Three Men and a Maid by P.G. Wodehouse
Through the curtained windows of the furnished apartment which Mrs. Horace Hignett had rented for her stay in New York rays of golden sunlight peeped in like the foremost spies of some advancing army. It was a fine summer morning. The hands of the Dutch clock in the hall pointed to thirteen minutes past nine; those of the ormolu clock in the sitting-room to eleven minutes past ten; those of the carriage clock on the bookshelf to fourteen minutes to six. In other words, it was exactly eight; and Mrs. Hignett acknowledged the fact by moving her head on the pillow, opening her eyes, and sitting up in bed. She always woke at eight precisely.
Was this Mrs. Hignett the Mrs. Hignett, the world-famous writer on Theosophy, the author of "The Spreading Light," "What of the Morrow," and all the rest of that well-known series? I'm glad you asked me. Yes, she was. She had come over to America on a lecturing tour.
The year 1921, it will be remembered, was a trying one for the inhabitants of the United States. Every boat that arrived from England brought a fresh swarm of British lecturers to the country. Novelists, poets, scientists, philosophers, and plain, ordinary bores; some herd instinct seemed to affect them all simultaneously. It was like one of those great race movements of the Middle Ages. Men and women of widely differing views on religion, art, politics, and almost every other subject; on this one point the intellectuals of Great Britain were single-minded, that there was easy money to be picked up on the lecture platforms of America and that they might just as well grab it as the next person.
Mrs. Hignett had come over with the first batch of immigrants; for, spiritual as her writings were, there was a solid streak of business sense in this woman and she meant to get hers while the getting was good. She was half way across the Atlantic with a complete itinerary booked before 90 per cent. of the poets and philosophers had finished sorting out their clean collars and getting their photographs taken for the passport.
She had not left England without a pang, for departure had involved sacrifices. More than anything else in the world she loved her charming home, Windles, in the county of Hampshire, for so many years the seat of the Hignett family. Windles was as the breath of life to her. Its shady walks, its silver lake, its noble elms, the old grey stone of its walls--these were bound up with her very being. She felt that she belonged to Windles, and Windles to her. Unfortunately, as a matter of cold, legal accuracy, it did not. She did but hold it in trust for her son, Eustace, until such time as he should marry and take possession of it himself. There were times when the thought of Eustace marrying and bringing a strange woman to Windles chilled Mrs. Hignett to her very marrow. Happily, her firm policy of keeping her son permanently under her eye at home and never permitting him to have speech with a female below the age of fifty had averted the peril up till now.
Eustace had accompanied his mother to America. It was his faint snores which she could hear in the adjoining room, as, having bathed and dressed, she went down the hall to where breakfast awaited her. She smiled tolerantly. She had never desired to convert her son to her own early rising habits, for, apart from not allowing him to call his soul his own, she was an indulgent mother. Eustace would get up at half-past nine, long after she had finished breakfast, read her mail, and started her duties for the day.
Breakfast was on the table in the sitting-room, a modest meal of rolls, cereal, and imitation coffee. Beside the pot containing this hell-brew was a little pile of letters. Mrs. Hignett opened them as she ate. The majority were from disciples and dealt with matters of purely theosophical interest. There was an invitation from the Butterfly Club asking her to be the guest of honour at their weekly dinner. There was a letter from her brother Mallaby--Sir Mallaby Marlowe, the eminent London lawyer--saying that his son Sam, of whom she had never approved, would be in New York shortly, passing through on his way back to England, and hoping that she would see something of him. Altogether a dull mail. Mrs. Hignett skimmed through it without interest, setting aside one or two of the letters for Eustace, who acted as her unpaid secretary, to answer later in the day.
She had just risen from the table when there was a sound of voices in the hall, and presently the domestic staff, a gaunt Irish lady of advanced years, entered the room.
"Ma'am, there was a gentleman."
Mrs. Hignett was annoyed. Her mornings were sacred.
"Didn't you tell him I was not to be disturbed?"
"I did not. I loosed him into the parlor."
The staff remained for a moment in melancholy silence, then resumed. "He says he's your nephew. His name's Marlowe."
