A SURPRISE BEHIND THE VEIL

Windover, or to give him his full name, the Hon. Anthony Charles (afterwards Lord) Windover, apart from possessing a charming personality, has a delightfully epigrammatic turn of speech. It was he who said that a man begins life with ideals about his mother; but ends it with convictions about his wife. On that occasion Bindle had left his seat and, solemnly walking over to Windover, had shaken him warmly by the hand, returning to his chair again without a word.
It was Windover, too, who had once striven to justify celibacy for men by saying that a benedict lived in a fool’s paradise; a bachelor in some other fool’s paradise.
Windover’s meeting with Bindle was most dramatic. Immediately on entering the room with Carruthers, Windover’s eye caught sight of Bindle seated at his small table, the customary large tankard of ale before him, blowing clouds of smoke from his short pipe. Windover had stopped dead and, screwing his glass into the corner of his left eye, a habit of his, gazed fixedly at him who later became our chairman. We were all feeling a little embarrassed, all save Bindle, who returned the gaze with a grin of unconcern. It was he who broke the tension by remarking to Windover.
“You don’t ‘appen to ‘ave a nut about yer, do you sir?”
Windover had laughed and the two shook hands heartily, Windover perhaps a little ashamed of having shown such obvious surprise. As a rule his face is a mask.
“I’m awfully sorry, I was trying to remember where we had met,” he said rather lamely.
“‘Ush, sir, ‘ush!” said Bindle looking round him apprehensively, then in a loud whisper, “It was in Brixton, sir. You was pinched ‘alf an ‘our after me.”
From that time Bindle and Windover became the best of friends.
When, on the death of his elder brother, killed in a bombing-raid, Windover had succeeded to the title, we were all at a loss how to express our sympathy. He is not a man with whom it is easy to condole. He and his brother had been almost inseparables, and both had joined the army immediately on the outbreak of war.
On the Sunday following the tragedy, Windover turned up as usual. He greeted us in his customary manner, and no one liked to say anything about his loss. Bindle, however, seems to possess a genius for solving difficult problems. As he shook hands with Windover he said, “I won’t call yer m’lord jest yet, sir, it’ll only sort o’ remind yer.”
I saw Bindle wince at the grip Windover gave him. Later in the evening Windover remarked to Carruthers, “J.B. always makes me feel exotic,” and we knew he was referring to Bindle’s way of expressing sympathy at his bereavement.
Curiously enough, to the end of the chapter Bindle continued to address Windover as “sir”, possibly as a protest against Angell Herald’s inveterate “my lordliness.”
Windover’s story was just Windover and nobody else, and it is printed just as he narrated it, with injunctions “not to add or omit, lengthen or shorten a single garment.” I have not done so.
How long I had been dead I could not conjecture. I remembered buying a newspaper of the old man who stands at the corner of Piccadilly Place. I recollected that it was my intention to justify, to the smallest possible extent compatible with my instinctive sense of delicacy, the letter of patient optimism that I had received that morning from my tailor. That was all. There had been no death-bed scene, with its pathos of farewells, no Rogers moaning piteously about his future, as he invariably did when my health showed the least deviation from the normal. Yet here was I dead—dead as Free Silver.
In a dingy apartment of four garishly papered walls, upon a straight-backed, black oak settle, I sat gazing into my top hat. That I was dressed for calling did not seem to cause me any very great surprise, nor was I conscious of any tremor, or feeling of diffidence as to my fate. It seemed much as if I were waiting to see my solicitor upon some unimportant matter of business. I knew that I was there to be interrogated as to my past life. I was vaguely conscious that awkward questions would be asked, and that the utmost tact and diplomacy would be required to answer or evade them.
I was speculating as to the probable cause of my death, weighing the claims of a taxi, the end of the world and a bomb, when the door opposite to me opened and a tall angular woman appeared. Given a dusty crape bonnet, she would have passed admirably for a Bayswater caretaker. I was taken aback: in my mind post-mortem interrogation had always been associated with the male sex.
Marvelling that this unattractive Vestal should be an attribute to Eternity, I rose and bowed. My imagination had always pictured the women of the Hereafter as draped in long, white, clinging garments, and possessed of beautiful fluffy wings and a gaze of ineffable love and wonder. The thought of the surprise in store for the sentimental ballad-writers induced a chuckle!
