ACT I
 

The scene is the managing clerk's room, at the offices of James and Walter How, on a July morning. The room is old fashioned, furnished with well-worn mahogany and leather, and lined with tin boxes and estate plans. It has three doors. Two of them are close together in the centre of a wall. One of these two doors leads to the outer office, which is only divided from the managing clerk's room by a partition of wood and clear glass; and when the door into this outer office is opened there can be seen the wide outer door leading out on to the stone stairway of the building. The other of these two centre doors leads to the junior clerk's room. The third door is that leading to the partners' room.

The managing clerk, COKESON, is sitting at his table adding up figures in a pass-book, and murmuring their numbers to himself. He is a man of sixty, wearing spectacles; rather short, with a bald head, and an honest, pugdog face. He is dressed in a well-worn black frock-coat and pepper-and-salt trousers.

COKESON And five's twelve, and three--fifteen, nineteen, twenty-three, thirty-two, forty-one-and carry four. [He ticks the page, and goes on murmuring] Five, seven, twelve, seventeen, twenty-four and nine, thirty-three, thirteen and carry one.

He again makes a tick. The outer office door is opened, and SWEEDLE, the office-boy, appears, closing the door behind him. He is a pale youth of sixteen, with spiky hair.

COKESON [With grumpy expectation] And carry one.

SWEEDLE There's a party wants to see Falder, Mr. Cokeson.

COKESON Five, nine, sixteen, twenty-one, twenty-nine--and carry two. Send him to Morris's. What name?

SWEEDLE Honeywill.

COKESON What's his business?

SWEEDLE It's a woman.

COKESON A lady?

SWEEDLE No, a person.

COKESON Ask her in. Take this pass-book to Mr. James. [He closes the pass-book.]

SWEEDLE [Reopening the door] Will you come in, please?

RUTH HONEYWILL comes in. She is a tall woman, twenty-six years old, unpretentiously dressed, with black hair and eyes, and an ivory-white, clear-cut face. She stands very still, having a natural dignity of pose and gesture.

SWEEDLE goes out into the partners' room with the pass-book.

COKESON [Looking round at RUTH] The young man's out. [Suspiciously] State your business, please.

RUTH [Who speaks in a matter-of-fact voice, and with a slight West-Country accent] It's a personal matter, sir.

COKESON We don't allow private callers here. Will you leave a message?

RUTH I'd rather see him, please.

She narrows her dark eyes and gives him a honeyed look.

COKESON [Expanding] It's all against the rules. Suppose I had my friends here to see me! It'd never do!

RUTH No, sir.

COKESON [A little taken aback] Exactly! And here you are wanting to see a junior clerk!

RUTH Yes, sir; I must see him.

COKESON [Turning full round to her with a sort of outraged interest] But this is a lawyer's office. Go to his private address.

RUTH He's not there.

COKESON [Uneasy] Are you related to the party?

RUTH No, sir.

COKESON [In real embarrassment] I don't know what to say. It's no affair of the office.

RUTH But what am I to do?

COKESON Dear me! I can't tell you that.

SWEEDLE comes back. He crosses to the outer office and passes through into it, with a quizzical look at Cokeson, carefully leaving the door an inch or two open.

COKESON [Fortified by this look] This won't do, you know, this won't do at all. Suppose one of the partners came in!

An incoherent knocking and chuckling is heard from the outer door of the outer office.

SWEEDLE [Putting his head in] There's some children outside here.

RUTH They're mine, please.

SWEEDLE Shall I hold them in check?

RUTH They're quite small, sir. [She takes a step towards COKESON]

COKESON You mustn't take up his time in office hours; we're a clerk short as it is.

RUTH It's a matter of life and death.

COKESON [Again outraged] Life and death!

SWEEDLE Here is Falder.

FALDER has entered through the outer office. He is a pale, good-looking young man, with quick, rather scared eyes. He moves towards the door of the clerks' office, and stands there irresolute.

COKESON Well, I'll give you a minute. It's not regular.

Taking up a bundle of papers, he goes out into the partners' room.

