Uneasy Money/Chapter 7
There were two reasons why Lord Dawlish was unaware of Claire Fenwick's presence at Reigelheimer's Restaurant: Reigelheimer's is situated in a basement below a ten-storey building, and in order to prevent this edifice from falling into his patrons' soup the proprietor had been obliged to shore up his ceiling with massive pillars. One of these protruded itself between the table which Nutty had secured for his supper-party and the table at which Claire was sitting with her friend, Lady Wetherby, and her steamer acquaintance, Mr Dudley Pickering. That was why Bill had not seen Claire from where he sat; and the reason that he had not seen her when he left his seat and began to dance was that he was not one of your dancers who glance airily about them. When Bill danced he danced.
He would have been stunned with amazement if he had known that Claire was at Reigelheimer's that night. And yet it would have been remarkable, seeing that she was the guest of Lady Wetherby, if she had not been there. When you have travelled three thousand miles to enjoy the hospitality of a friend who does near-Greek dances at a popular restaurant, the least you can do is to go to the restaurant and watch her step. Claire had arrived with Polly Wetherby and Mr Dudley Pickering at about the time when Nutty, his gloom melting rapidly, was instructing the waiter to open the second bottle.
Of Claire's movements between the time when she secured her ticket at the steamship offices at Southampton and the moment when she entered Reigelheimer's Restaurant it is not necessary to give a detailed record. She had had the usual experiences of the ocean voyager. She had fed, read, and gone to bed. The only notable event in her trip had been her intimacy with Mr Dudley Pickering.
Dudley Pickering was a middle-aged Middle Westerner, who by thrift and industry had amassed a considerable fortune out of automobiles. Everybody spoke well of Dudley Pickering. The papers spoke well of him, Bradstreet spoke well of him, and he spoke well of himself. On board the liner he had poured the saga of his life into Claire's attentive ears, and there was a gentle sweetness in her manner which encouraged Mr Pickering mightily, for he had fallen in love with Claire on sight.
It would seem that a schoolgirl in these advanced days would know what to do when she found that a man worth millions was in love with her; yet there were factors in the situation which gave Claire pause. Lord Dawlish, of course, was one of them. She had not mentioned Lord Dawlish to Mr Pickering, and—doubtless lest the sight of it might pain him—she had abstained from wearing her engagement ring during the voyage. But she had not completely lost sight of the fact that she was engaged to Bill. Another thing that caused her to hesitate was the fact that Dudley Pickering, however wealthy, was a most colossal bore. As far as Claire could ascertain on their short acquaintance, he had but one subject of conversation—automobiles.
To Claire an automobile was a shiny thing with padded seats, in which you rode if you were lucky enough to know somebody who owned one. She had no wish to go more deeply into the matter. Dudley Pickering's attitude towards automobiles, on the other hand, more nearly resembled that of a surgeon towards the human body. To him a car was something to dissect, something with an interior both interesting to explore and fascinating to talk about. Claire listened with a radiant display of interest, but she had her doubts as to whether any amount of money would make it worth while to undergo this sort of thing for life. She was still in this hesitant frame of mind when she entered Reigelheimer's Restaurant, and it perturbed her that she could not come to some definite decision on Mr Pickering, for those subtle signs which every woman can recognize and interpret told her that the latter, having paved the way by talking machinery for a week, was about to boil over and speak of higher things.
At the very next opportunity, she was certain, he intended to propose.
The presence of Lady Wetherby acted as a temporary check on the development of the situation, but after they had been seated at their table a short time the lights of the restaurant were suddenly lowered, a coloured limelight became manifest near the roof, and classical music made itself heard from the fiddles in the orchestra.
You could tell it was classical, because the banjo players were leaning back and chewing gum; and in New York restaurants only death or a classical speciality can stop banjoists.
There was a spatter of applause, and Lady Wetherby rose.
'This,' she explained to Claire, 'is where I do my stunt. Watch it. I invented the steps myself. Classical stuff. It's called the Dream of Psyche.'
