Chick (short story)
MR. JONAS STOLLINGHAM was station-master, head porter, local switchman, ticket-collector, and dispatch clerk at Pelborough Halt. He was also Chief of the Information Bureau. He was an aged man, who chewed tobacco and regarded all innovation as a direct challenge to Providence. For this reason he spoke of aeroplanes, incubators, mechanical creamers, motor-cars, and vaccination with a deep growling "Ah!" Such intangible mysteries as wireless telegraphy he dismissed as the invention of the newspapers.
Jonas knew most of the happenings which had occurred within twenty-five miles of Pelborough Halt during the past forty- seven years. He could tell you the hour and the day that Tom Rollins was run over by a hay-cart, and the number of eggs laid at Poolford Farm on a record day. He knew the Vicar's family skeleton, and would rattle the same on the slightest encouragement.
He had had time in his life to form very definite ideas about most subjects, since only four trains stopped at Pelborough Halt on week-days and half that number on Sundays.
It was a cold, moist Sunday in January that the 10.57 "up" discharged a solitary passenger, and Jonas moved toward him with a gathering frown.
"Where's your ticket?" he demanded.
The passenger, who carried no baggage, dived into the pockets of his worn overcoat, and, increasing the pace of his search till Jonas could hardly follow his movements, he patted and prodded successively his trousers, waistcoat, and jacket pockets.
"If you ain't got a ticket, you've got to pay," said the hopeful Jonas. "You ain't supposed to keep me waiting here all day. I'm only doing the company a favour by being here at all on Sunday."
He was disappointed when the young man produced a piece of pasteboard, and scrutinised it suspiciously as the train moved out.
"Date's all right," he confessed.
"Mr. Stollingham—er—is my—er—uncle well?"
Mr. Stollingham fixed his steel-rimmed spectacles nearer his eyes.
"Hullo!" he greeted. "Mr. What's-your-name?"
"Beane," murmured the youth apologetically. "Charles Beane. You remember I was here for a month."
"I know ye."
Jonas chewed accusatively, his rheumy eyes on the passenger.
"The old doctor ain't well." He emphasised the negative with some satisfaction. "Lots of people round here don't think he's all there." He tapped his forehead. "He thinks he's a dook. I've known fellows to be took off to the lunytic asylum for less. Went down to Parliament last month, didn't he?"
"I believe he did," said "Chick" Beane. "I didn't see him."
"Asked to be made a lord! If that ain't madness, what is it?"
"It may be measles," said Chick gravely. "The doctor had an attack last year."
"Measles!" The contempt of Jonas was always made visible as well as audible. "We don't like your uncle's going on; it's bringin' the village down! If a man's a lord, he's born so. If he ain't, he ain't. It's the same with these airyplanes. Was we intended to fly? Was we born with wings? Suppose them crows over there started to chew terbaccer like a human bein', wouldn't the law stop it?"
"But chewing tobacco isn't human, Mr. Stollingham—it's nasty! Good morning!"
He left the station-master gazing after him with a baneful stare.
Charles Beane had never had any other name than "Chick." It had been given to him as a child by one of his father's "helps."
For Chick was born at Grafton, in the State of Massachusetts, whither his male parent had gone as a young man to seek the fortune which rural England had denied to a gentleman-farmer. There he had married and died two years after his wife, and Chick, at the age of seven, had been brought to England by an aunt, who, on passing from this world to a better, had left him to the care of another aunt.
Chick saw life as a panorama of decaying aunts and uncles. Until he was fifteen he thought that mourning was the clothing that little boys were, by the English law, compelled to wear. Hence, too, he took a cheerful view of dissolution which often sounded callous. He had the kindest of hearts, but he who had seen the passing of mother and father, three aunts, one uncle and a cousin, without human progress being perceptibly affected, could hardly take quite so serious a view of such matters as those to whom such phenomena are rare.
Chick appeared a little more than medium height and slight. Both impressions were deceptive. His trick of bending forward when he spoke gave him the slightest stoop, and his loose carriage favoured the illusion. Nor was he deaf; that strained look and bent head was his apology for troubling people with his presence and conversation. This also was innocent and unconscious deception. Many people mistook his politeness for humility, his fear of hurting people's feelings for sheer awe and shyness.
