AN INVITATION TO DINNER
Mr. Samuel Weatherley, sole proprietor of the firm of Samuel Weatherley & Co., wholesale provision merchants, of Tooley Street, London, paused suddenly on his way from his private office to the street. There was something which until that second had entirely slipped his memory. It was not his umbrella, for that, neatly tucked up, was already under his arm. Nor was it the Times, for that, together with the supplement, was sticking out of his overcoat pocket, the shape of which it completely ruined. As a matter of fact, it was more important than either of these—it was a commission from his wife.
Very slowly he retraced his steps until he stood outside the glass-enclosed cage where twelve of the hardest-worked clerks in London bent over their ledgers and invoicing. With his forefinger—a fat, pudgy forefinger—he tapped upon a pane of glass, and an anxious errand boy bolted through the doorway.
“Tell Mr. Jarvis to step this way,” his employer ordered.
Mr. Jarvis heard the message and came hurrying out. He was an undersized man, with somewhat prominent eyes concealed by gold-rimmed spectacles. He was possessed of extraordinary talents with regard to the details of the business, and was withal an expert and careful financier. Hence his hold upon the confidence of his employer.
The latter addressed him with a curious and altogether unusual hesitation in his manner.
“Mr. Jarvis,” he began, “there is a matter—a little matter—upon which I—er—wish to consult you.”
“Those American invoices—”
“Nothing to do with business at all,” Mr. Weatherley interrupted, ruthlessly. “A little private matter.”
“Indeed, sir?” Mr. Jarvis interjected.
“The fact is,” Mr. Weatherley blundered on, with considerable awkwardness, for he hated the whole affair, “my wife—Mrs. Weatherley, you know—is giving a party this evening—having some friends to dinner first, and then some other people coming to bridge. We are a man short for dinner. Mrs. Weatherley told me to get some one at the club—telephoned down here just an hour ago.”
Mr. Weatherley paused. Mr. Jarvis did his best to grasp the situation, but failed. All that he could do was to maintain his attitude of intelligent interest.
“I don’t know any one at the club,” continued his employer, irritably. “I feel like a fish out of water there, and that’s the truth, Mr. Jarvis. It’s a good club. I got elected there—well, never mind how—but it’s one thing to be a member of a club, and quite another to get to know the men there. You understand that, Mr. Jarvis.”
Mr. Jarvis, however, did not understand it. He could conceive of no spot in the city of London, or its immediate neighborhood, where Mr. Samuel Weatherley, head of the firm of Messrs. Weatherley & Co., could find himself among his social superiors. He knew the capital of the firm, and its status. He was ignorant of the other things which counted—as ignorant as his master had been until he had paid a business visit a few years ago, in search of certain edibles, to an island in the Mediterranean Sea. He was to have returned in triumph to Tooley Street and launched upon the provision-buying world a new cheese of astounding quality and infinitesimal price—instead of which he brought home a wife.
“Anything I can do, sir,” began Mr. Jarvis, a little vaguely,—
“My idea was,” Mr. Weatherley proceeded, “that one of my own young men—there are twelve of them in there, aren’t there?” he added, jerking his head in the direction of the office—”might do. What do you think?”
Mr. Jarvis nodded thoughtfully.
“It would be a great honor, sir,” he declared, “a very great honor indeed.”
Mr. Weatherley did not contradict him. As a matter of fact, he was of the same opinion.
“The question is which,” he continued.
Mr. Jarvis began to understand why he had been consulted. His fingers involuntarily straightened his tie.
“If I could be of any use personally, sir,—”
His employer shook his head.
“Cards are not much in my line,” Mr. Jarvis admitted, “not having, as a rule, the time to spare, but I can take a hand at loo, if desired.”
“My wife’s friends all play bridge,” Mr. Weatherley declared, a little brusquely. “There’s only one young man in the office, Jarvis, who, from his appearance, struck me as being likely.”
“Mr. Stephen Tidey, of course, sir,” the confidential clerk agreed. “Most suitable thing, sir, and I’m sure his father would accept it as a high compliment. Mr. Stephen Tidey Senior, sir, as you may be aware, is next on the list for the shrievalty. Shall I call him out, sir?”
Mr. Weatherley looked through the glass and met the glance, instantly lowered, of the young man in question. Mr. Stephen Tidey Junior was short and stout, reflecting in his physique his aldermanic father. His complexion was poor, however, his neck thick, and he wore a necktie of red silk drawn through a diamond ring. There was nothing in his appearance which grated particularly upon Mr. Weatherley’s sense of seemliness. Nevertheless, he shook his head. He was beginning to recognize his wife’s point of view, even though it still seemed strange to him.
“I wasn’t thinking of young Tidey at all,” he declared, bluntly. “I was thinking of that young fellow at the end of the desk there—chap with a queer name—Chetwode, I think you call him.”
Mr. Jarvis, human automaton though he was, permitted himself an exclamation of surprise.
“Young Chetwode! Surely you’re not in earnest, sir!”
“Nothing against him, precisely,” Mr. Jarvis confessed, “but he’s at the lowest desk in the office, bar Smithers. His salary is only twenty-eight shillings a week, and we know nothing whatever about him except that his references were satisfactory. It isn’t to be supposed that he would feel at home in your house, sir. Now, with Mr. Tidey, sir, it’s quite different. They live in a very beautiful house at Sydenham now—quite a small palace, in its way, I’ve been told.”
Mr. Weatherley was getting a little impatient.
