Ahead of Schedule
It was to Wilson, his valet, with whom he frequently chatted in airy fashion before rising of a morning, that Rollo Finch first disclosed his great idea. Wilson was a man of silent habit, and men of silent habit rarely escaped Rollo's confidences.
'Wilson,' he said one morning from the recesses of his bed, as the valet entered with his shaving-water, 'have you ever been in love?'
'Yes, sir,' said the valet, unperturbed.
One would hardly have expected the answer to be in the affirmative. Like most valets and all chauffeurs, Wilson gave the impression of being above the softer emotions.
'What happened?' inquired Rollo.
'It came to nothing, sir,' said Wilson, beginning to strop the razor with no appearance of concern.
'Ah!' said Rollo. 'And I bet I know why. You didn't go the right way to work.'
'Not one fellow in a hundred does. I know. I've thought it out. I've been thinking the deuce of a lot about it lately. It's dashed tricky, this making love. Most fellows haven't a notion how to work it. No system. No system, Wilson, old scout.'
'Now, I have a system. And I'll tell it you. It may do you a bit of good next time you feel that impulse. You're not dead yet. Now, my system is simply to go to it gradually, by degrees. Work by schedule. See what I mean?'
'Not entirely, sir.'
'Well, I'll give you the details. First thing, you want to find the girl.'
'Just so, sir.'
'Well, when you've found her, what do you do? You just look at her. See what I mean?'
'Not entirely, sir.'
'Look at her, my boy. That's just the start—the foundation. You develop from that. But you keep away. That's the point. I've thought this thing out. Mind you, I don't claim absolutely all the credit for the idea myself. It's by way of being based on Christian Science. Absent treatment, and all that. But most of it's mine. All the fine work.'
'Yes. Absolutely all the fine work. Here's the thing in a nutshell. You find the girl. Right. Of course, you've got to meet her once, just to establish the connexion. Then you get busy. First week, looks. Just look at her. Second week, letters. Write to her every day. Third week, flowers. Send her some every afternoon. Fourth week, presents with a bit more class about them. Bit of jewellery now and then. See what I mean? Fifth week,—lunches and suppers and things. Sixth week, propose, though you can do it in the fifth week if you see a chance. You've got to leave that to the fellow's judgement. Well, there you are. See what I mean?'
Wilson stropped his master's razor thoughtfully.
'A trifle elaborate, sir, is it not?' he said.
Rollo thumped the counterpane.
'I knew you'd say that. That's what nine fellows out of ten would say. They'd want to rush it. I tell you, Wilson, old scout, you can't rush it.'
Wilson brooded awhile, his mind back in the passionate past.
'In Market Bumpstead, sir—'
'What the deuce is Market Bumpstead?'
'A village, sir, where I lived until I came to London.'
'In Market Bumpstead, sir, the prevailing custom was to escort the young lady home from church, buy her some little present—some ribbons, possibly—next day, take her for a walk, and kiss her, sir.'
Wilson's voice, as he unfolded these devices of the dashing youth of Market Bumpstead, had taken on an animation quite unsuitable to a conscientious valet. He gave the impression of a man who does not depend on idle rumour for his facts. His eye gleamed unprofessionally for a moment before resuming its habitual expression of quiet introspection.
Rollo shook his head.
'That sort of thing might work in a village,' he said, 'but you want something better for London.'
Rollo Finch—in the present unsatisfactory state of the law parents may still christen a child Rollo—was a youth to whom Nature had given a cheerful disposition not marred by any superfluity of brain. Everyone liked Rollo—the great majority on sight, the rest as soon as they heard that he would be a millionaire on the death of his Uncle Andrew. There is a subtle something, a sort of nebulous charm, as it were, about young men who will be millionaires on the death of their Uncle Andrew which softens the ruggedest misanthrope.
Rollo's mother had been a Miss Galloway, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.; and Andrew Galloway, the world-famous Braces King, the inventor and proprietor of the inimitable 'Tried and Proven', was her brother. His braces had penetrated to every corner of the earth. Wherever civilization reigned you would find men wearing Galloway's 'Tried and Proven'.
