the Duke, with a note of respect in his voice, "this is Mr. Hankey."
The vicar, on his guard against a possibility of brusqueness, returned Hank's friendly grin with relief.
"I've had a letter from Windermere," he explained. The Duke looked puzzled for a moment and he turned to his companion.
"That's the guy that fell off the bronco," Hank said with a calm politeness, totally at variance with his disrespectful language.
The vicar looked at him sharply.
"Oh, yes!" said the Duke eagerly. "Of course. I picked him up."
There came to the vicar's mind a recollection that this young man had been "of some service to me." He smiled.
This broke the ice, and soon there was a three-cornered conversation in progress, which embraced subjects as far apart as cattle ranching and gardening.
"Now look here, you people," said the vicar, growing serious after a while. "I've got something to say to you—why have you come to Brockley?"
The two men exchanged glances.
"Well," said the Duke slowly. "there were several considerations that helped us to decide—first of all the death-rate is very low."
"And the gravel soil," murmured Hank encouragingly.
"And the gravel soil," the Duke went on, nodding his head wisely. "and the rates, you know—"
The vicar raised his hand laughingly.
"Three hundred feet above sea level," he smiled, "yes, I know all about the advertised glories of Brockley—but really?"
Again they looked at each other.
"Shall I?" asked the Duke.
"Ye—es," hesitated Hank; "you'd better."
The young man sighed.
"Have you ever been a duke on a ranch," he asked innocently. "a cattle-punching duke, rounding in, branding, roping and ear—marking cattle—no? I thought not. Have you ever been a duke prospecting silver or searching for diamonds in the bad lands of Brazil?"
"That's got him," said Hank in a stage whisper.
The vicar waited.
"Have you ever been a duke under conditions and in circumstances where you were addressed by your title in much the same way as you call your gardener 'Jim'?"
The vicar shook his head.
"I knew he hadn't," said Hank triumphantly.
"If you had," said the young man with severity, "if your ears had ached with, 'Here, Duke, get up and light the fire,' or 'Where's that fool Duke,' or 'Say, Dukey, lend me a chaw of tobacco'—if you had had any of these experiences, would you not"—he tapped the chest of the vicar with solemn emphasis—" would you not pine for a life and a land where dukes were treated as dukes ought to be treated, where any man saying 'Jukey' can be tried for High Treason, and brought to the rack?"
"By Magna Charta," murmured Hank.
"And the Declaration of Rights," added the Duke indignantly.
The vicar rose, his lips twitching.
"You will not complain of a lack of worship here," he said.
He was a little relieved by the conversation, for he saw behind the extravagance a glimmer of truth. "Only please don't shock my people too much," he smiled, as he stood at the door.
"I hope," said the Duke with dignity. "that we shall not shock your people at all. After all, we are gentlefolk."
"We buy our beer by the keg," murmured Hank proudly.
There were other callers.
There is, I believe, a game called "Snip, Snap, Snorum," where if you call "Snap" too soon you are penalized, and if you call "Snap" too late you pay forfeit. Calling on the Duke was a sort of game of social Snap, for Kymott Crescent vacillated in an agony of apprehension between the bad form of calling too soon, and the terrible disadvantage that might accrue through calling too late and finding some hated social rival installed as confidential adviser and Fidus Achates.
The Coyters were the first to call, thus endorsing the Crescent's opinion of Mrs. C.
Coyter fired off his three stories.
(1) What the parrot said to the policeman.
(2) What the County Court judge said to the obdurate creditor who wanted time to pay (can you guess the story?).
(3) What the parson said to the couple who wanted to be married without banns.
Duke and Co. laughed politely.
Mrs. C., who had a reputation for archness to sustain, told them that they mustn't believe all the dreadful stories they heard about her, and even if she did smoke, well what of it?
"Ah," murmured the Duke with sympathetic resentment of the world's censure, "what of it?"
"There was a lady in Montana," said Hank courteously, "a charming lady she was too, who smoked morning, noon and night, and nobody thought any worse of her."
The lady basked in the approval. Of course, only smoked very occasionally, a teeny weeny cigarette.
"That woman," said Hank solemnly, "was never without a pipe or a see-gar. Smoked Old Union plug—do you remember her, Duke?"
