Uneasy Money/Chapter 5
The village of Brookport, Long Island, is a summer place. It lives, like the mosquitoes that infest it, entirely on its summer visitors. At the time of the death of Mr Ira Nutcombe, the only all-the-year-round inhabitants were the butcher, the grocer, the chemist, the other customary fauna of villages, and Miss Elizabeth Boyd, who rented the ramshackle farm known locally as Flack's and eked out a precarious livelihood by keeping bees.
If you take down your Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume III, AUS to BIS, you will find that bees are a 'large and natural family of the zoological order Hymenoptera, characterized by the plumose form of many of their hairs, by the large size of the basal segment of the foot … and by the development of a "tongue" for sucking liquid food,' the last of which peculiarities, it is interesting to note, they shared with Claude Nutcombe Boyd, Elizabeth's brother, who for quite a long time—till his money ran out—had made liquid food almost his sole means of sustenance. These things, however, are by the way. We are not such snobs as to think better or worse of a bee because it can claim kinship with the Hymenoptera family, nor so ill-bred as to chaff it for having large feet. The really interesting passage in the article occurs later, where it says: 'The bee industry prospers greatly in America.'
This is one of those broad statements that invite challenge. Elizabeth Boyd would have challenged it. She had not prospered greatly. With considerable trouble she contrived to pay her way, and that was all.
Again referring to the 'Encyclopaedia,' we find the words: 'Before undertaking the management of a modern apiary, the beekeeper should possess a certain amount of aptitude for the pursuit.' This was possibly the trouble with Elizabeth's venture, considered from a commercial point of view. She loved bees, but she was not an expert on them. She had started her apiary with a small capital, a book of practical hints, and a second-hand queen, principally because she was in need of some occupation that would enable her to live in the country. It was the unfortunate condition of Claude Nutcombe which made life in the country a necessity. At that time he was spending the remains of the money left him by his aunt, and Elizabeth had hardly settled down at Brookport and got her venture under way when she found herself obliged to provide for Nutty a combination of home and sanatorium. It had been the poor lad's mistaken view that he could drink up all the alcoholic liquor in America.
It is a curious law of Nature that the most undeserving brothers always have the best sisters. Thrifty, plodding young men, who get up early, and do it now, and catch the employer's eye, and save half their salaries, have sisters who never speak civilly to them except when they want to borrow money. To the Claude Nutcombes of the world are vouchsafed the Elizabeths.
The great aim of Elizabeth's life was to make a new man of Nutty. It was her hope that the quiet life and soothing air of Brookport, with—unless you counted the money-in-the-slot musical box at the store—its absence of the fiercer excitements, might in time pull him together and unscramble his disordered nervous system. She liked to listen of a morning to the sound of Nutty busy in the next room with a broom and a dustpan, for in the simple lexicon of Flack's there was no such word as 'help'. The privy purse would not run to a maid. Elizabeth did the cooking and Claude Nutcombe the housework.
Several days after Claire Fenwick and Lord Dawlish, by different routes, had sailed from England, Elizabeth Boyd sat up in bed and shook her mane of hair from her eyes, yawning. Outside her window the birds were singing, and a shaft of sunlight intruded itself beneath the blind. But what definitely convinced her that it was time to get up was the plaintive note of James, the cat, patrolling the roof of the porch. An animal of regular habits, James always called for breakfast at eight-thirty sharp.
Elizabeth got out of bed, wrapped her small body in a pink kimono, thrust her small feet into a pair of blue slippers, yawned again, and went downstairs. Having taken last night's milk from the ice-box, she went to the back door, and, having filled James's saucer, stood on the grass beside it, sniffing the morning air.
Elizabeth Boyd was twenty-one, but standing there with her hair tumbling about her shoulders she might have been taken by a not-too-close observer for a child. It was only when you saw her eyes and the resolute tilt of the chin that you realized that she was a young woman very well able to take care of herself in a difficult world. Her hair was very fair, her eyes brown and very bright, and the contrast was extraordinarily piquant. They were valiant eyes, full of spirit; eyes, also, that saw the humour of things. And her mouth was the mouth of one who laughs easily. Her chin, small like the rest of her, was strong; and in the way she held herself there was a boyish jauntiness. She looked—and was—a capable little person.
