Long before The Haunting of Hill House, P.G. Wodehouse explored the possibilities of malevolent spirits infesting old houses. Here is probably the most chilling story Plum ever wrote, published nearly a century ago in 1925.
By P.G. Wodehouse
Do you believe in ghosts? ” asked Mr. Mulliner abruptly. I weighed the question thoughtfully. I was a little surprised, for nothing in our previous conversation had suggested the topic.
“Well,” I replied, “I don’t like them, if that’s what you mean. I was once butted by one as a child.”
“Ghosts. Not goats.”
“Oh, ghosts? Do I believe in ghosts?”
“Well, yes— and no.”
“Let me put it another way,” said Mr. Mulliner, patiently. “Do you believe in haunted houses? Do you believe that it is possible for a malign influence to envelop a place and work a spell on all who come within its radius?”
“Well, no — and yes.”
Mr. Mulliner sighed a little. He seemed to be wondering if I was always as bright as this.
“Of course,” I went on, “one has read stories. Henry James’s Turn of the Screw …”
“I am not talking about fiction.”
“Well, in real life. Well, look here, I once, as a matter of fact, did meet a man who knew a fellow …”
“My distant cousin James Rodman spent some weeks in a haunted house,” said Mr. Mulliner, who, if he has a fault, is not a very good listener. “It cost him five thousand pounds. That is to say, he sacrificed five thousand pounds by not remaining there. Did you ever,” he asked, wandering, it seemed to me, from the subject, “hear of Leila J. Pinckney?”
Naturally I had heard of Leila J. Pinckney. Her death some years ago has diminished her vogue, but at one time it was impossible to pass a bookshop or a railway bookstall without seeing a long row of her novels. I had never myself actually read any of them, but I knew that in her particular line of literature, the Squashily Sentimental, she had always been regarded by those entitled to judge as pre-eminent. The critics usually headed their reviews of her stories with the words:
or sometimes, more offensively: —
And once, dealing with, I think, The Love Which Prevails, the literary expert of the Scrutinizer had compressed his entire critique into the single phrase “Oh, God!”
“Of course,” I said. “But what about her?”
“She was James Rodman’s aunt.”
“And when she died James found that she had left him five thousand pounds and the house in the country where she had lived for the last twenty years of her life.”
“A very nice little legacy.”
“Twenty years,” repeated Mr. Mulliner. “Grasp that, for it has a vital bearing on what follows. Twenty years, mind you, and Miss Pinckney turned out two novels and twelve short stories regularly every year, besides a monthly page of Advice to Young Girls in one of the magazines. That is to say, forty of her novels and no fewer than two hundred and forty of her short stories were written under the roof of Honeysuckle Cottage.”
“A pretty name.”
“A nasty, sloppy name,” said Mr. Mulliner severely, “which should have warned my distant cousin James from the start. Have you a pencil and a piece of paper?” He scribbled for awhile, poring frowningly over columns of figures. “Yes,” he said, looking up, “if my calculations are correct, Leila J. Pinckney wrote in all a matter of nine million one hundred and forty thousand words of glutinous sentimentality at Honeysuckle Cottage, and it was a condition of her will that James should reside there for six months in every year. Failing to do this, he was to forfeit the five thousand pounds.”
“It must be great fun making a freak will,” I mused. ” I often wish I was rich enough to do it.”
“This was not a freak will. The conditions are perfectly understandable. James Rodman was a writer of sensational mystery stories, and his aunt Leila had always disapproved of his work. She was a great believer in the influence of environment, and the reason why she inserted that clause in her will was that she wished to compel James to move from London to the country. She considered that living in London hardened him and made his outlook on life sordid. She often asked him if he thought it quite nice to harp so much on sudden death and blackmailers with squints. Surely, she said, there were enough squinting blackmailers in the world without writing about them.
“The fact that Literature meant such different things to these two had, I believe, caused something of a coolness between them, and James had never dreamed that he would be remembered in his aunt’s will. For he had never concealed his opinion that Leila J. Pinckney’s style of writing revolted him, however dear it might be to her enormous public. He held rigid views on the art of the novel, and always maintained that an artist with a true reverence for his craft should not descend to gooey love stories, but should stick austerely to revolvers, cries in the night, missing papers, mysterious Chinamen and dead bodies — with or without gash in throat. And not even the thought that his aunt had dandled him on her knee as a baby could induce him to stifle his literary conscience to the extent of pretending to enjoy her work. First, last and all the time, James Rodman had held the opinion — and voiced it fearlessly — that Leila J. Pinckney wrote bilge.
“It was a surprise to him, therefore, to find that he had been left this legacy. A pleasant surprise, of course. James was making quite a decent income out of the three novels and eighteen short stories which he produced annually, but an author can always find a use for five thousand pounds. And, as for the cottage, he had actually been looking about for a little place in the country at the very moment when he received the lawyer’s letter. In less than a week he was installed at his new residence.”