He was not shy, though few believed this. His characteristic was a certain bald frankness which could be disconcerting. The art which is comprehended in the word "diplomacy" was an esoteric mystery to him. He was painfully boyish, and the contours of the face, the rather high cheek-bones, the straight small nose, the big forehead and the baby-blue eyes, no less than his untidy yellow hair, belonged to the sixth form, though the average boy of the sixth is better acquainted with a razor and lather brush than was Chick.
The way to Pelborough Abbey lay through the village of that name. The bell of the parish church was tolling mournfully, and in consequence the straggling street was as crowded as could be. He walked quickly past the curious worshippers and turned into the dilapidated gate of the Abbey, a large and ugly cottage which at some time had been painted white. Once a veritable abbey had stood on the very spot where Josephus Beane had laid the foundations of his house. A few blocks of masonry, weed-covered and weathered until the very outlines of the dressing had vanished, remained to testify to the labours of the forgotten monks.
An untidy servant opened the door and smirked at the visitor.
"He's in bed," she said cheerfully. "Some say that he'll never get out again. But, lor, he's always makin' people liars. Why, last winter he was took so bad that we nearly got a doctor to him!"
"Will you tell him I'm here, please?" said Chick gently.
The room into which he was ushered was on the ground floor, and normally was Dr. Beane's library. The walls were hidden behind book-shelves; a large and aged table was literally piled with papers, pamphlets, and deed-boxes, books and scattered manuscript. Over the mantelpiece was a brilliant coat-of-arms which always reminded Chick of a public-house sign.
Into this literary workshop had been insinuated a narrow high bed with four polished posts and a canopy. Supported by large pillows, the slips of which had not been changed for a week, lay a man of sixty-five—a grim, square-jawed, unshaven man, who, with a stiff cardboard pad on his doubled-up knees, was writing as Chick appeared.
The invalid's face took a turn for the worse at the sight of the figure in the doorway.
"Oh, it's you, is it?" he growled.
Chick came cautiously into the room and put his hat down on a chair.
"Yes, sir, it's me. I hope you're better."
The old doctor snorted and shifted in his bed.
"I suppose you know I'm not long for this world, eh?" he scowled up under his tremendous eyebrows. "Eh?" he repeated.
"No, sir, I don't think you are," said Chick agreeably, "but I'm sure a gentleman of your experience won't mind that?"
Dr. Beane swallowed and blinked.
"I am very glad you are alive to-day, sir," Chick hastened to add, feeling that perhaps he had better say all the nice things he could think of whilst he had the opportunity.
"You are, are you?" breathed the doctor.
"Oh, yes, sir," Chick was eager to help. "I don't, of course, like coming to Pelborough, because you are usually so very disagreeable, owing, I often think, to your age and your—er—infirmity."
He looked down at the speechless invalid with solemn eyes.
"Were you ever crossed in love, sir?"
Dr. Beane could only stare.
"One reads in books that such things happen, though, of course, it may be sheer invention on the part of the novelists, who aren't always quite correct in their facts—unintentionally, I am sure——"
"Will you shut up?" bellowed the sick man. "You're annoying me, sir! You're exasperating me, sir! Confound you, I'll outlive you, sir, by twenty years!"
The old man almost hissed the words, and Chick shook his head.
"I am sure it is possible," he agreed, "but of course it is against the law of average—we know a great deal about that in the insurance business. Are you insured, sir?"
Dr. Beane was sitting bolt upright in bed now, and he was terribly calm.
"Boy," he said awfully, "I am not insured." And Chick looked grave.
"One ought to insure," he said; "it is the most unselfish thing one can do. One ought to think of one's relations."
"Confound you, sir! You're my only relation!" wailed the doctor.
Chick was silent. That idea had never struck him.
"Isn't there anybody who is fond of you?" he asked, and added regretfully: "No, I suppose there isn't."
Dr. Beane swung his legs out of bed.
"Get out, sir—I'm going to dress, sir—into the garden—go to the devil!"
Chick did not go into the garden. In the first place, there was no garden, and, furthermore, it was cold out of doors. He went instead to the big vaulted kitchen, where Anna, cook and housekeeper to the doctor for twenty-five years, was preparing the invalid's midday meal.
"How did you find him, sir?" asked Anna. She was a stout, heavy woman, who breathed with difficulty.
"I found him in bed," said Chick. "Could you make me some coffee, please?"
Anna filled the kettle and put it on the fire, shaking her head.
