The Adventures of Dr. Whitty/Chapter 2

 

II
THE PIER

IT was about six o'clock in the afternoon of an August day, rather more than a year after the visit of the Chief Secretary, when Mr. Eccles, B.E., drove into Ballintra. He engaged a room in Thady Glynn's hotel, and then asked where Dr. Whitty lived. Thady eyed his guest, anxious to know exactly who he was and what he wanted in Ballintra. He was not a commercial traveller. Thady knew all the gentlemen of that profession who visited Ballintra, and he did not recognise Mr. Eccles. It followed that he must be a Government official. Thady searched his memory, but could think of nothing in the recent performances of the Board of Guardians, over which he presided, which would call for a visit from a Local Government Board inspector. He decided that Mr. Eccles must be an engineer, and had probably come to report on the pier which Michael Geraghty had built. Mr. Eccles repeated his inquiry for Dr. Whitty.

"Is it the doctor you want to see?"

Thady was a little puzzled. He could not imagine why a Board of Works engineer should want to visit Dr. Whitty.

"Yes," said Mr. Eccles; "where does he live?"

"If it's a tooth that's troubling you," said Thady, "you couldn't go to a better man than Dr. Whitty. He'll whip it out for you before you'll rightly know he has a grip on it. There isn't a proper dentist would do it quicker."

This warm recommendation was highly creditable to Thady Glynn. He had never liked Dr. Whitty. He owed him a special grudge since the day when the deputation met the Chief Secretary. But he did not allow his private feelings to stand in the way of a public duty. If there was a half-crown to be got out of a Government official he was anxious to secure it for the pocket of one of the inhabitants of Ballintra, if possible, rather than allow it to be wasted on a Dublin dentist.

"I don't want him to pull my teeth out," said Mr. Eccles. "Do I look like a man who'd come all the way to Ballintra because he had toothache?"

"You do not," said Thady judicially. "When I take a good look at you I can see well that you're not that sort of man."

"Dr. Whitty and I are old friends," said Mr. Eccles. "He and I lived in the same lodgings when he was walking the hospitals and I was going through the engineering school."

Thady Glynn was satisfied. He started his guest on the way to Dr. Whitty's house and then returned to his own bar. He found Michael Geraghty there. There had been an outward reconciliation between him and Geraghty, brought about by a conviction, present in both their minds, of the inconvenience of keeping up a quarrel. Michael had borrowed, at a high rate of interest, a good deal of money from Thady Glynn, money absolutely necessary for his pier building. As one instalment after another of his contract price was paid him by the Government he punctually discharged his debt. He now stood clear of Thady Glynn's books, and was looking forward to his last and largest cheque, as almost all clear profit, to be put into his own pocket.

"Did you see the man that's just after driving up to the hotel?" said Thady.

"I did," said Michael Geraghty—"a good-looking young fellow enough. Who is he?"

"He's the engineer from the Board of Works," said Thady, "that's come down to pass your pier before they pay for it."

"I'm glad to hear it. It's time he came."

"He's a mighty sharp man, sharper than any of them that was down before looking at it.

"He'll find no fault with the pier, no matter how sharp he is," said Michael bravely.

"I hope he won't. It'd be a terrible thing for you, Michael, if he wouldn't pass it now it's done, after all the money you've spent on it."

"It would be a loss of £250 to me," said Michael. "But why would he not pass it? It's a good pier. I don't know where you'd see a pier that's better built."

"It's a well-built pier. He'll not fault the work that's in it. But you couldn't be up to the ways of them fellows. He mightn't pass it at the latter end."

Michael Geraghty was uneasy. He spoke confidently, but there was a note of anxiety in his voice.

"Where's he off to now?" he asked. "He wouldn't be going down to the pier at this time of the evening, all by himself, without me with him."

"He's not gone near the pier, and he won't till to-morrow morning. And it wouldn't be any harm if he did, for he hasn't taken his measuring tape with him. He's gone to see Dr. Whitty, if you want to know. I'm sure of that, for he asked me the way to his house. It seems the doctor and him is old friends."