James’s first impressions of Honeysuckle Cottage were, he tells me, wholly favourable. He was delighted with the place. It was a low, rambling, picturesque old house with funny little chimneys and a red roof, placed in the middle of the most charming country. With its oak beams, its trim garden, its trilling birds and its rose-hung porch, it was the ideal spot for a writer. It was just the sort of place, he reflected whimsically, which his aunt had loved to write about in her books. Even the apple-cheeked old housekeeper who attended to his needs might have stepped straight out of one of them.
It seemed to James that his lot had been cast in pleasant places. He had brought down his books, his pipes and his golf clubs, and was hard at work finishing the best thing he had ever done. The Secret Nine was the title of it; and on the beautiful summer afternoon on which this story opens he was in the study, hammering away at his typewriter, at peace with the world. The machine was running sweetly, the new tobacco he had bought the day before was proving admirable, and he was moving on all six cylinders to the end of a chapter.
He shoved in a fresh sheet of paper, chewed his pipe thoughtfully for a moment, then wrote rapidly :
“For an instant Lester Gage thought that he must have been mistaken. Then the noise came again, faint but unmistakable — a soft scratching on the outer panel.
“His mouth set in a grim line. Silently, like a panther, he made one quick step to the desk, noiselessly opened a drawer, drew out his automatic. After that affair of the poisoned needle, he was taking no chances. Still in dead silence, he tiptoed to the door; then, flinging it suddenly open, he stood there, his weapon poised.
“On the mat stood the most beautiful girl he had ever beheld. A veritable child of Faerie. She eyed him for a moment with a saucy smile; then with a pretty, roguish look of reproof shook a dainty forefinger at him.
“‘I believe you’ve forgotten me, Mr. Gage!’ she fluted with a mock severity which her eyes belied.”
James stared at the paper dumbly. He was utterly perplexed. He had not had the slightest intention of writing anything like this. To begin with, it was a rule with him, and one which he never broke, to allow no girls to appear in his stories. Sinister landladies, yes, and naturally any amount of adventuresses with foreign accents, but never under any pretext what may be broadly described as girls. A detective story, he maintained, should have no heroine. Heroines only held up the action and tried to flirt with the hero when he should have been busy looking for clues, and then went and let the villain kidnap them by some childishly simple trick. In his writing, James was positively monastic.
And yet here was this creature with her saucy smile and her dainty forefinger homing in at the most important point in the story. It was uncanny.
He looked once more at his scenario. No, the scenario was all right.
In perfectly plain words it stated that what happened when the door opened was that a dying man fell in and after gasping, “The beetle! Tell Scotland Yard that the blue beetle is —” expired on the hearth-rug, leaving Lester Gage not unnaturally somewhat mystified. Nothing whatever about any beautiful girls.
In a curious mood of irritation, James scratched out the offending passage, wrote in the necessary corrections and put the cover on the machine. It was at this point that he heard William whining.
The only blot on this paradise which James had so far been able to discover was the infernal dog, William. Belonging nominally to the gardener, on the very first morning he had adopted James by acclamation, and he maddened and infuriated James. He had a habit of coming and whining under the window when James was at work. The latter would ignore this as long as he could; then, when the thing became insupportable, would bound out of his chair, to see the animal standing on the gravel, gazing expectantly up at him with a stone in his mouth. William had a weak-minded passion for chasing stones; and on the first day James, in a rash spirit of camaraderie, had flung one for him. Since then James had thrown no more stones; but he had thrown any number of other solids, and the garden was littered with objects ranging from match boxes to a plaster statuette of the young Joseph prophesying before Pharaoh. And still William came and whined, an optimist to the last.
The whining, coming now at a moment when he felt irritable and unsettled, acted on James much as the scratching on the door had acted on Lester Gage. Silently, like a panther, he made one quick step to the mantelpiece, removed from it a china mug bearing the legend A Present From Clacton-on-Sea, and crept to the window.
And as he did so a voice outside said, “Go away, sir, go away!” and there followed a short, high-pitched bark which was certainly not William’s. William was a mixture of Airedale, setter, bull terrier, and mastiff; and when in vocal mood, favoured the mastiff side of his family.
James peered out. There on the porch stood a girl in blue. She held in her arms a small fluffy white dog, and she was endeavouring to foil the upward movement toward this of the blackguard William. William’s mentality had been arrested some years before at the point where he imagined that everything in the world had been created for him to eat. A bone, a boot, a steak, the back wheel of a bicycle — it was all one to William. If it was there he tried to eat it. He had even made a plucky attempt to devour the remains of the young Joseph prophesying before Pharaoh. And it was perfectly plain now that he regarded the curious wriggling object in the girl’s arms purely in the light of a snack to keep body and soul together till dinner-time.
“William!” bellowed James.
William looked courteously over his shoulder with eyes that beamed with the pure light of a life’s devotion, wagged the whiplike tail which he had inherited from his bull-terrier ancestor and resumed his intent scrutiny of the fluffy dog.
“Oh, please!” cried the girl. “This great rough dog is frightening poor Toto,”
The man of letters and the man of action do not always go hand in hand, but practice had made James perfect in handling with a swift efficiency any situation that involved William. A moment later that canine moron, having received the present from Clacton in the short ribs, was scuttling round the comer of the house, and James had jumped through the window and was facing the girl.
