Chronicles of Melhampton - E. Phillips Oppenheim - ebook

Chronicles of Melhampton ebook

E. Phillips Oppenheim



In the sleepy little Devonshire town of Melhampton, the lives of the village stalwarts are revealed in this charming collection of tales by Oppenheim. Mr Tidd, the manager of the local bank branch, has invested his life and savings in the education of his daughter, but has dipped into the banks funds to „maintain appearances.” On the eve of quarterly bank examiners visit, he is confronted with guilt and exposure. In another tale, the town veterinarian is conflicted about his desire to marry the serving girl at the local Melhampton Arms. Each of these stories presents a social or financial quandary typical of England at the time.

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The Devil, if he had taken a stroll through the streets of the old-fashioned town of Melhampton, would never have selected Mr. Henry Tidd as a likely disciple. There was not the slightest suggestion of an evil life or of a criminal turn of mind in the physiognomy or general deportment of the genial and popular bank manager. His features, if somewhat insignificant, were of an inoffensive type. His eyes, partially concealed behind gold-rimmed spectacles, were weak but kindly, his mouth sensitive and gentle, his manner urbane, only slightly touched with that slur of officialdom which his position had developed. In all respects he walked as custom demanded, and in the manner of his predecessors before him. He was vicar’s church-warden, and took a leading part in the various schemes for the restoration of a very fine old parish church. He was secretary of the Melhampton Lawn Tennis Club and on the 8 committee of the cricket club. He had personally convened a meeting amongst the smaller gentry and his kindred professional men, to consider the advisability of starting a golf club, and had himself initiated negotiations with a neighbouring landowner for the lease of some land. On the vexed question of the inclusion of the tradespeople of the town in the list of prospective members, he had shown himself thoroughly sound, pointing out that in these days a man was to be reckoned for what he was, and insisting that he personally would at any time be glad to play a round of golf or join in any manly sport, say with Mr. James Scroggins, the local butcher, whose dealings with the bank, as it happened, were considerably larger than those of the entire professional element of the place. He possessed a bicycle on which he occasionally rode into the country. He had been for years one of the quartet who played auction bridge once a week, generally at the doctor’s house, on which occasion he donned a dinner-coat and presented the appearance of having dined. On market days and on one other day in the week he invariably visited before luncheon-time the bar parlour of the ‘Melhampton Arms,’ where he unbent 9 sufficiently to shake hands with Mrs. Dowdswell, the widowed landlady whose balance fully justified such a proceeding, and to drink one glass of sherry. In no respect did he fail to uphold the dignity and honour of his position as manager of the local branch of the great banking firm of Netley. His life was apparently an open book to the street lounger, the gossip and the tradesman of Melhampton. Yet Mr. Henry Tidd in due course became a criminal.

It had all come about in a very commonplace way. Amongst Mr. Tidd’s customers, or rather the customers of the bank, was a certain Percy Shields, a veterinary surgeon with a small but fairly prosperous connection, from which he derived an income very little larger than the bank manager’s own salary. About a year previous to these happenings, however, things began to go differently for Mr. Shields. He first of all drew a cheque–the largest he had ever drawn–in favour of a certain firm of stockbrokers, a proceeding which Mr. Tidd noticed with grave concern. From that time on, however, the veterinary surgeon’s position steadily improved. Three times he came cheerfully into the bank and depleted a swollen bank balance in favour of a five-hundred-pound 10 War Bond, thereby moving Mr. Tidd to the deepest envy. He himself, alas! was unable to save a penny, although his family consisted only of one adored daughter, on whose education the small hoardings of his lifetime had been spent. Beyond his salary he was almost penniless, a poorer man by far even than those smaller tradespeople who addressed him so respectfully and looked up to him as the representative of the great banking house of Netley. He suffered from the usual curse of the smaller professional classes–he was forced to keep up an appearance which precluded any chance of saving. Sometimes in the silent hours of the night the sweat had broken out on Mr. Tidd’s forehead at the thought of illness. His life insurance premium was dealt with each year after months of almost pitiful scraping. The clothes in which he presented so impressive an appearance were ironed and pressed and brushed with his own hands in the secrecy of his apartment. No wonder that the voice of Percy Shields on that memorable August afternoon nearly twelve months ago was the voice of the Tempter.

