by Max Beerbohm
I WAS shocked this morning when I saw in my newspaper a paragraph
announcing his sudden death. I do not say that the shock was very
disagreeable. One reads a newspaper for the sake of news. Had I never
met James Pethel, belike I should never have heard of him: and my
knowledge of his death, coincident with my knowledge that he had
existed, would have meant nothing at all to me. If you learn suddenly
that one of your friends is dead, you are wholly distressed. If the death is
that of a mere acquaintance whom you have recently seen, you are
disconcerted, pricked is your sense of mortality; but you do find great
solace in telling other people that you met "the poor fellow" only the
other day, and that he was "so full of life and spirits," and that you
remember he said--whatever you may remember of his sayings. If the
death is that of a mere acquaintance whom you have not seen for years,
you are touched so lightly as to find solace enough in even such faded
reminiscence as is yours to offer. Seven years have passed since the day
when last I saw James Pethel, and that day was the morrow of my first
meeting with him.
I had formed the habit of spending August in Dieppe. The place
was then less overrun by trippers than it is now. Some pleasant English
people shared it with some pleasant French people. We used rather to
resent the race-week--the third week of the month--as an intrusion on our
privacy. We sneered as we read in the Paris edition of "The New York
Herald" the names of the intruders, though by some of these we were
secretly impressed. We disliked the nightly crush in the baccarat-room of
the casino, and the croupiers' obvious excitement at the high play. I
made a point of avoiding that room during that week, for the special
reason that the sight of serious, habitual gamblers has always filled me
with a depression bordering on disgust. Most of the men, by some subtle
stress of their ruling passion, have grown so monstrously fat, and most of
the women so harrowingly thin. The rest of the women seem to be
marked out for apoplexy, and the rest of the men to be wasting away.
One feels that anything thrown at them would be either embedded or
shattered, and looks vainly among them for one person furnished with a
normal amount of flesh. Monsters they are, all of them, to the eye,
though I believe that many of them have excellent moral qualities in
private life; but just as in an American town one goes sooner or
later--goes against one's finer judgment, but somehow goes--into the
dime-museum, so year by year, in Dieppe's race-week, there would be
always one evening when I drifted into the baccarat-room. It was on
such an evening that I first saw the man whose memory I here celebrate.
My gaze was held by him for the very reason that he would have passed
unnoticed elsewhere. He was conspicuous not in virtue of the mere fact
that he was taking the bank at the principal table, but because there was
nothing at all odd about him.
He alone, among his fellow-players, looked as if he were not to die
before the year was out. Of him alone I said to myself that he was
destined to die normally at a ripe old age. Next day, certainly, I would
not have made this prediction, would not have "given" him the seven
years that were still in store for him, nor the comparatively normal death
that has been his. But now, as I stood opposite to him, behind the
croupier, I was refreshed by my sense of his wholesome durability.
Everything about him, except the amount of money he had been winning,
seemed moderate. Just as he was neither fat nor thin, so had his face
neither that extreme pallor nor that extreme redness which belongs to the
faces of seasoned gamblers: it was just a clear pink. And his eyes had
neither the unnatural brightness nor the unnatural dullness of the eyes
about him: they were ordinarily clear eyes, of an ordinary gray. His very
age was moderate: a putative thirty-six, not more. ("Not less," I would
have said in those days.) He assumed no air of nonchalance. He did not
deal out the cards as though they bored him, but he had no look of grim
concentration. I noticed that the removal of his cigar from his mouth
made never the least difference to his face, for he kept his lips pursed out
as steadily as ever when he was not smoking. And this constant pursing
of his lips seemed to denote just a pensive interest.
His bank was nearly done now; there were only a few cards left.
Opposite to him was a welter of party-colored counters that the croupier
had not yet had time to sort out and add to the rouleaux already made;
there were also a fair accumulation of notes and several little stacks of
gold--in all, not less than five-hundred pounds, certainly. Happy banker!
How easily had he won in a few minutes more than I, with utmost pains,
could win in many months! I wished I were he. His lucre seemed to
insult me personally. I disliked him, and yet I hoped he would not take
another bank. I hoped he would have the good sense to pocket his
winnings and go home. Deliberately to risk the loss of all those riches
would intensify the insult to me.
"Messieurs, la banque est aux encheres." There was some
brisk bidding while the croupier tore open and shuffled two new packs.
But it was as I feared: the gentleman whom I resented kept his place.
"Messieurs, la banque est faite. Quinze-mille francs a la
banque. Messieurs, les cartes passent. Messieurs, les cartes passent."