Mrs. Hignett experienced no diminution of her annoyance. She had not seen her nephew Sam for ten years and would have been willing to extend the period. She remembered him as an untidy small boy who, once or twice, during his school holidays, had disturbed the cloistral peace of Windles with his beastly presence. However, blood being thicker than water, and all that sort of thing, she supposed she would have to give him five minutes. She went into the sitting-room and found there a young man who looked more or less like all other young men, though perhaps rather fitter than most. He had grown a good deal since she had last met him, as men will do between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, and was now about six feet in height, about forty inches round the chest, and in weight about one hundred and eighty pounds. He had a brown and amiable face, marred at the moment by an expression of discomfort somewhat akin to that of a cat in a strange alley.
"Hallo, Aunt Adeline!" he said awkwardly.
"Well, Samuel!" said Mrs. Hignett.
There was a pause. Mrs. Hignett, who was not fond of young men and disliked having her mornings broken into, was thinking that he had not improved in the slightest degree since their last meeting; and Sam, who imagined that he had long since grown to man's estate and put off childish things, was embarrassed to discover that his aunt still affected him as of old. That is to say, she made him feel as if he had omitted to shave, and, in addition to that, had swallowed some drug which had caused him to swell unpleasantly, particularly about the hands and feet.
"Jolly morning," said Sam, perseveringly.
"So I imagine. I have not yet been out."
"Thought I'd look in and see how you were."
"That was very kind of you. The morning is my busy time, but ... yes, that was very kind of you!"
There was another pause.
"How do you like America?" said Sam.
"I dislike it exceedingly."
"Yes? Well, of course some people do. Prohibition and all that. Personally, it doesn't affect me. I can take it or leave it alone."
"The reason I dislike America--" began Mrs. Hignett bridling.
"I like it myself," said Sam. "I've had a wonderful time. Everybody's treated me like a rich uncle. I've been in Detroit, you know, and they practically gave me the city and asked me if I'd like another to take home in my pocket. Never saw anything like it. I might have been the missing heir. I think America's the greatest invention on record."
"And what brought you to America?" said Mrs. Hignett, unmoved by this rhapsody.
"Oh, I came over to play golf. In a tournament, you know."
"Surely at your age," said Mrs. Hignett, disapprovingly, "you could be better occupied. Do you spend your whole time playing golf?"
"Oh, no. I hunt a bit and shoot a bit and I swim a good lot, and I still play football occasionally."
"I wonder your father does not insist on your doing some useful work."
"He is beginning to harp on the subject rather. I suppose I shall take a stab at it sooner or later. Father says I ought to get married, too."
"He is perfectly right."
"I suppose old Eustace will be getting hitched up one of these days?" said Sam.
Mrs. Hignett started violently.
"Why do you say that?"
"What makes you say that?"
"Oh, well, he's a romantic sort of fellow. Writes poetry and all that."
"There is no likelihood at all of Eustace marrying. He is of a shy and retiring temperament and sees few women. He is almost a recluse."
Sam was aware of this and had frequently regretted it. He had always been fond of his cousin and in that half-amused and rather patronising way in which men of thews and sinews are fond of the weaker brethren who run more to pallor and intellect; and he had always felt that if Eustace had not had to retire to Windles to spend his life with a woman whom from his earliest years he had always considered the Empress of the Wash-outs much might have been made of him. Both at school and at Oxford, Eustace had been--if not a sport--at least a decidedly cheery old bean. Sam remembered Eustace at school breaking gas globes with a slipper in a positively rollicking manner. He remembered him at Oxford playing up to him manfully at the piano on the occasion when he had done that imitation of Frank Tinney which had been such a hit at the Trinity smoker. Yes, Eustace had had the makings of a pretty sound egg, and it was too bad that he had allowed his mother to coop him up down in the country miles away from anywhere.
"Eustace is returning to England on Saturday," said Mrs. Hignett. She spoke a little wistfully. She had not been parted from her son since he had come down from Oxford; and she would have liked to keep him with her till the end of her lecturing tour. That, however, was out of the question. It was imperative that, while she was away, he should be at Windles. Nothing would have induced her to leave the place at the mercy of servants who might trample over the flower-beds, scratch the polished floors, and forget to cover up the canary at night. "He sails on the Atlantic."
"That's splendid," said Sam. "I'm sailing on the Atlantic myself. I'll go down to the office and see if we can't have a state-room together. But where is he going to live when he gets to England?"
"Where is he going to live? Why, at Windles, of course. Where else?"
"But I thought you were letting Windles for the summer?"
Mrs. Hignett stared.
"Letting Windles!" She spoke as one might address a lunatic. "What put that extraordinary idea into your head?"
