“My dear Ruby,” said Massy Cheldon with a vinous good humour derived from a delectable lunch for which he had not paid, “falling in love is like falling downstairs—you don’t mean to do either.”
“But Bobbie’s got it badly this time, Massy,” she said nervously, her eyes on the door which divided her son from the only person he detested as if fearful that it might open. “Who is the girl?” The tone was a trifle hard now, and Ruby Cheldon observed apprehensively the sudden stiffening of the short, lean figure and the hardening of the habitually suspicious expression of her brother-in-law’s microscopic eyes. “Did I understand you to say that she is a dancer in a night club?”
“That’s where Bobbie met her,” she murmured, trying to bring her nerves under the control of her tongue. All the signs of a dangerous explosion were apparent to her, and she knew that she must placate, whatever the cost to her pride and veracity might be, the only man who had the power to lift her son out of the slough of despair into which his latest love affair had plunged him.
“What is her name?” As he barked the question at her she started out of the reverie into which she had been lured by irresistible memories of Bobbie’s numerous affairs with women, ancient and modern.
“Nancy Curzon,” she stammered. “Street or family?”
She laughed so as to flatter him.
“I don’t know, Massy. Bobbie hasn’t brought her to see me yet.”
“So you don’t know her? But I might have expected it. However, it’s really no business of mine.” He glanced from side to side of the attenuated room with its incurable furniture and faded oil paintings, the relics of an imaginary grandeur which Ruby Cheldon chose to regard as proofs of her gentility. But she was not following her brother-in-law’s gaze. An analysis of his thoughts demanded all her attention now. She knew what “it’s really no business of mine” meant. It was his way of declining to accept any responsibility in a cash sense for his nephew’s vagaries. His presence there this afternoon had been the result of a conspiracy between herself and Bobbie, and they had rejoiced when he had accepted the invitation to call on his way from his club in Piccadilly to his mansion in Sussex. Between them they had drawn up a programme of tactics which they believed augured success, although both realised it was a forlorn hope to expect his uncle to disgorge anything of the large income he derived from the Cheldon Estate. Still, there was ever an outside chance of Uncle Massy creating a precedent and Bobbie was so passionately in love that he was only too willing to take a minor part in the conference and even eager to be concilia- tory and submissive. For if at twenty-three he had some of his mother’s pride he had none of her tact and discretion, while instead of her courage he had only the imitation of that virtue which is called recklessness.
“Cosy place you’ve got here,” said Massy Cheldon, who disliked silence even when he had nothing to say.
“It’s the best we can afford,” she answered, a restless expression passing across her pale, faded face. She dare not retort with Bobbie preparing what he called a subtle appeal to his uncle’s generosity. Yet if there was one word she detested it was “cosy” applied to her portion of the human rabbit warren which filled a corner of two of Fulham’s least pleasing thoroughfares.
“If Bobbie could earn his own living you’d be able to afford something much better,” he snapped back at her. She knew he was thinking of the small allowance he made her and winced. “What with my contribution and your pension even a little assistance from your son would make all the difference in the world, Ruby, and you know it.”
He shifted his position to the right of the fireplace and stared at the remnant of his cigar.
“He has been so unlucky, Massy.” She flushed as she suppressed her anger.
“Nonsense. I can’t understand why you should be clever enough in everything except the one thing that matters, Ruby, and that is your son. You’ve spoilt him from the day he was born, and look at him now. And in spoiling him you’ve spoilt your own life too. Don’t tell me you couldn’t have married. Why, you’re still handsome and attractive with a son in the twenties. How do you keep your figure without giving your face that drawn bloodless look which so many women have? Fulham must be healthier than Broadbridge.” He sighed with self-pity. “Life’s nothing but worry on top of worry. A landowner nowadays, Ruby, is a compulsory philanthropist.” He sighed again and added the unsmokable portion of his cigar to the lingering fire.
Ruby Cheldon winced as she detected the hint not to broach the subject of further assistance.
“How can I help spoiling him?” she asked abruptly. “He’s all I have. You’ve never done him justice, Massy, you’ve never appreciated the fact that he never knew his father.” There was pride and pity in her large dark grey eyes as she looked him straight in the face.
“I’ve never forgotten that his father was a gallant soldier and that his mother is only foolish when her son is being criticised. She wants all the world to believe that he is perfect.”
“Everybody likes Bobbie,” she said, almost sullenly. “And he’s a gentleman.”
“Are gentlemen scarce in the Cheldon family?” he asked curtly.
“He ought to have gone into the army,” she said, ignoring the question.
“But the army means examinations and hard work and obeying orders. And if I may say so, my dear Ruby, you’ve brought up Bobbie on the principle that the only orders worth obeying are his own. Come, Ruby, it’s time you wakened up. Here’s your son without a penny of his own proposing to marry a dancer from a night club. Do you seriously tell me that you approve?”
