Uneasy Money/Chapter 16
In the interesting land of India, where snakes abound and scorpions are common objects of the wayside, a native who has had the misfortune to be bitten by one of the latter pursues an admirably common-sense plan. He does not stop to lament, nor does he hang about analysing his emotions. He runs and runs and runs, and keeps on running until he has worked the poison out of his system. Not until then does he attempt introspection.
Lord Dawlish, though ignorant of this fact, pursued almost identically the same policy. He did not run on leaving Lady Wetherby's house, but he took a very long and very rapid walk, than which in times of stress there are few things of greater medicinal value to the human mind. To increase the similarity, he was conscious of a curious sense of being poisoned. He felt stifled—in want of air.
Bill was a simple young man, and he had a simple code of ethics. Above all things he prized and admired and demanded from his friends the quality of straightness. It was his one demand. He had never actually had a criminal friend, but he was quite capable of intimacy with even a criminal, provided only that there was something spacious about his brand of crime and that it did not involve anything mean or underhand. It was the fact that Mr Breitstein whom Claire had wished him to insinuate into his club, though acquitted of actual crime, had been proved guilty of meanness and treachery, that had so prejudiced Bill against him. The worst accusation that he could bring against a man was that he was not square, that he had not played the game.
Claire had not been square. It was that, more than the shock of surprise of Lady Wetherby's news, that had sent him striding along the State Road at the rate of five miles an hour, staring before him with unseeing eyes. A sudden recollection of their last interview brought a dull flush to Bill's face and accelerated his speed. He felt physically ill.
It was not immediately that he had arrived at even this sketchy outline of his feelings. For perhaps a mile he walked as the scorpion-stung natives run—blindly, wildly, with nothing in his mind but a desire to walk faster and faster, to walk as no man had ever walked before. And then—one does not wish to be unduly realistic, but the fact is too important to be ignored—he began to perspire. And hard upon that unrefined but wonder-working flow came a certain healing of spirit. Dimly at first but every moment more clearly, he found it possible to think.
In a man of Bill's temperament there are so many qualities wounded by a blow such as he had received, that it is hardly surprising that his emotions, when he began to examine them, were mixed. Now one, now another, of his wounds presented itself to his notice. And then individual wounds would become difficult to distinguish in the mass of injuries. Spiritually, he was in the position of a man who has been hit simultaneously in a number of sensitive spots by a variety of hard and hurtful things. He was as little able, during the early stages of his meditations, to say where he was hurt most as a man who had been stabbed in the back, bitten in the ankle, hit in the eye, smitten with a blackjack, and kicked on the shin in the same moment of time. All that such a man would be able to say with certainty would be that unpleasant things had happened to him; and that was all that Bill was able to say.
Little by little, walking swiftly the while, he began to make a rough inventory. He sorted out his injuries, catalogued them. It was perhaps his self-esteem that had suffered least of all, for he was by nature modest. He had a savage humility, valuable in a crisis of this sort.
But he looked up to Claire. He had thought her straight. And all the time that she had been saying those things to him that night of their last meeting she had been engaged to another man, a fat, bald, doddering, senile fool, whose only merit was his money. Scarcely a fair description of Mr Pickering, but in a man in Bill's position a little bias is excusable.
Bill walked on. He felt as if he could walk for ever. Automobiles whirred past, hooting peevishly, but he heeded them not. Dogs trotted out to exchange civilities, but he ignored them. The poison in his blood drove him on.
And then quite suddenly and unexpectedly the fever passed. Almost in mid-stride he became another man, a healed, sane man, keenly aware of a very vivid thirst and a desire to sit down and rest before attempting the ten miles of cement road that lay between him and home. Half an hour at a wayside inn completed the cure. It was a weary but clear-headed Bill who trudged back through the gathering dusk.
He found himself thinking of Claire as of someone he had known long ago, someone who had never touched his life. She seemed so far away that he wondered how she could ever have affected him for pain or pleasure. He looked at her across a chasm. This is the real difference between love and infatuation, that infatuation can be slain cleanly with a single blow. In the hour of clear vision which had come to him, Bill saw that he had never loved Claire. It was her beauty that had held him, that and the appeal which her circumstances had made to his pity. Their minds had not run smoothly together. Always there had been something that jarred, a subtle antagonism. And she was crooked.
Almost unconsciously his mind began to build up an image of the ideal girl, the girl he would have liked Claire to be, the girl who would conform to all that he demanded of woman. She would be brave. He realized now that, even though it had moved his pity, Claire's querulousness had offended something in him.
