When A Man’s Single by James Matthew Barrie


On the morning before Christmas a murder was committed in Silchester, and in murders there is ‘lineage.’ As a consequence, the head reporter attends to them himself. In the Mirror office the diary for the day was quickly altered. Kirker set off cheerfully for the scene of the crime, leaving the banquet in the Henry Institute to Tomlinson, who passed on his dinner at Dome Castle to Rob, whose church decorations were taken up by John Milton.

Christmas Eve was coming on in snow when Rob and Walsh, of the Argus, set out for Dome Castle. Rob disliked doing dinners at any time, partly because he had not a dress suit. The dinner was an annual one given by Will’s father to his tenants, and reporters were asked because the colonel made a speech. His neighbours, when they did likewise, sent reports of their own speeches (which they seemed to like) to the papers; and some of them, having called themselves eloquent and justly popular, scored the compliments out, yet in such a way that the editor would still be able to read them, and print them if he thought fit. Rob did not look forward to Colonel Abinger’s reception of him, for they had met some months before, and called each other names.

It was one day soon after Rob reached Silchester. He had gone a-fishing in the Dome and climbed unconsciously into preserved waters. As his creel grew heavier his back straightened; not until he returned home did the scenery impress him. He had just struck a fine fish, when a soldierly-looking man at the top of the steep bank caught sight of him.

‘Hi, you sir!’ shouted the onlooker. Whir went the line—there is no music like it. Rob was knee-deep in water. ‘You fellow!’ cried the other, brandishing his cane, ‘are you aware that this water is preserved?’ Rob had no time for talk. The colonel sought to attract his attention by flinging a pebble. ‘Don’t do that,’ cried Rob fiercely.

Away went the fish. Away went Rob after it. Colonel Abinger’s face was red as he clambered down the bank. ‘I shall prosecute you,’ he shouted. ‘He’s gone to the bottom; fling in a stone!’ cried Rob. Just then the fish showed its yellow belly and darted off again. Rob let out more line. ‘No, no,’ shouted the colonel, who fished himself, ‘you lose him if he gets to the other side; strike, man, strike!’ The line tightened, the rod bent—a glorious sight. ‘Force him up stream,’ cried the colonel, rolling over boulders to assist. ‘Now, you have him. Bring him in. Where is your landing-net?’ ‘I haven’t one,’ cried Rob; ‘take him in your hands.’ The colonel stooped to grasp the fish and missed it. ‘Bungler!’ screamed Rob. This was too much. ‘Give me your name and address,’ said Colonel Abinger, rising to his feet; ‘you are a poacher.’ Rob paid no attention. There was a struggle. Rob did not realise that he had pushed his assailant over a rock until the fish was landed. Then he apologised, offered all his fish in lieu of his name and address, retired coolly so long as the furious soldier was in sight, and as soon as he turned a corner disappeared rapidly. He could not feel that this was the best introduction to the man with whom he was now on his way to dine.

The reporter whose long strides made Walsh trot as they hurried to Dome Castle, was not quite the Rob of three months before. Now he knew how a third-rate newspaper is conducted, and the capacity for wonder had gone from him. He was in danger of thinking that the journalist’s art is to write readably, authoritatively, and always in three paragraphs on a subject he knows nothing about. Rob had written many leaders, and followed readers through the streets wondering if they liked them. Once he had gone with three others to report a bishop’s sermon. A curate appeared instead, and when the reporters saw him they shut their notebooks and marched blandly out of the cathedral. A public speaker had tried to bribe Rob with two half-crowns, and it is still told in Silchester how the wrathful Scotsman tore his benefactor out of the carriage he had just stepped into, and, lifting him on high, looked round to consider against which stone wall he should hurl him. He had discovered that on the first of the month Mr. Licquorish could not help respecting his staff, because on that day he paid them. Socially Rob had acquired little. Protheroe had introduced him to a pleasant family, but he had sat silent in a corner, and they told the sub-editor not to bring him back. Most of the literary staff were youths trying to be Bohemians, who liked to feel themselves sinking, and they never scaled the reserve which walled Rob round. He had taken a sitting, however, in the Scotch church, to the bewilderment of the minister, who said, ‘But I thought you were a reporter?’ as if there must be a mistake somewhere.