She was an extraordinarily pretty girl. Very sweet and fragile she looked as she stood there under the honeysuckle with the breeze ruffling a tendril of golden hair that strayed from beneath her coquettish little hat. Her eyes were very big and very blue, her rose-tinted face becomingly flushed. All wasted on James, though. He disliked all girls, and particularly the sweet, droopy type.
“Did you want to see somebody?” he asked stiffly.
“Just the house,” said the girl, “if it wouldn’t be giving any trouble. I do so want to see the room where Miss Pinckney wrote her books. This is where Leila J. Pinckney used to live, isn’t it?”
“Yes; I am her nephew. My name is James Rodman.”
“Mine is Rose Maynard.”
James led the way into the house, and she stopped with a cry of delight on the threshold of the morning room.
“Oh, how too perfect!” she cried. “So this was her study?”
“What a wonderful place it would be for you to think in if you were a writer too.”
James held no high opinion of women’s literary taste, but nevertheless he was conscious of an unpleasant shock.
“I am a writer,” he said coldly. “I write detective stories.”
“I— I’m afraid ” —she blushed— “I’m afraid I don’t often read detective stories.”
“You no doubt prefer,” said James, still more coldly, “the sort of thing my aunt used to write.”
“Oh, I love her stories!” cried the girl, clasping her hands ecstatically. “Don’t you?”
“I cannot say that I do.”
“They are pure apple sauce,” said James sternly; “just nasty blobs of sentimentality, thoroughly untrue to life.”
The girl stared.
“Why, that’s just what’s so wonderful about them, their trueness to life! You feel they might all have happened. I don’t understand what you mean.”
They were walking down the garden now. James held the gate open for her and she passed through into the road.
“Well, for one thing,” he said, “I decline to believe that a marriage between two young people is invariably preceded by some violent and sensational experience in which they both share.”
“Are you thinking of Scent o’ the Blossom, where Edgar saves Maud from drowning?”
“I am thinking of every single one of my aunt’s books ” He looked at her curiously. He had just got the solution of a mystery which had been puzzling him for some time. Almost from the moment he had set eyes on her she had seemed somehow strangely familiar. It now suddenly came to him why it was that he disliked her so much. ” Do you know,” he said, ” you might be one of my aunt’s heroines yourself? You’re just the sort of girl she used to love to write about.”
Her face lit up.
“Oh, do you really think so?” She hesitated. “Do you know what I have been feeling ever since I came here? I’ve been feeling that you are exactly like one of Miss Pinckney’s heroes.”
“No, I say, really!” said James, revolted.
“Oh, but you are! When you jumped through that window it gave me quite a start. You were so exactly like Claude Masterson in Heather o’ the Hills.”
“I have not read Heather o’ the Hills,” said James, with a shudder.
“He was very strong and quiet, with deep, dark, sad eyes.”
James did not explain that his eyes were sad because her society gave him a pain in the neck. He merely laughed scornfully.
“So now, I suppose,” he said, “a car will come and knock you down and I shall carry you gently into the house and lay you — Look out!” he cried.
It was too late. She was lying in a little huddled heap at his feet. Round the comer a large automobile had come bowling, keeping with an almost affected precision to the wrong side of the road. It was now receding into the distance, the occupant of the tonneau, a stout red-faced gentleman in a fur coat, leaning out over the back. He had bared his head — not, one fears, as a pretty gesture of respect and regret, but because he was using his hat to hide the number plate.
The dog Toto was unfortunately uninjured.
James carried the girl gently into the house and laid her on the sofa in the morning-room. He rang the bell and the apple-cheeked housekeeper appeared.
“Send for the doctor,” said James. “There has been an accident.”
The housekeeper bent over the girl.
“Eh, dearie, dearie!” she said. “Bless her sweet pretty face!”
The gardener, he who technically owned William, was routed out from among the young lettuces and told to fetch Doctor Brady. He separated his bicycle from William, who was making a light meal off the left pedal, and departed on his mission. Doctor Brady arrived and in due course he made his report.
“No bones broken, but a number of nasty bruises. And, of course, the shock. She will have to stay here for some time, Rodman. Can’t be moved.”
“Stay here! But she can’t! It isn’t proper.”
“Your housekeeper will act as a chaperon.”
The doctor sighed. He was a stolid-looking man of middle age with side whiskers.
“A beautiful girl, that, Rodman,” he said.
“I suppose so,” said James.
“A sweet, beautiful girl. An elfin child.”
“A what?” cried James, starting.
This imagery was very foreign to Doctor Brady as he knew him. On the only previous occasion on which they had had any extended conversation, the doctor had talked exclusively about the effect of too much protein on the gastric juices.
“An elfin child; a tender, fairy creature. When I was looking at her just now, Rodman, I nearly broke down. Her little hand lay on the coverlet like some white lily floating on the surface of a still pool, and her dear, trusting eyes gazed up at me.”
He pottered off down the garden, still babbling, and James stood staring after him blankly. And slowly, like some cloud athwart a summer sky, there crept over James’s heart the chill shadow of a nameless fear.
