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The Countess of Lowndes Square and Other Stories
E. F. Benson
THE COUNTESS OF LOWNDES SQUARE
THE BLACKMAILER OF PARK LANE
THE DANCE ON THE BEEFSTEAK
IN THE DARK
THE FALSE STEP
THE CASE OF FRANK HAMPDEN
MRS. ANDREWS’S CONTROL
THERE AROSE A KING
THE TRAGEDY OF OLIVER BOWMAN
PHILIP’S SAFETY RAZOR
I have divided the stories that are here collected under one cover into various classes, so that such readers as want to compare their own experiments, let us say, in blackmailing or spiritualistic séances, with those of other students, may find such tales as deal with their own speciality in crime or superstition grouped together in separate sections of this book. They will thus be spared a skipping hunt through pages in which they feel no personal interest.
In the same way, such readers as are in search merely of the lighter (though not more decorative) aspects of life, will be able to avoid like poison so innocent-looking a title as “The Countess of Lowndes Square,” for assuredly they would not find therein the fashionable descriptions of high life which they might reasonably anticipate, but would merely cast the book from them in disgust, when they discovered that one who had been the wife of an Earl, and ought therefore to have known ever so much better, belonged to the most contemptible of the criminal classes. The table of contents, in like manner, conducts the crank and the cat-lover to the pastures where he is most likely to find a digestible snack.
The short story is not a lyre on which English writers thrum with the firm delicacy of the French, or with the industry of the American author. If the ten best short stories in the world were proclaimed by popular vote, it is probable that they would all be French stories; while if the million worst stories in the world were similarly brought together into one unspeakable library, they would probably all of them—with the exception, of course, of the fourteen that make up this volume—be found to be written in America. There is something in the precision and economy of the French, something in the opulence and amateurishness of the United States that renders the result of such a plebiscite perfectly appropriate, and we should only, when the result of the poll was known, find in it another instance of the invariable occurrence of the expected.
Most of the ensuing tales have appeared before in the pages of Nash’s Weekly, The Windsor Magazine, The Story-Teller, The Century, and The Woman at Home. The rest are now published for the first time.
E. F. Benson.
Cynthia, Countess of Hampshire, was sitting in an extraordinarily elaborate dressing-gown one innocent morning in June, alternately opening letters and eating spoonfuls of sour milk prepared according to the prescription of Professor Metchnikoff. Every day it made her feel younger and stronger and more irresponsible (which is the root of all joy to natures of a serious disposition), and since (when a fortnight before she began this abominable treatment) she felt very young already, she was now almost afraid that she would start again on measles, croup, hoops, whooping-cough, peppermints, and other childish ailments and passions. But since this treatment not only induced youth, but was discouraging to all microbes but its own, she hoped as regards ailments that she would continue to feel younger and younger without suffering the penalties of childhood.
The sour milk was finished long before her letters were all opened, for there was no one in London who had a larger and more festive post than she. Indeed, it was no wonder that everybody of sense (and most people of none) wanted her to eat their dinners and stay in their houses, for her volcanic enjoyment of life made the dullest of social functions a high orgy, and since nothing is nearly so infectious as enjoyment, it followed that she was much in request.
Even in her fiftieth year she retained with her youthful zest for life much of the extreme plainness of her girlhood, but time was gradually lightening the heaviness of feature that had once formed so remarkable an ugliness, and in a few years more, no doubt, she would become as nice looking as everybody else of her age.
Her father, the notorious (probably infamous) Baron Kakao, of mixed and uncertain origin, had at one time compiled by hook or crook (chiefly, it is to be feared, by crook) an immense fortune; but long after that was spent, and debts of an equally substantial nature been substituted for it, he continued to live in London in a blaze of splendour so Oriental, that he was still believed to be possessed of fabulous wealth, and had without the least difficulty married the plain but fascinating Cynthia to an elderly Earl of Hampshire, and had continued to allow her £10,000 a year, which he borrowed at a staggering rate of usury from optimistic Hebrews. They thought that Lord Hampshire would probably see to his father-in-law’s debts; while, rather humorously, Lord Hampshire was post-obiting himself with others who trusted that Baron Kakao would come to the rescue of his son-in-law.
