Uneasy Money/Chapter 9
Elizabeth entered Nutty's room and, seating herself on the bed, surveyed him with a bright, quiet eye that drilled holes in her brother's uneasy conscience. This was her second visit to him that morning. She had come an hour ago, bearing breakfast on a tray, and had departed without saying a word. It was this uncanny silence of hers even more than the effects—which still lingered—of his revels in the metropolis that had interfered with Nutty's enjoyment of the morning meal. Never a hearty breakfaster, he had found himself under the influence of her wordless disapproval physically unable to consume the fried egg that confronted him. He had given it one look; then, endorsing the opinion which he had once heard a character in a play utter in somewhat similar circumstances—that there was nothing on earth so homely as an egg—he had covered it with a handkerchief and tried to pull himself round with hot tea. He was now smoking a sad cigarette and waiting for the blow to fall.
Her silence had puzzled him. Though he had tried to give her no opportunity of getting him alone on the previous evening when he had arrived at the farm with Lord Dawlish, he had fully expected that she would have broken in upon him with abuse and recrimination in the middle of the night. Yet she had not done this, nor had she spoken to him when bringing him his breakfast. These things found their explanation in Elizabeth's character, with which Nutty, though he had known her so long, was but imperfectly acquainted. Elizabeth had never been angrier with her brother, but an innate goodness of heart had prevented her falling upon him before he had had rest and refreshment.
She wanted to massacre him, but at the same time she told herself that the poor dear must be feeling very, very ill, and should have a reasonable respite before the slaughter commenced.
It was plain that in her opinion this respite had now lasted long enough. She looked over her shoulder to make sure that she had closed the door, then leaned a little forward and spoke.
The wretched youth attempted bluster.
'What do you mean—"Now, Nutty"? What's the use of looking at a fellow like that and saying "Now, Nutty"? Where's the sense—'
His voice trailed off. He was not a very intelligent young man, but even he could see that his was not a position where righteous indignation could be assumed with any solid chance of success. As a substitute he tried pathos.
'Oo-oo, my head does ache!'
'I wish it would burst,' said his sister, unkindly.
'That's a nice thing to say to a fellow!'
'I'm sorry. I wouldn't have said it—'
'Only I couldn't think of anything worse.'
It began to seem to Nutty that pathos was a bit of a failure too. As a last resort he fell back on silence. He wriggled as far down as he could beneath the sheets and breathed in a soft and wounded sort of way. Elizabeth took up the conversation.
'Nutty,' she said, 'I've struggled for years against the conviction that you were a perfect idiot. I've forced myself, against my better judgement, to try to look on you as sane, but now I give in. I can't believe you are responsible for your actions. Don't imagine that I am going to heap you with reproaches because you sneaked off to New York. I'm not even going to tell you what I thought of you for not sending me a telegram, letting me know where you were. I can understand all that. You were disappointed because Uncle Ira had not left you his money, and I suppose that was your way of working it off. If you had just run away and come back again with a headache, I'd have treated you like the Prodigal Son. But there are some things which are too much, and bringing a perfect stranger back with you for an indefinite period is one of them. I'm not saying anything against Mr Chalmers personally. I haven't had time to find out much about him, except that he's an Englishman; but he looks respectable. Which, as he's a friend of yours, is more or less of a miracle.'
She raised her eyebrows as a faint moan of protest came from beneath the sheets.
'You surely,' she said, 'aren't going to suggest at this hour of the day, Nutty, that your friends aren't the most horrible set of pests outside a prison? Not that it's likely after all these months that they are outside a prison. You know perfectly well that while you were running round New York you collected the most pernicious bunch of rogues that ever fastened their talons into a silly child who ought never to have been allowed out without his nurse.' After which complicated insult Elizabeth paused for breath, and there was silence for a space.
'Well, as I was saying, I know nothing against this Mr Chalmers. Probably his finger-prints are in the Rogues' Gallery, and he is better known to the police as Jack the Blood, or something, but he hasn't shown that side of him yet. My point is that, whoever he is, I do not want him or anybody else coming and taking up his abode here while I have to be cook and housemaid too. I object to having a stranger on the premises spying out the nakedness of the land. I am sensitive about my honest poverty. So, darling Nutty, my precious Nutty, you poor boneheaded muddler, will you kindly think up at your earliest convenience some plan for politely ejecting this Mr Chalmers of yours from our humble home?—because if you don't, I'm going to have a nervous breakdown.'