"If he's gone there it's all right," said Michael. "The doctor's a good friend of mine. He'll put in a word for me."

"You don't want him, or any other one, to be putting in a word for you, if so be that your pier's all right."

"I do not, of course. But it'll do no harm, anyway. Them inspectors from Dublin is queer at times."

"This is a mighty sharp man, anyway," said Thady. "I could tell that by the way he looked at me when I told him it would be a pleasure to the doctor to be pulling his teeth out of him. It's as well for you that he'll not be able to fault your pier."

Mr. Eccles returned to the hotel at about midnight. He had spent a very pleasant evening with Dr. Whitty. They dined together, and after dinner, drinking a moderate quantity of whisky and smoking an immoderate quantity of tobacco, they recalled bygone festivities, football matches, cycling tours, and other joys of their lost youth. Before they parted they entered into a covenant to spend their September holiday together, climbing mountains in Cumberland. Dr. Whitty could, he thought, count on a clear fortnight. Mr. Eccles, under the rules of his department, was entitled to three weeks.

Early next morning Dr. Whitty was aroused by a knocking at his hall door. He looked out of the window and discovered Michael Geraghty standing on the step.

"If it's your wife's rheumatism," he said, "I'll not dress myself to go and attend her at this hour. It'll neither be better nor worse after breakfast."

"It's not herself at all," said Michael Geraghty.

"Has Thady Glynn been beating you again? for, if he has, you needn't come here to be plastered up. I told you last time you'd have to learn to hit back. I hate a man who sits down and lets himself be assaulted."

"There's been no one beating me."

"Then what the devil do you want? Has the baby swallowed a pin? If so, go home out of this and feed her on mashed potatoes and cotton wool."

"I want a word with you, doctor."

"Very well, say it, and let me get back to my bed."

"It's not what I could be shouting out in the street," said Michael. "It's of a private nature, and I'd thank you to let me within into the house before I say it."

Dr. Whitty's curiosity was aroused. He went downstairs, opened the door, and brought Michael Geraghty into the dispensary.

"Now, then," he said, "out with it."

"They do say," said Michael, "that the gentleman that's down from Dublin is a great friend of your own, and that he'd do anything you asked him, whatever it might be."

"He is a friend of mine."

"And they tell me he's come about the pier, to give me the writing that'll entitle me to get the last instalment of the price."

"That's exactly what he has come for."

"Then I'd be thankful to you, doctor, if you'd put in a good word for me."

"Is there anything the matter with the pier?"

"It's a good pier," said Michael Geraghty.

"If it's a good pier," said the doctor, "you don't want me to be talking to the engineer. He'll pass it all right without that."

"It would do no harm if you were to speak a word to him."

"Look here," said the doctor, "I'm quite ready to help you, Michael, all I can. But I won't work in the dark. If there's anything wrong with your pier, tell me what it is, and I'll pull you through."

"It's a good pier," said Michael.

"If that's all you're going to say you may go home, and devil the word I'll speak to Mr. Eccles on your behalf."

"It's a good pier," said Michael—"what there is of it."

"Oh," said the doctor, "so that's the way of it, is it? What a damned fool you are, Michael; you must have known he'd measure it."

"He might not."

"He will. I know Eccles, and he'll measure any pier he inspects. If it's so much as an inch short he'll not pass it."

"I'm not saying it is short, mind you," said Michael Geraghty cautiously. "All I want is for you to speak a word to him in case he was to fault it that way or another. It's ruined and broke altogether I'd be if I didn't get the money that's owing to me this minute."

"I'll do the best I can for you, Michael. I'll be down at the pier this morning, and if I'm able to distract his attention when he's measuring it, I will. Anyway, make your mind easy about it. One way or another I'll see you safe through."

Mr. Eccles breakfasted quietly at nine o'clock. At ten he prepared to go down to the pier. Thady Glynn met him in the hall of the hotel.

"Might I speak a word to you, sir?"

"Certainly."

"And what I say will be kept private?"

"I don't know about that. It depends on what it is."