Between Rollo and this human benefactor there had always existed friendly relations, and it was an open secret that, unless his uncle were to marry and supply the world with little Galloways as well as braces, the young man would come into his money.
So Rollo moved on his way through life, popular and happy. Always merry and bright. That was Rollo.
Or nearly always. For there were moments—we all have our greyer moments—when he could have wished that Mr Galloway had been a trifle older or a trifle less robust. The Braces potentate was at present passing, in excellent health, through the Indian summer of life. He was, moreover, as has been stated, by birth and residence a Pittsburgh man. And the tendency of middle-aged Pittsburgh millionaires to marry chorus-girls is notoriously like the homing instinct of pigeons. Something—it may be the smoke—seems to work on them like a charm.
In the case of Andrew Galloway, Nature had been thwarted up till now by the accident of an unfortunate attachment in early life. The facts were not fully known, but it was generally understood that his fiancee had exercised Woman's prerogative and changed her mind. Also, that she had done this on the actual wedding-day, causing annoyance to all, and had clinched the matter by eloping to Jersey City with the prospective bridegroom's own coachman. Whatever the facts, there was no doubt about their result. Mr Galloway, having abjured woman utterly, had flung himself with moody energy into the manufacture and propagation of his 'Tried and Proven' Braces, and had found consolation in it ever since. He would be strong, he told himself, like his braces. Hearts might snap beneath a sudden strain. Not so the 'Tried and Proven'. Love might tug and tug again, but never more should the trousers of passion break away from the tough, masterful braces of self-control.
As Mr Galloway had been in this frame of mind for a matter of eleven years, it seemed to Rollo not unreasonable to hope that he might continue in it permanently. He had the very strongest objection to his uncle marrying a chorus-girl; and, as the years went on and the disaster did not happen, his hopes of playing the role of heir till the fall of the curtain grew stronger and stronger. He was one of those young men who must be heirs or nothing. This is the age of the specialist, and years ago Rollo had settled on his career. Even as a boy, hardly capable of connected thought, he had been convinced that his speciality, the one thing he could do really well, was to inherit money. All he wanted was a chance. It would be bitter if Fate should withhold it from him.
He did not object on principle to men marrying chorus-girls. On the contrary, he wanted to marry one himself.
It was this fact which had given that turn to his thoughts which had finally resulted in the schedule.
The first intimation that Wilson had that the schedule was actually to be put into practical operation was when his employer, one Monday evening, requested him to buy a medium-sized bunch of the best red roses and deliver them personally, with a note, to Miss Marguerite Parker at the stage-door of the Duke of Cornwall's Theatre.
Wilson received the order in his customary gravely deferential manner, and was turning to go; but Rollo had more to add.
'Flowers, Wilson,' he said, significantly.
'So I understood you to say, sir. I will see to it at once.'
'See what I mean? Third week, Wilson.'
Rollo remained for a moment in what he would have called thought.
'Charming girl, Wilson.'
'Seen the show?'
'Not yet, sir.'
'You should,' said Rollo, earnestly. 'Take my advice, old scout, and see it first chance you get. It's topping. I've had the same seat in the middle of the front row of the stalls for two weeks.'
'Looks, Wilson! The good old schedule.'
'Have you noticed any satisfactory results, sir?'
'It's working. On Saturday night she looked at me five times. She's a delightful girl, Wilson. Nice, quiet girl—not the usual sort. I met her first at a lunch at Oddy's. She's the last girl on the O.P. side. I'm sure you'd like her, Wilson.'
'I have every confidence in your taste, sir.'
'You'll see her for yourself this evening. Don't let the fellow at the stage-door put you off. Slip him half a crown or a couple of quid or something, and say you must see her personally. Are you a close observer, Wilson?'
'I think so, sir.'
'Because I want you to notice particularly how she takes it. See that she reads the note in your presence. I've taken a good deal of trouble over that note, Wilson. It's a good note. Well expressed. Watch her face while she's reading it.'
