MAKES A MISTAKE, AND MEETS A MOON-CAT
The old lady, whose name was Sinkin, and whose interest in Mr. Lavender had become so deep, lived in a castle in Frognal; and with her lived her young nephew, a boy of forty-five, indissolubly connected with the Board of Guardians. It was entirely due to her representations that he presented himself at Mr. Lavender's on the following day, and, sending in his card, was admitted to our hero's presence.
Mr. Lavender, pale and stiff, was sitting in his study, with Blink on his feet, reading a speech.
"Excuse my getting up, sir," he said; "and pray be seated."
The nephew, who had a sleepy, hairless face and little Chinese eyes, bowed, and sitting down, stared at Mr. Lavender with a certain embarrassment.
"I have come," he said at last, "to ask you a few questions on behalf of--"
"By all means," said Mr. Lavender, perceiving at once that he was being interviewed. "I shall be most happy to give you my views. Please take a cigarette, for I believe that is usual. I myself do not smoke. If it is the human touch you want, you may like to know that I gave it up when that appeal in your contemporary flooded the trenches with cigarettes and undermined the nerves of our heroes. By setting an example of abstinence, and at the same time releasing more tobacco for our men, I felt that I was but doing my duty. Please don't mention that, though. And while we are on the personal note, which I sincerely deprecate, you might like to stroll round the room and look at the portrait of my father, behind the door, and of my mother, over the fireplace. Forgive my not accompanying you. The fact is--this is an interesting touch--I have always been rather subject to lumbago." And seeing the nephew Sinkin, who had risen to his suggestion, standing somewhat irresolutely in front of him, he added: "Perhaps you would like to look a little more closely at my eyes. Every now and then they flash with an almost uncanny insight." For by now he had quite forgotten his modesty in the identification he felt with the journal which was interviewing him. "I am fifty-eight," he added quickly; "but I do not look my years, though my hair, still thick and full of vigour, is prematurely white--so often the case with men whose brains are continually on the stretch. The little home, far from grandiose, which forms the background to this most interesting personality is embowered in trees. Cats have made their mark on its lawns, and its owner's love of animals was sharply illustrated by the sheep-dog which lay on his feet clad in Turkish slippers. Get up, Blink!"
Blink, disturbed by the motion of her master's feet, rose and gazed long into his face.
"Look!" said Mr. Lavender, "she has the most beautiful eyes in the world."
At this remark, which appeared to him no saner than the others he had heard--so utterly did he misjudge Mr. Lavender's character--the nephew put down the notebook he had taken out of his pocket, and said:
"Has there ever been anything--er--remarkable about your family?"
"Indeed, yes," said Mr. Lavender. "Born of poor but lofty parentage in the city of Rochester, my father made his living as a publisher; my mother was a true daughter of the bards, the scion of a stock tracing its decent from the Druids; her name was originally Jones."
"Ah!" said the nephew Sinkin, writing.
"She has often told me at her knee," continued Mr. Lavender, "that there was a strong vein of patriotism in her family."
"She did not die--in--in----"
"No, indeed," interrupted Mr. Lavender; "she is still living there."
"Ah!" said the nephew. "And your brothers and sisters?"
"One of my brothers," replied Mr. Lavender, with pardonable pride, "is the editor of Cud Bits. The other is a clergyman."
"Eccentric," murmured the nephew absently. "Tell me, Mr. Lavender, do you find your work a great strain? Does it----" and he touched the top of his head, covered with moist black hair.
Mr. Lavender sighed. "At a time like this," he said, "we must all be prepared to sacrifice our health. No public man, as you know, can call his head his own for a moment. I should count myself singularly lacking if I stopped to consider--er--such a consideration."
"Consider--er--such a consideration," repeated the nephew, jotting it down.
