“TWO STRINGS TO THEIR BOW.”
[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Harvey’s short stories from Tartarus Press and Wordsworth Classics have between them left a dozen or so of his tales unpublished, possibly because Harvey’s rare 1920 book The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby is generally excluded from bibliographies of his fiction.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 its contents. Ed.]
Mr Digby sat on the Board of the Bradborough Reformatory; not the board erected by the main gate, which made a mute and ineffective appeal for subscriptions; such a position would have been undignified, although the boys occasionally assumed it, in order to command with pea-shooters their enemies in Carlton Lane. The board that Mr. Digby sat on was the Board of Management. They met twice a month for a few minutes, which he in his capacity of honorary secretary subsequently signed.
But his interest in the Reformatory did not end there. In the words in which the Annual Report referred to the matron, Mrs. Maquiness, he took a real interest in the boys. It dated from a February afternoon ten years before, when the great dam by the leather works in Fetter Lane was frozen, and those who had skates were busy refusing the loan of them to those who had not. The ice on the dam was black and ringing beneath a blanket of powdery snow, which a dozen boys from the Reformatory were busy sweeping, casting envious eyes on the skaters as they swept. Mr. Digby watched the scene from the bank. There came an interval when the brooms were laid down, and the boys blowing on their mittened fingers, started to slide. Then one of them discovered with a shout of joy a solitary discarded skate. There were no straps and the skate appeared to be a very large one, but with the ingenuity of youth, the ringleader lashed it to his boot with string. Five minutes later four little Reformatory boys, arm in arm, inextricably linked, were firmly convinced of the fact that they were skating, and that skating was the best fun in the world.
“It has its amusing side,” said Mr. Digby as he crossed the ice and gave them each sixpence; “as well as its pathetic,” he added, as he picked himself up, after falling unexpectedly backwards.
“I think perhaps I ought to do something to help those boys,” he said to himself, as he made his way homeward in the dusk.
Shortly afterwards a vacancy occurred on the Board of Management of the Reformatory, and when the vicar urged him to allow his name to stand, he did not refuse.
For ten years Mr. Digby had served the Reformatory well. In the autumn he sent from the market barrels of red-faced Tasmanian apples; in summer there were hampers of gooseberries and baskets full of strawberries. Once a year at Christmas there was an entertainment, a cinematograph or a ventriloquist. The headmaster spoke on each occasion of their indebtedness to an anonymous benefactor of the institution. Every one knew that he meant “the old cove with the side whiskers what lives in Ellesmere Terrace.”
There were other ways too in which Mr. Digby helped. He had found jobs in his own mill for many a boy; he had gone bail; he had given his name as reference; he had comforted broken-hearted mothers; he had rebuked the zeal of over-conscientious constables. Nobby Clarke and James Buncle were his old Reformatory friends. Nobby it was who had discovered that one skate was sufficient for four boys, and James had been one of the four. In those days, whether they were quarrelling or not, the two were inseparable. When they left the School to go out into the world (the phrase, again, was the headmaster’s; Nobby and James had always been out there) they never lost sight of each other for long. Athelstan Digby formed their greatest common measure.
It was a morning in June. All was quiet on the western front. Mr. Digby laid down his paper and turned to his correspondence. He carefully opened the envelope with his paper knife, glanced at the contents of the company prospectuses as he ate his porridge, and from the letters singled out the two which seemed most likely to assimilate with the eggs and bacon.
“From James Buncle,” he read, “A.B., Mess 17, H.M.S. Tabasco, c/o G.P.O.”
I am taking the pleasure of writing to you, hoping that this finds you as it leaves me. The weather here has been the limit. I wonder what sort of weather you have been having at Bradborough. I am expecting to come home on draft leave at the beginning of next week, and will give myself the pleasure of calling on you, if convenient. As I expect you know, my young lady, Miss Sitwell, is in service with you. I am not happy about her on account of Nobby Clarke, that lad with the ginger hair (him that was my chum) writing to her and sending her his photo, which he has no reason to do. They tell me he will be home from France next week, and, my word, if we meet, I will have something to say to him which he will not like. I ask you, sir, to see fair play, and not to let him hang round your house. He is a bad lot, and I pity the girl that marries him. Hoping, sir, that you will not let an absent sailor be imposed upon,
Yours respectfully, as I have to go on watch,
P.S. I will punch his bleeding head, when I see him. What sort of weather are you having in Bradborough? It is rotten here, more like Christmas than June.
The word “bleeding” had been crossed out twice.
“Dear me!” said Mr. Digby, “so that pretty little kitchen-maid of mine has been making bad blood between Porthos and Aramis. This will never do! Let’s see what Nobby Clarke has to say on the matter.”
“W. Clarke,” he read, “No. 12187, Caterpillar Section, Attached 987 Siege Battery, R.F.A., B.E.F., France.”