"Let me see," pondered the Duke, "the lady with the one eye or—"
"Oh, no," corrected Hank. "she died in delirium tremens—no, don't you remember the woman that ran away with Bill Suggley to Denver, she got tried for poisonin' him afterwards."
"Oh, yes!" The Duke's face lit up, but Mrs. G. coughed dubiously.
Mr. Roderick Nape called. He was mysterious and shot quick glances round the room and permitted himself to smile quietly.
They had the conventional opening. The Duke was very glad to see him, and he was delighted to make the acquaintance of the Duke. What extraordinary weather they had been having!
Indeed, agreed the Duke, it was extraordinary.
"You've been to America," said Mr. Roderick Nape suddenly and abruptly.
The Duke looked surprised.
"Yes," he admitted.
"West, of course," said the young Mr. Nape carelessly.
"However did you know?" said the astonished nobleman.
Young Mr. Nape shrugged his shoulders.
"One has the gift of observation and deduction—born with it," he said disparagingly. He indicated with a wave of his hand two Mexican saddles that hung on the wall.
"Where did they come from?" he asked, with an indulgent smile.
"I bought 'em at a curiosity shop in Bond Street," said the Duke innocently, "but you're right, we have lived in America."
"I thought so," said the young Mr. Nape, and pushed back his long black hair.
"Of course," he went on. "one models one's system on certain lines. I have already had two or three cases not without interest. There was the Episode of the Housemaid's Brooch, and the Adventure of the Black Dog—"
"What was that?" asked the Duke eagerly.
"A mere trifle," said the amateur detective with an airy wave of his hand. "I'd noticed the dog hanging about our kitchen; as we have no dogs I knew it was a stranger, as it stuck to the kitchen, knew it must be hungry. Looked on its collar, discovered it belonged to a Colonel B—, took it back and restored it to its owner, and told him within a day or so, how long it was since he had lost it."
Hank shook his head in speechless admiration.
"Any time you happen to be passing," said young Mr. Nape, rising to go, "call in and see my little laboratory: I've fixed it up in the greenhouse; if you ever want a bloodstain analysed I shall be there."
"Sitting in your dressing-gown, I suppose," said the Duke with awe, "playing your violin and smoking shag."
Young Mr. Nape frowned.
"Somebody has been talking about me," he said severely.
"Sixty—three has to call, 51 is out of town, and 35 has measles in the house," reported the Duke one morning at breakfast.
Hank helped himself to a fried egg with the flat of his knife.
"What about next door?" he asked.
"Next door won't call," said the Duke sadly. "Next door used to live in Portland Place, where dukes are so thick you have to fix wire netting to prevent them coming in at the window—no, mark off 66 as a non - starter."
Hank ate his egg in silence.
"She's very pretty," he said at length.
"I saw her yesterday, straight and slim, with a complexion like snow—"
"Cut it out!" said the Duke brutally.
"And eyes as blue as a winter sky in Texas."
"Haw!" murmured his disgusted grace.
"And a walk—" apostrophized the other dreamily.
The Duke raised his hands.
"I surrender, colonel," he pleaded; "you've been patronizing the free library, I recognize the bit about the sky over little old Texas."
"What happened—?" Hank jerked his head in the direction of No. 66.
The Duke was serious when he replied.
"Africans, Siberians, Old Nevada Silver and all the rotten stock that a decent, easy-going white man could be lured into buying," he said quietly; "that was the father. When the smash came he obligingly died."
Hank pursed his lips thoughtfully.
"It's fairly tragic," he said, "poor girl."
The Duke was deep in thought again.
"I must meet her," he said briskly.
Hank looked at the ceiling.
"In a way," he said slowly, "fate has brought you together, and before the day is over, I've no doubt you will have much to discuss in common."
The Duke looked at him with suspicion.
"Have you been taking a few private lessons from young Sherlock Nape?" he asked.
Hank shook his head.
"There was a certain tabby cat that patronized our back garden," he said mysteriously.
"True, O seer!"
"She ate our flowers."
"She did," said the Duke complacently. "I caught her at it this very morning."
"And plugged her with an air-gun?"
"Your air-gun," expostulated the Duke hastily.
