When Carruthers Laughed - H.C. McNeile - ebook

When Carruthers Laughed ebook

H. C. Mcneile



A nice collection of short stories from Sapper. Sapper is a master narrator, he has many wonderful stories. One of the fun moments is when Major Dacres shoots himself a finger. Really unusual story, with good humor, for easy reading.

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Liczba stron: 328

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HENRY ST. JOHN CARRUTHERS was something of an enigma. Where he lived I have no idea, except that it was somewhere north of Oxford Street. But we were both members of the Junior Strand, which, as all the world knows, is not a club frequented largely by the clergy or the more respectable lights of the legal profession. It is a pot-house frank and unashamed, but withal a thoroughly amusing one.

It is not a large club, and the general atmosphere in the smoking-room is one of conviviality. Honesty compels me to admit that the majority of the members would not find favour in the eyes of a confirmed temperance fanatic, but since the reverse is even truer the point is not of great interest. Anyway, it was there that I first met Henry St. John Carruthers.

He was, I should imagine, about thirty-six years of age–neither good-looking nor ugly. Not that a man’s looks matter, but I mention it en passant. He was sitting next to me after lunch, and we drifted into conversation about something or other. I didn’t even know his name. I have entirely forgotten what we talked about. But what I do remember, as having impressed me during our talk, is his eyes. Not their size or colour, but their expression.

I sat on for a few minutes after he had gone trying to interpret that expression. It wasn’t exactly bored: it certainly wasn’t conceited–and yet it contained both those characteristics. A sort of contemptuous resignation most nearly expresses it: the look of a man who is saying to himself–‘Merciful heavens! what am I doing in this galaxy?’

And yet, I repeat, there was very little conceit about it: it was too impersonal to be in the slightest degree offensive.

“Rum fellow that,” said the man sitting on the other side of me, after he had gone. “You never seem to get any further with him.”

It was then I learnt his name and the fact that he was in business in the City. “A square peg in a round hole if ever there was one,” went on my informant. “From the little I know of him he’d be happier in the French Foreign Legion than sitting with his knees under a desk.”

Time went on and I saw a good deal of Henry St. John Carruthers. And as my acquaintance with him grew–not into anything that may be called friendship but into a certain degree of intimacy–I realised that my casual informant was right. That City desk was a round hole with a vengeance. And the fact supplied the clue to the expression in his eyes. It was the life he lived that it was directed against–and himself for living that life.

Not that he ever complained in so many words: he was not a man who ever asked for sympathy. It was his bed and he was going to lie on it; he asked no one else to share it with him. Very much alone did he strike me as being: a man who would go his own way and thank you to go yours. It would be idle to pretend that he was popular. And in view of his manner it was not surprising. His somewhat marked air of aloofness tended to put a damper on the spirits of men he found himself with.

“Hang it all!” said Bearsted, a stockbroker, one night as the door closed behind Carruthers. “Has anyone ever seen that fellow laugh?”

I thought over that remark during the next few days, and finally came to the surprising conclusion that it was true. I’d never considered the matter before, and now that it had been brought to my notice it struck me that I never had seen Henry St. John Carruthers laugh. I’d seen him smile, I’d seen a twinkle in his eye–but an outright laugh, never. So one evening I tackled him about it.

“Do you know, Carruthers,” I said, “that in the course of the year since I first met you I’ve never seen you laugh?”

He stared at me for a moment; then he scratched his head.

“Haven’t you?” he answered. “Don’t I laugh? I wasn’t aware of the fact. Though, incidentally, what there is to laugh at in life I don’t know. Personally, I think it’s too darned boring for words.”

“Oh, come!” I said, “that’s a bit scathing, isn’t it? Everything has its funny side. Go and look steadily into the face of the Honourable James over there in the corner. That ought to do the trick.”

“Thanks,” he answered shortly, “I’d sooner keep the record unbroken. Besides, he wouldn’t make me laugh: he’d make me cry. I suppose,” he went on thoughtfully, “that there are uses for things like that in the world.”

“Certainly,” I answered. “The old man has some excellent shootings.”

“Well, I wish to heaven you’d bag the son the next time you go there. Good Lord, he’s coming over here!”

I glanced round: the Honourable James had risen and was bearing down on us.

“I say, dear old boy,” he burbled, coming to rest in front of me, “my old governor wants me to bring down two guys next Saturday. Would you care to come?”

“Very much, James,” I said.

“What about you, Carruthers?” went on James.

“Thanks, no,” grunted the other. “I’m afraid I’m already engaged.”

The Honourable James continued to burble, and after about two minutes Carruthers, with a strangled snort, got up and left.

“By Jove!” said James plaintively, “he never waited to hear the end of the story. You know, Bill,”–he waxed confidential–“I don’t believe that fellow likes me.”

“My dear James,” I cried, “what put that idea into your head? I expect he’s got an appointment.”

“Yes–but he might have waited to hear the end of the story,” repeated James. “No–I don’t think he likes me. He never even laughed.”

He drifted away–the personification of utter futility– leaving me shaking silently. I had been privileged to gaze on Carruthers’s face as he left the room.

“It would take more than you, James, to make him laugh,” I called after him. “In fact, if you ever do I’ll stand you a drink.”

A promise which I repeated to Carruthers when, half an hour later, he returned warily to the room.

“It’s all right,” I reassured him. “Our little James has gone. I gathered that he has a date with the most beautiful woman in London.”

“Long may she keep him occupied,” he grunted. “He is the most ghastly example of a Philandering Percy I’ve ever seen. Still, I suppose when a fellow has got the amount of money he possesses, beautiful women will suffer in silence.”

And an hour later we rose to go home. The night was fine and warm, and refusing a waiting taxi we fell into step and walked. And Carruthers, I remember, was still inveighing against the system by which the Honourable Jameses of this world inherit totally undeserved wealth.

