Completion of the Number
Every station has its special voice. Some are of grit. Some are of sand. Some are of milk cans. Some are of rock muffled by tunnel smoke. Whatever the voice, it speaks to those who know it, sounding a name without pronouncing it; but those who do not know it drowse on, for to them it brings no message, and is merely a noise unilluminated by personal tradition.
The voice of Flensham station is gravelly. The queer softness of it is accentuated by the tunnel and the curve that precede it. The tunnel throbs blackly and the curve grinds metallically, but Flensham follows with a gravelly whisper that is as arresting as a shout. With eyes still closed the familiar traveller sees the neat little platform gliding closer and closer. He sees the lines of equally neat bushes that assist a wooden partition to separate the platform from the road. A notice, warning passengers not to cross the track when a train is standing in the station. A signal, arm slanting downwards. A station-master, large and depressed, fighting the tragedy of Cosmos with a time-table.
Of the two passengers who alighted at Flensham from the 3.28 one Friday afternoon in autumn, only one had an advance vision of these things. She was a lady of about thirty, and Puritans and Victorians would have called her too attractive. Her hair was tinged with bronze. Her nose delighted your thoughts and defied your theories. Her complexion was too perfect. Her frankly ridiculous lips annoyed you because by all the rules of sanity they should have disgusted you, yet they did not.
She had been described by her husband, now lying peacefully in his grave, as one of life’s most glorious risks, and he had consciously taken the risk when he had married her. “Let her tear me to pieces,” he said on his wedding-day. She had done so. She had jolted him from heaven to hell. And he had never reproached her. He had loved her without her make-up, and three hours before he died, during one of her rare moments of repentance—even the worst of us are softened as we watch the sands run out—he had waved her regrets aside. “How can you alter what God made?” he had said. “Some one has to suffer.”
The other passenger was a young man. To him the gravelly music of Flensham station told no story, and for this reason he almost ignored it. The lady was already on the platform, interviewing a liveried chauffeur, before the man realised that the train had stopped.
“Hallo—Flensham!” he exclaimed suddenly.
The train began to move on again. The young man jumped to his feet. On the rack above him was a suitcase. He seized it with one hand, while the other groped for the door-handle. A moment later the suitcase shot out on to the platform. The sight amused the lady, to whom every sensation was meat, but it insulted the large and depressed station-master, to whom every sensation was a menace to routine.
Worse followed. The owner of the suitcase shot out after his belonging, and as he shot out his foot caught in the framework of the door. Now the lady’s amusement changed swiftly to anxiety, and the station-master’s indignation to alarm.
“Quick! Help him!” cried the lady.
The station-master, the chauffeur, and a porter ran for- ward. The train chugged on. Its late passenger sat on the ground, holding his foot. He had been pale before; he was considerably paler now.
“Hurt, sir?” asked the station-master.
“Of course I’m hurt!” he retorted unreasonably. “Why the hell don’t you show the name of your station in larger letters?” Then he noticed Nadine, and apologised.
“Quite unnecessary,” Nadine answered graciously. This young man was immensely good-looking. He had a smooth, boyish face, and his eyes, though drawn with pain at the moment, held possibilities. “Swear as much as is good for you—and that’s probably a lot.”
He forgot his twinges for a moment. Nadine had the beauty that drugs. Her commanding ease, also, was a consolation, dissolving the oppressions of an unimaginative station-master, a staring porter, and a rather too superior chauffeur.
“Thanks—I’m all right,” he said, and fainted. “Coo, ’e’s gorn off!” reported the porter.
“Looks like a case for a doctor,” muttered the station-master. “Definitely,” nodded Nadine.
The chauffeur glanced at her, and read his own thought in her eyes. There was a faint green light in them. It generally came when she was intensely interested. Her husband had called it, anomalously, the red signal.
“Could you get him into the car, Arthur?” she asked. “Easy,” replied the chauffeur.
“Then, if you don’t mind, I think we’ll stop at a doctor’s on the way.”
“Dr. Pudrow, madam—the same as attends Mrs. Morris. He’s the one.” He turned to the porter. “Give us a hand, Bill. And remember he’s not a trunk.”
The station-master interposed. He himself had been the first to suggest a doctor—he was glad of that—but a certain procedure had to be observed. This was his platform.
“You’d better wait till he comes to,” he said.
