English Literature

Madame Gilbert’s Cannibal by Bennet Copplestone

Madame Gilbert's Cannibal by Bennet Copplestone

CHAPTER IHIS LORDSHIP

Madame Gilbert’s war service ended when Austria fell out. She had been in Italy busied with those obscure intrigues for the confounding of an enemy which are excused, and dignified, as patriotic propaganda. She is satisfied that on the Italian Front she, and those who worked with her, really won the war.

The war satisfactorily won, Madame Gilbert sped home to revel in the first holiday which she had known since August, 1914. She always seems to travel with fewer restrictions and at greater speed than any except Prime Ministers and commanding Generals. In Italy she is an Italian and in France a Frenchwoman—a dazzling Italian and a very winning Frenchwoman. The police of both countries make smooth her path with their humble bodies upon which Madame is graciously pleased to trample. “I never trouble much about passports or credentials,” says she, “though I carry them just as I do my .25 automatic pistol; in practice I find that I need draw my papers as rarely as I[Pg 2] draw my gun. Most of the police and officials who have seen me once know me when I come again, and rush to my assistance.” She is never grateful for service. I do not believe she knows the sentiment of gratitude. A poor man renders her aid in defiance of regulations, and maybe at the risk of his neck; she smiles upon him, and the debt is instantly discharged. He is dismissed until perchance Madame may again have occasion for his devotion. Then she reveals the royal accomplishment of never forgetting a face. Imagine a harassed, weary chef du train, before whose official unseeing eyes travellers flit like figures on a cinema screen, imagine such a one addressed by name and rank by the most beautiful and gracious of mortal women, by a woman who remembers all those little family confidences which he had poured into her sympathetic ears some twelve months before, by a woman who enquires sweetly after his good wife—using her pet name—laments that the brave son—also accurately named—is still missing beyond those impenetrable Boche lines. Will not the chef du train, cooed over thus and softly patted as one pats butter, break every French rule the most iron-bound to speed Madame upon her way? Of course he will. In war time, as in peace time, that is the royal manner of Madame Gilbert. She does not travel; she makes a progress.

Madame came home after the armistice with Austria, and, being discharged of liability to the propagandist headquarters, found herself a free and idle woman. The first time for more than four years.

She had a little money from her late husband[Pg 3] (the real one), and had been lavishly paid for her services during the war. War prices in London seemed quite moderate to her after the extortions of France and Italy. She re-occupied her old rooms near Shaftesbury Avenue—and incidentally made homeless a pair of exiled Belgians—and fed after the fashion that she loved in the restaurants of Soho. Madame enjoyed her food. She always scoffed at Beauty Specialists. “Look at me,” she would say. “Look closely at my skin, at my hair, at my teeth if you like. What you see is God’s gift improved by exact care for my health. I do physical exercises for twenty minutes every night and morning. I plunge all over into cold water whenever I can get together enough to cover me, and I eat and drink whatever I like. I shall go on living for just as long as I am beautiful and healthy. When I have to think of my digestion or of the colour of my skin, I shall say Good-bye and go West in a dream of morphia.” Superficially, Madame is a Roman Catholic; at heart she is a Greek Pagan.

It was at La Grande Patisserie Belge that Madame stumbled across the lawyer who was fated to introduce her to the Cannibal of whom she told me in Whitehall.

It was a melancholy afternoon in January, peace had not brought plenty—especially of coal—and Madame was fortifying herself against the damp chills of London by long draughts of the hottest coffee and the sweetest and stickiest confectionery which even she could relish. About six feet distant, on what one may describe as her port quarter, sat a middle-aged Englishman whose bagging[Pg 4] clothes showed that war rations had dealt sorely with his once ample person. Madame, who without turning her head examined him in critical detail, judged that his loss in weight was three stone. He had the clean, shaven face and alert aspect of a lawyer or doctor. In fancied security a little to the left and rear of Madame Gilbert the stranger stared openly at her cheek and ear and the coils of bright copper hair. Madame knew that he was watching her, and rather liked the scrutiny. She had recognized him at once, and would have been slightly humiliated if he had failed to be interested in her. It is true that she had met him but once before in her life, and that some four years since, but as Madame had condescended to recollect him—I have said that her memory for faces was royal—a failure on his part to remember her would have been an offence unpardonable.

Madame continued to munch sweet stuff, and the man, his tea completed, rose, paid his bill, and then passed slowly in front of her. He needed encouragement before he would speak. So Madame gave it, a quick look and a smile of invitation. He bowed.

