“THE INCORRIGIBLE MR. BULMER” (1/2).
[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Harvey’s short stories from Tartarus Press and Wordsworth Classics have between them left a dozen or so of his tales unpublished, possibly because Harvey’s rare 1920 book The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby is generally excluded from bibliographies of his fiction.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 its contents. Ed.]
The Bradborough Conservative Club, though insolvent, was select; the Bradborough Liberal Club was solvent and thoroughly democratic; the Bradborough Club, which knew no politics, combined the best of both. It had stolen Falotti, the Conservatives’ chef, whose curried prawns were as famous as his curried favours were infamous, and had seduced Wilkinson, the Liberals’ hall-porter – the unique Wilkinson, rotund and rubicund – who knew all about your present and future and nothing at all about your past, who made Mr. Marshall himself forget that his father’s name was Levinstein, who almost persuaded Sir Henry Tatham that he had been born a knight.
The Club was comfortable, quiet, and select, an unostentatious frame for respectable middle-age. Mr. Digby lunched there regularly. He had his own particular table, which he usually shared with Mommersley, the surgeon, Tom Bradfield, the barrister, who was always waiting for the next county court judgeship to fall vacant, Sir Thomas Elkington, whose gas engines, advertised on every railway platform in the kingdom, were supposed to be as silent as he was voluble, and one or two others. Mr. Digby was consequently surprised when, on coming into the dining-room one morning a little before his usual luncheon hour, he found a stranger sitting, not only at his table, but in his, Mr. Digby’s, particular seat.
As an alderman of the city, and as one of the oldest members of the Club, Athelstan Digby had a clear idea as to what was his due. But he possessed, too, an old-fashioned sense of courtesy. He had not really the true club spirit. It was his duty, he thought, to make a new member feel at home. He ordered his steak, and then spoke of the weather, which even for a Bradborough spring had been unusually trying. The young man opposite did not appear to be interested. He raised his face and looked at Mr. Digby through a pair of rimless glasses, his eyebrows raised slightly superciliously. From the weather Mr. Digby passed to the subject of trams and the corporation’s experiments with a trackless trolley system, expressing his opinion that the future lay with the motor bus. The young man opposite agreed. Mr. Digby gathered from the tone of his reply that he was totally uninterested in vehicular traffic. From trackless trolleys the conversation, if such it could be called, passed by an easy transition to death duties and the coming budget.
“I wonder,” said Mr. Digby, “what they intend to do about excess profits.”
“I wonder,” said the young man.
He produced from his pocket a copy of the Times Literary Supplement, and propping it against the cruet stand, read ostentatiously through his rimless glasses an illuminating article on the Metaphysics of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
“Waiter!” said Mr. Digby.
“Sir!” responded the head waiter, who, if not indeed a Wilkinson, possessed Wilkinsonian attributes.
“Pass me the cruet, and see in future that paper rests are provided for members who require them.” And for the first time in his life Mr. Digby took mustard with his steak.
“Who is the gentleman with no eyebrows, who wears rimless glasses, and who came in just before me this morning?” he said to Wilkinson on his way through the hall.
“He is a Mr. Bulmer, sir; he was elected an honorary member while you were away last month.”
Mr. Digby, however, was of a forgiving spirit. He was too old to bear grudges easily, and when he saw Mr. Bulmer for the second time a week later, he had almost forgotten his studied rudeness. It was in the writing room of the club. Bulmer was talking to Max Kennedy, the curator of the Municipal Art Gallery, and Digby, who for years had formed with Kennedy the unconquerable minority of two upon the Art Purchases Committee of the Corporation, moved towards the fire-place, in front of which they were standing.
“Canaletti” Bulmer was saying, “a master of perspective, no doubt; but stones of Venice, stones of Venice, repeated ad nauseam! And what an atmosphere of Baedeker!”
“I should like to show you two or three of my Canalettis,” said Mr. Digby, breaking into the conversation. “I think you might then alter your opinion.”
Kennedy introduced them.
“I should be delighted, Mr. Digby, if I could find time,” said Bulmer; “but are you sure they are genuine? Few things are so deceptive as the Old Masters. I was speaking of Lord Arthur Savil’s collection.”