Consequently, when he and Cynthia’s disgusting husband expired within a few hours of each other, the widowed and orphaned Countess was left without a penny in the world, and in Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation and great mourning! Father and husband were both sad rogues, and in death, in more than a chronological sense, it is highly probable that they were not divided.
It will therefore be easily imagined that her childhood and marriage had been a sound and liberal education to Lady Hampshire; for they had taught her that the world in general is very easily imposed upon, and that if you are intending to be a villain, the path of villainy is made much smoother to the pilgrim if he smiles. Shakespeare perhaps had given her the germ of that invaluable truth; but, as in countless other instances, her brilliant brain brought to full flower what was only an immature bud of knowledge. In any case, the villain, so she shrewdly reasoned, must keep his frown to himself, and however dreadful the machinations on which he is employed, must cultivate a dewy bonhomie in public, and pretend to be innocently engrossed in the pleasures and palaces of this delightful world. Lady Hampshire went farther than this (especially since she had taken to sour milk), and actually was engrossed in them for a large majority of the hours of those entrancing summer days. But, like all game fish, she had a close time, which occurred every morning over her post. For to let the reader into her terrible and unsuspected secret, she was an earnest and adroit blackmailer.
It is easy to find excuses (if excuses are needed) to account for her adoption of so vivid and thrilling a life, for indeed it is difficult to see how she could have existed at all without some such source of income as this, and still less could she have kept up her delightful house in Lowndes Square, her cottage in the Cotswolds, her luxurious and rapid motor-car, her box at the opera, her wonderful toilettes at Sandown and Epsom, and Newmarket and Aix and Marienbad.
All these simple pleasures were really a necessity of life to her, while in addition to that she rightly regarded them as an indispensable part of her “makeup” as a blackmailer, a mask behind which she could securely grin. Had she, with her historic name, gone to live in Whitechapel or Bayswater, people would have inevitably concluded that she was hard up, and in the charitable manner characteristic of the world, have wondered how she managed to live at all except by some course of secret and remunerative crime. Whereas the genial and affluent Countess who gave her box at the opera, not to her friend (for she was too clever for that), but to her possible enemies, whenever she did not want it (which was six nights in the week, since she detested music as much as she detested detectives), was a woman who need not laugh at suspicion, simply because there were no suspicions to laugh at. Nobody bothered himself or herself as to how she got her money, just because she always spent it so delightfully. If she had not spent it thus, or if there had been none to spend, there would have been excellent cause for the world to wonder where it came (or did not come) from.
A word is necessary for the sake of those few who may possibly be ignorant of how such things are pleasantly managed, as to her methods when in pursuit of her profession. From an amateur standpoint, and to the world at large, she was, as has been said, Cynthia, Countess of Hampshire; but in her business capacity and to the scarcely less numerous world of her trembling clients she was Agatha Ainslie (Miss). Here she differed from Shakespeare, for she held that there was a great deal in a name, and (apart from the obvious objections to trading as Cynthia Hampshire) there was in the sound of “Agatha Ainslie” much which would inspire a misplaced confidence. Agatha Ainslie, to anyone entering into business relations with her for the first time, would seem to be a not unkindly blackmailer; she might suitably have lived in a cathedral close, with her sister. There was something wistful and pathetic about the title: it was in no way sharkish. She sounded gentle, though her immediate mission might appear diabolical; she was a pleasant dentist who might be supposed to treat you to nasty jabs and vivid extractions for your permanent good.
In Lady Hampshire’s life, passed as it was in country-houses and restaurants and Continental spas, it was no wonder that she found many clients. There was scarcely a scandal in London that did not reach her sympathetic ear before it became public, and there were certainly many scandals that reached that eager orifice which never became public at all. She had a memory which bordered on the Gladstonian for retentiveness, and a terrifying and menacing pen, and a few words dropped secretly into her ear came out of Agatha’s stylograph with blistering effect.
But with the innate kindliness of her nature, she never allowed Agatha to blackmail any who could not afford to pay, and she had several times deferred the exaction of her little fines until it was certain that her client would not be seriously embarrassed and possibly driven to the desperate course of denouncing her. Never had she had reason to blame herself for a suicide, and she had Sir Andrew Clarke’s authority for believing that no one ever died of sleeplessness. She only milked the fat, sleek cows, and twisted the tails of the bulky bulls. Indeed, as she quaintly said to herself, she looked upon the payments they made as a sort of insurance against indiscretions on their part in the future. She protected them against their own lower instincts.
