English Literature

The Husbands of Edith by George Barr McCutcheon

The Husbands of Edith by George Barr McCutcheon

CHAPTER I

HUSBANDS AND WIFE.

Brock was breakfasting out-of-doors in the cheerful little garden of the Hôtel Chatham. The sun streamed warmly upon the concrete floor of the court just beyond the row of palms and oleanders that fringed the rail against which his Herald rested, that he might read as he ran, so to speak. He was the only person having déjeuner on the “terrace,” as he named it to the obsequious waiter who always attended him. Charles was the magnet that drew Brock to the Chatham (that excellent French hotel with the excellent English name). It is beside the question to remark that one is obliged to reverse the English when directing a cocher to the Chatham. The Paris cabman looks blank and more than usually unintelligent when directed to drive to the Chatham, but his face radiates with joy when his fare is inspired to substitute Sha-t’am, with distinct emphasis on the final syllable. Then he cracks his whip and lashes his sorry nag, with passive appreciation of his own astuteness, all the way to the Rue Daunou. The street is so short that he almost invariably takes one to it instead of to the hotel itself. But one must say Sha-t’am!

Charles was standing, alert but pensive, quite near at hand, ready to replenish the bowl with honey (Brock was especially fond of it), but with his eyes cocked inquiringly, even eagerly, in the direction of an upstairs window across the court, beyond which a thoughtless guest of the establishment was making her toilette in blissful ignorance of the fact that the flimsy curtains were not tightly drawn. Brock had gone to the Chatham for years just because Charles was a fixture there. Charles spoke the most execrably picturesque English, served with a punctiliousness that savoured almost of the overbearing, and boasted that he had acquired the art of making American cocktails in the Waldorf during a five weeks’ residence in the United States.

It was a lazy morning. Brock was happy. He was even interested when a porter came forth and unravelled a long roll of garden hose, with which he abruptly began to splash water upon the concrete surface of the court without regard for distance or direction. Moreover, he proceeded to water the palms at Brock’s elbow, operating from a spot no less than twenty feet away. He likewise was casting inquiring glances at divers windows—few if any at the plants—until the faithful Charles restored him to earth by means of certain subdued injunctions and less moderate gesticulations, from which it could be readily gathered that “M’sieur was eating, not bathing.” Whereupon the utterly uncrushed porter splashed water at right angles, much to Brock’s relief, while all his fellow porters, free or engaged, took up the quarrel with rare disregard for cause or justice. A femme de chambre, from a convenient window, joined in the hubbub without in the least knowing what it was all about. Monsieur’s comfort must be preserved: that seemed to be the issue in which, at once, all were united. “M’sieur will pardon the boy,” apologised Charles in deepest humility, taking much for granted. “It will be very warm to-day. Your serviette, M’sieur—it is damp. Pardon!” He flew away and back with another napkin. “Of course, M’sieur, the Chatham is not the Waldorf,” he announced deprecatingly. “Parbleu,” beating himself on the forehead, “I forgot! M’sieur does not like the Waldorf. Eh, bien, Paris is not New York, no.” Having sufficiently humbled Paris, he withdrew into the background, rubbing his hands as if he were cleansing them of something unsightly. Brock spread one of the buttered biscuits with honey and inwardly admitted that Paris was not New York.

He was a good-looking chap of thirty or thereabouts, an American to the core,—bright-eyed, keen-witted, smooth-faced, virile. From boyhood’s earliest days he had spent a portion of his summers in Europe. Two or three years of his life had been employed in the Beaux Arts,—fruitful years, for Brock had not wasted his opportunities. He had gone in for architecture and building. To-day he stood high among the younger men in New York,—prosperous, successful, and a menace to the old cry that a son of the rich cannot thrive in his father’s domain. Nowadays he came to the Old World for his breathing spells. He was able to combine dawdling and development without sacrificing one for the other, wherein lies the proof that his vacations were not akin to those taken by most of us.

The fortnight in Paris was to be followed by a week in St. Petersburg and a brief tour of Sweden and Norway. His stay in the gay city was drawing to a close. That very morning he expected to book for St. Petersburg, leaving in three days.

Suddenly his glance fell upon a name in the society column before him, “Roxbury Medcroft.” His face lighted up with genuine pleasure. An old friend, a boon companion in bygone days, was this same Medcroft,—a broad-minded, broad-gauged young Englishman who had profited by a stay of some years in the States. They had studied together in Paris and they had toiled together in New York. This is what he read: “Mr. and Mrs. Roxbury Medcroft, of London, are stopping at the Ritz, en route to Vienna. Mr. Medcroft will attend the meeting of Austrian Architects, to be held there next week, and, with his wife, will afterwards spend a fortnight in the German Alps, the guests of the Alfred Rodneys, of Seattle.”

