Chapter IX. Rough Work at a Dinner Table
 

Sec. 1

After the first shock of astonishment, Sam Marlowe had listened to his father's harangue with a growing indignation which, towards the end of the speech, had assumed proportions of a cold fury. If there is one thing the which your high-spirited young man resents, it is being the toy of Fate. He chafes at the idea that Fate had got it all mapped out for him. Fate, thought Sam, had constructed a cheap, mushy, sentimental, five-reel film scenario, and without consulting him had had the cool cheek to cast him for one of the puppets. He seemed to see Fate as a thin female with a soppy expression and pince-nez, sniffing a little as she worked the thing out. He could picture her glutinous satisfaction as she re-read her scenario and gloated over its sure-fire qualities. There was not a flaw in the construction. It started off splendidly with a romantic meeting, had 'em guessing half-way through when the hero and heroine quarrelled and parted--apparently for ever, and now the stage was all set for the reconciliation and the slow fade-out on the embrace. To bring this last scene about, Fate had had to permit herself a slight coincidence, but she did not jib at that. What we call coincidences are merely the occasions when Fate gets stuck in a plot and has to invent the next situation in a hurry.

Sam Marlowe felt sulky and defiant. This girl had treated him shamefully and he wanted to have nothing more to do with her. If he had had his wish, he would never have met her again. Fate, in her interfering way, had forced this meeting on him and was now complacently looking to him to behave in a suitable manner. Well, he would show her! In a few seconds now, Billie and he would be meeting. He would be distant and polite. He would be cold and aloof. He would chill her to the bone, and rip a hole in the scenario six feet wide.

The door opened, and the room became full of Bennetts and Mortimers.

Sec. 2

Billie, looking, as Marlowe could not but admit, particularly pretty, headed the procession. Following her came a large red-faced man whose buttons seemed to creak beneath the strain of their duties. After him trotted a small, thin, pale, semi-bald individual who wore glasses and carried his nose raised and puckered as though some faintly unpleasant smell were troubling his nostrils. The fourth member of the party was dear old Bream.

There was a confused noise of mutual greetings and introductions, and then Bream got a good sight of Sam and napped forward with his right wing outstretched.

"Why, hello!" said Bream.

"How are you, Mortimer?" said Sam coldly.

"What, do you know my son?" exclaimed Sir Mallaby.

"Came over in the boat together," said Bream.

"Capital!" said Sir Mallaby. "Old friends, eh? Miss Bennett," he turned to Billie, who had been staring wide-eyed at her late fiance, "let me present my son, Sam. Sam, this is Miss Bennett."

"How do you do?" said Sam.

"How do you do?" said Billie.

"Bennett, you've never met my son, I think?"

Mr. Bennett peered at Sam with protruding eyes which gave him the appearance of a rather unusually stout prawn.

"How are you?" he asked, with such intensity that Sam unconsciously found himself replying to a question which does not as a rule call for any answer.

"Very well, thanks."

Mr. Bennett shook his head moodily. "You are lucky to be able to say so! Very few of us can assert as much. I can truthfully say that in the last fifteen years I have not known what it is to enjoy sound health for a single day. Marlowe," he proceeded, swinging ponderously round on Sir Mallaby like a liner turning in the river, "I assure you that at twenty-five minutes past four this afternoon I was very nearly convinced that I should have to call you up on the 'phone and cancel this dinner engagement. When I took my temperature at twenty minutes to six...." At this point the butler appeared at the door announcing that dinner was served.

Sir Mallaby Marlowe's dinner table, which, like most of the furniture in the house had belonged to his deceased father and had been built at a period when people liked things big and solid, was a good deal too spacious to be really ideal for a small party. A white sea of linen separated each diner from the diner opposite and created a forced intimacy with the person seated next to him. Billie Bennett and Sam Marlowe, as a consequence, found themselves, if not exactly in a solitude of their own, at least sufficiently cut off from their kind to make silence between them impossible. Westward, Mr. Mortimer had engaged Sir Mallaby in a discussion on the recent case of Ouseley v. Ouseley, Figg, Mountjoy, Moseby-Smith and others, which though too complicated to explain here, presented points of considerable interest to the legal mind. To the east, Mr. Bennett was relating to Bream the more striking of his recent symptoms. Billie felt constrained to make at least an attempt at conversation.