Walsh could tell Rob little of Colonel Abinger. He was a brave soldier, and for many years had been a widower. His elder son was a barrister in London, whom Silchester had almost forgotten, and Walsh fancied there was some story about the daughter’s being engaged to a baronet. There was also a boy, who had the other day brought the captain of his school to a Silchester football ground to show the club how to take a drop-kick.

‘Does the colonel fish?’ asked Rob, who would, however, have preferred to know if the colonel had a good memory for faces.

‘He is a famous angler,’ said Walsh; ‘indeed, I have been told that his bursts of passion are over in five minutes, except when he catches a poacher.’

Rob winced, for Walsh did not know of the fishing episode.

‘His temper,’ continued Walsh, ‘is such that his male servants are said never to know whether he will give them a shilling or a whirl of his cane—until they get it. The gardener takes a look at him from behind a tree before venturing to address him. I suppose his poverty is at the bottom of it, for the estate is mortgaged heavily, and he has had to cut down trees, and even to sell his horses. The tenants seem to like him, though, and if they dared they would tell him not to think himself bound to give them this annual dinner. There are numberless stories of his fierce temper, and as many of his extravagant kindness. According to his servants, he once emptied his pocket to a beggar at a railway station, and then discovered that he had no money for his own ticket. As for the ne’er-do-weels, their importuning makes him rage, but they know he will fling them something in the end if they expose their rags sufficiently.’

‘So,’ said Rob, who did not want to like the colonel, ‘he would not trouble about them if they kept their misery to themselves. That kind of man is more likely to be a philanthropist in your country than in mine.’

‘Keep that for a Burns dinner,’ suggested Walsh.

Rob heard now how Tomlinson came to be nicknamed Umbrage.

‘He was sub-editing one night,’ Walsh explained, ‘during the time of an African war, and things were going so smoothly that he and Penny were chatting amicably together about the advantages of having a few Latin phrases in a leader, such as dolce far niente, or cela va sans dire——’

‘I can believe that,’ said Rob, ‘of Penny certainly.’

‘Well, in the middle of the discussion an important war telegram arrived, to the not unnatural disgust of both. As is often the case, the message was misspelt, and barely decipherable, and one part of it puzzled Tomlinson a good deal. It read: “Zulus have taken Umbrage; English forces had to retreat.” Tomlinson searched the map in vain for Umbrage, which the Zulus had taken; and Penny, being in a hurry, was sure it was a fortress. So they risked it, and next morning the chief lines in the Mirror contents bill were: “Latest News of the War; Capture of Umbrage by the Zulus.”‘

By this time the reporters had passed into the grounds of the castle, and, being late, were hurrying up the grand avenue. It was the hour and the season when night comes on so sharply, that its shadow may be seen trailing the earth as a breeze runs along a field of corn. Heard from a height, the roar of the Dome among rocks might have been the rustle of the surrounding trees in June; so men and women who grow old together sometimes lend each other a voice. Walsh, seeing his opportunity in Rob’s silence, began to speak of himself. He told how his first press-work had been a series of letters he had written when at school, and contributed to a local paper under the signatures of ‘Paterfamilias’ and ‘An Indignant Ratepayer.’ Rob scarcely heard. The bare romantic scenery impressed him, and the snow in his face was like a whiff of Thrums. He was dreaming, but not of the reception he might get at the castle, when the clatter of horses awoke him.

‘There is a machine behind us,’ he said, though he would have written trap.

A brougham lumbered into sight. As its lamps flashed on the pedestrians, the coachman jerked his horses to the side, and Rob had a glimpse of the carriage’s occupant. The brougham stopped.

‘I beg your pardon,’ said the traveller, opening his window, and addressing Rob, ‘but in the darkness I mistook you for Colonel Abinger.’

‘We are on our way to the castle,’ said Walsh, stepping forward.