“Dear old Rox, I must look him up at once,” mused Brock. “The Rodneys of Seattle? Never heard of ’em.” He looked at his watch, signed his check, deposited the usual franc, acknowledged Charles’s well-practised smile of thanks, and pushed back his chair, his gaze travelling involuntarily toward the portals of the American bar across the court, just beyond the concierge’squarters. Simultaneously a tall figure emerged from the bar, casting eager glances in all directions,—a tall figure in a checked suit, bowler hat, white reindeer gloves, high collar, and grey spats. Brock came to his feet quickly. The monocle dropped from the other’s eye, and his long legs carried him eagerly toward the American.

“Medcroft! Bless your heart! I was just on the point of looking you up at the Ritz. It’s good to see you,” Brock cried as they clasped hands.

“Of all the men and of all the times, Brock, you are the most opportune,” exclaimed the other. “I saw that you were here and bolted my breakfast to catch you. These beastly telephones never work. Oh, I say, old man, have you finished yours?”

“Quite—but luckily I didn’t have to bolt it. You’re off for Vienna, I see. Sit down, Rox. Won’t you have another egg and a cup of coffee? Do!”

“Thanks and no to everything you suggest. Wot you doing for the next half-hour or so? I’m in a deuce of a dilemma and you’ve got to help me out of it.” The Englishman looked at his watch and fumbled it nervously as he replaced it in his upper coat pocket. “That’s a good fellow, Brock. You will be the ever present help in time of trouble, won’t you?”

“My letter of credit is at your disposal, old man,” said Brock promptly. He meant it. It readily may be seen from this that their friendship is no small item to be considered in the development of this tale.

“My dear fellow, that’s the very thing I’m eager to thrust upon you—my letter of credit,” exclaimed the other.

“What’s that?” demanded Brock.

“I say, Brock, can’t we go up to your rooms? Dead secret, you know. Really, old chap, I mean it. No one must get a breath of it. That’s why I’m whispering. I’m not a lunatic, so don’t stare like that. I’d do as much for you if the conditions were reversed.”

“I dare say you would, Rox, but what the devil is it you want me to do?”

“Do I appear to be agitated?”

“Well, I should say so.”

“Well, I am. You know how I loathe asking a favour of anyone. Besides, it’s rather an extraordinary one I’m going to ask of you. Came to me in a flash this morning when I saw your name in the paper. Sort of inspiration, ‘pon my word. I think Edith sees it the same as I, although I haven’t had time to go into it thoroughly with her. She’s ripping, you know; pluck to the very core.”

Brock’s face expressed bewilderment and perplexity.

“Won’t you have another drink, old man?” he asked gently.

“Another? Hang it all, I haven’t had one in a week. Come along. I must talk it all over with you before I introduce you to her. You must be prepared.”

“Introduce me to whom?” demanded Brock, pricking up his ears. He was following Medcroft to the elevator.

“To my wife—Edith,” said Medcroft, annoyed by the other’s obtuseness.

“Does it require preparation for an ordeal so charming?” laughed Brock. He was recalling the fact that Medcroft had married a beautiful Philadelphia girl some years ago in London, a young lady whom he had never seen, so thoroughly expatriated had she become in consequence of almost a lifetime residence in England. He remembered now that she was rich and that he had sent her a ridiculously expensive present and a congratulatory cablegram at the time of the wedding. Also, it occurred to him that the Medcrofts had asked him to visit them at their shooting-box for several seasons in succession, and that their town house was always open to him. While he had not ignored the invitations, he had never responded in person. He began to experience twinges of remorse: Medcroft was such a good fellow!

The Londoner did not respond to the innocuous query. He merely stared in a preoccupied, determined manner at the succeeding étages as they slipped downward. At the fourth floor they disembarked, and Brock led the way to his rooms, overlooking the inner court. Once inside, with the door closed, he turned upon the Englishman.

“Now, what’s up, Rox? Are you in trouble?” he demanded.

“Are we quite alone?” Medcroft glanced significantly at the transom and the half-closed bathroom door. With a laugh, Brock led him into the bathroom and out, and then closed the transom.

“You’re darned mysterious,” he said, pointing to a chair near the window. Medcroft drew another close up and seated himself.