"How strange meeting you here," she said.

Sam, who had been crumbling bread in an easy and debonair manner, looked up and met her eye. Its expression was one of cheerful friendliness. He could not see his own eye, but he imagined and hoped that it was cold and forbidding, like the surface of some bottomless mountain tarn.

"I beg your pardon?"

"I said, how strange meeting you here. I never dreamed Sir Mallaby was your father."

"I knew it all along," said Sam, and there was an interval caused by the maid insinuating herself between them and collecting his soup plate. He sipped sherry and felt a sombre self-satisfaction. He had, he considered, given the conversation the right tone from the start. Cool and distant. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Billie bite her lip. He turned to her again. Now that he had definitely established the fact that he and she were strangers, meeting by chance at a dinner-party, he was in a position to go on talking.

"And how do you like England, Miss Bennett?"

Billie's eye had lost its cheerful friendliness. A somewhat feline expression had taken its place.

"Pretty well," she replied.

"You don't like it?"

"Well, the way I look at it is this. It's no use grumbling. One has got to realise that in England one is in a savage country, and one should simply be thankful one isn't eaten by the natives."

"What makes you call England a savage country?" demanded Sam, a staunch patriot, deeply stung.

"What would you call a country where you can't get ice, central heating, corn-on-the-cob, or bathrooms? My father and Mr. Mortimer have just taken a house down on the coast and there's just one niggly little bathroom in the place."

"Is that your only reason for condemning England?"

"Oh no, it has other drawbacks."

"Such as?"

"Well, Englishmen, for instance. Young Englishmen in particular. English young men are awful! Idle, rude, conceited, and ridiculous."

Marlowe refused hock with a bitter intensity which nearly startled the old retainer, who had just offered it to him, into dropping the decanter.

"How many English young men have you met?"

Billie met his eye squarely and steadily. "Well, now that I come to think of it, not many. In fact, very few. As a matter of fact, only...."

"Only?"

"Well, very few," said Billie. "Yes," she said meditatively, "I suppose I really have been rather unjust. I should not have condemned a class simply because ... I mean, I suppose there are young Englishmen who are not rude and ridiculous?"

"I suppose there are American girls who have hearts."

"Oh, plenty."

"I'll believe that when I meet one."

Sam paused. Cold aloofness was all very well, but this conversation was developing into a vulgar brawl. The ghosts of dead and gone Marlowes, all noted for their courtesy to the sex, seemed to stand beside his chair, eyeing him reprovingly. His work, they seemed to whisper, was becoming raw. It was time to jerk the interchange of thought back into the realm of distant civility.

"Are you making a long stay in London, Miss Bennett?"

"No, not long. We are going down to the country almost immediately. I told you my father and Mr. Mortimer had taken a house there."

"You will enjoy that."

"I'm sure I shall. Mr. Mortimer's son Bream will be there. That will be nice."

"Why?" said Sam, backsliding.

There was a pause.

"He isn't rude and ridiculous, eh?" said Sam gruffly.

"Oh, no. His manners are perfect, and he has such a natural dignity," she went on, looking affectionately across the table at the heir of the Mortimers, who, finding Mr. Bennett's medical confidences a trifle fatiguing, was yawning broadly, and absently balancing his wine glass on a fork.

"Besides," said Billie in a soft and dreamy voice, "we are engaged to be married!"

Sec. 3

Sam didn't care, of course. We, who have had the privilege of a glimpse into his iron soul, know that. He was not in the least upset by the news--just surprised. He happened to be raising his glass at the moment, and he registered a certain amount of restrained emotion by snapping the stem in half and shooting the contents over the tablecloth: but that was all.

"Good heavens, Sam!" ejaculated Sir Mallaby, aghast. His wine glasses were an old and valued set.

Sam blushed as red as the stain on the cloth.

"Awfully sorry, father! Don't know how it happened."