Turning to go, I encountered a friend, one of the race-weekers, but
in a sense a friend.
"Going to play?" I asked.
"Not while Jimmy Pethel's taking the bank," he answered, with a
"Is that the man's name?"
"Yes. Don't you know him? I thought every one knew old Jimmy
I asked what there was so wonderful about "old Jimmy Pethel" that
every one should be supposed to know him.
"Oh, he's a great character. Has extraordinary luck--always."
I do not think my friend was versed in the pretty theory that good
luck is the subconscious wisdom of them who in previous incarnations
have been consciously wise. He was a member of the stock exchange,
and I smiled as at a certain quaintness in his remark. I asked in what
ways besides luck the "great character" was manifested. Oh, well, Pethel
had made a huge "scoop" on the stock exchange when he was only
twenty-three, and very soon had doubled that and doubled it again; then
retired. He wasn't more than thirty-five now, And then? Oh,
well, he was a regular all-round sportsman; had gone after big game all
over the world and had a good many narrow shaves. Great
steeple-chaser, too. Rather settled down now. Lived in Leicestershire
mostly. Had a big place there. Hunted five times a week. Still did an
occasional flutter, though. Cleared eighty-thousand in Mexicans last
February. Wife had been a barmaid at Cambridge; married her when he
was nineteen. Thing seemed to have turned out quite well. Altogether, a
Possibly, thought I. But my cursory friend, accustomed to quick
transactions and to things accepted "on the nod," had not proved his case
to my slower, more literary intelligence. It was to him, though, that I
owed, some minutes later, a chance of testing his opinion. At the cry of
"Messieurs, la banque est aux encheres," we looked round and
saw that the subject of our talk was preparing to rise from his place.
"Now one can punt," said Grierson (this was my friend's name), and
turned to the bureau at which counters are for sale. "If old Jimmy Pethel
punts," he added, "I shall just follow his luck." But this lode-star was not
to be. While my friend was buying his counters, and I was wondering
whether I, too, could buy some, Pethel himself came up to the bureau.
With his lips no longer pursed, he had lost his air of gravity, and looked
younger. Behind him was an attendant bearing a big wooden bowl--that
plain, but romantic, bowl supplied by the establishment to a banker
whose gains are too great to be pocketed. He and Grierson greeted each
other. He said he had arrived in Dieppe this afternoon, was here for a
day or two. We were introduced. He spoke to me with
empressement, saying he was a "very great admirer" of my work.
I no longer disliked him. Grierson, armed with counters, had now darted
away to secure a place that had just been vacated. Pethel, with a wave of
his hand toward the tables, said:
"I suppose you never condescend to this sort of thing."
"Well--" I smiled indulgently.
"Awful waste of time," he admitted.
I glanced down at the splendid mess of counters and gold and notes
that were now becoming, under the swift fingers of the little man at the
bureau, an orderly array. I did not say aloud that it pleased me to be, and
to be seen, talking on terms of equality to a man who had won so much.
I did not say how wonderful it seemed to me that he, whom I had
watched just now with awe and with aversion, had all the while been a
great admirer of my work. I did but say, again indulgently, that I
supposed baccarat to be as good a way of wasting time as another.
"Ah, but you despise us all the same." He added that he always
envied men who had resources within themselves. I laughed lightly, to
imply that it WAS very pleasant to have such resources, but that I
didn't want to boast. And, indeed, I had never felt humbler, flimsier, than
when the little man at the bureau, naming a fabulous sum, asked its
owner whether he would take the main part in notes of mille francs,
cinq-mille, dix-mille--quoi? Had it been mine, I should have asked to
have it all in five-franc pieces. Pethel took it in the most compendious
form, and crumpled it into his pocket. I asked if he were going to play
any more to-night.
"Oh, later on," he said. "I want to get a little sea air into my lungs
now." He asked, with a sort of breezy diffidence, if I would go with him.
I was glad to do so. It flashed across my mind that yonder on the terrace
he might suddenly blurt out: "I say, look here, don't think me awfully
impertinent, but this money's no earthly use to me. I do wish you'd
accept it as a very small return for all the pleasure your work has given
me, and-- There, PLEASE! Not another word!"--all with such
candor, delicacy, and genuine zeal that I should be unable to refuse. But
I must not raise false hopes in my reader. Nothing of the sort happened.
Nothing of that sort ever does happen.