Thady Glynn looked searchingly at Mr. Eccles. He would have liked to have secured himself by a pledge of secrecy, but he was prepared to run some risks for the sake of a complete and satisfactory revenge on Michael Geraghty.

"I'll trust you," he said at last, "without your promising, but it'll be a bad thing for me that has to live among the people here if it ever gets out that I gave you the word."

"Don't do it unless you like," said Mr. Eccles. "I'm not asking you for any information."

"I will do it. I'm an honest man, and it goes against me to see cheating and robbery going on, even if it's only the Government that's at the loss of the money. It's the curse of this country the way men'll go behind their bargains for the sake of trying to make a pound or two."

"Those opinions do you the greatest credit."

"Michael Geraghty is a friend of mine," said Thady Glynn, "an old friend that I've known since the both of us were barefooted gossures running in and out of the school beyond. But I wouldn't let him being my friend stop me in doing my duty. There was talk one time of his marrying a sister of mine, though it didn't come off, owing to a falling out there was over the girl's fortune. I won't let that stop me."

"Don't," said Mr. Eccles. "Duty before all things, especially public duty."

"If I were you," said Thady, sinking his voice to a whisper, "I'd measure that pier. I'm not saying there's anything wrong, but if I was you, I'd measure it. That's all I'll say, so make the most of it, you."

"Thank you," said Mr. Eccles. "I should have measured it in any case."

He walked down to the pier and found Dr. Whitty and Michael Geraghty waiting for him. There was also a small crowd of men, principally those who had taken some part in building the pier.

"It's a glorious day," said the doctor. "Hurry up over vetting the pier and then we'll get rid of these fellows and have a swim off the end of it."

"That's about all this pier will ever be used for," said Mr Eccles.

His eye was fixed on a jagged reef of rocks which lay plainly visible about twenty yards seaward of the end of the pier, a horrible menace to a boat approaching in any but the calmest weather.

"It's a good pier," said Michael Geraghty. "I don't know where you'd see a better."

"It is," said the group of bystanders in chorus. "It's a credit to the man that built it."

"Come on," said Dr. Whitty, "tap a stone or two to see that they're real and then sign whatever you have to sign."

"The stones are all right," said Mr. Eccles.

He opened a small brown bag which he carried in his hand and took out a measuring-tape.

"Surely to goodness," said the doctor, "you're not going to spend the whole morning measuring the thing?"

Mr. Eccles beckoned to Michael Geraghty and gave him the end of the tape.

"Take this," he said, "and hold on to it while I walk out to the end of the pier."

Michael Geraghty did as he was bid. Mr. Eccles, letting the tape run out of its case, walked rapidly along the pier. Michael Geraghty, his eyes fixed on Mr. Eccles, took three rapid steps backwards, dragging the tape with him. Mr. Eccles turned sharply.

"I'm not surveying the field behind there," he said. "Kindly stand where I put you."

"I didn't move a step," said Michael.

"You did."

"There's them here," said Michael, "that'll tell you I did not, if you ask them."

"I'm not going to ask them. Just you go back to the place I put you, and stay there."

Michael Geraghty went back. Mr. Eccles resumed his expedition to the extremity of the pier. As he did so, Michael gathered the tape into a ball in his hand. When Mr. Eccles reached the end of the pier Michael had about five yards of tape crushed in his palm. Mr. Eccles gave a sudden jerk, and then, winding up his end of the tape, took the measurement of the pier. He noted the result on a slip of paper. Then he called Michael Geraghty to him, stood him on the point of the pier, walked shorewards himself, and checked his first measurement carefully. This time he entered the figures in a notebook.

"I am sorry," he said, "but I can't sign the certificate authorising payment for this work. The pier is twenty-seven feet short of the length stated in our specification."

"Your honour, sir——" said Michael Geraghty.

"Yes?"

"If you make me add another twenty-seven feet to the end of the pier I'll be broke. I couldn't do it. It's little enough I'm making out of it the way it is. I shan't have a penny—no, but I'll have a big loss on it, and you wouldn't like to be the means of putting an honest poor man, with a wife and family dependent on him, into the workhouse."