Dear Mr. Digby,
No doubt you will be extremely surprised to receive a letter from me. Please excuse the pencil, as I’ve got no ink. The cigarettes came all right. My word! You should have seen how envious the boys were! I hear that Jim Buncle, that lad what joined the navy a month after I joined up, is coming home on leave. My name is down for leave in ten days’ time. He has been writing to the young lady with whom I correspond, Miss Sitwell, who cooks for you, and has sent her a photograph of himself – tinted. I have written to him twice to tell him that his attentions are objectionable to me and will not be tolerated; and I have Miss Sitwell’s authority for this, as he shall find out when we meet. If he comes before I get leave, I have told her to have nothing to say to him. We all know what sailors are. They are proverbial. Trusting that you will forbid him the house and grounds,
He had better look out. I will tell him what I think of him when we meet.
Mr. Digby poured himself out a second cup of coffee and rang the bell.
At this period Mr. Digby’s household consisted of three servants, Mrs. Wilkinson, the cook, Alice, the house-parlour-maid, and Gladys (for the first time that morning he realised that her name was Sitwell), the kitchen-maid.
Mr. Digby placed implicit trust in Mrs. Wilkinson, who spoiled him, in the ordinary meaning of the word as well as in the sense in which a kind-hearted Israelite might have been said to have spoiled the Egyptians. Her cookery, if not strictly rational, was admirable. Like all good cooks, she was stout. She seldom left the kitchen or the small housekeeper’s room which adjoined it; but her influence pervaded the house. Mr. Digby felt sure, especially at meal times, that her influence was for good.
Alice too, in her sphere, was capable and hard-working. She never dusted the table in his study; his slippers were always placed ready for him when he returned from business; the morning papers were carefully warmed before the fire. Spring-cleaning never took the form of a sudden irresistible offensive, but was a long-drawn-out campaign that lasted throughout the year, a campaign in which imperceptible but valuable progress was made by constant nibbling at awkward salients; though there were occasions when the monotony was broken by daring daylight raids under cover of an impenetrable dust-screen.
Of the presence of Gladys, Mr. Digby had been almost unconscious. He knew, however, that she usually washed up the dishes, that her voice was a not unpleasing soprano, and that her selection of songs, both sacred and secular, was very large.
It was Alice who answered the bell.
“Tell Mrs. Wilkinson I should like to speak to her,” he said; “you can clear away later.”
“I hope,” said Mrs. Wilkinson, “that the bacon was to your fancy, sir. It was not altogether what I should have liked, but the quality we get from Mr. Higgins is something cruel.”
“The bacon was excellent,” Mr. Digby answered. “I wanted to speak to you about Gladys.” He coughed nervously. “I understand she is an orphan. She has few friends to advise her, and consequently we are in a position of unusual responsibility. I hope, Mrs. Wilkinson, that you will give her the benefit of you experience from time to time, as occasion may arise.”
“Is it about young men?” asked Mrs. Wilkinson, hitting the nail on the head with a disconcerting abruptness.
“It is,” said Mr. Digby.
“If I was her,” said Mrs. Wilkinson, “I’d take young Clarke. He’s steady; and though some people don’t like that coloured hair, I don’t see myself that it’s an objection. Now Alice is all for the other young fellow; but, as I say to her, a sailor has a reputation to live up to. Handy I grant her they are, and tidy too in their ways. There’s the difference in the separation allowance to be considered as well.”
Mr. Digby began to wonder if he had not made a mistake in speaking of the matter to his housekeeper. Perhaps he would have done better to have interviewed Gladys. If she had not been so very young, he would not have hesitated to do so.
“All I want of you,” he said, “is to let Gladys know that matrimony is a serious matter, not to be entered upon lightly. I don’t know how far things have progressed, but I hope she realises that the happiness of others is concerned as well as her own.”
“That is what I say to Alice,” remarked Mrs. Wilkinson. “There’s always the other party to consider. I’ve never held with playing fast and loose.”
“That,” said Mr. Digby, as he gazed upon the stout and placid figure of his housekeeper, “I can well believe. All I want of you is to put yourself in her place. She is young and thoughtless, and I know there is a certain fascination in the uniform to some people.”
“Especially kilts,” said Mrs. Wilkinson, “though to my mind they’re ridiculous.”
As he walked down to the mill on the sunny side of the road, Mr. Digby wondered what reply he should make to the two letters of the morning. He did not regard the quarrel between Nobby Clarke and Jim Buncle very seriously. They had always quarrelled. Nobby usually was the last to fall out, Jim the first to climb down. But this was a different matter. Never before had there been a woman in the case. God took a bone (of contention) from Adam’s side and called it Eve; but the disguise was only skin-deep, and a bone of contention her daughters have ever remained. So, at least, thought Mr. Digby on that June morning. It would almost seem that he in some period of his sixty years had been in love.