It was about a week later that Mr. Andrew McKinnon, the senior partner in the well-known firm of literary agents, McKinnon & Gooch, sat in his office in Chancery Lane, frowning thoughtfully over a telegram. He rang the bell.
“Ask Mr. Gooch to step in here.” He resumed his study of the telegram. “Oh, Gooch,” he said when his partner appeared, “I’ve just had a curious wire from young Rodman. He seems to want to see me very urgently.”
Mr. Gooch read the telegram.
“Written under the influence of some strong mental excitement,” he agreed. “I wonder why he doesn’t come to the office if he wants to see you so badly.”
“He’s working very hard, finishing that novel for Prodder & Wiggs. Can’t leave it, I suppose. Well, it’s a nice day. If you will look after things here I think I’ll motor down and let him give me lunch.”
As Mr. McKinnon’s car reached the crossroads a mile from Honeysuckle Cottage, he was aware of a gesticulating figure by the hedge. He stopped the car.
“Thank God, you’ve come!” said James. It seemed to Mr. McKinnon that the young man looked paler and thinner. “Would you mind walking the rest of the way? There’s something I want to speak to you about.”
Mr. McKinnon alighted; and James, as he glanced at him, felt cheered and encouraged by the very sight of the man. The literary agent was a grim, hard-bitten person, to whom, when he called at their offices to arrange terms, editors kept their faces turned so that they might at least retain their back collar studs. There was no sentiment in Andrew McKinnon. Editresses of society papers practised their blandishments on him in vain, and many a publisher had waked screaming in the night, dreaming that he was signing a McKinnon contract.
“Well, Rodman,” he said, “Prodder & Wiggs have agreed to our terms. I was writing to tell you so when your wire arrived. I had a lot of trouble with them, but it’s fixed at 20 per cent., rising to 25, and two hundred pounds advance royalties on day of publication.”
“Good!” said James absently. “Good! McKinnon, do you remember my aunt, Leila J. Pinckney?”
“Remember her? Why, I was her agent all her life.”
“Of course. Then you know the sort of tripe she wrote.”
“No author,” said Mr. McKinnon reprovingly, “who pulls down a steady twenty thousand pounds a year writes tripe.”
“Well anyway, you know her stuff.”
“When she died she left me five thousand pounds and her house, Honeysuckle Cottage. I’m living there now. McKinnon, do you believe in haunted houses?”
“Yet I tell you solemnly that Honeysuckle Cottage is haunted!”
“By your aunt?” said Mr. McKinnon, surprised.
“By her influence. There’s a malignant spell over the place; a sort of miasma of sentimentalism. Everybody who enters it succumbs.”
“Tut-tut! You mustn’t have these fancies.”
“They aren’t fancies.”
“You aren’t seriously meaning to tell me —”
“Well, how do you account for this? That book you were speaking about, which Prodder & Wiggs are to publish — The Secret Nine. Every time I sit down to write it a girl keeps trying to sneak in.”
“Into the room?
“Into the story.”
“You don’t want a love interest in your sort of book,” said Mr. McKinnon, shaking his head. “It delays the action.”
“I know it does. And every day I have to keep shooing this infernal female out. An awful girl, McKinnon. A soppy, soupy, treacly, drooping girl with a roguish smile. This morning she tried to butt in on the scene where Lester Gage is trapped in the den of the mysterious leper.”
“She did, I assure you. I had to rewrite three pages before I could get her out of it. And that’s not the worst. Do you know, McKinnon, that at this moment I am actually living the plot of a typical Leila May Pinckney novel in just the setting she always used! And I can see the happy ending coming nearer every day! A week ago a girl was knocked down by a car at my door and I’ve had to put her up, and every day I realise more clearly that sooner or later I shall ask her to marry me.”
“Don’t do it,” said Mr. McKinnon, a stout bachelor. “You’re too young to marry.”
“So was Methuselah” said James, a stouter. “But all the same I know I’m going to do it. It’s the influence of this awful house weighing upon me. I feel like an eggshell in a maelstrom. I am being sucked on by a force too strong for me to resist. This morning I found myself kissing her dog!
“I did! And I loathe the little beast. Yesterday I got up at dawn and plucked a nosegay of flowers for her, wet with the dew.”
“It’s a fact. I laid them at her door and went downstairs kicking myself all the way. And there in the hall was the apple-cheeked housekeeper regarding me archly. If she didn’t murmur ‘Bless their sweet young hearts!’ my ears deceived me.”
“Why don’t you pack up and leave?”
“If I do I lose the five thousand pounds.”
“Ah!” said Mr. McKinnon.
“I can understand what has happened. It’s the same with all haunted houses. My aunt’s subliminal ether vibrations have woven themselves into the texture of the place, creating an atmosphere which forces the ego of all who come in contact with it to attune themselves to it. It’s either that or something to do with the fourth dimension.”
Mr. McKinnon laughed scornfully.
“Tut-tut!” he said again. “This is pure imagination. What has happened is that you’ve been working too hard. You’ll see this precious atmosphere of yours will have no effect on me.”
“That’s exactly why I asked you to come down. I hoped you might break the spell.”
“I will that,” said Mr. McKinnon jovially.