"Your plug," said Hank calmly; "well, that cat—"
"Don't tell me," said the Duke, rising in his agitation—"don't tell me that this poor unoffending feline, which your gun—"
"Your shot," murmured Hank.
"Which your wretched air-gun so ruthlessly destroyed," continued the Duke sternly. "don't tell me it is the faithful dumb friend of 66?"
"It was," corrected Hank.
"The devil it was!" said his grace, subsiding into gloom.
The situation was a tragic one. Alicia Terrill, trembling with indignation, a faint flush on her pretty face, and her forehead wrinkled in an angry frown, kept her voice steady with an effort, and looked down from the step-ladder on which she stood, at the urbane young man on the other side of the wall.
He stood with his hands respectfully clasped behind his back, balancing himself on the edge of his tiny lawn, and regarded her without emotion. The grim evidence of the tragedy was hidden from his view, but he accepted her estimate of his action with disconcerting calmness. Hank, discreetly hidden in the conservatory, was an interested eavesdropper.
The girl had time to notice that the Duke had a pleasant face, burnt and tanned by sun and wind, that he was clean-shaven, with a square determined jaw and clear grey eyes that were steadfastly fixed on hers. In a way he was good looking, though she was too angry to observe the fact, and the loose flannel suit he wore did not hide the athletic construction of the man beneath.
"It is monstrous of you!" she said hotly, "you, a stranger here—"
"I know your cat," he said calmly.
"And very likely it wasn't poor Tibs at all that ate your wretched flowers."
"Then poor Tibs isn't hurt," said the Duke with a sigh of relief, "for the cat I shot at was making a hearty meal of my young chrysanthemums and—"
"How dare you say that!" she demanded wrathfully. "When the poor thing is flying round the house with a—with a wounded tail?"
The young man grinned.
"If I've only shot a bit off her tail," he said cheerfully. "I am relieved. I thought she was down and out."
She was too indignant to make any reply.
"After all," mused the Duke with admirable philosophy, "a tail isn't one thing or another with a cat—now a horse or a cow needs a tail to keep the flies away, a dog needs a tail to wag when he's happy, but a cat's tail—"
She stopped him with a majestic gesture. She was still atop of the ladder, and was too pretty to be ridiculous.
"It is useless arguing with you," she said coldly; "my mother will take steps to secure us freedom from a repetition of this annoyance."
"Send me a lawyer's letter," he suggested, "that is the thing one does in the suburbs, isn't it?"
He did not see her when she answered, for she had made a dignified descent from her shaky perch.
"Our acquaintance with suburban etiquette," said her voice coldly, "is probably more limited than your own."
"Indeed?" with polite incredulity.
"Even in Brockley," said the angry voice, "one expects to meet people—"
She broke off abruptly.
"Yes," he suggested with an air of interest, "people—?"
He waited a little for her reply. He heard a smothered exclamation of annoyance and beckoned Hank. That splendid lieutenant produced a step- ladder and steadied it as the Duke made a rapid ascent.
"You were saying?" he said politely.
She was holding the hem of her dress and examining ruefully the havoc wrought on a flounce by a projecting nail.
"You were about to say—?"
She looked up at him with an angry frown.
"Even in Brockley it is considered an outrageous piece of bad manners to thrust oneself upon people who do not wish to know one!"
"Keep to the subject, please," he said severely, "we were discussing the cat."
She favoured him with the faintest shrug.
"I'm afraid I cannot discuss any matter with you," she said coldly. "You have taken a most unwarrantable liberty." She turned to walk into the house.
"You forget," he said gently, "I am a duke. I have certain feudal privileges, conferred by a grateful dynasty, one of which, I believe, is to shoot cats."
"I can only regret," she fired back at him, from the door of the little conservatory that led into the house, "that I cannot accept your generous estimate of yourself. The ridiculous court that is being paid to you by the wretched people in this road must have turned your head. I should prefer the evidence of De Gotha before I even accepted your miserable title."
She had banged the door behind her.
"Here I say!" called the alarmed Duke. "Please come back! Aren't I in De Gotha?"
He looked down on Hank.
"Hank," he said soberly, "did you hear that tremendous charge? She don't believe there is no Mrs. Harris!"