“Ever do anything on the Stock Exchange yourself, Mr. Tidd?” the veterinary surgeon inquired casually as he filled in the papers 11 entitling him to the possession of a third five-hundred-pound War Loan.

“Never,” was the prompt and official reply. “My position here would render such a proceeding inadvisable.”

“Seems a pity,” Shields observed, fingering the stiff parchment document lovingly. “A man with a head for figures like yours ought to do well. One needs to add a little to one’s income these hard times.”

Mr. Tidd kept a stiff upper lip. His smile indicated a full amount of sympathy for those whose inclinations ran that way, but refused more than a general toleration of his client’s point of view. Nevertheless, possibly for the sake of showing his friendly interest, he asked a question.

“You seem to have been very fortunate, I am glad to notice, Mr. Shields. If it is not an indiscreet question, were your dealings confined to any particular share?”

“Amalgamated Linoleums,” was the prompt response. “Finest industrial concern going. They’ve doubled their capital in the last five years. I’ve carried ’em now for twelve months, and, except on one or two occasions, I’ve drawn every settlement day. . . . It’s Thursday, Mr. 12 Tidd, and five minutes to one. Will you do me the honour of drinking a glass of sherry with me?”

Mr. Tidd acquiesced, but the wine did him little good. At luncheon that day–they called it luncheon at Bank House, but it was in reality the one meal of the day–his daughter Sylvia rallied him on his low spirits.

“Dad, I don’t believe your glass of sherry with Mr. Shields agreed with you–or did you have two?” she laughed. “I believe you are bilious. Never mind, old dear, the tennis this afternoon will put you all right.”

Mr. Tidd coughed.

“I have not quite made up my mind whether I shall play tennis this afternoon,” he confessed after a moment’s hesitation.

Sylvia stared across at him, with her beautiful eyes wide open and her pretty lips parted. She knew how much, in his quiet way, her father enjoyed his half-day’s recreation.

“Not play tennis, dad?” she exclaimed. “But why on earth not?”

Mr. Tidd was almost embarrassed. Even in his very limited family circle he maintained enough of his official dignity to render the explanation difficult.

“The fact of it is,” he admitted, trying to speak lightly, “my flannel trousers have been washed a good many times, and on this last occasion they seem to have shrunk more than usual. I tried them on this morning, and I am not quite sure that any violent exercise in them would be–er–advisable.”

Sylvia was a sensible girl, and she saw through the officialdom. She heard, too, the slight quiver in her father’s tone. She left her place, came over and flung her arms around his neck. She went straight to the heart of the matter.

“Dad, are we so very poor?” she asked.

Mr. Tidd, purely from habit, glanced around the room to make sure that they were alone. Then he emerged from behind the disguise of his gold-rimmed spectacles, his carefully acquired manners–a mixture of suave condescension and the genial dignity of an assured position–he cast aside his eternal prescience that in his person was represented the great House of Netley, and he spoke words of naked truth.

“My dear,” he told her bitterly, “we are amongst the martyrs of the earth. We are genteel paupers, shivering all the time on the verge of insolvency. My salary is two hundred 14 and sixty pounds a year and this house, which maintains the dignity of the bank but is absurdly large for us. We have to keep a maid, employ a gardener once a week, pay for coal and gas, our food and clothes, and keep up a decent appearance in the town. It is very difficult. I am obliged to pose as almost an abstainer, because I cannot offer my friends a glass of wine in my own house. I gave up smoking years ago, although it was a great solace to me. I dare not attempt to entertain, so I have to avoid accepting hospitality as far as possible. I take the utmost care of my clothes, but I have had nothing new for many years, and it is hard to present a respectable appearance for all occasions. My dinner-coat, for instance, has now failed me, and I have been compelled, on the plea of sleeplessness, to introduce Mr. Shields to make up the doctor’s weekly rubber in my place. The fear of the dentist or of the doctor has, I confess, been a constant anxiety to me.”