“Have I not the honour to meet again the Signora Guilberti?” said he.

“The Signora Guilberti,” assented Madame, “or Madame Guilbert, or Madame Gilbert, as rendered by the rough English tongue. I have stooped to anglicise my name,” she went on, “though I hate the clipped English version.” She indicated a chair, and the lawyer—he was a lawyer—sat down.

“Is it possible that Madame honours me with remembrance?”

[Pg 5]

“Let me place you,” said she, happy in the display of her accomplishments, “and don’t seek to guide my memory. It was in the Spring of 1915, at a reception in the garden of Devonshire House. You were in attendance upon Her Majesty the Queen-Mother of Portugal. There were present representatives of the Italian Red Cross, for Italy, the land of my late husband, had ranged herself with the Allies. You are a lawyer of the haute noblesse. Your clients are peers and princes, of old princes in exile and of new peers in possession. I recall you most distinctly, though at that time, my poor friend, you were not a little portly, and now you are a man shrunken.”

“And my name?” he asked, flattered that a beautiful woman should recall him so distinctly.

“It is a strange name—Gatepath. An old English name redolent of the soil. Roger Gatepath. Your firm bears no prefix of initials and no suffix of company. You call yourselves Gatepaths. Just Gatepaths, as though your status were territorial.”

He crowed with pleasure. By an exercise in memory, Madame Gilbert had tied him to her chariot wheels.

“Right!” cried he. “Right in every particular. You are the most wonderful of women. For two minutes I spoke with you, and that was nearly four years ago. I was one of a large party, an insignificant lawyer lost in a dazzling company of titles. Yet you have remembered.”

Madame left the sense of flattery to soak in. She did not spoil the impression that she had made by explaining that she would have remembered a lackey with just the same accuracy.

[Pg 6]

“And you, Madame?” he asked. “Have you been all these years doing war work with the Italian Red Cross? The years have passed and left no mark upon your face and figure. I, who comfortably filled out my clothes, am shrunken, yet time and sorrow have spared you.”

“Nevertheless, I have been pretty hard at work,” said Madame briskly. “I was present at that party ostensibly as an official of the Italian Red Cross. In fact I was there to see that no harm befell the Royal Personages who were in my charge. While we moved about those pleasant grounds, chatting and sipping tea, I was watching, watching. And my hand was never far from the butt of the Webley automatic which, slung from my waist, was hidden in a bag of silk.”

“Heavens!” he cried out. “You are….”

“Hush,” interposed Madame. “A lawyer and a Gatepath should be more discreet. The war is over, and I can tell you now that I fought every minute of it in the Secret Service, the Civil branch. I was the head woman, the bright particular star, in Dawson’s Secret Corps.”

“Is it discreet to tell me this?” he asked, countering her reproof of a moment earlier.

She smiled rather wickedly. “Are you not a lawyer and a Gatepath? And can one not tell anything to a lawyer and a Gatepath? Besides, I have sent in my resignation, and am now a free woman. It has been a good time, a very good time. I have fought devils and mastered devils in England and France and Italy for four long years, and now I would rest. You say that time and sorrow[Pg 7] have spared me. Yet I have known both time and sorrow. Have I not lost….”

He broke into a babble of apologies. “I did not know…. I did not realise….”

She waved a hand, and he fell silent. “I do not wear the trappings of woe, for though I am eternally widowed, I glory in my loss. It was in the rearguard at Caporetto, when all less gallant souls had fled, that my Guilberti fell.”

Of course from that moment Gatepath was her slave. She had flattered him and humbugged him as she flattered and humbugged all of us. Madame had no designs against Gatepath, yet she could not forbear to triumph over him. “One never knows,” she said, “when one may need a devoted friend, and need him badly. I always look forward.”

Two or three weeks later Madame found a letter at her club signed “Gatepaths.” It was the club in Dover Street with those steep steps down which the members tumble helplessly in frosty weather. Madame calls it “The Club of Falling Women.”

It appears that Gatepath, hunting for an adviser of ripe wisdom, had sought out the Chief of Dawson and lately of Madame, and laid bare his pressing troubles. The Chief is one of those rare men to whom all his friends, and they are as the stars in number, go seeking counsel in their crimes and follies. Nothing shocks him, nothing surprises him. And from the depths of his wise, humorous, sympathetic mind, he will almost always draw waters of comfort. Suppose, for example, one had slain a man and urgently sought to dispose of the corpse—a not uncommon problem in crowded cities—to whom could one more profitably turn than to[Pg 8] the Chief of His Majesty’s Detective Service? Or if, in a passing fit of absence of mind, one had wedded three wives, and the junior in rank began to suspect the existence of one or more seniors; do we not all suffer from lapses of memory? One does not put these problems before the Chief as one’s own—there is a decent convention in these matters—but, of course, he knows. To know all is to pardon all, and there is very little that the Chief does not know about you or me.