"He carries on," murmured Mr. Lavender, once more identifying himself with the journal, "grappling with the intricacies of this enormous problem; happy in the thought that nothing--not even reason itself--is too precious to sacrifice on the altar of his duty to his country. The public may rest confident in the knowledge that he will so carry on till they carry him out on his shield." And aware subconsciously that the interview could go no further than that phrase, Mr. Lavender was silent, gazing up with rather startled eyes.
"I see," said the nephew; "I am very much obliged to you. Is your dog safe?" For Blink had begun to growl in a low and uneasy manner.
"The gentlest creature in the world," replied Lavender, "and the most sociable. I sometimes think," he went on in a changed voice, "that we have all gone mad, and that animals alone retain the sweet reasonableness which used to be esteemed a virtue in human society. Don't take that down," he added quickly, "we are all subject to moments of weakness. It was just an 'obiter dictum'."
"Make your mind easy," said the nephew, rising, "it does not serve my purpose. Just one thing, Mr. Lavender."
At this moment Blink, whose instinct had long been aware of some sinister purpose in this tall and heavy man, whose trousers did not smell of dogs, seeing him approach too near, bit him gently in the calf.
The nephew started back. "She's bitten me!" he said, in a hushed voice.
"My God!" ejaculated Mr. Lavender and falling back again, so stiff was he. "Is it possible? There must be some good reason. Blink!"
Blink wagged her little tail, thrust her nose into his hand, removed it, and growled again.
"She is quite well, I assure you," Mr. Lavender added hastily, "her nose is icy."
"She's bitten me," repeated the nephew, pulling up his trouser leg. "There's no mark, but she distinctly bit me."
"Treasure!" said Mr. Lavender, endeavouring to interest him in the dog. "Do you notice how dark the rims of her eyes are, and how clear the whites? Extraordinarily well bred. Blink!"
Aware that she was being talked of Blink continued to be torn between the desire to wag her tail and to growl. Unable to make up her mind, she sighed heavily and fell on her side against her side against her master's legs.
"Wonderful with sheep, too," said Mr. Lavender; "at least, she would be if they would let her.... You should see her with them on the Heath. They simply can't bear her."
"You will hear from me again," said the nephew sourly.
"Thank you," said Mr. Lavender. "I shall be glad of a proof; it is always safer, I believe."
"Good morning," said the nephew.
Blink, who alone perceived the dark meaning in these words, seeing him move towards the door began to bark and run from side to side behind him, for all the world as if he had been a flock of sheep.
"Keep her off!" said the nephew anxiously. "Keep her off. I refuse to be bitten again."
"Blink!" called Mr. Lavender in some agony. Blink, whose obedience was excessive, came back to him at once, and stood growling from under her master's hand, laid on the white hair which flowed back from her collar, till the nephew's footsteps had died away. "I cannot imagine," thought Mr. Lavender, "why she should have taken exception to that excellent journalist. Perhaps he did not smell quite right? One never knows."
And with her moustachioed muzzle pressed to his chin Mr. Lavender sought for explanation in the innocent and living darkness of his dog's eyes....
On leaving Mr. Lavender's the nephew forthwith returned to the castle in Frognal, and sought his aunt.
"Mad as a March hare, Aunt Rosie; and his dog bit me."
"That dear doggie?"
"You were always funny about dogs, dear," said his aunt soothingly. "Why, even Sealey doesn't really like you." And calling to the little low white dog she quite failed to attract his attention. "Did you notice his dress. The first time I took him for a shepherd, and the second time---! What do you think ought to be done?"
"He'll have to be watched," said the nephew. "We can't have lunatics at large in Hampstead."
"But, Wilfred," said the old lady, "will our man-power stand it? Couldn't they watch each other? Or, if it would be any help, I could watch him myself. I took such a fancy to his dear dog."
"I shall take steps," said the nephew.
"No, don't do that. I'll go and call on the people, next door. Their name is Scarlet. They'll know about him, no doubt. We mustn't do anything inconsiderate."
