The Hotch-potch Club went back to the eighteen-sixties. Founded by a posse of young sparks, social and political, as a convenient place in which to smoulder, while qualifying for the hearths of ‘Snooks’, The Remove, The Wayfarers, Burton’s, Ostrich Feather, and other more permanent resorts, the Club had, chiefly owing to a remarkable chef in its early days, acquired a stability and distinction of its own. It still, however, retained a certain resemblance to its name, and this was its attraction to Michael — all sorts of people belonged. From Walter Nazing, and young semi-writers and patrons of the stage, who went to Venice, and talked of being amorous in gondolas, or of how so-and-so ought to be made love to; from such to bottle-brushed demi-generals, who had sat on courts-martial and shot men out of hand for the momentary weaknesses of human nature; from Wilfrid Desert (who never came there now) to Maurice Elderson, in the card-room, he could meet them all, and take the temperature of modernity. He was doing this in the Hotch-potch smoking-room, the late afternoon but one after Fleur had come into his bed, when he was informed:
“A Mr. Forsyte, sir, in the hall for you. Not the member we had here many years before he died; his cousin, I think.”
Conscious that his associates at the moment would not be his father-inlaw’s ‘dream,’ nor he theirs, Michael went out, and found Soames on the weighing machine.
“I don’t vary,” he said, looking up. “How’s Fleur?”
“Very well, thank you, sir.”
“I’m at Green Street. I stayed up about a young man. Have you any vacancy in your office for a clerk — used to figures. I want a job for him.”
“Come in here, sir,” said Michael, entering a small room.
Soames followed and looked round him.
“What do you call this?” he said.
“Well, we call it ‘the grave’; it’s nice and quiet. Will you have a sherry?”
“Sherry!” repeated Soames. “You young people think you’ve invented sherry; when I was a boy no one dreamed of dining without a glass of dry sherry with his soup, and a glass of fine old sherry with his sweet. Sherry!”
“I quite believe you, sir. There really is nothing new. Venice, for instance — wasn’t that the fashion, too; and knitting, and royalties? It’s all cyclic. Has your young man got the sack?”
Soames stared. “Yes,” he said, “he has. His name is Butterfield; he wants a job.”
“That’s frightfully rife; we get applications every day. I don’t want to be swanky, but ours is a rather specialised business. It has to do with books.”
“He strikes me as capable, orderly, and civil; I don’t see what more you want in a clerk. He writes a good hand, and, so far as I can see, he tells the truth.”
“That’s important, of course,” said Michael; “but is he a good liar as well? I mean, there’s more likely to be something in the travelling line; selling special editions, and that kind of thing. Could you open up about him a bit? Anything human is to the good — I don’t say old Danby would appreciate that, but he needn’t know.”
“H’m! Well — he — er — did his duty — quite against his interest — in fact, it’s ruination for him. He seems to be married and to have two children.”
“Ho, ho! Jolly! If I got him a place, would he — would he be doing his duty again, do you think?”
“I am serious,” said Soames; “the young man is on my mind.”
“Yes,” said Michael, ruminative, “the first thing in such a case is to get him on to some one else’s, sharp. Could I see him?”
“I told him to step round and see you to-night after dinner. I thought you’d prefer to look him over in private before considering him for your office.”
“Very thoughtful of you, sir! There’s just one thing. Don’t you think I ought to know the duty he did — in confidence? I don’t see how I can avoid putting my foot into my mouth without, do you?”
Soames stared at his son-inlaw’s face, where the mouth was wide; for the nth time it inspired in him a certain liking and confidence; it looked so honest.
“Well,” he said, going to the door and ascertaining that it was opaque, “this is matter for a criminal slander action, so for your own sake as well as mine you will keep it strictly to yourself”; and in a low voice he retailed the facts.
“As I expected,” he ended, “the young man came to me again this morning. He is naturally upset. I want to keep my hand on him. Without knowing more, I can’t make up my mind whether to go further or not. Besides”— Soames hesitated; to claim a good motive was repulsive to him: “I— it seems hard on him. He’s been getting three hundred and fifty.”