“Put that excrescence on his own feet,” he argued, “and what would be the result? Take away his money and let him fight for his food, and where would he be?”

“Still,” I murmured, “a man is the son of his father.”

“Call that thing a man,” he grunted. “Look here, I want a drink.”

We were at the corner of Albemarle Street, and I glanced at my watch.

“It’s half-past eleven,” I remarked. “In a moment of mental aberration I joined the Sixty-Six a few weeks ago. Let’s go there.”

Now, the Sixty-Six, as all the world knows, is one of those night-clubs that spring up like mushrooms in a damp field, endure for a space, and then disappear into oblivion to the tune of a hundred-pound fine. The fact that they open a few weeks later as the Seventy-Seven, and the same performance is repeated, is neither here nor there.

“Right,” said Henry St. John Carruthers. “One can only hope the police will not choose tonight to raid it!”

And at that moment he paused in the door and blasphemed. I glanced over his shoulder, and then, taking him gently by the arm, I propelled him across the room to a vacant table.

“If we get the police as well,” I murmured, “our evening will not be wasted.”

In the centre of the floor was the Honourable James. He hailed us with delight as we passed, and Carruthers sat down muttering horribly. “Can I never get away from that mess?” he demanded hopelessly. “I ask you–I ask you–look at him now!”

And assuredly the Honourable James was a pretty grim spectacle. I lay no claim to being a dancing man myself, but James attempting to Charleston was a sight on which no man might look unmoved. In fact, the only thing about the Honourable James which caused one any pleasure was his partner. To say that she was attractive would be simply banal: she was one of the most adorable creatures I have ever seen in my life. Moreover, she seemed to reciprocate James’s obvious devotion. Three times did I see her return his fish–like glance of love with a slight drooping of her eyelids which spoke volumes.

“Evidently out to hook him,” I remarked, turning to Carruthers. “Hullo! what has stung you?”

For he was leaning forward, staring at the girl with a completely new expression in his eyes.

“Good Lord!” he muttered, half to himself. “It can’t be. And yet–”

He suddenly stood up and glanced round the room; then, equally abruptly, he sat down again. “It is.” he remarked. “As I live–it is. How deuced funny!” And he grinned: he positively grinned.

“What is?” I demanded. “Elucidate.”

“They will part him from his money,” he went on happily. “And I hope they sock him good and strong.”

“What the devil are you talking about?” I said peevishly.

“If you look over there to the right,” he answered, “behind that woman in green, you will see a large and somewhat bull-necked man sitting at a table by himself. He is smoking a cigar, and gives one the impression that he owns the earth.”

“I’ve got him,” I said.

“Just a year ago,” he continued, “I was over in Chicago. I was sitting in the lounge of my hotel talking to an American I knew who was something pretty big in the police. He’d been giving me a good deal of inside information about crime over there, when suddenly he leant forward and touched me on the arm. ‘See that guy who has just come in,’ he said, ‘with a cigar sticking out of his face?’

“I saw him all right; you couldn’t have helped it if you tried. ‘Well, that bloke,’ went on my pal, ‘is just about the highest spot in the confidence game that we’ve got. He specialises in you Britishers, and I reckon he’s parted more of you from your money than one is ever likely to be told about.’

“‘What’s his line?’ I demanded.

“‘Anything and everything,’ he replied. ‘From running bogus charities to blackmail. And he generally works with an amazingly pretty girl. There she is: just joined him.’

“‘His wife?’ I said. My pal shrugged his shoulders. ‘I shouldn’t imagine the Church has been over-worked in the matter,’ he answered. ‘But you can call her that.’”

Henry St. John Carruthers lay back in his chair and actually chuckled.

“You mean?” I said slowly.

“Precisely,” he answered. “There they are. And so is dear James.”

I glanced over at the table where the big man had been joined by James and the girl. He was smiling in the most friendly way and filling James’s glass with more champagne. Then he handed him his cigar case, and James, coming out of a dream, helped himself. Then James relapsed into his dream to the extent of forgetting to light it. And the dream was what one would have expected in the circumstances.

Assuredly she was the most divinely pretty girl. And James was totally unable to take his eyes off her face. He was in the condition of trying to touch her hand under the table, of little by little moving his chair nearer hers, in the fond belief that the manoeuvre would pass unnoticed.

“Look here,” I said, “we must do something.”

“Why?” said Henry St. John Carruthers.

“Well, if what you say is right, they’re going to blackmail that poor boob.”

“And serve him darned well right,” he answered shortly. “A man has got to buy his experience, and why should that horror be an exception?”

“That’s going too far,” I said, a little angrily. “You may not like him, but you can’t let him be swindled by a couple of crooks.”

He shrugged his shoulders indifferently. “I disagree entirely,” he answered. “However, for the sake of argument, let’s assume you’re right. What do you suggest we should do?”

“Get James on one side and warn him,” I said promptly.

“Try it,” he remarked. “And then see the result. Do you really imagine, my dear chap, that you stand a dog’s chance against that girl? The only result will be that you’ll lose some good shooting.”

“I don’t care,” I said doggedly. “Chance or no chance, I’m going to have a shot.” I rose and crossed the room, leaving Carruthers smiling faintly.

“Excuse me, James,” I said, bowing to the girl, “was it this week-end or next that you asked me to shoot?”

James had risen, and with my hand on his arm I drew him a little way from the table. “This coming one as ever is, old lad,” he burbled. “I say, I want to introduce you to–”

“Look here, James,” I interrupted urgently, “pay attention to what I’m saying.” I was speaking in a low voice in his ear, and over his shoulder I saw the big man staring at me steadily. “These two people you’re out with tonight are crooks.”

“Crooks,” bleated James. “Crooks?”

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