“Of course,” agreed Nadine. “We’re not going to abduct him.”
In a few seconds the young man opened his eyes. He now fought humiliation as well as pain.
“Did I go off?” he gasped, momentarily red.
“We all do silly ass things when we can’t help it,” smiled Nadine. “Don’t worry. But I think you ought to see a doctor.” “She thinks,” reflected the station-master. “Taking it all to herself!”
“Believe you’re right,” murmured the young man. “Something or other seems to have gone wrong with my foot. Could you—send one along?”
“I’m glad you’re keeping your sense of humour.” “Eh?”
“Why send one along when I can take you along?” “That’s really frightfully decent of you.”
“Say when you’re ready.”
“Well, if it’s not too much trouble—sooner the better.” She made a sign to the chauffeur, then turned back to him. “Grit on to yourself. It mayn’t be nice when they lift you.
I know what it’s like—I hunt.”
He closed his eyes, and kept them closed for two very unpleasant minutes. Then he found himself gliding through a land of gentle undulations and russet October hues. Above him the sky was crisp and clear. The tang of autumn was in his nostrils. The sounds of autumn came to him, too. Dogs bayed in the distance. He recognised the quality, and pictured red coats among them. From an opposite direction cracked the report of a gun. Now he pictured a pheasant flashing downwards from the blue dome, to end its short uneasy life in fulfilment of its destiny. Closer at hand were branches as gold as the pheasant’s breast. Closer still was a bronze curl.…His eyes, as they opened, focused on the bronze curl.
But pain intruded. Stags and pheasants were not suffering alone.
“How are you feeling?” “Not too bad.”
“I expect I’d say the same.” Nadine’s voice was appreciative and sympathetic. “We’ll soon be at the doctor’s.”
It occurred to him that he ought to thank her, but when he began the bronze curl moved a little nearer to him and she placed her hand over his mouth. He rebelled against the pleasure of that momentary contact with her fingers. They were cool, while they warmed. He rebelled because he knew that she was conscious of his pleasure, that she had deliberately produced it. But he did not know that she was conscious, also, of his rebellion. She took her hand away. She had the sporting instinct. She did not fight a man who was down.
“But stags and foxes, eh?” her husband had once taxed her, when she had been forced to point out this virtue to him.
“They’re different,” she had retorted.
“Of course they are,” he agreed. “They don’t start fifty-fifty—and they can never get up again and smack you.”
The conversation had preceded one of their biggest rows. The Rolls glided on. A small vine-covered house peeped over one of the brown hedges on their left. The sun, nearing the end of its shortened day, sent a low arrow of light into the vines and picked out a brilliant little plate-inscribed: “Dr. L. G. Pudrow, M.D.” The house was less pretentious than the plate, and therefore needed the plate to dignify it. But for the useful illness of a rich old lady and the daily visits this illness imposed, the house might have been even less pretentious. No doctor, however, could visit Bragley Court every morning, and sometimes every afternoon as well, without comfort to his bank-balance, and Dr. Pudrow had found Mrs. Morris a godsend. That was not why he had devoted so much earnest thought and care to the business of keeping the suffering old lady alive.
When the Rolls stopped outside the house, Dr. Pudrow was actually engaged in that rather unchristian occupation. A maid informed the chauffeur that her master was out.
“He’s at your place,” she said. “If you hurries you’ll catch him.”
“Is he coming straight back?” inquired Arthur, with the practical sense of one who has to deal with grit in carburettors.
“No, he’s not,” answered the maid, and added pertly, “he’s got a baby coming at six.”
Arthur considered. It was now eleven minutes to four. He pointed out that the baby was not due for over two hours, but the maid retorted that you never knew, and that the doctor was going right on anyway. “This’ll be No. 8—it’s that Mrs. Trump again,” the maid observed. “I call it disgusting!” She believed in good looks and Marie Stopes.
The chauffeur returned to the car and reported. Nadine looked at the young man. The green glint in her eyes was dancing once more.
“There’s only one way to catch the doctor,” she said. “And there’s only one doctor to catch. He’s attending a patient at Bragley Court—where I happen to be going myself. Shall I take you on there?”
“Why not deposit me here till he returns?” asked the young man. “I mustn’t go on being your responsibility like this.”
Nadine explained the situation. The doctor might be hours before he got back. Some babies were optimistic, and hurried; others showed less anxiety to enter a troubled world. “Then—would you take me— ?” began the young man, and paused.