“Of course I don’t.” A new note in her voice impressed him.
“Then you don’t wish me to make it possible for him to marry this lady from the lower regions of some insanitary building in the environs of Piccadilly? Of course, I shouldn’t do anything of the kind,” he added hastily, fearful lest her sense of humour should fail her.
She moved from her chair and stood beside him. “Bobbie is bringing Nancy Curzon to see me next week, and I wish you could see her too.”
“I’m perfectly willing to meet the lady, but supposing she captivates us all and we become anxious to rope her into the family, the question will then arise, what can Bobbie do?”
She looked pensively into the air.
“It goes without saying that he can drive a car?” he said drily.
“He drives beautifully,” she answered, the irony in his tone escaping her. “And he knows how to dress,” she added irrelevantly.
“And I bet he also knows half a dozen night clubs and how to mix at least ten different cocktails. These alleged social accomplishments, my dear Ruby, have the merit of impressing the lower middle classes, but in a sordid age are not regarded as qualifications for the salary Bobbie naturally expects in his capacity of gentleman.”
She was not listening, a life-long familiarity with his vocabulary and humours as well as humour rendering such attention unnecessary. She had caught a sound from the next room and guessed that Bobbie had decided that her allowance of time for the purpose of bringing his uncle into the frame of mind essential to the experiment in generosity had elapsed and that he must now make his appearance on the scene.
“Bobbie’s got to realise the unpleasant fact that he must take off his coat and forget his gentility. It’s useless his thinking that I’m going to die to suit his convenience. The Cheldon estate has been his curse. Waiting for dead men’s shoes always is. I’m good for another twenty years at least, although there are moments—” He turned mechanically to survey his features in the mirror over the mantelpiece. “If only the tenants would be reasonable, but they don’t leave me a shilling. What with repairs and reductions and all the other encumbrances life’s a burden. And now my nephew wants to marry a dancer at my expense.”
“Not at your expense, Massy,” she said quickly. “Naturally he looks to you for help and advice.”
“He can have the advice,” he said sharply, picking out the word that involved him in no liability. “Yes, he can have the advice,” he added, as if speaking to himself. “But it’ll take the form of plain speaking and straight from the shoulder home- truths. He must be taught that sponging on his mother—”
“Hush!” she whispered, “here he is.”
As Bobbie Cheldon closed the door behind him and was in their midst the atmosphere became electric. Yet in that moment the older man could see, had it forced on him, in fact, that it was not altogether the awkwardly lazy, pleasure-tackling, colourlessly cynical youth of old who now extended towards him with composure and confidence a delicate hand which pressed his own firmly.
“Good afternoon, uncle,” he said, and his mother’s heart ached with a delicious remembrance of his childhood, for in his voice there was something to remind her of the days when he had been so lovable because of all those dear faults of which a child is so delightfully unconscious. He had been a lovely boy whose every action savoured of a growing masculinity, sensitive to praise and blame, defiant and repentant, enchantingly original in his remarks, explorer, engine driver, pirate, cowboy, soldier and sailor, and all in a little back garden in a Surrey suburb.
“You’re looking as healthy as a young giant ought to look,” said Massy Cheldon enviously. “But sit down. I haven’t more than a few minutes to spare and I’ve heard your news.”
Bobbie glanced inquiringly at his mother, but did not speak. It was common knowledge that Uncle Massy disliked being overlooked and that Nature having fashioned him as a monologist, dilettante, poseur and valetudinarian, he chose to regard his lack of inches as a handicap and a grievance. He could not, therefore play the role of heavy uncle with a nephew whose seventy-two inches dwarfed his own sixty-eight unless that nephew sprawled on the hairy sofa while he stood before the fireplace and frowned and fumed as his humours enjoined.
“Yes, Fulham must be healthier than Broadbridge,” he said again, envying the attractive, open countenance of Bobbie, his strong shoulders, balanced limbs, and the eager vitality in his eyes.
He resented the insurgent jealousy which compelled him to catalogue all the advantages his nephew held as against his own age, wealth and worries. Underneath it all, too, there was a dread that sooner than either of them knew the Cheldon estate might pass to Bobbie, and youth and health with unusual powers of enjoyment would be reinforced by great possessions. It was enough to make a mean man meanly irritable.
“Why is it, Bobbie,” he asked testily, “that the moment a man discovers he has the best mother in the world he wants to leave her?”
“Because, uncle, it’s time I married and settled down,” was the mild reply. Ruby Cheldon interpreting the motive, marvelled at the transformation that even an ignoble love could effect in her son.
“I’m glad to hear you intend to do something.” He moved a couple of paces forward and returned to his original position. “It’s about time.”
“I agree with you uncle.” Bobbie rose, and then remem- bering that his uncle had the “chair” sank back on to the lifeless conglomeration of horsehair, defunct springs and faded tapestry. “I can see now what an ass I have been, but I mean to make up for lost time.”