RUTH [In a low, hurried voice] He's on the drink again, Will. He tried to cut my throat last night. I came out with the children before he was awake. I went round to you.

FALDER I've changed my digs.

RUTH Is it all ready for to-night?

FALDER I've got the tickets. Meet me 11.45 at the booking office. For God's sake don't forget we're man and wife! [Looking at her with tragic intensity] Ruth!

RUTH You're not afraid of going, are you?

FALDER Have you got your things, and the children's?

RUTH Had to leave them, for fear of waking Honeywill, all but one bag. I can't go near home again.

FALDER [Wincing] All that money gone for nothing. How much must you have?

RUTH Six pounds--I could do with that, I think.

FALDER Don't give away where we're going. [As if to himself] When I get out there I mean to forget it all.

RUTH If you're sorry, say so. I'd sooner he killed me than take you against your will.

FALDER [With a queer smile] We've got to go. I don't care; I'll have you.

RUTH You've just to say; it's not too late.

FALDER It is too late. Here's seven pounds. Booking office 11.45 to-night. If you weren't what you are to me, Ruth----!

RUTH Kiss me!

They cling together passionately, there fly apart just as COKESON re-enters the room. RUTH turns and goes out through the outer office. COKESON advances deliberately to his chair and seats himself.

COKESON This isn't right, Falder.

FALDER It shan't occur again, sir.

COKESON It's an improper use of these premises.

FALDER Yes, sir.

COKESON You quite understand-the party was in some distress; and, having children with her, I allowed my feelings----[He opens a drawer and produces from it a tract] Just take this! "Purity in the Home." It's a well-written thing.

FALDER [Taking it, with a peculiar expression] Thank you, sir.

COKESON And look here, Falder, before Mr. Walter comes, have you finished up that cataloguing Davis had in hand before he left?

FALDER I shall have done with it to-morrow, sir--for good.

COKESON It's over a week since Davis went. Now it won't do, Falder. You're neglecting your work for private life. I shan't mention about the party having called, but----

FALDER [Passing into his room] Thank you, sir.

COKESON stares at the door through which FALDER has gone out; then shakes his head, and is just settling down to write, when WALTER How comes in through the outer Office. He is a rather refined-looking man of thirty-five, with a pleasant, almost apologetic voice.

WALTER Good-morning, Cokeson.

COKESON Morning, Mr. Walter.

WALTER My father here?

COKESON [Always with a certain patronage as to a young man who might be doing better] Mr. James has been here since eleven o'clock.

WALTER I've been in to see the pictures, at the Guildhall.

COKESON [Looking at him as though this were exactly what was to be expected] Have you now--ye--es. This lease of Boulter's--am I to send it to counsel?

WALTER What does my father say?

COKESON 'Aven't bothered him.

WALTER Well, we can't be too careful.

COKESON It's such a little thing--hardly worth the fees. I thought you'd do it yourself.

WALTER Send it, please. I don't want the responsibility.

COKESON [With an indescribable air of compassion] Just as you like. This "right-of-way" case--we've got 'em on the deeds.

WALTER I know; but the intention was obviously to exclude that bit of common ground.

COKESON We needn't worry about that. We're the right side of the law.

WALTER I don't like it,

COKESON [With an indulgent smile] We shan't want to set ourselves up against the law. Your father wouldn't waste his time doing that.

As he speaks JAMES How comes in from the partners' room. He is a shortish man, with white side-whiskers, plentiful grey hair, shrewd eyes, and gold pince-nez.

JAMES Morning, Walter.

WALTER How are you, father?

COKESON [Looking down his nose at the papers in his hand as though deprecating their size] I'll just take Boulter's lease in to young Falder to draft the instructions. [He goes out into FALDER'S room.]

WALTER About that right-of-way case?

JAMES Oh, well, we must go forward there. I thought you told me yesterday the firm's balance was over four hundred.

WALTER So it is.

JAMES [Holding out the pass-book to his son] Three--five--one, no recent cheques. Just get me out the cheque-book.

WALTER goes to a cupboard, unlocks a drawer and produces a cheque-book.

