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   Chapter 2 FROM THE HIGHWAYS AND HEDGES

The Disentanglers By Andrew Lang Characters: 21622

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The first step towards Merton's scheme was taken at once. The lady patronesses were approached. The divine Alth?a instantly came in. She had enjoyed few things more since the Duchess of Richmond's ball on the eve of Waterloo. Miss Nicky Maxwell at first professed a desire to open her coffers, 'only anticipating,' she said, 'an event'-which Logan declined in any sense to anticipate. Lady Lochmaben said that they would have a lovely time as experimental students of society. Mrs. Brown-Smith instantly offered her own services as a Disentangler, her lord being then absent in America studying the negro market for detergents.

'I think,' she said, 'he expects Brown-Smith's brand to make an Ethiopian change his skin, and then means to exhibit him as an advertisement.'

'And settle the negro question by making them all white men,' said Logan, as he gracefully declined the generous but compromising proposal of the lady. 'Yet, after all,' thought he, 'is she not right? The prophylactic precautions would certainly be increased, morally speaking, if the Disentanglers were married.' But while he pigeon-holed this idea for future reference, at the moment he could not see his way to accepting Mrs. Brown-Smith's spirited idea. She reluctantly acquiesced in his view of the case, but, like the other dames, promised to guarantee, if applied to, the absolute respectability of the enterprise. The usual vows of secrecy were made, and (what borders on the supernatural) they were kept.

Merton's first editions went to Sotheby's, 'Property of a gentleman who is changing his objects of collection.' A Russian archduke bought Logan's unique set of golf clubs by Philp. Funds accrued from other sources. Logan had a friend, dearer friend had no man, one Trevor, a pleasant bachelor whose sister kept house for him. His purse, or rather his cheque book, gaped with desire to be at Logan's service, but had gaped in vain. Finding Logan grinning one day over the advertisement columns of a paper at the club, his prophetic soul discerned a good thing, and he wormed it out 'in dern privacy.' He slapped his manly thigh and insisted on being in it-as a capitalist. The other stoutly resisted, but was overcome.

'You need an office, you need retaining fees, you need outfits for the accomplices, and it is a legitimate investment. I'll take interest and risks,' said Trevor.

So the money was found.

The inaugural dinner, for the engaging of accomplices, was given in a private room of a restaurant in Pall Mall.

The dinner was gay, but a little pathetic. Neatness, rather than the gloss of novelty (though other gloss there was), characterised the garments of the men. The toilettes of the women were modest; that amount of praise (and it is a good deal) they deserved. A young lady, Miss Maskelyne, an amber-hued beauty, who practically lived as a female jester at the houses of the great, shone resplendent, indeed, but magnificence of apparel was demanded by her profession.

'I am so tired of it,' she said to Merton. 'Fancy being more and more anxious for country house invitations. Fancy an artist's feelings, when she knows she has not been a success. And then when the woman of the house detests you! She often does. And when they ask you to give your imitation of So-and-so, and forget that his niece is in the room! Do you know what they would have called people like me a hundred years ago? Toad-eaters! There is one of us in an old novel I read a bit of once. She goes about, an old maid, to houses. Once she arrived in a snow storm and a hearse. Am I to come to that? I keep learning new drawing-room tricks. And when you fall ill, as I did at Eckford, and you can't leave, and you think they are tired to death of you! Oh, it is I who am tired, and time passes, and one grows old. I am a hag!'

Merton said 'what he ought to have said,' and what, indeed, was true. He was afraid she would tell him what she owed her dress-makers. Therefore he steered the talk round to sport, then to the Highlands, then to Knoydart, then to Alastair Macdonald of Craigiecorrichan, and then Merton knew, by a tone in the voice, a drop of the eyelashes, that Miss Maskelyne was-vaccinated. Prophylactic measures had been taken: this agent ran no risk of infection. There was Alastair.

Merton turned to Miss Willoughby, on his left. She was tall, dark, handsome, but a little faded, and not plump: few of the faces round the table were plump and well liking. Miss Willoughby, in fact, dwelt in one room, in Bloomsbury, and dined on cocoa and bread and butter. These were for her the rewards of the Higher Education. She lived by copying crabbed manuscripts.

'Do you ever go up to Oxford now?' said Merton.

'Not often. Sometimes a St. Ursula girl gets a room in the town for me. I have coached two or three of them at little reading parties. It gets one out of town in autumn: Bloomsbury in August is not very fresh. And at Oxford one can "tout," or "cadge," for a little work. But there are so many of us.'

'What are you busy with just now?'

'Vatican transcripts at the Record Office.'

'Any exciting secrets?'

'Oh no, only how much the priests here paid to Rome for their promotions. Secrets then perhaps: not thrilling now.'

'No schemes to poison people?'