“Let me think,” said Massy Cheldon, wondering what had happened to Bobbie, ignorant of the fact that youth can work miracles when animated by a pure idealism, and unable to share his sister-in-law’s belief that it was all the doing of the unknown Nancy Curzon.
Ruby Cheldon was too conscious of the presence of the men to have to scrutinise their faces as she reviewed the situation and its immediate past. Bobbie’s hatred and contempt for his uncle were ingrained and nothing had ever happened to weaken them. The boy had grown up to idealise a father who had died in action on the very day that Massy Cheldon had received the O.B.E. for his eminent services as the Food Controller of a small provincial town. There had been nothing for the soldier except a shell which had torn him to pieces, but for the civilian there had been a reward for successful evasion of military service. That had been a bad beginning to their relations during the years when Bobbie had been at his “prep” school and worse when Massy Cheldon visited him at lengthy intervals at Marlborough and managed to collect some of the credit that accrues to the brother of a hero. It had been cheaply acquired, too, for Bobbie’s school fees had been paid out of the meagre savings of his father, savings religiously preserved by his mother for his education, and Massy had gone on his way rejoicing and economising.
But Bobbie’s hatred lost something if not all of its virility when he was old enough to appreciate the financial importance of his uncle and his exact place in a scheme of things which included all the male descendants of Jonathan Cheldon, merchant adventurer in India and founder of the family fortunes. For Jonathan, returning home with profits and plunder and a record comparatively venial in an age of wholesale corruption, determined to force the yeoman Cheldons into the ranks of county gentility by purchasing and amply endowing the mansion and estate known as Broadbridge Manor. Ever since then his descendants had buttressed and strengthened the family pedigree. Two of Jonathan’s sons had entered the army and the younger had risen to the rank of general. A son of the general had become an ambassador and another had achieved a little fame at the Bar. Meanwhile, the Cheldon estate, losing something every decade by the advance of taxation and the failing strength of the pound, had descended with the solemn inevitability of a dukedom from heir to heir until Colonel Henry Cheldon held sway for nineteen years and departed, leaving his elder son, Massy, in possession of Broadbridge Manor, and a younger son in the army.
That younger son was Bobbie’s father, and unless Massy Cheldon married and had a son the Cheldon estate must pass to Ruby’s only child. She recalled now the wonder and the pride with which Bobbie had received the news that only one life stood between himself and the family estate. In almost the same breath she winced as she remembered his bitter railings against the Fate that permitted “that pompous bore” to keep him out of the money that he was certain guaranteed happiness.
The net result had been the tightening of the tension between uncle and nephew that had never really slackened. In vain had Ruby pointed out that Bobbie owed something to the uncle who avoided matrimony as carefully as he avoided generosity. “No woman would have him,” was Bobbie’s contemptuous retort, and so the guerilla warfare had continued.
Now, however, Bobbie was in the position of suppliant and a very humble suppliant at that. He was in love and an uneasy, tremulous, agitating love it was, too. Whoever this Nancy Curzon might be it was evident that she had many admirers and that competition for her hand in matrimony was keen. Only the fear of losing her prevented Bobbie meeting his uncle’s fussiness and contempt with insolence and ill-temper. Well, that was to the credit of the night club dancer. Ruby sighed. She wished she could do something, but then since Bobbie had begun to talk vaguely of “doing something” on his own account she had been helpless.
Perhaps, Massy was right and where Bobbie was concerned she was foolish. But could she help it?
She half-wished there was no Cheldon estate and no entail. The zeal of Jonathan Cheldon had become a curse after a century, a curse to herself and a danger to her son. How often had Bobbie grumblingly adverted to the fact that every day his uncle lived he, the misunderstood heir, lost a day’s income. There lay the explanation of his unwillingness to study, his failure to pass the preliminary examinaton for the Bar, his diurnal dissatisfaction with all the world and its inhabitants except a small coterie of imitation intellectuals which infested the purlieus of Fulham and Chelsea.
“What’s the use, mother, when I’ll have ten thousand a year when Uncle Massy dies of overeating?” had been his invariable rejoinder to her mild suggestions that a more active life would make him happier.
“Your uncle may live another thirty years,” was a check- mate which he always refused to admit.
She was rescued from further depression by the voice of her brother-in-law.
“There are other risks in marriage besides financial ones,” he was saying in that pedestrian, self-opinionated manner of his which had earned for him the petrified dislike of all the other bores ensconced in armchairs in St. James’s Street, Piccadilly and Pall Mall. “How can you be sure that you are marrying the right woman? You can’t tell until you’ve married her and then it’s too late if you’ve made a bloomer.”
“I suppose that’s the reason you’ve remained a bachelor, Massy?” said his sister-in-law with a laugh that did not lighten the atmosphere.