"It's my opinion, Mr. Charles, that this here lord nonsense is killing the old gentleman——"
There was a furious ring of the bell, and Anna waddled from the kitchen, to return with a face expressive of amazement.
"He's up," she gasped, "and he wants you, Mr. Charles——" Here the bell rang again, and Chick bolted back to the library.
The doctor was sitting up in an arm-chair before the fire. Placed within reach were those familiar scrap-books, the contents of which poisoned one summer holiday for him.
"Come in! What did you run away for? I suppose that's the infernal American blood in your system—never still! Never in repose! Hustle, hustle, hustle!"
Chick opened his mouth to protest against a desire for rapid movement of any kind, and shut it again.
"Sit down!" The doctor pointed fiercely at a chair. "You know that I've been fighting these brainless Law Lords over the peerage? Of course you know it—the newspapers have been full of it! We shall have the Lords' decision in a week. The scoundrels!"
Dr. Beane had spent thirty years of his life in a vain endeavour to establish his claim to the extinct Marquisate of Pelborough. He had dissipated a handsome competence in lawyers' fees, genealogical researches, and had not hesitated at demanding from the Home Secretary an exhumation order to test a theory. The Secretary of State had shown less hesitation in refusing. It was Dr. Beane's hobby, his obsession, his one life passion. Chick groaned within himself. The one hope he had cherished was that the precarious condition of his uncle's health would have precluded all possibility of argument on the doctor's fatal illusion.
Dr. Beane lifted up and opened one of the large scrap-books.
"The basis of the claim is the relationship of Sir Harry Beane to Martha, the Countess of Morthborough. Is that clear to you?"
"No, sir," said Chick patiently, but truthfully.
"Then you're a fool, sir!" thundered the invalid. "You're a dolt and a dunderhead! It's that infernal American blood in you, sir—nothing more or less! Do you understand that the Countess of Morthborough was a sister of Sir Harry Beane, who died in 1534?"
"I'm sure you're right, sir," said Chick handsomely.
"That is the crux of the whole problem." Dr. Beane tapped the scrap-book violently. "Martha, Countess of Morthborough, had two daughters. Do you know what she did with 'em?"
"Sent them to school, sir?" suggested Chick. At first he had it on the tip of his tongue to say "Poisoned them," because that was the sort of thing that unnatural parents did to their children in the Dark Ages.
"Sent them to school!" sneered the doctor. "No, you jackass! She married 'em off to the two sons of the Marquis of Pelborough. Jane, the eldest daughter, died without issue; Elizabeth, the younger, had a son, who eventually became Marquis of Pelborough."
The room was warm, and Chick experienced a pleasant sensation of ease and restfulness. He closed his eyes.
"… upon that fact I argued my claim to the House of Lords …"
"Certainly," murmured Chick.
It was summer, and the doctor's garden was a patchwork of gorgeous colours. And Gwenda was walking with him. …
"My father often said—— Confound you, sir, you're asleep!"
It was by the most amazing effort of will that Chick opened his eyes.
"I heard you, sir," he said a little huskily. "One was called Jane, and one was called Elizabeth. They both married the Marquis of Beane."
Ten minutes later he was on his way to Pelborough Halt, ejected with a fury and originality of expletive that had jerked him wide-awake. A providential ejection as it proved, for the railway times had been altered, and Chick had to sprint, or he would have lost the only down train of the day.
Jonas thrust him into a third-class carriage with unnecessary violence.
"You ain't stayed long?" he said inquiringly. "Ain't your uncle bright enough to see you?"
"Oh, yes, Mr. Stollingham," said Chick, as the train began to move; "he's very bright—very!"
He sank back into the seat of the carriage with a long sigh of relief, and gave himself up to the real problem of life—a problem which centred about the future of Mrs. Gwenda Maynard. The more urgent was this problem since the last time he had seen her—which was on the previous night—it was as she was coming out of Mrs. Shipmet's room with a queer drawn look in her face.
Mrs. Shipmet called her own drawing-sitting-room her "senctum," and for quite a long time Chick thought that "senctum" was French for "counting-house." It was in the "senctum " that the boarders paid their just debts, a ceremony which was enveloped in an atmosphere of mystery, largely due to the child-like credulity of Mrs. Shipmet's paying guests, all of whom cherished the illusion that they had been received on terms which, in comparison with their fellow-boarders, were ruinously favourable.