Mr. Digby turned on his heel and walked out of the room. His collection was one of the best in the north of England. Lord Arthur Savil had been glad to buy what he had discarded to fill the gaps in the gallery at Wentworth Court between his one authentic Rubens and his second-rate Van Dyke.
“I wonder who the fellow is,” he said to himself.
Charlie Dyson, junior partner in the firm of Digby, Dyson and Copplestone, was able to give him all the information he wanted.
“That unmitigated little bounder in the rimless glasses, that insufferable, supercilious cad, Bulmer, is a chartered accountant, if you please, in some department or other of this glorious Government of ours – it’s pretty safe to be the Ministry of Munitions – sent down to Bradborough to look into our Income Tax returns. He has rooms at the Grand Central, and from there he spies out the land. He has come with the fixed idea that we are all millionaires out to plunder the government, and that our excess profits are always camouflaged in terms of new plant and fair wear and tear. He’s here to shake us up, and of course he will shake up a few. Why do you want to know, sir?”
Mr. Digby told him of their meetings at the club, and to his surprise his junior partner burst out into a roar of laughter.
“It’s too funny for words!” he said. “It really is! That impudent little puppy has made up his mind that you want to get in with him; that you want to square him; and he intends to remain isolated, to allow no personal considerations to interfere with his duty. I heard him tell Frank Copplestone the other day that the one drawback to his work was the difficulties it threw in the way of social intercourse; he had to be so very careful. He probably pictures you as the typical Bradborough profiteer.”
A faint whimsical smile came to Mr. Digby’s lips.
“I should like to be even with him,” he said. “I think I have scriptural warrant for such a wish. “Freely ye have received, freely give.””
“Even!” exclaimed Charlie. “You leave it to me, sir! I’ll settle Mr. Bulmer’s account, full measure, pressed down and running over. Leave it to me.”
There were four of them in the conspiracy. Each had cause to dislike Mr. Bulmer. Charlie Dyson disliked his rimless glasses and the way in which he had treated Mr. Digby, whom he loved and revered. Mollie Dyson, his sister, the V.A.D. home from France on fourteen days’ leave, had never met Bulmer; but she hated him for having asked why Arthur Crawford was not in khaki, when every one knew that he had tried to get into the army again and again. Arthur Crawford, Charlie Dyson’s friend, had only seen Bulmer’s back in the distance; but he considered him to be an unmitigated little cad, because of a remark which he had made to his sister Kate about V.A.D.’s being over-paid for the character of the work which they performed. Kate Crawford knew more of Bulmer than any of the other conspirators. She had met him on five different occasions, and had played golf with him. He had been rather nice to her and had said many disagreeable things about Bradborough people, nearly all of whom happened to be her dearest friends.
The conspiracy was hatched in the Crawfords’ billiard room one evening after dinner. The idea was Arthur Crawford’s, though Mollie had suggested it when she started to read their hands. They had the necessary ability; they were all keen on amateur theatricals; and with a little luck Arthur declared that they could laugh Bulmer out of Bradborough.
For an hour and a half they wove the meshes of their net. Arthur Crawford sketched the general plan, while Charlie sat on the edge of the billiard table, swinging ecstatically his game leg. The rooms above Arthur’s office in Philimore Street were temporarily vacant. He would take them over, and on a Saturday afternoon – they would arrange the time to suit Bulmer’s convenience – the rooms would be occupied by Madame Czernowitza, the Serbian Palmist and Crystal-gazer, who would be impersonated by Mollie. Kate would play the part of the decoy. She felt sure that she would be able to decoy Bulmer; she would rather enjoy doing it. They would visit the rooms in Philimore Street, where their fortunes would be told by Madame Czernowitza, who would surprise Bulmer by the accurate analysis of his character. Then at the psychological moment the door would open, and Detective Inspector Grigsby – the part was allotted to Arthur – would enter the room and take their names and addresses.
The Bradborough Stipendiary Magistrate, an ardent supporter of the Rationalist Press Association, was notoriously opposed to professional fortune-tellers. On two occasions his zeal had been paragraphed in the pages of Truth. It would be explained to Bulmer by his many friends that he would figure as a witness in a local case that would be certain to arouse interest. The headings of the evening papers would be suggested to him. He would be at the same time notorious and insignificant.