“Dashed hard!” said Michael. “I say, Elderson’s a member here.”
Soames looked with renewed suspicion at the door — it still seemed opaque, and he said: “The deuce he is! Do you know him?”
“I’ve played bridge with him,” said Michael; “he’s taken some of the best off me — snorting good player.”
“Ah!” said Soames — he never played cards himself. “I can’t take this young man into my own firm for obvious reasons; but I can trust you.”
Michael touched his forelock.
“Frightfully bucked, sir. Protection of the poor — some sleuth, too. I’ll see him to-night, and let you know what I can wangle.”
Soames nodded. ‘Good Gad!’ he thought; ‘what jargon! . . .’
The interview served Michael the good turn of taking his thoughts off himself. Temperamentally he sided already with the young man Butterfield; and, lighting a cigarette, he went into the card-room. Sitting on the high fender, he was impressed — the room was square, and within it were three square card tables, set askew to the walls, with three triangles of card players.
‘If only,’ thought Michael, ‘the fourth player sat under the table, the pattern would be complete. It’s having the odd player loose that spoils the cubes.’ And with something of a thrill he saw that Elderson was a fourth player! Sharp and impassive, he was engaged in applying a knife to the end of a cigar. Gosh! what sealed books faces were! Each with pages and pages of private thoughts, interests, schemes, fancies, passions, hopes and fears; and down came death — splosh! — and a creature wiped out, like a fly on a wall, and nobody any more could see its little close mechanism working away for its own ends, in its own privacy and its own importance; nobody any more could speculate on whether it was a clean or a dirty little bit of work. Hard to tell! They ran in all shapes! Elderson, for instance — was he a nasty mess, or just a lamb of God who didn’t look it? ‘Somehow,’ thought Michael, ‘I feel he’s a womaniser. Now why?’ He spread his hands out behind him to the fire, rubbing them together like a fly that has been in treacle. If one couldn’t tell what was passing in the mind of one’s own wife in one’s own house, how on earth could one tell anything from the face of a stranger, and he one of the closest bits of mechanism in the world — an English gentleman of business! If only life were like ‘The Idiot’ or ‘The Brothers Karamazov,’ and everybody went about turning out their inmost hearts at the tops of their voices! If only club card rooms had a dash of epilepsy in their composition! But — nothing! Nothing! The world was full of wonderful secrets which everybody kept to themselves without captions or close-ups to give them away!
A footman came in, looked at the fire, stood a moment expressionless as a stork, waiting for an order to ping out, staccato, through the hum, turned and went away.
Mechanism! Everywhere — mechanism! Devices for getting away from life so complete that there seemed no life to get away from.
‘It’s all,’ he thought, ‘awfully like a man sending a registered letter to himself. And perhaps it’s just as well. Is ‘life’ a good thing — is it? Do I want to see ‘life’ raw again?’
Elderson was seated now, and Michael had a perfect view of the back of his head. It disclosed nothing.
‘I’m no sleuth,’ he thought; ‘there ought to be something in the way he doesn’t part his hair behind.’ And, getting off the fender, he went home.
At dinner he caught one of his own looks at Fleur and didn’t like it. Sleuth! And yet how not try to know what were the real thoughts and feelings of one who held his heart, like an accordion, and made it squeak and groan at pleasure!
“I saw the model you sent Aubrey yesterday,” she said. “She didn’t say anything about the clothes, but she looked ever so! What a face, Michael! Where did you come across her?”
Through Michael sped the thought: ‘Could I make her jealous?’ And he was shocked at it. A low-down thought — mean and ornery! “She blew in,” he said. “Wife of a little packer we had who took to snooping — er — books. He sells balloons now; they want money badly.”
“I see. Did you know that Aubrey’s going to paint her in the nude?”
“Phew! No! I thought she’d look good on a wrapper. I say! Ought I to stop that?”
Fleur smiled. “It’s more money and her look-out. It doesn’t matter to you, does it?”
Again that thought; again the recoil from it!
