MRS. PETT IS SHOCKED
At five o'clock in the afternoon some ten days after her return
to America, Mrs. Pett was at home to her friends in the house on
Riverside Drive. The proceedings were on a scale that amounted to
a reception, for they were not only a sort of official
notification to New York that one of its most prominent hostesses
was once more in its midst, but were also designed to entertain
and impress Mr. Hammond Chester, Ann's father, who had been
spending a couple of days in the metropolis preparatory to
departing for South America on one of his frequent trips. He was
very fond of Ann in his curious, detached way, though he never
ceased in his private heart to consider it injudicious of her not
to have been born a boy, and he always took in New York for a day
or two on his way from one wild and lonely spot to another, if he
could manage it.
The large drawing-room overlooking the Hudson was filled almost
to capacity with that strange mixture of humanity which Mrs. Pett
chiefly affected. She prided herself on the Bohemian element in
her parties, and had become during the past two years a human
drag-net, scooping Genius from its hiding-place and bringing it
into the open. At different spots in the room stood the six
resident geniuses to whose presence in the home Mr. Pett had such
strong objections, and in addition to these she had collected so
many more of a like breed from the environs of Washington Square
that the air was clamorous with the hoarse cries of futurist
painters, esoteric Buddhists, _vers libre_ poets, interior
decorators, and stage reformers, sifted in among the more
conventional members of society who had come to listen to them.
Men with new religions drank tea with women with new hats.
Apostles of Free Love expounded their doctrines to persons who
had been practising them for years without realising it. All over
the room throats were being strained and minds broadened.
Mr. Chester, standing near the door with Ann, eyed the assemblage
with the genial contempt of a large dog for a voluble pack of
small ones. He was a massive, weather-beaten man, who looked very
like Ann in some ways and would have looked more like her but for
the misfortune of having had some of his face clawed away by an
irritable jaguar with whom he had had a difference some years
back in the jungles of Peru.
"Do you like this sort of thing?" he asked.
"I don't mind it," said Ann.
"Well, I shall be very sorry to leave you, Ann, but I'm glad I'm
pulling out of here this evening. Who are all these people?"
Ann surveyed the gathering.
"That's Ernest Wisden, the playwright, over there, talking to
Lora Delane Porter, the feminist writer. That's Clara
What's-her-name, the sculptor, with the bobbed hair. Next to
Mr. Chester cut short the catalogue with a stifled yawn.
"Where's old Pete? Doesn't he come to these jamborees?"
"Poor uncle Peter! If he gets back from the office before these
people leave, he will sneak up to his room and stay there till
it's safe to come out. The last time I made him come to one of
these parties he was pounced on by a woman who talked to him for
an hour about the morality of Finance and seemed to think that
millionaires were the scum of the earth."
"He never would stand up for himself." Mr. Chester's gaze hovered
about the room, and paused. "Who's that fellow? I believe I've
seen him before somewhere."
A constant eddying swirl was animating the multitude. Whenever
the mass tended to congeal, something always seemed to stir it up
again. This was due to the restless activity of Mrs. Pett, who
held it to be the duty of a good hostess to keep her guests
moving. From the moment when the room began to fill till the
moment when it began to empty she did not cease to plough her way
to and fro, in a manner equally reminiscent of a hawk swooping on
chickens and an earnest collegian bucking the line. Her guests
were as a result perpetually forming new ententes and
combinations, finding themselves bumped about like those little
moving figures which one sees in shop-windows on Broadway, which
revolve on a metal disc until, urged by impact with another
little figure, they scatter to regroup themselves elsewhere. It
was a fascinating feature of Mrs. Pett's at-homes and one which
assisted that mental broadening process already alluded to that
one never knew, when listening to a discussion on the sincerity
of Oscar Wilde, whether it would not suddenly change in the
middle of a sentence to an argument on the inner meaning of the
Plunging now into a group dominated for the moment by an angular
woman who was saying loud and penetrating things about the
suffrage, Mrs. Pett had seized and removed a tall, blonde young
man with a mild, vacuous face. For the past few minutes this
young man had been sitting bolt upright on a chair with his hands
on his knees, so exactly in the manner of an end-man at a
minstrel show that one would hardly have been surprised had he
burst into song or asked a conundrum.
Ann followed her father's gaze.
"Do you mean the man talking to aunt Nesta? There, they've gone
over to speak to Willie Partridge. Do you mean that one?"
"Yes. Who is he?"