We were not long on the terrace. It was not a night on which you could stroll
and talk; there was a wind against which you had to stagger, holding your hat
on tightly, and shouting such remarks as might occur to you. Against that
wind acquaintance could make no headway. Yet I see now that despite
that wind, or, rather, because of it, I ought already to have known Pethel
a little better than I did when we presently sat down together inside the
cafe of the casino. There had been a point in our walk, or our stagger,
when we paused to lean over the parapet, looking down at the black
and driven sea. And Pethel had shouted that it would be great fun
to be out in a sailing-boat to-night, and that at one time he had been very
fond of sailing.
As we took our seats in the cafe, he looked about him with
boyish interest and pleasure; then squaring his arms on the little table, he
asked me what I would drink. I protested that I was the host, a position
which he, with the quick courtesy of the very rich, yielded to me at once.
I feared he would ask for champagne, and was gladdened by his demand
"Apollinaris, St. Galmier, or what?" I asked. He preferred plain
water. I ventured to warn him that such water was never "safe" in these
places. He said he had often heard that, but would risk it. I
remonstrated, but he was firm. "Alors," I told the waiter, "pour Monsieur
un verre de l'eau fraiche, et pour moi un demi blonde."
Pethel asked me to tell him who every one was. I told him no one
was any one in particular, and suggested that we should talk about
"You mean," he laughed, "that you want to know who the devil I
I assured him that I had often heard of him. At this he was
"But," I added, "it's always more interesting to hear a man talked
about by himself." And indeed, since he had NOT handed his
winnings over to me, I did hope he would at any rate give me some
glimpses into that "great character" of his. Full though his life had been,
he seemed but like a rather clever schoolboy out on a holiday. I wanted
to know more.
"That beer looks good," he admitted when the waiter came back. I
asked him to change his mind, but he shook his head, raised to his lips
the tumbler of water that had been placed before him, and meditatively
drank a deep draft. "I never," he then said, "touch alcohol of any sort."
He looked solemn; but all men do look solemn when they speak of their
own habits, whether positive or negative, and no matter how trivial; and
so, though I had really no warrant for not supposing him a reclaimed
drunkard, I dared ask him for what reason he abstained.
"When I say I NEVER touch alcohol," he said hastily, in a
tone as of self-defense, "I mean that I don't touch it often, or, at any
rate--well, I never touch it when I'm gambling, you know. It--it takes the
His tone did make me suspicious. For a moment I wondered
whether he had married the barmaid rather for what she symbolized than
for what in herself she was. But no, surely not; he had been only
nineteen years old. Nor in any way had he now, this steady, brisk,
clear-eyed fellow, the aspect of one who had since fallen.
"The edge off the excitement?" I asked.
"Rather. Of course that sort of excitement seems awfully stupid to
YOU; but--no use denying it--I do like a bit of a flutter, just
occasionally, you know. And one has to be in trim for it. Suppose a man
sat down dead-drunk to a game of chance, what fun would it be for him?
None. And it's only a question of degree. Soothe yourself ever so little
with alcohol, and you don't get QUITE the full sensation of
gambling. You do lose just a little something of the proper tremors
before a coup, the proper throes during a coup, the proper thrill of joy or
anguish after a coup. You're bound to, you know," he added, purposely
making this bathos when he saw me smiling at the heights to which he
"And to-night," I asked, remembering his prosaically pensive
demeanor in taking the bank, "were you feeling these throes and thrills to
"And you'll feel them again to-night?"
"I hope so."
"I wonder you can stay away."
"Oh, one gets a bit deadened after an hour or so. One needs to be
freshened up. So long as I don't bore you--"
I laughed, and held out my cigarette-case.
"I rather wonder you smoke," I murmured, after giving him a light.
"Nicotine's a sort of drug. Doesn't it soothe you? Don't you lose just a
little something of the tremors and things?"
He looked at me gravely.
"By Jove!" he ejaculated, "I never thought of that. Perhaps you're
right. 'Pon my word, I must think that over."
I wondered whether he were secretly laughing at me. Here was a
man to whom--so I conceived, with an effort of the imagination--the loss
or gain of a few hundred pounds could hardly matter. I told him I had
spoken in jest. "To give up tobacco might," I said, "intensify the pleasant
agonies of a gambler staking his little all. But in your case--well, I don't
see where the pleasant agonies come in."
"You mean because I'm beastly rich?"
"Rich," I amended.
"All depends on what you call rich. Besides, I'm not the sort of
fellow who's content with three per cent. A couple of months ago--I tell
you this in confidence--I risked virtually all I had in an Argentine deal."