‘Ah, then,’ said the stranger, ‘perhaps you will give me your company for the short distance we have still to go?’

There was a fine courtesy in his manner that made the reporters feel their own deficiencies, yet Rob thought the stranger repented his offer as soon as it was made. Walsh had his hand on the door, but Rob said—

‘We are going to Dome Castle as reporters.’

‘Oh!’ said the stranger. Then he bowed graciously, and pulled up the window. The carriage rumbled on, leaving the reporters looking at each other. Rob laughed. For the first time in his life the advantage a handsome man has over a plain one had struck him. He had only once seen such a face before, and that was in marble in the Silchester Art Museum. This man looked thirty years of age, but there was not a line on his broad white brow. The face was magnificently classic, from the strong Roman nose to the firm chin. The eyes, too beautiful almost for his sex, were brown and wistful, of the kind that droop in disappointment oftener than they blaze with anger. All the hair on his face was a heavy drooping moustache that almost hid his mouth.

Walsh shook his fist at this insult to the Press.

‘It is the baronet I spoke of to you,’ he said. ‘I forget who he is; indeed, I rather think he travelled incognito when he was here last. I don’t understand what he is doing here.’

‘Why, I should say this is just the place where he would be if he is to marry Miss Abinger.’

‘That was an old story,’ said Walsh. ‘If there ever was an engagement it was broken off. Besides, if he had been expected we should have known of it at the Argus.’

Walsh was right. Sir Clement Dowton was not expected at Dome Castle, and, like Rob, he was not even certain that he would be welcome. As he drew near his destination his hands fidgeted with the window strap, yet there was an unaccountable twinkle in his eye. Had there been any onlookers they would have been surprised to see that all at once the baronet’s sense of humour seemed to overcome his fears, and instead of quaking, he laughed heartily. Sir Clement was evidently one of the men who carry their joke about with them.

This unexpected guest did Rob one good turn. When the colonel saw Sir Clement he hesitated for a moment as if not certain how to greet him. Then the baronet, who was effusive, murmured that he had something to say to him, and Colonel Abinger’s face cleared. He did Sir Clement the unusual honour of accompanying him upstairs himself, and so Rob got the seat assigned to him at the dinner-table without having to meet his host in the face. The butler marched him down a long table with a twist in it, and placed him under arrest, as it were, in a chair from which he saw only a few of the company. The dinner had already begun, but the first thing he realised as he took his seat was that there was a lady on each side of him, and a table-napkin in front. He was not sure if he was expected to address the ladies, and he was still less certain about the table-napkin. Of such things he had read, and he had even tried to be prepared for them. Rob looked nervously at the napkin, and then took a covert glance along the table. There was not a napkin in sight except one which a farmer had tied round his neck. Rob’s fingers wanted to leave the napkin alone, but by an effort he forced them toward it. All this time his face was a blank, but the internal struggle was sharp. He took hold of the napkin, however, and spread it on his knees. It fell to the floor immediately afterwards, but he disregarded that. It was no longer staring at him from the table, and with a heavy sigh of relief he began to feel more at ease. There is nothing like burying our bogies.

His position prevented Rob’s seeing either the colonel at the head of the table or Miss Abinger at the foot of it, and even Walsh was hidden from view. But his right-hand neighbour was a local doctor’s wife, whom the colonel had wanted to honour without honouring too much, and she gave him some information. Rob was relieved to hear her address him, and she was interested in a tame Scotsman.

‘I was once in the far north myself,’ she said, ‘as far as Orkney. We were nearly drowned in crossing that dreadful sea between it and the mainland. The Solway Firth, is it?’

Rob thought for a moment of explaining what sea it is, and then he thought, why should he?

‘Yes, the Solway Firth,’ he said.

‘It was rather an undertaking,’ she pursued, ‘but though we were among the mountains for days, we never encountered any of those robber chieftains one reads about—caterans I think you call them?’

‘You were very lucky,’ said Rob.