“I cannot afford to marry,” he answered gravely. “With a Socialist government composed of alleged Conservatives in power the landowner is a prisoner within his paltry income. It’s all very well to quote Harry, but he was lucky, Ruby.”
“Thank you,” she said, merrily. Massy Cheldon’s compli- ments were rare, omitting, of course, those he paid daily to good wines and good food.
“But how would the world get along without women?” Bobbie asked with an earnestness that indicated that he believed he was the first to coin that question.
“We are not talking of the world—we are talking of you,” was the unexpected retort. “You want to marry and you haven’t a shilling. At twenty-three you’ve still got to earn your first week’s salary.” He very nearly said wages but recollected in time he was speaking to a Cheldon. The tone and manner were bitter, even savage, and Ruby trembled, but the spirit of Nancy Curzon was there although none of them knew it. “I quite agree, uncle,” said Bobbie, humbly, “and that’s why I want you to put me in the way of earning my own living.”
At this unexpected surrender Massy Cheldon, suspecting that the victory was not actually his, moved uneasily. He was too accustomed to lecturing and hectoring his nephew to be able to fit in with a state of affairs in which friendliness and politeness predominated.
“Didn’t Schopenhauer say that love was a species of insanity because it made a young man unable to keep himself voluntarily undertake to keep another man’s daughter for the rest of her life?” he asked, falling back on sarcasm.
“Well, anyhow, uncle, you’re sane enough, according to the Schopenhauer standard,” said Bobbie with a laugh.
Massy Cheldon scrutinised him again, and again resented the frank youthfulness of his open, sunny manner, and the flushed, animated cheeks and shining happiness of expression. Resentment deepened into something lower than mere jealousy when he reminded himself that all this youth and vivid enjoyment might one day—perhaps, soon—be allied with wealth. A street accident, poisoned food, any of the ordinary ills of life—the middle-aged man who was obsessed by meanness shuddered at the thought of being parted from his museum of coins, banknotes, share certificates and rents. Hitherto he had disliked Bobbie, and Bobbie had gone out of his way to justify his dislike, but now with his nephew apparently reforming and shedding all his weaknesses Massy Cheldon realised that there was nothing left for him to do except to hate his heir, nakedly and primitively.
“Marriage is expensive,” he said aloud, “unless, of course, you can manage it at someone else’s expense.” He laughed alone.
“Now that I have Nancy to live for I am a different man, uncle,” Bobbie exclaimed, in his excitement rising and standing over him. “She’s a girl in a million, beautiful, clever, original, a living poem. When you see her you’ll not be surprised I fell for her at first sight. I wish I could describe her adequately, uncle.” The glowing face and the boyish enthusiasm made Ruby Cheldon tremble again, though not with fear.
“She’s a dancer, isn’t she?” Massy Cheldon shifted to the stance which intimated to the knowledgeable that he was about to talk about himself. A heavy gripping of the floor, slight drooping of the shoulders, far away look in his fish-like eyes, and the outline of a grin about his too thin lips—Ruby saw all these signs and sought consolation in the hope that however boring the reminiscence might be their simulated interest would wheedle him back into a good humour.
“A dancer, eh?” He seemed to fall into a reverie. “That reminds me of a girl I met when I was a fresher at Oxford. A wondrous specimen of female divinity minus any sort of intelligence. I used to rave about her, and so did others. I remember I nearly fought a duel with young Allen on her account the day before she chucked me in favour of Tubby Kelshaw, who succeeded to the family peerage the following year. Dolly is a grandmother now and a pillar of the High Church party, but I think she’d have married me if I hadn’t been a pauper compared with Tubby. That was fifteen years before I succeeded to Broadbridge. A dancer? They haven’t changed, Ruby, and neither has human nature.”
“You ought to have married, Massy,” said his sister-in-law, compelling herself to be complimentary. “I’m sure you’d have been a successful husband. But I suppose you’ve preferred to leave a trail of broken hearts behind you, and yet you’re angry with Bobbie because he’s in love.”
“I’m angry with Bobbie because he’s talking of marriage when he ought to be doing some remunerative work.”
Bobbie moved away to hide his resentment and to stifle the retort which had sprung unaided to the tip of his tongue. “But I’m not cut out for matrimony, Ruby, and that’s a fact,” Massy Cheldon continued as soon as it was obvious that his nephew had no intention of turning the discussion into an argument. “Most of my pals have had a shot at it and missed badly. Look at Tom Hedley who’s been married four times and—”
“Four times!” Ruby exclaimed. “Why, it’s polygamy on the instalment plan.”
His smile of appreciation was confined to his mouth while he made a note of the remark for use later on.
“Tom wouldn’t listen to me, and all four marriages were failures. No, Ruby, you must leave me to my lonely bachelorhood, and twenty or thirty years hence when Bobbie is older and wiser he can step into my shoes at Broadbridge and try and make something out of the Cheldon estate.”
“I’d rather have Nancy and poverty than all the wealth in the world,” said Bobbie with an earnestness pathetic rather than convincing.
