The Adventures of Dr. Whitty/Chapter 13
DR. WHITTY and his friend Eccles of the Congested Districts Board sat together at dinner in a Dublin hotel. They had a small table to themselves in a corner of the dining-room. Intimate conversation became possible when the waiter had brought them their coffee and ceased to hover round them. Dr. Whitty's marriage was to take place the next morning, and Eccles found a bachelor's delight in placing before him the exceedingly awkward position in which a man finds himself on such occasions.
"You appear to think I'm nervous," said Dr. Whitty, "but you're mistaken. I'm not, in the least."
Eccles smiled maliciously. He thought that his friend's manner displayed every symptom of acute discomfort.
"If," said the doctor, "I was nervous and frightened of the girl, I shouldn't marry her. As a matter of fact, Lucy—that is to say, Miss Mulhall—doesn't strike me as the sort of girl who would terrify anyone. She's extremely nice and gentle in her manner."
"What you're nervous about," said Eccles, "isn't, of course, the lady; it's the ceremony. I've seen bolder men than you quail at the prospect of standing up unprotected before a large congregation and saying things out loud which, on ordinary occasions, they'd shrink from even whispering."
"After all, what's the ceremony?" said the doctor. "It's nothing to an operation. I assure you, Eccles, I've seen men face the prospect of the knife without turning a hair. Is it likely I'd funk standing up——"
"They won't give you ether, you know."
"As a matter of fact," said the doctor, after a short pause, "I don't mind the prospect of that part a bit. What I do rather dislike——"
"Ah!" said Eccles, "I thought from your manner there must be something."
"—is the way I shall have to go about as a marked man during the three weeks we've got for our honeymoon. I know the way people—people like you, Eccles—whisper, nudge each other, and then smile in hotels and steamers and railway carriages. You seem to think there's something comic about a newly married couple. I regard that whole attitude of mind as simply disgusting and unbearably vulgar."
"Why don't you go to some lonely place?"
"There isn't such a thing in the world; and if there was, we'd still have to travel in a whole series of public conveyances and stop in beastly hotels before we got there. As a matter of fact, we're going to the Channel Islands—Guernsey, or Sark, or one of the others."
"You couldn't have chosen a worse spot," said Eccles. "Tobacco and whisky are cheap, of course, but at this season of the year those islands are full of people on holidays who will have nothing better to do than crack jokes about you—jokes which you will be painfully conscious of."
"I was afraid of that," said Dr. Whitty, sighing. "But what can I do? We must go somewhere. I spoke to Lucy about it, and suggested that she should wear nothing but old clothes, with a view to disguising our position, you know."
"You couldn't possibly expect her to agree to that. I don't think it was a fair thing to ask. A honeymoon is the one chance most girls get in their lives of wearing new dresses day after day. It would be absolutely brutal."
"She wouldn't agree," said Dr. Whitty, "though she was awfully nice about it. She said she felt for me so much that if I liked she'd wear old boots. It appears that somebody—her youngest brother, I think—told her that the one sure way of recognising a honeymoon couple was by the soles of the bride's boots. Do you think that's true?"
"No," said Eccles, "it's not. I don't set up to be particularly expert in these matters, but I should think that anyone with a real eye for newly married couples could judge, not so much by the lady's dresses, boots, or hat, as by the man's manner. You may take my word for it, Whitty, there's something about a young husband—an air of affectionate protectiveness, a mixture of shyness and familiarity, a kind of general appearance of cooingness—which couldn't possibly be mistaken, whatever boots the lady wore."
"If that's all," said Dr. Whitty, with an air of relief, "I shall be able to manage all right. I suppose now that if I make a point of travelling in a smoking carriage and putting her into a 'Ladies Only'——"
"If you're going to be rude to your wife, she'll simply turn round and go straight home. No self-respecting girl would stand it."
"I shall explain to Lucy beforehand," said the doctor, "why I'm doing it. She'll understand."
"No, she won't. And I strongly recommend you not to try. Take my word for it, Whitty——"
"You talk," said the doctor, "as if you were a Turk, and had been married a dozen times or more; whereas you don't really know any more about it than I do, if as much."
"Well," said Eccles, "go your own way; but if it ends in a judicial separation or a permanent estrangement, don't blame me. I've done the best I could to warn you of the risk you're running."