JAMES Tick the pounds in the counterfoils. Five, fifty-four, seven, five, twenty-eight, twenty, ninety, eleven, fifty-two, seventy-one. Tally?

WALTER [Nodding] Can't understand. Made sure it was over four hundred.

JAMES Give me the cheque-book. [He takes the check-book and cons the counterfoils] What's this ninety?

WALTER Who drew it?

JAMES You.

WALTER [Taking the cheque-book] July 7th? That's the day I went down to look over the Trenton Estate--last Friday week; I came back on the Tuesday, you remember. But look here, father, it was nine I drew a cheque for. Five guineas to Smithers and my expenses. It just covered all but half a crown.

JAMES [Gravely] Let's look at that ninety cheque. [He sorts the cheque out from the bundle in the pocket of the pass-book] Seems all right. There's no nine here. This is bad. Who cashed that nine-pound cheque?

WALTER [Puzzled and pained] Let's see! I was finishing Mrs. Reddy's will--only just had time; yes--I gave it to Cokeson.

JAMES Look at that 't' 'y': that yours?

WALTER [After consideration] My y's curl back a little; this doesn't.

JAMES [As COKESON re-enters from FALDER'S room] We must ask him. Just come here and carry your mind back a bit, Cokeson. D'you remember cashing a cheque for Mr. Walter last Friday week--the day he went to Trenton?

COKESON Ye-es. Nine pounds.

JAMES Look at this. [Handing him the cheque.]

COKESON No! Nine pounds. My lunch was just coming in; and of course I like it hot; I gave the cheque to Davis to run round to the bank. He brought it back, all gold--you remember, Mr. Walter, you wanted some silver to pay your cab. [With a certain contemptuous compassion] Here, let me see. You've got the wrong cheque.

He takes cheque-book and pass-book from WALTER.

WALTER Afraid not.

COKESON [Having seen for himself] It's funny.

JAMES You gave it to Davis, and Davis sailed for Australia on Monday. Looks black, Cokeson.

COKESON [Puzzled and upset] why this'd be a felony! No, no! there's some mistake.

JAMES I hope so.

COKESON There's never been anything of that sort in the office the twenty-nine years I've been here.

JAMES [Looking at cheque and counterfoil] This is a very clever bit of work; a warning to you not to leave space after your figures, Walter.

WALTER [Vexed] Yes, I know--I was in such a tearing hurry that afternoon.

COKESON [Suddenly] This has upset me.

JAMES The counterfoil altered too--very deliberate piece of swindling. What was Davis's ship?

WALTER 'City of Rangoon'.

JAMES We ought to wire and have him arrested at Naples; he can't be there yet.

COKESON His poor young wife. I liked the young man. Dear, oh dear! In this office!

WALTER Shall I go to the bank and ask the cashier?

JAMES [Grimly] Bring him round here. And ring up Scotland Yard.

WALTER Really?

He goes out through the outer office. JAMES paces the room. He stops and looks at COKESON, who is disconsolately rubbing the knees of his trousers.

JAMES Well, Cokeson! There's something in character, isn't there?

COKESON [Looking at him over his spectacles] I don't quite take you, sir.

JAMES Your story, would sound d----d thin to any one who didn't know you.

COKESON Ye-es! [He laughs. Then with a sudden gravity] I'm sorry for that young man. I feel it as if it was my own son, Mr. James.

JAMES A nasty business!

COKESON It unsettles you. All goes on regular, and then a thing like this happens. Shan't relish my lunch to-day.

JAMES As bad as that, Cokeson?

COKESON It makes you think. [Confidentially] He must have had temptation.

JAMES Not so fast. We haven't convicted him yet.

COKESON I'd sooner have lost a month's salary than had this happen. [He broods.]

JAMES I hope that fellow will hurry up.

COKESON [Keeping things pleasant for the cashier] It isn't fifty yards, Mr. James. He won't be a minute.

JAMES The idea of dishonesty about this office it hits me hard, Cokeson.

He goes towards the door of the partners' room.

SWEEDLE [Entering quietly, to COKESON in a low voice] She's popped up again, sir-something she forgot to say to Falder.