With a gesture of her lean hand, the Vestal motioned me from the room. At the extreme end of a gloomy corridor along which we passed, there appeared a grained door bearing in letters of white the words:—
MRS. GRUNDY
PRIVATE
My interest immediately became stimulated. Here was an entirely unlooked-for development.
“Shall we go in?” I enquired, rather out of a spirit of bravado than anything else.
The Vestal rebuked me with an expressionless stare. Presently the door opened with a startling suddenness and later closed behind us of its own accord.
The second room seemed strangely familiar. On the mantel-piece was a large gilt clock in a glass case, flanked on either side by an enormous pink lustre with its abominable crystal drops. The furniture was either ponderous or “what-notty”, and every possible thing was covered, as if to be undraped were indelicate. On the chairs were antimacassars, table-cloths hid the shameless polish of the wood, the pattern of the Brussels carpet was modified in its flamboyancy by innumerable mats. The walls were a mass of pictures, and in front of the only window were lace curtains of a tint known technically as “ecru.” There were two collections of impossible wax fruits covered by oval glasses, a square case of incredibly active-looking stuffed birds, and a bewildering mass of photographs in frames. Here and there on tables were a few select volumes, ostentatiously laid open with silk hand-painted bookmarks threading through their virgin pages. I identified “The Lady of the Lake,” Smiles, “Self Help,” “Holy Living and Holy Dying,” the works of Martin Tupper, and the inevitable family bible.
At a large round-table opposite to the door sat a presence—a woman in form, in clothing, in everything but sex. It was quizzing Disapproval in black silk, with a gold chain round its neck from which hung a large cameo locket. Its grey hair, very thin on top, was stowed away in a net with appalling precision. It had three chins, and grey eyes, behind which lurked neither soul nor emotion. It was the personification of the triumph of virtue untempted.
I bowed. The eyes regarded me impassively, then turned to the massive volume before them. It was bound in embossed black leather with gilt edges and a heavy gilt clasp. I was incredulous that the Sins of Society could be all contained in one book; but decided that it was made possible by the use of the word “ditto.” Society is never original in anything, least of all its sinning.
In the hope of attracting to myself the attention hitherto considered my due, I began to fidget. Presently, and without looking up, Mrs. Grundy, as I judged her to be, demanded in a smooth, colourless voice:—
“Your name?”
“Anthony Charles Windover,” I responded glibly.
“Age?”
I coughed deprecatingly.
“Age?” It was as if I heard the uninflected accents of Destiny.
“Is it absolutely necessary?” I queried.
“Absolutely!”
“Forty-three. Of course in confidence,” I added hastily.
“There is no confidence in Eternity.”
“Then you, too, are a sceptic?” I ventured. She merely stared at me fixedly, then proceeded to turn over the leaves of the tome in front of her. Soon she found what appeared to be the correct page. After fully a minute’s deliberate contemplation of the entry, she looked up suddenly and regarded me with a solemn gravity that struck me as grotesque.
“Not a very bad case, let’s hope,” I put in cheerfully. “There have been——”
“Silence!”
I started as if shot, and looking round discovered beside me the impassive visage of the ill-favoured Vestal of the ante-room.
“I wish you wouldn’t bawl in my ear like that,” I snapped. “It’s most unpleasant.”
“Anthony Charles Windover,” it was Mrs. Grundy who spoke in a voice that was deep-throated and disapproving, “age forty-three.” She looked up again with her cold and malevolent stare; “yours is a grave record; we will deal with it in detail.”
“Surely, Madam,” I protested, “it is not necessary to go over everything. I am so hopeless at accounts.”
“First there was the case of Cecily Somers,” she proceeded unmoved.
“A mere boy and girl affair. Cecily was young, and—well, it didn’t last long.”
“Then there was the case of Laura Merton,” continued the arch-inquisitor.
“Poor Laura,” I murmured. “I never could resist red hair, and hers was——poor Laura!”
“There were circumstances of a very grave nature.”
“You mean the curate? He was a bloodless creature; besides it all ended happily.”
“You intervened between an affianced man and wife,” continued Mrs. Grundy.
“I am very sorry to appear rude, Madam,” I protested hotly, irritated by the even, colourless tones of her voice, “but it was Laura’s hair that intervened! Am I to blame because she preferred the ripeness of my maturity to the callowness of his inexperience?”