"And lost it?"
"No; as a matter of fact, I made rather a good thing out of it. I did
rather well last February, too. But there's no knowing the future. A few
errors of judgment, a war here, a revolution there, a big strike somewhere
else, and--" He blew a jet of smoke from his lips, and then looked at me
as at one whom he could trust to feel for him in a crash already come.
My sympathy lagged, and I stuck to the point of my inquiry.
"Meanwhile," I suggested, "and all the more because you aren't
merely a rich man, but also an active taker of big risks, how can these
tiny little baccarat risks give you so much emotion?"
"There you rather have me," he laughed. "I've often wondered at
that myself. I suppose," he puzzled it out, "I do a good lot of
make-believe. While I'm playing a game like this game to-night, I
IMAGINE the stakes are huge. And I IMAGINE I haven't
another penny in the world."
"Ah, so that with you it's always a life-and-death affair?"
He looked away.
"Oh, no, I don't say that."
"Stupid phrase," I admitted. "But"--there was yet one point I would
put to him--"if you have extraordinary luck always--"
"There's no such thing as luck."
"No, strictly, I suppose, there isn't. But if in point of fact you
always do win, then--well, surely, perfect luck driveth out fear."
"Who ever said I always won?" he asked sharply.
I waved my hands and said, "Oh, you have the reputation, you
know, for extraordinary luck."
"That isn't the same thing as always winning. Besides, I
HAVEN'T extraordinary luck, never HAVE had. Good
heavens!" he exclaimed, "if I thought I had any more chance of winning
than of losing, I'd--I'd--"
"Never again set foot in that baccarat-room to-night," I soothingly
"Oh, baccarat be blowed! I wasn't thinking of baccarat. I was
thinking of--oh, lots of things; baccarat included, yes."
"What things?" I ventured to ask.
"What things?" He pushed back his chair. "Look here," he said
with a laugh, "don't pretend I haven't been boring your head off with all
this talk about myself. You've been too patient. I'm off. Shall I see you
to-morrow? Perhaps you'd lunch with us to-morrow? It would be a great
pleasure for my wife. We're at the Grand Hotel."
I said I should be most happy, and called the waiter; at sight of
whom my friend said he had talked himself thirsty, and asked for another
glass of water. He mentioned that he had brought his car over
with him: his little daughter (by the news of whose existence I felt
idiotically surprised) was very keen on motoring, and they were all three
starting the day after to-morrow on a little tour through France.
Afterward they were going on to Switzerland "for some climbing." Did I
care about motoring? If so, we might go for a spin after luncheon, to
Rouen or somewhere. He drank his glass of water, and, linking a
friendly arm in mine, passed out with me into the corridor. He asked
what I was writing now, and said that he looked to me to "do something
big one of these days," and that he was sure I had it in me. This remark,
though of course I pretended to be pleased by it, irritated me very much.
It was destined, as you shall see, to irritate me very much more in
Yet I was glad he had asked me to luncheon--glad because I liked
him and glad because I dislike mysteries. Though you may think me very
dense for not having thoroughly understood Pethel in the course of my
first meeting with him, the fact is that I was only aware, and that dimly,
of something more in him than he had cared to reveal--some veil behind
which perhaps lurked his right to the title so airily bestowed on him by
Grierson. I assured myself, as I walked home, that if veil there was, I
should to-morrow find an eyelet. But one's intuition when it is off duty
seems always a much more powerful engine than it does on active
service; and next day, at sight of Pethel awaiting me outside his hotel, I
became less confident. His, thought I, was a face which, for all its
animation, would tell nothing--nothing, at any rate, that mattered. It
expressed well enough that he was pleased to see me; but for the rest I
was reminded that it had a sort of frank inscrutability. Besides, it was at
all points so very usual a face--a face that couldn't (so I then thought),
even if it had leave to, betray connection with a "great character." It was
a strong face, certainly; but so are yours and mine.
And very fresh it looked, though, as he confessed, Pethel had sat up
in "that beastly baccarat-room" till five A.M. I asked, had he lost? Yes,
he had lost steadily for four hours (proudly he laid stress on this), but in
the end--well, he had won it all back "and a bit more." "By the way," he
murmured as we were about to enter the hall, "don't ever happen to
mention to my wife what I told you about that Argentine deal. She's
always rather nervous about--investments. I don't tell her about them.
She's rather a nervous woman altogether, I'm sorry to say."