The fact that the literary agent spoke little at lunch caused James no apprehension. Mr. McKinnon was ever a silent trencherman. From time to time James caught him stealing a glance at the girl, who was well enough to come down to meals now, limping pathetically; but he could read nothing in his face. And yet the mere look of his face was a consolation. It was so solid, so matter of fact, so exactly like an unemotional coconut.
“You’ve done me good,” said James with a sigh of relief, as he escorted the agent down the garden to his car after lunch. “I felt all along that I could rely on your rugged common sense. The whole atmosphere of the place seems different now.”
Mr. McKinnon did not speak for a moment. He seemed to be plunged in thought.
“Rodman” he said, as he got into his car, ” I’ve been thinking over that suggestion of yours of putting a love interest into The Secret Nine. I think you’re wise. The story needs it. After all, what is there greater in the world than love? Love- love — aye, it’s the sweetest word in the language. Put in a heroine and let her marry Lester Gage.”
“If,” said James grimly, “she does succeed in worming her way in she’ll jolly well marry the mysterious leper. But look here, I don’t understand.”
“It was seeing that girl that changed me,” proceeded Mr. McKinnon. And as James stared at him aghast, tears suddenly filled his hard-boiled eyes. He openly snuffled. “Aye, seeing her sitting there under the roses, with all that smell of honeysuckle and all. And the birdies singing so sweet in the garden and the sun lighting up her bonny face. The puir wee lass! ” he muttered, dabbing at his eyes. “The puir bonny wee lass! Rodman,” he said, his voice quivering, “I’ve decided that we’re being hard on Prodder & Wiggs. Wiggs has had sickness in his home lately. We mustn’t be hard on a man who’s had sickness in his home, hey, laddie? No, no! I’m going to take back that contract and alter it to a flat 12 per cent, and no advance royalties.”
“But you shan’t lose by it, Rodman. No, no, you shan’t lose by it, my manny. I am going to waive my commission. The puir bonny wee lass!”
The car rolled off down the road. Mr. McKinnon, seated in the back, was blowing his nose violently.
“This is the end!” said James.
It is necessary at this point to pause and examine James Rodman’s position with an unbiassed eye. The average man, unless he puts himself in James’s place, will be unable to appreciate it. James, he will feel, was making a lot of fuss about nothing. Here he was, drawing daily closer and closer to a charming girl with big blue eyes, and surely rather to be envied than pitied.
But we must remember that James was one of Nature’s bachelors. And no ordinary man, looking forward dreamily to a little home of his own with a loving wife putting out his slippers and changing the gramophone records, can realise the intensity of the instinct for self-preservation which animates Nature’s bachelors in times of peril.
James Rodman had a congenital horror of matrimony. Though a young man, he had allowed himself to develop a great many habits which were as the breath of life to him; and these habits, he knew instinctively, a wife would shoot to pieces within a week of the end of the honeymoon.
James liked to breakfast in bed; and, having breakfasted, to smoke in bed and knock the ashes out on the carpet. What wife would tolerate this practice?
James liked to pass his days in a tennis shirt, gray flannel trousers and slippers. What wife ever rests until she has inclosed her husband in a stiff collar, tight boots and a morning suit and taken him with her to thés musicaux?
These and a thousand other thoughts of the same kind flashed through the unfortunate young man’s mind as the days went by, and every day that passed seemed to draw him nearer to the brink of the chasm. Fate appeared to be taking a malicious pleasure in making things as difficult for him as possible. Now that the girl was well enough to leave her bed, she spent her time sitting in a chair on the sun-sprinkled porch, and James had to read to her — and poetry, at that; and not the jolly, wholesome sort of poetry the boys are turning out nowadays, either — good, honest stuff about sin and gas works and decaying corpses — but the old-fashioned kind with rhymes in it, dealing almost exclusively with love. The weather, moreover, continued superb. The honeysuckle cast its sweet scent on the gentle breeze; the roses over the porch stirred and nodded; the flowers in the garden were lovelier than ever; the birds sang their little throats sore. And every evening there was a magnificent sunset. It was almost as if Nature were doing it on purpose.
At last James intercepted Doctor Brady as he was leaving after one of his visits and put the thing to him squarely:
“When is that girl going?” The doctor patted him on the arm.
“Not yet, Rodman,” he said in a low, understanding voice. “No need to worry yourself about that. Mustn’t be moved for days and days and days — I might almost say weeks and weeks and weeks.”
“Weeks and weeks!” cried James.
“And weeks,” said Doctor Brady. He prodded James roguishly in the abdomen. “Good luck to you, my boy, good luck to you,” he said.
It was some small consolation to James that the mushy physician immediately afterward tripped over William on his way down the path and broke his stethoscope. When a man is up against it like James every little helps.
He was walking dismally back to the house after this conversation when he was met by the apple-cheeked housekeeper.
“The little lady would like to speak to you, sir,” said the apple-cheeked exhibit, rubbing her hands.
“Would she?” said James hollowly.
“So sweet and pretty she looks, sir — oh, sir, you wouldn’t believe! Like a blessed angel sitting there with her dear eyes all a-shining.”