“That’s very romantic, Bobbie,” remarked his uncle almost tolerantly, “but would the young lady agree with you? My experience of dancers is that they prefer to love all the wealth of the world.”
“Nancy is different, uncle, quite different from the sordid, mercenary type you knew.” The enraptured speaker smiled pityingly at fifty-three years of ignorance. “She’s a sprite, uncle, ethereal, all spirit, a child of nature. Every time I see her dance I think of a love poem, a sonnet. She’s put life into me, uncle, and with her as my daily inspiration I feel I can achieve almost anything.”
“Can you achieve a job at five pounds a week?” The rhapsodist crashed back to earth.
“That—that’s what I—er—I hoped, uncle—I—er—” he stammered.
“In coherent language that means you want me to place you in a well paid position so that you can begin life in a style superior to that of Galahad Mansions.”
The hostility and contempt were having their effect on Bobbie’s temper, but he strove hard to keep to his pact with his mother.
“I can only do my best,” he muttered.
“That’s something anyhow,” said Massy Cheldon sarcastically. “Though it’s a pity you didn’t think of trying to do your best a little sooner. You might have been at the Bar now or in a well paid post in the Civil Service, and—”
“Need we have all this again, Massy?” his sister-in-law asked in the gentlest tone she could assume. “We want to discuss Bobbie’s future—not his past.”
“Do you really wish him to marry?” he asked in astonishment.
“I want him to be happy,” she replied, giving Bobbie an affectionate glance. “I know my son better than anyone else knows him, and he’ll do the family credit yet.”
Massy Cheldon made a dramatic gesture by flinging his hands in the air.
“Oh, you mothers!” he cried, as if helpless and hopeless. “You’d march to hell with your sons rather than go to heaven without them.”
Bobbie took his mother’s arm in his, and the sight infuri- ated the friendless, warped, self-centred miser.
“ ’Pon my word, Ruby, you almost persuade me that you’re more to blame than the young cub himself.”
Bobbie released his arm and took a step forward. “Bobbie!” His mother’s exclamation was a piteous cry of terror which restrained him in time.
“Oh, all right,” he said and threw himself on the sofa. Massy Cheldon, believing that his personality had triumphed, reverted to his usual role of crabbed, critical and sarcastic relative.
“I won’t waste any more of my time,” he said fussily. “That reminds me, Ruby, to ask you a question which I can’t find the answer to. Why is it always orange peel time in Fulham?” She laughed. “I’m serious. It goes on all the year round. The entrance to Galahad Mansions was strewn with orange peel and children when I arrived, and it’ll be orange peel and children the next time and the time after that. It can’t be pleasant for you.”
“Galahad Mansions is not Broadbridge,” Bobbie retorted and strode out of the room in a rage.
When they were alone Massy Cheldon laughed harshly. “I’ll tell you what we’ll do, Ruby,” he said. “Invite this Nancy Curzon to enable me to see her. Not a dinner party, for I won’t put you to the expense and the trouble. Make it an evening party, as informal as you can. Don’t give it the appearance of a court martial on the girl. Get some young people and make it a jolly affair with nothing suggestive of
an ulterior object.”
“I think I’ll try it,” she murmured, and sighed. “But what will happen, Massy, if she passes the test?”
He smiled to himself.
“When the unexpected happens it is wise to do the unexpected,” he replied, oracularly.
“You mean you would make Bobbie an allowance—a generous allowance?” She stared at him with a sort of dazed wonder.
“Exactly.” He smiled again, but this time it was a smile expressing his contempt for her ignorance of the world and its worldlings. He could have laughed at her unsophistica- tion. Fancy, not being intelligent enough to envisage the type represented by “Nancy Curzon!” He always clothed the name in inverted commas. The girl would of a certainty prove as false and as artificial as her acquired cognomen. She would giggle, talk and think at the top pitch of her voice, betray herself in a dozen different ways in as many minutes, and in the very act of struggling to conceal her vulgar origin ostentatiously expose it.
“The party shall take place,” she said, suddenly ending the unnecessary silence. “I’ll ask Sylvia, Freddie Neville, Mrs. Carmichael and one or two others.”
“And no reference to me, please.” Massy Cheldon gathered himself together preparatory to departure and in a moment changed from the intimate friend and relation to the patronising, rather pompous visitor from another region. “Not at all a bad little place this,” he said, without taking his eyes off his gloves. “Used to know Fulham in my youth but had forgotten it. Nice neighbours, I hope?”