She stood besides James like a sentinel, watching over him as he breakfasted. There was a puppy belonging to one of the neighbours who sometimes lumbered over and stole James's milk, disposing of it in greedy gulps while its rightful proprietor looked on with piteous helplessness. Elizabeth was fond of the puppy, but her sense of justice was keen and she was there to check this brigandage.
It was a perfect day, cloudless and still. There was peace in the air. James, having finished his milk, began to wash himself. A squirrel climbed cautiously down from a linden tree. From the orchard came the murmur of many bees.
Aesthetically Elizabeth was fond of still, cloudless days, but experience had taught her to suspect them. As was the custom in that locality, the water supply depended on a rickety windwheel. It was with a dark foreboding that she returned to the kitchen and turned on one of the taps. For perhaps three seconds a stream of the dimension of a darning-needle emerged, then with a sad gurgle the tap relapsed into a stolid inaction. There is no stolidity so utter as that of a waterless tap.
'Confound it!' said Elizabeth.
She passed through the dining-room to the foot of the stairs.
There was no reply.
'Nutty, my precious lamb!'
Upstairs in the room next to her own a long, spare form began to uncurl itself in bed; a face with a receding chin and a small forehead raised itself reluctantly from the pillow, and Claude Nutcombe Boyd signalized the fact that he was awake by scowling at the morning sun and uttering an aggrieved groan.
Alas, poor Nutty! This was he whom but yesterday Broadway had known as the Speed Kid, on whom head-waiters had smiled and lesser waiters fawned; whose snake-like form had nestled in so many a front-row orchestra stall.
Where were his lobster Newburgs now, his cold quarts that were wont to set the table in a roar?
Nutty Boyd conformed as nearly as a human being may to Euclid's definition of a straight line. He was length without breadth. From boyhood's early day he had sprouted like a weed, till now in the middle twenties he gave startled strangers the conviction that it only required a sharp gust of wind to snap him in half. Lying in bed, he looked more like a length of hose-pipe than anything else. While he was unwinding himself the door opened and Elizabeth came into the room.
'Good morning, Nutty!'
'What's the time?' asked her brother, hollowly.
'Getting on towards nine. It's a lovely day. The birds are singing, the bees are buzzing, summer's in the air. It's one of those beautiful, shiny, heavenly, gorgeous days.'
A look of suspicion came into Nutty's eyes. Elizabeth was not often as lyrical as this.
'There's a catch somewhere,' he said.
'Well, as a matter of fact,' said Elizabeth, carelessly, 'the water's off again.'
'I said that. I'm afraid we aren't a very original family.'
'What a ghastly place this is! Why can't you see old Flack and make him mend that infernal wheel?'
'I'm going to pounce on him and have another try directly I see him. Meanwhile, darling Nutty, will you get some clothes on and go round to the Smiths and ask them to lend us a pailful?'
'Oh, gosh, it's over a mile!'
'No, no, not more than three-quarters.'
'Lugging a pail that weighs a ton! The last time I went there their dog bit me.'
'I expect that was because you slunk in all doubled up, and he got suspicious. You should hold your head up and throw your chest out and stride up as if you were a military friend of the family.'
Self-pity lent Nutty eloquence.
'For Heaven's sake! You drag me out of bed at some awful hour of the morning when a rational person would just be turning in; you send me across country to fetch pailfuls of water when I'm feeling like a corpse; and on top of that you expect me to behave like a drum-major!'
'Dearest, you can wriggle on your tummy, if you like, so long as you get the fluid. We must have water. I can't fetch it. I'm a delicately-nurtured female.'
'We ought to have a man to do these ghastly jobs.'
'But we can't afford one. Just at present all I ask is to be able to pay expenses. And, as a matter of fact, you ought to be very thankful that you have got—'
'A roof over my head? I know. You needn't keep rubbing it in.'
