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   Chapter 1 THE GREAT IDEA

The Disentanglers By Andrew Lang Characters: 21735

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The scene was a dusky shabby little room in Ryder Street. To such caves many repair whose days are passed, and whose food is consumed, in the clubs of the adjacent thoroughfare of cooperative palaces, Pall Mall. The furniture was battered and dingy; the sofa on which Logan sprawled had a certain historic interest: it was covered with cloth of horsehair, now seldom found by the amateur. A bookcase with glass doors held a crowd of books to which the amateur would at once have flown. They were in 'boards' of faded blue, and the paper labels bore alluring names: they were all First Editions of the most desirable kind. The bottles in the liqueur case were antique; a coat of arms, not undistinguished, was in relief on the silver stoppers. But the liquors in the flasks were humble and conventional. Merton, the tenant of the rooms, was in a Zingari cricketing coat; he occupied the arm-chair, while Logan, in evening dress, maintained a difficult equilibrium on the slippery sofa. Both men were of an age between twenty-five and twenty-nine, both were pleasant to the eye. Merton was, if anything, under the middle height: fair, slim, and active. As a freshman he had coxed his College Eight, later he rowed Bow in that vessel. He had won the Hurdles, but been beaten by his Cambridge opponent; he had taken a fair second in Greats, was believed to have been 'runner up' for the Newdigate prize poem, and might have won other laurels, but that he was found to do the female parts very fairly in the dramatic performances of the University, a thing irreconcilable with study. His father was a rural dean. Merton's most obvious vice was a thirst for general information. 'I know it is awfully bad form to know anything,' he had been heard to say, 'but everyone has his failings, and mine is occasionally useful.'

Logan was tall, dark, athletic and indolent. He was, in a way, the last of an historic Scottish family, and rather fond of discoursing on the ancestral traditions. But any satisfaction that he derived from them was, so far, all that his birth had won for him. His little patrimony had taken to itself wings. Merton was in no better case. Both, as they sat together, were gloomily discussing their prospects.

In the penumbra of smoke, and the malignant light of an ill trimmed lamp, the Great Idea was to be evolved. What consequences hung on the Great Idea! The peace of families insured, at a trifling premium. Innocence rescued. The defeat of the subtlest criminal designers: undreamed of benefits to natural science! But I anticipate. We return to the conversation in the Ryder Street den.

'It is a case of emigration or the workhouse,' said Logan.

'Emigration! What can you or I do in the Colonies? They provide even their own ushers. My only available assets, a little Greek and less Latin, are drugs in the Melbourne market,' answered Merton; 'they breed their own dominies. Protection!'

'In America they might pay for lessons in the English accent . . . ' said Logan.

'But not,' said Merton, 'in the Scotch, which is yours; oh distant cousin of a marquis! Consequently by rich American lady pupils "you are not one to be desired."'

'Tommy, you are impertinent,' said Logan. 'Oh, hang it, where is there an opening, a demand, for the broken, the stoney broke? A man cannot live by casual paragraphs alone.'

'And these generally reckoned "too high-toned for our readers,"' said Merton.

'If I could get the secretaryship of a golf club!' Logan sighed.

'If you could get the Chancellorship of the Exchequer! I reckon that there are two million applicants for secretaryships of golf clubs.'

'Or a land agency,' Logan murmured.

'Oh, be practical!' cried Merton. 'Be inventive! Be modern! Be up to date! Think of something new! Think of a felt want, as the Covenanting divine calls it: a real public need, hitherto but dimly present, and quite a demand without a supply.'

'But that means thousands in advertisements,' said Logan, 'even if we ran a hair-restorer. The ground bait is too expensive. I say, I once knew a fellow who ground-baited for salmon with potted shrimps.'

'Make a paragraph on him then,' said Merton.

'But results proved that there was no felt want of potted shrimps-or not of a fly to follow.'

'Your collaboration in the search, the hunt for money, the quest, consists merely in irrelevancies and objections,' growled Merton, lighting a cigarette.

'Lucky devil, Peter Nevison. Meets an heiress on a Channel boat, with 4,000l. a year; and there he is.' Logan basked in the reflected sunshine.

'Cut by her people, though-and other people. I could not have faced the row with her people,' said Merton musingly.

'I don't wonder they moved heaven and earth, and her uncle, the bishop, to stop it. Not eligible, Peter was not, however you took him,' Logan reflected. 'Took too much of this,' he pointed to the heraldic flask.

'Well, she took him. It is not much that parents, still less guardians, can do now, when a girl's mind is made up.'

'The emancipation of woman is the opportunity of the indigent male struggler. Women have their way,' Logan reflected.

'And the youth of the modern aged is the opportunity of our sisters, the girls "on the make,"' said Merton. 'What a lot of old men of title are marrying young women as hard up as we are!'