'Not yet: no plots for novels, and oh, such long-winded pontifical Latin, and such awful crabbed hands.'

'It does not seem to lead to much?'

'To nothing, in no way. But one is glad to get anything.'

'Jephson, of Lincoln, whom I used to know, is doing a book on the Knights of St. John in their Relations to the Empire,' said Merton.

'Is he?' said Miss Willoughby, after a scarcely distinguishable but embarrassed pause, and she turned from Merton to exhibit an interest in the very original scheme of mural decoration behind her.

'It is quite a new subject to most people,' said Merton, and he mentally ticked off Miss Willoughby as safe, for Jephson, whom he had heard that she liked, was a very poor man, living on his fellowship and coaching. He was sorry: he had never liked or trusted Jephson.

'It is a subject sure to create a sensation, isn't it?' asked Miss Willoughby, a little paler than before.

'It might get a man a professorship,' said Merton.

'There are so many of us, of them, I mean,' said Miss Willoughby, and Merton gave a small sigh. 'Not much larkiness here,' he thought, and asked a transient waiter for champagne.

Miss Willoughby drank a little of the wine: the colour came into her face.

'By Jove, she's awfully handsome,' thought Merton.

'It was very kind of you to ask me to this festival,' said the girl. 'Why have you asked us, me at least?'

'Perhaps for many besides the obvious reason,' said Merton. 'You may be told later.'

'Then there is a reason in addition to that which most people don't find obvious? Have you come into a fortune?'

'No, but I am coming. My ship is on the sea and my boat is on the shore.'

'I see faces that I know. There is that tall handsome girl, Miss Markham, with real gold hair, next Mr. Logan. We used to call her the Venus of Milo, or Milo for short, at St. Ursula's. She has mantles and things tried on her at Madame Claudine's, and stumpy purchasers argue from the effect (neglecting the cause) that the things will suit them. Her people were ruined by Australian gold mines. And there is Miss Martin, who does stories for the penny story papers at a shilling the thousand words. The fathers have backed horses, and the children's teeth are set on edge. Is it a Neo-Christian dinner? We are all so poor. You have sought us in the highways and hedges.'

'Where the wild roses grow,' said Merton.

'I don't know many of the men, though I see faces that one used to see in the High. There is Mr. Yorker, the athletic man. What is he doing now?'

'He is sub-vice-secretary of a cricket club. His income depends on his bat and his curl from leg. But he has a rich aunt.'

'Cricket does not lead to much, any more than my ability to read the worst handwritings of the darkest ages. Who is the man that the beautiful lady opposite is making laugh so?' asked Miss Willoughby, without moving her lips.

Merton wrote 'Bulstrode of Trinity' on the back of the menu.

'What does he do?'

'Nothing,' said Merton in a low voice. 'Been alligator farming, or ostrich farming, or ranching, and come back shorn; they all come back. He wants to be an ecclesiastical "chucker out," and cope with Mr. Kensitt and Co. New profession.'

'He ought not to be here. He can ride and shoot.'

'He is the only son of his mother and she is a widow.'

'He ought to go out. My only brother is out. I wish I were a man. I hate dawdlers.' She looked at him: her eyes were large and grey under black lashes, they were dark and louring.

'Have you, by any chance, a spark of the devil in you?' asked Merton, taking a social header.

'I have been told so, and sometimes thought so,' said Miss Willoughby. 'Perhaps this one will go out by fasting if not by prayer. Yes, I have a spark of the Accuser of the Brethren.'

'Tant mieux,' thought Merton.

All the people were talking and laughing now. Miss Maskelyne told a story to the table. She did a trick with a wine glass, forks, and a cork. Logan interviewed Miss Martin, who wrote tales for the penny fiction people, on her methods. Had she a moral aim, a purpose? Did she create her characters first, and let them evolve their fortunes, or did she invent a plot, and make her characters fit in?

Miss Martin said she began with a situation: 'I wish I could get one somewhere as secretary to a man of letters.'

'They can't afford secretaries,' said Logan. 'Besides they are family men, married men, and so-'

'And so what?'

'Go look in any glass, and say,' said Logan, laughing. 'But how do you begin with a situation?'

'Oh, anyhow. A lot of men in a darkened room. Pitch dark.'

'A séance?'

'No, a conspiracy. They are in the dark that when arrested they may swear they never saw each other.'

'They could swear that anyhow.'

'Conspirators have consciences. Then there comes a red light shining between the door and the floor. Then the door breaks down under a hammer, the light floods the room. There is a man in it whom the others never saw enter.'

'How did he get in?'

'He was there before they came. Then the fighting begins. At the end of it where is the man?'

'Well, where is he? What was he up to?'