He had made allowances for her, but the ideal girl would have had no need of allowances. The ideal girl would be plucky, cheerfully valiant, a fighter. She would not admit the existence of hard luck.
She would be honest. Here, too, she would have no need of allowances. No temptation would be strong enough to make her do a mean act or think a mean thought, for her courage would give her strength, and her strength would make her proof against temptation. She would be kind. That was because she would also be extremely intelligent, and, being extremely intelligent, would have need of kindness to enable her to bear with a not very intelligent man like himself. For the rest, she would be small and alert and pretty, and fair haired—and brown-eyed—and she would keep a bee farm and her name would be Elizabeth Boyd.
Having arrived with a sense of mild astonishment at this conclusion, Bill found, also to his surprise, that he had walked ten miles without knowing it and that he was turning in at the farm gate. Somebody came down the drive, and he saw that it was Elizabeth.
She hurried to meet him, small and shadowy in the uncertain light. James, the cat, stalked rheumatically at her side. She came up to Bill, and he saw that her face wore an anxious look. He gazed at her with a curious feeling that it was a very long time since he had seen her last.
'Where have you been?' she said, her voice troubled. 'I couldn't think what had become of you.'
'I went for a walk.'
'But you've been gone hours and hours.'
'I went to a place called Morrisville.'
'Morrisville!' Elizabeth's eyes opened wide. 'Have you walked twenty miles?'
'Why, I—I believe I have.'
It was the first time he had been really conscious of it. Elizabeth looked at him in consternation. Perhaps it was the association in her mind of unexpected walks with the newly-born activities of the repentant Nutty that gave her the feeling that there must be some mental upheaval on a large scale at the back of this sudden ebullition of long-distance pedestrianism. She remembered that the thought had come to her once or twice during the past week that all was not well with her visitor, and that he had seemed downcast and out of spirits.
'Is anything the matter, Mr Chalmers?'
'No,' said Bill, decidedly. He would have found a difficulty in making that answer with any ring of conviction earlier in the day, but now it was different. There was nothing whatever the matter with him now. He had never felt happier.
'Absolutely. I feel fine.'
'I thought—I've been thinking for some days—that you might be in trouble of some sort.'
Bill swiftly added another to that list of qualities which he had been framing on his homeward journey. That girl of his would be angelically sympathetic.
'It's awfully good of you,' he said, 'but honestly I feel like—I feel great.'
The little troubled look passed from Elizabeth's face. Her eyes twinkled.
'You're really feeling happy?'
'Then let me damp you. We're in an awful fix!'
'What! In what way?'
'About the monkey.'
'Has he escaped?'
'That's the trouble—he hasn't.'
'I don't understand.'
'Come and sit down and I'll tell you. It's a shame to keep you standing after your walk.'
They made their way to the massive stone seat which Mr Flack, the landlord, had bought at a sale and dumped in a moment of exuberance on the farm grounds.
'This is the most hideous thing on earth,' said Elizabeth casually, 'but it will do to sit on. Now tell me: why did you go to Lady Wetherby's this afternoon?'
It was all so remote, it seemed so long ago that he had wanted to find an excuse for meeting Claire again, that for a moment Bill hesitated in actual perplexity, and before he could speak Elizabeth had answered the question for him.
'I suppose you went out of kindness of heart to relieve the poor lady's mind,' she said. 'But you certainly did the wrong thing. You started something!'
'I didn't tell her the animal was here.'
'What did you tell her?'
'I said I had seen it, don't you know.'
'That was enough.'
'I'm awfully sorry.'
'Oh, we shall pull through all right, but we must act at once. We must be swift and resolute. We must saddle our chargers and up and away, and all that sort of thing. Show a flash of speed,' she explained kindly, at the sight of Bill's bewildered face.
'But what has happened?'
'The press is on our trail. I've been interviewing reporters all the afternoon.'
'Millions of them. The place is alive with them. Keen, hatchet-faced young men, and every one of them was the man who really unravelled some murder mystery or other, though the police got the credit for it. They told me so.'
'But, I say, how on earth—'
'—did they get here? I suppose Lady Wetherby invited them,'
'She wants the advertisement, of course. I know it doesn't sound sensational—a lost monkey; but when it's a celebrity's lost monkey it makes a difference. Suppose King George had lost a monkey; wouldn't your London newspapers give it a good deal of space? Especially if it had thrown eggs at one of the ladies and bitten the Duke of Norfolk in the leg? That's what our visitor has been doing apparently. At least, he threw eggs at the scullery-maid and bit a millionaire. It's practically the same thing. At any rate, there it is. The newspaper men are here, and they seem to regard this farm as their centre of operations. I had the greatest difficulty in inducing them to go home to their well-earned dinners. They wanted to camp out on the place. As it is, there may still be some of them round, hiding in the grass with notebooks, and telling one another in whispers that they were the men who really solved the murder mystery. What shall we do?'