"Well, I like that!" said Ann. "Considering that you introduced
him to us! That's Lord Wisbeach, who came to uncle Peter with a
letter of introduction from you. You met him in Canada."
"I remember now. I ran across him in British Columbia. We camped
together one night. I'd never seen him before and I didn't see
him again. He said he wanted a letter to old Pete for some
reason, so I scribbled him one in pencil on the back of an
envelope. I've never met any one who played a better game of draw
poker. He cleaned me out. There's a lot in that fellow, in spite
of his looking like a musical comedy dude. He's clever."
Ann looked at him meditatively.
"It's odd that you should be discovering hidden virtues in Lord
Wisbeach, father. I've been trying to make up my mind about him.
He wants me to marry him."
"He does! I suppose a good many of these young fellows here want
the same thing, don't they, Ann?" Mr. Chester looked at his
daughter with interest. Her growing-up and becoming a beauty had
always been a perplexity to him. He could never rid himself of
the impression of her as a long-legged child in short skirts. "I
suppose you're refusing them all the time?"
"Every day from ten to four, with an hour off for lunch. I keep
regular office hours. Admission on presentation of visiting
"And how do you feel about this Lord Wisbeach?"
"I don't know," said Ann frankly. "He's very nice. And--what is
more important--he's different. Most of the men I know are all
turned out of the same mould. Lord Wisbeach--and one other
man--are the only two I've met who might not be the brothers of
all the rest."
"Who's the other?"
"A man I hardly know. I met him on board ship--"
Mr. Chester looked at his watch.
"It's up to you, Ann," he said. "There's one comfort in being
your father--I don't mean that exactly; I mean that it is a
comfort to me AS your father--to know that I need feel no
paternal anxiety about you. I don't have to give you advice.
You've not only got three times the sense that I have, but you're
not the sort of girl who would take advice. You've always known
just what you wanted ever since you were a kid. . . . Well, if
you're going to take me down to the boat, we'd better be
starting. Where's the car?"
"Waiting outside. Aren't you going to say good-bye to aunt
"Good God, no!" exclaimed Mr. Chester in honest concern. "What!
Plunge into that pack of coyotes and fight my way through to her!
I'd be torn to pieces by wild poets. Besides, it seems silly to
make a fuss saying good-bye when I'm only going to be away a
short time. I shan't go any further than Colombia this trip."
"You'll be able to run back for week-ends," said Ann.
She paused at the door to cast a fleeting glance over her
shoulder at the fair-haired Lord Wisbeach, who was now in
animated conversation with her aunt and Willie Partridge; then
she followed her father down the stairs. She was a little
thoughtful as she took her place at the wheel of her automobile.
It was not often that her independent nature craved outside
support, but she was half conscious of wishing at the present
juncture that she possessed a somewhat less casual father. She
would have liked to ask him to help her decide a problem which
had been vexing her for nearly three weeks now, ever since Lord
Wisbeach had asked her to marry him and she had promised to give
him his answer on her return from England. She had been back in
New York several days now, but she had not been able to make up
her mind. This annoyed her, for she was a girl who liked swift
decisiveness of thought and action both in others and in herself.
She was fond of Mr. Chester in much the same unemotional,
detached way that he was fond of her, but she was perfectly well
aware of the futility of expecting counsel from him. She said
good-bye to him at the boat, fussed over his comfort for awhile
in a motherly way, and then drove slowly back. For the first time
in her life she was feeling uncertain of herself. When she had
left for England, she had practically made up her mind to accept
Lord Wisbeach, and had only deferred actual acceptance of him
because in her cool way she wished to re-examine the position at
her leisure. Second thoughts had brought no revulsion of feeling.
She had not wavered until her arrival in New York. Then, for some
reason which baffled her, the idea of marrying Lord Wisbeach had
become vaguely distasteful. And now she found herself fluctuating
between this mood and her former one.
She reached the house on Riverside Drive, but did not slacken the
speed of the machine. She knew that Lord Wisbeach would be
waiting for her there, and she did not wish to meet him just yet.
She wanted to be alone. She was feeling depressed. She wondered
if this was because she had just departed from her father, and
decided that it was. His swift entrances into and exits from her
life always left her temporarily restless. She drove on up the
river. She meant to decide her problem one way or the other
before she returned home.
