Three Men and a Maid by P.G. Wodehouse
The offices of the old-established firm of Marlowe, Thorpe, Prescott, Winslow and Appleby are in Ridgeway's Inn, not far from Fleet Street. If you are a millionaire beset by blackmailers or anyone else to whose comfort the best legal advice is essential, and have decided to put your affairs in the hands of the ablest and discreetest firm in London, you proceed through a dark and grimy entry and up a dark and grimy flight of stairs; and, having felt your way along a dark and grimy passage, you come at length to a dark and grimy door. There is plenty of dirt in other parts of Ridgeway's Inn, but nowhere is it so plentiful, so rich in alluvial deposits, as on the exterior of the offices of Marlowe, Thorpe, Prescott, Winslow and Appleby. As you tap on the topmost of the geological strata concealing the ground-glass of the door, a sense of relief and security floods your being. For in London grubbiness is the gauge of a lawyer's respectability.
The brass plate, let into the woodwork of this door, is misleading. Reading it, you get the impression that on the other side quite a covey of lawyers await your arrival. The name of the firm leads you to suppose that there will be barely standing-room in the office. You picture Thorpe jostling you aside as he makes for Prescott to discuss with him the latest case of demurrer, and Winslow and Appleby treading on your toes, deep in conversation on replevin. But these legal firms dwindle. The years go by and take their toll, snatching away here a Prescott, there an Appleby, till before you know where you are, you are down to your last lawyer. The only surviving member of the firm of Marlowe, Thorpe--what I said before--was, at the time with which this story deals, Sir Mallaby Marlowe, son of the original founder of the firm and father of the celebrated black-faced comedian, Samuel of that ilk; and the outer office, where callers were received and parked till Sir Mallaby could find time for them, was occupied by a single clerk.
When Sam, reaching the office after his journey, opened the door, this clerk, John Peters by name, was seated on a high stool, holding in one hand a half-eaten sausage, in the other an extraordinary large and powerful revolver. At the sight of Sam he laid down both engines of destruction and beamed. He was not a particularly successful beamer, being hampered by a cast in one eye which gave him a truculent and sinister look; but those who knew him knew that he had a heart of gold and were not intimidated by his repellent face. Between Sam and himself there had always existed terms of cordiality, starting from the time when the former was a small boy, and it had been Jno. Peters' mission to take him now to the Zoo, now to the train back to school.
"Why, Mr. Samuel!"
"We were expecting you back a week ago. So you got back safe?"
"Safe? Why, of course,"
Peters shook his head.
"I confess that, when there was this delay in your coming here, I sometimes feared something might have happened to you. I recall mentioning it to the young lady who recently did me the honour to promise to become my wife."
"Ocean liners aren't often wrecked nowadays."
"I was thinking more of the brawls on shore. America's a dangerous country. But perhaps you were not in touch with the underworld?"
"I don't think I was."
"Ah!" said Jno. Peters, significantly.
He took up the revolver, gave it a fond and almost paternal look, and replaced it on the desk.
"What on earth are you doing with that thing?" asked Sam.
Mr. Peters lowered his voice.
"I'm going to America myself in a few days' time, Mr. Samuel. It's my annual holiday, and the guvnor's sending me over with papers in connection with The People v. Schultz and Bowen. It's a big case over there. A client of ours is mixed up in it, an American gentleman. I am to take these important papers to his legal representative in New York. So I thought it best to be prepared."
The first smile that he had permitted himself in nearly two weeks flitted across Sam's face.
"What on earth sort of place do you think New York is?" he asked. "It's safer than London."
"Ah, but what about the underworld? I've seen these American films that they send over here, Mr. Samuel. Every Saturday night regular I take my young lady to a cinema, and, I tell you, they teach you something. Did you ever see 'Wolves of the Bowery'? There was a man in that in just my position, carrying important papers, and what they didn't try to do to him! No, I'm taking no chances, Mr. Samuel!"
"I should have said you were, lugging that thing about with you."
Mr. Peters seemed wounded.
"Oh, I understand the mechanism perfectly, and I am becoming a very fair shot. I take my little bite of food in here early and go and practice at the Rupert Street Rifle Range during my lunch hour. You'd be surprised how quickly one picks it up. When I get home at night I try how quick I can draw. You have to draw like a flash of lightning, Mr. Samuel. If you'd ever seen a film called 'Two-Gun-Thomas' you'd realise that. You haven't time to be loitering about."
"I haven't," agreed Sam. "Is my father in? I'd like to see him if he's not busy."
Mr. Peters, recalled to his professional duties, shed his sinister front like a garment. He picked up a speaking tube and blew down it.
"Mr. Samuel to see you, Mr. Mallaby. Yes, sir, very good. Will you go right in, Mr. Samuel?"