Since they had pledged themselves to secrecy, at Mrs. Shipmet's serious request, and also, presumably because they feared that the disclosure of the lady's philanthropy was liable to cause a riot, if it were revealed, the weekly ritual of settlement was carried out behind closed doors.
"May I see you a moment, Mrs. S.?" a boarder would ask in low tones.
"Certainly, Miss G. Will you step into the senctum?"
And the door would close behind them, and Mrs. Shipmet would stand smiling inquiringly, one hand, waist-high, resting upon the palm of the other.
And when the boarder produced her purse, Mrs. Shipmet would start in surprise, as though sordid money was the last thing in the world she was expecting to hear about. Nevertheless, she would take the cash, though she invariably said:
"Oh, but you shouldn't have troubled; to-morrow would have done. H'm!"
She ahvays said "H'm!" at the end of things.
The ritual which was observed in the senctum was one of two varieties, either that which has been described, or else. …
Picture Mrs. Shipmet with an expressionless face, save that her eyebrows were unusually arched, imagine a slow inclination of the head, such as a judge will sometimes give when a murderer says "Not guilty!" and at the end. …
"I'm awful-ly sorry, Mr.—er"—she always forgot their name in these circumstances—"but my expenses are very heavy, and I have a big bill to meet on Monday, and I'm afraid I must ask you to vacate your room."
From such an interview had Gwenda Maynard come on the Saturday night.
Chick did not see her on his return from Pelborough until the afternoon, when Acacia Lodge was nearly empty. The young ladies and gentlemen who were guests of Mrs. Shipmet invariably had engagements on Sunday afternoon, and those who were too old for the thrill and glories of love either went to church or to bed.
"Mrs. Maynard"—Chick came eagerly from the sitting-room and intercepted the girl in the hall—"I'm sorry I missed you; I didn't get back until after lunch."
She smiled a greeting, but the smile was a little strained. "Hello, Chick!" she said, squeezing his arm. "I looked for you before I went out. How is your uncle?"
"He's very—robust." Chick could think of no better words. "You're not going up to your room, are you?" he asked anxiously.
She shook her head. "I don't know where I'm going, Chick," she said, and laughed. "Do you want to go out?"
He nodded. "If you're not busy," he said, and she hesitated. "It isn't raining," he urged.
"All right." She turned on her heel and walked through the door into the street, and Chick followed.
Mrs. Shipmet's boarding establishment was situated in the residential district of Brockley, and all properly constituted persons who "went out" gravitated instinctively to the Hilly Fields, which are to Brockley what Hampstead Heath is to London and Central Park to New York.
They strode out together toward the magnetic fields, and the girl did not speak for some time.
She was pretty and slight, and Acacia Lodge had voted her "vivacious " in the days when the sensational advent of a real actress had set all the boarders the agreeable task of analysing her charm. Her popularity had not been maintained at the high level it reached during the first week following her arrival. The men she had subsequently snubbed—and with good cause—decided that she suffered from swelled head. The girls she had momentarily eclipsed set their lips tightly together and looked at one another significantly when her name cropped up in conversation. For Gwenda wore a wedding ring; she was immensely pretty, and she made no reference to her husband.
"Chick," said the girl suddenly, as they turned on to the tar path leading to the hill, "I'm going!"
Chick stood stock still and turned pale.
"Going, Mrs.—I mean Gwenda?" He pronounced her name a little fearfully. "Where?"
Gwenda shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know, Chick, but Mrs. Shipmet told me that she would want my room. I owe three weeks' rent."
Chick looked at her in amazement. "Do you really?" he asked in a hushed voice.
"Yes, I do really," she said savagely "I had to buy a lot of clothes for this new piece at the Strand-Broadway. Solburg makes you buy your own things, and, Chick, now I've got 'em"—she gulped back a sob—"Solburg talks of not putting me into the show! There is another girl whose father knows a lord, and this Lord Chenney has asked Solburg to give her the part."
"Let us sit down," said Chick, a little overcome. "But isn't he obliged to—let you act—Gwenda?"
She sat down on an empty bench, and he took his place by her side.
"No, Chick," she said. "I have a contract, but what is the use of my fighting him? I can only smile and hang on for something else. He is too powerful a man to sue. I should be barred by almost every management."
Chick was stunned. He had guessed the tragedy in the air when he had seen her face on the Saturday night. And this news was a tremendous blow to him. She was the first woman he had ever met on terms of equality—the first girl who had not giggled at him or been rude to him—his first and his greatest comrade, and she was going out of his fife.
