Chapter XIV. Strong Remarks by a Father
 

Mr. Bennett advanced shakily into the room, and supported himself with one hand on the desk, while with the other he still plied the handkerchief on his over-heated face. Much had occurred to disturb him this morning. On top of a broken night he had had an affecting reconciliation scene with Mr. Mortimer, at the conclusion of which he had decided to take the first train to London in the hope of intercepting Billie before she reached Sir Mallaby's office on her mission of war. The local train-service kept such indecently early hours that he had been compelled to bolt his breakfast, and, in the absence of Billie, the only member of the household who knew how to drive the car, to walk to the station, a distance of nearly two miles, the last hundred yards of which he had covered at a rapid gallop, under the erroneous impression that an express whose smoke he had seen in the distance was the train he had come to catch. Arrived on the platform, he had had a trying wait, followed by a slow journey to Waterloo. The cab which he had taken at Waterloo had kept him in a lively state of apprehension all the way to the Savoy, owing to an apparent desire to climb over motor-omnibuses when it could not get round them. At the Savoy he found that Billie had already left, which had involved another voyage through the London traffic under the auspices of a driver who appeared to be either blind or desirous of committing suicide. He had three flights of stairs to negotiate. And, finally, arriving at the office, he had found his daughter in the circumstances already described.

"Why, father!" said Billie. "I didn't expect you."

As an explanation of her behaviour this might, no doubt, have been considered sufficient, but as an excuse for it Mr. Bennett thought it inadequate and would have said so, had he had enough breath. This physical limitation caused him to remain speechless and to do the best he could in the way of stern fatherly reproof by puffing like a seal after a long dive in search of fish.

Having done this, he became aware that Sam Marlowe was moving towards him with outstretched hand. It took a lot to disconcert Sam, and he was the calmest person present. He gave evidence of this in a neat speech. He did not in so many words congratulate Mr. Bennett on the piece of luck which had befallen him, but he tried to make him understand by his manner that he was distinctly to be envied as the prospective father-in-law of such a one as himself.

"I am delighted to see you, Mr. Bennett," said Sam. "You could not have come at a more fortunate moment. You see for yourself how things are. There is no need for a long explanation. You came to find a daughter, Mr. Bennett, and you have found a son!"

And he would like to see the man, thought Sam, who could have put it more cleverly and pleasantly and tactfully than that.

"What are you talking about?" said Mr. Bennett, recovering breath. "I haven't got a son."

"I will be a son to you! I will be the prop of your declining years...."

"What the devil do you mean, my declining years?" demanded Mr. Bennett with asperity.

"He means when they do decline, father dear," said Billie.

"Of course, of course," said Sam. "When they do decline. Not till then, of course. I wouldn't dream of it. But, once they do decline, count on me! And I should like to say for my part," he went on handsomely, "what an honour I think it, to become the son-in-law of a man like Mr. Bennett. Bennett of New York!" he added spaciously, not so much because he knew what he meant, for he would have been the first to admit that he did not, but because it sounded well.

"Oh!" said Mr. Bennett. "You do, do you?"

Mr. Bennett sat down. He put away his handkerchief, which had certainly earned a rest. Then he fastened a baleful stare upon his newly-discovered son. It was not the sort of look a proud and happy father-in-law-to-be ought to have directed at a prospective relative. It was not, as a matter of fact, the sort of look which anyone ought to have directed at anybody, except possibly an exceptionally prudish judge at a criminal in the dock, convicted of a more than usually atrocious murder. Billie, not being in the actual line of fire, only caught the tail end of it, but it was enough to create a misgiving.

"Oh, father! You aren't angry!"

"Angry!"

"You can't be angry!"

"Why can't I be angry?" declared Mr. Bennett, with that sense of injury which comes to self-willed men when their whims are thwarted. "Why the devil shouldn't I be angry? I am angry! I come here and find you like--like this, and you seem to expect me to throw my hat in the air and give three rousing cheers! Of course I'm angry! You are engaged to be married to an excellent young man of the highest character, one of the finest young men I have ever known...."

"Oh, well!" said Sam, straightening his tie modestly. "It's awfully good of you...."

"But that's all over, father."

"What's all over?"

"You told me yourself that you had broken off my engagement to Bream."

"Well--er--yes, I did," said Mr. Bennett, a little taken aback. "That is--to a certain extent--so. But," he added, with restored firmness, "it's on again!"

"But I don't want to marry Bream!"

"Naturally!" said Sam. "Naturally! Quite out of the question. In a few days we'll all be roaring with laughter at the very idea."

"It doesn't matter what you want! A girl who gets engaged to a dozen men in three weeks...."

"It wasn't a dozen!"

"Well, four--five--six--you can't expect me not to lose count.... I say a girl who does that does not know what she wants, and older and more prudent heads must decide for her. You are going to marry Bream Mortimer!"

"All wrong! All wrong!" said Sam, with a reproving shake of the head. "All wrong! She's going to marry me."

Mr. Bennett scorched him with a look compared with which his earlier effort had been a loving glance.

"Wilhelmina," he said, "go into the outer office."

"But, father, Sam saved my life!"

"Go into the outer office and wait for me there."

"There was a lunatic in here...."

"There will be another if you don't go."

"He had a pistol."

"Go into the outer office!"

"I shall always love you, Sam!" said Billie, pausing mutinously at the door.