COKESON [Roused from his abstraction] Eh? Impossible. Send her away!

JAMES What's that?

COKESON Nothing, Mr. James. A private matter. Here, I'll come myself. [He goes into the outer office as JAMES passes into the partners' room] Now, you really mustn't--we can't have anybody just now.

RUTH Not for a minute, sir?

COKESON Reely! Reely! I can't have it. If you want him, wait about; he'll be going out for his lunch directly.

RUTH Yes, sir.

WALTER, entering with the cashier, passes RUTH as she leaves the outer office.

COKESON [To the cashier, who resembles a sedentary dragoon] Good-morning. [To WALTER] Your father's in there.

WALTER crosses and goes into the partners' room.

COKESON It's a nahsty, unpleasant little matter, Mr. Cowley. I'm quite ashamed to have to trouble you.

COWLEY I remember the cheque quite well. [As if it were a liver] Seemed in perfect order.

COKESON Sit down, won't you? I'm not a sensitive man, but a thing like this about the place--it's not nice. I like people to be open and jolly together.

COWLEY Quite so.

COKESON [Buttonholing him, and glancing toward the partners' room] Of course he's a young man. I've told him about it before now-- leaving space after his figures, but he will do it.

COWLEY I should remember the person's face--quite a youth.

COKESON I don't think we shall be able to show him to you, as a matter of fact.

JAMES and WALTER have come back from the partners' room.

JAMES Good-morning, Mr. Cowley. You've seen my son and myself, you've seen Mr. Cokeson, and you've seen Sweedle, my office-boy. It was none of us, I take it.

The cashier shakes his head with a smile.

JAMES Be so good as to sit there. Cokeson, engage Mr. Cowley in conversation, will you?

He goes toward FALDER'S room.

COKESON Just a word, Mr. James.

JAMES Well?

COKESON You don't want to upset the young man in there, do you? He's a nervous young feller.

JAMES This must be thoroughly cleared up, Cokeson, for the sake of Falder's name, to say nothing of yours.

COKESON [With Some dignity] That'll look after itself, sir. He's been upset once this morning; I don't want him startled again.

JAMES It's a matter of form; but I can't stand upon niceness over a thing like this--too serious. Just talk to Mr. Cowley.

He opens the door of FALDER'S room.

JAMES Bring in the papers in Boulter's lease, will you, Falder?

COKESON [Bursting into voice] Do you keep dogs?

The cashier, with his eyes fixed on the door, does not answer.

COKESON You haven't such a thing as a bulldog pup you could spare me, I suppose?

At the look on the cashier's face his jaw drops, and he turns to see FALDER standing in the doorway, with his eyes fixed on COWLEY, like the eyes of a rabbit fastened on a snake.

FALDER [Advancing with the papers] Here they are, sir!

JAMES [Taking them] Thank you.

FALDER Do you want me, sir?

JAMES No, thanks!

FALDER turns and goes back into his own room. As he shuts the door JAMES gives the cashier an interrogative look, and the cashier nods.

JAMES Sure? This isn't as we suspected.

COWLEY Quite. He knew me. I suppose he can't slip out of that room?

COKESON [Gloomily] There's only the window--a whole floor and a basement.

The door of FALDER'S room is quietly opened, and FALDER, with his hat in his hand, moves towards the door of the outer office.

JAMES [Quietly] Where are you going, Falder?

FALDER To have my lunch, sir.

JAMES Wait a few minutes, would you? I want to speak to you about this lease.

FALDER Yes, sir. [He goes back into his room.]

COWLEY If I'm wanted, I can swear that's the young man who cashed the cheque. It was the last cheque I handled that morning before my lunch. These are the numbers of the notes he had. [He puts a slip of paper on the table; then, brushing his hat round] Good-morning!

JAMES Good-morning, Mr. Cowley!

COWLEY [To COKESON] Good-morning.

COKESON [With Stupefaction] Good-morning.

The cashier goes out through the outer office. COKESON sits down in his chair, as though it were the only place left in the morass of his feelings.

WALTER What are you going to do?

JAMES Have him in. Give me the cheque and the counterfoil.