The nephew, muttering and feeling his calf, withdrew to his study. And the old lady, having put on her bonnet, set forth placidly, unaccompanied by her little white dog.
On arriving at the castle embedded in acacias and laurustinus she asked of the maid who opened:
"Can I see Mrs. Scarlet?"
"No," replied the girl dispassionately; "she's dead."
"Mr. Scarlet, then?"
"No," replied the girl, "he's a major."
"Oh, dear!" said the old lady.
"Miss Isabel's at home," said the girl, who appeared, like so many people in time of war, to be of a simple, plain-spoken nature; "you'll find her in the garden." And she let the old lady out through a French window.
At the far end, under an acacia, Mrs. Sinkin could see the form of a young lady in a blue dress, lying in a hammock, with a cigarette between her lips and a yellow book in her hands. She approached her thinking, "Dear me! how comfortable, in these days!" And, putting her head a little on one side, she said with a smile: "My name is Sinkin. I hope I'm not disturbing you."
The young lady rose with a vigorous gesture.
"Oh, no! Not a bit."
"I do admire some people," said the old lady; "they seem to find time for everything."
The young lady stretched herself joyously.
"I'm taking it out before going to my new hospital. Try it," she said touching the hammock; "it's not bad. Will you have a cigarette?"
"I'm afraid I'm too old for both," said the old lady, "though I've often thought they must be delightfully soothing. I wanted to speak to you about your neighbour."
The young lady rolled her large grey eyes. "Ah!" she said, "he's perfectly sweet."
"I know," said the old lady, "and has such a dear dog. My nephew's very interested in them. You may have heard of him--Wilfred Sinkin--a very clever man; on so many Committees."
"Not really?" said the young lady.
"Oh, yes! He has one of those heads which nothing can disturb; so valuable in these days."
"And what sort of a heart?" asked the young lady, emitting a ring of smoke.
"Just as serene. I oughtn't to say so, but I think he's rather a wonderful machine."
"So long as he's not a doctor! You can't think how they get on your nerves when they're, like that. I've bumped up against so many of them. They fired me at last!"
"Really? Where? I thought they only did that to the dear horses. Oh, what a pretty laugh you have! It's so pleasant to hear anyone laugh, in these days."
"I thought no one did anything else! I mean, what else can you do, except die, don't you know?"
"I think that's rather a gloomy view," said the old lady placidly. "But about your neighbour. What is his name?"
"Lavender. But I call him Don Pickwixote."
"Dear me, do you indeed? Have you noticed anything very eccentric about him?"
"That depends on what you call eccentric. Wearing a nightshirt, for instance? I don't know what your standard is, you see."
The old lady was about to reply when a voice from the adjoining garden was heard saying:
"Blink! Don't touch that charming mooncat!"
"Hush!" murmured the young lady; and seizing her visitor's arm, she drew her vigorously beneath the acacia tree. Sheltered from observation by those thick and delicate branches, they stooped, and applying their eyes to holes in the privet hedge, could see a very little cat, silvery-fawn in colour and far advanced in kittens, holding up its paw exactly like a dog, and gazing with sherry-coloured eyes at Mr. Lavender, who stood in the middle of his lawn, with Blink behind him.
"If you see me going to laugh," whispered the young lady, "pinch me hard."
"Moon-cat," repeated Mr. Lavender, "where have you come from? And what do you want, holding up your paw like that? What curious little noises you make, duckie!" The cat, indeed, was uttering sounds rather like a duck. It came closer to Mr. Lavender, circled his legs, drubbed itself against Blink's chest, while its tapered tail, barred with silver, brushed her mouth.
"This is extraordinary," they heard Mr. Lavender say; "I would stroke it if I wasn't so stiff. How nice of you little moon-cat to be friendly to my play-girl! For what is there in all the world so pleasant to see as friendliness between a dog and cat!"
At those words the old lady, who was a great lover of animals, was so affected that she pinched the young lady by mistake.