Later in the day, when the sunshine had driven the cynical humour from his blood, he answered the two letters. He offered his services as a referee. Though he did not approve altogether of the match, he was prepared to lend his ground. He asked them both to an early supper on the following Thursday week. That would be at the beginning of their leave, and he appealed to the honour of Nobby Clarke and James Buncle not to see each other or Miss Sitwell until then. As a matter of fact, he wrote “Gladys.” He was unaccustomed to think of the little kitchen-maid as Miss Sitwell; and as a result he had to rewrite the whole letter.
Thursday evening came, and with it Nobby Clarke, red-haired and freckled, as fit as a fiddle, though no one could have accused him of being highly strung, and as sound as a drum, with the grin of irresistible good humour on his face and a handgrip that made Mr. Digby wince.
“This is a real pleasure, Clarke, meeting you after nearly two years.”
“It’s not so bad,” said Nobby, “seeing the old place again. How is everybody?”
Mr. Digby was proceeding to give him the information he required, when there came a second ring at the door, followed by Alice’s announcement of “Mr. James Buncle.”
“Ah!” said Mr. Digby, “I’m delighted to see you, James. I was hoping you would not forget to call. You two don’t require any introduction.”
“We don’t,” said Nobby, “and don’t want one either.”
“We don’t want no introduction,” said Jim, “but I want a few words with him all the same. I know all about his little goings-on, and they’ve got to stop.”
“Come, come,” interrupted Mr. Digby, “you are not the first friends who have fallen out over a woman; and, unless their nature changes, you will not be the last. Why not be reasonable? Clarke, you sit here, and Buncle, take this chair, and we’ll talk the matter over. There may be right on both sides.”
“But she can’t be in love with us both.”
“She may not be in love with either of you,” said Mr. Digby drily.
An expression of amazed incredulity came into each man’s face.
“You don’t believe me,” he went on. “Well, the only thing is to put the matter to the test. You had better each have half an hour’s interview with the young lady.”
“Very well,” said Buncle, rising from his seat and making for the door. “I’m quite agreeable.”
“Not so fast!” exclaimed Clarke. “Who told you to go first?”
“The senior service,” Buncle answered calmly.
“The senior service, and you joined up six months after I did! That’s logic, that is! What did father do in the Great War? Chipped paint from a blooming battleship and lost himself in the northern mists till it was all over. But I’ll toss you as to who goes first.”
“I think,” said Mr. Digby tentatively, “that if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather you didn’t toss. Somehow I don’t like the idea. Now there are some paper spills in that jar on the mantelpiece. One has to economise in matches nowadays, you know. How would it be if you were each to take one, and agree that the one who draws the longer should interview the young lady first. Don’t you think that seems better than tossing for it?”
Jim Buncle won by a good half inch.
“And now,” said Mr. Digby, when he had left the room, “let me hear more about yourself. You’ve had your fair share of fighting, I gather. You told me in your letters all about Hill 60 and Loos. Where have you been lately?”
Nobby Clarke began to talk, reluctantly at first, and as he talked, the war came into the little study in Ellesmere Terrace, not the glorified war seen through the rosy-tinted spectacles of the newspaper correspondent, but naked, crude reality, stench and lice, festering wounds and utter weariness, dead friends buried in mangled villages, lost battalions of laughing lads that now were ghosts.
“But we’ll finish the business, since we’re in it,” he said. “The Germans won’t raise hell again. As long as there’s the navy we’re all right. You hear people ask sometimes what they are doing. Jim Buncle’s done his bit anyhow. I’ve crossed the Channel four times, I know all about the sea.”
“It’s time you put your case before Miss Sitwell,” said Mr. Digby, looking at the clock. “You know your way downstairs, and when you see Buncle, shake hands with him and tell him that I want to hear how he has been faring the last nine months.”
Slowly the clock on the mantelpiece ticked out the minutes, but no Buncle came. There was peace at least in the underworld, broken, if peace can ever be said to be broken by mirth, with laughter, that, as time went on, became more and more frequent.
Mr. Digby drummed on the table with his fingers impatiently. The laughter was almost verging on the unseemly; he wondered what Mrs. Wilkinson was doing. He thought on the whole it would be best to ring the bell, but when the bell was rung, nothing happened.
Mr. Digby’s patience was exhausted. He got up, and, for the first time that year, descended into the basement. His knock on the kitchen door was drowned in a wave of laughter. Mr. Digby, feeling unusually nervous, turned the handle and walked in. At one side of the kitchen-table, which was spread for tea, sat Alice; James Buncle’s arm was around her waist. Nobby Clarke and Mrs. Wilkinson sat opposite them. Their attitude would have been the same, but his arm was only half round. That was Mrs. Wilkinson’s fault; she could not help it.
Mr. Digby’s presence suddenly made itself felt. All four rose from their seats.
“I rang the bell half an hour ago,” he said. “Since no one answered it, I was obliged to come myself. Clarke and Buncle, I am glad to see that you are friends again. But where, if I may ask, is Gladys – I mean Miss Sitwell?”
“It’s Thursday evening sir,” said Mrs. Wilkinson. “Thursday is always Gladys’s night out.”