"I thought father said something about your letting the place to some American."
"Nothing of the kind!"
It seemed to Sam that his aunt spoke somewhat vehemently, even snappishly, in correcting what was a perfectly natural mistake. He could not know that the subject of letting Windles for the summer was one which had long since begun to infuriate Mrs. Hignett. People had certainly asked her to let Windles. In fact people had pestered her. There was a rich fat man, an American named Bennett, whom she had met just before sailing at her brother's house in London. Invited down to Windles for the day, Mr. Bennett had fallen in love with the place and had begged her to name her own price. Not content with this, he had pursued her with his pleadings by means of the wireless telegraph while she was on the ocean, and had not given up the struggle even when she reached New York. He had egged on a friend of his, a Mr. Mortimer, to continue the persecution in that city. And, this very morning, among the letters on Mrs. Hignett's table, the buff envelope of a cable from Mr. Bennett had peeped out, nearly spoiling her breakfast. No wonder, then, that Sam's allusion to the affair had caused the authoress of "The Spreading Light" momentarily to lose her customary calm.
"Nothing will induce me ever to let Windles," she said with finality, and rose significantly. Sam, perceiving that the audience was at an end--and glad of it--also got up.
"Well, I think I'll be going down and seeing about that state-room," he said.
"Certainly. I am a little busy just now, preparing notes for my next lecture."
"Of course, yes. Mustn't interrupt you. I suppose you're having a great time, gassing away--I mean--well, good-bye!"
Mrs. Hignett, frowning, for the interview had ruffled her and disturbed that equable frame of mind which is so vital to the preparation of lectures on Theosophy, sat down at the writing-table and began to go through the notes which she had made overnight. She had hardly succeeded in concentrating herself when the door opened to admit the daughter of Erin once more.
"Ma'am there was a gentleman."
"This is intolerable!" cried Mrs. Hignett. "Did you tell him that I was busy?"
"I did not. I loosed him into the dining-room."
"Is he a reporter from one of the newspapers?"
"He is not. He has spats and a tall-shaped hat. His name is Bream Mortimer."
"Yes, ma'am. He handed me a bit of a kyard, but I dropped it, being slippy from the dishes."
Mrs. Hignett strode to the door with a forbidding expression. This, as she had justly remarked, was intolerable. She remembered Bream Mortimer. He was the son of the Mr. Mortimer who was the friend of the Mr. Bennett who wanted Windles. This visit could only have to do with the subject of Windles, and she went into the dining-room in a state of cold fury, determined to squash the Mortimer family once and for all.
Bream Mortimer was tall and thin. He had small, bright eyes and a sharply curving nose. He looked much more like a parrot than most parrots do. It gave strangers a momentary shock of surprise when they saw Bream Mortimer in restaurants eating roast beef. They had the feeling that he would have preferred sun-flower seeds.
"Morning, Mrs. Hignett."
"Please sit down."
Bream Mortimer sat down. He looked as though he would rather have hopped on to a perch, but he sat down. He glanced about the room with gleaming, excited eyes.
"Mrs. Hignett, I must have a word with you alone!"
"You are having a word with me alone."
"I hardly know how to begin."
"Then let me help you. It is quite impossible. I will never consent."
Bream Mortimer started.
"Then you have heard!"
"I have heard about nothing else since I met Mr. Bennett in London. Mr. Bennett talked about nothing else. Your father talked about nothing else. And now," cried Mrs. Hignett fiercely, "you come and try to reopen the subject. Once and for all nothing will alter my decision. No money will induce me to let my house."
"But I didn't come about that!"
"You did not come about Windles?"
"Good Lord, no!"
"Then will you kindly tell me why you have come?"
Bream Mortimer looked embarrassed. He wriggled a little and moved his arms as if he were trying to flap them.
"You know," he said, "I'm not a man who butts into other people's affairs." ... He stopped.
"No?" said Mrs. Hignett.
Bream began again.
"I'm not a man who gossips with servants."
"I'm not a man who...."
Mrs. Hignett was never a very patient woman.
"Let us take all your negative qualities for granted," she said curtly. "I have no doubt that there are many things which you do not do. Let us confine ourselves to issues of definite importance. What is it, if you have no objection to concentrating your attention on that for a moment, that you wish to see me about?"
"Your son's marriage."
"My son is not married."
"No, but he's going to be. At eleven o'clock this morning at the Little Church Round the Corner!"
Mrs. Hignett stared.