And, completely restored to good humour by her own eloquence, Elizabeth burst out laughing. It was a trait in her character which she had often lamented, that she could not succeed in keeping angry with anyone for more than a few minutes on end. Sooner or later some happy selection of a phrase of abuse would tickle her sense of humour, or the appearance of her victim would become too funny not to be laughed at. On the present occasion it was the ridiculous spectacle of Nutty cowering beneath the bedclothes that caused her wrath to evaporate. She made a weak attempt to recover it. She glared at Nutty, who at the sound of her laughter had emerged from under the clothes like a worm after a thunderstorm.
'I mean it,' she said. 'It really is too bad of you! You might have had some sense and a little consideration. Ask yourself if we are in a position here to entertain visitors. Well, I'm going to make myself very unpopular with this Mr Chalmers of yours. By this evening he will be regarding me with utter loathing, for I am about to persecute him.'
'What do you mean?' asked Nutty, alarmed.
'I am going to begin by asking him to help me open one of the hives.'
'For goodness' sake!'
'After that I shall—with his assistance—transfer some honey. And after that—well, I don't suppose he will be alive by then. If he is, I shall make him wash the dishes for me. The least he can do, after swooping down on us like this, is to make himself useful.'
A cry of protest broke from the appalled Nutty, but Elizabeth did not hear it. She had left the room and was on her way downstairs.
Lord Dawlish was smoking an after-breakfast cigar in the grounds. It was a beautiful day, and a peaceful happiness had come upon him. He told himself that he had made progress. He was under the same roof as the girl he had deprived of her inheritance, and it should be simple to establish such friendly relations as would enable him to reveal his identity and ask her to reconsider her refusal to relieve him of a just share of her uncle's money. He had seen Elizabeth for only a short time on the previous night, but he had taken an immediate liking to her. There was something about the American girl, he reflected, which seemed to put a man at his ease, a charm and directness all her own. Yes, he liked Elizabeth, and he liked this dwelling-place of hers. He was quite willing to stay on here indefinitely.
Nature had done well by Flack's. The house itself was more pleasing to the eye than most of the houses in those parts, owing to the black and white paint which decorated it and an unconventional flattening and rounding of the roof. Nature, too, had made so many improvements that the general effect was unusually delightful.
Bill perceived Elizabeth coming toward him from the house. He threw away his cigar and went to meet her. Seen by daylight, she was more attractive than ever. She looked so small and neat and wholesome, so extremely unlike Miss Daisy Leonard's friend. And such was the reaction from what might be termed his later Reigelheimer's mood that if he had been asked to define feminine charm in a few words, he would have replied without hesitation that it was the quality of being as different as possible in every way from the Good Sport. Elizabeth fulfilled this qualification. She was not only small and neat, but she had a soft voice to which it was a joy to listen.
'I was just admiring your place,' he said.
'Its appearance is the best part of it,' said Elizabeth. 'It is a deceptive place. The bay looks beautiful, but you can't bathe in it because of the jellyfish. The woods are lovely, but you daren't go near them because of the ticks.'
'They jump on you and suck your blood,' said Elizabeth, carelessly. 'And the nights are gorgeous, but you have to stay indoors after dusk because of the mosquitoes.' She paused to mark the effect of these horrors on her visitor. 'And then, of course,' she went on, as he showed no signs of flying to the house to pack his bag and catch the next train, 'the bees are always stinging you. I hope you are not afraid of bees, Mr Chalmers?'
'Rather not. Jolly little chaps!'
A gleam appeared in Elizabeth's eye.
'If you are so fond of them, perhaps you wouldn't mind coming and helping me open one of the hives?'
'I'll go and fetch the things.'
She went into the house and ran up to Nutty's room, waking that sufferer from a troubled sleep.
'Nutty, he's bitten.'
Nutty sat up violently.
'Good gracious! What by?'
'You don't understand. What I meant was that I invited your Mr Chalmers to help me open a hive, and he said "Rather!" and is waiting to do it now. Be ready to say good-bye to him. If he comes out of this alive, his first act, after bathing the wounds with ammonia, will be to leave us for ever.'
'But look here, he's a visitor—'
'Cheer up! He won't be much longer.'