"I can't help myself," said Mr. Eccles. "You don't surely expect me to sign a certificate that the work's done when it isn't."

"It's that damned traitor, Thady Glynn, that put you up to measuring it. He's had it in for me ever since the time the doctor played the trick on him and the colonel, when the Chief Secretary was in the town. But I'll be even with him yet. I'll——"

"You shut up, Michael," said Dr. Whitty, "and don't be making a fool of yourself. Come on out of this, Eccles. I suppose, after the way you've behaved to poor Geraghty, you'd hardly care to bathe off the end of his pier. It wouldn't be decent."

"If I'm hanged for it after," said Michael Geraghty, "I'll make Thady Glynn sorry for himself. If I don't——"

"Be quiet, can't you, Michael?" said a man from the crowd. "Be quiet, when the doctor bids you. Don't you see him taking the inspector by the arm and talking to him? It'll be all right, I tell you. The doctor'll manage him if you don't get putting the man's back up against you with the like of that murdering talk."

"The doctor himself can't help me now," said Michael despondingly. "I'm ruined and destroyed, and it's all the fault of Thady Glynn. There's ne'er another man about the town would have done a turn like that."

Mr. Eccles and the doctor left the pier together and walked towards the town.

"That hotel-keeper," said Eccles, "seems to be a pretty low-down species of beast. I suppose he had a spite against the contractor."

"Geraghty was right, then," said the doctor. "It was Thady Glynn put you up to measuring the pier."

"I'd have done that in any case. Nothing he said made a bit of difference. All the same, I hope our friend Geraghty—Geraghty's the name, isn't it?—will give him the thrashing he deserves, and a bit over. You'd hardly believe it, but he tried to persuade me this morning that he was acting out of public spirit and honesty."

"Did he, then? He must have taken you for a bigger fool than I'd have thought you look if he expected you to swallow that."

"It appears to me that you all mistook me for a fool," said Eccles. "Did you really suppose I'd certify for that pier without measuring it?"

"Look here," said the doctor, "surely to goodness you're not really going to cut poor Geraghty off without his money? You can't mean to do that."

"I am, of course. What else can I do? The beastly thing's twenty-seven feet too short."

"Come in here to my house till I talk to you.

"I'll come in for an hour, if you like, but after that I must go. And I warn you fairly, you may talk till you're sick, but you won't make me put my name to the bottom of that certificate till the pier's the right length."

Dr. Whitty set his friend down in a comfortable chair, offered him whisky, which he refused, and tobacco, which he accepted, then he began.

"Geraghty," he said, "is a decent man, and he's done good solid work on that pier. You could see for yourself that the stones he built it of were real stones. He didn't make the least attempt to stick you there."

"If there'd been any other material in the country cheaper than stones," said Eccles, "I haven't the least doubt he'd have used it, and tried to persuade me afterwards it was stone, otherwise I dare say he's decent enough."

"Thady Glynn is a horrid blackguard," said the doctor. "He's a blood-sucking money-lender, for one thing, and has half the people in the country round in his power. He's the sort of man that the devil himself will be squeamish about making a bonfire of for fear of the smell there'll be afterwards."

"I can quite believe it. From the little I saw of him this morning I'd say the breath of him would go near poisoning any decent brigand."

"And yet," said the doctor, "you propose to back this very scoundrel, to aid and abet him in his plan for ruining poor Michael Geraghty. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Eccles. You, a member of the Government, whose business it is to protect decent people and do justice, you actually propose to do Thady Glynn's dirty work for him and help him to wreak his beastly vengeance on a man like Geraghty who never did anybody any harm."

"What's the use of talking like that, Whitty? You know perfectly well I can't sign the certificate."

"Why not?"

"Because the pier's twenty-seven feet short. That's why. Build a bit on to it and I'll sign with pleasure."

"He can't build a bit on. He's got no money."

"Well, then, I can't sign the certificate."

"I don't see what harm it would do you to sign it. You could sign it if you liked."