Sylvia, fresh from an expensive boarding school, was horrified.

“But my school bills, dad!”

“They are all paid, dear,” he assured her; “paid with the savings of fifteen years. It 15 was your mother’s wish that the money should be spent in that way.”

Sylvia dashed the tears from her eyes.

“Well, that’s that!” she exclaimed cheerfully. “You shall just see now how I can economise. I shan’t want any clothes for years. And, dad, what about your grey flannel trousers? Mr. Pleydell was wearing a pair just like them last week, and I’m sure, with your blue serge coat and that nice tie, you’ll look topping. Come on, I’ll dress you.”

Mr. Tidd played tennis in his grey trousers–with suitable accompaniments–and betrayed no sign of inward perturbation. He cracked a joke with Shields, whose recent investments entitled him to such a distinction, discussed War Loan with Miss Holywell, who had a small sum lying on deposit, which she could never make up her mind how to invest, and preserved his dignity to the full with Mr. Pleydell, the retired Civil Service official, whose balance was perilously near the borderline. And he played tennis precisely and extremely well.

Nevertheless, that was the day upon which the mischief was sown. Mr. Tidd dreamed all night of Amalgamated Linoleums, and in the morning, over their frugal breakfast, Sylvia put 16 the finishing touches to a half-formed resolution.

“Dad,” she confided, “I have an idea. I wonder we didn’t think of it before.”

“What is it, my dear?” he inquired indulgently.

“Everyone is saying,” she continued, “that Mr. Shields has made quite a great deal of money buying and selling shares. It sounds so simple. He buys them when they are low, as soon as they go up he sells them, and of course he makes the difference. Now you are ever so much cleverer than Mr. Shields, dad. Why don’t you do something of the sort?”

Mr. Tidd sighed, but there was a peculiar gleam in his eyes.

“It is not considered altogether the correct thing, my dear,” he explained, “for a bank manager to deal in stocks and shares.”

“Then if the bank don’t like you to do that they ought to pay you more,” she declared.

Mr. Tidd smiled a little cryptically, but when he entered the bank five minutes before his accustomed hour he opened The Times and turned to the financial column. The date of the paper was the twelfth of August. Now, on the twenty-first of June, more than ten 17 months afterwards, Mr. Tidd was a criminal. The facts were few but painful. Locked in his drawer were stockbrokers’ receipts, showing that Mr. Tidd had paid up adverse balances amounting to nine hundred and forty-five pounds, fifteen shillings, and the funds of the bank committed to his keeping were short exactly that amount. On the thirtieth all balances would be struck. After that date concealment would be impossible, for on the second day of July Mr. Nevinson, the travelling inspector, would be round, and–but Mr. Tidd’s imagination failed to carry him farther than that. Farther, that is to say, than the inauguration of disaster. That he saw, as he sat looking over the wire blind into the street, with hideous preciseness. At about a quarter to ten the inspector would drive up in a Ford car, driven by a chauffeur in semi-private livery. The inspector–rather a replica of Mr. Tidd himself, except that he wore horn instead of gold-rimmed spectacles–would descend, shake hands with Mr. Tidd a little stiffly, as became his position, and after leaving his hat and coat in the private office, would at once plunge into the books. In a general way his task would be over at about half-past one, 18 when he would close the ledger with a slam, wipe his spectacles, smile benignly on Mr. Tidd with the air of one relieved of a grim cloud of apprehension, and invite him to luncheon at the ‘Melhampton Arms.’ His little cut-and-dried speech was always the same.

