Maid in Waiting, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 16

Hubert Cherrell stood outside his father’s club in Pall Mall, a senior affair of which he was not yet a member. He was feeling concerned, for he had a respect for his father somewhat odd in days when fathers were commonly treated as younger brethren, or alluded to as ‘that old man.’ Nervously therefore he entered an edifice wherein more people had held more firmly to the prides and prejudices of a lifetime than possibly anywhere else on earth. There was little however, either of pride or prejudice, about the denizens of the room into which he was now shown. A short alert man with a pale face and a tooth-brush moustache was biting the end of a pen, and trying to compose a letter to ‘The Times’ on the condition of Iraq; a modest-looking little Brigadier General with a bald forehead and grey moustache was discussing with a tall modest-looking Lieutenant Colonel the flora of the island of Cyprus; a man of square build, square cheek-bones and lion-like eyes, was sitting in the window as still as if he had just buried an aunt and were thinking whether or not he would try and swim the Channel next year; and Sir Conway himself was reading ‘Whitaker’s Almanac.’

“Hallo, Hubert! This room’s too small. Come into the hall.” Hubert had the instant feeling not only that he wanted to say something to his father, but that his father wanted to say something to him. They sat down in a recess.

“What’s brought you up?”

“I want to get married, Sir.”

“Married?”

“To Jean Tasburgh.”

“Oh!”

“We thought of getting a special licence and having no fuss.”

The General shook his head. “She’s a fine girl, and I’m glad you feel like that, but the fact is your position’s queer, Hubert. I’ve just been hearing.”

Hubert noticed suddenly how worn-looking was his father’s face. “That fellow you shot. They’re pressing for your extradition on a charge of murder.”

“What?”

“It’s a monstrous business, and I can’t believe they’ll go on with it in the face of what you say about his going for you — luckily you’ve still got his scar on your arm; but it seems there’s the deuce of a fuss in the Bolivian papers; and those half-castes are sticking together about it.”

“I must see Hallorsen at once.”

“The authorities won’t be in a hurry, I expect.”

After this, the two sat silent in the big hall, staring in front of them with very much the same expression on their faces. At the back of both their minds the fear of this development had lurked, but neither had ever permitted it to take definite shape; and its wretchedness was therefore the more potent. To the General it was even more searing than to Hubert. The idea that his only son could be haled half across the world on a charge of murder was as horrible as a nightmare.

“No good to let it prey on our minds, Hubert,” he said at last; “if there’s any sense in the country at all we’ll get this stopped. I was trying to think of someone who knows how to get at people. I’m helpless in these matters — some fellows seem to know everybody and exactly how to work them. I think we’d better go to Lawrence Mont; he knows Saxenden anyway, and probably the people at the Foreign Office. It was Topsham who told me, but he can do nothing. Let’s walk, shall we? Do us good.”

Much touched by the way his father was identifying himself with his trouble, Hubert squeezed his arm, and they left the Club. In Piccadilly the General said, with a transparent effort: “I don’t much like all these changes.”

“Well, Sir, except for Devonshire House, I don’t believe I notice them.”

“No, it’s queer; the spirit of Piccadilly is stronger than the street itself, you can’t destroy its atmosphere. You never see a top hat now, and yet it doesn’t seem to make any difference. I felt the same walking down Piccadilly after the war as I did as a youngster back from India. One just had the feeling of having got there at last.”

“Yes; you get a queer sort of homesickness for it. I did in Mespot and Bolivia. If one closed one’s eyes the whole thing would start up.”

“Core of English life,” began the General, and stopped, as if surprised at having delivered a summary.

“Even the Americans feel it,” remarked Hubert, as they turned into Half-Moon Street. “Hallorsen was saying to me they had nothing like it over there; ‘no focus for their national influence’ was the way he put it.”

“And yet they HAVE influence,” said the General.

“No doubt about that, Sir, but can you define it? Is it their speed that gives it them?”

“Where does their speed get them? Everywhere in general; nowhere in particular. No, it’s their money, I think.”

“Well, I’ve noticed about Americans, and it’s where most people go wrong, that they care very little for money as money. They like to get it fast; but they’d rather lose it fast than get it slow.”

“Queer thing having no core,” said the General.

“The country’s too big, Sir. But they have a sort of core, all the same — pride of country.”

The General nodded.

“Queer little old streets these. I remember walking with my Dad from Curzon Street to the St. James’ Club in ‘82 — day I first went to Harrow — hardly a stick changed.” And so, concerned in talk that touched not on the feelings within them, they reached Mount Street.