The family solicitor of peers and princes poured into the Chief’s ear the fantastic cause of his present distresses. He delivered himself of the story in all seriousness, for it was dreadfully serious to him. Never in all his experience, and in that of his century-old firm, had anything so dreadfully serious occurred. The Chief controlled himself until the end was reached, and then exploded in a yell of laughter.

“It is nothing to laugh at,” grumbled Gatepath.

“Not for you, perhaps. But to my mind the situation is gorgeous. Has this man the legal right of succession?”

“Beyond a doubt,” groaned Gatepath. “His father saw to that.”

“Then why not leave matters to take their legal course?” asked the Chief, still laughing. “The House of Lords will be the better for a shock. They are a dull lot. And your lively friend will administer the shock all right.”

Roger Gatepath spread out his hands in agony. “But it is one of the oldest peerages in the country, as old almost as the Barony of Arundel. Can’t[Pg 9] you see how frightful it will be for the family if this—this person—is allowed to succeed?”

“There is no question of allowing him. If he is the legal heir he must succeed. The family must just put him in their pipe and smoke him. What else can they do?”

“I thought that you, with all your experience of the South, might suggest something. Would it not be possible to buy the man off—or might he not——”

“How can you buy him off when he is the heir? You people are nothing but trustees, who must account to him for every penny. If he claims the peerage and estates, you must accept him. You admit that legally he is the heir. I can see what is in your mind, but it won’t do, Gatepath, it won’t do. If you try any hanky-panky, that pretty neck of yours will find itself in a hempen collar. Now if it was only a case for judicious kidnapping——”

Gatepath looked around anxiously. The men were alone in a recess of the club smoking-room. “Yes,” he whispered eagerly. “Yes, go on.”

“I shall not do anything of the sort. You are a nice sort of family solicitor, Gatepath. Apart from the personal danger of playing tricks, can’t you see that your interest lies with the bouncing heir, not with the snuffy old family? Don’t be an ass. Bring him home, give the House of Lords the sensation of their placid lives, and let the good old British public enjoy a week of laughter. How they will bellow with joy. And the newspapers! I can see, Gatepath, that your agreeable young heir is going to be the Success of the Season.”

“You are not very helpful,” groaned Gatepath.[Pg 10] “There must be a solution; there must be some way of shielding the Family from this frightful humiliation.”

The interview with the Chief was a complete failure, and Gatepath parted from his old friend both hurt and angry. He had not expected ribald laughter in so grave a social crisis. The Chief must be a Radical, a Socialist, even a Bolshevik, one empty of all decent political principles.

It was on his way home that Gatepath bethought him of Madame Gilbert. She, that beautiful, loyal-hearted woman, would not laugh. He remembered the glitter of unshed tears in the violet eyes when she had bade him farewell. It was his tactless hand upon the open wound of Caporetto which had aroused those tears. He remembered also that Madame was free, and that she had been trained to do the ruthless, unscrupulous work of the Secret Service. She did not look either ruthless or unscrupulous, and it was in a strictly professional sense that Gatepath connected her with these unfeminine attributes. In his troubles Gatepath needed advice and sympathy, and Madame Gilbert, to his mind, filled the double bill. I do not know how far Gatepath seriously expected Madame to resolve his appalling difficulties. I suspect that he, a young bachelor of fifty or so, was glad of any excuse to persuade Madame to sit beside him and hold his hand. At any rate he did not know, now that the Chief had failed him, any man or any woman who was more likely than Madame to be sweetly helpful.

When Madame read the formal typewritten communication signed “Gatepaths” she grinned. It[Pg 11] did not surprise her that a recent victim should seek the excuse of urgent business to gain access to her presence. The letter asked for an appointment at a time and place agreeable to her convenience. It jumped with her bizarre humour to suggest Charing Cross Station at two o’clock in the morning, but ultimately she rang up Roger on the telephone, and fixed an hour in the forenoon at his own office in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. To Charing Cross Station at two o’clock in the morning she would have gleefully gone in the long black cloak and velvet mask of a conspirator, but for the interview in Lincoln’s Inn Fields she was pleased to cast herself in the part of a woman of business, severe, solemn business. Gatepath’s welcome was nervous; he scarcely recognised in the solemnly severe woman of business the bereaved widow of La Grande Patisserie Beige. Madame seated herself, spread out her wide sombre skirts, and prepared to listen to the urgencies which had impelled the adviser of peers and princes to seek her cooperation.