Her arrangements for Agatha were thoughtful in the extreme. Years ago her father had owned a small house in Whitstaple Street, of the kind described in auctioneering circles as “bijou,” which backed on to her own less jewel-sized mansion in Lowndes Square. This house in Whitstaple Street had providentially escaped the notice of his creditors when his affairs—if an entire absence of assets can be considered affairs—were wound up, and in order to give Miss Ainslie a discreet and convenient home, it had only been necessary to cut a door through the back of a big closet in her bedroom in Lowndes Square. The rates and taxes of the bijou were punctually paid by Agatha, who had, of course, a separate banking-account and a curious sloping hand, while a secret and terrible old woman called Magsby, whom Lady Hampshire could ruin on the spot for forging a valueless cheque of her father’s, opened the door to the clients, and made gruesome haddocky meals for herself in the kitchen.
Upstairs Lady Hampshire kept her Agatha-clothes, in which she looked like some unnatural cross between a hospital nurse and the sort of person who gets more stared at than talked to, and when she had found a home for the guileless young carpenter who fashioned her means of communication between Lowndes Square and Whitstaple Street in a remote though salubrious district of Western Australia, it really seemed as if she might laugh at the idea of detectives. She had but to lock herself into her bedroom, and in five minutes Agatha, with her spectacles and rouge and terrible wig, would be firmly conversing with clients in Whitstaple Street. Then, when a pleasant conclusion had been come to, five minutes more would be sufficient, and Lady Hampshire would emerge from her bedroom refreshed by her rest, and ready to immerse herself in a perfect spate of fashionable diversions.
Such to Lady Hampshire’s effusive and optimistic mind was her career as it should have been. But occasionally the hard sordid facts of existence “put spokes” in the wheel that should have whirled so merrily. And as she sat this morning in her elaborate dressing-gown, she found a spoke of the most obstructive kind.
Agatha’s letters had, as usual, been placed outside the door of communication by the terrible Magsby, and Lady Hampshire, on the principle of business first, pleasure afterwards, had answered all the letters sent to herself which dealt with the social pleasures of town before she opened the far more exciting packet of Agatha’s correspondence. The very first of them made her feel as if she had several lowering diseases in the pit of the stomach. It ran thus:
“To Miss Agatha Ainslie.
“Dear Madam,—I have learned your terrible secret, and know the means whereby you acquire your great and ill-gotten wealth. Believe me, my heart bleeds for you that in your position you should ever have had to descend to the crime of blackmailing, which, you are well aware, is regarded in a very serious and perhaps even brutal light by the otherwise humane code of English law.
“Now I make no threats; I studiously avoid them. But if you can help a deserving and struggling individual already past the prime of life, I assure you, on my sacred word of honour, that you will not sleep the less soundly for it. A pittance of £1,000 a year paid quarterly, and in advance, would be considered perfectly satisfactory. My messenger shall call on you this afternoon at a quarter-past three, and I earnestly suggest that the first payment should then and there be given him.—Faithfully yours,
“P.S.—Motives of delicacy prevent my mentioning my name. A cheque therefore would be less welcome than bank-notes or gold.”
Cynthia Hampshire shuddered as she read. Often and often she had wondered with kindly amazement at the hare-like timidity of her clients, who so willingly paid their little mites to the upkeep of her establishment, when a moment’s courage would have taken them hot-foot to the smiling and hospitable portals of Scotland Yard. But as she perused this perfectly sickening communication, she found herself, in the true sense of the word, sympathizing with them—that is to say, suffering with them. It really was most uncomfortable being blackmailed for something of an illegal nature which you actually had done, and she no longer wondered at the lamb-like acquiescence with which her clients fell in with the not unreasonable terms that she offered them.
The thought of calling at Scotland Yard with this outrageous letter occurred to her, but at the idea of appealing for protection her soul cried out like a child in the dark, and her courage oozed from her like drippings from a squeezed sponge. Furthermore, so spirited a proceeding was rendered even less feasible by the fact that it was not Lady Hampshire who was being blackmailed, but her Agatha. She doubted very much if she would be allowed by the odious meticulosity of English law to prosecute on behalf of poor Miss Ainslie, who must suddenly have gone abroad, while the idea of going to the house of vengeance in the disguise and habiliments of that injured spinster was outside the limits of her sober imagination. And who could M. S. be, with his veiled threats and nauseating denial of them? She ran rapidly through the list of her clients, but found none whom she could reasonably suspect of so treacherous a feat.