Sam proceeded to the inner office, and found his father dictating into the attentive ear of Miss Milliken, his elderly and respectable stenographer, replies to his morning mail.
The grime which encrusted the lawyer's professional stamping ground did not extend to his person. Sir Mallaby Marlowe was a dapper little man, with a round, cheerful face and a bright eye. His morning coat had been cut by London's best tailor, and his trousers perfectly creased by a sedulous valet. A pink carnation in his buttonhole matched his healthy complexion. His golf handicap was twelve. His sister, Mrs. Horace Hignett, considered him worldly.
"Dear Sirs: We are in receipt of your favour and in reply beg to state that nothing will induce us ... will induce us ... where did I put that letter? Ah! ... nothing will induce us ... oh, tell 'em to go to blazes, Miss Milliken."
"Very well, Sir Mallaby."
"That's that. Ready? Messrs. Brigney, Goole and Butterworth. What infernal names these people have. Sirs, on behalf of our client ... oh, hullo, Sam!"
"Good morning, father."
"Take a seat. I'm busy, but I'll be finished in a moment. Where was I, Miss Milliken?"
"On behalf of our client...."
"Oh, yes. On behalf of our client, Mr. Wibblesley Eggshaw.... Where these people get their names I'm hanged if I know. Your poor mother wanted to call you Hyacinth, Sam. You may not know it, but in the 'nineties, when you were born, children were frequently christened Hyacinth. Well, I saved you from that."
His attention was now diverted to his son, Sir Mallaby seemed to remember that the latter had just returned from a long journey, and that he had not seen him for many weeks. He inspected him with interest.
"Very glad to see you're back, Sam. So you didn't win?"
"No, I got beaten in the semi-finals."
"American amateurs are a very hot lot: the best ones. I suppose you were weak on the greens, I warned you about that. You'll have to rub up your putting before next year."
At the idea that any mundane pursuit as practising putting could appeal to his broken spirit now, Sam uttered a bitter laugh. It was as if Dante had recommended some lost soul in the Inferno to occupy his mind by knitting jumpers.
"Well, you seem to be in great spirits," said Sir Mallaby approvingly. "It's pleasant to hear your merry laugh again, isn't it, Miss Milliken?"
"Extremely exhilarating," agreed the stenographer, adjusting her spectacles and smiling at Sam, for whom there was a soft spot in her heart.
A sense of the futility of life oppressed Sam. As he gazed in the glass that morning, he had thought, not without a certain gloomy satisfaction, how remarkably pale and drawn his face looked. And these people seemed to imagine that he was in the highest spirits. His laughter, which had sounded to him like the wailing of a demon, struck Miss Milliken as exhilarating.
"On behalf of our client, Mr. Wibblesley Eggshaw," said Sir Mallaby, swooping back to duty once more, "we beg to state that we are prepared to accept service ... sounds like a tennis match, eh, Sam? It isn't, though. This young ass, Eggshaw ... what time did you dock this morning?"
"I landed nearly a week ago."
"A week ago! Then what the deuce have you been doing with yourself? Why haven't I seen you?"
"I've been down at Bingley-on-the-Sea."
"Bingley! What on earth were you doing at that Godforsaken place?"
"Wrestling with myself," said Sam with simple dignity.
Sir Mallaby's agile mind had leaped back to the letter which he was answering.
"We should be glad to meet you.... Wrestling, eh! Well, I like a boy to be fond of manly sports. Still, life isn't all athletics. Don't forget that. Life is real! Life is ... how does it go, Miss Milliken?"
Miss Milliken folded her hands and shut her eyes, her invariable habit when called upon to recite.
"Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal; Dust thou art to dust returnest, Was not spoken of the soul. Art is long and time is fleeting. And our hearts though stout and brave, Still like muffled drums are beating Funeral marches to the grave. Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime, and, departing, leave behind us footsteps on the sands of Time. Let us then ..." said Miss Milliken respectfully ... "be up and doing...."
"All right, all right, all right!" said Sir Mallaby. "I don't want it all. Life is real! Life is earnest, Sam. I want to speak to you about that when I've finished answering these infernal letters. Where was I? 'We should be glad to meet you at any time, if you will make an appointment...' Bingley-on-the-Sea! Good heavens! Why Bingley-on-the-Sea? Why not Margate, while you are about it?"
"Margate is too bracing. I did not wish to be braced. Bingley suited my mood. It was gray and dark, and it rained all the time, and the sea slunk about in the distance like some baffled beast...."
He stopped, becoming aware that his father was not listening. Sir Mallaby's attention had returned to the letter.