“The flat overhead is occupied by a conjurer who beats his wife and the one opposite by a retired doctor. We have a dipsomaniac on the floor beneath, and there’s a man and wife with nine children next to that.” Ruby Cheldon laughed. “We’re all living beyond our means in Galahad Mansions.” She tried to laugh and failed. “But that can only bore you,
Massy, and, after all, nothing matters except Bobbie’s future. I haven’t slept through a night since he told me about her.” “I’m glad you called me in,” he said after the manner of a doctor. “But now we’ll forget the worst side of it and try to think of the best. I must be off. I have a new chauffeur and he isn’t conversant with the shortest route to Broadbridge. Good-bye, Ruby.” He took the extended hand and raised it in a finicky, affected manner to his lips. “You can rely on me once I hear from you the date of the party.”
He went to the door and threw it open. A moment later Bobbie could be heard emerging from the dining-room.
“I’ll think it over,” he said to his nephew as they walked down the three flights of cemented staircase. “I expect to be in town again early next week, and if it is necessary I’ll drop you a line asking you to call at my club.”
They had reached the pavement before Bobbie could bring himself to mutter in an ungracious tone, “Thank you, uncle,” but the sight of an obviously costly motorcar, with a tall, soldier-like chauffeur in attendance, banished his surliness and replaced it by a bitterness which was inspired by self-pity. In silence, and motionless, he watched the car drive out of the sombre street, oblivious of the awe-inspired stillness of the children in the gutter and the tired women in doorways.
A tennis ball, black with age and ill-usage, awakened him out of his reverie as it slid from his arm and dropped like a sodden potato at his feet.
“Sorry, mister,” said a voice, and a small, grimy face was upturned in the direction of his unseeing eyes.
Bobbie, without acknowledging the apology, turned into Galahad Mansions, absorbed in a scurrilous analysis of the one life which stood between himself and wealth and luxury—and Nancy.
He found his mother staring into the weakening fire that had been lighted only because it was necessary to make a burnt offering to Uncle Massy on an afternoon in early May that had threatened to be chilly.
“What did he say?” he asked, thinking only of himself as only an expert can.
“Nothing practical, Bobbie,” she answered, restlessly. “But if he won’t do anything you must do something for yourself.”
“I wish I could.” He dug his hands into his trousers’ pockets and held himself with a vicious intensity that reflected his state of mind.
“I blame myself, Bobbie,” his mother continued, “for let- ting things come to this pass. I should have insisted on your getting work of some sort. You have brains and personality. But, of course, it’s this cursed Cheldon inheritance—waiting for dead men’s shoes, and your uncle won’t die for a long while yet.”
He started rather guiltily, for at that very moment he had been thinking of his uncle’s chances of prolonged mortality. Fifty-three was a tremendous age to twenty-three, and yet there was Billy Annan’s uncle, Sir Percy Annan, who was ninety and going strong. It was very disheartening.
“I shouldn’t have let you refuse that appointment in South Africa three years ago.”
“When Uncle Massy was seriously ill—dying,” he reminded her. “Had he died I’d have had to come straight home on the next boat.”
“It was a mistake—our mistake,” she murmured, her thoughtful expression adding dignity to her natural beauty. “I haven’t been ambitious enough, Bobbie. I ought not to have been content just to have you. In spoiling you I have spoilt myself. To think that we’ve been living in Galahad Mansions for five years! To think that I was once happy to be here!”
He laid a hand on her shoulder.
“It’s not your fault, mother, it’s just luck. If father had been a food controller instead of a soldier you’d be rich and happy, and—”
“You’d never have met Nancy Curzon, Bobbie,” she said flippantly. “Don’t forget that. It’s places like Galahad Mansions that bring you into contact with girls like Nancy Curzon. That reminds me, Bobbie. What about a little party for me and our friends to meet Nancy?”
The ecstatic look in his eyes hurt her.
“The very thing, mother,” he cried, all his envy, hatred and uncharitableness forgotten. “I’d love you and everybody to meet her and tell me how lucky I am. What about next Tuesday? Nancy is dancing at nine and at one in the morn- ing so she could come either at seven or at half-past ten. At least, I think she could. I’ll have to ask her.”
“Splendid.” She was recovering under the spell of his boyish enthusiasm. “I’ll ask Freddie Neville and Sylvia Brand. I think Freddie’s keen on her. And Mrs. Carmichael.” “Who’s keen on Uncle Massy?” He laughed ironically. “I can’t imagine the pompous old ass marrying that modern Lady Sneerwell. But still, you can ask her. But, of course, you won’t invite uncle?”
“I’ll not send him an invitation,” she said truthfully. “Have you any special friends you’d care to ask?”
“I’ll wait until the day. Depends on whom I meet. And Nancy might want to bring along a pal, perhaps, her dancing partner, Billy Bright.”
“Don’t forget, Bobbie, we can’t invite more than eight as we’ve only got ten tumblers, to say nothing of chairs. Galahad Mansions isn’t Broadbridge Manor with its salons.” When she observed the quick change in his expression she regretted her humorous comparison, and to save the situation she added hastily, “We’ll have a jolly little party with no frills and no pretence, and we’ll make Nancy feel at home the moment she arrives.”