It was difficult for one who knew her as Claire did to associate Polly Wetherby with anything classical. On the road, in England, when they had been fellow-members of the Number Two company of The Heavenly Waltz, Polly had been remarkable chiefly for a fund of humorous anecdote and a gift, amounting almost to genius, for doing battle with militant landladies. And renewing their intimacy after a hiatus of a little less than a year Claire had found her unchanged.
It was a truculent affair, this Dream of Psyche. It was not so much dancing as shadow boxing. It began mildly enough to the accompaniment of pizzicato strains from the orchestra—Psyche in her training quarters. Rallentando—Psyche punching the bag. Diminuendo—Psyche using the medicine ball. Presto—Psyche doing road work. Forte—The night of the fight. And then things began to move to a climax. With the fiddles working themselves to the bone and the piano bounding under its persecutor's blows, Lady Wetherby ducked, side-stepped, rushed, and sprang, moving her arms in a manner that may have been classical Greek, but to the untrained eye looked much more like the last round of some open-air bout.
It was half-way through the exhibition, when you could smell the sawdust and hear the seconds shouting advice under the ropes, that Claire, who, never having seen anything in her life like this extraordinary performance, had been staring spellbound, awoke to the realization that Dudley Pickering was proposing to her. It required a woman's intuition to divine this fact, for Mr Pickering was not coherent. He did not go straight to the point. He rambled. But Claire understood, and it came to her that this thing had taken her before she was ready. In a brief while she would have to give an answer of some sort, and she had not clearly decided what answer she meant to give.
Then, while he was still skirting his subject, before he had wandered to what he really wished to say, the music stopped, the applause broke out again, and Lady Wetherby returned to the table like a pugilist seeking his corner at the end of a round. Her face was flushed and she was breathing hard.
'They pay me money for that!' she observed, genially. 'Can you beat it?'
The spell was broken. Mr Pickering sank back in his chair in a punctured manner. And Claire, making monosyllabic replies to her friend's remarks, was able to bend her mind to the task of finding out how she stood on this important Pickering issue. That he would return to the attack as soon as possible she knew; and the next time she must have her attitude clearly defined one way or the other.
Lady Wetherby, having got the Dance of Psyche out of her system, and replaced it with a glass of iced coffee, was inclined for conversation.
'Algie called me up on the phone this evening, Claire.'
Claire was examining Mr Pickering with furtive side glances. He was not handsome, nor, on the other hand, was he repulsive. 'Undistinguished' was the adjective that would have described him. He was inclined to stoutness, but not unpardonably so; his hair was thin, but he was not aggressively bald; his face was dull, but certainly not stupid. There was nothing in his outer man which his millions would not offset. As regarded his other qualities, his conversation was certainly not exhilarating. But that also was not, under certain conditions, an unforgivable thing. No, looking at the matter all round and weighing it with care, the real obstacle, Claire decided, was not any quality or lack of qualities in Dudley Pickering—it was Lord Dawlish and the simple fact that it would be extremely difficult, if she discarded him in favour of a richer man without any ostensible cause, to retain her self-respect.
'I think he's weakening.'
Yes, that was the crux of the matter. She wanted to retain her good opinion of herself. And in order to achieve that end it was essential that she find some excuse, however trivial, for breaking off the engagement.
A waiter approached the table.
The thwarted lover came to life with a start.
'A gentleman wishes to speak to you on the telephone.'
'Oh, yes. I was expecting a long-distance call, Lady Wetherby, and left word I would be here. Will you excuse me?'
Lady Wetherby watched him as he bustled across the room.
'What do you think of him, Claire?'
'Mr Pickering? I think he's very nice.'
'He admires you frantically. I hoped he would. That's why I wanted you to come over on the same ship with him.'
'Polly! I had no notion you were such a schemer.'
'I would just love to see you two fix it up,' continued Lady Wetherby, earnestly. 'He may not be what you might call a genius, but he's a darned good sort; and all his millions help, don't they? You don't want to overlook these millions, Claire!'