“Brock,” he said, lowering his voice and leaning forward impressively, “I want you to go to Vienna in my place.” Brock stared hard. “You are a godsend, old man. You’re just in time to do me the greatest of favours. It’s utterly impossible for me to go to Vienna as I had planned, and yet it is equally unwise for me to give up the project. You see, I’ve just got to be in London and Vienna at the same time.”

“It will require something more than a stretch of the imagination to do that, old man. But I’m game, and my plans are such that they can be changed readily to oblige a friend. I shan’t mind the trip in the least and I’ll be only too happy to help you out! ‘Gad, I thought by your manner that you were in some frightful difficulty. Have a cigaret.”

“By Jove, Brock, you’re a brick,” cried Medcroft, shaking the other’s hand vigorously. At the same time his face expressed considerable uncertainty and no little doubt as to the further welfare of his as yet partially divulged proposition.

“It’s easy to be a brick, my boy, if it involves no more than the changing of a single letter in one’s name. I’d like to attend the convention, anyway,” said Brock amiably.

“Well, you see, Brock,” said Medcroft lamely, “I fear you don’t quite appreciate the situation. I want you to pose as Roxbury Medcroft.”

“You—What do you mean?”

“I thought you’d find that a facer. That’s just it: you are to go to Vienna as Roxbury Medcroft, not as yourself. Ha, ha! Ripping, eh?”

“‘Pon my soul, Rox, you are not in earnest?”

“Never more so.”

“But, my dear fellow—”

“You won’t do it? That’s what your tone means,” in despair.

“It isn’t that, and you know it. I’ve got nothing to lose. It’s you that will have to suffer. You’re known all over Europe. What will be said when the trick is discovered? ‘Gad, man!”

“Then you will go?” with beaming eyes. “I knew it would appeal to you, as an American.”

“What does it all mean?”

“It’s all very simple, if one looks at it from the right angle, Brock. Up to last night, I was blissfully committed to the most delightful of outings, so to speak. At ten o’clock everything was changed. Mrs. Medcroft and I sat up all night discussing the situation with the messenger—my solicitor, by the way. The Vienna trip is out of the question, so far as I am concerned. It is of vital importance that I should return to London to-night, but is even more vitally important that the world should say that I am in Vienna. See what I mean?”

“No, I’m hanged if I do.”

“What I have just heard from London makes me shudder to think of the consequences if I go on east to-night. I may as well tell you that there is a plot on foot to perpetrate a gigantic fraud against the people. The County Council is to be hoodwinked out and out into moving forward certain building projects, involving millions of the people’s money. Our firm has opposed a certain band of grafters, and when I left England it was pretty well settled that we had blocked their game. They have learned of my proposed absence and intend to steal a march on us while I am away. Without assuming too much credit to myself, I may say that I, your old friend, Roxbury, I am the one man who has proved the real thorn in the sides of these scoundrels. With me out of the way, they feel that they can secure the adoption of all these infamous measures. My partners and the leaders on our side have sent for me to return secretly. They won’t bring the matter to issue if they find that I’ve returned; it would be suicidal. Therefore it is necessary that we steal a march on ’em. I know the inside workings of the scheme. If I can steal back and keep under cover as an advisory chief, so to speak, we can well afford to let ’em rush the matter through, for then we can spring the coup and defeat them for good and all. But, don’t you see, old man, unless they know that I’ve gone to Vienna they won’t undertake the thing. That’s why I’m asking you to go on to Vienna and pose as Roxbury Medcroft while I steal back to London and set the charge under these demmed bloodsuckers. Really, you know, it’s a terribly serious matter, Brock. It means fortune and honour to me, as well as millions to the rate-payers of Greater London. All you’ve got to do is to register at the Bristol, get interviewed by the papers, attend one or two sessions of the convention, which lasts three days, and then go off into the mountains with the Rodneys,—the society reporters will do the rest.”

“With the Rodneys? My dear fellow, suppose that they object to the substitution! Really, you know, it’s not to be thought of.”

“Deuce take it, man, the Rodneys are not to know that there has been a substitution. Perfectly simple, can’t you see?”

“I’m damned if I do.”

“What a stupid ass you are, Brock! The Rodneys have never laid eyes on me. They know of me as Edith’s husband, that’s all. They are to take you in as Medcroft, of course.”

At this point Brock set up an emphatic remonstrance. He began by laughing his friend to scorn; then, as Medcroft persisted, went so far as to take him severely to task for the proposed imposition on the unsuspecting Rodneys, to say nothing of the trick he would play upon the convention of architects.