'Very good, sir. Excuse me, sir.'
'I had almost forgotten to mention it. Mr Galloway rang up on the telephone shortly before you came in.'
'What! Is he in England?'
Mr Galloway was in the habit of taking occasional trips to Great Britain to confer with the general manager of his London branch. Rollo had grown accustomed to receiving no notice of these visits.
'He arrived two days ago on the Baltic, sir. He left a message that he was in London for a week, and would be glad if you would dine with him tomorrow at his club.'
Rollo nodded. On these occasions it was his practice to hold himself unreservedly at Mr Galloway's disposal. The latter's invitations were royal commands. Rollo was glad that the visit had happened now. In another two weeks it might have been disastrous to the schedule.
The club to which the Braces King belonged was a richly but gloomily furnished building in Pall Mall, a place of soft carpets, shaded lights, and whispers. Grave, elderly men moved noiselessly to and fro, or sat in meditative silence in deep arm-chairs. Sometimes the visitor felt that he was in a cathedral, sometimes in a Turkish bath; while now and then there was a suggestion of the waiting-room of a more than usually prosperous dentist. It was magnificent, but not exhilarating.
Rollo was shown into the smoking-room, where his uncle received him. There was a good deal of Mr Andrew Galloway. Grief, gnawing at his heart, had not sagged his ample waistcoat, which preceded him as he moved in much the same manner as Birnam Woods preceded the army of Macduff. A well-nourished hand crept round the corner of the edifice and enveloped Rollo's in a powerful grip.
'Ah, my boy!' bellowed Mr Galloway cheerfully. His voice was always loud. 'Glad you've come.'
It would be absurd to say that Rollo looked at his uncle keenly. He was not capable of looking keenly at anyone. But certainly a puzzled expression came into his face. Whether it was the heartiness of the other's handshake or the unusual cheeriness of his voice, he could not say; but something gave him the impression that a curious change had come over the Braces King. When they had met before during the last few years Mr Galloway had been practically sixteen stone five of blood and iron—one of those stern, soured men. His attitude had been that of one for whom Life's music had ceased. Had he then inserted another record? His manner conveyed that idea.
Sustained thought always gave Rollo a headache. He ceased to speculate.
'Still got the same chef here, uncle?' he said. 'Deuced brainy fellow. I always like dining here.'
'Here!' Mr Galloway surveyed the somnolent occupants of the room with spirited scorn. 'We aren't going to dine in this forsaken old mausoleum. I've sent in my resignation today. If I find myself wanting this sort of thing at any time, I'll go to Paris and hunt up the Morgue. Bunch of old dead-beats! Bah! I've engaged a table at Romano's. That's more in my line. Get your coat, and let's be going.'
In the cab Rollo risked the headache. At whatever cost this thing must be pondered over. His uncle prattled gaily throughout the journey. Once he whooped—some weird, forgotten college yell, dragged from the misty depths of the past. It was passing strange. And in this unusual manner the two rolled into the Strand, and drew up at Romano's door.
Mr Galloway was a good trencherman. At a very early date he had realized that a man who wishes to make satisfactory braces must keep his strength up. He wanted a good deal here below, and he wanted it warm and well cooked. It was, therefore, not immediately that his dinner with Rollo became a feast of reason and a flow of soul. Indeed, the two revellers had lighted their cigars before the elder gave forth any remark that was not purely gastronomic.
When he did jerk the conversation up on to a higher plane, he jerked it hard. He sent it shooting into the realms of the soulful with a whiz.
'Rollo,' he said, blowing a smoke-ring, 'do you believe in affinities?'
Rollo, in the act of sipping a liqueur brandy, lowered his glass in surprise. His head was singing slightly as the result of some rather spirited Bollinger (extra sec), and he wondered if he had heard aright.
Mr Galloway continued, his voice rising as he spoke.
'My boy,' he said, 'I feel young tonight for the first time in years. And, hang it, I'm not so old! Men have married at twice my age.'