"Are you mad?"
"Well, I'm not any too well pleased, I'm bound to say," admitted Mr. Mortimer. "You see, darn it all, I'm in love with the girl myself!"
"Who is this girl?"
"Have been for years. I'm one of those silent, patient fellows who hang around and look a lot, but never tell their love...."
"Who is this girl who has entrapped my son?"
"I've always been one of those men who...."
"Mr. Mortimer! With your permission we will take your positive qualities, also, for granted. In fact, we will not discuss you at all. You come to me with this absurd story...."
"Not absurd. Honest fact. I had it from my valet, who had it from her maid, and, though I'm not a man who gossips with servants, I'm bound to say...."
"Will you please tell me who is the girl my misguided son wishes to marry?"
"I don't know that I'd call him misguided," said Mr. Mortimer, as one desiring to be fair, "I think he's a right smart picker! She's such a corking girl, you know. We were children together, and I've loved her for years. Ten years at least. But you know how it is--somehow one never seems to get in line for a proposal. I thought I saw an opening in the summer of nineteen-twelve, but it blew over. I'm not one of these smooth, dashing guys, you see, with a great line of talk. I'm not...."
"If you will kindly," said Mrs. Hignett impatiently, "postpone this essay in psycho-analysis to some future occasion I shall be greatly obliged. I am waiting to hear the name of the girl my son wishes to marry."
"Haven't I told you?" said Mr. Mortimer, surprised. "That's odd. I haven't! It's funny how one doesn't do the things one thinks one does. I'm the sort of man..."
"What is her name?"
"Bennett? Wilhelmina Bennett? The daughter of Mr. Rufus Bennett? The red-haired girl I met at lunch one day at your father's house?"
"That's it. You're a great guesser. I think you ought to stop the thing."
"I intend to."
"The marriage would be unsuitable in every way. Miss Bennett and my son do not vibrate on the same plane."
"That's right. I've noticed it myself."
"Their auras are not the same colour."
"If I've thought that once," said Bream Mortimer, "I've thought it a hundred times. I wish I had a dollar for every time I've thought it. Not the same colour! That's the whole thing in a nutshell."
"I am much obliged to you for coming and telling me of this. I shall take immediate steps."
"That's good! But what's the procedure? How are you going to form a flying-wedge and buck-centre? It's getting late. She'll be waiting at the church at eleven. With bells on," said Mr. Mortimer.
"Eustace will not be there."
"You think you can fix it?"
"Eustace will not be there," repeated Mrs. Hignett.
Bream Mortimer hopped down from his chair.
"Well, you've taken a weight off my mind."
"A mind, I should imagine, scarcely constructed to bear great weights."
"I'll be going. Haven't had breakfast yet. Too worried to eat breakfast. Relieved now. This is where three eggs and a rasher of ham get cut off in their prime. I feel I can rely on you."
"Then I'll say good-bye."
"I mean really good-bye. I'm sailing for England on Saturday on the Atlantic."
"Indeed? My son will be your fellow-traveller."
Bream Mortimer looked somewhat apprehensive.
"You won't tell him that I was the one who spilled the beans?"
"I beg your pardon."
"You won't wise him up that I threw a spanner into the machinery?"
"I do not understand you."
"You won't tell him that I crabbed his act--gave the thing away--gummed the game?"
"I shall not mention your chivalrous intervention."
"Chivalrous?" said Bream Mortimer doubtfully. "I don't know that I'd call it absolutely chivalrous. Of course, all's fair in love and war. Well, I'm glad you're going to keep my share in the business under your hat. It might have been awkward meeting him on board."
"You are not likely to meet Eustace on board. He is a very indifferent sailor and spends most of his time in his cabin."
"That's good! Saves a lot of awkwardness. Well, good-bye."
"Good-bye. When you reach England remember me to your father."
"He won't have forgotten you," said Bream Mortimer confidently. He did not see how it was humanly possible for anyone to forget this woman. She was like a celebrated chewing-gum. The taste lingered.
Mrs. Hignett was a woman of instant and decisive action. Even while her late visitor was speaking schemes had begun to form in her mind like bubbles rising to the surface of a rushing river. By the time the door had closed behind Bream Mortimer she had at her disposal no fewer than seven, all good. It took her but a moment to select the best and simplest. She tip-toed softly to her son's room. Rhythmic snores greeted her listening ears. She opened the door and went noiselessly in.