Lord Wisbeach, meanwhile, was talking to Mrs. Pett and Willie,
its inventor, about Partridgite. Willie, on hearing himself
addressed, had turned slowly with an air of absent
self-importance, the air of a great thinker disturbed in
mid-thought. He always looked like that when spoken to, and there
were those--Mr. Pett belonged to this school of thought--who held
that there was nothing to him beyond that look and that he had
built up his reputation as a budding mastermind on a foundation
that consisted entirely of a vacant eye, a mop of hair through
which he could run his fingers, and the fame of his late father.
Willie Partridge was the son of the great inventor, Dwight
Partridge, and it was generally understood that the explosive,
Partridgite, was to be the result of a continuation of
experiments which his father had been working upon at the time of
his death. That Dwight Partridge had been trying experiments in
the direction of a new and powerful explosive during the last
year of his life was common knowledge in those circles which are
interested in such things. Foreign governments were understood to
have made tentative overtures to him. But a sudden illness,
ending fatally, had finished the budding career of Partridgite
abruptly, and the world had thought no more of it until an
interview in the _Sunday Chronicle_, that store-house of
information about interesting people, announced that Willie was
carrying on his father's experiments at the point where he had
left off. Since then there had been vague rumours of possible
sensational developments, which Willie had neither denied nor
confirmed. He preserved the mysterious silence which went so well
with his appearance.
Having turned slowly so that his eyes rested on Lord Wisbeach's
ingenuous countenance, Willie paused, and his face assumed the
expression of his photograph in the _Chronicle_.
"Ah, Wisbeach!" he said.
Lord Wisbeach did not appear to resent the patronage of his
manner. He plunged cheerily into talk. He had a pleasant, simple
way of comporting himself which made people like him.
"I was just telling Mrs. Pett," he said, "that I shouldn't be
surprised if you were to get an offer for your stuff from our
fellows at home before long. I saw a lot of our War Office men
when I was in England, don't you know. Several of them mentioned
Willie resented Partridgite as being referred to as "the stuff,"
but he made allowance. All Englishmen talked that way, he
"Indeed?" he said.
"Of course," said Mrs. Pett, "Willie is a patriot and would have
to give our own authorities the first chance."
"But you know what officials are all over the world. They are so
sceptical and they move so slowly."
"I know. Our men at home are just the same as a rule. I've got a
pal who invented something-or-other, I forget what, but it was a
most decent little contrivance and very useful and all that; and
he simply can't get them to say Yes or No about it. But, all the
same, I wonder you didn't have some of them trying to put out
feelers to you when you were in London."
"Oh, we were only in London a few hours. By the way, Lord
Wisbeach, my sister--"--Mrs. Pett paused; she disliked to have to
mention her sister or to refer to this subject at all, but
curiosity impelled her--"my sister said that you are a great
friend of her step-son, James Crocker. I didn't know that you
Lord Wisbeach seemed to hesitate for a moment.
"He's not coming over, is he? Pity! It would have done him a
world of good. Yes, Jimmy Crocker and I have always been great
pals. He's a bit of a nut, of course, . . . I beg your pardon!
. . . I mean . . ." He broke off confusedly, and turned to Willie
again to cover himself. "How are you getting on with the jolly
old stuff?" he asked.
If Willie had objected to Partridgite being called "the stuff,"
he was still less in favour of its being termed "the jolly old
stuff." He replied coldly.
"I have ceased to get along with the jolly old stuff."
"Struck a snag?" enquired Lord Wisbeach sympathetically.
"On the contrary, my experiments have been entirely successful. I
have enough Partridgite in my laboratory to blow New York to
"Willie!" exclaimed Mrs. Pett. "Why didn't you tell me before?
You know I am so interested."
"I only completed my work last night."
He moved off with an important nod. He was tired of Lord
Wisbeach's society. There was something about the young man which
he did not like. He went to find more congenial company in a
group by the window.
Lord Wisbeach turned to his hostess. The vacuous expression had
dropped from his face like a mask. A pair of keen and intelligent
eyes met Mrs. Pett's.
"Mrs. Pett, may I speak to you seriously?"
Mrs. Pett's surprise at the alteration in the man prevented her
from replying. Much as she liked Lord Wisbeach, she had never
given him credit for brains, and it was a man with brains and
keen ones who was looking at her now. She nodded.
"If your nephew has really succeeded in his experiments, you
should be awfully careful. That stuff ought not to lie about in
his laboratory, though no doubt he has hidden it as carefully as
possible. It ought to be in a safe somewhere. In that safe in
your library. News of this kind moves like lightning. At this
very moment, there may be people watching for a chance of getting
at the stuff."