'I do like Mr Pickering.'
'Claire, he asked me if you were engaged.'
'When I told him you weren't, he beamed. Honestly, you've only got to lift your little finger and—Oh, good Lord, there's Algie!'
Claire looked up. A dapper, trim little man of about forty was threading his way among the tables in their direction. It was a year since Claire had seen Lord Wetherby, but she recognized him at once. He had a red, weather-beaten face with a suspicion of side-whiskers, small, pink-rimmed eyes with sandy eyebrows, the smoothest of sandy hair, and a chin so cleanly shaven that it was difficult to believe that hair had ever grown there. Although his evening-dress was perfect in every detail, he conveyed a subtle suggestion of horsiness. He reached the table and sat down without invitation in the vacant chair.
'Pauline!' he said, sorrowfully.
'Algie!' said Lady Wetherby, tensely. 'I don't know what you've come here for, and I don't remember asking you to sit down and put your elbows on that table, but I want to begin by saying that I will not be called Pauline. My name's Polly. You've got a way of saying Pauline, as if it were a gentlemanly cuss-word, that makes me want to scream. And while you're about it, why don't you say how-d'you-do to Claire? You ought to remember her, she was my bridesmaid.'
'How do you do, Miss Fenwick. Of course, I remember you perfectly. I'm glad to see you again.'
'And now, Algie, what is it? Why have you come here?' Lord Wetherby looked doubtfully at Claire. 'Oh, that's all right,' said Lady Wetherby. 'Claire knows all about it—I told her.'
'Then I appeal to Miss Fenwick, if, as you say, she knows all the facts of the case, to say whether it is reasonable to expect a man of my temperament, a nervous, highly-strung artist, to welcome the presence of snakes at the breakfast-table. I trust that I am not an unreasonable man, but I decline to admit that a long, green snake is a proper thing to keep about the house.'
'You had no right to strike the poor thing.'
'In that one respect I was perhaps a little hasty. I happened to be stirring my tea at the moment his head rose above the edge of the table. I was not entirely myself that morning. My nerves were somewhat disordered. I had lain awake much of the night planning a canvas.'
'Planning a what?'
'A canvas—a picture.'
Lady Wetherby turned to Claire.
'I want you to listen to Algie, Claire. A year ago he did not know one end of a paint-brush from the other. He didn't know he had any nerves. If you had brought him the artistic temperament on a plate with a bit of watercress round it, he wouldn't have recognized it. And now, just because he's got a studio, he thinks he has a right to go up in the air if you speak to him suddenly and run about the place hitting snakes with teaspoons as if he were Michelangelo!'
'You do me an injustice. It is true that as an artist I developed late—But why should we quarrel? If it will help to pave the way to a renewed understanding between us, I am prepared to apologize for striking Clarence. That is conciliatory, I think, Miss Fenwick?'
'Miss Fenwick considers my attitude conciliatory.'
'It's something,' admitted Lady Wetherby, grudgingly.
Lord Wetherby drained the whisky-and-soda which Dudley Pickering had left behind him, and seemed to draw strength from it, for he now struck a firmer note.
'But, though expressing regret for my momentary loss of self-control, I cannot recede from the position I have taken up as regards the essential unfitness of Clarence's presence in the home.'
Lady Wetherby looked despairingly at Claire.
'The very first words I heard Algie speak, Claire, were at Newmarket during the three o'clock race one May afternoon. He was hanging over the rail, yelling like an Indian, and what he was yelling was, "Come on, you blighter, come on! By the living jingo, Brickbat wins in a walk!" And now he's talking about receding from essential positions! Oh, well, he wasn't an artist then!'
'My dear Pau—Polly. I am purposely picking my words on the present occasion in order to prevent the possibility of further misunderstandings. I consider myself an ambassador.'
'You would be shocked if you knew what I consider you!'