Bill had no suggestions.
'You realize our position? I wonder if we could be arrested for kidnapping. The monkey is far more human than most of the millionaire children who get kidnapped. It's an awful fix. Did you know that Lady Wetherby is going to offer a reward for the animal?'
'Five hundred dollars!'
'She is. I suppose she feels she can charge it up to necessary expenses for publicity and still be ahead of the game, taking into account the advertising she's going to get.'
'She said nothing about that when I saw her.'
'No, because it won't be offered until to-morrow or the day after. One of the newspaper men told me that. The idea is, of course, to make the thing exciting just when it would otherwise be dying as a news item. Cumulative interest. It's a good scheme, too, but it makes it very awkward for me. I don't want to be in the position of keeping a monkey locked up with the idea of waiting until somebody starts a bull market in monkeys. I consider that that sort of thing would stain the spotless escutcheon of the Boyds. It would be a low trick for that old-established family to play. Not but what poor, dear Nutty would do it like a shot,' she concluded meditatively.
Bill was impressed.
'It does make it awkward, what?'
'It makes it more than awkward, what! Take another aspect of the situation. The night before last my precious Nutty, while ruining his constitution with the demon rum, thought he saw a monkey that wasn't there, and instantly resolved to lead a new and better life. He hates walking, but he has now begun to do his five miles a day. He loathes cold baths, but he now wallows in them. I don't know his views on Indian clubs, but I should think that he has a strong prejudice against them, too, but now you can't go near him without taking a chance of being brained. Are all these good things to stop as quickly as they began? If I know Nutty, he would drop them exactly one minute after he heard that it was a real monkey he saw that night. And how are we to prevent his hearing? By a merciful miracle he was out taking his walk when the newspaper men began to infest the place to-day, but that might not happen another time. What conclusion does all this suggest to you, Mr Chalmers?'
'We ought to get rid of the animal.'
'This very minute. But don't you bother to come. You must be tired out, poor thing.'
'I never felt less tired,' said Bill stoutly.
Elizabeth looked at him in silence for a moment.
'You're rather splendid, you know, Mr Chalmers. You make a great partner for an adventure of this kind. You're nice and solid.'
The outhouse lay in the neighbourhood of the hives, a gaunt, wooden structure surrounded by bushes. Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder as she drew the key from her pocket.
'You can't think how nervous I was this afternoon,' she said. 'I thought every moment one of those newspaper men would look in here. I—James! James! I thought I heard James in those bushes—I kept heading them away. Once I thought it was all up.' She unlocked the door. 'One of them was about a yard from the window, just going to look in. Thank goodness, a bee stung him at the psychological moment, and—Oh!'
'What's the matter?'
'Come and get a banana.'
They walked to the house. On the way Elizabeth stopped.
'Why, you haven't had any dinner either!' she said.
'Never mind me,' said Bill, 'I can wait. Let's get this thing finished first.'
'You really are a sport, Mr Chalmers,' said Elizabeth gratefully. 'It would kill me to wait a minute. I shan't feel happy until I've got it over. Will you stay here while I go up and see that Nutty's safe in his room?' she added as they entered the house.
She stopped abruptly. A feline howl had broken the stillness of the night, followed instantly by a sharp report.
'What was that?'
'It sounded like a car backfiring.'
'No, it was a shot. One of the neighbours, I expect. You can hear miles away on a night like this. I suppose a cat was after his chickens. Thank goodness, James isn't a pirate cat. Wait while I go up and see Nutty.'
She was gone only a moment.
'It's all right,' she said. 'I peeped in. He's doing deep breathing exercises at his window which looks out the other way. Come along.'
When they reached the outhouse they found the door open.
'Did you do that?' said Elizabeth. 'Did you leave it open?'
'I don't remember doing it myself. It must have swung open. Well, this saves us a walk. He'll have gone.'
'Better take a look round, what?'
'Yes, I suppose so; but he's sure not to be there. Have you a match?'
Bill struck one and held it up.
The match went out.
'What is it? What has happened?'
Bill was fumbling for another match.
'There's something on the floor. It looks like—I thought for a minute—' The small flame shot out of the gloom, flickered, then burned with a steady glow. Bill stooped, bending over something on the ground. The match burned down.
Bill's voice came out of the darkness:
'I say, you were right about that noise. It was a shot. The poor little chap's down there on the floor with a hole in him the size of my fist.'