“It’s bad enough when a Major-General is found consulting a palmist about his future,” said Arthur, “but when a chartered accountant, an official who moves in the inner circles of the Ministry of Munitions, does the same thing, what will become of his reputation among hard-headed business men?”
“Where do I come in?” asked Charlie.
“You’re the stage manager,” Arthur answered, “and there’ll be plenty to stage manage too. We must leave nothing to chance. The only thing I’m not sure about is Kate. Can you get Bulmer to come without being unnecessarily pleasant to him?”
“Of course I can,” said Kate. “I shall meet him probably at dinner to-morrow evening at the Earnshaws’. I’ll turn the conversation on to clairvoyance; and since he’s a chartered accountant, he’s certain to run it down. Then I’ll tell him about Madame What’s-her-name and her extraordinary gift in foreseeing events.”
“Hadn’t it better be in revealing the past?” said Charlie. “I feel sure that Bulmer’s past is shady; and anyhow, even if it wasn’t, Mollie could make it as black as she pleases.”
“I wish you wouldn’t interrupt. He’ll pooh-pooh the idea; then I’ll look at him – ”
“Just show us how you’ll look at him,” said Charlie.
“It mustn’t really be half as nice as that,” he said, “or I shall chuck my hand in as stage manager.”
“I’ll look at him,” the imperturbable Kate went on, “and if that doesn’t fetch him, I’ll lay a bet with him that he won’t dare to take me to see Madame Czernowitza next Saturday afternoon.”
“I think you ought to have a chaperone,” said Charlie. “I mean I think he’ll think you ought to have one.”
“Well, if it’s necessary, he shall have one. She can fall through at the last minute, you know.”
“They never do,” said Charlie. “But anyhow, that settles the preliminaries. On Wednesday we shall know definitely if Bulmer is coming. In the meantime, Mollie, you must study these palmist people. Go round to one or two to-morrow afternoon and pick up hints. Borrow some books on Serbia from the library, and get hold of some Serbian rugs and embroidery from the things that were left over from the bazaar. You, Arthur, must see that we can get the room above your office; and for goodness’ sake arrange that your clerks leave punctually on Saturday, so that we can have a clear field to get the place rigged up. We shall want Madame Czernowitza’s name properly painted on a board at the foot of the stairs, as well as on the door. And you must make a study of the policeman in plain clothes. Notice his boots – they never wear toe-caps. Mr. Digby is on the Committee of the Police Institute. Subscribe to it, and take the opportunity of going down one evening to watch them playing draughts and billiards. We must have one rehearsal at least. Friday, at eight; will that suit everyone?”
On Wednesday evening Kate rang up Charlie Dyson on the telephone. “He’ll come,” she said, “on Saturday. I told him I’d some shopping to do. He’ll meet me after lunch, and we’ll be there as soon after two as possible.”
“And what about a chaperone?”
“He didn’t seem to expect a chaperone; but I told him I could only spare an hour, as I had arranged to meet my aunt at three.”
“You haven’t got one.”
“What? I can’t hear what you say. Oh! about the aunt. I know I haven’t one, but it sounds so thoroughly respectable. He’ll suspect nothing, if I have to meet an aunt at three. I managed it splendidly. And just fancy! He believes in crystal-gazing and clairvoyance and spiritualism and Sir Oliver Lodge and I don’t know what!”
The rehearsal was not exactly a success. It was difficult for it to be so in the absence of Bulmer, who was represented by two large cushions. Then, everyone held different ideas as to what Mollie should see in his hand.
“Tell him,” said Kate, “that in the immediate future his life will be darkened by a comb.”
“Tell him no such thing!” exclaimed Charlie. “He’d take it as referring to Kate. It’s not necessary for him to picture her as the future Mrs. Bulmer. But you might see him in khaki, polishing the buttons on the tunic of the junior subaltern. The great thing to remember is that his hide is as thick as the sole of an army boot. We mustn’t be squeamish after the way he treated Mr. Digby.”
[To be continued…]