Very reluctantly she was forced to the conclusion that she would have to pay the first quarter anyhow of this cruel levy. Luckily Agatha had been doing very well lately, for London had been amusing itself with no end of questionable antics, and there was a prospect of a good season to come. But £250 per quarter would assuredly take a considerable portion of gilt off poor Miss Ainslie’s gingerbread, and it was at once clear to Lady Hampshire that she must raise Agatha’s rates.
She was lunching that day with Colonel Ascot, an old and valued friend. Though still only a year or two past fifty, he had made three large fortunes, of which he had lost two. But the third, which he had rapidly scooped out of the rubber boom, had sent him bounding upwards again, and she had more than once wondered if she could get him on to Agatha’s list. More than once also, in answer to his repeated proposals, she had thought of marrying him, but she did not think it right to accept his devotion without telling him about Agatha, and it seemed scarcely likely that he would wish his wife to have such an alter ego. For as Agatha she led such a thrilling and tremendous existence that it would be a great wrench to annihilate that exciting spinster in the noose of matrimony. On the other hand, if Agatha’s business was to be threatened by these bolts from the blue, in the shape of demands from M. S., the pain of parting with her would be appreciably less severe. The matter required fresh and careful consideration.
Lady Hampshire had several other clients to write to, and it was time (when she had finished this correspondence, and put it through the secret door at the back of her bedroom closet to be collected and posted by grim Magsby) to exchange her dressing-gown for the habiliments of lunch and civilization. A new costume had come for her from Paquin’s that morning, and as she was to go to two charity bazaars, a matinée, and as many tea-parties as there was time for between the end of the matinée and the early dinner which was to precede another theatre and a couple of balls, she decided to wear this sumptuous creation.
Anything new, provided the point of it was not to be old, put this mercurial lady into excellent humour, and she set out for lunch, which was only just across the square, not more than half an hour late, looking, as the representative of a fashion-paper who was standing at the corner on the chance of seeing her told her readers the following Saturday, “very smart and well-gowned.” She knew she was certain to meet friends, since that always happened; and by the time she took her seat next her host, finding lunch already half-over, she had quite dismissed from her mind the trouble of poor Miss Ainslie.
“But how delicious to see food again,” she said as she sat down. “I was so afraid lunch-time was never coming that I didn’t recognize it when it came.”
“And we were afraid that you were never coming, dear Cynthia,” said the Duchess of Camber.
“I know; I am late. But as I always am late, it is the same as if I was punctual. The really unpunctual people are those who sometimes are late and sometimes not. Colonel Ascot has the other punctuality; he is always in time.”
Cynthia looked round the table. There were but half a dozen guests, but all these were old friends, and by a not uncommon coincidence half of them were clients of Agatha, while the Duchess of Camber, so Lady Hampshire knew, was quite likely to become one, for she had lately taken to doing her shopping at Mason’s Stores, and spent a long time over it.
Colonel Ascot glanced, apparently with purpose, at the Louis XVI. clock that stood on the mantelpiece.
“One wastes a lot of time if one is punctual,” he said. “But, after all, one has all the time there is.”
“But there isn’t enough, though one has it all!” said Lady Hampshire. “To-day, for instance, would have to be doubled, as one doubles at bridge, if I was to do all I have promised to.”
“But you won’t, dear, so it doesn’t matter,” said the Duchess. “In any case, there is always time for what one wants to do, and one can omit the rest. I always thought my time was completely taken up, but I find I can do my own shopping at Mason’s as well. I buy soap and candles and sealing-wax, and take them home in the motor.”
“But not every morning?” asked Lady Hampshire, beginning to attend violently.
“Practically every afternoon. I always find I have forgotten something I meant to buy the day before. Also, it is a sort of retreat. One never meets there anybody one knows, which is such a rest. I don’t have to grin and talk.”
Lunch was soon over, and instead of having coffee and cigarettes served at the table, Colonel Ascot got up.