'And then,' said Logan, 'the offspring of the deceased marchionesses make a fuss. In fact marriage is always the signal for a family row.'

'It is the infernal family row that I never could face. I had a chance-'

Merton seemed likely to drop into autobiography.

'I know,' said Logan admonishingly.

'Well, hanged if I could take it, and she-she could not stand it either, and both of us-'

'Do not be elegiac,' interrupted Logan. 'I know. Still, I am rather sorry for people's people. The unruly affections simply poison the lives of parents and guardians, aye, and of the children too. The aged are now so hasty and imprudent. What would not Tala have given to prevent his Grace from marrying Mrs. Tankerville?'

Merton leapt to his feet and smote his brow.

'Wait, don't speak to me-a great thought flushes all my brain. Hush! I have it,' and he sat down again, pouring seltzer water into a half empty glass.

'Have what?' asked Logan.

'The Felt Want. But the accomplices?'

'But the advertisements!' suggested Logan.

'A few pounds will cover them. I can sell my books,' Merton sighed.

'A lot of advertising your first editions will pay for. Why, even to launch a hair-restorer takes-'

'Oh, but,' Merton broke in, 'this want is so widely felt, acutely felt too: hair is not in it. But where are the accomplices?'

'If it is gentleman burglars I am not concerned. No Raffles for me! If it is venal physicians to kill off rich relations, the lives of the Logans are sacred to me.'

'Bosh!' said Merton, 'I want "lady friends," as Tennyson says: nice girls, well born, well bred, trying to support themselves.'

'What do you want them for? To support them?'

'I want them as accomplices,' said Merton. 'As collaborators.'

'Blackmail?' asked Logan. 'Has it come to this? I draw the line at blackmail. Besides, they would starve first, good girls would; or marry Lord Methusalem, or a beastly South African richard.'

'Robert Logan of Restalrig, that should be'-Merton spoke impressively-'you know me to be incapable of practices, however lucrative, which involve taint of crime. I do not prey upon the society which I propose to benefit. But where are the girls?'

'Where are they not?' Logan asked. 'Dawdling, as jesters, from country house to country house. In the British Museum, verifying references for literary gents, if they can get references to verify. Asking leave to describe their friends' parties in The Leidy's News. Trying for places as golfing governesses, or bridge governesses, or gymnastic mistresses at girls' schools, or lady laundresses, or typewriters, or lady teachers of cookery, or pegs to hang costumes on at dress-makers'. The most beautiful girl I ever saw was doing that once; I met her when I was shopping with my aunt who left her money to the Armenians.'

'You kept up her acquaintance? The girl's, I mean,' Merton asked.

'We have occasionally met. In fact-'

'Yes, I know, as you said lately,' Merton remarked. 'That's one, anyhow, and there is Mary Willoughby, who got a second in history when I was up. She would do. Better business for her than the British Museum. I know three or four.'

'I know five or six. But what for?' Logan insisted.

'To help us in supplying the widely felt want, which is my discovery,' said Merton.

'And that is?'

'Disentanglers-of both sexes. A large and varied staff, calculated to meet every requirement and cope with every circumstance.' Merton quoted an unwritten prospectus.

'I don't follow. What the deuce is your felt want?'

'What we were talking about.'

'Ground bait for salmon?' Logan reverted to his idea.

'No. Family rows about marriages. Nasty letters. Refusals to recognise the choice of a son, a daughter, or a widowed but youthful old parent, among the upper classes. Harsh words. Refusals to allow meetings or correspondence. Broken hearts. Improvident marriages. Preaching down a daughter's heart, or an aged parent's heart, or a nephew's, or a niece's, or a ward's, or anybody's heart. Peace restored to the household. Intended marriage off, and nobody a penny the worse, unless-'

'Unless what?' said Logan.

'Practical difficulties,' said Merton, 'will occur in every enterprise. But they won't be to our disadvantage, the reverse-if they don't happen too often. And we can guard against that by a scientific process.'

'Now will you explain,' Logan asked, 'or shall I pour this whisky and water down the back of your neck?'

He rose to his feet, menace in his eye.

'Bear fighting barred! We are no longer boys. We are men-broken men. Sit down, don't play the bear,' said Merton.

'Well, explain, or I fire!'

'Don't you see? The problem for the family, for hundreds of families, is to get the undesirable marriage off without the usual row. Very few people really like a row. Daughter becomes an?mic; foreign cures are expensive and no good. Son goes to the Devil or the Cape. Aged and opulent, but amorous, parent leaves everything he can scrape together to disapproved of new wife. Relations cut each other all round. Not many people really enjoy that kind of thing. They want a pacific solution-marriage off, no remonstrances.'

'And how are you going to do it?'