“There’s your Aunt Em, don’t tell her.”

A few paces in front of them Lady Mont was, as it were, swimming home. They overtook her some hundred yards from the door.

“Con,” she said, “you’re lookin’ thin.”

“My dear girl, I never was anything else.”

“No. Hubert, there was somethin’ I wanted to ask you. Oh! I know! But Dinny said you hadn’t had any breeches since the war. How do you like Jean? Rather attractive?”

“Yes, Aunt Em.”

“She wasn’t expelled.”

“Why should she have been?”

“Oh! well, you never know. She’s never terrorised me. D’you want Lawrence? It’s Voltaire now and Dean Swift. So unnecessary — they’ve been awfully done; but he likes doin’ them because they bite. About those mules, Hubert?”

“What about them?”

“I never can remember if the donkey is the sire or the dam.”

“The donkey is the sire and the dam a mare, Aunt Em.”

“Yes, and they don’t have children — such a blessin’. Where’s Dinny?”

“She’s in town, somewhere.”

“She ought to marry.”

“Why?” said the General.

“Well, there she is! Hen was saying she’d make a good lady-inwaitin’— unselfish. That’s the danger.” And, taking a latchkey out of her bag, Lady Mont applied it to the door.

“I can’t get Lawrence to drink tea — would you like some?”

“No thank you, Em.”

“You’ll find him stewin’ in the library.” She kissed her brother and her nephew, and swam towards the stairs. “Puzzlin’,” they heard her say as they entered the library. They found Sir Lawrence surrounded by the works of Voltaire and Swift, for he was engaged on an imaginary dialogue between those two serious men. He listened gravely to the General’s tale.

“I saw,” he said, when his brother-inlaw had finished, “that Hallorsen had repented him of the evil — that will be Dinny. I think we’d better see him — not here, there’s no cook, Em’s still slimming — but we can all dine at the Coffee House.” And he took up the telephone.

Professor Hallorsen was expected in at five and should at once be given the message.

“This seems to be more of an F.O. business than a Police matter,” went on Sir Lawrence. “Let’s go over and see old Shropshire. He must have known your father well, Con; and his nephew, Bobbie Ferrar, is about as fixed a star as there is at the F.O. Old Shropshire’s always in!”

Arrived at Shropshire House Sir Lawrence said:

“Can we see the Marquess, Pommett?”

“I rather think he’s having his lesson, Sir Lawrence.”

“Lesson — in what?”

“Heinstein, is it, Sir Lawrence?”

“Then the blind is leading the blind, and it will be well to save him. The moment there’s a chance, Pommett, let us in.”

“Yes, Sir Lawrence.”

“Eighty-four and learning Einstein. Who said the aristocracy was decadent? I should like to see the bloke who’s teaching it, though; he must have singular powers of persuasion — there are no flies on old Shropshire.”

At this moment a man of ascetic aspect, with a cold deep eye and not much hair, entered, took hat and umbrella from a chair, and went out.

“Behold the man!” said Sir Lawrence. “I wonder what he charges? Einstein is like the electron or the vitamin — inapprehensible; it’s as clear a case of money under false pretences as I’ve ever come across. Come along.”

The Marquess of Shropshire was walking up and down his study, nodding his quick and sanguine grey-bearded head as if to himself.

“Ah! young Mont,” he said, “did you meet that man — if he offers to teach you Einstein, don’t let him. He can no more explain space bounded yet infinite, than I can.”

“But even Einstein can’t, Marquess.”

“I am not old enough,” said the Marquess, “for anything but the exact sciences. I told him not to come again. Whom have I the pleasure of seeing?”

“My brother-inlaw General Sir Conway Cherrell, and his son Captain Hubert Cherrell, D.S.O. You’ll remember Conway’s father, Marquess — he was Ambassador at Madrid.”

“Yes, yes, dear me, yes! I know your brother Hilary, too; a live wire. Sit down! Sit down, young man! Is it anything to do with electricity?”

“Not wholly, Marquess; more a matter of extradition.”

“Indeed!” The Marquess, raising his foot to the seat of a chair, leaned his elbow on his knee and his bearded chin on his hand. And, while the General was explaining, he continued to stand in this attitude, gazing at Hubert, who was sitting with compressed lips, and lowered eyes. When the General had finished the Marquess said:

“D.S.O., I think your uncle said. In the war?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“I shall do what I can. Could I see that scar?”