“I do hope, Lady Hampshire,” he said, “that you and the others will not hurry away, and that you will excuse me, as I have a most important engagement at a quarter-past three, which I cannot miss. It is very annoying, and the worst of it is that I made the appointment myself, quite forgetting that I was to have the pleasure of seeing you at lunch.”
“Am I to take your place as hostess?” she asked, as she sat down with him for a moment in a corner of the drawing-room.
“If you will, both now and always,” said he.
She laughed; he had proposed to her so often that a repetition was not in the least embarrassing. But somehow, to-day, he looked unusually attractive and handsome, and she was more serious with him than was her wont. Also the thought of doing business for Agatha was in her mind.
“Ah, my dear friend,” she said, “I should have to know so much more about you first. For instance, that appointment of your own making seems to me to need inquiry. Now be truthful, Colonel Ascot, and tell me if it is not a woman you are going to see?”
“Well, it is.”
“I knew it,” she said.
“But you must let me tell you more,” said he. “She is an old governess of my sister’s, whom I—I want to be kind to. Such a good old soul. The sort of helpless old lady with whom one couldn’t break an appointment that one had made.”
Lady Hampshire laughed again.
“Your details are admirable,” she said. “And detail is of such prime importance in any artistic production.”
“Artistic production?” said he. “Surely you don’t suspect me of——”
“I suspect everybody of everything,” she interrupted lightly, “owing to my extensive knowledge of myself. But go on; I want more details. What is the name and address of this helpless old governess?”
“Miss Agatha Ainslie,” said he. “She lives in Whitstaple Street, just off the Square.”
Lady Hampshire had nerves of steel. If they had been of any other material they must have snapped like the strings of the lyre of Hope in Mr. Watts’s picture. Only in this case there would not have been a single one left. Colonel Ascot going to see Agatha at a quarter-past three.... How on earth did he know of Agatha’s existence? What was Agatha to him, or he to Agatha? And surely it was at a quarter-past three that the messenger of the ruthless M. S. was going to call at Whitstaple Street, where he would find the packet of bank-notes for £250 that Lady Hampshire had made ready before she came out to lunch. Would they meet on the doorstep? What did it all mean?
Her head whirled, but she managed to command her voice.
“What a delightful name!” she said. “I’m sure Miss Ainslie must be a delightful old lady with ringlets and a vinaigrette and a mourning-brooch.”
“I haven’t seen her for years,” said Colonel Ascot. “I will tell you about her when we meet again. Do let it be soon!”
“Perhaps you would drop in for tea to-day?” she suggested, expunging from her mind several other engagements. “I shall be alone.”
“That will make up for my curtailed luncheon-party,” said he.
He made his excuses to his guests, and after allowing him a liberal time in which he could leave the house, Lady Hampshire rose also.
“You are not going yet, dear Cynthia?” asked the Duchess. “I wanted to talk to you about the advantage of doing your shopping at Mason’s. And the danger of it,” she added, catching Lady Hampshire’s kind understanding eye.
Lady Hampshire felt torn between conflicting interests. Here, she unerringly conjectured, there was fish to fry for Agatha, and yet other fish, so to speak, who perhaps wanted to fry. Agatha demanded a more immediate attention.
The duchess’s complication must wait: she was dining with her to-morrow. Colonel Ascot was going to see Agatha: nothing must prevent Lady Hampshire from hearing what his business was.
She went across the Square, and let herself into her own house. There were half a dozen telegrams lying on the hall table, but without dreaming of opening any, she went straight to her bedroom and locked the door. Someone—probably the second footman—was being funny at the servants’ dinner, for shrieks of laughter ascended from the basement. As a rule, she loved to know that her household was enjoying itself, but to-day that merriment left her cold, and next moment she was in Agatha’s house and pursing her lips into the shrill whistle with which she always summoned Magsby.
“I left a note addressed to M. S.,” she said; “I want it.”
The words were yet in her mouth, when the bell of Agatha’s front door rang in an imperious manner, and Lady Hampshire peeped cautiously out through the yellow muslin blinds. On the doorstep was standing an old, old man with a long white beard. He leaned heavily on a stick, and wore a frayed overcoat.
She tip-toed back from the window.
“Give me the note,” she said, “and wait till I get upstairs. Then answer the door, and tell Methuselah that Miss Ainslie will be down in a moment.”
