“THE HOME-COMING OF PHILIP” (2/2).
[The two recent editions of William Fryer Harvey’s short stories from Tartarus Press and Wordsworth Classics have between them left a dozen or so of his tales unpublished, possibly because Harvey’s rare 1920 book The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby is generally excluded from bibliographies of his fiction. Yet Tychy has lately obtained a copy and the website is presently serialising the ten tales from Misadventures. Ed.]
For five seconds, while his eyes remained fixed on the printed words “not exceeding ten pounds,” the train continued to speed northward. Then came a slowing, gradual, but none the less perceptible. The train was coming to a standstill, and Brown had already lowered the sash. He now opened the door, and, rolling into a bundle, his overcoat and the soft felt hat that he had worn he threw them out of the carriage.
The train stopped.
On either side of their compartment blinds went up and windows were lowered. Little oblongs of yellow light chequered the track, until the shrill voice of a girl said drawlingly that she supposed the Zeppelins were over Leffield again.
To a harassed guard Brown explained the situation. He and his friend Mr. Digby – “I read your name on the label of the suit-case,” he explained afterwards – had been taken completely by surprise. The gentleman, who had got into the carriage at Grentham – he was about Brown’s height and wore a light-coloured overcoat – had certainly seemed to be rather excited, but they had taken no notice of the matter, until he had suddenly pulled the communication cord. As soon as the train slowed down, he had opened the door with equal suddenness , and saying something about having got into the wrong train, he had evaded their efforts to detain him, and climbed out of the carriage. His name for future reference? Henry Martin; the Grand Hotel, Liverpool, would always find him. “And you, Digby,” he went on, “I suppose you’ll be at home for the next few weeks? The guard wants our addresses, in case it’s a police court case.”
No actor could have assumed the gravity of Mr. Digby’s face. The seriousness of his position was slowly dawning upon him. He, at his own request, had pulled the communication cord and the train had stopped and there was a penalty not exceeding ten pounds. He, a Justice of the Peace, had made himself an accessory to the escape of a convicted thief, who shaved in dry ginger ale, and who uttered the most deliberate falsehoods in the spirit of spontaneous truth.
“So far so good,” said Brown, when the excitement had at last subsided. “If they tracked me to the train, they’ll naturally suppose that I’ve made a run for it across country. I can’t thank you, Mr. Digby, though my wife can, and will too, I hope, in person. Phil will be able to hold up his head, but I’ve got to get to Liverpool by noon to-morrow. I shall have to see my wife, arrange with her to meet Phil, and get them both to join me at some place in Wales where I’m not known. Phil still thinks of course, that I’ve had some sort of nervous breakdown. But all this means money and I haven’t a penny. Will you help me further, Mr. Digby? It’s the thought of the boy that drives me nearly mad. Can you give me five pounds? I don’t ask you to lend it me. When the crash came two years ago, I swore that I’d never ask a man for a loan again.”
“I’ll see you through,” said Mr. Digby shortly. “I don’t mind telling you that after reading that book on the future of the Juvenile Offender I’d made up my mind to give a donation of ten guineas to a model colony that is being started in Dorset. You are far more interesting than a model colony. I’m slightly prejudiced against model colonies. We in Bradborough have never been taught to think imperially. You can count on me for ten guineas.”
“It’s extraordinarily generous of you,” said Brown. “Five pounds is more than sufficient. But may I take your ticket in order to avoid any questions? I’ll return your hat and coat as soon as I can. I know it all must seem absolutely grotesque, Mr. Digby, but I’m not an ordinary thief. A man can be a gentleman, even though he has been justly imprisoned.”
For the rest of the journey, and for Mr. Digby the time had never passed so quickly, his companion talked while he listened. There is an intoxicating joy in human speech, Brown explained, after two years’ confinement. And Athelstan Digby, who had sat on the bench for nearly a quarter of a century, held his peace and marvelled at the follies of the criminal code. Here was a man, well-read and exceptionally well-informed, who seemed equally cognizant of the political history of Central America and the difficulties of cotton-growing in the Sudan, wasting some of the best years of his life behind prison walls in empty expiation of an offence which, compared with some of the transactions of Government Departments – and he did not judge by hearsay alone – was as paltry as it was pardonable.
The train slowed down. The dull red glow in the sky came from the night world of Bradborough’s factories, the scarlet tongues of flame from her furnaces, forging war.