Four days later—they had dawdled on their way in Chester and London—Dr. and Mrs. Whitty crossed the gangway to the deck of the steamer which was to carry them from Southampton to the island of Guernsey. The day was a brilliantly fine one in the middle of July, and there were a good many other passengers. Dr. Whitty eyed them with sensitive suspicion. He secured a comfortable chair for his wife, and placed it on the lee-side of the deck under shelter of the entrance to the saloon. He himself stood at a considerable distance from her, and tried to look as if he had little or no connection with her. While the steamer was threading her way among the shipping of the Solent Mrs. Whitty called him.
"George, do come over and sit beside me. I want to talk to you."
By way of giving him confidence, she pushed a foot from the shelter of the rug in which she had wrapped herself. Her boot was undeniably old. It must have been one of the oldest she possessed, for the leather was cracked along the sewing of the toecap. Dr. Whitty glanced at it, and then at his fellow-passengers. None of them seemed to be taking any notice of what he did. He ventured quite close to Mrs. Whitty. She put out her other foot. There was a small patch on the side of its boot. Dr. Whitty looked at it with great satisfaction. The boots formed a striking contrast to the unmistakable newness of everything else which Mrs. Whitty wore. He set up a second deck-chair and sat down on it cautiously.
The sea, even after the steamer left the shelter of the Isle of Wight, was perfectly calm, and many passengers paced up and down the deck. Some of them glanced at Dr. and Mrs. Whitty, but appeared very little interested in them.
"I really think, George," she said, "that you needn't be so nervous. After all, even if anyone does guess, we've nothing to be ashamed of. We're not doing anything wrong."
"Lucy," he said, "you were just as much annoyed as I was this morning at breakfast in the hotel when those people at the next table looked at us and giggled."
"They were extremely rude. I can't imagine how people can have such bad manners."
"I rather think," said Dr. Whitty, "that I saw them again at the station just before the train started. I'm nearly sure it was the same man. I hope they're not on the steamer. Hang it! there they are!"
A man, perhaps forty years of age, neatly dressed and having a certain air of confident superiority, came on deck. With him was a lady, considerably younger than he was, tall, blonde, and, like her companion, self-satisfied. The man paused for a moment and lit a cigarette. Then he and the lady began to pace the deck together. The slight sway of the steamer was no doubt the reason why she laid a hand on his arm. They passed the Whittys. Their manners, as Mrs. Whitty had observed, were deplorably bad. At the sight of the two deck-chairs side by side the man smiled in a way which struck Dr. Whitty as insolent. The lady giggled slightly and then blushed. Dr. Whitty rose from his chair at once, took up a position at some distance from his wife, and lit a pipe. Mrs. Whitty's boots, when the strange couple passed her again, were prominent.
After pacing the deck until they must have walked at least a mile, the man and his blonde companion stood still and leaned across the bulwarks. Dr. Whitty watched them until he had finished his pipe. Then he went into the cabin. At the end of a quarter of an hour he came on deck again, lit another pipe, and walked, with an air of detached unconcern, to the place where his wife sat.
"Lucy," he said, "I've found out all about those people. They are a Captain and Mrs. Elphinstone, and they are going to Guernsey. The steward told me that. I found her bag afterwards, and it was labelled for our hotel. I think we'd better stop in Jersey."
"We can't. We've taken our rooms, and, besides, I want to see Guernsey. I don't believe Jersey is half as nice."
"In that case," said Dr. Whitty, "I must do something to divert their suspicions. I can't have those two grinning at us every morning at breakfast and every evening at dinner. Besides, they'd tell all the other people at the hotel. It would make our stay there perfectly intolerable."
"But what can you do?"
Dr. Whitty made no answer. He stood with his pipe in his hand until it went out. Then he walked across the deck and took up a position close to Captain and Mrs. Elphinstone. They were gazing at the sea. Dr. Whitty also gazed at the sea, holding his smokeless pipe between his teeth.
"I beg your pardon, sir," he said, after waiting for five minutes in the hope that Captain Elphinstone would look round.
The appeal produced no effect. Dr. Whitty tried again.
"I beg your pardon, sir; but would you oblige me with a match? My pipe has gone out."
He touched Captain Elphinstone's arm as he spoke to make sure of attracting attention.
"Oh! Ah! yes, certainly!"
Captain Elphinstone seemed startled by the request, but he put his hand into his pocket and drew out a silver matchbox. Dr. Whitty lit his pipe.
"A lovely day," he said, "beautifully calm."
"Yes," said Captain Elphinstone; "it is."
"Going to Jersey?"
"No. We mean to stop in Guernsey. Do you know the island?"
"Curiously enough I do not. In fact, that is one of my reasons for going there. My wife and I both want to see Guernsey. We've travelled a good deal, and we are particularly fond of islands. In fact, ever since we were married we've made a point of seeing some island or other every summer."