Lady Hampshire stole up to Agatha’s room, and hastily assumed her grey wig, her spectacles, her rouge, her large elastic-sided boots, her lip-salve, her creaking alpaca gown, and with the envelope containing bank-notes for £250, addressed in Agatha’s dramatic sloping handwriting to the messenger of M. S., descended again to her sitting-room. Methuselah rose as she entered, and she made him her ordinary prim Agatha bow, and spoke in Miss Ainslie’s husky treble voice.
“The messenger of M. S.,” she observed. “Quite so.”
“That is my name for the present,” said the old man in a fruity tenor.
“I received your master’s note, sir,” said Agatha, “and you cannot be expected to know what pain and surprise it caused me. But what does he suppose he is going to get by it?”
Lady Hampshire was not used to spectacles, and they dimmed her natural acuteness of vision, besides making her eyes ache. Before her was a sordid old ruin of humanity, red-eyed, white-bearded, a prey, it would seem, to lumbago, nasal catarrh, and other senile ailments. Probably in a few minutes—for it was scarcely a quarter past three yet—Colonel Ascot would arrive; and again her head whirled at the thought of the possible nightmares that Providence still had in store for her.
Methuselah blew his nose.
“I fancy my master rather expected to get £250 in notes or gold,” he said. “He knows a good deal about Miss Ainslie, he does. He is quite willing to share his knowledge with others, he is.”
Lady Hampshire raised her head proudly, so that she could get a glimpse of this old ruffian under her spectacles. The ways of genius are past finding out, and she could never give a firm reason for what she said next. A brilliant unconscious intuition led her to say it.
“There is nothing the world may not know,” she said; “in England it is no crime to be poor, and though I have been in a humble position all my life, my life has been an honest one. There is no disgrace inherent in the profession of a governess. For many years I was governess to Colonel Ascot’s sister.”
“Good God!” said Methuselah.
That was sufficient for Lady Hampshire. She took off her spectacles altogether and closely scrutinized that astonished rheumy face. And then her kindly soul was all aflame with indignation at this dastardly attempt to blackmail poor Agatha.
“In fact, now I look at you,” she said, “I recognize you. No wonder you blaspheme. I remember the bright boy who used to come in and sit in the schoolroom while my pupil and I were at our lessons. You have aged very much, Colonel Ascot.”
In that moment of recognition, she made up her mind. She could never marry him; she could never even lunch with him again. He was atrocious.
“You are labouring under some strange mistake,” he said; “I will call again.”
“There is no mistake at all,” said Lady Hampshire quickly, forgetting, in her perfectly natural indignation, to employ the husky treble tones which were characteristic of Miss Ainslie, “except the mistake you have made in thinking that you could with impunity blackmail a defenceless old governess like me. Where is Scotland Yard? I shall drive there immediately, and you shall come with me. I shall ring the bell.”
She got up quickly, and then sat down again exactly where she had been, and Methuselah looked at her very carefully. Then he suddenly burst into peals of bass laughter.
“But you have aged very much, too, Lady Hampshire,” he said.
“Good God!” said Agatha Ainslie.
Magsby, waiting in the passage outside, felt uncertain as to what her duty was. She heard her mistress’s voice and the voice of another, shrieking with laughter, which seemed to gather volume and enjoyment the longer it went on. Eventually she thought best to retreat to the basement and prepare haddocks for dinner.
“But, my dear, let us be serious,” said Lady Hampshire at length. “Tell me, before I begin to laugh again, how on earth you ever heard of my poor Agatha!”
“A mutual client,” said Colonel Ascot, fanning himself with his long white beard. “Poor Jimmy Dennison. He told me, in a fit of natural exasperation, when I was reminding him about what happened at Brighton last September, that he could not afford to pay for the same thing twice over, once to me, and once to Agatha Ainslie. The poor boy showed me the counterfoils of his cheque-book. It was Agatha Ainslie and Martin Sampson all the way. It was but natural, since he could not pay, that I should turn to Agatha and see if she could.”
“But are you really one of us?” said Lady Hampshire.
“Apparently. Are you?”
There was a fresh relapse of laughter, and then Lady Hampshire pulled herself together.
“I will go halves in Jimmy Dennison,” she said, “whatever we may get. You may say you have squared Agatha. He ought to give you something for your trouble. Or I will say I have squared Sampson.”