"Something must have given you a shock," suggested Billie kindly.

The old retainer rallied round with napkins, and Sir Mallaby, who was just about to dismiss the affair with the polished ease of a good host, suddenly became aware of the activities of Bream. That young man, on whose dreamy calm the accident had made no impression whatever, had successfully established the equilibrium of the glass and the fork, and was now cautiously inserting beneath the latter a section of a roll, the whole forming a charming picture in still life.

"If that glass is in your way...." said Sir Mallaby as soon as he had hitched up his drooping jaw sufficiently to enable him to speak. He was beginning to feel that he would be lucky if he came out of this dinner-party with a mere remnant of his precious set.

"Oh, Sir Mallaby," said Billie, casting an adoring glance at the juggler, "you needn't be afraid that Bream will drop it. He isn't clumsy! He is wonderful at that sort of thing, simply wonderful! I think it's so splendid," said Billie, "when men can do things like that. I'm always trying to get Bream to do some of his tricks for people, but he's so modest, he won't."

"Refreshingly different," Sir Mallaby considered, "from the average drawing-room entertainer."

"Yes," said Billie emphatically. "I think the most terrible thing in the world is a man who tries to entertain when he can't. Did I tell you about the man on board ship, father, at the ship's concert? Oh, it was the most awful thing you ever saw. Everybody was talking about it!" She beamed round the table, and there was a note of fresh girlish gaiety in her voice. "This man got up to do an imitation of somebody--nobody knows to this day who it was meant to be--and he came into the saloon and directly he saw the audience he got stage fright. He just stood there gurgling and not saying a word, and then suddenly his nerve failed him altogether and he turned and tore out of the room like a rabbit. He absolutely ran! And he hadn't said a word! It was the most ridiculous exhibition I've ever seen!"

The anecdote went well. Of course there will always be a small minority in any audience which does not appreciate a funny story, and there was one in the present case. But the bulk of the company roared with laughter.

"Do you mean," cried Sir Mallaby, choking, "the poor idiot just stood there dumb?"

"Well, he made a sort of yammering noise," said Billie, "but that only made him look sillier."

"Deuced good!" chuckled Sir Mallaby.

"Funniest thing I ever heard in my life!" gurgled Mr. Bennett, swallowing a digestive capsule.

"May have been half-witted," suggested Mr. Mortimer.

Sam leaned across the table with a stern set face. He meant to change the conversation if he had to do it with a crowbar.

"I hear you have taken a house in the country, Mr. Mortimer," he said.

"Yes," said Mr. Mortimer. He turned to Sir Mallaby. "We have at last succeeded in persuading your sister, Mrs. Hignett, to let us rent her house for the summer."

Sir Mallaby gasped.

"Windles! You don't mean to tell me that my sister has let you have Windles!"

Mr. Mortimer nodded triumphantly.

"Yes. I had completely resigned myself to the prospect of spending the summer in some other house, when yesterday I happened to run into your nephew, young Eustace Hignett, on the street, and he said he was just coming round to see me about that very thing. To cut a long story short, he said that it would be all right and that we could have the house." Mr. Mortimer took a sip of burgundy. "He's a curious boy, young Hignett. Very nervous in his manner."

"Chronic dyspepsia," said Mr. Bennett authoritatively, "I can tell it at a glance."

"Is Windles a very lovely place, Sir Mallaby?" asked Billie.

"Charming. Quite charming. Not large, of course, as country houses go. Not a castle, I mean, with hundreds of acres of park land. But nice and compact and comfortable and very picturesque."

"We do not require a large place," said Mr. Mortimer. "We shall be quite a small party. Bennett and myself, Wilhelmina, Bream...."

"Don't forget," said Billie, "that you have promised to invite Jane Hubbard down there."

"Ah, yes. Wilhelmina's friend, Miss Hubbard. She is coming. That will be all, except young Hignett himself."

"Hignett!" cried Mr. Bennett.

"Mr. Hignett!" exclaimed Billie.