'I am endeavouring to the best of my ability—'
'Algie, listen to me! I am quite calm at present, but there's no knowing how soon I may hit you with a chair if you don't come to earth quick and talk like an ordinary human being. What is it that you are driving at?'
'Very well, it's this: I'll come home if you get rid of that snake.'
'It's surely not much to ask of you, Polly?'
Lord Wetherby sighed.
'When I led you to the altar,' he said, reproachfully, 'you promised to love, honour, and obey me. I thought at the time it was a bit of swank!'
Lady Wetherby's manner thawed. She became more friendly.
'When you talk like that, Algie, I feel there's hope for you after all. That's how you used to talk in the dear old days when you'd come to me to borrow half-a-crown to put on a horse! Listen, now that at last you seem to be getting more reasonable; I wish I could make you understand that I don't keep Clarence for sheer love of him. He's a commercial asset. He's an advertisement. You must know that I have got to have something to—'
'I admit that may be so as regards the monkey, Eustace. Monkeys as aids to publicity have, I believe, been tested and found valuable by other artistes. I am prepared to accept Eustace, but the snake is worthless.'
'Oh, you don't object to Eustace, then?'
'I do strongly, but I concede his uses.'
'You would live in the same house as Eustace?'
'I would endeavour to do so. But not in the same house as Eustace and Clarence.'
There was a pause.
'I don't know that I'm so stuck on Clarence myself,' said Lady Wetherby, weakly.
'Wait a minute. I've not said I would get rid of him.'
'But you will?'
Lady Wetherby's hesitation lasted but a moment. 'All right, Algie. I'll send him to the Zoo to-morrow.'
'My precious pet!'
A hand, reaching under the table, enveloped Claire's in a loving clasp.
From the look on Lord Wetherby's face she supposed that he was under the delusion that he was bestowing this attention on his wife.
'You know, Algie, darling,' said Lady Wetherby, melting completely, 'when you get that yearning note in your voice I just flop and take the full count.'
'My sweetheart, when I saw you doing that Dream of What's-the-girl's-bally-name dance just now, it was all I could do to keep from rushing out on to the floor and hugging you.'
'Do you mind letting go of my hand, please, Lord Wetherby?' said Claire, on whom these saccharine exchanges were beginning to have a cloying effect.
For a moment Lord Wetherby seemed somewhat confused, but, pulling himself together, he covered his embarrassment with a pomposity that blended poorly with his horsy appearance.
'Married life, Miss Fenwick,' he said, 'as you will no doubt discover some day, must always be a series of mutual compromises, of cheerful give and take. The lamp of love—'
His remarks were cut short by a crash at the other end of the room. There was a sharp cry and the splintering of glass. The place was full of a sudden, sharp confusion. They jumped up with one accord. Lady Wetherby spilled her iced coffee; Lord Wetherby dropped the lamp of love. Claire, who was nearest the pillar that separated them from the part of the restaurant where the accident had happened, was the first to see what had taken place.
A large man, dancing with a large girl, appeared to have charged into a small waiter, upsetting him and his tray and the contents of his tray. The various actors in the drama were now engaged in sorting themselves out from the ruins. The man had his back toward her, and it seemed to Claire that there was something familiar about that back. Then he turned, and she recognized Lord Dawlish.
She stood transfixed. For a moment surprise was her only emotion. How came Bill to be in America? Then other feelings blended with her surprise. It is a fact that Lord Dawlish was looking singularly uncomfortable.
Claire's eyes travelled from Bill to his partner and took in with one swift feminine glance her large, exuberant blondeness. There is no denying that, seen with a somewhat biased eye, the Good Sport resembled rather closely a poster advertising a revue.
Claire returned to her seat. Lord and Lady Wetherby continued to talk, but she allowed them to conduct the conversation without her assistance.
'You're very quiet, Claire,' said Polly.
'A very good thing, too, so they tell me. I've never tried it myself. Algie, darling, he was a bad boy to leave his nice home, wasn't he? He didn't deserve to have his hand held.'