This did not square with my preconception of her. Slave that I am
to traditional imagery, I had figured her as "flaunting," as golden-haired,
as haughty to most men, but with a provocative smile across the shoulder
for some. Nor, indeed, did her husband's words save me the suspicion
that my eyes deceived me when anon I was presented to a very pale,
small lady whose hair was rather white than gray. And the "little
daughter!" This prodigy's hair was as yet "down," but looked as if it
might be up at any moment: she was nearly as tall as her father, whom
she very much resembled in face and figure and heartiness of
hand-shake. Only after a rapid mental calculation could I account for
"I must warn you, she's in a great rage this morning," said her
father. "Do try to soothe her." She blushed, laughed, and bade her father
not be so silly. I asked her the cause of her great rage. She said:
"He only means I was disappointed. And he was just as
disappointed as I was. WEREN'T you, now, Father?"
"I suppose they meant well, Peggy," he laughed.
"They were QUITE right," said Mrs. Pethel, evidently not for
the first time.
"They," as I presently learned, were the authorities of the
bathing-establishment. Pethel had promised his daughter he would
take her for a swim; but on their arrival at the bathing-cabins they were
ruthlessly told that bathing was defendu a cause du
mauvais temps. This embargo was our theme as we sat down to
luncheon. Miss Peggy was of opinion that the French were
cowards. I pleaded for them that even in English watering-places bathing
was forbidden when the sea was VERY rough. She did not admit
that the sea was very rough to-day. Besides, she appealed to me, where
was the fun of swimming in absolutely calm water? I dared not say that
this was the only sort of water I liked to swim in.
"They were QUITE right," said Mrs. Pethel again.
"Yes, but, darling Mother, you can't swim. Father and I are both
To gloss over the mother's disability, I looked brightly at Pethel, as
though in ardent recognition of his prowess among waves. With a
movement of his head he indicated his daughter--indicated that there was
no one like her in the whole world. I beamed agreement. Indeed, I did
think her rather nice. If one liked the father (and I liked Pethel all the
more in that capacity), one couldn't help liking the daughter, the two
were so absurdly alike. Whenever he was looking at her (and it was
seldom that he looked away from her), the effect, if you cared to be
fantastic, was that of a very vain man before a mirror. It might have
occurred to me that, if there was any mystery in him, I could solve it
through her. But, in point of fact, I had forgotten all about that possible
mystery. The amateur detective was lost in the sympathetic observer of a
father's love. That Pethel did love his daughter I have never doubted.
One passion is not less true because another predominates. No one who
ever saw that father with that daughter could doubt that he loved her
intensely. And this intensity gages for me the strength of what else was
Mrs. Pethel's love, though less explicit, was not less evidently
profound. But the maternal instinct is less attractive to an onlooker,
because he takes it more for granted than the paternal. What endeared
poor Mrs. Pethel to me was--well, the inevitability of the epithet I give
her. She seemed, poor thing, so essentially out of it; and by "it" is meant
the glowing mutual affinity of husband and child. Not that she didn't, in
her little way, assert herself during the meal. But she did so, I thought,
with the knowledge that she didn't count, and never would count. I
wondered how it was that she had, in that Cambridge bar-room long ago,
counted for Pethel to the extent of matrimony. But from any such room
she seemed so utterly remote that she might well be in all respects now
an utterly changed woman. She did preeminently look as if much
had by some means been taken out of her, with no compensatory process
of putting in. Pethel looked so very young for his age, whereas she
would have had to be really old to look young for hers. I pitied her as
one might a governess with two charges who were hopelessly out of
hand. But a governess, I reflected, can always give notice. Love tied
poor Mrs. Pethel fast to her present situation.
As the three of them were to start next day on their tour through
France, and as the four of us were to make a tour to Rouen this
afternoon, the talk was much about motoring, a theme which Miss
Peggy's enthusiasm made almost tolerable. I said to Mrs. Pethel, with
more good-will than truth, that I supposed she was "very keen on it." She
replied that she was.
"But, darling Mother, you aren't. I believe you hate it. You're
ALWAYS asking father to go slower. And what IS the fun of
just crawling along?"
"Oh, come, Peggy, we never crawl!" said her father.
"No, indeed," said her mother in a tone of which Pethel laughingly
said it would put me off coming out with them this afternoon. I said,
with an expert air to reassure Mrs. Pethel, that it wasn't fast driving, but
only bad driving, that was a danger.