“It makes no difference,” said Colonel Ascot. “But I am afraid our interests conflict in many quarters. For instance, the poor Duchess of Camber.”
“Shopping at Mason’s,” interrupted Lady Hampshire. “My dear friend, she is mine. She was going to tell me all about it this afternoon, only I had to come over here to see about Agatha.”
Again Colonel Ascot exploded with laughter.
“But she told me about it yesterday,” he said, “and I had already drafted a short letter to her from Martin Sampson.”
Lady Hampshire was annoyed at this, since the Duchess was so very rich and so very silly.
“I don’t know what we can do,” she said; “we can’t appoint an arbitrator, can we? No arbitrator of really high character would undertake to settle the differences of two blackmailers. It is very important that an arbitrator should be beyond suspicion.”
“We had really better make it one firm, Cynthia,” said he.
She had often considered his proposal before, but never so favourably. Agatha need not be annihilated now; Agatha would probably grow even more tumultuously alive.
“Yes, perhaps we had,” she said. “Oh, yes, most decidedly!”
So they lived happily and wealthily and amazingly for another twenty-four years—there is much yet that might be said about them.
Arthur Whately had known very well what it was like to be desperately poor, and in consequence, when he became so desperately rich that money ceased to mean anything to him, his pity for the penurious was not hysterical or exaggerated. He could recall very vividly what it felt like to have neither tea, dinner nor supper, and to wake in the morning, stiff and cold as armour, on a bench on the Embankment and see the ridiculous needle of Cleopatra stonily pointing heavenwards against the sky, in which the stars were beginning to burn dim at the chilly approach of day. He had known how icy the feet become when they have been close clasped all night long in the frayed embraces of gaping leather, but he had known also how sweet and surprising it is to eat when food is imperiously demanded by the cravings of long-continued abstinence, and how ineffably luxurious to get warm when limbs have ached themselves numb. He would have been willing to confess that unveneered destitution had its inconveniences, but it was false sentiment to deny that it had its compensations also.
It was when he was just sixteen that Luck, the great veiled goddess whom all the world so wisely worships, had paid him her first visit. He had been hanging about at the covered portico of the Lyceum Theatre one night watching the well-fed world being lumpily deposited at the doors, when a silly old pink gentleman, in paying his cabman, dropped a promising pocket-book in the roadway. For one half-second the boy deliberated, wondering instinctively (though he had never heard of the proverb) if honesty was the best policy, in other words, how much the pocket-book contained, and how much the foolish old gentleman would give him if he picked it up and returned it. A couple of pence, perhaps, for he looked a coppery gent.
But the debate lasted scarcely longer than it took the pocket-book to fall; in a moment his wise decision was made, he had picked it up (recognizing in that delightful incident the smile of the great goddess), had dived under the Roman nose of the cab horse, and fled into the street where a chill, unpleasant rain was falling. Luck still smiled on him, for the night was foggy, and as soon as he had crossed the street he dropped into the habitual shuffling pace of the homeless, and returned to the portico which he had so lately quitted, since it was theoretically impossible that the thief should do anything so foolish.
The silly old pink gentleman had not yet ceased to gesticulate and jibber in the direction in which he himself had just vanished, and an obsequious policeman was apparently taking down all the bad words he used in a neat notebook. Arthur wondered if he would arrest the old man for indulging in language redolent of faint praise in a public place.
Meantime, he had thrust the pocket-book—that incarnate smile of the beneficent goddess—into his shirt, and it slid comfortably down against his skin, till it was brought to anchor by the string which he had so strictly tied round his braceless trousers, since pressure in those regions minimised the abhorrence of vacuum. Then he slouched back to the Embankment, and with head bowed over his knees as if in sleep, he counted the tale of his treasure, taking out each item separately, and screening them from the parental scrutiny of policemen in the cavern of his hand.
There were two pieces of the fabulous crinkly paper, there were three sovereigns, and, what was immensely important for immediate purposes, a couple of shillings, translatable without suspicion into rich fried fish. One of his trouser pockets was a secure harbourage, and into this he piloted the golden ship. Then, with a stroke of high wisdom, he thrust the pocket-book through the interstices of the bench instead of keeping about him so incriminating a piece of merchandise, and slouched away, saying good-bye to roofless bedchambers by the sweet Thames-side for ever.