“I’d be recognised as an impostor,” he said warmly, “and booted out of the convention. I shudder to think of what Mr. Rodney will do to me when he learns the truth. Why, Medcroft, you must be crazy. There will be dozens of architects there who know you personally or by sight. You—”

“My dear boy, if they don’t see me there, they can’t very well recognise me, can they? If necessary, you can affect an illness and stay away from the sessions altogether. Give a statement to the press from the privacy of the sickroom—regret your inability to take part in the discussions, and all that, you know. Hire a nurse, if necessary. You might venture to express an opinion or two on vital topics, in my name. I don’t care a hang what you say. I only want ’em to think I’m there. No doubt our enemies will have a spy or two hanging about to see that I am actually off for a jaunt with the Rodneys, but they will be Viennese and they won’t know me from Adam. What’s the odds, so long as Edith is there to stand by you? If she’s willing to assume that you are her husband—”

“Good Lord!” half shouted Brock, leaping to his feet, wide-eyed. “You don’t mean to say that she is—is—is to go to Vienna with me?”

“Emphatically, yes. She’s also invited. Of course, she’s going.”

“You mean that she’s going just as you are going—by proxy?” murmured Brock helplessly.

“Proxy, the devil! ‘Pon my soul, Brock, you’re downright stupid. She can’t have a proxy. They know her. The Rodneys are in some way connections of hers, and all that—third cousins. If she isn’t there to vouch for you, how the deuce can you expect to—”

“Medcroft, you are crazy! No one but an insane man would submit his wife to—Why, good Lord, man, think of the scandal! She won’t have a shred left—”

“At the proper time the matter will be explained to the Rodneys,—not at first, you know,—and I’ll be in a position to step into your shoes before the party returns to Paris. Afterwards the whole trick will be exposed to the world, and she’ll be a heroine.”

“I’m absolutely paralysed!” mumbled Brock.

“Brace up, old chap. I’m going to take you around to the Ritz at once to introduce you to my wife—to your wife, I might say. She’ll be waiting for us, and, take my word for it, she’s in for the game. She appreciates its importance. Come now, Brock, it means so little to you, and it means everything to me. You will do this for me? For us?”

For ten minutes Brock protested, his argument growing weaker and weaker as the true humour of the project developed in his mind. He came at last to realise that Medcroft was in earnest, and that the situation was as serious as he pictured it. The Englishman’s plea was unusual, but it was not as rattle-brained as it had seemed at the outset. Brock was beginning to see the possibilities that the ruse contained; to say the least, he would be running little or no risk in the event of its miscarriage. In spite of possible unpleasant consequences, there were the elements of a rare lark in the enterprise; he felt himself being skilfully guided past the pitfalls and dangers.

“I shall insist upon talking it over thoroughly with Mrs. Medcroft before consenting,” he said in the end. “If she’s being bluffed into the game, I’ll revoke like a flash. If she’s keen for the adventure, I’ll go, Rox. But I’ve got to see her first and talk it all over—”

“‘Pon my word, old chap, she’s ripping, awfully good sort, even though I say it myself. She’s true blue, and she’ll do anything for me. You see, Brock,” and his voice grew very tender, “she loves me. I’m sure of her. There isn’t a nobler wife in the world than mine. Nor a prettier one, either,” he concluded, with fine pride in his eyes. “You won’t be ashamed of her. You will be proud of the chance to point her out as your wife, take my word for it.” Then they set out for the Ritz.

“Roxbury,” said Brock soberly, when they were in the Rue de la Paix, after walking two blocks in contemplative silence, “my peace of mind is poised at the brink of an abyss. I have a feeling that I am about to chuck it over.”

“Nonsense. You’ll buck up when Edith has had a fling at you.”

“I suppose I’m to call her Edith.”

“Certainly, and I won’t mind a ‘dear’ or two when it seems propitious. It’s rather customary, you know, even among the unhappily married. Of course, I’ve always been opposed to kissing or caressing in public; it’s so middle-class.”

“And I daresay Mrs. Medcroft will object to it in private,” lamented Brock good-naturedly.

“I daresay,” said her husband cheerfully. “She’s your wife in public only. By the way, you’ll have to get used to the name of Roxbury. Don’t look around as if you expected to find me standing behind your back when she says, ‘Roxbury, dear!’ I shan’t be there, you know. She’ll mean you. Don’t forget that.”