“That’s just like you, mother,” he cried, and kissed her. He never knew why she averted her eyes and why she trembled. Fortunately, at that moment the hall door opened to the accompaniment of a creaking key.
“That’s Florence,” his mother said quickly. “You tell her we’ll have tea in here. I’ll see her later.”
Florence was the daily help who “obliged” by working whenever it suited her own convenience. She was a sturdy girl with an inclination to stoutness, but undeniably pretty and with plenty of assurance. She was greatly in demand in the neighbourhood of Galahad Mansions and could be relied on for a not too inaccurate résumé of the news that the newspapers dare not print. She knew the inside history of all the families which could afford to employ her in instalments, but she specialised in the royal family, particularly their matrimonial alliances. This week she was doing duty for Mrs. Cheldon from four to eight.
Bobbie had hitherto regarded Florence with aversion though not because she herself deserved or provoked it. But she was evidence of their ghastly poverty, and he resented the evidence as much as the fact itself. Uncle Massy did not pay a woman eightpence an hour for four hours twice a week to keep his mansion clean. Uncle Massy did not….
He strode into the kitchen with the determination of a man whose time is precious and who must be economical with it.
“I say,” he began, and stopped. “Why, what’s the matter?” For Florence, seated on a chair and with her head on arms resting on the kitchen table, was sobbing convulsively.
An ever-present consciousness of superiority over the rest of the human creation and especially that meagre portion of it which laboured to lessen his discomforts was responsible for the detached curiosity with which he regarded the noisy, truculent figure. There was accompanying that curiosity, however, a growing feeling of resentment that anyone else should indulge in sorrow to an extent comparable with his own.
“What’s the matter, Florence?” he asked, shoving his hands into his pockets and watching her with an amused interest that never came within approachable distance of embarrassment. “Dry your eyes, and let’s hear all about it. Mother ill?” “No—no, sir,” she whimpered, unable to maintain the sobbing to a pitch satisfactory to her fury. “It’s Tom—my young man.”
“Oh, of course.” Why it should have been “of course” he did not know, but young men had always formed the staple population of Florence’s life. How often had he heard his mother express a wish that her fragment of a domestic would take a vow of celibacy!
“He’s been and gone and chucked me,” she gulped.
“I am sorry.” It was the regulation remark. “Bit of a cad, eh? Never mind, Florence, there are plenty more, and a popular girl like yourself, you know, eh?”
She smiled faintly.
“I expect by next Monday you’ll be booked up for the remainder of the year.” She smiled appreciatively. “The young men like you.” She nearly laughed over the tear drops. Bobbie, enjoying the patriarchal and patronising role, sought for further words of encouragement. “After all, it’s Tom’s loss and not yours, you know.”
Her expression became cloudy again.
“I’m not quite so sure about that, sir,” she said, threaten- ing to lapse into watery sentimentality again. “It’s because he’s come into lots of money that he’s jilted me.”
“Lots of money?” Bobbie echoed, excited as well as interested.
Florence completed the drying of her eyes before replying.
“It’s that uncle of his, the rich one.” Bobbie thought of his own and scowled. “Mr. Welt owned a newsagent’s business in Chawdon Street, one of the best in Fulham. Well, on Sunday Tom’s cousin took the old man out in his motor car and they had an accident and Mr. Welt died. Tom heard about his will yesterday. He gets the shop and nearly five hundred pounds.” She dabbed at her eyes. “The shop’s worth six quid a week clear, and Tom won’t have no more to do with me. I’m not good enough for him.” She repeated the phrase with a vicious emphasis. “I’ve a good mind to sue him for breach of promise even if he’s never written me any love letters and there’s never been a ring. But Ethel and Gladys and Harry Smith all have seen him with me and he told them…”
Bobbie listened with his thoughts at Broadbridge Manor…. “And if you ask me.” He awoke as the lengthy narrative took another turn. “If you ask me.” She paused impressively. “Yes? What is it I’ve got to ask you?” He spoke mechanically.
“I tell you what, sir,” she said, apparently dropping the interrogative style which was a favourite of hers, “it’s my opinion that it was all a put-up job between Tom and his good-for-nothing cousin, Bert Cronen.”
“Indeed!” He threw the word in to satisfy her.
“An absolute put-up job.” Florence approached nearer and lowered her voice to the requisite conspiratorial level. “Nearly a week ago Tom got the sack from his job. Cheeky to the foreman, he was. Well, he’s finished there and he owes his landlady for five weeks. The dogs got the money, sir. I know that ’cause he told me. Well, Tom’s in a rare fix, no weekly wages and nothin’ to come. Then it occurs to him that he’s still his uncle’s favourite. Isn’t it likely that he got Bert Cronen to take the old man out in his rotten car and purposely had an accident? You’re not going to believe that it was just chance that made Tom a rich man inside a couple of days? He knew his uncle would never have died in the ordinary way so soon. Good for twenty years and—” “How old was he, do you know?” There was a curious hush in his voice.