"Hang it, Whitty, it's not a question of what I like or don't like. I'm simply a servant of the Government. The Government grants the money for a pier a certain number of feet long, and I'm——"

"Don't come the Government official over me," said the doctor, "for I won't stand it. What on earth does the Government know or care about the pier? I've been running the whole show from the beginning, and I give you my word the Chief Secretary never so much as asked where we proposed to plant the thing when we got it."

"I don't see what that has to do with it."

"It has everything to do with it. You don't suppose, surely, that the Government really intended to build a useful kind of marine work in Ballintra? No Government could. The thing's absurd on the face of it. What the Government meant to do was to drop a round sum of money into the town for the benefit of the inhabitants. That's what it intended all along. That's what it tried to do, and what it would do, if you hadn't come along with your ridiculous measuring-tape and a thing inside you that, I suppose, you call a conscience, and defeated the excellent intentions of the Chief Secretary and the good men who are advising him. You think you are acting on your instructions and that you'll get credit for it afterwards. Let me tell you you won't. There's nothing a Government hates more than an official who can't see beyond the letter of what he has written down for him. All the great worries that Governments have are the results of pig-headed literalness of stupid officials. Look at the case of the king who had Thomas Becket murdered. Did he mean to murder him? Not at all. Some fool of an official, a fellow very like you, Eccles, went and did literally what he was told, instead of considering what the king really meant. There was jolly nearly being a revolution afterwards. It is just the same in this case. By obeying the letter of your orders you are defeating the spirit of them. I've told you what the Chief Secretary wanted to do. Are you going to take the responsibility of stopping him?"

"I'm not going to sign the certificate. If the Chief Secretary likes to pay the money over without the certificate he can, of course. I won't prevent him."

"Look at the matter this way," said the doctor. "The pier's no earthly use. You know that, don't you?"

Mr. Eccles smiled.

"I quite admit that."

"Would it be any more use if it was twenty-seven feet longer than it is at present?"

"Not a bit. It wouldn't be any use if it was a mile long."

"Would it be any less use if it was twenty-seven feet shorter?"

"It couldn't," said Mr. Eccles, "by any possibility be less use than it is at present."

"Then why on earth make all this fuss about a beggarly twenty-seven feet? I could understand your kicking up a row if the thing was ever going to be any good to man or beast, but it isn't. Except, as I said, for bathing off it's no good at all, and you can only bathe off it comfortably at high tide. Be reasonable, Eccles."

"I can't sign the certificate."

"Very well. I've done my best with you. I can do no more. But I warn you fairly, Eccles, that I mean to get that money for poor Geraghty. I'm not going to see him stuck."

"All right. Petition the Chief Secretary. I don't mind. But I'll be surprised if you get it."

"I'm not going to petition the Chief Secretary or any other fool thing of the sort. I'm going to persuade Michael Geraghty to lengthen the pier. I suppose you'll come down again any time we send for you, and sign the certificate when we have the extra twenty-seven feet added on."

"Of course I will, with the greatest pleasure. But mind me now, Whitty, it must be full length. Don't fetch me down all this way if you're only going to add on six feet."

"I'll see it's right next time."

"I suppose it won't actually ruin Geraghty?"

"No, it won't. Don't fret about that. We only said that to excite your compassion."

"So I thought. And now what about this holiday of ours? Is 1st September fixed?"

"I'll join you that day in Dublin," said Dr. Whitty. "We'll cross to Liverpool, and then make our way up to the Lakes the best we can. We'll have a great time. It's a pity I can't get more than a fortnight. I shall envy you your extra week."

He bid good-bye to Mr. Eccles at the door. Michael Geraghty, who was standing disconsolately near the doctor's house, took off his hat and bowed humbly as Mr. Eccles passed him. Then he joined Dr. Whitty.

"Did you get him persuaded, doctor?"

"I did not. I tried my best with him, Michael, but I failed."

"It couldn't be expected that you'd do anything else," said Michael. "He's a hard man that, as hard as e'er a one ever I met."