Strictly speaking, this was incorrect, unless one counted Methuselah; but perhaps Mr Galloway spoke figuratively.
'Three times my age,' he proceeded, leaning back and blowing smoke, thereby missing his nephew's agitated start. 'Four times my age. Five times my age. Six—'
He pulled himself together in some confusion. A generous wine, that Bollinger. He must be careful. He coughed.
'Are you—you aren't—are you—' Rollo paused. 'Are you thinking of getting married, uncle?'
Mr Galloway's gaze was still on the ceiling.
'A great deal of nonsense,' he yelled severely, 'is talked about men lowering themselves by marrying actresses. I was a guest at a supper-party last night at which an actress was present. And a more charming, sensible girl I never wish to meet. Not one of your silly, brainless chits who don't know the difference between lobster Newburg and canvas-back duck, and who prefer sweet champagne to dry. No, sir! Not one of your mincing, affected kind who pretend they never touch anything except a spoonful of cold consomme. No, sir! Good, healthy appetite. Enjoyed her food, and knew why she was enjoying it. I give you my word, my boy, until I met her I didn't know a woman existed who could talk so damned sensibly about a bavaroise au rhum.'
He suspended his striking tribute in order to relight his cigar.
'She can use a chafing-dish,' he resumed, his voice vibrating with emotion. 'She told me so. She said she could fix chicken so that a man would leave home for it.' He paused, momentarily overcome. 'And Welsh rarebits,' he added reverently.
He puffed hard at his cigar.
'Yes,' he said. 'Welsh rarebits, too. And because,' he shouted wrathfully, 'because, forsooth, she earns an honest living by singing in the chorus of a comic opera, a whole bunch of snivelling idiots will say I have made a fool of myself. Let them!' he bellowed, sitting up and glaring at Rollo. 'I say, let them! I'll show them that Andrew Galloway is not the man to—to—is not the man—' He stopped. 'Well, anyway, I'll show them,' he concluded rather lamely.
Rollo eyed him with fallen jaw. His liqueur had turned to wormwood. He had been fearing this for years. You may drive out Nature with a pitchfork, but she will return. Blood will tell. Once a Pittsburgh millionaire, always a Pittsburgh millionaire. For eleven years his uncle had fought against his natural propensities, with apparent success; but Nature had won in the end. His words could have no other meaning. Andrew Galloway was going to marry a chorus-girl.
Mr Galloway rapped on the table, and ordered another kummel.
'Marguerite Parker!' he roared dreamily, rolling the words round his tongue, like port.
'Marguerite Parker!' exclaimed Rollo, bounding in his chair.
His uncle met his eye sternly.
'That was the name I said. You seem to know it. Perhaps you have something to say against the lady. Eh? Have you? Have you? I warn you to be careful. What do you know of Miss Parker? Speak!'
'Er—no, no. Oh, no! I just know the name, that's all. I—I rather think I met her once at lunch. Or it may have been somebody else. I know it was someone.'
He plunged at his glass. His uncle's gaze relaxed its austerity.
'I hope you will meet her many more times at lunch, my boy. I hope you will come to look upon her as a second mother.'
This was where Rollo asked if he might have a little more brandy.
When the restorative came he drank it at a gulp; then looked across at his uncle. The great man still mused.
'Er—when is it to be?' asked Rollo. 'The wedding, and all that?'
'Hardly before the Fall, I think. No, not before the Fall. I shall be busy till then. I have taken no steps in the matter yet.'
'No steps? You mean—? Haven't you—haven't you proposed?'
'I have had no time. Be reasonable, my boy; be reasonable.'
'Oh!' said Rollo.
He breathed a long breath. A suspicion of silver lining had become visible through the clouds.
'I doubt,' said Mr Galloway, meditatively, 'if I shall be able to find time till the end of the week. I am very busy. Let me see. Tomorrow? No. Meeting of the shareholders. Thursday? Friday? No. No, it will have to stand over till Saturday. After Saturday's matinee. That will do excellently.'