“Fifty-five, but young for his age,” she answered promptly. “I saw him only a fortnight ago when me and Tom went to tea with him. Mr. Welt was always saying he was going to touch eighty. That’s how he would put it—touch eighty. Why, in many respects, sir, he was younger than Tom. You know these printers, sir.”
Bobbie did not, but he was not listening, and she took his abstracted air for profound absorption in her shattered but still dramatic romance.
“They’re never fit.” To his surprise she burst into tears again. “I always hoped that when me and Tom married we’d be able to help his uncle with the shop. I didn’t want a husband who might be at work all night. But there, I’m silly. Tom’s rich now and I’m not good enough for him. It was all right when he was broke and I could help him a bit. It’s different now. He’s killed his uncle and got the shop and nearly five hundred quid. And I wish I was dead, I do indeed.”
With a sympathy animating him that astonished him he laid a hand on her arm.
“I’m sorry, Florence,” he said feelingly, “really sorry. But there are better men left than Tom, and one of them will find you soon. There, I can see you’re a sensible girl.”
She looked gratefully at him.
“Thank you, sir,” she whispered. “I never thought you’d bother about my trouble. But I’ll sue him, that is if he ain’t—I mean, if he isn’t had up for murder. He wasn’t in the car—that’s his slyness—but it was a regular do, that was. They ought to hang him and his precious cousin for murdering the old man for the money and the shop. I’m not good enough for him!” She concluded with a scream of derision that frightened herself as well as Bobbie. “Sorry, sir,” she said nervously. “I—”
“That’s all right. Better think of something. And that reminds me. Mother says we’ll have tea now.” He turned to leave the kitchen. “Oh, by the way, Florence, what’s the name of the gentleman with the car?”
“Bert Cronen, sir. Why?” Her surprise temporarily banished her sorrow.
“Oh, er—I—well—I want to tell mother the whole story.
But get tea at once, Florence.”
“You’ve been a long time,” said Ruby when he re-entered the room. “Anything happened?”
He flung himself into the sofa and set in motion its dead springs.
“Just a little human drama, mother,” he answered with an affectation of laziness. “Another of Florence’s love affairs has terminated in tears and tatters.”
“I suppose he drank—the last one was a gambler—so it was the turn of a drunkard.” She smiled reminiscently.
“Oh, no, nothing of the kind. Real human drama, mother. Nemesis has overtaken the chucker of young men. A young man has chucked her.”
“That’s interesting.” She sat up in her chair. “Usually they are afraid of Florence.”
“This one isn’t or wasn’t. Mother, money has come between them. It appears that the young man has or had a rich uncle who was taken for a ride—strictly innocently, of course—in the car belonging to Tom’s cousin, Bert Cronen.” “And the uncle was so infatuated with the car or its driver that he cut Tom’s name out of his will and made Bert his heir?” “Wrong again.” Bobbie was enjoying himself in a dour, self-pitying way, but his mother was unconscious of that. “Bert, the cousin, took the opportunity to kill the rich uncle, and lo! and behold, Tom is now the owner of a six quid a week newsagency in Fulham and nearly five hundred more quids in the bank. The immediate consequence of this sudden accession of fortune is that Tom considers he ought to look higher in the social scale than our tri-weekly obliger, and Florence is heartbroken.”
“That means she’ll be emotional for a week at least, and I want our party to take place next Tuesday.”
“We can do without her. I’ll help, and so will Nancy for that. She’s wonderfully domesticated considering she’s an artiste. Besides, we can rope Freddie Neville in, and Mrs. Carmichael will be unhappy unless she’s nosing around all the time. Oh, here’s Florence approaching, so exit young master in search of silence.”
Ruby watched the girl arrange the tea things and did not speak until the seventh sniff.
“Sorry to hear of your disappointment, Florence,” she said, trying to infuse something else into her tone than politeness.
“Thank you, ma’am. But Mr. Robert has been so sympathetic-like and kind. I thought he’d have laughed at me but he didn’t. You should have seen his face when I was telling him how Tom and Bert had killed their uncle for his money. At least, it’s my opinion that they did.”
A horrible sense of discomfort pervaded Ruby. She shrank from the association of “murder” with “uncle,” and she escaped from panic only because it was so obvious that the girl was utterly incapable of discovering a parallel in Galahad Mansions to the temptation which must have assailed the alleged murderous Tom during the weeks preceding the profitable tragedy.
“You mustn’t bring charges you can’t prove, Florence,” she said, severely. “The cousin wouldn’t have risked his own life to help Tom.”
“He didn’t ma’am,” was the unexpected retort. “Mr. Robert guessed that as well as me. Wanted to know particularly what Bert’s name was.”
Ruby seized an empty cup and rattled it unwittingly against a saucer.
“We’ll have toast for tea,” she said weakly.