Suddenly a brilliant thought struck him.
"Mrs.—Gwenda," he said excitedly, "three weeks is only seven pounds ten! I've got over thirty pounds in the bank! Good gracious, fancy my forgetting that!"
She looked at him for a long time, till the tears came up and overflowed, to Chick's horror.
"You queer, dear boy," she said softly, and shook her head. "No, Chick, my dear, I can't take your money. I'm very, very grateful, you dear old Chick!"—and she swallowed hard.
"Why do you call me a boy, Gwenda?" he asked. "I'm a year older than you. Of course I know that you're a married lady, but that doesn't make you older."
She smiled as she dabbed her eyes.
"I feel a million years older than you, Chick. Now tell me about your uncle."
"When are you going?" asked the young man doggedly.
"Next Saturday. I must say Mrs. Shipmet is fairly reasonable. I have paid next week's board in advance. I can't expect her to keep me for nothing. If I had got the part in this new play——" She shook her head. "What is the use of blubbing?" she said impatiently. "I'm getting silly. And here is that awful creature Terrance. I don't want him to see that my eyes are red."
Mr. Fred Terrance described himself as a man of the world. This proud title carried with it the right to wear highly decorative linen and neckwear which nearly harmonised in colour with his socks. He was invariably referred to as "Mr. Fred," and, in addition to his worldliness, he sustained the difficult rôle of born humorist. He was one of those—indeed, the first—who discovered in Gwenda Maynard a person too big for her boots.
Now he sauntered across the grass, being superior to urgent notices warning him off, swinging his malacca cane and puffing at a large cigar.
"Hello, Chick! Did you enjoy yourself?"
Chick looked up slowly.
"No," he said.
Terrance was looking at the girl with curious eyes.
"What on earth is the matter, eh?" he asked. "Crying! Come, come, this will never do! What is it all about? As a man of the world——"
"I don't think you had better stay," said Chick in that grave tone of his, as the man of the world prepared to seat himself.
"Eh? Why not?"
"Because we don't want to talk to you," said Chick simply.
Though they had lived together in the same house for eight months, Mr. Terrance had never come to grips with Chick, and the very simplicity of the reply took his breath away.
"Another thing, Mr. Terrance, I should like to say is this," Chick went on. "I am not called 'Chick' except by my very near friends."
"Oh, indeed!" said Mr. Terrance, breathing heavily and growing redder and redder of face. "And whilst we are on the subject of what you'd like and what you don't like, you young puppy——"
It is no exaggeration to say that Chick was terrified.
"I'm very sorry you're annoyed, Mr. Terrance——" he began, but the man of the world overwhelmed him with words.
"You keep a civil tongue in your head, my friend," he said, his voice growing louder and louder, to Chick's embarrassment. "I've got a few things I could say about you! Where do you go every Tuesday and Friday, hey? Perhaps Missis Maynard would like to know that." He emphasised Gwenda's title.
And this being a good hne on which to make his exit, he stalked into the gathering gloom, only to return as a much better peroration occurred to him.
"You're the kind of sneaking, snivelling humbug that breaks women's hearts," he said, "and if Missis Maynard had any sense, she'd keep away from you."
The youth glared after him speechless.
"Shucks!" said Chick at last. It was the one word which he had carried with him from the State of Massachusetts.
The girl was laughing softly. "Oh, you heart-breaker!" she mocked.
"But—but I'm not," said the indignant Chick. "I've never broken anybody's heart in my life!"
She was laughing aloud now and rose suddenly. "It is cold. Chick," she said. "Let us go back to the menagerie."
They did not go back to Acacia Lodge immediately, and when they did return they met Mrs. Shipmet in the hall, and she favoured them with a smile, the cordiality of which was so adjusted that Chick should not feel reproved or the girl encouraged.
Before he went to bed that night Chick was invited into the "senctum."
Mrs. Shipmet closed the door carefully behind him.
"I'm sure you won't mind my saying, Mr. Beane, that looking upon you, as I do, as my own son, I think you're very unwise being seen so much about with an actress."
"With Mrs. Maynard?" asked Chick in surprise.
Mrs. Shipmet nodded.
"You're young," she explained, "and sus—er—sus—er—easily influenced. An ectress is naturally used to edmiration, and doesn't mean all she says. I can't stand by and see your heart broken, Mr. Beane."