“Yes? Where?” inquired Nadine.
Obviously, even a man who fell out of a train had some destination beyond the platform. For the sake of the adventure she had delayed referring to it.
“Not sure,” said the young man, and the reply pleased Nadine. The autumn sun was in a very generous mood, and she had no wish to end the adventure. “Isn’t there an inn somewhere?”
Nadine turned to the chauffeur, who was still awaiting instructions.
“Bragley Court, Arthur,” she said, “and don’t worry about speed limits.”
There was always something vaguely personal in her use of the word “Arthur.” It implied no social unbending on her part, and permitted no familiarity on his, but it recognised his existence; almost, his male existence. Now it added two miles to the speedometer.
“Bragley Court doesn’t sound like an inn,” commented the young man wearily. He found he couldn’t fight.
“It certainly isn’t an inn,” answered Nadine. “The only two inns within reasonable distance—as far as I know—are the Black Stag and the Cricketers’ Arms. The Black Stag is by the station. No stag has ever been known there, although I think there is a rumour that years ago one hid behind the bar, but there’s plenty of blackness. It comes from the tunnel. I believe the inn puts up one traveller a year, and never the same traveller. The Cricketers’ Arms is much more lively.
That’s why it is even less desirable. All sorts of company. And I’m told the bed, like Venice, is built round seven lumps. I really think, if you went to the Cricketers’ Arms, you might die of it.”
He did his best to smile. Watching him closely, she assured him the smile was not necessary.
“You’re quite understanding,” he said suddenly.
“I know you’re in pain,” she replied. She had to restrain an impish desire to give him a more personal answer. “I was thrown once, and couldn’t listen to a funny story for a week. Does my prattle worry you?”
“No, please go on.”
“I don’t know if there’s anything to go on about. Oh, yes—Bragley Court. We are racing there to catch the doctor before he leaves one patient to go on to another, that’s all.” She laughed. “You are to be sandwiched between old age and youth—an old lady of over seventy, and a baby minus two hours.”
It was true her prattling did not worry him. It helped him wonderfully, for there was a vital quality behind its levity that forced some part of his attention, diverting it from his pain. But he did not quite know how to handle it.
“I hope the old lady is not very ill?” he said rather conventionally.
“She is very ill,” returned Nadine. “She does jig-saws, and is a lesson to everybody. That is, if anybody ever is a lesson to anybody else, which I doubt. I’ve only known two people in my life who could make me feel a pig. She’s one of them.” “I know what it is,” thought the young man. “She’s so confoundedly natural!” Aloud he asked, “Your mother?” “It would have been politer to have asked if she were my grandmother! I forgive you. She’s neither. She is our—my hostess’s mother. Bragley Court is the place of the Avelings, you know. Or don’t you know?”
“What! Lord Aveling?” She nodded. “I say—do you think you’d better take me there?”
“Why not? Are you Labour?”
He did not reply at once. He was frowning. In the distance the dogs were barking again. A bird, too fat to emigrate, sent a note of shrill sweetness from a bough. “I have just eaten a worm,” sang the bird. It was happy. The snow was a long way off.
“I don’t know whether you realise what I’m realising,” said the young man seriously, “but I may have to stay a bit where you set me down.”
“That’s exactly why—since you’ve given me no other address—I’m taking you to Bragley Court. I’ve already implied that if I took you to either of the local inns here I might be had up for murder.”
“Do you think, if you tried terribly hard, you could stop worrying? If we catch the doctor, let him decide.”
“And if we don’t?”
“Then Lord Aveling can decide. And I know his decision in advance, or I wouldn’t risk inviting it.”
“I’m not too sure of that,” said the young man. “You do take risks.”
“You’ve risked—me!” “So I have!”
“What makes you think Lord Aveling won’t kick against having a stranger lumped upon him, even temporarily?”
“Three things, my dear man. Is that too familiar? One, Lord Aveling. Conservatives with ambition are splendid hosts. Two, myself. I’ve an instinct—and Lord Aveling likes me, and knows I’d never let him down. Three—isn’t that an old school tie?”
This time he laughed.
“Satisfied?” she laughed back. “Sounds pretty good,” he admitted.
“Thank God for that,” sighed Nadine. “Because here we are, and there’s no turning back now. By the way, what’s your name?”