The Alliance of Laughter
THE ALLIANCE OF LAUGHTER
By E. F. BENSON
JULY was almost over before it occurred to her that at present there had been no summer at all worthy of the name, and that, if there was any idea among the powers of the air of having one, it was time to set about it. So one morning she sent a note to the said powers saying that no doubt it had escaped their memory that she would be off in exactly four days, and would be disgraced for ever in the meteorological records unless they did something for her. She reminded them also that it was really time for the folk to leave London, and get into the country for the good both of their bodies and souls; and that the most effectual way of promoting their exit was to send a few really hot days. Finally, in a postscript, she said that owing to the inclemency of the weather the young people generally had had none of the good, old-fashioned love-making in gardens and lanes, and she would like to see a little of it before she went.
The powers of the air saw the reasonableness of all this, put the cork into the big bottle which holds the north wind, telegraphed to the celestial charwoman to sweep all the clouds away for the present into the corner, where she could use them for a thunderstorm, say in a week's time, and gave orders that the sun should be cleaned up at once and turned on full. So July thanked them, took off her hat, for the southerly breeze was pleasant in the shade, and sat down to watch what would happen. Her seat was among the heather and pine woods of the Sussex wold, where pleasant houses nestle on the hillside, and from the gardens one may step straight on to the heathery ridges of Ashdown Forest, where, mingled with the purple, lie patches of gorse, like patches of sunlight, and to the south rises the long line of the downs.
It was about three o'clock of a broiling afternoon, and two young men were lying on the grass, beneath the shade of the shrubbery that bounded the lawn. Two golf-bags were cast on the grass beside them, and beyond the line of shadow lay the croquet-ground, on a piece of perfect turf, set out in no hap-hazard fashion, but with absolute precision of line, while the hoops themselves were of paralyzing narrowness. Beyond again was a tennis-court of the same business-like aspect, while the lines of physical fitness in the lounging figures and the clear, sun-burned faces would seem to indicate a similar probable precision in their performances. One had in front of him a small piece of paper on which he had jotted down a word or two, and for the moment there was silence.
"That's settled then," he said, "and you, Margery and I begin with a threesome at golf to-morrow. We'll start at ten, and shall have finished at twelve. Pea-rifle till lunch. After lunch, croquet, ten minutes limit, then tennis. Golly, how hot we shall be. And what's the fifth event, Dick?"
Dick sat up.
"I promised Margery she should settle the fifth event," he said. "I expect she'll say putting on the lawn, in which case, you and I, my poor man, will take exceedingly back seats. I don't think putting is a fair event. Margery knows the lawn. However, she ought to be pretty tired by then. Jack, why is she such an infernally good putter?"
"The Lord knows. So do I, really. She thinks they are all going down. So most of them do."
"Well, I think that. Only most of them don't."
"When does she come?" asked Jack.
"Dinner train. We might ride over to the station and meet her. And this evening it will be just you and she and I. Mother can't come till to-morrow."
Jack sat up.
"Oh, I say, is that all right, do you think?" he asked. "I mean ought we to get some sort of silly chaperon?"
"Why on earth?" he asked. "Margery knows we shall be alone; in fact she persuaded my mother not to come down till to-morrow, for that very reason. That's the best of Margery; she has no silly little ideas of that kind. Besides I'm her second cousin.
Jack was silent a moment.
"Oh, if Margery knows, of course it's all right," he said. "I only thought it wouldn't do to spring it on her. You see you are an eligible young man, Dick, and she's an eligible young woman, and I'm—well, I'm the third in the alliance of laughter."
The second ally lay back again on the grass.
"Stuffy, pokey, dark, hot, stupid, fusty, smelly London," he said, with a pause for thought between each epithet. "Why in the name of all that's nice do people go there? I went to a dance last night, Jack, at least it was a dance I was asked to. Dance! There was a room, about as big as the dining-room here with two hundred people in it. The stairs were blocked, the passage was blocked, the ball-room was blocked, the square outside was blocked, the candles bent over and showered grease on you, and everyone was going on somewhere else afterward. To-night we'll dance on the lawn among the croquet hoops. At least Margy and I will dance, and you'll sit among the wall-flowers."
"Very amusing," said Jack. "But I went one worse. I went to a crush—took my sister there—it was a crush. That's all. Oh, it's good here. A whole week, with nothing whatever to do. The alliance of laughter hasn't met since before South Africa, at least not properly, all by themselves. I say, Dick, someone asked me the other day if I was engaged to Margy. I just stared in the man's face. Then I laughed. Then I told Margery. Then we both laughed together. Hullo, I heard wheels. Who can it be?"
Dick sat up gently with a face of apprehensive dismay.