Gatepath got to work at once. He saw that Madame expected value for her complaisance, and he gave it in full measure.

“You will have heard, Madame, of the family of Toppys, pronounced Tops. Like other famous families of Devon when the Conqueror came they were at home. In the twelfth century they were the recognised holders of the Barony of Topsham, a village and manor on the River Exe. Topsham means the Home of Toppys, pronounced Tops. The title fell into abeyance for a couple of centuries, and the Manor of Topsham has long since passed to the[Pg 12] Courtenays. But her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth revived the ancient barony. Ever since then, for three hundred and fifty years, the Head of the Family of Toppys has been Baron of Topsham. We”—Gatepath, in his excited interest, identified himself with the famous family of Toppys, pronounced Tops—”we are allowed to date the peerage from the original writ of summons, and the Lord Topsham whose lamented death occurred last year was the Twenty-Seventh Baron. I wish you to appreciate the almost unapproachable lineage of this family upon whom has fallen a disaster without parallel in history. The Twenty-Seventh Baron is dead; his successor will be the twenty-eighth. Have you got that?”

“I have,” said Madame sweetly. She longed to add “Audited and found correct.” It would sound splendidly businesslike, but might give offence as frivolous.

“Some twenty years ago one of the brothers of the late Lord Topsham left this country, and settled on an island in the Torres Straits. It was an extraordinary thing to do for one who was neither a wastrel nor a criminal. The Hon. William Toppys was neither. My father, who knew him well, has told me that he was only mad. To be mad is a misadventure which may overtake the most cautious of us—ancient Houses are prone to develop a reputable and characteristic species of insanity—but to indulge an individual madness to the disgrace of one’s Family is a crime. In the legal and conventional sense the Hon. William Toppys was not a criminal, yet he committed the worst of crimes against his ancient and glorious lineage.”[Pg 13] The body of Roger Gatepath swelled with wrath until it almost filled his pre-war clothes.

Madame longed to say “Good old Bill,” but again refrained. The story was beginning to amuse her.

“The Hon. William Toppys settled upon an island in the Torres Straits, and became what is called locally a beachcomber. This degradation was not forced upon him by poverty. He was not wealthy, but from his late mother he derived a competence—some few hundreds of pounds a year. We acted for his trustees, and regularly remitted his dividends to a bank in Thursday Island. Perhaps, Madame, it will assist you if I ring for an atlas.”

“Do not trouble,” said Madame sweetly. “I have a rough working acquaintance with geography. Thursday Island is a little to the north of Queensland. It is a centre for pearl fishing. That is why I remember the place.”

“The Hon. William Toppys built himself a hut on a small islet in the Straits—and married a native woman. A Melanesian woman.”

“Married?” enquired Madame. “How? Native fashion, sans ceremonie?”

“Unhappily, no. His marriage was celebrated and registered at the Melanesian Mission’s station on Thursday Island. It was—I repeat unhappily—as legal a contract as your own marriage.”

“You shock me,” said Madame primly, though she struggled against laughter. “Would you have had the Hon. William Toppys live—in sin—with a native woman?”

“I would,” shouted Gatepath.

Madame covered her face with her hands and[Pg 14] her silks—her businesslike silks—rustled with emotion.

“It pains me to express sentiments which you must regard as immoral”—the silks went on rustling—”but I must look at that fatal marriage from the point of view, the just point of view, of the ancient family of Toppys.”

“Pronounced Tops,” whispered Madame, as she came up to breathe.

“The Hon. William Toppys sent us word of his marriage. That was nearly twenty years ago. He also, with unparalleled effrontery, communicated to his brother, the late Lord Topsham, the dates of birth of his son and his two daughters. Those births were all registered in due form at Thursday Island. If the Hon. William Toppys had designed to humiliate, to outrage, the most ancient and honourable Family in Devon—save only that of the Courtenays—he could not have gone about the business more thoroughly or systematically. He is dead. He died in 1912. But I cannot speak good of the dead. He committed a crime, a series of crimes. He lawfully married a Melanesian woman and he lawfully begat a son and heir!”

“What about the two daughters?” whispered Madame in throes of suffocation.

“The daughters don’t matter,” said Gatepath. “He could have had a dozen if he pleased. The Barony of Topsham descends to heirs male, not to heirs general.”