'You can't let him in for a ghastly thing like opening a hive. When you made me do it that time I was picking stings out of myself for a week.'
'That was because you had been smoking. Bees dislike the smell of tobacco.'
'But this fellow may have been smoking.'
'He has just finished a strong cigar.'
'For Heaven's sake!'
'Good-bye, Nutty, dear; I mustn't keep him waiting.'
Lord Dawlish looked with interest at the various implements which she had collected when she rejoined him outside. He relieved her of the stool, the smoker, the cotton-waste, the knife, the screwdriver, and the queen-clipping cage.
'Let me carry these for you,' he said, 'unless you've hired a van.'
Elizabeth disapproved of this flippancy. It was out of place in one who should have been trembling at the prospect of doom.
'Don't you wear a veil for this sort of job?'
As a rule Elizabeth did. She had reached a stage of intimacy with her bees which rendered a veil a superfluous precaution, but until to-day she had never abandoned it. Her view of the matter was that, though the inhabitants of the hives were familiar and friendly with her by this time and recognized that she came among them without hostile intent, it might well happen that among so many thousands there might be one slow-witted enough and obtuse enough not to have grasped this fact. And in such an event a veil was better than any amount of explanations, for you cannot stick to pure reason when quarrelling with bees.
But to-day it had struck her that she could hardly protect herself in this way without offering a similar safeguard to her visitor, and she had no wish to hedge him about with safeguards.
'Oh, no,' she said, brightly; 'I'm not afraid of a few bees. Are you?'
'You know what to do if one of them flies at you?'
'Well, it would, anyway—what? What I mean to say is, I could leave most of the doing to the bee.'
Elizabeth was more disapproving than ever. This was mere bravado. She did not speak again until they reached the hives.
In the neighbourhood of the hives a vast activity prevailed. What, heard from afar, had been a pleasant murmur became at close quarters a menacing tumult. The air was full of bees—bees sallying forth for honey, bees returning with honey, bees trampling on each other's heels, bees pausing in mid-air to pass the time of day with rivals on competing lines of traffic. Blunt-bodied drones whizzed to and fro with a noise like miniature high-powered automobiles, as if anxious to convey the idea of being tremendously busy without going to the length of doing any actual work. One of these blundered into Lord Dawlish's face, and it pleased Elizabeth to observe that he gave a jump.
'Don't be afraid,' she said, 'it's only a drone. Drones have no stings.'
'They have hard heads, though. Here he comes again!'
'I suppose he smells your tobacco. A drone has thirty-seven thousand eight hundred nostrils, you know.'
'That gives him a sporting chance of smelling a cigar—what? I mean to say, if he misses with eight hundred of his nostrils he's apt to get it with the other thirty-seven thousand.'
Elizabeth was feeling annoyed with her bees. They resolutely declined to sting this young man. Bees flew past him, bees flew into him, bees settled upon his coat, bees paused questioningly in front of him, as who should say, 'What have we here?' but not a single bee molested him. Yet when Nutty, poor darling, went within a dozen yards of the hives he never failed to suffer for it. In her heart Elizabeth knew perfectly well that this was because Nutty, when in the presence of the bees, lost his head completely and behaved like an exaggerated version of Lady Wetherby's Dream of Psyche, whereas Bill maintained an easy calm; but at the moment she put the phenomenon down to that inexplicable cussedness which does so much to exasperate the human race, and it fed her annoyance with her unbidden guest.
Without commenting on his last remark, she took the smoker from him and set to work. She inserted in the fire-chamber a handful of the cotton-waste and set fire to it; then with a preliminary puff or two of the bellows to make sure that the conflagration had not gone out, she aimed the nozzle at the front door of the hive.
The results were instantaneous. One or two bee-policemen, who were doing fixed point-duty near the opening, scuttled hastily back into the hive; and from within came a muffled buzzing as other bees, all talking at once, worried the perplexed officials with foolish questions, a buzzing that became less muffled and more pronounced as Elizabeth lifted the edge of the cover and directed more smoke through the crack. This done, she removed the cover, set it down on the grass beside her, lifted the super-cover and applied more smoke, and raised her eyes to where Bill stood watching. His face wore a smile of pleased interest.
Elizabeth's irritation became painful. She resented his smile. She hung the smoker on the side of the hive.
'The stool, please, and the screw-driver.'