"Oh, my heart?" said Chick, relieved. "My heart isn't broken, Mrs. Shipmet. Thank you very much. Good night!"
"I only speak to you for your good," said Mrs. Shipmet, one hand on the handle. "I speak as a mother."
Chick looked at her oddly. "As my mother or her mother, Mrs. Shipmet?" he asked.
Mrs. Shipmet made haste to disclaim any maternal sympathies with her unprofitable boarder.
"I think she wants a mother more than I," he said simply. "I'm awfully sorry she owes you money. I think you would feel nicer to her if she was out of debt."
He left Mrs. Shipmet feeling—as she afterwards said—"very hurt."
Chick received from the executors of his father a sum equivalent to two pounds ten shillings a week, which, added to the two pounds fifteen shillings he received from Leither and Barns, enabled him to live, if not riotously, at least without anxiety.
His work hours were from 9.30 in the morning to 5.30 in the afternoon, except on Saturdays, when the office closed at 12, to allow Mr. Leither—there was no Barns—to get away for his golf, and the work was not exhausting. Mainly Chick's task was to bombard incautious people who had answered Mr. Leither's advertisements, with literature and form-letters. It was work which, as Mr. Leither had often pointed out, a child could do, or a very small and ragged boy. He always insisted upon the sartorial deficiencies of his mythical boy.
On the Monday morning he was carpeted before his chief for a grievous error of the week before. In sending a "follow-up" letter to a gentleman who had inquired about a workman's compensation policy, he had sent a "Though-you-have-not-answered our-earlier-communication" when he should have dispatched "We-are-delighted-to-hear-from-you" epistle. For the client in question had written.
Mr. Leither, who was a stout, careless man generally covered with cigarette ash, shook his ponderous head in despair as Chick came in.
"This work a child could do," he said tragically, after he explained the crime, "or a little ragged boy off the streets! And yet you! I'm surprised at you, Beane! Now, don't let it occur again."
"I didn't let it last time, sir," said Chick. "It just occurred."
"That will do," said Mr. Leither, flicking the ash of his cigarette on to his waistcoat.
But Chick fingered.
"Mr. Leither, do you know Solburg, the theatrical person?" he asked.
Mr. Leither frowned.
"Yes, I know him," he said, "but he's not a good life, Beane. He has heart trouble."
"I'm not thinking about him from an insurance point of view," said Chick. "The fact is, Mr. Leither, I'm interested in a young lady who is an actress."
His employer looked at him with wonder and respect. At the same time he shook his head.
"I'm old enough to be your father, Beane," he said soberly, "and whilst I do not wish to put myself in a false position by acting in loco parentis—which is a Latin phrase meaning in the place of your parents—I say to you: Don't do it! Actresses are all very well on the stage, but a young man like you ought to see 'em there. It's better for your peace of mind, Beane."
Chick had already made his desperate resolution, and was not to be turned aside by his chief's pardonable misconception.
"This young lady was in Solburg's company," he went on. "She has been rehearsing six weeks, and now she is going to be put out because Lord Chenney's daughter knows a girl who wants the part."
He recited this a little breathlessly.
"Lord Chenney is insured with the Commercial and Legal Company," murmured Mr. Leither. "I tried to get him to take a policy with the Peninsular Company. He's a first-class life, if ever there was one."
"Do you think it would be any use my seeing Mr. Solburg? In fact, Mr. Leither," said Chick a little hoarsely, "could you give me an introduction?"
Mr. Leither shook his head.
"Give it up, Beane, give it up," he said, with unusual kindness. "It will be a wrench at first, but you're young."
Chick arrested his protest, and Mr. Leither went on:
"If you want to meet him, I'll give you a letter of introduction. You might give him particulars of the Short Policy system—we might get him in under Schedule D."
Chick did not tell the girl of his interview with the "theatrical person." It had been a surprisingly pleasant experience. Mr. Solburg was a man of the world, too, a smiling Hebrew gentleman with a heart which he admitted was as big as his body, and a sense of humour. He had been frankness itself. Mrs. Maynard was a fine actress, but the influence which Lord Chenney had exercised was oblique. Mr. Solburg had apparently three "angels"—he spoke of them as such—and Chick's first impression, that Mr. Solburg was an intensely religious man, was dissipated when the manager explained that an "angel" was a "backer," and that a "backer" was one who affords financial assistance to the producers of a play. It was to please his "backers," who were flattered by the lordly interest, that he had given Miss Moran the part he had planned for Mrs. Maynard.