"Hush," he said. "It must be a caller. We'll get into the shrubbery."
With infinite precaution the two stole among the trees till they were out of sight, and awaited the outcome of this portentous event. But they were scarcely hidden when their names were loudly called, and through the open French window of the drawing-room a girl came quickly out.
"Dick—Jack," she cried. "Where are you both?"
The shrubs quickly divided themselves, and the two rushed out.
"Oh, how nice!" cried Margery. "Dear Dick, you are ruddier than the cherry, and Jack, your nose is peeling. Yes, it's me. I caught an earlier train. Isn't it too heavenly? And I borrowed a sovereign of the station master at Charing Cross, because I hadn't a penny, and I shall certainly forget to pay him back. Are station-masters rich? I think they must be. And they are all furious with me at home, because there's a dinner-party to-night and I wouldn't stop, and mother said it was most improper my coming down here alone, so I said, 'Nonsense, you old darling,' and left it to sink in. Oh, oh, how nice it is to be here, you old angels. And I must take my hat off at once."
She unpinned her hat and dropped it on the grass, took up a golf club and swung it, took up a croquet mallet and hit a ball into the bushes.
"Dick, that angel-mother of yours isn't coming down till the day after to-morrow," she said. "She really is a very nice woman. I told her so, and said I loved her very much—but I loved you more. Upon which she suggested that she would be de trop here, and I told her she had a very keen grasp of the obvious. So she's not coming down till Saturday, but she must then, as she has some other people."
"Didn't you suggest she should put them off?" asked Dick.
"Yes, but she wouldn't. I thought that was just a shade selfish of her. particularly as Jack was here too, and he doesn't like people. You make a mistake there, Jack, people are very nice."
"I know—charming. Why didn't you get someone else to come down with you?"
"Because it wasn't my house. Anyhow, people are coming on Saturday, so we must make the best of the next two days."
So the alliance met, and worthily fulfilled its office. The three had known each other for years, for Margery had been brought up, while her parents were in India, at the house of her cousin Dick Taylor, while the home of the third ally. Jack Arkwright, had, till a couple of years ago, lain on the other side of the boundary fence behind the shrubbery of the garden where the three now walked. But two years ago the place had been sold on his father's death, and the territory of the alliance had been narrowed. Thus from the days of school where the boys had been together first at Eton, then at Sandhurst, returning for the holidays to find Margery waiting eagerly for the games and laughter which filled the days, the three had grown up equals in age, and comrades together without a break. Till then, at any rate, all had retained to a somewhat unusual extent the absolute insouciance of childhood, taking each day exactly as it came, utterly ignorant of the deeper and tenderer needs which come soon or late to all men and women. The hours had been taken up with games, and for years the two boys, whenever they met, had arranged some series of sports against each other. Into these Margery, with due allowance for her sex, had at first been grudgingly admitted, for the male animal feels, naturally, a healthy contempt for the athletic possibilities of the female, but soon her matchless enthusiasm won respect, and now, at their first intimate meeting after the two years of separation, a programme for the next day had been at once arranged. The united ages of the three, it may be added, were at the present time, sixty-four years, of which the boys owned twenty-two each, the girl the remainder.
Next morning accordingly the three started off early for the links. The powers of the air were royally fulfilling their bargain with July, and it would seem as if the malignance that is wont to lurk in inanimate objects such as golf-balls lay for the time asleep, and the match grew in excitement and abated not in merriment as it advanced. The two men played level against each other, and gave Margery a half, and they reached the eighteenth green without any of the matches being yet decided. Then came a moment.
The balls of the two, Jack and Dick, lay within about a yard of the hole, and Margery had a ten-yard put to win the match from each. She looked at it for some time, standing with her back to the sun, so that the outliers of her brown hair were flushed and gilded with it, and her eyes, very blue and vivid with thought, were intent on the line to the hole. Her mouth was a little drooped and the white line of her teeth showed below her lip. Suddenly she said:
"Yes, I see," and putted.
The ball travelled smoothly over the close-mown turf, and she threw her arms wide.
"It is going in!" she cried. "What a darling!" and as the ball dropped into the hole she looked up at Jack. Then something caught in his breath, and it was no longer the Margery that he had known so long who stood there, but She. She who was completeness and perfection. Woman to him the Man.
Thus she won from them both, then Dick putted and holed out, and in turn Jack putted, missed it, and lost to both.
"Jack, you're too careless for words," said she. "You've lost to us both. And I've won from you both. How heavenly! I love winning. Now it's pea-rifle, isn't it?"