'I wasn't going to say that at all. What a pig you are sometimes, Nutty. As if I wasn't only too glad to have you here. What I was going to say was that you ought to be very thankful that you have got to draw water and hew wood—'
A look of absolute alarm came into Nutty's pallid face.
'You don't mean to say that you want some wood chopped?'
'I was speaking figuratively. I meant hustle about and work in the open air. The sort of life you are leading now is what millionaires pay hundreds of dollars for at these physical-culture places. It has been the making of you.'
'I don't feel made.'
'Your nerves are ever so much better.'
Elizabeth looked at him in alarm.
'Oh, Nutty, you haven't been—seeing anything again, have you?'
'Not seeing, dreaming. I've been dreaming about monkeys. Why should I dream about monkeys if my nerves were all right?'
'I often dream about all sorts of queer things.'
'Have you ever dreamed that you were being chased up Broadway by a chimpanzee in evening dress?'
'Never mind, dear, you'll be quite all right again when you have been living this life down here a little longer.'
Nutty glared balefully at the ceiling.
'What's that darned thing up there on the ceiling? It looks like a hornet. How on earth do these things get into the house?'
'We ought to have nettings. I am going to pounce on Mr Flack about that too.'
'Thank goodness this isn't going to last much longer. It's nearly two weeks since Uncle Ira died. We ought to be hearing from the lawyers any day now. There might be a letter this morning.'
'Do you think he has left us his money?'
'Do I? Why, what else could he do with it? We are his only surviving relatives, aren't we? I've had to go through life with a ghastly name like Nutcombe as a compliment to him, haven't I? I wrote to him regularly at Christmas and on his birthday, didn't I? Well, then! I have a feeling there will be a letter from the lawyers to-day. I wish you would get dressed and go down to the post-office while I'm fetching that infernal water. I can't think why the fools haven't cabled. You would have supposed they would have thought of that.'
Elizabeth returned to her room to dress. She was conscious of a feeling that nothing was quite perfect in this world. It would be nice to have a great deal of money, for she had a scheme in her mind which called for a large capital; but she was sorry that it could come to her only through the death of her uncle, of whom, despite his somewhat forbidding personality, she had always been fond. She was also sorry that a large sum of money was coming to Nutty at that particular point in his career, just when there seemed the hope that the simple life might pull him together. She knew Nutty too well not to be able to forecast his probable behaviour under the influence of a sudden restoration of wealth.
While these thoughts were passing through her mind she happened to glance out of the window. Nutty was shambling through the garden with his pail, a bowed, shuffling pillar of gloom. As Elizabeth watched, he dropped the pail and lashed the air violently for a while. From her knowledge of bees ('It is needful to remember that bees resent outside interference and will resolutely defend themselves,' Encyc. Brit., Vol. III, AUS to BIS) Elizabeth deduced that one of her little pets was annoying him. This episode concluded, Nutty resumed his pail and the journey, and at this moment there appeared over the hedge the face of Mr John Prescott, a neighbour. Mr Prescott, who had dismounted from a bicycle, called to Nutty and waved something in the air. To a stranger the performance would have been obscure, but Elizabeth understood it. Mr Prescott was intimating that he had been down to the post-office for his own letters and, as was his neighbourly custom on these occasions, had brought back also letters for Flack's.
Nutty foregathered with Mr Prescott and took the letters from him. Mr Prescott disappeared. Nutty selected one of the letters and opened it. Then, having stood perfectly still for some moments, he suddenly turned and began to run towards the house.
The mere fact that her brother, whose usual mode of progression was a languid saunter, should be actually running, was enough to tell Elizabeth that the letter which Nutty had read was from the London lawyers. No other communication could have galvanized him into such energy. Whether the contents of the letter were good or bad it was impossible at that distance to say. But when she reached the open air, just as Nutty charged up, she saw by his face that it was anguish not joy that had spurred him on. He was gasping and he bubbled unintelligible words. His little eyes gleamed wildly.