She seated herself beside the hive and began to loosen the outside section. Then taking the brood-frame by the projecting ends, she pulled it out and handed it to her companion. She did it as one who plays an ace of trumps.
'Would you mind holding this, Mr Chalmers?'
This was the point in the ceremony at which the wretched Nutty had broken down absolutely, and not inexcusably, considering the severity of the test. The surface of the frame was black with what appeared at first sight to be a thick, bubbling fluid of some sort, pouring viscously to and fro as if some hidden fire had been lighted beneath it. Only after a closer inspection was it apparent to the lay eye that this seeming fluid was in reality composed of mass upon mass of bees. They shoved and writhed and muttered and jostled, for all the world like a collection of home-seeking City men trying to secure standing room on the Underground at half-past five in the afternoon.
Nutty, making this discovery, had emitted one wild yell, dropped the frame, and started at full speed for the house, his retreat expedited by repeated stings from the nervous bees. Bill, more prudent, remained absolutely motionless. He eyed the seething frame with interest, but without apparent panic.
'I want you to help me here, Mr Chalmers. You have stronger wrists than I have. I will tell you what to do. Hold the frame tightly.'
'I've got it.'
'Jerk it down as sharply as you can to within a few inches of the door, and then jerk it up again. You see, that shakes them off.'
'It would me,' agreed Bill, cordially, 'if I were a bee.'
Elizabeth had the feeling that she had played her ace of trumps and by some miracle lost the trick. If this grisly operation did not daunt the man, nothing, not even the transferring of honey, would. She watched him as he raised the frame and jerked it down with a strong swiftness which her less powerful wrists had never been able to achieve. The bees tumbled off in a dense shower, asking questions to the last; then, sighting the familiar entrance to the hive, they bustled in without waiting to investigate the cause of the earthquake.
Lord Dawlish watched them go with a kindly interest.
'It has always been a mystery to me,' he said, 'why they never seem to think of manhandling the Johnny who does that to them. They don't seem able to connect cause and effect. I suppose the only way they can figure it out is that the bottom has suddenly dropped out of everything, and they are so busy lighting out for home that they haven't time to go to the root of things. But it's a ticklish job, for all that, if you're not used to it. I know when I first did it I shut my eyes and wondered whether they would bury my remains or cremate them.'
'When you first did it?' Elizabeth was staring at him blankly. 'Have you done it before?'
Her voice shook. Bill met her gaze frankly.
'Done it before? Rather! Thousands of times. You see, I spent a year on a bee-farm once, learning the business.'
For a moment mortification was the only emotion of which Elizabeth was conscious. She felt supremely ridiculous. For this she had schemed and plotted—to give a practised expert the opportunity of doing what he had done a thousand times before!
And then her mood changed in a flash. Nature has decreed that there are certain things in life which shall act as hoops of steel, grappling the souls of the elect together. Golf is one of these; a mutual love of horseflesh another; but the greatest of all is bees. Between two beekeepers there can be no strife. Not even a tepid hostility can mar their perfect communion.
The petty enmities which life raises to be barriers between man and man and between man and woman vanish once it is revealed to them that they are linked by this great bond. Envy, malice, hatred, and all uncharitableness disappear, and they look into each other's eyes and say 'My brother!'
The effect of Bill's words on Elizabeth was revolutionary. They crashed through her dislike, scattering it like an explosive shell. She had resented this golden young man's presence at the farm. She had thought him in the way. She had objected to his becoming aware that she did such prosaic tasks as cooking and washing-up. But now her whole attitude toward him was changed. She reflected that he was there. He could stay there as long as he liked, the longer the better.
'You have really kept bees?'
'Not actually kept them, worse luck! I couldn't raise the capital. You see, money was a bit tight—'
'I know,' said Elizabeth, sympathetically. 'Money is like that, isn't it?'
'The general impression seemed to be that I should be foolish to try anything so speculative as beekeeping, so it fell through. Some very decent old boys got me another job.'
'Secretary to a club.'
'In London, of course?'
'And all the time you wanted to be in the country keeping bees!'
Elizabeth could hardly control her voice, her pity was so great.
'I should have liked it,' said Bill, wistfully. 'London's all right, but I love the country. My ambition would be to have a whacking big farm, a sort of ranch, miles away from anywhere—'
He broke off. This was not the first time he had caught himself forgetting how his circumstances had changed in the past few weeks. It was ridiculous to be telling hard-luck stories about not being able to buy a farm, when he had the wherewithal to buy dozens of farms. It took a lot of getting used to, this business of being a millionaire.