“Don’t do it!” cried James with extraordinary vehemence. “Don’t do it!”
He found the girl propped up on the cushions and thought once again how singularly he disliked her. And yet, even as he thought this, some force against which he had to fight madly was whispering to him, “Go to her and take that little hand! Breathe into that little ear the burning words that will make that little face turn away crimsoned with blushes! ” He wiped a bead of perspiration from his forehead and sat down.
“Mrs. Stick-in-the-Mud — what’s her name? — says you want to see me.”
The girl nodded.
“I’ve had a letter from Uncle Henry. I wrote to him as soon as I was better and told him what had happened, and he is coming here to-morrow morning.”
“That’s what I call him, but he’s really no relation. He is my guardian. He and daddy were officers in the same regiment, and when daddy was killed, fighting on the Afghan frontier, he died in Uncle Henry’s arms and with his last breath begged him to take care of me.”
James started. A sudden wild hope had waked in his heart. Years ago, he remembered, he had read a book of his aunt’s entitled Rupert’s Legacy, and in that book —
“I’m engaged to marry him,” said the girl quietly.
“Wow!” shouted James.
“What?” asked the girl, startled.
“Touch of cramp,” said James. He was thrilling all over. That wild hope had been realised.
“It was daddy’s dying wish that we should marry,” said the girl.
“And dashed sensible of him, too; dashed sensible,” said James warmly.
“And yet,” she went on, a little wistfully, “I sometimes wonder”
“Don’t!” said James. “Don’t! You must respect daddy’s dying wish. There’s nothing like daddy’s dying wish; you can’t beat it. So he’s coming here to-morrow, is he? Capital, capital! To lunch, I suppose? Excellent! I’ll run down and tell Mrs. Who-Is-It to lay in another chop.”
It was with a gay and uplifted heart that James strolled the garden and smoked his pipe next morning. A great cloud seemed to have rolled itself away from him. Everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. He had finished The Secret Nine and shipped it off to Mr. McKinnon, and now as he strolled there was shaping itself in his mind a corking plot about a man with only half a face who lived in a secret den and terrorised London with a series of shocking murders. And what made them so shocking was the fact that each of the victims, when discovered, was found to have only half a face too. The rest had been chipped off, presumably by some blunt instrument.
The thing was coming out magnificently, when suddenly his attention was diverted by a piercing scream. Out of the bushes fringing the river that ran beside the garden burst the apple-cheeked housekeeper.
“Oh, sir! Oh, sir! Oh, sir!”
“What is it?” demanded James irritably.
“Oh, sir! Oh, sir! Oh, sir!”
“Yes, and then what? ” The little dog, sir! He’s in the river!”
“Well, whistle him to come out.”
“Oh, sir, do come quick! He’ll be drowned!”
James followed her through the bushes, taking off his coat as he went. He was saying to himself, “I will not rescue this dog. I do not like the dog. It is high time he had a bath, and in any case it would be much simpler to stand on the bank and fish for him with a rake. Only an ass out of a Leila J. Pinckney book would dive into a beastly river to save”
At this point he dived. Toto, alarmed by the splash, swam rapidly for the bank, but James was too quick for him. Grasping him firmly by the neck, he scrambled ashore and ran for the house, followed by the housekeeper.
The girl was seated on the porch. Over her there bent the tall soldierly figure of a man with keen eyes and graying hair. The housekeeper raced up.
“Oh, miss! Toto! In the river! He saved him! He plunged in and saved him!”
The girl drew a quick breath.
“Gallant, damme! By Jove! By gad! Yes, gallant, by George!” exclaimed the soldierly man.
The girl seemed to wake from a reverie.
“Uncle Henry, this is Mr. Rodman. Mr. Rodman, my guardian, Colonel Carteret.”
“Proud to meet you, sir,” said the colonel, his honest blue eyes glowing as he fingered his short crisp moustache. “As fine a thing as I ever heard of, damme!”
“Yes, you are brave — brave,” the girl whispered.
“I am wet — wet,” said James, and went upstairs to change his clothes.
When he came down for lunch, he foimd to his relief that the girl had decided not to join them, and Colonel Carteret was silent and preoccupied. James, exerting himself in his capacity of host, tried him with the weather, golf, India, the Government, the high cost of living, first-class cricket, the modem dancing craze, and murderers he had met, but the other still preserved that strange, absent-minded silence. It was only when the meal was concluded and James had produced cigarettes that he came abruptly out of his trance.” Rodman,” he said, “I should like to speak to you.”
“Yes? ” said James, thinking it was about time.
“Rodman,” said Colonel Carteret, “or rather, George — I may call you George?” he added, with a sort of wistful diffidence that had a singular charm.
“Certainly,” replied James, “if you wish it. Though my name is James.”
“James, eh? Well, well, it amounts to the same thing, eh, what, damme, by gad?” said the colonel with a momentary return of his bluff soldierly manner. “Well, then, James, I have something that I wish to say to you. Did Miss Maynard — did Rose happen to tell you anything about myself in — er — in connection with herself?”
“She mentioned that you and she were engaged to be married.”
The colonel’s tightly drawn lips quivered.