“I’m glad to have been able to help you,” said Digby. “You have brought me face to face with the practical, when I should otherwise have been merely theorizing after a well-digested dinner. If you have need of further help, and very likely in the future you will be looking for work, write to me. I have a number of irons in the fire, and able men are hard to come by in these days. How can I communicate with you?”
Brown wrote an address on a slip of paper.
“That is where I thought of staying in Wales,” he said, “while my boy is on leave. I can’t ever thank you sufficiently, Mr. Digby. Everything was against me, appearances, and my own story, but you have the Englishman’s spirit of adventure that has made this country what it is. There is one little thing which I can do. I see you are interested in oil propositions. I’ll give you a sure tip. Sell your Roumanian holdings, if you have any, and the sooner the better. Good-bye! I’ll return the hat, the coat, and the umbrella.”
He held out his hand with confidence; there was both gratitude and strength of purpose in his grasp.
“Good-bye,” said Mr. Digby; and the man was gone.
“A most extraordinary journey,” he said, when, after paying for his ticket, he at last made his way down the crowded platform, “and a most extraordinary companion.”
The night air was chilly and the rain was falling steadily on the flagged pavement. Bradborough in February was as dismal as ever; but Bradborough was home. Mr. Digby stepped out cheerfully.
“I wonder if I shall ever see my coat and umbrella again,” he said.
They came by post in two neat parcels three days later, and their coming was regarded by Mr. Digby as in the nature of a sign. He disposed of his holdings in the Anglo-Roumanian Oil Corporation, and, after a generous donation to the London Society for the Conversion of the Jews, which was additional to his annual subscription, he invested the proceeds in the new issue of Palmer, Eckhard, and Levinstein’s five per cent Debentures.
For six months, however, he waited in vain for news of his companion on that adventurous night. Had he succeeded, he often wondered, in eluding the police, in meeting his wife, and in seeing his son? The old bachelor, sitting alone by his fire in the evening, tried to picture a union that he would never know.
At last one morning he received a letter from Germany. It came in an English envelope, stamped with an English stamp, bearing an English postmark.
Dear Mr. Digby,
I really don’t know how to apologize to you for the necessary deception which I practised on you that night in February last. If you had read the papers which the previous occupants had left in the carriage, I should never have succeeded. In The Illustrated London Mirror, upon which I sat during most of the journey, there was a portrait of Captain Paul Semmelweiss, of the raider “Seevogel,” who two days before was reported to have escaped from Carrington Hall. The half-dozen lines of abbreviated biography which appeared beneath it are approximately correct. It is true that I married an Englishwoman – the best wife man ever had – and I have always fought clean. If I remember rightly, the words “The Gentlemanly Hun” appeared above my portrait. “The Gentlemanly German” would have secured the alliteration so dear to your Southbourne press, and would have avoided the use of an offensive epithet. When I entered your carriage, disaster seemed to await me. An hour before, my pocket-book, which contained all the money I had, was stolen. While you were finishing your chop, I seriously considered the possibility of throwing you out of the window; but, though I was ravenously hungry, I share my wife’s distaste for gorgonzola, and the biscuits alone were not sufficient to tempt me.
Then I noticed the books you were reading. They confirmed the impression of kindly, yet shrewd, benevolence which I had gathered from a closer perusal of your face. Uncertain as to how I was to act, I took up one of the magazines that littered my seat. From it I got the plot of my story. It was called “The Home-Coming of Phillip,” and was quite shockingly sentimental – your race’s overpowering vice – Phillip coming home to his mother, who had kept him in entire ignorance of his father’s imprisonment, and bringing with him, if you please, his fiancée, a Red Cross Nurse, whom he had met in the Gloucester Hospital. What a typically English touch!
I hated to deceive you, because I felt that I might have queered the pitch for the next comer, who might deserve more of your Christian charity than I ever did. But my wife thanks you from the bottom of her heart – I told you she would – and my son, whose arrival I so anxiously expected and whose photograph I enclose, has been called Phillip Digby. When my friends ask me what Digby means, I tell them that it was the name of the finest English merchantman I ever sank.
“A typically German touch,” said Athelstan Digby; and then he looked at the photograph of the laughing baby, which showed no signs of any fat-shortage.
“The jolly little Hun!” he sighed.