“Oh, I say,” exclaimed Brock, halting abruptly, and staring in dismay at the confident conspirator, “will I have to wear a suit of clothes like that, and an eyeglass, and—and—good Lord! spats?”

“By Jove, you shall wear this very suit!” cried Medcroft, inspired. “We’re of a size, and it won’t fit you any better than it does me. Our clothes never fit us in London. Clever idea of yours, Brock, to think of it. And, here! We’ll stop at this shop and pick up a glass. You can have all day for practice with it. And, I say, Brock, don’t you think you can cultivate a—er—little more of an English style of speech? That twang of yours won’t—”

“Heavens, man, I’m to be a low comedian, too,” gasped Brock, as he was fairly pushed onto the shop. Three minutes later they were on the sidewalk, and Brock was in possession of an object he had scorned most of all things in the world,—a monocle.

Arm in arm, they sauntered into the Ritz. Medcroft retained his clasp on his friend’s elbow as they went up in the lift, after the fashion of one who fears that his victim is contemplating flight. As they entered the comfortable little sitting-room of the suite, a young woman rose gracefully from the desk at which she had been writing. With perfect composure she smiled and extended her slim hand to the American as he crossed the room with Medcroft’s jerky introduction dinging in his ears.

“My old friend Brock, dear. He has consented to be your husband. You’ve never met your wife, have you, old man?” A blush spread over her exquisite face.

“Oh, Roxbury, how embarrassing! He hasn’t even proposed to me. So glad to meet you, Mr. Brock. I’ve been trying to picture what you would look like, ever since Roxbury went out to find you. Sit here, please, near me. Roxbury, has Mr. Brock really fallen into your terrible trap? Isn’t it the most ridiculous proceeding, Mr. Brock—”

“Call him Roxbury, my dear. He’s fully prepared for it. And now let’s get down to business. He insists upon talking it over with you. You don’t mind me being present, do you, Brock? I daresay I can help you out a bit. I’ve been married four years.”

For an hour the trio discussed the situation from all sides and in all its phases. When Brock arose to take his departure, he was irrevocably committed to the enterprise; he was, moreover, completely enchanted by the vista of harmless fun and sweet adventure that stretched before him. He went away with his head full of the brilliant, quick-witted, loyal young American who was entering so heartily into the plot to deceive her own friends for the time being in order that her husband might profit in high places.

“She is ripping,” he said to Medcroft in the hallway. All of the plans had been made and all of them had been approved by the young wife. She had shown wonderful perspicacity and foresight in the matter of details; her capacity for selection and disposal was even more comprehensive than that of the two men, both of whom were somewhat staggered by the boldness of more than one suggestion which came from her fruitful storehouse of romantic ideas. She had grasped the full humour of the situation, from inception to dénouement, and, to all appearance, was heart and soul deep in the venture, despising the risks because she knew that succour was always at her elbow in the shape of her husband’s loyal support. There was no condition involved which could not be explained to her credit; adequate compensation for the merry sacrifice was to be had in the brief detachment from rigid English conventionality, in the hazardous injection of quixotism into an otherwise overly healthful life of platitudes. Society had become the sepulchre of youthful inspirations; she welcomed the resurrection. The exquisite delicacy with which she analysed the cost and computed the interest won for her the warmest regard of her husband’s friend, fellow conspirator in a plot which involved the subtlest test of loyalty and honour.

“Yes,” said Medcroft simply. “You won’t have reason to change your opinion, Brock.” He hesitated for a moment and then burst out, rather plaintively: “She’s an awfully good sort, demme, she is. And so are you, Brock,—it’s mighty decent of you. You’re the only man in all the world that I could or would have asked to do this for me. You are my best friend, Brock,—you always have been.” He seized the American’s hand and wrung it fervently. Their eyes met in a long look of understanding and confidence.

“I’ll take good care of her,” said Brock quietly.

“I know you will. Good-by, then. I’ll see you late this afternoon. You leave this evening at seven-twenty by the Orient Express. I’ve had the reservations booked and—and—” He hesitated, a wry smile on his lips, “I daresay you won’t mind making a pretence of looking after the luggage a bit, will you?”

“I shall take this opportunity to put myself in training against the day when I may be travelling away with a happy bride of my own. By the way, how long am I expected to remain in this state of matrimonial bliss? That’s no small detail, you know, even though it escaped for the moment.”

“Three weeks.”

“Three weeks?” He almost reeled.

“That’s a long time in these days of speedy divorces,” said Medcroft blandly.

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