Dunstable had his reasons for wishing to obtain Mr. Montagu Watson's autograph, but admiration for that gentleman's novels was not one of them.
It was nothing to him that critics considered Mr. Watson one of the most remarkable figures in English literature since Scott. If you had told him of this, he would merely have wondered in his coarse, material way how much Mr. Watson gave the critics for saying so. To the reviewer of the Weekly Booklover the great man's latest effort, "The Soul of Anthony Carrington" (Popgood and Grooly: 6s.) seemed "a work that speaks eloquently in every line of a genius that time cannot wither nor custom stale." To Dunstable, who got it out of the school library, where it had been placed at the request of a literary prefect, and read the first eleven pages, it seemed rot, and he said as much to the librarian on returning it.
Yet he was very anxious to get the novelist's autograph. The fact was that Mr. Day, his house-master, a man whose private life was in other ways unstained by vicious habits, collected autographs. Also Mr. Day had behaved in a square manner towards Dunstable on several occasions in the past, and Dunstable, always ready to punish bad behaviour in a master, was equally anxious to reward and foster any good trait which he might exhibit.
On the occasion of the announcement that Mr. Watson had taken the big white house near Chesterton, a couple of miles from the school, Mr. Day had expressed in Dunstable's hearing a wish that he could add that celebrity's signature to his collection. Dunstable had instantly determined to play the part of a benevolent Providence. He would get the autograph and present it to the house-master, as who should say, "see what comes of being good." It would be pleasant to observe the innocent joy of the recipient, his child-like triumph, and his amazement at the donor's ingenuity in securing the treasure. A touching scene—well worth the trouble involved in the quest.
And there would be trouble. For Mr. Montagu Watson was notoriously a foe to the autograph-hunter. His curt, type-written replies (signed by a secretary) had damped the ardour of scores of brave men and—more or less—fair women. A genuine Montagu Watson was a prize in the autograph market.
Dunstable was a man of action. When Mark, the boot-boy at Day's, carried his burden of letters to the post that evening, there nestled among them one addressed to M. Watson, Esq., The White House, Chesterton. Looking at it casually, few of his friends would have recognised Dunstable's handwriting. For it had seemed good to that man of guile to adopt for the occasion the role of a backward youth of twelve years old. He thought tender years might touch Mr. Watson's heart.
This was the letter:
Dear Sir,—I am only a littel boy, but I think your books ripping. I often wonder how you think of it all. Will you please send me your ortograf? I like your books very much. I have named my white rabit Montagu after you. I punched Jones II in the eye to-day becos he didn't like your books. I have spent the only penny I have on the stampe for this letter which I might have spent on tuck. I want to be like Maltby in "The Soul of Anthony Carrington" when I grow up.
Your sincere reader, P. A. Dunstable.
It was a little unfortunate, perhaps, that he selected Maltby as his ideal character. That gentleman was considered by critics a masterly portrait of the cynical roué. But it was the only name he remembered.
"Hot stuff!" said Dunstable to himself, as he closed the envelope.
"Little beast!" said Mr. Watson to himself as he opened it. It arrived by the morning post, and he never felt really himself till after breakfast.
"Here, Morrison," he said to his secretary, later in the morning: "just answer this, will you? The usual thing—thanks and most deeply grateful, y'know."
Next day the following was included in Dunstable's correspondence:
Mr. Montagu Watson presents his compliments to Mr. P. A. Dunstable, and begs to thank him for all the kind things he says about his work in his letter of the 18th inst., for which he is deeply grateful.
"Foiled!" said Dunstable, and went off to Seymour's to see his friend
"Got any notepaper?" he asked.
"Heaps," said Linton. "Why? Want some?"
"Then get out a piece. I want to dictate a letter."
"What's up? Hurt your hand?"
"Day collects autographs, you know, and he wants Montagu Watson's badly. Pining away, and all that sort of thing. Won't smile until he gets it. I had a shot at it yesterday, and got this."
Linton inspected the document.
"So I can't send up another myself, you see."
"Oh, I'd like to put Day one up. He's not been bad this term. Come on."
"All right. Let her rip."
Dunstable let her rip.
Dear Sir,—I cannot refrain from writing to tell you what an inestimable comfort your novels have been to me during years of sore tribulation and distress——
"Look here," interrupted Linton with decision at this point. "If you think I'm going to shove my name at the end of this rot, you're making the mistake of a lifetime."
"Of course not. You're a widow who has lost two sons in South Africa.
We'll think of a good name afterwards. Ready?
"Ever since my darling Charles Herbert and Percy Lionel were taken from me in that dreadful war, I have turned for consolation to the pages of 'The Soul of Anthony Carrington' and——"
"What, another?" asked Linton.
"There's one called 'Pancakes.'"
"Sure? Sounds rummy."
"That's all right. You have to get a queer title nowadays if you want to sell a book."
"Go on, then. Jam it down."
"—and 'Pancakes.' I hate to bother you, but if you could send me your autograph I should be more grateful than words can say. Yours admiringly."
"What's a good name? How would Dorothy Maynard do?"
