Three Men and a Maid by P.G. Wodehouse
Ship's concerts are given in aid of the seamen's orphans and widows, and, after one has been present at a few of them, one seems to feel that any right-thinking orphan or widow would rather jog along and take a chance of starvation than be the innocent cause of such things. They open with a long speech from the master of the ceremonies--so long, as a rule, that it is only the thought of what is going to happen afterwards that enables the audience to bear it with fortitude. This done, the amateur talent is unleashed, and the grim work begins.
It was not till after the all too brief intermission for rest and recuperation that the newly formed team of Marlowe and Hignett was scheduled to appear. Previous to this there had been dark deeds done in the quiet saloon. The lecturer on deep-sea fish had fulfilled his threat and spoken at great length on a subject which, treated by a master of oratory, would have palled on the audience after ten or fifteen minutes; and at the end of fifteen minutes this speaker had only just got past the haddocks and was feeling his way tentatively through the shrimps. 'The Rosary' had been sung and there was an uneasy doubt as to whether it was not going to be sung again after the interval--the latest rumour being that the second of the rival lady singers had proved adamant to all appeals and intended to fight the thing out on the lines she had originally chosen if they put her in irons.
A young man recited 'Gunga Din' and, wilfully misinterpreting the gratitude of the audience that it was over for a desire for more, had followed it with 'Fuzzy-Wuzzy.' His sister--these things run in families--had sung 'My Little Gray Home in the West'--rather sombrely, for she had wanted to sing the 'Rosary,' and, with the same obtuseness which characterised her brother, had come back and rendered two plantation songs. The audience was now examining its programmes in the interval of silence in order to ascertain the duration of the sentence still remaining unexpired.
It was shocked to read the following:
7. A Little Imitation......S. Marlowe
All over the saloon you could see fair women and brave men wilting in their seats. Imitation...! The word, as Keats would have said, was like a knell! Many of these people were old travellers, and their minds went back wincingly, as one recalls forgotten wounds, to occasions when performers at ships' concerts had imitated whole strings of Dickens' characters or, with the assistance of a few hats and a little false hair, had endeavored to portray Napoleon, Bismarck, Shakespeare and others of the famous dead. In this printed line on the programme there was nothing to indicate the nature or scope of the imitation which this S. Marlowe proposed to inflict upon them. They could only sit and wait and hope that it would be short.
There was a sinking of hearts as Eustace Hignett moved down the room and took his place at the piano. A pianist! This argued more singing. The more pessimistic began to fear that the imitation was going to be one of those imitations of well-known opera artistes which, though rare, do occasionally add to the horrors of ships' concerts. They stared at Hignett apprehensively. There seemed to them something ominous in the man's very aspect. His face was very pale and set, the face of one approaching a task at which his humanity shudders. They could not know that the pallor of Eustace Hignett was due entirely to the slight tremor which, even on the calmest nights, the engines of an ocean liner produce in the flooring of a dining saloon and to that faint, yet well-defined, smell of cooked meats which clings to a room where a great many people have recently been eating a great many meals. A few beads of cold perspiration were clinging to Eustace Hignett's brow. He looked straight before him with unseeing eyes. He was thinking hard of the Sahara.
So tense was Eustace's concentration that he did not see Billie Bennett, seated in the front row. Billie had watched him enter with a little thrill of embarrassment. She wished that she had been content with one of the seats at the back. But her friend Jane Hubbard, who accompanied her, had insisted on the front row.
In order to avoid recognition for as long as possible, Billie now put up her fan and turned to Jane. She was surprised to see that her friend was staring eagerly before her with a fixity almost equal to that of Eustace.
"What is the matter, Jane?"
Jane Hubbard was a tall, handsome girl with large brown eyes. About her, as Bream Mortimer had said, there was something dynamic. The daughter of an eminent explorer and big-game hunter, she had frequently accompanied her father on his expeditions. An out-doors girl.
"Who is that man at the piano?" she whispered. "Do you know him?"
"As a matter of fact, I do," said Billie. "His name is Hignett. Why?"
"I met him on the Subway not long ago. Poor little fellow, how miserable he looks!"
At this moment their conversation was interrupted. Eustace Hignett, pulling himself together with a painful effort, raised his hands and struck a crashing chord: and, as he did so, there appeared through the door at the far end of the saloon a figure at the sight of which the entire audience started convulsively with a feeling that a worse thing had befallen them than even they had looked for.
The figure was richly clad in some scarlet material. Its face was a grisly black and below the nose appeared what seemed a horrible gash. It advanced towards them, smoking a cigar.
"Hullo, Ernest," it said.
And then it seemed to pause expectantly, as though desiring some reply. Dead silence reigned in the saloon.
Those nearest the piano--and nobody more quickly than Jane Hubbard--now observed that the white face of the man on the stool had grown whiter still. His eyes gazed out glassily from under his damp brow. He looked like a man who was seeing some ghastly sight. The audience sympathised with him. They felt like that, too.
In all human plans there is ever some slight hitch, some little miscalculation which just makes all the difference. A moment's thought should have told Eustace Hignett that a half-smoked cigar was one of the essential properties to any imitation of the eminent Mr. Tinney: but he had completely overlooked the fact. The cigar came as an absolute surprise to him and it could not have affected him more powerfully if it had been a voice from the tomb. He stared at it pallidly, like Macbeth at the ghost of Banquo. It was a strong, lively young cigar, and its curling smoke played lightly about his nostrils. His jaw fell. His eyes protruded. He looked for a long moment like one of those deep-sea fishes concerning which the recent lecturer had spoken so searchingly. Then with the cry of a stricken animal, he bounded from his seat and fled for the deck.
There was a rustle of millinery at Billie's side as Jane Hubbard rose and followed him. Jane was deeply stirred. Even as he sat, looking so pale and piteous, at the piano, her big heart had gone out to him, and now, in his moment of anguish, he seemed to bring to the surface everything that was best and most compassionate in her nature. Thrusting aside a steward who happened to be between her and the door, she raced in pursuit.
Sam Marlowe had watched his cousin's dash for the open with a consternation so complete that his sense seemed to have left him. A general, deserted by his men on some stricken field, might have felt something akin to his emotion. Of all the learned professions, the imitation of Mr. Frank Tinney is the one which can least easily be carried through single-handed. The man at the piano, the leader of the orchestra, is essential. He is the life-blood of the entertainment. Without him, nothing can be done.
For an instant Sam stood there, gaping blankly. Then the open door of the saloon seemed to beckon an invitation. He made for it, reached it, passed through it. That concluded his efforts in aid of the Seamen's Orphans and Widows.
The spell which had lain on the audience broke. This imitation seemed to them to possess in an extraordinary measure the one quality which renders amateur imitations tolerable, that of brevity. They had seen many amateur imitations, but never one as short as this. The saloon echoed with their applause.
It brought no balm to Samuel Marlowe. He did not hear it. He had fled for refuge to his stateroom and was lying in the lower berth, chewing the pillow, a soul in torment.