“Only,” he said, “that her husband is a decent little snipe for a snooper, and I don’t want to be more sorry for him.”
“She won’t tell him, of course.”
She said it so naturally, so simply, that the words disclosed a whole attitude of mind. One didn’t tell one’s mate what would tease the poor brute! He saw by the flutter of her white eyelids that she also realised the give-away. Should he follow it up, tell her what June Forsyte had told him — have it all out — all out? But with what purpose — to what end? Would it change things, make her love him? Would it do anything but harass her a little more; and give him the sense that he had lost his wicket trying to drive her to the pavilion? No! Better adopt the principle of secrecy she had unwittingly declared her own, bite on it, and grin. He muttered:
“I’m afraid he’ll find her rather thin.”
Her eyes were bright and steady; and again he was worried by that low-down thought: ‘Could he make her —?’
“I’ve only seen her once,” he added, “and then she was dressed.”
“I’m not jealous, Michael.”
‘No,’ he thought, ‘I wish to heaven you were!’
The words: “A young man called Butterfill to see you, sir,” were like the turning of a key in a cell door.
In the hall the young man “called Butterfill” was engaged in staring at Ting-a-ling.
‘Judging by his eyes,’ thought Michael, ‘he’s more of a dog than that little Djinn!’
“Come up to my study,” he said, “it’s cold down here. My father-inlaw tells me you want a job.”
“Yes, sir,” said the young man, following up the stairs.
“Take a pew,” said Michael; “and a cigarette. Now then! I know all about the turmoil. From your moustache, you were in the war, I suppose, like me? As between fellow-sufferers: Is your story O. K.?”
“God’s truth, sir; I only wish it wasn’t. I’d nothing to gain and everything to lose. I’d have done better to hold my tongue. It’s his word against mine, and here I am in the street. That was my first job since the war, so I can whistle for a reference.”
“Wife and two children, I think?”
“Yes, and I’ve put them in the cart for the sake of my conscience! It’s the last time I’ll do that, I know. What did it matter to me, whether the Society was cheated? My wife’s quite right, I was a fool, sir.”
“Probably,” said Michael. “Do you know anything about books?”
“Yes, sir; I’m a good book-keeper.”
“Holy Moses! OUR job is getting rid of them. My firm are publishers. We were thinking of putting on an extra traveller. Is your tongue persuasive?”
The young man smiled wanly.
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Well, look here,” said Michael, carried away by the look in his eyes, “it’s all a question of a certain patter. But, of course, that’s got to be learned. I gather that you’re not a reader.”
“Well, sir, not a great reader.”
“That, perhaps, is fortunate. What you would have to do is to impress on the poor brutes who sell books that every one of the books on your list — say about thirty-five — is necessary in large numbers to his business. It’s lucky you’ve just chucked your conscience, because, as a matter of fact most of them won’t be. I’m afraid there’s nowhere you could go to to get lessons in persuasion, but you can imagine the sort of thing, and if you like to come here for an hour or two this week, I’ll put you wise about our authors, and ready you up to go before Peter.”
“Before Peter, sir?”
“The Johnny with the keys; luckily it’s Mr. Winter, not Mr. Danby; I believe I could get him to let you in for a month’s trial.”
“Sir, I’ll try my very best. My wife knows about books, she could help me a lot. I can’t tell you what I think of your kindness. The fact is, being out of a job has put the wind up me properly. I’ve not been able to save with two children; it’s like the end of the world.”
“Right-o, then! Come here tomorrow evening at nine, and I’ll stuff you. I believe you’ve got the face for the job, if you can get the patter. Only one book in twenty is a necessity really, the rest are luxuries. Your stunt will be to make them believe the nineteen are necessaries, and the twentieth a luxury that they need. It’s like food or clothes, or anything else in civilisation.”
“Yes, sir, I quite understand.”
“All right, then. Good-night, and good luck!”
Michael stood up and held out his hand. The young man took it with a queer reverential little bow. A minute later he was out in the street; and Michael in the hall was thinking: ‘Pity is tripe! Clean forgot I was a sleuth!’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54