"There, Mother!" cried Peggy. "Isn't that what we're always telling
I felt that they were always either telling Mrs. Pethel something or,
as in the matter of that intended bath, not telling her something. It
seemed to me possible that Peggy advised her father about his
"investments." I wondered whether they had yet told Mrs.
Pethel of their intention to go on to Switzerland for some climbing.
Of his secretiveness for his wife's sake I had a touching little
instance after luncheon. We had adjourned to have coffee in front of the
hotel. The car was already in attendance, and Peggy had darted off to
make her daily inspection of it. Pethel had given me a cigar, and his wife
presently noticed that he himself was not smoking. He explained to her
that he thought he had smoked too much lately, and that he was going to
"knock it off" for a while. I would not have smiled if he had met my eye,
but his avoidance of it made me quite sure that he really had been
"thinking over" what I had said last night about nicotine and its possibly
deleterious action on the gambling thrill.
Mrs. Pethel saw the smile that I could not repress. I explained that I
was wishing _I_ could knock off tobacco, and envying her
husband's strength of character. She smiled, too, but wanly, with her
eyes on him.
"Nobody has so much strength of character as he has," she said.
"Nonsense!" he laughed. "I'm the weakest of men."
"Yes," she said quietly; "that's true, too, James."
Again he laughed, but he flushed. I saw that Mrs. Pethel also had
faintly flushed, and I became horribly aware of following suit. In the
sudden glow and silence created by Mrs. Pethel's paradox, I was grateful
to the daughter for bouncing back among us, and asking how soon we
should be ready to start.
Pethel looked at his wife, who looked at me and rather strangely
asked if I was sure I wanted to go with them. I protested that of course I
did. Pethel asked her if SHE really wanted to come.
"You see, dear, there was the run yesterday from Calais. And
to-morrow you'll be on the road again, and all the days after."
"Yes," said Peggy; "I'm SURE you'd much rather stay at
home, darling Mother, and have a good rest."
"Shall we go and put on our things, Peggy?" replied Mrs. Pethel,
rising from her chair. She asked her husband whether he was taking the
chauffeur with him. He said he thought not.
"Oh, hurrah!" cried Peggy. "Then I can be on the front seat!"
"No, dear," said her mother. "I am sure Mr. Beerbohms
would like to be on the front seat."
"You'd like to be with mother, wouldn't you?" the girl appealed. I
replied with all possible emphasis that I should like to be with Mrs.
Pethel. But presently, when the mother and daughter reappeared in the
guise of motorists, it became clear that my aspiration had been set aside.
"I am to be with mother," said Peggy.
I was inwardly glad that Mrs. Pethel could, after all, assert herself
to some purpose. Had I thought she disliked me, I should have been hurt;
but I was sure her desire that I should not sit with her was due merely to a
belief that, in case of accident, a person on the front seat was less safe
than a person behind. And of course I did not expect her to prefer my
life to her daughter's. Poor lady! My heart was with her. As the car
glided along the sea-front and then under the Norman archway, through
the town, and past the environs, I wished that her husband inspired in her
as much confidence as he did in me. For me the sight of his clear, firm
profile (he did not wear motor-goggles) was an assurance in itself. From
time to time (for I, too, was ungoggled) I looked round to nod and smile
cheerfully at his wife. She always returned the nod, but left the smile to
be returned by the daughter.
Pethel, like the good driver he was, did not talk; just drove. But as
we came out on to the Rouen road he did say that in France he always
rather missed the British police-traps. "Not," he added, "that I've ever
fallen into one. But the chance that a policeman MAY at any
moment dart out, and land you in a bit of a scrape does rather add to the
excitement, don't you think?" Though I answered in the tone of one to whom
the chance of a police-trap is the very salt of life, I did not inwardly
like the spirit of his remark. However, I dismissed it from my mind.
The sun was shining, and the wind had dropped: it was an ideal day
for motoring, and the Norman landscape had never looked lovelier to me
in its width of sober and silvery grace.
*The other names in this memoir are, for good reason, pseudonyms.