“No longer,” he said.
“No, John, my boy.”
“No, James, my boy, no longer. While you were upstairs changing your clothes she told me — breaking down, poor child, as she spoke — that she wished our engagement to be at an end.”
James half rose from the table, his cheeks blanched.
“You don’t mean that!” he gasped.
Colonel Carteret nodded. He was staring out of the window, his fine eyes set in a look of pain.
“But this is nonsense!” cried James. “This is absurd! She — she mustn’t be allowed to chop and change like this. I mean to say, it — it isn’t fair”
“Don’t think of me, my boy.”
“I’m not — I mean, did she give any reason?”
“Her eyes did.”
“Her eyes did?”
“Her eyes, when she looked at you on the porch, as you stood there — young, heroic — having just saved the life of the dog she loves. It is you who have won that tender heart, my boy.”
“Now listen,” protested James, “you aren’t going to sit there and tell me that a girl falls in love with a man just because he saves her dog from drowning?” “Why, surely,” said Colonel Carteret surprised. “What better reason could she have?” He sighed. “It is the old, old story, my boy. Youth to youth. I am an old man. I should have known — I should have foreseen — yes, youth to youth.”
“You aren’t a bit old.”
“Don’t keep on saying yes, yes! ” cried James, clutching at his hair. ” Besides, she wants a steady old buffer — a steady, sensible man of medium age — to look after her.”
Colonel Carteret shook his head with a gentle smile.
“This is mere quixotry, my boy. It is splendid of you to take this attitude; but no, no.”
“No, no.” He gripped James’s hand for an instant, then rose and walked to the door. ” That is all I wished to say, Tom.”
“James. I just thought that you ought to know how matters stood. Go to her, my boy, go to her, and don’t let any thought of an old man’s broken dream keep you from pouring out what is in your heart. I am an old soldier, lad, an old soldier. I have learned to take the rough with the smooth. But I think — I think I will leave you now. I — I should— should like to be alone for a while. If you need me you will find me in the raspberry bushes.”
He had scarcely gone when James also left the room. He took his hat and stick and walked blindly out of the garden, he knew not whither. His brain was numbed. Then, as his powers of reasoning returned, he told himself that he should have foreseen this ghastly thing. If there was one type of character over which Leila J. Pinckney had been wont to spread herself, it was the pathetic guardian who loves his ward but relinquishes her to the younger man. No wonder the girl had broken off the engagement. Any elderly guardian who allowed himself to come within a mile of Honeysuckle Cottage was simply asking for it. And then, as he turned to walk back, a sort of dull defiance gripped James. Why, he asked, should he be put upon in this manner? If the girl liked to throw over this man, why should he be the goat?
He saw his way clearly now. He just wouldn’t do it, that was all. And if they didn’t like it they could lump it.
Full of a new fortitude, he strode in at the gate. A tall, soldierly figure emerged from the raspberry bushes and came to meet him.
“Well?” said Colonel Carteret.
“Well?” said James defiantly.
“Am I to congratulate you?”
James caught his keen blue eye and hesitated. It was not going to be so simple as he had supposed.
“Well— er —” he said.
Into the keen blue eyes there came a look that James had not seen there before. It was the stem, hard look which — probably — had caused men to bestow upon this old soldier the name of Cold-Steel Carteret.
“You have not asked Rose to marry you?”
“Er — no; not yet.”
The keen blue eyes grew keener and bluer.
“Rodman,” said Colonel Carteret in a strange, quiet voice, “I have known that little girl since she was a tiny child. For years she has been all in all to me. Her father died in my arms and with his last breath bade me see that no harm came to his darling. I have nursed her through mumps, measles — aye, and chicken pox — and I live but for her happiness.” He paused, with a significance that made James’s toes curl. “Rodman,” he said, “do you know what I would do to any man who trifled with that little girl’s affections?” He reached in his hip pocket and an ugly-looking revolver glittered in the sunlight. “I would shoot him like a dog.” “Like a dog?” faltered James. “Like a dog,” said Colonel Carteret. He took James’s arm and turned him toward the house. “She is on the porch. Go to her. And if —” He broke off. “But tut!” he said in a kindlier tone. “I am doing you an injustice, my boy. I know it.” “Oh, you are,” said James fervently. ” Your heart is in the right place.” “Oh, absolutely,” said James.” “Then go to her, my boy. Later on you may have something to tell me. You will find me in the strawberry beds.” It was very cool and fragrant on the porch. Overhead, little breezes played and laughed among the roses. Somewhere in the distance sheep bells tinkled, and in the shrubbery a thrush was singing its evensong.
Seated in her chair behind a wicker table laden with tea things. Rose Maynard watched James as he shambled up the path.
“Tea’s ready,” she called gaily. “Where is Uncle Henry?” A look of pity and distress flitted for a moment over her flower-like face. “Oh, I— I forgot,” she whispered. “He is in the strawberry beds,” said James in a low voice.
She nodded unhappily. “Of course, of course. Oh, why is life like this?” James heard her whisper.