“I find your books quite in order, Mr. Tidd–quite as I expected. Give me the pleasure of your company to luncheon at the inn. I have apprised the landlady of our coming, so that she is doubtless prepared.”

But on this forthcoming occasion the programme would be varied. It would take the inspector, Mr. Tidd decided, about half an hour to come to the first inaccuracy. And after that–well, that was where Mr. Tidd’s imagination failed him.

The pleasant street into which he looked while conjuring up these dismal prognostications suddenly received an access of interest. Sylvia, with her tennis racquet in her hand, had issued from the front door of the house and was slowly crossing the road. Almost at the same time a young man, driving a two-seated car with a ridiculously elongated bonnet, came round the corner a little recklessly and headed straight for the sauntering girl. Sylvia, 19 a tantalisingly beautiful vision in white skirt and pink jumper, leaped lightly on to the pavement and glanced disapprovingly at the young man. The latter jammed down his brake with such force as to skid right round in the street, from which position, at right angles to the pavement, he raised his cap and evidently attempted some form of apology. Sylvia, behaving entirely in the spirit of her upbringing, bowed a little stiffly and, without glancing behind, vanished through a wooden gate let into the grey stone wall, on which was painted in white letters:


This, if the young man had been an ordinary sort of young man, should have ended the matter. As it happened, however, Mr. Jeremiah H. Preedy, having been brought up with the idea that his slightest whim was only conceived to be gratified, and feeling a distinct inclination to see the young lady again, showed not the slightest signs of behaving like an ordinary mortal. After a few moments’ contemplation of the closed gate, he backed his car to the side of the pavement, descended, and entered 20 the nearest shop, which happened to be a tobacconist’s. From this he emerged in about five minutes’ time smoking a cigarette, but still without any immediate indications of continuing his journey. He strolled along the pavement and examined the mystic letters on the door through which Sylvia had vanished. Then, gazing around once more, as though in search of further inspiration, he was suddenly made aware, by means of the lettering upon the window and also the imposing brass plate, of the existence of a branch of Netley’s Bank. He hastily dived into the breast-pocket of his coat, consulted a thin book and crossed the street. A moment later he pushed open the swing door and approached the bank counter, having, as Mr. Tidd was pleased to see, thrown away his cigarette. Mr. Tidd arose from the nightmare of his reflections and presented himself on the other side of the counter. There was nothing whatever in his gentle, inquiring demeanour to suggest the anguish-racked criminal.

“I guess this is a branch of Netley’s Bank?” the new-comer remarked pleasantly.

“It is,” Mr. Tidd acquiesced.

“Say, I’d like some money, if we can fix it 21 up,” the young man continued, drawing the thin morocco book from his pocket. “I’ve a letter of credit here which seems payable at any of your branches. Jeremiah H. Preedy, my name is.”

Mr. Tidd examined the document in his best official manner. He succeeded in concealing his surprise when he saw that in clear and unmistakable phraseology it eagerly invoked all correspondents of the great House of Netley to provide Mr. Jeremiah H. Preedy, of Fifth Avenue, New York, with such financial accommodation as he might require up to the sum of five thousand pounds.

“Have you any proof,” Mr. Tidd inquired guardedly, “that you are the person referred to in this document?”

“I should say so,” the young man replied. “There’s my driver’s licence outside in the pocket of the car, issued yesterday morning at Plymouth, and here’s a handful of mail addressed to me as you can see,” he added, producing some letters.

Mr. Tidd examined the superscription of the envelopes, turned back to the letter of credit, and nodded slowly.

“This appears to be in order,” he pronounced. “How much money would you like?”

Mr. Jeremiah H. Preedy leaned against the counter in friendly fashion. He was over six feet tall and of most engaging appearance.

“Well, I don’t know,” he confessed, a little doubtfully. “I’m just kind of wandering round in the car. Only landed at Plymouth yesterday morning. We had a bully trip from New York.”