There is a dramatic spectacle to be observed every day in this land of ours, which, though deserving of recognition, no artist has yet pictured on canvas. We allude to the suburban season-ticket holder's sudden flash of speed. Everyone must have seen at one time or another a happy, bright-faced season-ticket holder strolling placidly towards the station, humming, perhaps, in his light-heartedness, some gay air. He feels secure. Fate cannot touch him, for he has left himself for once plenty of time to catch that 8.50, for which he has so often sprinted like the gazelle of the prairie. As he strolls, suddenly his eye falls on the church clock. The next moment with a passionate cry he is endeavouring to lower his record for the fifty-yard dash. All the while his watch has been fifteen minutes slow.
In just such a case was Rollo Finch. He had fancied that he had plenty of time. And now, in an instant, the fact was borne in upon him that he must hurry.
For the greater part of the night of his uncle's dinner he lay sleepless, vainly endeavouring to find a way out of the difficulty. It was not till early morning that he faced the inevitable. He hated to abandon the schedule. To do so meant changing a well-ordered advance into a forlorn hope. But circumstances compelled it. There are moments when speed alone can save love's season-ticket holder.
On the following afternoon he acted. It was no occasion for stint. He had to condense into one day the carefully considered movements of two weeks, and to the best of his ability he did so. He bought three bouquets, a bracelet, and a gold Billiken with ruby eyes, and sent them to the theatre by messenger-boy. With them went an invitation to supper.
Then, with the feeling that he had done all that was possible, he returned to his flat and waited for the hour.
He dressed with more than usual care that night. Your wise general never throws away a move. He was particular about his tie. As a rule, Wilson selected one for him. But there had been times when Wilson had made mistakes. One could not rely absolutely on Wilson's taste in ties. He did not blame him. Better men than Wilson had gone wrong over an evening tie. But tonight there must be no taking of chances.
'Where do we keep our ties, Wilson?' he asked.
'The closet to the right of the door, sir. The first twelve shallow shelves, counting from the top, sir. They contain a fair selection of our various cravats. Replicas in bulk are to be found in the third nest of drawers in your dressing-room, sir.'
'I only want one, my good man. I'm not a regiment. Ah! I stake all on this one. Not a word, Wilson. No discussion. This is the tie I wear. What's the time?'
'Eight minutes to eleven, sir.'
'I must be off. I shall be late. I shan't want you any more tonight.
Don't wait for me.'
'Very good, sir.'
Rollo left the room, pale but determined, and hailed a taxi.
It is a pleasant spot, the vestibule of the Carlton Hotel. Glare—glitter—distant music—fair women—brave men. But one can have too much of it, and as the moments pass, and she does not arrive, a chill seems to creep into the atmosphere. We wait on, hoping against hope, and at last, just as waiters and commissionaires are beginning to eye us with suspicion, we face the truth. She is not coming. Then out we crawl into cold, callous Pall Mall, and so home. You have been through it, dear reader, and so have I.
And so, at eleven forty-five that evening, had Rollo. For a full three-quarters of an hour he waited, scanning the face of each new arrival with the anxious scrutiny of a lost dog seeking its master; but at fourteen minutes to twelve the last faint flicker of hope had died away. A girl may be a quarter of an hour late for supper. She may be half an hour late. But there is a limit, and to Rollo's mind forty-five minutes passed it. At ten minutes to twelve a uniformed official outside the Carlton signalled to a taxi-cab, and there entered it a young man whose faith in Woman was dead.
Rollo meditated bitterly as he drove home. It was not so much the fact that she had not come that stirred him. Many things may keep a girl from supper. It was the calm way in which she had ignored the invitation. When you send a girl three bouquets, a bracelet, and a gold Billiken with ruby eyes, you do not expect an entire absence of recognition. Even a penny-in-the-slot machine treats you better than that. It may give you hairpins when you want matches but at least it takes some notice of you.
He was still deep in gloomy thought when he inserted his latchkey and opened the door of his flat.