But the discovery that Jack had made did not break up or in any way impair the alliance of laughter, for love takes every man according to his nature, and that which he had discovered but vivified and made more intense his part in the companionship which he had always enjoyed, but now ranked higher than the pleasures of a king. Soon, no doubt, would come the questionings and yearnings, the dumb desire to speak, the myriad heartburnings and fears, but as yet and for a few more days to come everything was shot to him with more brilliant color, and his heart sang to him. Then, on the fourth day after, Margery was suddenly called to London for the day, and on the instant of her departure the troubles of love awoke in him.
The day was unreasonably hot, and promised thunder: a leaden sky brooded low, and the sunless air was of an intolerable heaviness. But on Dick, who for the most part was liable to the disturbances of the heavens, this great heaviness seemed not to weigh at all. At lunch, after Margery's departure and the departure of those guests who had come down for the Sunday, he talked with the most surprising extravagance; afterward he and Jack went out on to the open heath, for the garden, shut in by trees, was stagnant and oppressive, to catch what breeze there might be.
Dick threw himself down on the heather.
"Whew! It is hot," he said. "I pity Margery in London. Why even here——"
Then suddenly he stopped, and, plucking a handful of grass stalks, began to clean out the stem of his pipe with curious solicitude. Jack, lying by him, smoked steadily, and an unusual silence fell.
Jack did not ask him what he had to say about "even here," and his thoughts were busy at Charing Cross Station, where Margery probably was at this moment, for her train back started in five minutes.
Then Dick threw away the last of his pipe-cleaners and sat up.
"Look here," he said. "I've something to tell you. There's no doubt about it. I've fallen in love."
Jack's mouth was, as he spoke, puckered up to blow tobacco-smoke over an ant that was coming closer than he wished, but at these words it slackened again, and the smoke was spilt aimlessly into the hot air.
"Yes—Margery, of course," continued the other. "My God!"
He paused a moment and looked at Jack.
"What's the matter?" he asked, with a sudden, sharp anxiety in his voice. "You look queer, somehow."
"Dick, are you sure?" asked the other.
"Sure you look queer?"
"No, sure that you are in love with Margery."
"Sure? You'll be sure enough when anything of the sort happens to you. It's queer how long that's been coming to either of us, Jack. Other fellows catch it earlier, but we've fooled along hitherto without. But when it comes there's no mistake about it. Why, Margery is just the whole point of everything now."
Jack rolled over on the heather, and let his arm lie across his eyes.
"She has been that to me," he said, "for the last four days. We're in the same boat, Dick."
This time it was Dick who paused.
"God forgive us all!" he said.
Then he got up quickly.
"Come away," he said. "I don't like this place. It's stifling here."
He held out his hand to help Jack up and kept it in his for a moment.
"I say, Jack," he said. "Whatever happens, we'll behave decently, won't we?"
"We'll have a shot to," said he. "And what now?"
"Time to go in to meet Margery. We'll talk it over to-night. Let it simmer a bit first—we're—we're in a queer place, you know."
So they rode through the reeling heat to the station, found the train already in, and Margery on the platform looking for all the oppression of the day like a nymph of Grecian waterways. The eyes of the two dwelt thirstily on her, but they avoided meeting each other's glances, for love was in the balance, and they both were friends.
That evening, when the rest had gone to bed, the two went up to Dick's room and sat long by the open window, speaking in short sentences and with long pauses. A great bank of cloud had risen in the west, and from time to time the fires of lightning flickered in it, and a drone of distant thunder answered. Before long they had to shut the window, for the storm burst overhead in appalling riot and slanting hues of tepid rain, and at the end the moon came out in a clear heaven, with the stars clustering round her, while to the east the sky grew dove-colored with the earliest hint of dawn.
At last Jack rose.
"It remains then just to toss," said he, and spun a coin.
"Heads," said Dick.
"Heads it is. You speak to Margy first."
Dick got up too, irresolute, and they looked at each other gravely, rivals in that which makes life sweet, but friends. And that makes life sweet also.
"And whatever happens. Jack," said he, "we promise to do our best not to let—not to let it spoil all that has been, and all that may yet be. We've no idea, neither you nor I, what the result will be. Anyhow, it mustn't get between us."
"Yes. Time to go to bed, Dick; nearly time to get up too. By the way, let it be soon. For God's sake let it be soon."
Dick's face lit up with the unimaginable light of love.
"Yes, to-morrow, to-day," he said.
So the days of child's play were over for the alliance of laughter, for out of laughter had been born love.
The morning was still young and dewy when Dick went out into the garden and Margery was already there. Soon he returned, and went straight to Jack's room, who was still not fully dressed, and as he looked up he knew.
"So it is you," he said, and stopped—then the friendship of years strengthened him. "Oh, make her happy, Dick," he said.