"Don't give up heart, Michael. We're not beat yet by a long way."

"It's not easy to see what more we can do."

"You couldn't build the bit on that he wants?"

"I could not. I'm telling you the truth, doctor. It would cost me more than I'm worth in the world, and more than I'd be able to borrow, and more than I'd get at the latter end if so be every penny was paid me. Thanks be to God I don't owe that old reprobate, Thady Glynn, a penny this minute. I've paid him off; but there's a bill of mine in the bank beyond at Dunbeg that'll be due next week, and the Lord knows where the money's to come from to pay it."

"You go over there, Michael, and try will they renew it for you for another three months with my name on the back of it."

"I'll not do it, doctor. I'm obliged to you; but I'll not do it. I wouldn't be able to pay it in three months no more than I am this minute, and then they'd come down on you. You've been a good friend of mine, and I'll not ask you to go security for what I'll never be able to pay."

"You'll be able to pay it all right when you get the money from the Government for building the pier, and that'll be—let me see now, this is the first week in August—that'll be in nine weeks from now at the outside."

"It'll never be," said Michael.

Even the doctor's confidence failed to inspire him with any hope.

"Come inside for a minute till I talk to you," said the doctor.

"I'll come," said Michael. "But where's the use? All the talk in the world won't get me the money that Thady Glynn has me robbed of."

An hour later Michael Geraghty left the doctor's house. His face still expressed anxiety, but the look of blank despair was gone from it. He walked down to the hotel, followed by a considerable number of the inhabitants of Ballintra, who hoped to see him commit an immediate assault upon Thady Glynn. To the amazement of everybody present, he greeted Thady in the friendliest way and ordered a bottle of porter. Thady himself was puzzled. He realised that Mr. Eccles must have kept his warning a secret, but he did not understand how Michael Geraghty came to be as cheerful as he was.

"I hope," said Thady, "that you got your money all right out of the inspector."

"I did not," said Michael. "There's a couple of things he wanted to have seen to, trifles just that I'll be able to settle in a week at the outside. Then I'll get the money."

Thady, who knew Michael's financial position down to the last penny, was annoyed as well as puzzled. It seemed that his bomb of vengeance had somehow failed to explode. He asked Michael a great many questions. He asked a great many questions of all his customers, but he got no information which threw any real light on the matter. Michael Geraghty would not tell him anything, and kept repeating his plainly incredible statement about the few trifles to be seen after. Nobody else had any information to give.

Early in the third week in September Dr. Whitty received a letter from his friend, Mr. Eccles.


"Dear Whitty,"—it ran—"When I returned to the office on Monday I found that your friend, Michael Geraghty, had been paid in full for his pier. It seems that he wrote up to the office and asked for an inspector to go down and sign his certificate. They sent old Thompson, who says he measured his pier carefully, and that it was eighteen inches over the full length. Old Thompson is a bit of an ass, of course, but he couldn't have made a mistake about a simple job like that, particularly as I had left a note before I started that the pier was short and would have to be measured before the certificate was signed. Would you mind telling me, in confidence, how you managed it? I promise not to make a fuss, and, of course, even if I did, we couldn't get the money back now. I ask out of pure curiosity. As a matter of fact, I'm glad the poor fellow has got paid. Don't waste paper and a postage stamp telling me he built the twenty-seven feet on to the pier, for I shouldn't believe it. It couldn't be done in the time."


To this Dr. Whitty replied by return of post.


"Dear Eccles,—I had the whole matter settled before you left Ballintra that day. It was perfectly simple, and anybody except a hide-bound official would have hit on the dodge at once. We added the twenty-seven feet to the shore end of the pier. It cost Michael Geraghty next to nothing. He had to dig down a grass bank and make a sort of paved causeway. That's all. Stones, as you said, are cheap here, and I helped him to dig the bank.—Ever yours very sincerely,

"E. Whitty

"P.S.—I entertained your friend Thompson to keep him out of Thady Glynn's way. He's a decent old boy, but he punished my whisky. I had to make Michael Geraghty give me a present of a bottle when he got his cheque."