Every nerve in Mrs. Pett's body, every cell of a brain which had
for years been absorbing and giving out sensational fiction,
quivered irrepressibly at these words, spoken in a low, tense
voice which gave them additional emphasis. Never had she
misjudged a man as she had misjudged Lord Wisbeach.
"Spies?" she quavered.
"They wouldn't call themselves that," said Lord Wisbeach. "Secret
Service agents. Every country has its men whose only duty it is
to handle this sort of work."
"They would try to steal Willie's--?" Mrs. Pett's voice failed.
"They would not look on it as stealing. Their motives would be
patriotic. I tell you, Mrs. Pett, I have heard stories from
friends of mine in the English Secret Service which would amaze
you. Perfectly straight men in private life, but absolutely
unscrupulous when at work. They stick at nothing--nothing. If I
were you, I should suspect every one, especially every stranger."
He smiled engagingly. "You are thinking that that is odd advice
from one who is practically a stranger like myself. Never mind.
Suspect me, too, if you like. Be on the safe side."
"I would not dream of doing such a thing, Lord Wisbeach," said
Mrs. Pett horrified. "I trust you implicitly. Even supposing such
a thing were possible, would you have warned me like this, if you
"That's true," said Lord Wisbeach. "I never thought of that.
Well, let me say, suspect everybody but me." He stopped abruptly.
"Mrs. Pett," he whispered, "don't look round for a moment.
Wait." The words were almost inaudible. "Who is that man behind
you? He has been listening to us. Turn slowly."
With elaborate carelessness, Mrs. Pett turned her head. At first
she thought her companion must have alluded to one of a small
group of young men who, very improperly in such surroundings,
were discussing with raised voices the prospects of the clubs
competing for the National League Baseball Pennant. Then,
extending the sweep of her gaze, she saw that she had been
mistaken. Midway between her and this group stood a single
figure, the figure of a stout man in a swallow-tail suit, who
bore before him a tray with cups on it. As she turned, this man
caught her eye, gave a guilty start, and hurried across the room.
"You saw?" said Lord Wisbeach. "He was listening. Who is that
man? Your butler apparently. What do you know of him?"
"He is my new butler. His name is Skinner."
"Ah, your _new_ butler? He hasn't been with you long, then?"
"He only arrived from England three days ago."
"From England? How did he get in here? I mean, on whose
"Mr. Pett offered him the place when we met him at my sister's in
London. We went over there to see my sister, Eugenia--Mrs.
Crocker. This man was the butler who admitted us. He asked Mr.
Pett something about baseball, and Mr. Pett was so pleased that
he offered him a place here if he wanted to come over. The man
did not give any definite answer then, but apparently he sailed
on the next boat, and came to the house a few days after we had
Lord Wisbeach laughed softly.
"Very smart. Of course they had him planted there for the
"What ought I to do?" asked Mrs. Pett agitatedly.
"Do nothing. There is nothing that you can do, for the present,
except keep your eyes open. Watch this man Skinner. See if he has
any accomplices. It is hardly likely that he is working alone.
Suspect everybody. Believe me . . ."
At this moment, apparently from some upper region, there burst
forth an uproar so sudden and overwhelming that it might well
have been taken for a premature testing of a large sample of
Partridgite; until a moment later it began to resemble more
nearly the shrieks of some partially destroyed victim of that
death-dealing invention. It was a bellow of anguish, and it
poured through the house in a cascade of sound, advertising to
all beneath the roof the twin facts that some person unknown was
suffering and that whoever the sufferer might be he had excellent
The effect on the gathering in the drawing-room was immediate and
impressive. Conversation ceased as if it had been turned off with
a tap. Twelve separate and distinct discussions on twelve highly
intellectual topics died instantaneously. It was as if the last
trump had sounded. Futurist painters stared pallidly at _vers
libre_ poets, speech smitten from their lips; and stage performers
looked at esoteric Buddhists with a wild surmise.
The sudden silence had the effect of emphasising the strange
noise and rendering it more distinct, thus enabling it to carry
its message to one at least of the listeners. Mrs. Pett, after a
moment of strained attention in which time seemed to her to stand
still, uttered a wailing cry and leaped for the door.
"Ogden!" she shrilled; and passed up the stairs two at a time,
gathering speed as she went. A boy's best friend is his mother.