'I don't know yet,' said Miss Martin, 'it just comes as I go on. It has just got to come. It is a fourteen hours a day business. All writing. I crib things from the French. Not whole stories. I take the opening situation; say the two men in a boat on the river who hook up a sack. I don't read the rest of the Frenchman, I wor

k on from the sack, and guess what was in it.'

'What was in the sack?'

'In the Sack! A name for a story! Anything, from the corpse of a freak (good idea, corpse of a freak with no arms and legs, or with too many) to a model of a submarine ship, or political papers. But I am tired of corpses. They pervade my works. They give "a bouquet, a fragrance," as Mr. Talbot Twysden said about his cheap claret.'

'You read the old Masters?'

'The obsolete Thackeray? Yes, I know him pretty well.'

'What are you publishing just now?'

'This to an author? Don't you know?'

'I blush,' said Logan.

'Unseen,' said Miss Martin, scrutinising him closely.

'Well, you do not read the serials to which I contribute,' she went on. 'I have two or three things running. There is The Judge's Secret.'

'What was that?'

'He did it himself.'

'Did what?'

'Killed the bishop. He is not a very plausible judge in English: in French he would be all right, a juge d'instruction, the man who cross-examines the prisoners in private, you know.'

'Judges don't do that in England,' said Logan.

'No, but this case is an exception. The judge was such a very old friend, a college friend, of the murdered bishop. So he takes advantage of his official position, and steals into the cell of the accused. My public does not know any better, and, of course, I have no reviewers. I never come out in a book.'

'And why did the judge assassinate the prelate?'

'The prelate knew too much about the judge, who sat in the Court of Probate and Divorce.'

'Satan reproving sin?' asked Logan.

'Yes, exactly; and the bishop being interested in the case-'

'No scandal about Mrs. Proudie?'

'No, not that exactly, still, you see the motive?'

'I do,' said Logan. 'And the conclusion?'

'The bishop was not really dead at all. It takes some time to explain. The corpus delicti-you see I know my subject-was somebody else. And the bishop was alive, and secretly watching the judge, disguised as Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Oh, I know it is too much in Dickens's manner. But my public has not read Dickens.'

'You interest me keenly' said Logan.

'I am glad to hear it. And the penny public take freely. Our circulation goes up. I asked for a rise of three pence on the thousand words.'

'Now this is what I call literary conversation,' said Logan. 'It is like reading The British Weekly Bookman. Did you get the threepence? if the inquiry is not indelicate.'

'I got twopence. But, you see, there are so many of us.'

'Tell me more. Are you serialising anything else?'

'Serialising is the right word. I see you know a great deal about literature. Yes, I am serialising a featured tale.'

'A featured tale?'

'You don't know what that is? You do not know everything yet! It is called Myself.'

'Why Myself?'

'Oh, because the narrator did it-the murder. A stranger is found in a wood, hung to a tree. Nobody knows who he is. But he and the narrator had met in Paraguay. He, the murdered man, came home, visited the narrator, and fell in love with the beautiful being to whom the narrator was engaged. So the narrator lassoed him in a wood.'

'Why?'

'Oh, the old stock reason. He knew too much.'

'What did he know?'

'Why, that the narrator was living on a treasure originally robbed from a church in South America.'

'But, if it was a treasure, who would care?'

'The girl was a Catholic. And the murdered man knew more.'

'How much more?'

'This: to find out about the treasure, the narrator had taken priest's orders, and, of course, could not marry. And the other man, being in love with the girl, threatened to tell, and so the lasso came in handy. It is a Protestant story and instructive.'

'Jolly instructive! But, Miss Martin, you are the Guy Boothby of your sex!'

At this supreme tribute the girl blushed like dawn upon the hills.

'My word, she is pretty!' thought Logan; but what he said was, 'You know Mr. Tierney, your neighbour? Out of a job as a composition master. Almost reduced to University Extension Lectures on the didactic Drama.'

Tierney was talking eagerly to his neighbour, a fascinating lady laundress, la belle blanchisseuse, about starch.

Further off a lady instructress in cookery, Miss Frere, was conversing with a tutor of bridge.

'Tierney,' said Logan, in a pause, 'may I present you to Miss Martin?' Then he turned to Miss Markham, formerly known at St. Ursula's as Milo. She had been a teacher of golf, hockey, cricket, fencing, and gymnastics, at a very large school for girls, in a very small town. Here she became society to such an alarming extent (no party being complete without her, while the colonels and majors never left her in peace), that her connection with education was abruptly terminated. At present raiment was draped on her magnificent shoulders at Madame Claudine's. Logan, as he had told Merton, 'occasionally met her,' and Logan had the strongest reasons for personal conviction that she was absolutely proof against infection, in the trying circumstances to which a Disentangler is professionally exposed. Indeed she alone of the women present knew from Logan the purpose of the gathering.