'Nutty, darling, what is it?' cried Elizabeth, every maternal instinct in her aroused.
He was thrusting a sheet of paper at her, a sheet of paper that bore the superscription of Nichols, Nichols, Nichols, and Nichols, with a London address.
'Uncle Ira—' Nutty choked. 'Twenty pounds! He's left me twenty pounds, and all the rest to a—to a man named Dawlish!'
In silence Elizabeth took the letter. It was even as he had said. A few moments before Elizabeth had been regretting the imminent descent of wealth upon her brother. Now she was inconsistent enough to boil with rage at the shattering blow which had befallen him. That she, too, had lost her inheritance hardly occurred to her. Her thoughts were all for Nutty. It did not need the sight of him, gasping and gurgling before her, to tell her how overwhelming was his disappointment.
It was useless to be angry with the deceased Mr Nutcombe. He was too shadowy a mark. Besides, he was dead. The whole current of her wrath turned upon the supplanter, this Lord Dawlish. She pictured him as a crafty adventurer, a wretched fortune-hunter. For some reason or other she imagined him a sinister person with a black moustache, a face thin and hawk-like, and unpleasant eyes. That was the sort of man who would be likely to fasten his talons into poor Uncle Ira.
She had never hated any one in her life before, but as she stood there at that moment she felt that she loathed and detested William Lord Dawlish—unhappy, well-meaning Bill, who only a few hours back had set foot on American soil in his desire to nose round and see if something couldn't be arranged.
Nutty fetched the water. Life is like that. There is nothing clean-cut about it, no sense of form. Instead of being permitted to concentrate his attention on his tragedy Nutty had to trudge three-quarters of a mile, conciliate a bull-terrier, and trudge back again carrying a heavy pail. It was as if one of the heroes of Greek drama, in the middle of his big scene, had been asked to run round the corner to a provision store.
The exercise did not act as a restorative. The blow had been too sudden, too overwhelming. Nutty's reason—such as it was—tottered on its throne. Who was Lord Dawlish? What had he done to ingratiate himself with Uncle Ira? By what insidious means, with what devilish cunning, had he wormed his way into the old man's favour? These were the questions that vexed Nutty's mind when he was able to think at all coherently.
Back at the farm Elizabeth cooked breakfast and awaited her brother's return with a sinking heart. She was a soft-hearted girl, easily distressed by the sight of suffering; and she was aware that Nutty was scarcely of the type that masks its woes behind a brave and cheerful smile. Her heart bled for Nutty.
There was a weary step outside. Nutty entered, slopping water. One glance at his face was enough to tell Elizabeth that she had formed a too conservative estimate of his probable gloom. Without a word he coiled his long form in a chair. There was silence in the stricken house.
'What's the time?'
Elizabeth glanced at her watch.
'About now,' said Nutty, sepulchrally, 'the blighter is ringing for his man to prepare his bally bath and lay out his gold-leaf underwear. After that he will drive down to the bank and draw some of our money.'
The day passed wearily for Elizabeth. Nutty having the air of one who is still engaged in picking up the pieces, she had not the heart to ask him to play his customary part in the household duties, so she washed the dishes and made the beds herself. After that she attended to the bees. After that she cooked lunch.
Nutty was not chatty at lunch. Having observed 'About now the blighter is cursing the waiter for bringing the wrong brand of champagne,' he relapsed into a silence which he did not again break.
Elizabeth was busy again in the afternoon. At four o'clock, feeling tired out, she went to her room to lie down until the next of her cycle of domestic duties should come round.
It was late when she came downstairs, for she had fallen asleep. The sun had gone down. Bees were winging their way heavily back to the hives with their honey. She went out into the grounds to try to find Nutty. There had been no signs of him in the house. There were no signs of him about the grounds. It was not like him to have taken a walk, but it seemed the only possibility. She went back to the house to wait. Eight o'clock came, and nine, and it was then the truth dawned upon her—Nutty had escaped. He had slipped away and gone up to New York.