At this point Madame fell from grace. It had become obvious to one less alert than she that the lawfully begotten son of the Hon. William Toppys (pronounced Tops), and the Melanesian wife,[Pg 15] was the half-caste Twenty-Eighth Baron of Topsham, and that the ancient Family of Toppys was wild about it. So was Gatepath—wild, furious. He gesticulated, his cheeks puffed out. In him was embodied, for Madame to see and laugh over, all the fury of all the Toppyses, male and female. She could not help but laugh—in peals, till the tears came.

Roger Gatepath groaned. “I did think that you, Madame, would refrain from ribaldry. Consider the position of my clients. This horror that is come upon them is not an occasion for laughter.”

“I am really awfully sorry,” gasped Madame, wiping her eyes. “It must be dreadful for you all. But to a stranger like me, it is frightfully funny.”

“You won’t think it funny when you hear the rest of my story,” growled Gatepath. “But perhaps I had better stop.”

“Oh! please don’t. I am immensely interested, and thrilled. I want to hear every word. You tell the story so splendidly, Mr. Gatepath, that I should be wild if you stopped now.”

Gatepath continued. The sacred fire of vicarious family indignation had been somewhat abated by Madame’s laughter, but he warmed up as he proceeded. He was convinced that the gracious Madame Gilbert would share his horror when the tale reached its tragic close. “You may ask how, after 350 years of direct succession, the ancient and honourable Family of Toppys should have failed of heirs—except this half-caste spawn of a Melanesian savage. It is the war that has brought this disaster upon us. The only son of the late Lord Topsham was killed at Ypres early in the war. The[Pg 16] two sons of the second brother were in the Flying Corps, and fell with so many other honourable gentlemen in the spring of 1918. Both were killed within a week. Their death was a blow from which Lord Topsham never recovered. His own brothers had both gone before, and the casualties of war had transferred the succession to that coffee-coloured monster in the Torres Straits. Lord Topsham just withered away. I ventured to urge a second marriage, but his lordship had no heart to struggle. Rather than give heirship to the beachcomber’s brat I would have married a housemaid by special licence and begat a son though I never lived to see him born.”

“It might have been a useless daughter,” murmured Madame unkindly.

Gatepath growled.

Madame Gilbert now pulled herself together. Her ribald laughter had sorely weakened her influence over the solicitor of peers and princes, and she felt impelled to regain it. It was now her role to become sympathetically helpful.

“Are you sure, Mr. Gatepath, that you do not make this grievous affair worse by exaggerating it? The Hon. William Toppys was an English gentleman. He went in for the simple life as a beachcomber with a Melanesian wife, but he must have remained a gentleman by instinct. His son may not be so very brown—some half-castes are almost white—and has probably, almost surely, been brought up as a gentleman. Why not make the best of the situation, bring him home, and let me take the boy in hand? I will make of him a cavalier[Pg 17] almost worthy to belong to the ancient House of Toppys.”

“It is impossible,” said Gatepath, and his air was that of Sir Henry Irving in Macbeth. “I have seen the Twenty-Eighth Baron of Topsham with my own eyes.”

“That was very sporting of you,” cried Madame in admiration. “Did you go out all alone to the Torres Straits and beard the lion in his den?”

“I went, and I went alone. It was a fearful journey. The war was still raging, and it strained all the influence of Gatepaths to secure me a passage to America in a returning troopship. Thence I travelled to San Francisco, got a Japanese steamer to Yokohama, another Japanese steamer to Singapore, and yet another—a small one which rolled abominably—to Thursday Island. I cannot tell you, without reference to my diary, how many weeks and months I was tossed about the loathsome deep. The schooner from Thursday Island to the haunt of the late Hon. William Toppys was the worst of my tortures. It was crammed with nude men and women of all colours from pale olive to dark walnut, and it smelt—like a hogshead of rancid fat. The South Sea Islands are a romantic fraud, Madame. They reek to Heaven, and brew so many different brands of stinks that one can never get acclimated. Can you wonder that I, who once was well favoured in person, am now an old man, shrunken, wizened into premature senility before my time? I arrived at my journey’s end, and there, Madame, I saw the young man whom you so very kindly propose to take in hand and[Pg 18] make a cavalier almost worthy of the House of Toppys. I saw his lordship with my own eyes.”

“And was he so very impossible?” asked Madame, for the solicitor of the Toppyses had stopped, struck dumb by his emotion.

“Impossible!” he shrieked. “His lordship, the Twenty-Eighth Baron of Topsham, is a naked Cannibal running about the beach with a spear.”

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