“You caused her mother—an estimable lady—indescribable anguish of soul.”
“She hadn’t one,” I replied, triumphantly, “She was a scheming old——”
“Silence!” fulminated the Vestal again.
“Really, madam,” I protested with asperity, “unless you request this person not to shout in my ear, I shall refuse to remain here another minute.”
“There was Rosie de Lisle——”
“Ah, what ankles! what legs! what——” I was interrupted by a gurgle from the Vestal in whose eyes there was something more than horror. I turned and found Mrs. Grundy obviously striving to regain the power of speech.
Conscious that my ecstasy upon Rosie’s legs had caused the trouble, I hastened to explain that I had seen them in common with the rest of the play-going world.
“Rosie was the belle of the Frivolity,” I proceeded, “Bishops have been known to hasten ordinations, or delay confirmations because of Rosie’s legs. She danced divinely!”
Rosie’s legs seemed to have a remarkable effect upon Mrs. Grundy. She hurriedly turned over the pages of her book and then turned them back again.
“There was Evelyn Relton——” NORFLOXACIN
“A minx, madam, to adopt the idiom of your sex, whilst my kisses were still warm upon her lips——” Another gurgle from the Vestal and a “look” from Mrs. Grundy,—”she married a wealthy brewer, and is now the mother of eight embryo brewers, or is it nine?”
“You—you are aggravating your case, stammered Mrs. Grundy, with some asperity.
“I am very sorry, but your attitude annoys me; it always did. I’m a social free-trader, a bohemian——”
“STOP!” thundered Mrs. Grundy. “That word is never permitted here.”
“I think you’re extremely suburban,” I replied. “You might be Tooting, or even Brixton from your attitude.”
Ignoring this, Mrs. Grundy proceeded to read the names of a number of women who had long ceased to be to me anything but names. I could not even remember if they were dark or fair, tall or short. At last she reached Mary Vincent, relict of Josiah Vincent, pork-packer of Chicago.
“Why, she was a most shameless person,” I cried. “I am surprised, madam, that you should support such a woman. She actually proposed to me.”
“Ahem!” coughed Mrs. Grundy, apparently somewhat taken aback.
“A fact! She asked me if I did not think a middle-aged man—she was always impertinent—would have a better chance of happiness with a woman of ripe experience, a widow for instance, than with some mere inexperienced girl. Really a most offensive suggestion.”
“It’s very curious,” muttered Mrs. Grundy, as she turned over the leaves in obvious embarrassment. “It’s very curious, but I see no record here of any such conversation.”
“Ha! I thought your books were defective,” I exclaimed, now feeling thoroughly at my ease. “Why, I have letters, shameless letters, from Mrs. Vincent, which would make your hair stand on end.” I did not appreciate until too late how thin and sparse her hair really was.
“We will proceed,” was her response. I was secretly glad that she had dropped that even tone of inevitability and remembered Tully’s axiom “make a woman angry and she is half won over.”
“There was the case of Sir John Plumtree, 26th baronet. You committed a most brutal assault upon that most distinguished man.”
“Plumtree was a bounder, more at home in his own country house than among gentlemen. I certainly did punch his head in the club smoking-room; but do you know why, madam?”
“There is no mention of the cause,” said Mrs. Grundy, a little ill at ease.
“We were discussing a very charming member of your sex”—(Mrs. Grundy started and coughed, the word “sex” evidently distressed her)—”when Plum, as we called him, growled out that all women were—I really cannot repeat it, but he quoted a saying of a well-known Eastern potentate whose matrimonial affairs were somewhat—”
“We will pass on,” said Mrs. Grundy, huskily. I thought I detected a slight reddening of the sallow cheeks, whilst the Vestal coughed loudly.
“I should really prefer not to pass over this little affair so lightly,” I remarked sweetly, seeing my advantage. “There were several circumstances which—”
“We will pass on,” was the firm reply, “I will not proceed with that specific charge.” The smile with which I greeted this concession did not conduce to put my interlocutor at her ease. “There are certain unconventions recorded against you. We will take a few of the most glaring.”
“Why this reticence? Can we not take them all and in chronological order?” I enquired, settling myself in the most comfortless of chairs. Disregarding my request, Mrs. Grundy proceeded:
“On the night of June 7th, 1914, you dined with Mrs. Walker Trevor at ——,” she paused and bent over the register.