COKESON I don't understand. I thought young Davis----

JAMES We shall see.

WALTER One moment, father: have you thought it out?

JAMES Call him in!

COKESON [Rising with difficulty and opening FALDER'S door; hoarsely] Step in here a minute.

FALDER [Impassively] Yes, sir?

JAMES [Turning to him suddenly with the cheque held out] You know this cheque, Falder?

FALDER No, sir.

JADES Look at it. You cashed it last Friday week.

FALDER Oh! yes, sir; that one--Davis gave it me.

JAMES I know. And you gave Davis the cash?

FALDER Yes, sir.

JAMES When Davis gave you the cheque was it exactly like this?

FALDER Yes, I think so, sir.

JAMES You know that Mr. Walter drew that cheque for nine pounds?

FALDER No, sir--ninety.

JAMES Nine, Falder.

FALDER [Faintly] I don't understand, sir.

JAMES The suggestion, of course, is that the cheque was altered; whether by you or Davis is the question.

FALDER I--I

COKESON Take your time, take your time.

FALDER [Regaining his impassivity] Not by me, sir.

JAMES The cheque was handed to--Cokeson by Mr. Walter at one o'clock; we know that because Mr. Cokeson's lunch had just arrived.

COKESON I couldn't leave it.

JAMES Exactly; he therefore gave the cheque to Davis. It was cashed by you at 1.15. We know that because the cashier recollects it for the last cheque he handled before his lunch.

FALDER Yes, sir, Davis gave it to me because some friends were giving him a farewell luncheon.

JAMES [Puzzled] You accuse Davis, then?

FALDER I don't know, sir--it's very funny.

WALTER, who has come close to his father, says something to him in a low voice.

JAMES Davis was not here again after that Saturday, was he?

COKESON [Anxious to be of assistance to the young man, and seeing faint signs of their all being jolly once more] No, he sailed on the Monday.

JAMES Was he, Falder?

FALDER [Very faintly] No, sir.

JAMES Very well, then, how do you account for the fact that this nought was added to the nine in the counterfoil on or after Tuesday?

COKESON [Surprised] How's that?

FALDER gives a sort of lurch; he tries to pull himself together, but he has gone all to pieces.

JAMES [Very grimly] Out, I'm afraid, Cokeson. The cheque-book remained in Mr. Walter's pocket till he came back from Trenton on Tuesday morning. In the face of this, Falder, do you still deny that you altered both cheque and counterfoil?

FALDER No, sir--no, Mr. How. I did it, sir; I did it.

COKESON [Succumbing to his feelings] Dear, dear! what a thing to do!

FALDER I wanted the money so badly, sir. I didn't know what I was doing.

COKESON However such a thing could have come into your head!

FALDER [Grasping at the words] I can't think, sir, really! It was just a minute of madness.

JAMES A long minute, Falder. [Tapping the counterfoil] Four days at least.

FALDER Sir, I swear I didn't know what I'd done till afterwards, and then I hadn't the pluck. Oh! Sir, look over it! I'll pay the money back--I will, I promise.

JAMES Go into your room.

FALDER, with a swift imploring look, goes back into his room. There is silence.

JAMES About as bad a case as there could be.

COKESON To break the law like that-in here!

WALTER What's to be done?

JAMES Nothing for it. Prosecute.

WALTER It's his first offence.

JAMES [Shaking his head] I've grave doubts of that. Too neat a piece of swindling altogether.

COKESON I shouldn't be surprised if he was tempted.

JAMES Life's one long temptation, Cokeson.

COKESON Ye-es, but I'm speaking of the flesh and the devil, Mr. James. There was a woman come to see him this morning.

WALTER The woman we passed as we came in just now. Is it his wife?

COKESON No, no relation. [Restraining what in jollier circumstances would have been a wink] A married person, though.

WALTER How do you know?

COKESON Brought her children. [Scandalised] There they were outside the office.

JAMES A real bad egg.

WALTER I should like to give him a chance.

JAMES I can't forgive him for the sneaky way be went to work-- counting on our suspecting young Davis if the matter came to light. It was the merest accident the cheque-book stayed in your pocket.