"No, my dear boy, I don't mind your coming. You're Mrs. Maynard's brother, are you—or her son, perhaps?"
Mr. Solburg had lived so many years in an environment where nothing was as it appeared, and men and women successfully defied the appearance of age, that he was not greatly impressed by Chick's indignant denial.
"They all look young, my boy," said Mr. Solburg. "Why, I've had chorus girls in my touring companies who had grandchildren!"
It was not a happy week for Chick. All his spare time was employed in the scrutiny of theatrical journals and in cutting out likely advertisements. These he put into an envelope and left in the rack for Gwenda, a proceeding which afforded Mr. Terrance much amusement, and made the meal hour a very trying one for Chick, for Mr. Fred had his reputation of humorist to maintain, and into his wit had crept a note of malice. Chick did not worry about these passages when the girl was not present.
On the Saturday evening, when, as he knew, Gwenda's boxes were packed ready for carriage to the room she had taken in Bloomsbury, and when she herself sat at his side through the "high tea," the badinage became unbearable.
"I suppose we shall see less of Chick now that Mrs. Maynard is going," said Mr. Fred to the table at large. "He'll be hanging round the stage door of the Broadway every night—except Tuesday and Friday!"
He winked, and then, with an exaggerated start of surprise:
"Oh, no, he won't! You're not playing at the Broadway in the next piece, are you, Mrs. Maynard?"
"I'm not," said the girl calmly, buttering her bread.
"Ah, that explains many things!" said Mr. Fred, with a significant nod. "Well, Mrs. Maynard, you'll soon be in another play, and be able to pay everybody."
Gwenda flushed and made a movement as if to rise, but it was Chick who got up.
"Mr. Fred," he said gently, "could you give me a minute of your time?"
Mr. Fred smiled.
"Say it here, Chick," he said.
But Chick shook his head and walked to the door, and Mr. Fred, with a smile, followed.
The passage was empty, and the street-door was open, Chick was standing outside.
"If you've got anything to say, say it here. I'm not going to catch a cold."
Chick's voice was peremptory.
"What the dickens do you mean?" demanded Fred wrathfully, as he joined the other.
The back of Chick's hand struck him across the face. Terrance stood dumbfounded for a moment, and then lunged out with all his strength.
The only light was that which came from the hall, but it was enough. Chick sidestepped and took the blow over his shoulder. Once, twice he drove to the body, and each time his fist got home. It was a favourite opening of his.
Mr. Fred gasped and staggered, and like lightning Chick brought up his left. Mr. Fred did not see it—he did not even feel it.
His first conscious impression was of being pulled to his feet and shaken.
"You wanted to know where I spend my Tuesdays and Fridays," said Chick; "now I'll tell you. At the Polytechnic, training for a lightweight competition."
Mr. Fred said nothing. He went up to his room a little groggily, and Chick returned to the table. He was neither agitated nor angry. He even glanced at the letter rack as he passed, and, seeing an envelope addressed to himself, took it with him into the dining-room.
Gwenda looked up anxiously as he came in. Chick could order nerve and muscle, but the flow of his blood was beyond his control, and he was pale.
"Mr. Fred is not coming back to tea," he smiled at Mrs. Shipmet, and opened his letter.
The girl looked. His knuckles were raw and bleeding.
"Chick," she said under her breath, "what has happened?" But Chick was staring at the letter in his hand. It was from the Vicar of Pelborough:
"… He died quite peacefully. I think the shock of the news must have been responsible. The letter enclosed from the Clerk of the Committee, announcing that Dr. Beane's claim to the extinct peerage of Pelborough had been recognised was, I know, totally unexpected by your uncle. May I offer at once my condolences for your loss and congratulate you upon the honour to which your lordship has succeeded. …"
Chick got unsteadily to his feet, still gripping the letter, and went out into the hall, where the telephone was. He turned the pages of the directory with a shaking hand, and presently gave a number.
The girl had followed him from the room, and was a silent audience.
"Is that Mr. Solburg?" asked Chick, and Gwenda gasped. "I want you to put Mrs. Maynard in that part—yes, give her the part you took away from her."
"Who is that speaking?" asked Solburg's voice, and Chick tried to keep his own voice steady.
"It is the Marquis of Pelborough speaking," he said.