Dr. Whitty noticed with satisfaction that Mrs. Elphinstone began to show some interest in the conversation. She glanced rapidly at her husband, and her face appeared to express a slight feeling of disappointment.
"We visited the Isle of Man ten years ago," said Dr. Whitty.
"Really!" said Mrs. Elphinstone. "I should scarcely have thought from her appearance that Mrs.—that your wife could have been married so long."
"Whitty is our name," said the doctor. "We were married very young—very young indeed. She was little more than a child. But we've always got on capitally. For our second summer we went to Skye. No, Skye was the year after. It was in Bute we took our second holiday. Then we had a very pleasant time in the Isle of Wight the year after that. The next year we made our way to the Scilly Isles. Then we tried the Hebrides—North Uist, you know, and the others. After that we went to the Orkneys, and now we're on our way to Guernsey."
He smiled pleasantly. His stock of islands was running out, and he feared that he had not accounted for the whole ten years of married life which he had claimed. He hoped that he had said enough to satisfy the Elphinstones. He tried to count up the islands he had mentioned with a view to finding out how many years out of the ten remained islandless. To his disgust he found that Mrs. Elphinstone was also counting. She was pressing the fingers, first of her left hand, then of her right, one by one on the wooden rail in front of her, while her lips silently formed the names of the islands which Dr. Whitty had mentioned. She began with the little finger on her left hand. It represented the Isle of Man. The thumb and first finger of her right hand went down for North Uist and the Orkneys. Then she paused. The second finger was poised interrogatively in the air. Dr. Whitty realised that he was three islands short. He threw in another after a short hesitation.
"Last year," he said, "we got as far as Madeira."
Mrs. Elphinstone put down her middle finger and looked at him questioningly. Dr. Whitty's memory failed him hopelessly. He could not think of an eighth island nearer than the Pacific Ocean, Mrs. Elphinstone's third and fourth fingers were still hovering uncertainly above the rail.
"There were two years," said Dr. Whitty, "in which we couldn't manage to get away. The children were young, you know. My wife never could bear to leave them while they were babies. I dare say"—he looked anxiously at Mrs. Elphinstone—"that you sympathise with her."
She blushed. It was the second time that Dr. Whitty had seen her blush. He felt relieved. Her blush was a symptom of embarrassment, and when embarrassed she was not likely to be laughing at him. Captain Elphinstone, who seemed to find the situation awkward, came to his wife's rescue with a remark.
"Very interesting," he said, "a most original plan for holidays. You're a good sailor, I suppose."
"First-rate," said Dr. Whitty. "So is my wife. I recollect the time we went to North Uist., We crossed in a gale of wind from Glasgow, and——"
"From Oban surely," said Captain Elphinstone.
"Oban, of course. I get confused occasionally between the various islands. It was to Bute that we went from Glasgow."
"More likely to have been Greenock," said the captain.
"At all events, we went," said the doctor shortly, "and it blew a gale of wind. My wife and I were the only two passengers who dined that day."
Then, feeling his geography to be weak, and being unwilling to venture upon further reminiscences which might provoke criticism, he bid good-day to the Elphinstones and returned to Mrs. Whitty.
"I think," he said, with an air of complete satisfaction, "that I've put those two entirely off the scent. I explained to them that we have been married ten years."
"So you can put on decent boots to-morrow. Those ones won't be wanted any more. Of course, if you happen to get into conversation with Mrs. Elphinstone you had better stand over my statement. I told her that we had visited all the islands within reach, one island each summer. Recollect that, Lucy, in case she starts talking to you about the Orkneys or any other place of that sort. I don't think she's been to any islands herself, so you are pretty safe in enlarging on the scenery. I also told her that there were two years during which we didn't visit any island. I said that you were unwilling to leave——"
He stopped abruptly.
"To leave what?"
"Your two young brothers, while they were babies. I said that you'd brought them up from their childhood."
"What did you say that for?"
"Well, I hardly liked to mention the whole thirteen—it seemed such a lot. I hope you won't correct my statement. I wouldn't like her to think there were fourteen of you. In fact, if you don't much mind, Lucy, I dare say it will be better for you not to talk to Mrs. Elphinstone at all. She's a vulgar sort of woman."
"That's what I said this morning at breakfast."
"And you were perfectly right. A woman who is capable of giggling in that odious way, just because she happened to think, quite erroneously, that we were only just married."
"But we haven't really been ten years married."