"Oh, what's the good of answering the dashed thing at all?" said Sir Mallaby. "Brigney, Goole and Butterworth know perfectly well that they have got us in a cleft stick. Butterworth knows it better than Goole, and Brigney knows it better than Butterworth. This young fool, Eggshaw, Sam, admits that he wrote the girl twenty-three letters, twelve of them in verse, and twenty-one specifically asking her to marry him, and he comes to me and expects me to get him out of it. The girl is suing him for ten thousand."
"How like a woman!"
Miss Milliken bridled reproachfully at this slur on her sex. Sir Mallaby took no notice of it whatever.
"... If you will make an appointment, when we can discuss the matter without prejudice. Get those typed, Miss Milliken. Have a cigar, Sam. Miss Milliken, tell Peters as you go out that I am occupied with a conference and can see nobody for half an hour."
When Miss Milliken had withdrawn, Sir Mallaby occupied ten seconds of the period which he had set aside for communion with his son in staring silently at him.
"I'm glad you're back, Sam," he said at length. "I want to have a talk with you. You know, it's time you were settling down. I've been thinking about you while you were in America, and I've come to the conclusion that I've been letting you drift along. Very bad for a young man. You're getting on. I don't say you're senile, but you're not twenty-one any longer, and at your age I was working like a beaver. You've got to remember that life is--dash it! I've forgotten it again."
He broke off and puffed vigorously into the speaking tube. "Miss Milliken, kindly repeat what you were saying just now about life.... Yes, yes, that's enough!" He put down the instrument. "Yes, life is real, life is earnest," he said, gazing at Sam seriously, "and the grave is not our goal. Lives of great men all remind us we can make our lives sublime. In fact, it's time you took your coat off and started work."
"I am quite ready, father."
"You didn't hear what I said," exclaimed Sir Mallaby with a look of surprise. "I said it was time you began work."
"And I said I was quite ready."
"Bless my soul! You've changed your views a trifle since I saw you last."
"I have changed them altogether."
Long hours of brooding among the red plush settees in the lounge of the Hotel Magnificent at Bingley-on-the-Sea had brought about this strange, even morbid, attitude of mind in Samuel Marlowe. Work, he had decided even before his conversation with Eustace, was the only medicine for his sick soul. Here, he felt, in this quiet office, far from the tumult and noise of the world, in a haven of torts and misdemeanours and Vic. I Cap 3's, and all the rest of it, he might find peace. At any rate, it was worth taking a stab at it.
"Your trip has done you good," said Sir Mallaby approvingly. "The sea air has given you some sense. I'm glad of it. It makes it easier for me to say something else that I've had on my mind for a good while. Sam, it's time you got married."
Sam barked bitterly. His father looked at him with concern.
"Swallow some smoke the wrong way?"
"I was laughing," explained Sam with dignity.
Sir Mallaby shook his head.
"I don't want to discourage your high spirit, but I must ask you to approach this matter seriously. Marriage would do you a world of good, Sam. It would brace you up. You really ought to consider the idea. I was two years younger than you are when I married your poor mother, and it was the making of me. A wife might make something of you."
"I don't see why she shouldn't. There's lots of good in you, my boy, though you may not think so."
"When I said it was impossible," said Sam coldly, "I was referring to the impossibility of the possibility.... I mean, that it was impossible that I could possibly ... in other words, father, I can never marry. My heart is dead."
"Don't be a fool. There's nothing wrong with your heart. All our family have had hearts like steam-engines. Probably you have been feeling a sort of burning. Knock off cigars and that will soon stop."
"You don't understand me. I mean that a woman has treated me in a way that has finished her whole sex as far as I am concerned. For me, women do not exist."
"You didn't tell me about this," said Sir Mallaby, interested. "When did this happen? Did she jilt you?"
"In America was it?"
"On the boat."
Sir Mallaby chuckled heartily.
"My dear boy, you don't mean to tell me that you're taking a shipboard flirtation seriously. Why, you're expected to fall in love with a different girl every time you go on a voyage. You'll get over this in a week. You'd have got over it now if you hadn't gone and buried yourself in a depressing place like Bingley-on-the-Sea."
The whistle of the speaking-tube blew. Sir Mallaby put the instrument to his ear.
"All right," he turned to Sam. "I shall have to send you away now, Sam. Man waiting to see me. Good-bye."
Miss Milliken intercepted Sam as he made for the door.
"Oh, Mr. Sam!"
"Excuse me, but will you be seeing Sir Mallaby again to-day? If so, would you--I don't like to disturb him now, when he is busy--would you mind telling him that I inadvertently omitted a stanza. It runs," said Miss Milliken, closing her eyes, "'Trust no future, howe'er pleasant. Let the dead past bury its dead! Act, act in the living Present, Heart within and God o'erhead!' Thank you so much. Good afternoon."