Uneasy Money/Chapter 13
Lady Wetherby sat in her room, writing letters. The rest of the household were variously employed. Roscoe Sherriff was prowling about the house, brooding on campaigns of publicity. Dudley Pickering was walking in the grounds with Claire. In a little shack in the woods that adjoined the high-road, which he had converted into a temporary studio, Lord Wetherby was working on a picture which he proposed to call 'Innocence', a study of a small Italian child he had discovered in Washington Square. Lady Wetherby, who had been taken to see the picture, had suggested 'The Black Hand's Newest Recruit' as a better title than the one selected by the artist.
It is a fact to be noted that of the entire household only Lady Wetherby could fairly be described as happy. It took very little to make Lady Wetherby happy. Fine weather, good food, and a complete abstention from classical dancing—give her these and she asked no more. She was, moreover, delighted at Claire's engagement. It seemed to her, for she had no knowledge of the existence of Lord Dawlish, a genuine manifestation of Love's Young Dream. She liked Dudley Pickering and she was devoted to Claire. It made her happy to think that it was she who had brought them together.
But of the other members of the party, Dudley Pickering was unhappy because he feared that burglars were about to raid the house; Roscoe Sherriff because he feared they were not; Claire because, now that the news of the engagement was out, it seemed to be everybody's aim to leave her alone with Mr Pickering, whose undiluted society tended to pall. And Lord Wetherby was unhappy because he found Eustace, the monkey, a perpetual strain upon his artistic nerves. It was Eustace who had driven him to his shack in the woods. He could have painted far more comfortably in the house, but Eustace had developed a habit of stealing up to him and plucking the leg of his trousers; and an artist simply cannot give of his best with that sort of thing going on.
Lady Wetherby wrote on. She was not fond of letter-writing and she had allowed her correspondence to accumulate; but she was disposing of it in an energetic and conscientious way, when the entrance of Wrench, the butler, interrupted her.
Wrench had been imported from England at the request of Lord Wetherby, who had said that it soothed him and kept him from feeling home-sick to see a butler about the place. Since then he had been hanging to the establishment as it were by a hair. He gave the impression of being always on the point of giving notice. There were so many things connected with his position of which he disapproved. He had made no official pronouncement of the matter, but Lady Wetherby knew that he disapproved of her classical dancing. His last position had been with the Dowager Duchess of Waveney, the well-known political hostess, who—even had the somewhat generous lines on which she was built not prevented the possibility of such a thing—would have perished rather than dance barefooted in a public restaurant. Wrench also disapproved of America. That fact had been made plain immediately upon his arrival in the country. He had given America one look, and then his mind was made up—he disapproved of it.
'If you please, m'lady!'
Lady Wetherby turned. The butler was looking even more than usually disapproving, and his disapproval had, so to speak, crystallized, as if it had found some more concrete and definite objective than either barefoot dancing or the United States.
'If you please, m'lady—the hape!'
It was Wrench's custom to speak of Eustace in a tone of restrained disgust. He disapproved of Eustace. The Dowager Duchess of Waveney, though she kept open house for members of Parliament, would have drawn the line at monkeys.
'The hape is behaving very strange, m'lady,' said Wrench, frostily.
It has been well said that in this world there is always something. A moment before, Lady Wetherby had been feeling completely contented, without a care on her horizon. It was foolish of her to have expected such a state of things to last, for what is life but a series of sharp corners, round each of which Fate lies in wait for us with a stuffed eel-skin? Something in the butler's manner, a sort of gloating gloom which he radiated, told her that she had arrived at one of these corners now.
'The hape is seated on the kitchen-sink, m'lady, throwing new-laid eggs at the scullery-maid, and cook desired me to step up and ask for instructions.'
'What!' Lady Wetherby rose in agitation. 'What's he doing that for?' she asked, weakly.
A slight, dignified gesture was Wrench's only reply. It was not his place to analyse the motives of monkeys.
The sight of Lady Wetherby's distress melted the butler's stern reserve. He unbent so far as to supply a clue.
'As I understand from cook, m'lady, the animal appears to have taken umbrage at a lack of cordiality on the part of the cat. It seems that the hape attempted to fondle the cat, but the latter scratched him; being suspicious,' said Wrench, 'of his bona fides.' He scrutinized the ceiling with a dull eye. 'Whereupon,' he continued, 'he seized her tail and threw her with considerable force. He then removed himself to the sink and began to hurl eggs at the scullery-maid.'
Lady Wetherby's mental eye attempted to produce a picture of the scene, but failed.
'I suppose I had better go down and see about it,' she said.
Wrench withdrew his gaze from the ceiling.
'I think it would be advisable, m'lady. The scullery-maid is already in hysterics.'