Hubert drew up his left sleeve, unlinked his shirt cuff and exposed an arm up which a long glancing scar stretched almost from wrist to elbow.

The Marquess whistled softly through teeth still his own. “Narrow escape that, young man.”

“Yes, Sir. I put up my arm just as he struck.”

“And then?”

“Jumped back and shot him as he came on again. Then I fainted.”

“This man was flogged for ill-treating his mules, you say?”

“Continually ill-treating them.”

“Continually?” repeated the Marquess. “Some think the meat-trade and Zoological Society continually ill-treat animals, but I never heard of their being flogged. Tastes differ. Now, let me see, what can I do? Is Bobbie in town, young Mont?”

“Yes, Marquess. I saw him at the Coffee House yesterday.”

“I will get him to breakfast. If I remember he does not allow his children to keep rabbits, and has a dog that bites everybody. That should be to the good. A man who is fond of animals would always like to flog a man who isn’t. Before you go, young Mont, will you tell me what you think of this?” And replacing his foot on the ground, the Marquess went to the corner, took up a canvas that was leaning against the wall, and brought it to the light. It represented with a moderate degree of certainty a young woman without clothes.

“By Steinvitch,” said the Marquess; “she could corrupt no morals, could she — if hung?”

Sir Lawrence screwed in his monocle: “The oblong school. This comes of living with women of a certain shape, Marquess. No, she couldn’t corrupt morals, but she might spoil digestions — flesh sea-green, hair tomato, style blobby. Did you buy her?”

“Hardly,” said the Marquess; “she is worth a good deal of money, I am told. You — you wouldn’t take her away, I suppose?”

“For you, Sir, I would do most things, but not that; no,” repeated Sir Lawrence, moving backwards, “not that.”

“I was afraid of it,” said the Marquess, “and yet I am told that she has a certain dynamic force. Well, that is that! I liked your father, General,” he said, more earnestly, “and if the word of his grandson is not to be taken against that of half-caste muleteers, we shall have reached a stage of altruism in this country so complete that I do not think we can survive. I will let you know what my nephew says. Good-bye, General; good-bye, my dear young man — that is a very nasty scar. Good-bye, young Mont — you are incorrigible.”

On the stairs Sir Lawrence looked at his watch. “So far,” he said, “the matter has taken twenty minutes — say twenty-five from door to door. They can’t do it at that pace in America — and we very nearly had an oblong young woman thrown in. Now for the Coffee House, and Hallorsen.” And they turned their faces towards St. James’s Street. “This street,” he said, “is the Mecca of Western man, as the Rue de la Paix is the Mecca of Western woman.” And he regarded his companions whimsically. What good specimens they were of a product at once the envy and mock of every other country! All over the British Empire men made more or less in their image were doing the work and playing the games of the British world. The sun never set on the type; history had looked on it and decided that it would survive. Satire darted at its joints, and rebounded from an unseen armour. ‘It walks quietly down the days of Time,’ he thought, ‘the streets and places of the world, without manner to speak of, without parade of learning, strength, or anything, endowed with the conviction, invisible, impermeable, of being IT.’

“Yes,” he said on the doorstep of ‘The Coffee House,’ “I look on this as the plumb centre of the universe. Others may claim the North Pole, Rome, Montmartre — I claim the Coffee House, oldest Club in the world, and I suppose, by plumbing standards, the worst. Shall we wash, or postpone it to a more joyful opportunity? Agreed. Let’s sit down here, then, and await the apostle of plumbing. I take him for a hustler. Pity we can’t arrange a match between him and the Marquess. I’d back the old boy.”

“Here he is,” said Hubert.

The American looked very big coming into the low hall of the oldest Club in the world.

“Sir Lawrence Mont,” he said; “Ah! Captain! General Sir Conway Cherrell? Proud to meet you, General. And what can I do for you, gentlemen?”

He listened to Sir Lawrence’s recital with a deepening gravity. “Isn’t that too bad? I can’t take this sitting. I’m going right along now to see the Bolivian Minister. And, Captain, I’ve kept the address of your boy Manuel, I’ll cable our Consul at La Paz to get a statement from him right away, confirming your story. Who ever heard of such darned foolishness? Forgive me, gentlemen, but I’ll have no peace till I’ve set the wires going.” And with a circular movement of his head he was gone. The three Englishmen sat down again.

“Old Shropshire must look to his heels,” Sir Lawrence said.

“So that’s Hallorsen,” said the General. “Fine-looking chap.”

Hubert said nothing. He was moved.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37