“Send Chetwode out for a moment, anyway,” he directed. “I’ll speak to him here.”
Mr. Jarvis obeyed in silence. He entered the office and touched the young man in question upon the shoulder.
“Mr. Weatherley wishes to speak to you outside, Chetwode,” he announced. “Make haste, please.”
Arnold Chetwode put down his pen and rose to his feet. There was nothing flurried about his manner, nothing whatever to indicate on his part any knowledge of the fact that this was the voice of Fate beating upon his ear. He did not even show the ordinary interest of a youthful employee summoned for the first time to an audience with his chief. Standing for a moment by the side of the senior clerk in the middle of the office, tall and straight, with deep brown hair, excellent features, and the remnants of a healthy tan still visible on his forehead and neck, he looked curiously out of place in this unwholesome, gaslit building with its atmosphere of cheese and bacon. He would have been noticeably good-looking upon the cricket field or in any gathering of people belonging to the other side of life. Here he seemed almost a curiously incongruous figure. He passed through the glass-paned door and stood respectfully before his employer. Mr. Weatherley—it was absurd, but he scarcely knew how to make his suggestion—fidgetted for a moment and coughed. The young man, who, among many other quite unusual qualities, was possessed of a considerable amount of tact, looked down upon his employer with a little well-assumed anxiety. As a matter of fact, he really was exceedingly anxious not to lose his place.
“I understood from Mr. Jarvis that you wished to speak to me, sir,” he remarked. “I hope that my work has given satisfaction? I know that I am quite inexperienced but I don’t think that I have made any mistakes.”
Mr. Weatherley was, to tell the truth, thankful for the opening.
“I have had no complaints, Chetwode,” he admitted, struggling for that note of condescension which he felt to be in order. “No complaints at all. I was wondering if you—you happened to play bridge?”
Once more this extraordinary young man showed himself to be possessed of gifts quite unusual at his age. Not by the flicker of an eyelid did he show the least surprise or amusement.
“Bridge, sir,” he repeated. “Yes, I have played at—I have played occasionally.”
“My wife is giving a small dinner-party this evening,” Mr. Weatherley continued, moving his umbrella from one hand to the other and speaking very rapidly, “bridge afterwards. We happen to be a man short. I was to have called at the club to try and pick up some one—find I sha’n’t have time—meeting at the Cannon Street Hotel to attend. Would you—er—fill the vacant place? Save me the trouble of looking about.”
It was out at last and Mr. Weatherley felt unaccountably relieved. He felt at the same time a certain measure of annoyance with his junior clerk for his unaltered composure.
“I shall be very much pleased, sir,” he answered, without hesitation. “About eight, I suppose?”
Again Mr. Weatherley’s relief was tempered with a certain amount of annoyance. This young man’s savoir faire was out of place. He should have imagined a sort of high-tea supper at seven o’clock, and been gently corrected by his courteous employer. As it was, Mr. Weatherley felt dimly confident that this junior clerk of his was more accustomed to eight o’clock dinners than he was himself.
“A quarter to, to-night,” he replied. “People coming for bridge afterwards, you see. I live up Hampstead way—Pelham Lodge—quite close to the tube station.”
Mr. Weatherley omitted the directions he had been about to give respecting toilet, and turned away. His youthful employee’s manners, to the last, were all that could be desired.
“I am much obliged to you, sir,” he said. “I will take care to be punctual.”
Mr. Weatherley grunted and walked out into the street. Here his behavior was a little singular. He walked up toward London Bridge, exchanging greetings with a good many acquaintances on the way. Opposite the London & Westminster Bank he paused for a moment and looked searchingly around. Satisfied that he was unobserved, he stepped quickly into a very handsome motor car which was drawn up close to the curb, and with a sigh of relief sat as far back among the cushions as possible and held the tube to his mouth.
“Get along home,” he ordered, tersely.
Arnold Chetwode, after his interview with his employer, returned unruffled to his place. Mr. Jarvis bustled in after him. He was annoyed, but he wished to conceal the fact. Besides, he still had an arrow in his quiver. He came and stood over his subordinate.
“Congratulate you, I’m sure, Chetwode,” he said smoothly. “First time any one except myself has been to the house since Mr. Weatherley’s marriage.”
Mr. Jarvis had taken the letters there one morning when his employer had been unwell, and had waited in the hall. He did not, however, mention that fact.
“Indeed?” Chetwode murmured, with his eye upon his work.
“You understand, of course,” Mr. Jarvis continued, “that it will be an evening-dress affair. Mrs. Weatherley has the name of being very particular.”
He glanced covertly at the young man, who was already immersed in his work.
“Evening dress,” Chetwode remarked, with a becoming show of interest. “Well, I dare say I can manage something. If I wear a black coat and a white silk bow, and stick a red handkerchief in underneath my waistcoat, I dare say I shall be all right. Mr. Weatherley can’t expect much from me in that way, can he?”
“Can’t say, I’m sure, what the governor expects,” he replied, falsely. “You’ll have to do the best you can, I suppose. Better get on with those invoices now.”
Once more the office resounded to the hum of its varied labors. Mr. Jarvis, dictating letters to a typist, smiled occasionally as he pictured the arrival of this over-favored young man in the drawing-room of Mrs. Weatherley, attired in the nondescript fashion which his words had suggested. One or two of the clerks ventured upon a chaffing remark. To all appearance, the person most absorbed in his work was the young man who had been singled out for such especial favor.
Categories: English Literature