‘Were we not? But, you know, we took such precautions. There was quite a party of us, including my father, who has travelled a great deal, and all the gentlemen wore kilts. My father said it was always prudent to do in Rome as the Romans do.’

‘I have no doubt,’ said Rob, ‘that in that way you escaped the caterans. They are very open to flattery.’

‘So my father said. We also found that we could make ourselves understood by saying “whatever,” and remembering to call the men “she” and the women “he.” What a funny custom that is!’

‘We can’t get out of it,’ said Rob.

‘There is one thing,’ the lady continued, ‘that you can tell me. I have been told that in winter the wild boars take refuge in the streets of Inverness, and that there are sometimes very exciting hunts after them?’

‘That is only when they run away with children,’ Rob explained. ‘Then the natives go out in large bodies and shoot them with claymores. It is a most exciting scene.’

When the doctor’s wife learned that this was Rob’s first visit to the castle, she told him at once that she was there frequently. It escaped his notice that she paused here and awaited the effect. She was not given to pausing.

‘My husband,’ she said, ‘attended on Lady Louisa during her last illness—quite ten years ago. I was married very young,’ she added hurriedly.

Rob was very nearly saying he saw that. The words were in his mouth, when he hesitated, reflecting that it was not worth while. This is only noticeable as showing that he missed his first compliment.

‘Lady Louisa?’ he repeated instead.

‘Oh yes, the colonel married one of Lord Tarlington’s daughters. There were seven of them, you know, and no sons, and when the youngest was born it was said that a friend of his lordship sent him a copy of Wordsworth, with the page turned down at the poem “We are Seven “—a lady friend, I believe.’

‘Is Miss Abinger like the colonel?’ asked Rob, who had heard it said that she was beautiful, and could not help taking an interest in her in consequence.

‘You have not seen Miss Abinger?’ asked the doctor’s wife. ‘Ah, you came late, and that vulgar-looking farmer hides her altogether. She is a lovely girl, but——’

Rob’s companion pursed her lips.

‘She is so cold and proud,’ she added.

‘As proud as her father?’ Rob asked, aghast.

‘Oh, the colonel is humility itself beside her. He freezes at times, but she never thaws.’

Rob sighed involuntarily. He was not aware that his acquaintances spoke in a similar way of him. His eyes wandered up the table till they rested of their own accord on a pretty girl in blue. At that moment she was telling Greybrooke that he could call her Nell, because ‘Miss’ Meredith sounded like a reproach.

The reporter looked at Nell with satisfaction, and the doctor’s wife followed his thoughts so accurately that, before she could check herself, she said, ‘Do you think so?’

Then Rob started, which confused both of them, and for the remainder of the dinner the loquacious lady seemed to take less interest in him, he could not understand why. Flung upon his own resources, he remembered that he had not spoken to the lady on his other side. Had Rob only known it, she felt much more uncomfortable in that great dining-room than he did. No one was speaking to her, and she passed the time between the courses breaking her bread to pieces and eating it slowly, crumb by crumb. Rob thought of something to say to her, but when he tried the words over in his own mind they seemed so little worth saying that he had to think again. He found himself counting the crumbs, and then it struck him that he might ask her if she would like any salt. He did so, but she thought he asked for salt, and passed the salt-cellar to him, whereupon Rob, as the simplest way to get out of it, helped himself to more salt, though he did not need it. The intercourse thus auspiciously begun, went no further, and they never met again. It might have been a romance.

The colonel had not quite finished his speech, which was to the effect that so long as his tenants looked up to him as some one superior to themselves they would find him an indulgent landlord, when the tread of feet was heard outside, and then the music of the waits. The colonel frowned and raised his voice, but his guests caught themselves tittering, and read their host’s rage in his darkening face. Forgetting that the waits were there by his own invitation, he signed to James, the butler, to rush out and mow them down. James did not interpret the message so, but for the moment it was what his master meant.

While the colonel was hesitating whether to go on, Rob saw Nell nod encouragingly to Greybrooke. He left his seat, and before any one knew what he was about, had flung open one of the windows. The room filled at once with music, and, as if by common consent, the table was deserted. Will opened the remaining windows, and the waits, who had been singing to shadows on the white blinds, all at once found a crowded audience. Rob hardly realised what it meant, for he had never heard the waits before.