'Why,' said Merton, 'by a scientific and thoroughly organised system of disengaging or disentangling. We enlist a lot of girls and fellows like ourselves, beautiful, attractive, young, or not so young, well connected, intellectual, athletic, and of all sorts of types, but al

l broke, all without visible means of subsistence. They are people welcome in country houses, but travelling third class, and devilishly perplexed about how to tip the servants, how to pay if they lose at bridge, and so forth. We enlist them, we send them out on demand, carefully selecting our agents to meet the circumstances in each case. They go down and disentangle the amorous by-well, by entangling them. The lovers are off with the old love, the love which causes all the worry, without being on with the new love-our agent. The thing quietly fizzles out.'

'Quietly!' Logan snorted. 'I like "quietly." They would be on with the new love. Don't you see, you born gomeral, that the person, man or woman, who deserts the inconvenient A.-I put an A. B. case-falls in love with your agent B., and your B. is, by the nature of the thing, more ineligible than A.-too poor. A babe could see that. You disappoint me, Merton.'

'You state,' said Merton, 'one of the practical difficulties which I foresaw. Not that it does not suit us very well. Our comrade and friend, man or woman, gets a chance of a good marriage, and, Logan, there is no better thing. But parents and guardians would not stand much of that: of people marrying our agents.'

'Of course they wouldn't. Your idea is crazy.'

'Wait a moment,' said Merton. 'The resources of science are not yet exhausted. You have heard of the epoch-making discovery of Jenner, and its beneficent results in checking the ravages of smallpox, that scourge of the human race?'

'Oh don't talk like a printed book,' Logan remonstrated. 'Everybody has heard of vaccination.'

'And you are aware that similar prophylactic measures have been adopted, with more or less of success, in the case of other diseases?'

'I am aware,' said Logan, 'that you are in danger of personal suffering at my hands, as I already warned you.'

'What is love but a disease?' Merton asked dreamily. 'A French savant, Monsieur Janet, says that nobody ever falls in love except when he is a little bit off colour: I forget the French equivalent.'

'I am coming for you,' Logan arose in wrath.

'Sit down. Well, your objection (which it did not need the eyes of an Argus to discover) is that the patients, the lovers young, whose loves are disapproved of by the family, will fall in love with our agents, insist on marrying them, and so the last state of these afflicted parents-or children-will be worse than the first. Is that your objection?'

'Of course it is; and crushing at that,' Logan replied.

'Then science suggests prophylactic measures: something akin to vaccination,' Merton explained. 'The agents must be warranted "immune." Nice new word!'

'How?'

'The object,' Merton answered, 'is to make it impossible, or highly improbable, that our agents, after disentangling the affections of the patients, curing them of one attack, will accept their addresses, offered in a second fit of the fever. In brief, the agents must not marry the patients, or not often.'

'But how can you prevent them if they want to do it?'

'By a process akin, in the emotional region of our strangely blended nature, to inoculation.'

'Hanged if I understand you. You keep on repeating yourself. You dodder!'

'Our agents must have got the disease already, the pretty fever; and be safe against infection. There must be on the side of the agent a prior attachment. Now, don't interrupt, there always is a prior attachment. You are in love, I am in love, he, she, and they, all of the broken brigade, are in love; all the more because they have not a chance. "Cursed be the social wants that sin against the strength of youth." So, you see, our agents will be quite safe not to crown the flame of the patients, not to accept them, if they do propose, or expect a proposal. "Every security from infection guaranteed." There is the felt want. Here is the remedy; not warranted absolutely painless, but salutary, and tending to the amelioration of the species. So we have only to enlist the agents, and send a few advertisements to the papers. My first editions must go. Farewell Shelley, Tennyson, Keats, uncut Waverleys, Byron, The Waltz, early Kiplings (at a vast reduction on account of the overflooded state of the market). Farewell Kilmarnock edition of Burns, and Colonel Lovelace, his Lucasta, and Tamerlane by Mr. Poe, and the rest. The money must be raised.' Merton looked resigned.

'I have nothing to sell,' said Logan, 'but an entire set of clubs by Philp. Guaranteed unique, and in exquisite condition.'

'You must part with them,' said Merton. 'We are like Palissy the potter, feeding his furnace with the drawing-room furniture.'

'But how about the recruiting?' Logan asked. 'It's like one of these novels where you begin by collecting desperados from all quarters, and then the shooting commences.'

'Well, we need not ransack the Colonies,' Merton replied. 'Patronise British industries. We know some fellows already and some young women.'

'I say,' Logan interrupted, 'what a dab at disentangling Lumley would have been if he had not got that Professorship of Toxicology at Edinburgh, and been able to marry Miss Wingan at last!'

'Yes, and Miss Wingan would have been useful. What a lively girl, ready for everything,' Merton replied.