'That's my ambition too,' said Elizabeth, eagerly. This was the very first time she had met a congenial spirit. Nutty's views on farming and the Arcadian life generally were saddening to an enthusiast. 'If I had the money I should get an enormous farm, and in the summer I should borrow all the children I could find, and take them out to it and let them wallow in it.'
'Wouldn't they do a lot of damage?'
'I shouldn't mind. I should be too rich to worry about the damage. If they ruined the place beyond repair I'd go and buy another.' She laughed. 'It isn't so impossible as it sounds. I came very near being able to do it.' She paused for a moment, but went on almost at once. After all, if you cannot confide your intimate troubles to a fellow bee-lover, to whom can you confide them? 'An uncle of mine—'
Bill felt himself flushing. He looked away from her. He had a sense of almost unbearable guilt, as if he had just done some particularly low crime and was contemplating another.
'—An uncle of mine would have left me enough money to buy all the farms I wanted, only an awful person, an English lord. I wonder if you have heard of him?—Lord Dawlish—got hold of uncle somehow and induced him to make a will leaving all the money to him.'
She looked at Bill for sympathy, and was touched to see that he was crimson with emotion. He must be a perfect dear to take other people's misfortunes to heart like that.
'I don't know how he managed it,' she went on. 'He must have worked and plotted and schemed, for Uncle Ira wasn't a weak sort of man whom you could do what you liked with. He was very obstinate. But, anyway, this Lord Dawlish succeeded in doing it somehow, and then'—her eyes blazed at the recollection—'he had the insolence to write to me through his lawyers offering me half. I suppose he was hoping to satisfy his conscience. Naturally I refused it.'
'Why! Why did I refuse it? Surely you don't think I was going to accept charity from the man who had cheated me?'
'But—but perhaps he didn't mean it like that. What I mean to say is—as charity, you know.'
'He did! But don't let's talk of it any more. It makes me angry to think of him, and there's no use spoiling a lovely day like this by getting angry.'
Bill sighed. He had never dreamed before that it could be so difficult to give money away. He was profoundly glad that he had not revealed his identity, as he had been on the very point of doing just when she began her remarks. He understood now why that curt refusal had come in answer to his lawyer's letter. Well, there was nothing to do but wait and hope that time might accomplish something.
'What do you want me to do next?' he said. 'Why did you open the hive? Did you want to take a look at the queen?'
Elizabeth hesitated. She blushed with pure shame. She had had but one motive in opening the hive, and that had been to annoy him. She scorned to take advantage of the loophole he had provided. Beekeeping is a freemasonry. A beekeeper cannot deceive a brother-mason.
She faced him bravely.
'I didn't want to take a look at anything, Mr Chalmers. I opened that hive because I wanted you to drop the frame, as my brother did, and get stung, as he was; because I thought that would drive you away, because I thought then that I didn't want you down here. I'm ashamed of myself, and I don't know where I'm getting the nerve to tell you this. I hope you will stay on—on and on and on.'
Bill was aghast.
'Good Lord! If I'm in the way—'
'You aren't in the way.'
'But you said—'
'But don't you see that it's so different now? I didn't know then that you were fond of bees. You must stay, if my telling you hasn't made you feel that you want to catch the next train. You will save our lives—mine and Nutty's too. Oh, dear, you're hesitating! You're trying to think up some polite way of getting out of the place! You mustn't go, Mr Chalmers; you simply must stay. There aren't any mosquitoes, no jellyfish—nothing! At least, there are; but what do they matter? You don't mind them. Do you play golf?'
'There are links here. You can't go until you've tried them. What is your handicap?'
'So is mine.'
'By Jove! Really?'
Elizabeth looked at him, her eyes dancing.
'Why, we're practically twin souls, Mr Chalmers! Tell me, I know your game is nearly perfect, but if you have a fault, is it a tendency to putt too hard?'
'Why, by Jove—yes, it is!'
'I knew it. Something told me. It's the curse of my life too! Well, after that you can't go away.'
'But if I'm in the way—'
'In the way! Mr Chalmers, will you come in now and help me wash the breakfast things?'
'Rather!' said Lord Dawlish.