"Not yet!" whispered the latter in some agony. "Listen!"
"Moon-cat," Mr. Lavender was saying, "Arcadia is in your golden eyes. You have come, no doubt, to show us how far we have strayed away from it." And too stiff to reach the cat by bending, Mr. Lavender let himself slowly down till he could sit. "Pan is dead," he said, as he arrived on the grass and crossed his feet, "and Christ is not alive. Moon-cat!"
The little cat had put its head into his hand, while Blink was thrusting her nose into his mouth.
"I'm going to sneeze!" whispered the old lady, strangely affected.
"Pull your upper lip down hard, like the German Empress, and count nine!" murmured the young.
While the old lady was doing this Mr. Lavender had again begun to speak.
"Life is now nothing but explosions. Gentleness has vanished, and beauty is a dream. When you have your kittens, moon-cat, bring them up in amity, to love milk, dogs, and the sun."
The moon-cat, who had now reached his shoulder, brushed the tip of her tail across his loose right eyebrow, while Blink's jealous tongue avidly licked his high left cheekbone. With one hand Mr. Lavender was cuddling the cat's head, with the other twiddling Blink's forelock, and the watchers could see his eyes shining, and his white hair standing up all ruffled.
"Isn't it sweet?" murmured the old lady.
"Ah! moon-cat," went on Mr. Lavender, "come and live with us. You shall have your kittens in the bathroom, and forget this age of blood and iron."
Both the old lady and the young were removing moisture from their eyes when, the voice of Mr. Lavender, very changed, recalled them to their vigil. His face had become strained and troubled.
"Never," he was saying, "will we admit that doctrine of our common enemies. Might is not right gentlemen those who take the sword shall perish by the sword. With blood and iron we will ourselves stamp out this noxious breed. No stone shall be left standing, and no babe sleeping in that abandoned country. We will restore the tide of humanity, if we have to wade through rivers of blood across mountains of iron."
"Whom is he calling gentlemen?" whispered the old lady.
But Blink, by anxiously licking Mr. Lavender's lips, had produced a silence in which the young-lady did not dare reply. The sound of the little cat's purring broke the hush.
"Down, Blink, down!" said Mr. Lavender.
"Watch this little moon-cat and her perfect manners! We may all learn from her how not to be crude. See the light shining through her pretty ears!"
The little cat, who had seen a bird, had left Mr. Lavender's shoulder, and was now crouching and moving the tip of its tail from side to side.
"She would like a bird inside her; but let us rather go and find her some milk instead," said Mr. Lavender, and he began to rise.
"Do you know, I think he's quite sane," whispered the old lady, "except, perhaps, at intervals. What do you?"
"Glorious print!" cried Mr. Lavender suddenly, for a journal had fallen from his pocket, and the sight of it lying there, out of his reach, excited him. "Glorious print! I can read you even from here. When the enemy of mankind uses the word God he commits blasphemy! How different from us!" And raising his eyes from the journal Mr. Lavender fastened them, as it seemed to his anxious listeners, on the tree which sheltered them. "Yes! Those unseen presences, who search out the workings of our heart, know that even the most Jingo among us can say, 'I am not as they are!' Come, mooncat!"
So murmuring, he turned and moved towards the house, clucking with his tongue, and followed by Blink.
"Did he mean us?" said the old lady nervously.
"No; that was one of his intervals. He's not mad; he's just crazy."
"Is there any difference, my dear?"
"Why, we're all crazy about something, you know; it's only a question of what."
"But what is his what?"
"He's got a message. They're in the air, you know."
"I haven't come across them," said the old lady. "I fear I live a very quiet life--except for picking over sphagnum moss."
"Oh, well! There's no hurry."
"Well, I shall tell my nephew what I've seen," said the old lady. "Good-bye."
"Good-bye," responded the young; and, picking up her yellow book, she got back into the hammock and relighted her cigarette.