Lady Wetherby led the way to the kitchen. She was wroth with Eustace. This was just the sort of thing out of which Algie would be able to make unlimited capital. It weakened her position with Algie. There was only one thing to do—she must hush it up. Her first glance, however, at the actual theatre of war gave her the impression that matters had advanced beyond the hushing-up stage. A yellow desolation brooded over the kitchen. It was not so much a kitchen as an omelette. There were eggs everywhere, from floor to ceiling. She crunched her way in on a carpet of oozing shells.
Her entry was a signal for a renewal on a more impressive scale of the uproar that she had heard while opening the door. The air was full of voices. The cook was expressing herself in Norwegian, the parlour-maid in what appeared to be Erse. On a chair in a corner the scullery-maid sobbed and whooped. The odd-job man, who was a baseball enthusiast, was speaking in terms of high praise of Eustace's combined speed and control.
The only calm occupant of the room was Eustace himself, who, either through a shortage of ammunition or through weariness of the pitching-arm, had suspended active hostilities, and was now looking down on the scene from a high shelf. There was a brooding expression in his deep-set eyes. He massaged his right ear with the sole of his left foot in a somewhat distrait manner.
'Eustace!' cried Lady Wetherby, severely.
Eustace lowered his foot and gazed at her meditatively, then at the odd-job man, then at the scullery-maid, whose voice rose high above the din.
'I rather fancy, m'lady,' said Wrench, dispassionately, 'that the animal is about to hurl a plate.'
It had escaped the notice of those present that the shelf on which the rioter had taken refuge was within comfortable reach of the dresser, but Eustace himself had not overlooked this important strategic point. As the butler spoke, Eustace picked up a plate and threw it at the scullery-maid, whom he seemed definitely to have picked out as the most hostile of the allies. It was a fast inshoot, and hit the wall just above her head.
''At-a-boy!' said the odd-job man, reverently.
Lady Wetherby turned on him with some violence. His detached attitude was the most irritating of the many irritating aspects of the situation. She paid this man a weekly wage to do odd jobs. The capture of Eustace was essentially an odd job. Yet, instead of doing it, he hung about with the air of one who has paid his half-dollar and bought his bag of peanuts and has now nothing to do but look on and enjoy himself.
'Why don't you catch him?' she cried.
The odd-job man came out of his trance. A sudden realization came upon him that, and that if he did not wish to jeopardize a good situation he must bestir himself. Everybody was looking at him expectantly. It seemed to be definitely up to him. It was imperative that, whatever he did, he should do it quickly. There was an apron hanging over the back of a chair. More with the idea of doing something than because he thought he would achieve anything definite thereby, he picked up the apron and flung it at Eustace. Luck was with him. The apron enveloped Eustace just as he was winding up for another inshoot and was off his balance. He tripped and fell, clutched at the apron to save himself, and came to the ground swathed in it, giving the effect of an apron mysteriously endowed with life. The triumphant odd-job man, pressing his advantage like a good general, gathered up the ends, converted it into a rude bag, and one more was added to the long list of the victories of the human over the brute intelligence.
Everybody had a suggestion now. The cook advocated drowning. The parlour-maid favoured the idea of hitting the prisoner with a broom-handle. Wrench, eyeing the struggling apron disapprovingly, mentioned that Mr Pickering had bought a revolver that morning.
'Put him in the coal-cellar,' said Lady Wetherby.
Wrench was more far-seeing.
'If I might offer the warning, m'lady,' said Wrench, 'not the cellar. It is full of coal. It would be placing temptation in the animal's way.'
The odd-job man endorsed this.
'Put him in the garage, then,' said Lady Wetherby.
The odd-job man departed, bearing his heaving bag at arm's length. The cook and the parlour-maid addressed themselves to comforting and healing the scullery-maid. Wrench went off to polish silver, Lady Wetherby to resume her letters. The cat was the last of the party to return to the normal. She came down from the chimney an hour later covered with soot, demanding restoratives.
Lady Wetherby finished her letters. She cut them short, for Eustace's insurgence had interfered with her flow of ideas. She went into the drawing-room, where she found Roscoe Sherriff strumming on the piano.
'Eustace has been raising Cain,' she said.
The Press-agent looked up hopefully. He had been wearing a rather preoccupied air.
'How's that?' he asked.
'Throwing eggs and plates in the kitchen.'
The gleam of interest which had come into Roscoe Sherriff's face died out.
'You couldn't get more than a fill-in at the bottom of a column on that,' he said, regretfully. 'I'm a little disappointed in that monk. I hoped he would pan out bigger. Well, I guess we've just got to give him time. I have an idea that he'll set the house on fire or do something with a punch like that one of these days. You mustn't get discouraged. Why, that puma I made Valerie Devenish keep looked like a perfect failure for four whole months. A child could have played with it. Miss Devenish called me up on the phone, I remember, and said she was darned if she was going to spend the rest of her life maintaining an animal that might as well be stuffed for all the liveliness it showed, and that she was going right out to buy a white mouse instead. Fortunately, I talked her round.