He sat down. He looked at the girl. She was leaning back with closed eyes, and he thought he had never seen such a little squirt in his life. The idea of passing his remaining days in her society revolted him. He was stoutly opposed to the idea of marrying anyone; but if, as happens to the best of us, he ever were compelled to perform the wedding glide, he had always hoped it would be with some lady golf champion who would help him with his putting, and thus, by bringing his handicap down a notch or two, enable him to save something from the wreck, so to speak. But to link his lot with a girl who read his aunt’s books and liked them; a girl who could tolerate the presence of the dog Toto; a girl who clasped her hands in pretty, childish joy when she saw a nasturtium in bloom — it was too much. Nevertheless, he took her hand and began to speak.
“Miss Maynard — Rose —”
She opened her eyes and cast them down. A flush had come into her cheeks. The dog Toto at her side sat up and begged for cake, disregarded.
“Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there was a lonely man who lived in a cottage all by himself —”
He stopped. Was it James Rodman who was talking this bilge?
“Yes?” whispered the girl.
“but one day there came to him out of nowhere a little fairy princess. She —”
He stopped again, but this time not because of the sheer shame of listening to his own voice. What caused him to interrupt his tale was the fact that at this moment the tea table suddenly began to rise slowly in the air, tilting as it did so a considerable quantity of hot tea on to the knees of his trousers.
“Ouch!” cried James, leaping.
The table continued to rise, and then fell sideways, revealing the homely countenance of William, who, concealed by the cloth, had been taking a nap beneath it. He moved slowly forward, his eyes on Toto. For many a long day William had been desirous of putting to the test, once and for all, the problem of whether Toto was edible or not. Sometimes he thought yes, at other times no. Now seemed an admirable opportunity for a definite decision. He advanced on the object of his experiment, making a low whistling noise through his nostrils, not unlike a boiling kettle. And Toto, after one long look of incredulous horror, tucked his shapely tail between his legs and, turning, raced for safety. He had laid a course in a bee line for the open garden gate, and William, shaking a dish of marmalade off his head a little petulantly, galloped ponderously after him. Rose Maynard staggered to her feet. ” Oh, save him! ” she cried.
Without a word James added himself to the procession. His interest in Toto was but tepid. What he wanted was to get near enough to William to discuss with him that matter of the tea on his trousers. He reached the road and found that the order of the runners had not changed. For so small a dog, Toto was moving magnificently. A cloud of dust rose as he skidded round the comer. William followed. James followed William.
And so they passed Farmer Birkett’s bam. Farmer Giles’ cow shed, the place where Farmer Willetts’ pigsty used to be before the big fire, and the Bunch of Grapes public house, Jno. Biggs propr., licensed to sell tobacco, wines and spirits. And it was as they were turning down the lane that leads past Farmer Robinson’s chicken run that Toto, thinking swiftly, bolted abruptly into a small drain pipe.
“William!” roared James, coming up at a canter. He stopped to pluck a branch from the hedge and swooped darkly on.
William had been crouching before the pipe, making a noise like a bassoon into its interior; but now he rose and came beamingly to James. His eyes were aglow with chumminess and affection; and placing his forefeet on James’s chest, he licked him three times on the face in rapid succession. And as he did so, something seemed to snap in James. The scales seemed to fall from James’s eyes. For the first time he saw William as he really was, the authentic type of dog that saves his master from a frightful peril. A wave of emotion swept over him.
“William!” he muttered. ” William!”
William was making an early supper off a half brick he had found in the road. James stooped and patted him fondly.
“William,” he whispered, “you knew when the time had come to change the conversation, didn’t you, old boy!” He straightened himself. “Come, William,” he said. “Another four miles and we reach Meadowsweet Junction. Make it snappy and we shall just catch the up express, first stop London.”
William looked up into his face and it seemed to James that he gave a brief nod of comprehension and approval. James turned. Through the trees to the east he could see the red roof of Honeysuckle Cottage, lurking like some evil dragon in ambush.
Then, together, man and dog passed silently into the sunset.
That (concluded Mr. Mulliner) is the story of my distant cousin James Rodman. As to whether it is true, that, of course, is an open question. I, personally, am of opinion that it is. There is no doubt that James did go to live at Honeysuckle Cottage and, while there, underwent some experience which has left an ineradicable mark upon him. His eyes today have that unmistakable look which is to be seen only in the eyes of confirmed bachelors whose feet have been dragged to the very brink of the pit and who have gazed at close range into the naked face of matrimony.
And, if further proof be needed, there is William. He is now James’s inseparable companion. Would any man be habitually seen in public with a dog like William unless he had some solid cause to be grateful to him, — unless they were linked together by some deep and imperishable memory? I think not. Myself, when I observe William coming along the street, I cross the road and look into a shop window till he has passed. I am not a snob, but I dare not risk my position in Society by being seen talking to that curious compound.
Nor is the precaution an unnecessary one. There is about William a shameless absence of appreciation of class distinctions which recalls the worst excesses of the French Revolution. I have seen him with these eyes chivvy a pomeranian belonging to a Baroness in her own right from near the Achilles Statue to within a few yards of the Marble Arch.
And yet James walks daily with him. in Piccadilly. It is surely significant.