'But these we can still get at,' Logan asked: 'how are you to be sure that they are-vaccinated?'

'The inquiry is delicate,' Merton admitted, 'but the fact may be almost taken for granted. We must give a dinner (a preliminary expense) to promising collaborators, and champagne is a great promoter of success in delicate inquiries. In vino veritas.'

'I don't know if there is money in it, but there is a kind of larkiness,' Logan admitted.

'Yes, I think there will be larks.'

'About the dinner? We are not to have Johnnies disguised as hansom cabbies driving about, and picking up men and women that look the right sort, in the streets, and compelling them to come in?'

'Oh no, that expense we can cut. It would not do with the women, obviously: heavens, what queer fishes that net would catch! The flag of the Disentanglers shall never be stained by-anything. You know some likely agents: I know some likely agents. They will suggest others, as our field of usefulness widens. Of course there is the oath of secrecy: we shall administer that after dinner to each guest apart.'

'Jolly difficult for those that are mixed up with the press to keep an oath of secrecy!' Logan spoke as a press man.

'We shall only have to do with gentlemen and ladies. The oath is not going to sanction itself with religious terrors. Good form-we shall appeal to a "sense of form"-now so widely diffused by University Extension Lectures on the Beautiful, the Fitting, the-'

'Oh shut up!' cried Logan. 'You always haver after midnight. For, look here, here is an objection; this precious plan of yours, parents and others could work it for themselves. I dare say they do. When they see the affections of a son, or a daughter, or a bereaved father beginning to stray towards A., they probably invite B. to come and stay and act as a lightning conductor. They don't need us.'

'Oh, don't they? They seldom have an eligible and satisfactory lightning conductor at hand, somebody to whom they can trust their dear one. Or, if they have, the dear one has already been bored with the intended lightning conductor (who is old, or plain, or stupid, or familiar, at best), and they won't look at him or her. Now our Disentanglers are not going to be plain, or dull, or old, or stale, or commonplace-we'll take care of that. My dear fellow, don't you know how dismal the parti selected for a man or girl invariably is? Now we provide a different and superior article, a fresh article too, not a familiar bore or a neighbour.'

'Well, there is a good deal in that, as you say,' Logan admitted. 'But decent people will think the whole speculation shady. How are you to get round that? There is something you have forgotten.'

'What?' Merton asked.

'Why it stares you in the face. References. Unexceptionable references; people will expect them all round.'

'Please don't say "unexceptionable"; say "references beyond the reach of cavil."' Merton was a purist. 'It costs more in advertisements, but my phrase at once enlists the sympathy of every liberal and elegant mind. But as to references (and I am glad that you have some common sense, Logan), there is, let me see, there is the Dowager.'

'The divine Alth?a-Marchioness of Bowton?'

'The same,' said Merton. 'The oldest woman, and the most recklessly up-to-date in London. She has seen bien d'autres, and wants to see more.'

'She will do; and my aunt,' Logan said.

'Not, oh, of course not, the one who left her money to the Armenians?' Merton asked.

'No, another. And there's old Lochmaben's young wife, my cousin, widely removed, by marriage. She is American, you know, and perhaps you know her book, Social Experiments?'

'Yes, it is not half bad,' Merton conceded, 'and her heart will be in what I fear she will call "the new departure." And she is pretty, and highly respected in the parish.'

'And there's my aunt I spoke of, or great aunt, Miss Nicky Maxwell. The best old thing: a beautiful monument of old gentility, and she would give her left hand to help any one of the clan.'

'She will do. And there's Mrs. Brown-Smith, Lord Yarrow's daughter, who married the patent soap man. Elle est capable de tout. A real good woman, but full of her fun.'

'That will do for the lady patronesses. We must secure them at once.'

'But won't the clients blab?' Logan suggested.

'They can't,' Merton said. 'They would be laughed at consumedly. It will be their interest to hold their tongues.'

'Well, let us hope that they will see it in that light.' Logan was not too sanguine.

Merton had a better opinion of his enterprise.

'People, if they come to us at all for assistance in these very delicate and intimate affairs, will have too much to lose by talking about them. They may not come, we can only try, but if they come they will be silent as the grave usually is.'

'Well, it is late, and the whisky is low,' said Logan in mournful tones. 'May the morrow's reflections justify the inspiration of-the whisky. Good night!'

'Good night,' said Merton absently.

He sat down when Logan had gone, and wrote a few notes on large sheets of paper. He was elaborating the scheme. 'If collaboration consists in making objections, as the French novelist said, Logan is a rare collaborator,' Merton muttered as he turned out the pallid lamp and went to bed.

Next morning, before dressing, he revolved the scheme. It bore the change of light and survived the inspiration of alcohol. Logan looked in after breakfast. He had no new objections. They proceeded to action.

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