WALTER It must have been the temptation of a moment. He hadn't time.

JAMES A man doesn't succumb like that in a moment, if he's a clean mind and habits. He's rotten; got the eyes of a man who can't keep his hands off when there's money about.

WALTER [Dryly] We hadn't noticed that before.

JAMES [Brushing the remark aside] I've seen lots of those fellows in my time. No doing anything with them except to keep 'em out of harm's way. They've got a blind spat.

WALTER It's penal servitude.

COKESON They're nahsty places-prisons.

JAMES [Hesitating] I don't see how it's possible to spare him. Out of the question to keep him in this office--honesty's the 'sine qua non'.

COKESON [Hypnotised] Of course it is.

JAMES Equally out of the question to send him out amongst people who've no knowledge of his character. One must think of society.

WALTER But to brand him like this?

JAMES If it had been a straightforward case I'd give him another chance. It's far from that. He has dissolute habits.

COKESON I didn't say that--extenuating circumstances.

JAMES Same thing. He's gone to work in the most cold-blooded way to defraud his employers, and cast the blame on an innocent man. If that's not a case for the law to take its course, I don't know what is.

WALTER For the sake of his future, though.

JAMES [Sarcastically] According to you, no one would ever prosecute.

WALTER [Nettled] I hate the idea of it.

COKESON That's rather 'ex parte', Mr. Walter! We must have protection.

JAMES This is degenerating into talk.

He moves towards the partners' room.

WALTER Put yourself in his place, father.

JAMES You ask too much of me.

WALTER We can't possibly tell the pressure there was on him.

JAMES You may depend on it, my boy, if a man is going to do this sort of thing he'll do it, pressure or no pressure; if he isn't nothing'll make him.

WALTER He'll never do it again.

COKESON [Fatuously] S'pose I were to have a talk with him. We don't want to be hard on the young man.

JAMES That'll do, Cokeson. I've made up my mind. [He passes into the partners' room.]

COKESON [After a doubtful moment] We must excuse your father. I don't want to go against your father; if he thinks it right.

WALTER Confound it, Cokeson! why don't you back me up? You know you feel----

COKESON [On his dignity] I really can't say what I feel.

WALTER We shall regret it.

COKESON He must have known what he was doing.

WALTER [Bitterly] "The quality of mercy is not strained."

COKESON [Looking at him askance] Come, come, Mr. Walter. We must try and see it sensible.

SWEEDLE [Entering with a tray] Your lunch, sir.

COKESON Put it down!

While SWEEDLE is putting it down on COKESON's table, the detective, WISTER, enters the outer office, and, finding no one there, comes to the inner doorway. He is a square, medium-sized man, clean-shaved, in a serviceable blue serge suit and strong boots.

COKESON [Hoarsely] Here! Here! What are we doing?

WISTER [To WALTER] From Scotland Yard, sir. Detective-Sergeant Blister.

WALTER [Askance] Very well! I'll speak to my father.

He goes into the partners' room. JAMES enters.

JAMES Morning! [In answer to an appealing gesture from COKESON] I'm sorry; I'd stop short of this if I felt I could. Open that door. [SWEEDLE, wondering and scared, opens it] Come here, Mr. Falder.

As FALDER comes shrinkingly out, the detective in obedience to a sign from JAMES, slips his hand out and grasps his arm.

FALDER [Recoiling] Oh! no,--oh! no!

WALTER Come, come, there's a good lad.

JAMES I charge him with felony.

FALTER Oh, sir! There's some one--I did it for her. Let me be till to-morrow.

JAMES motions with his hand. At that sign of hardness, FALDER becomes rigid. Then, turning, he goes out quietly in the detective's grip. JAMES follows, stiff and erect. SWEEDLE, rushing to the door with open mouth, pursues them through the outer office into the corridor. When they have all disappeared COKESON spins completely round and makes a rush for the outer office.

COKESON [Hoarsely] Here! What are we doing?

There is silence. He takes out his handkerchief and mops the sweat from his face. Going back blindly to his table, sits down, and stares blankly at his lunch.