I presently felt that this landscape was not, after all, doing itself full
justice. Was it not rushing rather too quickly past? "James!" said a
shrill, faint voice from behind, and gradually--"Oh, darling Mother,
really!" protested another voice--the landscape slackened pace. But after
a while, little by little, the landscape lost patience, forgot its good
manners, and flew faster and faster than before. The road rushed
furiously beneath us, like a river in spate. Avenues of poplars flashed
past us, every tree of them on each side hissing and swishing angrily in
the draft we made. Motors going Rouen-ward seemed to be past as
quickly as motors that bore down on us. Hardly had I espied in the
landscape ahead a chateau or other object of interest before I was
craning my neck round for a final glimpse of it as it faded on the
backward horizon. An endless uphill road was breasted and crested in a
twinkling and transformed into a decline near the end of which our car
leaped straight across to the opposite ascent, and--"James!" again, and
again by degrees the laws of nature were reestablished, but again
by degrees revoked. I did not doubt that speed in itself was no danger;
but, when the road was about to make a sharp curve, why shouldn't
Pethel, just as a matter of form, slow down slightly, and sound a note or
two of the hooter? Suppose another car were--well, that was all right: the
road was clear; but at the next turning, when our car neither slackened
nor hooted and WAS for an instant full on the wrong side of the
road, I had within me a contraction which (at thought of what must have
been if--) lasted though all was well. Loath to betray fear, I hadn't turned
my face to Pethel. Eyes front! And how about that wagon ahead, huge
hay-wagon plodding with its back to us, seeming to occupy whole road?
Surely Pethel would slacken, hoot. No. Imagine a needle threaded with
one swift gesture from afar. Even so was it that we shot, between wagon
and road's-edge, through; whereon, confronting us within a few
yards--inches now, but we swerved--was a cart that incredibly we grazed
not as we rushed on, on. Now indeed I had turned my eyes on Pethel's
profile; and my eyes saw there that which stilled, with a greater emotion,
all fear and wonder in me.
I think that for the first instant, oddly, what I felt was merely
satisfaction, not hatred; for I all but asked him whether, by not smoking
to-day, he had got a keener edge to his thrills. I understood him, and for
an instant this sufficed me. Those pursed-out lips, so queerly different
from the compressed lips of the normal motorist, and seeming, as
elsewhere last night, to denote no more than pensive interest, had told me
suddenly all that I needed to know about Pethel. Here, as there,--and, oh,
ever so much better here than there!--he could gratify the passion that
was in him. No need of any "make-believe" here. I remembered the
queer look he had given when I asked if his gambling were always "a
life-and-death affair." Here was the real thing, the authentic game, for
the highest stakes. And here was I, a little extra stake tossed on to the
board. He had vowed I had it in me to do "something big." Perhaps,
though, there had been a touch of make-believe about that. I am afraid it
was not before my thought about myself that my moral sense began to
operate and my hatred of Pethel set in. Put it to my credit that I did see
myself as a mere detail in his villainy. You deprecate the word
"villainy"? Understand all, forgive all? No doubt. But between the acts
of understanding and forgiving an interval may sometimes be condoned.
Condone it in this instance. Even at the time I gave Pethel due credit for
risking his own life, for having doubtless risked it--it and none
other--again and again in the course of his adventurous (and
abstemious) life by field and flood. I was even rather touched by
memory of his insistence last night on another glass of that water which
just MIGHT give him typhoid; rather touched by memory of his
unsaying that he "never" touched alcohol--he who, in point of fact, had to
be ALWAYS gambling on something or other. I gave him due
credit, too, for his devotion to his daughter. But his use of that devotion,
his cold use of it to secure for himself the utmost thrill of hazard, did
seem utterly abominable to me.
And it was even more for the mother than for the daughter that I
was incensed. That daughter did not know him, did but innocently share
his damnable love of chances; but that wife had for years known him at
least as well as I knew him now. Here again I gave him credit for
wishing, though he didn't love her, to spare her what he could. That he
didn't love her I presumed from his indubitable willingness not to stake
her in this afternoon's game. That he never had loved her--had taken her
in his precocious youth simply as a gigantic chance against him, was
likely enough. So much the more credit to him for such consideration as
he showed her, though this was little enough. He could wish to save her
from being a looker-on at his game, but he could--he couldn't not--go on
playing. Assuredly she was right in deeming him at once the strongest
and the weakest of men. "Rather a nervous woman!" I remembered an
engraving that had hung in my room at Oxford, and in scores of other
rooms there: a presentment by Sir Marcus (then Mr.) Stone of a very
pretty young person in a Gainsborough hat, seated beneath an ancestral
elm, looking as though she were about to cry, and entitled "A Gambler's
Wife." Mrs. Pethel was not like that. Of her there were no engravings
for undergraduate hearts to melt at. But there was one man, certainly,
whose compassion was very much at her service. How was he going to
I know not how many hair's-breadth escapes we may have had
while these thoughts passed through my brain. I had closed my eyes. So
preoccupied was I that but for the constant rush of air against my face I
might, for aught I knew, have been sitting ensconced in an armchair at
home. After a while I was aware that this rush had abated; I opened my
eyes to the old familiar streets of Rouen. We were to have tea at the
Hotel d'Angleterre. What was to be my line of action? Should I
take Pethel aside and say: "Swear to me, on your word of honor as a
gentleman, that you will never again touch the driving-gear, or whatever
you call it, of a motor-car. Otherwise, I shall expose you to the world.