"You want something more aristocratic. What price Hilda Foulke-Ponsonby?"
Dunstable made no objection, and Linton signed the letter with a flourish.
They installed Mrs. Foulke-Ponsonby at Spiking's in the High Street. It was not a very likely address for a lady whose blood was presumably of the bluest, but they could think of none except that obliging stationer who would take in letters for them.
There was a letter for Mrs. Foulke-Ponsonby next day. Whatever his other defects as a correspondent, Mr. Watson was at least prompt with his responses.
Mr. Montagu Watson presented his compliments, and was deeply grateful for all the kind things Mrs. Foulke-Ponsonby had said about his work in her letter of the 19th inst. He was, however, afraid that he scarcely deserved them. Her opportunities of deriving consolation from "The Soul of Anthony Carrington" had been limited by the fact that that book had only been published ten days before: while, as for "Pancakes," to which she had referred in such flattering terms, he feared that another author must have the credit of any refreshment her bereaved spirit might have extracted from that volume, for he had written no work of such a name. His own "Pan Wakes" would, he hoped, administer an equal quantity of balm.
Mr. Secretary Morrison had slept badly on the night before he wrote this letter, and had expended some venom upon its composition.
"Sold again!" said Dunstable.
"You'd better chuck it now. It's no good," said Linton.
"I'll have another shot. Then I'll try and think of something else."
Two days later Mr. Morrison replied to Mr. Edgar Habbesham-Morley, of 3a, Green Street, Park Lane, to the effect that Mr. Montagu Watson was deeply grateful for all the kind things, etc.——
3a, Green Street was Dunstable's home address.
At this juncture the Watson-Dunstable correspondence ceases, and the relations become more personal.
On the afternoon of the twenty-third of the month, Mr. Watson, taking a meditative stroll through the wood which formed part of his property, was infuriated by the sight of a boy.
He was not a man who was fond of boys even in their proper place, and the sight of one in the middle of his wood, prancing lightly about among the nesting pheasants, stirred his never too placid mind to its depths.
The apparition paused.
"Here! Hi! you boy!"
"Sir?" said the stripling, with a winning smile, lifting his cap with the air of a D'Orsay.
"What business have you in my wood?"
"Not business," corrected the visitor, "pleasure."
"Come here!" shrilled the novelist.
The stranger receded coyly.
Mr. Watson advanced at the double.
His quarry dodged behind a tree.
For five minutes the great man devoted his powerful mind solely to the task of catching his visitor.
The latter, however, proved as elusive as the point of a half-formed epigram, and at the end of the five minutes he was no longer within sight.
Mr. Watson went off and addressed his keeper in terms which made that worthy envious for a week.
"It's eddication," he said subsequently to a friend at the "Cowslip
Inn." "You and me couldn't talk like that. It wants eddication."
For the next few days the keeper's existence was enlivened by visits from what appeared to be a most enthusiastic bird's-nester. By no other theory could he account for it. Only a boy with a collection to support would run such risks.
To the keeper's mind the human boy up to the age of twenty or so had no object in life except to collect eggs. After twenty, of course, he took to poaching. This was a boy of about seventeen.
On the fifth day he caught him, and conducted him into the presence of
Mr. Montagu Watson.
Mr. Watson was brief and to the point. He recognised his visitor as the boy for whose benefit he had made himself stiff for two days.
The keeper added further damaging facts.
"Bin here every day, he 'as, sir, for the last week. Well, I says to myself, supposition is he'll come once too often. He'll come once too often, I says. And then, I says, I'll cotch him. And I cotched him."
The keeper's narrative style had something of the classic simplicity of Julius Caesar's.
Mr. Watson bit his pen.
"What you boys come for I can't understand," he said irritably.
"You're from the school, of course?"
"Yes," said the captive.
"Well, I shall report you to your house-master. What is your name?"
"Very good. That is all."
His next appearance in public life was in Mr. Day's study. Mr. Day had sent for him after preparation. He held a letter in his hand, and he looked annoyed.
"Come in, Dunstable. I have just received a letter complaining of you.
It seems that you have been trespassing."
"I am surprised, Dunstable, that a sensible boy like you should have done such a foolish thing. It seems so objectless. You know how greatly the head-master dislikes any sort of friction between the school and the neighbours, and yet you deliberately trespass in Mr. Watson's wood."
"I'm very sorry, sir."
"I have had a most indignant letter from him—you may see what he says. You do not deny it?"
Dunstable ran his eye over the straggling, untidy sentences.
"No, sir. It's quite true."
"In that case I shall have to punish you severely. You will write me out the Greek numerals ten times, and show them up to me on Tuesday."
"That will do."
At the door Dunstable paused.
"Well, Dunstable?" said Mr. Day.
"Er—I'm glad you've got his autograph after all, sir," he said.
Then he closed the door.
As he was going to bed that night, Dunstable met the house-master on the stairs.
"Dunstable," said Mr. Day.
"On second thoughts, it would be better if, instead of the Greek numerals ten times, you wrote me the first ode of the first book of Horace. The numerals would be a little long, perhaps."