Cigarettes had replaced the desire of eating and drinking. Merton had engaged a withdrawing room, where he meant to be closeted with his guests, one by one, administer the oath, and prosecute delicate inquiries on the important question of immunity from infection. But, after a private word or two with Logan, he deemed these conspicuous formalities needless. 'We have material enough to begin with,' said Logan. 'We knew beforehand that some of the men were safe, and certain of the women.'

There was a balcony. The providence of nature had provided a full moon, and a night of balm. The imaginative maintained that the scent of hay was breathed, among other odours, over Pall Mall the Blest. Merton kept straying with one guest or another into a corner of the balcony. He hinted that there was a thing in prospect. Would the guest hold himself, or herself, ready at need? Next morning, if the promise was given, the guest might awake to peace of conscience. The scheme was beneficent, and, incidentally, cheerful.

To some he mentioned retainers; money down, to speak grossly. Most accepted on the strength of Merton's assurances that their services must always be ready. There were difficulties with Miss Willoughby and Miss Markham. The former lady (who needed it most) flatly refused the arrangement. Merton pleaded in vain. Miss Markham, the girl known to her contemporaries as Milo, could not hazard her present engagement at Madame Claudine's. If she was needed by the scheme in the dead season she thought that she could be ready for whatever it was.

Nobody was told exactly what the scheme was. It was only made clear that nobody was to be employed without the full and exhaustive knowledge of the employers, for whom Merton and Logan were merely agents. If in doubt, the agents might apply for counsel to the lady patronesses, whose very names tranquilised the most anxious inquirers. The oath was commuted for a promise, on honour, of secrecy. And, indeed, little if anything was told that could be revealed. The thing was not political: spies on Russia or France were not being recruited. That was made perfectly clear. Anybody might withdraw, if the prospect, when beheld nearer, seemed undesirable. A mystified but rather merry gathering walked away to remote lodgings, Miss Maskelyne alone patronising a hansom.

On the day after the dinner Logan and Merton reviewed the event and its promise, taking Trevor into their counsels. They were not ill satisfied with the potential recruits.

'There was one jolly little thing in white,' said Trevor. 'So pretty and flowering! "Cherries ripe themselves do cry," a line in an old song, that's what her face reminded me of. Who was she?'

'She came with Miss Martin, the penny novelist,' said Logan. 'She is stopping with her. A country parson's daughter, come up to town to try to live by typewriting.'

'She will be of no use to us,' said Merton. 'If ever a young woman looked fancy-free it is that girl. What did you say her name is, Logan?'

'I did not say, but, though you won't believe it, her name is Miss Blossom, Miss Florry Blossom. Her godfathers and godmothers must bear the burden of her appropriate Christian name; the other, the surname, is a coincidence-designed or not.'

'Well, she is not suitable,' said Merton sternly. 'Misplaced affections she might distract, but then, after she had distracted them, she might reciprocate them. As a conscientious manager I cannot recommend her to clients.'

'But,' said Trevor, 'she may be useful for all that, as well as decidedly ornamental. Merton, you'll want a typewriter for your business correspondence, and Miss Blossom typewrites: it is her profession.'

'Well,' said Merton, 'I am not afraid. I do not care too much for "that garden in her face," for your cherry-ripe sort of young person. If a typewriter is necessary I can bear with her as well as another.'

'I admire your courage and resignation,' said Trevor, 'so now let us go and take rooms for the Society.'

They found rooms, lordly rooms, which Trevor furnished in a stately manner, hanging a selection of his mezzotints on the walls-ladies of old years, after Romney, Reynolds, Hoppner, and the rest. A sober opulence and comfort characterised the chambers; a well-selected set of books in a Sheraton bookcase was intended to beguile the tedium of waiting clients. The typewriter (Miss Blossom accepted the situation) occupied an inner chamber, opening out of that which was to be sacred to consultations.

The firm traded under the title of Messrs. Gray and Graham. Their advertisement-in all the newspapers-addressed itself 'To Parents, Guardians, Children and others.' It set forth the sorrows and anxieties which beset families in the matter of undesirable matrimonial engagements and entanglements. The advertisers proposed, by a new method, to restore domestic peace and confidence. 'No private inquiries will, in any case, be made into the past of the parties concerned. The highest references will in every instance be given and demanded. Intending clients must in the first instance apply by letter to Messrs. Gray and Graham. No charge will be made for a first interview, which can only be granted after satisfactory references have been exchanged by letter.'

'If that does not inspire confidence,' said Merton, 'I don't know what will.'

'Nothing short of it will do,' said Logan.

'But the mezzotints will carry weight,' said Trevor, 'and a few good cloisonnés and enamelled snuff-boxes and bronzes will do no harm.'

So he sent in some weedings of his famous collection.

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