'A few weeks later she came round and thanked me with tears in her eyes. The puma had suddenly struck real mid-season form. It clawed the elevator-boy, bit a postman, held up the traffic for miles, and was finally shot by a policeman. Why, for the next few days there was nothing in the papers at all but Miss Devenish and her puma. There was a war on at the time in Mexico or somewhere, and we had it backed off the front page so far that it was over before it could get back. So, you see, there's always hope. I've been nursing the papers with bits about Eustace, so as to be ready for the grand-stand play when it comes—and all we can do is to wait. It's something if he's been throwing eggs. It shows he's waking up.'
The door opened and Lord Wetherby entered. He looked fatigued. He sank into a chair and sighed.
'I cannot get it,' he said. 'It eludes me.'
He lapsed into a sombre silence.
'What can't you get?' said Lady Wetherby, cautiously.
'The expression—the expression I want to get into the child's eyes in my picture, "Innocence".'
'But you have got it.'
Lord Wetherby shook his head.
'Well, you had when I saw the picture,' persisted Lady Wetherby. 'This child you're painting has just joined the Black Hand. He has been rushed in young over the heads of the waiting list because his father had a pull. Naturally the kid wants to do something to justify his election, and he wants to do it quick. You have caught him at the moment when he sees an old gentleman coming down the street and realizes that he has only got to sneak up and stick his little knife—'
'My dear Polly, I welcome criticism, but this is more—'
Lady Wetherby stroked his coat-sleeve fondly.
'Never mind, Algie, I was only joking, precious. I thought the picture was coming along fine when you showed it to me. I'll come and take another look at it.'
Lord Wetherby shook his head.
'I should have a model. An artist cannot mirror Nature properly without a model. I wish you would invite that child down here.'
'No, Algie, there are limits. I wouldn't have him within a mile of the place.'
'Yet you keep Eustace.'
'Well, you made me engage Wrench. It's fifty-fifty. I wish you wouldn't keep picking on Eustace, Algie dear. He does no harm. Mr Sherriff and I were just saying how peaceable he is. He wouldn't hurt—'
Claire came in.
'Polly,' she said, 'did you put that monkey of yours in the garage? He's just bitten Dudley in the leg.'
Lord Wetherby uttered an exclamation.
'We went in just now to have a look at the car,' continued Claire. 'Dudley wanted to show me the commutator on the exhaust-box or the windscreen, or something, and he was just bending over when Eustace jumped out from nowhere and pinned him. I'm afraid he has taken it to heart rather.'
Roscoe Sherriff pondered.
'Is this worth half a column?' He shook his head. 'No, I'm afraid not. The public doesn't know Pickering. If it had been Charlie Chaplin or William J. Bryan, or someone on those lines, we could have had the papers bringing out extras. You can visualize William J. Bryan being bitten in the leg by a monkey. It hits you. But Pickering! Eustace might just as well have bitten the leg of the table!'
Lord Wetherby reasserted himself.
'Now that the animal has become a public menace—'
'He's nothing of the kind,' said Lady Wetherby. 'He's only a little upset to-day.'
'Do you mean, Pauline, that even after this you will not get rid of him?'
'Certainly not—poor dear!'
'Very well,' said Lord Wetherby, calmly. 'I give you warning that if he attacks me I shall defend myself.'
He brooded. Lady Wetherby turned to Claire.
'What happened then? Did you shut the door of the garage?'
'Yes, but not until Eustace had got away. He slipped out like a streak and disappeared. It was too dark to see which way he went.'
Dudley Pickering limped heavily into the room.
'I was just telling them about you and Eustace, Dudley.'
Mr Pickering nodded moodily. He was too full for words.
'I think Eustace must be mad,' said Claire.
Roscoe Sherriff uttered a cry of rapture.
'You've said it!' he exclaimed. 'I knew we should get action sooner or later. It's the puma over again. Now we are all right. Now I have something to work on. "Monkey Menaces Countryside." "Long Island Summer Colony in Panic." "Mad Monkey Bites One—"' A convulsive shudder galvanized Mr Pickering's portly frame.
'"Mad Monkey Terrorizes Long Island. One Dead!"' murmured Roscoe Sherriff, wistfully. 'Do you feel a sort of shooting, Pickering—a kind of burning sensation under the skin? Lady Wetherby, I guess I'll be getting some of the papers on the phone. We've got a big story.'
He hurried to the telephone, but it was some little time before he could use it. Dudley Pickering was in possession, talking earnestly to the local doctor.