"She thinks we have now," said Dr. Whitty, "and that's the same thing, so far as she is concerned."
When the steamer arrived at the pier at Guernsey it turned out that Mrs. Whitty's dressing-bag, a painfully new one, had got mixed up with the luggage of another passenger. It took the doctor some time to recover it. The Elphinstones, whose luggage was forthcoming at once, got a long start and arrived at the hotel first. Dr. Whitty, when he had secured all his belongings, conducted his wife to the room reserved for them. Then he went downstairs, at her request, to get any letters that might be waiting for them. The Guernsey hotel was their first fixed stopping-place, and any correspondence which had followed them from Ireland ought to be waiting for them. He was directed by a waiter to a rack which hung on the wall at the far end of the entrance hall. He observed, without any feeling of suspicion, that Captain and Mrs. Elphinstone were standing together in front of the rack. They looked round as he approached, and Mrs. Elphinstone smiled broadly. Her husband did more than smile. He burst into an immoderate fit of laughter. Dr. Whitty, very uncomfortable, but unable to guess at the nature of the joke, glanced at the rack. Three letters, fixed behind green tapes, caught his eye at once. They had all been addressed to "Miss Mulhall, 243 Upper Rathmines, Dublin." This had been scratched out and another address substituted: "Mrs. George Whitty, Royal Hotel, Guernsey." Some one—Dr. Whitty suspected his youngest brother-in-law—had put, in red ink, a note of exclamation after the erased "Miss Mulhall" on all three envelopes.
Dr. Whitty took the letters and fled swiftly across the hall. He was aware that both Captain and Mrs. Elphinstone were laughing at him. He even noticed that Mrs. Elphinstone's face was once again deeply flushed. He ran upstairs to his room, entered it, and locked the door behind him.
"There's no use your unpacking, Lucy, he said, "we leave this island at once."
"There's the reason," he said, laying the three letters on the bed. "I saw those confounded Elphinstones reading the addresses and then giggling in the most offensive way. I wish to goodness your people would have had the sense to put those letters into fresh envelopes. They might have guessed there'd be trouble if they simply scratched out your name. And—hang it all!—I told the Elphinstones we had been ten years married. Would you mind going down and asking when the next steamer leaves? I really daren't venture out of the room. I should be absolutely certain to meet them again. They'll be lying in wait for me. If there is a steamer in the middle of the night, we'll take it in preference to any other. I should like, if possible, to get off while the Elphinstones are in bed."
Mrs. Whitty left the room at once. She even left it hurriedly. Dr. Whitty, if he had been in a mood to reason calmly, might have prophesied a happy married life from this prompt obedience to what must have been an inconvenient command. But Mrs. Whitty was not acting from an unmixed sense of wifely duty. She wanted very much to laugh out loud. She did laugh, to her own great satisfaction, as soon as she got out of earshot of the bedroom door. Nearly half an hour passed before she returned to her husband.
"There's no steamer," she said, "till eleven o'clock to-morrow morning; but it's all right."
"It can't possibly be all right," said Dr. Whitty gloomily. "That ass Elphinstone will grin at me every time he meets me."
"I had a chat with her," said Mrs. Whitty, "and nothing could have been nicer than she was. She told me all you said to them on the steamer."
"All! Do you mean really all?"
"Yes—every word. And I think it was horrid of you, perfectly odious and horrid."
"I had to say something," said Dr. Whitty sheepishly.
"I shouldn't have minded the islands," said Mrs. Whitty, "but I don't see that you need——"
"I couldn't help it. There weren't any more islands, and she was counting up on her fingers. I had to explain the other two years somehow."
"But, anyway, it's all right. She never believed a single thing you said."
"Do you mean to tell me," said the doctor, "that she doubted my word about North Uist and the Orkneys?"
"Yes, she did. You see, she and Captain Elphinstone are only just married themselves. They're on their honeymoon too. Their wedding was a day after ours."
"The day after?" said Dr. Whitty. "Are you quite sure of that?"
"Quite. She told me so herself. They were married in Scotland, and it appears that Captain Elphinstone is nearly as foolish as you are. He's frightfully sensitive about anyone knowing, and—oh! just fancy, George—they were angry at first because they thought that we were laughing at them."
"If you're really certain that it was the day after," said Dr. Whitty, "I think we may perhaps stay on here, after all. He's actually in a worse position than I am."
"Much worse," said Mrs. Whitty—"a whole day worse."
"So, if there's any grinning to be done, I'm the one to do it."
"Yes," said Mrs. Whitty, "you are. And she's so nice about the whole thing. I simply love her."