Meanwhile, we shall return to Dieppe by train"? He might flush (for I
knew him capable of flushing) as he asked me to explain. And after? He
would laugh in my face. He would advise me not to go motoring any
more. He might even warn me not to go back to Dieppe in one of those
dangerous railway-trains. He might even urge me to wait until a nice
Bath chair had been sent out for me from England.
I heard a voice (mine, alas!) saying brightly, "Well, here we are!" I
helped the ladies to descend. Tea was ordered. Pethel refused that
stimulant and had a glass of water. I had a liqueur brandy. It was
evident to me that tea meant much to Mrs. Pethel. She looked stronger
after her second cup, and younger after her third. Still, it was my duty to
help her if I could. While I talked and laughed, I did not forget that. But
what on earth was I to do? I am no hero. I hate to be ridiculous. I am
inveterately averse to any sort of fuss. Besides, how was I to be sure that
my own personal dread of the return journey hadn't something to do with
my intention of tackling Pethel? I rather thought it had. What this
woman would dare daily because she was a mother could not I dare
once? I reminded myself of this man's reputation for invariable luck. I
reminded myself that he was an extraordinarily skilful driver. To that
skill and luck I would pin my faith.
What I seem to myself, do you ask of me?
But I answered your question a few lines back. Enough that my faith was
rewarded: we did arrive safely in Dieppe. I still marvel that we did.
That evening, in the vestibule of the casino, Grierson came up to
"Seen Jimmy Pethel?" he asked. "He was asking for you. Wants to
see you particularly. He's in the baccarat-room, punting, winning hand
over fist, OF course. Said he'd seldom met a man he liked more
than you. Great character, what?"
One is always glad to be liked, and I pleaded guilty to a moment's
gratification at the announcement that Pethel liked me. But I did not go
and seek him in the baccarat-room. A great character assuredly he was,
but of a kind with which (I say it at the risk of seeming priggish) I prefer
not to associate.
Why he had particularly wanted to see me was made clear in a note
sent by him to my room early next morning. He wondered if I could be
induced to join them in their little tour. He hoped I wouldn't think it
great cheek, his asking me. He thought it might rather amuse me to
come. It would be a very great pleasure to his wife. He hoped I wouldn't
say no. Would I send a line by bearer? They would be starting at three
o'clock. He was mine sincerely.
It was not too late to tackle him even now. Should I go round to his
hotel? I hesitated and--well, I told you at the outset that my last meeting
with him was on the morrow of my first. I forget what I wrote to him,
but am sure that the excuse I made for myself was a good and graceful
one, and that I sent my kindest regards to Mrs. Pethel. She had not (I am
sure of that, too) authorized her husband to say she would like me to
come with them. Else would not the thought of her, the pity of her, have
haunted me, as it did for a very long time. I do not know whether she is
still alive. No mention is made of her in the obituary notice which awoke
these memories in me. This notice I will, however, transcribe, because it
is, for all its crudeness of phraseology, rather interesting both as an echo
and as an amplification. Its title is "Death of Wealthy Aviator," and its
Wide-spread regret will be felt in Leicestershire at the tragic death
of Mr. James Pethel, who had long resided there and was very popular as
an all-round sportsman. In recent years he had been much interested in
aviation, and had had a private aerodrome erected on his property.
Yesterday afternoon he fell down dead quite suddenly as he was
returning to his house, apparently in his usual health and spirits, after
descending from a short flight which despite a strong wind he had made
on a new type of aeroplane, and on which he was accompanied by
his married daughter and her infant son. It is not expected that an inquest
will be necessary, as his physician, Dr. Saunders, has certified death to be
due to heart-disease, from which, it appears, the deceased gentleman had
been suffering for many years. Dr. Saunders adds that he had repeatedly
warned deceased that any strain on the nervous system might prove fatal.
Thus--for I presume that his ailment had its origin in his
habits--James Pethel did not, despite that merely pensive look of his, live
his life with impunity. And by reason of that life he died. As for the
manner of his death, enough that he did die. Let not our hearts be vexed
that his great luck was with him to the end.