There was an almost imperceptible pause before Mr. Mortimer spoke again, and for an instant the demon of embarrassment hovered, unseen but present, above the dinner table. Mr. Bennett looked sternly at Billie; Billie turned a shade pinker and gazed at the tablecloth; Bream started nervously. Even Mr. Mortimer seemed robbed for a moment of his legal calm.

"I forgot to tell you that," he said. "Yes, one of the stipulations--to which I personally was perfectly willing to agree--was that Eustace Hignett was to remain on the premises during our tenancy. Such a clause in the agreement was, I am quite aware, unusual, and, had the circumstances been other than they were, I would have had a good deal to say about it. But we wanted the place, and we couldn't get it except by agreeing, so I agreed. I'm sure you will think that I acted rightly, Bennett, considering the peculiar circumstances."

"Well," said Mr. Bennett reluctantly, "I certainly did want that house...."

"And we couldn't have had it otherwise," said Mr. Mortimer, "so that is all there is to it."

"Well, it need make no difference to you," said Sir Mallaby. "I am sure you will find my nephew Eustace most unobtrusive. He may even be an entertaining companion. I believe he has a nice singing voice. With that and the juggling of our friend here and my sister's late husband's orchestrion, you will have no difficulty in amusing yourselves during the evenings. You remember the orchestrion, Sam?" said Sir Mallaby, on whom his son's silence had been weighing rather heavily for some time.

"Yes," said Sam, and returned to the silence once more.

"The late Mr. Hignett had it put in. He was very fond of music. It's a thing you turn on by pressing a button in the wall," continued Sir Mallaby. "How you stop it, I don't know. When I was down there last it never seemed to stop. You mustn't miss the orchestrion!"

"I certainly shall," said Mr. Bennett decidedly. "Music of that description happens to be the one thing which jars unendurably on my nerves. My nervous system is thoroughly out of tune."

"So is the orchestrion," said Sir Mallaby. "I remember once when I was down there...."

"I hope you will come down there again, Sir Mallaby," said Mr. Mortimer, "during our occupancy of the house. And you, too," he said, addressing Sam.

"I am afraid," said Sam frigidly, "that my time will be very much occupied for the next few months. Thank you very much," he added, after a moment's pause.

"Sam's going to work," said Sir Mallaby.

"Yes," said Sam with dark determination. "Work is the only thing in life that matters!"

"Oh, come, Sam!" said Sir Mallaby. "At your age I used to think love was fairly important, too!"

"Love!" said Sam. He jabbed at his souffle with a spoon. You could see by the scornful way he did it that he did not think much of love.

Sec. 4

Sir Mallaby, the last cigar of the night between his lips, broke a silence which had lasted a quarter of an hour. The guests had gone, and he and Sam were alone together.

"Sam," he said, "do you know what I think?"

"No," said Sam.

Sir Mallaby removed his cigar and spoke impressively. "I've been turning the whole thing over in my mind, and the conclusion I have come to is that there is more in this Windles business than meets the eye. I've known your Aunt Adeline all my life, and I tell you it isn't in that woman to change her infernal pig-headed mind, especially about letting her house. She is a monomaniac on that subject. If you want to know my opinion, I am quite certain that your cousin Eustace has let the place to these people without her knowledge, and intends to pocket the cheque and not say a word about it. What do you think?"

"Eh?" said Sam absently.

"I said, what do you think?"

"What do I think about what?"

"About Eustace Hignett and Windles."

"What about them?"

Sir Mallaby regarded him disprovingly. "I'm hanged if I know what's the matter with you to-night, Sam. You seem to have unhitched your brain and left it in the umbrella stand. You hadn't a word to say for yourself all through dinner. You might have been a Trappist monk. And with that delightful girl Miss Bennett, there, too. She must have thought you infernally dull."

"I'm sorry."

"It's no good being sorry now. The mischief's done. She has gone away thinking you an idiot. Do you realise," said Sir Mallaby warmly, "that when she told that extremely funny story about the man who made such a fool of himself on board the ship, you were the only person at the table who was not amused? She must have thought you had no sense of humour!"

Sam rose. "I think I'll be going," he said. "Good night!"

A man can bear just so much.