"I shall always love you!" said Sam cordially.

"Nobody can keep us apart!"

"They're wasting their time, trying."

"You're the most wonderful man in the world!"

"There never was another girl like you!"

"Get out!" bellowed Mr. Bennett, on whose equanimity this love-scene, which I think beautiful, was jarring profoundly. "Now, sir!" he said to Sam, as the door closed.

"Yes, let's talk it over calmly," said Sam.

"I will not talk it over calmly!"

"Oh, come! You can do it if you try. In the first place, whatever put this silly idea into your head about that sweet girl marrying Bream Mortimer?"

"Bream Mortimer is the son of Henry Mortimer."

"I know," said Sam. "And, while it is no doubt unfair to hold that against him, it's a point you can't afford to ignore. Henry Mortimer! You and I have Henry Mortimer's number. We know what Henry Mortimer is like! A man who spends his time thinking up ways of annoying you. You can't seriously want to have the Mortimer family linked to you by marriage."

"Henry Mortimer is my oldest friend."

"That makes it all the worse. Fancy a man who calls himself your friend treating you like that!"

"The misunderstanding to which you allude has been completely smoothed over. My relations with Mr. Mortimer are thoroughly cordial."

"Well, have it your own way. Personally, I wouldn't trust a man like that. And, as for letting my daughter marry his son...!"

"I have decided once and for all...."

"If you'll take my advice, you will break the thing off."

"I will not take your advice."

"I wouldn't expect to charge you for it," explained Sam reassuringly. "I give it you as a friend, not as a lawyer. Six-and-eightpence to others, free to you."

"Will you understand that my daughter is going to marry Bream Mortimer? What are you giggling about?"

"It sounds so silly. The idea of anyone marrying Bream Mortimer, I mean."

"Let me tell you he is a thoroughly estimable young man."

"And there you put the whole thing in a nutshell. Your daughter is a girl of spirit. She would hate to be tied for life to an estimable young man."

"She will do as I tell her."

Sam regarded him sternly.

"Have you no regard for her happiness?"

"I am the best judge of what is best for her."

"If you ask me," said Sam candidly, "I think you're a rotten judge."

"I did not come here to be insulted!"

"I like that! You have been insulting me ever since you arrived. What right have you to say that I'm not fit to marry your daughter?"

"I did not say that."

"You've implied it. And you've been looking at me as if I were a leper or something the Pure Food Committee had condemned. Why? That's what I ask you," said Sam, warming up. This he fancied, was the way Widgery would have tackled a troublesome client. "Why? Answer me that!"

"I...."

Sam rapped sharply on the desk.

"Be careful, sir. Be very careful!" He knew that this was what lawyers always said. Of course, there is a difference in position between a miscreant whom you suspect of an attempt at perjury and the father of the girl you love, whose consent to the match you wish to obtain, but Sam was in no mood for these nice distinctions. He only knew that lawyers told people to be very careful, so he told Mr. Bennett to be very careful.

"What do you mean, be very careful?" said Mr. Bennett.

"I'm dashed if I know," said Sam frankly. The question struck him as a mean attack. He wondered how Widgery would have met it. Probably by smiling quietly and polishing his spectacles. Sam had no spectacles. He endeavoured, however, to smile quietly.

"Don't laugh at me!" roared Mr. Bennett.

"I'm not laughing at you."

"You are!"

"I'm not! I'm smiling quietly."

"Well, don't then!" said Mr. Bennett. He glowered at his young companion. "I don't know why I'm wasting my time, talking to you. The position is clear to the meanest intelligence. I have no objection to you personally...."

"Come, this is better!" said Sam.

"I don't know you well enough to have any objection to you or any opinion of you at all. This is only the second time I have ever met you in my life."

"Mark you," said Sam, "I think I am one of those fellows who grow on people...."

"As far as I am concerned, you simply do not exist. You may be the noblest character in London or you may be wanted by the police. I don't know. And I don't care. It doesn't matter to me. You mean nothing in my life. I don't know you."

"You must persevere," said Sam. "You must buckle to and get to know me. Don't give the thing up in this half-hearted way. Everything has to have a beginning. Stick to it, and in a week or two you will find yourself knowing me quite well."

"I don't want to know you!"

"You say that now, but wait!"

"And thank goodness I have not got to!" exploded Mr. Bennett, ceasing to be calm and reasonable with a suddenness which affected Sam much as though half a pound of gunpowder had been touched off under his chair. "For the little I have seen of you has been quite enough! Kindly understand that my daughter is engaged to be married to another man, and that I do not wish to see or hear anything of you again! I shall try to forget your very existence, and I shall see to it that Wilhelmina does the same! You're an impudent scoundrel, sir! An impudent scoundrel! I don't like you! I don't wish to see you again! If you were the last man in the world I wouldn't allow my daughter to marry you! If that is quite clear, I will wish you good morning!"

Mr. Bennett thundered out of the room, and Sam, temporarily stunned by the outburst, remained where he was, gaping. A few minutes later life began to return to his palsied limbs. It occurred to him that Mr. Bennett had forgotten to kiss him good-bye, and he went into the outer office to tell him so. But the outer office was empty. Sam stood for a moment in thought, then he returned to the inner office, and, picking up a time-table, began to look out trains to the village of Windlehurst in Hampshire, the nearest station to his aunt Adeline's charming old-world house, Windles.