To-night, as he sat in the great dining-room of his house in Park Lane, the memory of that divine evening was vividly brought to his mind. Three friends had dined with him, and as the night proved foggy, they had abandoned the idea of seeing the most incompletely-clad dancer that the London County Council had at present licensed, and had decided to stay at home and play bridge.
“A cold, foggy night, sir,” had been the pronouncement that followed the butler’s news that the motors were round, and the simple words had conjured up that wonderful night of his boyhood with the vividness of hallucination. Bates, too, had a Roman nose, just like the cab horse, and Bates, by a strange coincidence, had just laid by his plate a couple of bank-notes and some change, since he had found himself completely destitute of coin. Had he ever enjoyed himself so much in all these fat years as on that cold, lean, foggy evening so long ago? Honestly (or dishonestly) he could not believe that he had. For there had been about it the one and only and original spice; then for the first time he had heard the clear call of the great golden goddess. She had called often since; indeed for years she had never ceased calling, and it was not too much to say that for years she had been madly and unreasonably in love with him. He received her with yawns now, like some poor discarded mistress, but the chilly reception never deterred her. She never noticed that he was bored, and his indifference seemed but to inflame her ardour.
Solid, monotonous good luck had followed him all the days of his life. Ever since the night when he was sixteen and so happily stole the pocket-book, all he had touched turned to gold, all he had desired had been granted him, all his ideals (such as they were) had frozen into cold suetty facts. Half of the thirteen pounds which were the result of his original theft had been expended in reach-me-down clothes and ready-made boots (which, in those happy years, could be purchased by others than millionaires), for it was symptomatic of him never to grudge money when it was probably a good investment, and between his natural smartness of face and carriage and the acquired smartness of his new clothes, he had at once got a place as hall-boy in an hotel.
He learned to swim in the Chelsea Baths, and August was scarcely begun when this recreation was turned to solid account, for, being at Margate on bank holiday, a pleasure-boat conveniently capsized near him, and he easily rescued the only daughter of a prosperous bookmaker. That gentleman seemed not to resent the unexpected survival of a rat-faced child, had given him fifty pounds in cash, and, subsequently, several racing tips by way of a gilt-edged security for the fifty pounds. These proved not to be gilt-edged only, but completely covered with pure gold.
Then came the news of possibilities in South Africa, and, gambler as he was in every drop of blood in his body, he had gone for these with a thousand pounds to his credit. He threw his thousand pounds at the Rand, and, as if he had given it a little emetic pill, the Rand belched gold at him. In ten years (though he had enjoyed those years quite enormously) the savour of money-making grew stale, and with a brilliant excursion into American rails, which returned him his fortune more than doubled, he quitted the speculative arena, and for the last decade and a half had looked with eyes of incredulous wonder at the extraordinary gentlemen who continued to go to offices in the city all day long and industriously accumulate what they did not want.
There was one such here to-night, a great, round, dark man with yellow hair, the colour of a London fog. He took a grudged month’s holiday in the year, but otherwise sat in an office with his ear to a telephone and his mouth to a speaking-tube. Perhaps it amused him, for certainly there was always in his eye a remote twinkle, as if he had constant grounds for private mirth, and Arthur Whately had often suspected him of being a secret humourist. Yet in the ordinary commerce of social life none was so heavy or so commonplace. He and his wife were social climbers of pathetic industry, who gave parties that tried to be smart and only succeeded in being garish. Yet there was that secret twinkle in his eye....
The same good luck had dogged Arthur Whately in affairs more intimate to his happiness than gold. He had married the woman whom he adored, and just when his adoration had cooled and she was beginning to bore him to extinction, she had run away with somebody else. He had wanted the particular house in which he now sat, and the owner had died just when his demise was most convenient, leaving his affairs in unutterable confusion, and his executors were delighted to sell everything. He had, again, in artistic spheres, conceived a violent passion for the pictures of Giovanni Bollini, and an impecunious peer, foreseeing that income taxes and death duties were swelling like inflated footballs, had sold him his priceless collection, which now hung round the walls of his dining-room. Finally, on this particular evening, when he felt very much disinclined to go out, Providence had sent a fog to serve as an excuse for stopping in. And yet bridge was rather a stale affair. There was a certain intellectual pleasure in thwarting other people, but it was not much fun being clever when the rest were, comparatively speaking, such fools.