“Indeed?” Mr. Tidd remarked, somewhat vaguely.

“I’m doing what I always planned to do,” the young man confided, making himself a little more comfortable, “having a look at some of these quieter corners of England. Say, this is a real old-fashioned place, isn’t it!”

“It is a town of some antiquity,” Mr. Tidd informed him. “There are Roman remains in the neighbourhood which are referred to in all guide books of Devon.”

“Is that so!” the young man exclaimed, with marked interest. “How far out might they be?”

“Scarcely more than a mile,” was the encouraging reply. “There is also an excellent trout stream.”

“Any sort of way of getting a little exercise?” 23 Mr. Jeremiah H. Preedy inquired, casting a longing glance across the way.

Mr. Tidd referred once more to the name upon the letter of credit, which was a great one in American finance.

“There is a tennis club,” he said, “which exists chiefly for the use of the residents. We are none of us brilliant performers. If, however, you should decide to stay in the neighbourhood for a day or two, it would give me much pleasure, as secretary, to offer you its hospitality.”

“That’s bully,” the young man declared heartily. “I guess there’s an inn of some sort?”

“The ‘Melhampton Arms’ is just across the way, a little lower down on the left,” Mr. Tidd replied. “Travellers visiting the neighbourhood speak very well of it.”

“I’ll go right down and get a room,” the visitor announced. “What about the tennis, sir?”

Mr. Tidd glanced at the clock.

“It is one of the afternoons upon which I usually play a few sets myself after closing hours,” he said. “If you care to call here for me in three-quarters of an hour, I will take you there myself.”

“Great!” the young man assented, preparing to depart.

“Concerning this little financial matter,” Mr. Tidd reminded him, tapping the letter of credit.

“Sure! I’d like to have some money,” was the prompt avowal. “What about a hundred pounds?”

Mr. Tidd counted out a hundred pounds in fives and tens, and pushed them across the counter. Mr. Jeremiah H. Preedy scrawled his name in the place appointed, thrust the money into his pocket-book, which already, as the bank manager could not fail to notice, contained a considerable number of notes, and took his breezy departure. Mr. Tidd watched him start up his car, turn around and drive under the covered archway of the ‘Melhampton Arms.’ Then he looked at the little morocco-bound book which his visitor had left upon the counter. He opened it. The young man had scrawled his name opposite the first blank space–and that was all. He had not even troubled to fill in the amount. Mr. Tidd locked the book away in his private drawer, closed the front door of the bank, and hurried upstairs to change into his tennis clothes. He was surprised to find 25 that, although the afternoon was cool, his forehead was damp with perspiration. . . .

Mr. Jeremiah H. Preedy of New York scored a great social success in the little Devonshire town that afternoon. From the vicar’s mother, who came in a bath-chair, to the doctor’s youngest child, who was allowed to field the balls, everyone voted him delightful. His tennis, although he carefully adapted his game, so far as he could, to the capacity of the other players, was a revelation to them all, and in the end he was forced to admit that he was a prospective contestant at Wimbledon and Prince’s. He played cheerfully, however, with the most indifferent performers, and he undertook in the most unselfish manner to improve Sylvia’s game by fifty per cent, if she would practise for an hour or two every morning with him.

“Every morning?” she repeated, looking at him with wide-open eyes. “How long are you going to stay here, then?”

“That depends,” he answered, dropping his voice. “I’m in no particular hurry to get anywhere. I meant to take a month’s vacation, and it seems to me this is about as attractive a place as I am likely to find.”

She laughed incredulously.

“Why, it’s one of the dullest little towns in Devonshire,” she declared.

“I guess I’m willing to put up with that for a time, anyway,” he assured her.

“But what made you stay here at all?” she persisted.

“I was just motoring through,” he explained innocently, “and the place seemed attractive.”

She laughed up at him.

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