“This is very strange,” she muttered, sotto voce. “I don’t quite see the reason of this entry. There seems to have been a mistake.”
“Can I assist you?” I ventured, becoming interested.
She paid no heed to my offer, and after a few minutes’ silence proceeded in the same half-muttering voice.
“Dined with Mrs. Walker Trevor, wife of Captain Walker Trevor, absent on military duty, at Princes, P.R. It does not say what prince, but rank is——” She paused, then continued: “There is no breach of the conventions in dining at a prince’s, even with a married lady whose husband is away. I cannot understand the meaning of P.R. either. It is very strange, very strange indeed.”
Here I broke in. “Permit me, madam, to explain. I think you are labouring under a mistake. Princes is a famous Piccadilly Restaurant, which has lost some of its one-time glory through the opening of the Carlton and the Ritz. ‘P.R.’ of course means Private Room. It was Millicent’s idea.”
At this juncture there was a loud knocking, evidently at the end of the corridor, followed by expostulations in an angry voice and interjections of “Silence!” in what appeared to be a replica of the Vestal’s tones. Mrs. Grundy looked up, scandalised enquiry imprinted on her visage.
“I’m goin’ in, I tell you,” the angry voice was now just outside. “Get out of the way, you old Jezebel! Silence? I’m damned if I’ll be silent. Why I’ve sneezed three times already. Draughty hole! Get out of the way I say.”
The door burst open and there entered a little man in a very great passion. I recognised him instantly as the Duke of Shires, a notorious viveur and director of wild-cat companies. I leant forward and whispered to Mrs. Grundy the name of her illustrious visitor.
“This is an unexpected pleasure, Duke,” I remarked smilingly. He regarded me for a few minutes coldly.
“Who the devil are you, and who’s that old —— sitting there?”—indicating Mrs. Grundy. Then without waiting for a reply, he continued: “I know you now: you’re the feller that said that dashed impertinent thing about my being the Duke of Shares.”
“I had the honour, Duke, of immortalising Your Grace in epigram. Wherever the English language is——”
“Then be damned to you, sir,” was the angry response.
“We were not expecting Your Grace yet,” interposed Mrs. Grundy; I was astonished at the unctuous tones she adopted in speaking to the Duke.
“No, nor I, confound it! I’ve just been knocked down by a taxicab, light green, driver had red hair, couldn’t see his number.”
“I am extremely sorry,” croaked Mrs. Grundy in what she evidently intended to be ingratiating tones. “Will not Your Grace take a seat.”
“No, I won’t!” the Duke tossed his head indignantly. “Draughty hole—damn it, sir, what are you grinning at?”
The remark was directed at me. The little man made a dive in my direction, and in stepping back to avoid him I knocked my head violently against what appeared to be the mantel-piece, although I had been sitting several yards from it.
* * * * *
“What is it?” I looked about dazed. Two policemen were bending over me, and behind them was a sea of interested faces that looked very pale, I was out of doors, apparently sitting on the pavement, with my head propped up upon a policeman’s knee.
“It was a banana skin, sir,” responded one of the policemen, holding up something before my eyes—(how the police love an “exhibit”)—”you ‘urt your ‘ead, sir, but you’re all right now.”
“And Mrs. Grundy and the Duke?” I queried.
“‘Ere’s the stretcher!” said a voice.
“It’s a bad business, I’m afraid ‘e’ll——”
Then my mind trailed off into darkness and my body was trundled off to St. George’s Hospital, from which the almost tearful Rogers later fetched me in a taxi, bemoaning the narrowness, not of my escape from death, but his own from destitution.
“I wonder wot ‘Earty ‘ud think o’ that little yarn,” Bindle remarked meditatively as he tapped the table before him with his mallet in token of applause. As chairman Bindle modelled himself upon him who lords it over the public-house “smoker.” “‘E wouldn’t like to ‘ave to give up ‘is ‘arp with angels flapping about.”
“But it’s only a—a—sort of dream, like mine,” interjected Angell Herald, with a touch of superior knowledge in his voice.
Bindle turned and regarded Angell Herald as if he were an object of great interest. Then when he had apparently satisfied himself in every particular about his identity, he remarked quietly with a grin:
“O’ course it was. Silly o’ me to forget. Poor ole ‘Earty. I wouldn’t ‘ave ‘im disappointed. ‘E’s nuts on ‘arps.”