He was roused from his reflections by a laugh from the sitting-room. He started. It was a pleasant laugh, and musical, but it sent Rollo diving, outraged, for the handle of the door. What was a woman doing in his sitting-room at this hour? Was his flat an hotel?
The advent of an unbidden guest rarely fails to produce a certain gêne. The sudden appearance of Rollo caused a dead silence.
It was broken by the fall of a chair on the carpet as Wilson rose hurriedly to his feet.
Rollo stood in the doorway, an impressive statue of restrained indignation. He could see the outlying portions of a girl in blue at the further end of the table, but Wilson obscured his vision.
'Didn't expect you back, sir,' said Wilson.
For the first time in the history of their acquaintance his accustomed calm seemed somewhat ruffled.
'So I should think,' said Rollo. 'I believe you, by George!'
'You had better explain, Jim,' said a dispassionate voice from the end of the table.
Wilson stepped aside.
'My wife, sir,' he said, apologetically, but with pride.
'We were married this morning, sir.'
The lady nodded cheerfully at Rollo. She was small and slight, with an impudent nose and a mass of brown hair.
'Awfully glad to meet you,' she said, cracking a walnut.
She looked at him again.
'We've met, haven't we? Oh yes, I remember. We met at lunch once. And you sent me some flowers. It was ever so kind of you,' she said, beaming.
She cracked another nut. She seemed to consider that the introductions were complete and that formality could now be dispensed with once more. She appeared at peace with all men.
The situation was slipping from Rollo's grip. He continued to gape.
Then he remembered his grievance.
'I think you might have let me know you weren't coming to supper.'
'I sent a note to the theatre this afternoon.'
'I haven't been to the theatre today. They let me off because I was going to be married. I'm so sorry. I hope you didn't wait long.'
Rollo's resentment melted before the friendliness of her smile.
'Hardly any time,' he said, untruthfully.
'If I might explain, sir,' said Wilson.
'By George! If you can, you'll save me from a brainstorm. Cut loose, and don't be afraid you'll bore me. You won't.'
'Mrs Wilson and I are old friends, sir. We come from the same town. In fact—'
Rollo's face cleared.
'By George! Market what's-its-name! Why, of course. Then she—'
'Just so, sir. If you recollect, you asked me once if I had ever been in love, and I replied in the affirmative.'
'And it was—'
'Mrs Wilson and I were engaged to be married before either of us came to London. There was a misunderstanding, which was entirely my—'
'Jim! It was mine.'
'No, it was all through my being a fool.'
'It was not. You know it wasn't!'
'And when you sent me with the flowers, sir—well, we talked it over again, and—that was how it came about, sir.'
The bride looked up from her walnuts.
'You aren't angry?' she smiled up at Rollo.
'Angry?' He reflected. Of course, it was only reasonable that he should be a little—well, not exactly angry, but—And then for the first time it came to him that the situation was not entirely without its compensations. Until that moment he had completely forgotten Mr Galloway.
'Angry?' he said. 'Great Scott, no! Jolly glad I came back in time to get a bit of the wedding-breakfast. I want it, I can tell you. I'm hungry. Here we all are, eh? Let's enjoy ourselves. Wilson, old scout, bustle about and give us your imitation of a bridegroom mixing a "B. and S." for the best man. Mrs Wilson, if you'll look in at the theatre tomorrow you'll find one or two small wedding presents waiting for you. Three bouquets—they'll be a bit withered, I'm afraid—a bracelet, and a gold Billiken with ruby eyes. I hope he'll bring you luck. Oh, Wilson!'
'Touching this little business—don't answer if it's a delicate question, but I should like to know—I suppose you didn't try the schedule. What? More the Market Thingummy method, eh? The one you described to me?'
'Market Bumpstead, sir?' said Wilson. 'On those lines.'
Rollo nodded thoughtfully.
'It seems to me,' he said, 'they know a thing or two down in Market Bumpstead.'
'A very rising little place, sir,' assented Wilson.