It was a scene that would have silenced a schoolgirl. The night was so clear, that beyond the lawn where the singers were grouped the brittle trees showed in every twig. No snow was falling, and so monotonous was the break of the river, that the ear would only have noticed it had it stopped. The moon stood overhead like a frozen round of snow.

Looking over the heads of those who had gathered at one of the windows, Rob saw first Will Abinger and then the form of a girl cross to the singers. Some one followed her with a cloak. From the French windows steps dropped to the lawn. A lady beside Rob shivered and retired to the fireside, but Nell whispered to Greybrooke that she must run after Mary. Several others followed her down the steps.

Rob, looking round for Walsh, saw him in conversation with the colonel. Probably he was taking down the remainder of the speech. Then a lady’s voice said, ‘Who is that magnificent young man?’

The sentence ended ‘with the hob-nailed boots,’ and the reference was to Rob, but he only caught the first words. He thought the baronet was spoken of, and suddenly remembered that he had not appeared at the dinner-table. As Sir Clement entered the room at that moment in evening dress, making most of those who surrounded him look mean by comparison, Rob never learned who the magnificent young man was.

Sir Clement’s entrance was something of a sensation, and Rob saw several ladies raise their eyebrows. All seemed to know him by name, and some personally. The baronet’s nervousness had evidently passed away, for he bowed and smiled to every one, claiming some burly farmers as old acquaintances though he had never seen them before. His host and he seemed already on the most cordial terms, but the colonel was one of the few persons in the room who was not looking for Miss Abinger. At last Sir Clement asked for her.

‘I believe,’ said some one in answer to the colonel’s inquiring glance round the room, ‘that Miss Abinger is speaking with the waits.’

‘Perhaps I shall see her,’ said Dowton, stepping out at one of the windows.

Colonel Abinger followed him to the window, but no farther, and at that moment a tall figure on the snowy lawn crossed his line of vision. It was Rob, who, not knowing what to do with himself, had wandered into the open. His back was toward the colonel, and something in his walk recalled to that choleric officer the angler whom he had encountered on the Dome.

‘That is the man—I was sure I knew the face,’ said Colonel Abinger. He spoke in a whisper to himself, but his hands closed with a snap.

Unconscious of all this, Rob strolled on till he found a path that took him round the castle. Suddenly he caught sight of a blue dress, and at the same moment a girl’s voice exclaimed, ‘Oh, I am afraid it is lost!’

The speaker bent, as if to look for something in the snow, and Rob blundered up to her. ‘If you have lost anything,’ he said, ‘perhaps I can find it.’

Rob had matches in his pocket, and he struck one of them. Then, to his surprise, he noticed that Nell was not alone. Greybrooke was with her, and he was looking foolish.

‘Thank you very much,’ said Nell sweetly; ‘it is a—a bracelet.’

Rob went down on his knees to look for the bracelet, but it surprised him a little that Greybrooke did not follow his example. If he had looked up, he would have seen that the captain was gazing at Nell in amazement.

‘I am afraid it is lost,’ Nell repeated, ‘or perhaps I dropped it in the dining-room.’

Greybrooke’s wonder was now lost in a grin, for Nell had lost nothing, unless perhaps for the moment her sense of what was fit and proper. The captain had followed her on to the lawn, and persuaded her to come and look down upon the river from the top of the cliff. She had done so, she told herself, because he was a boy; but he had wanted her to do it because she was a woman. On the very spot where Richard Abinger, barrister-at-law, had said something to her that Nell would never forget, the captain had presumptuously kissed her hand, and Nell had allowed him, because after all it was soon over. It was at that very moment that Rob came in sight, and Nell thought she was justified in deceiving him. Rob would have remained a long time on the snow if she had not had a heart.

‘Yes, I believe I did drop it in the dining-room,’ said Nell, in such a tone of conviction that Rob rose to his feet. His knees were white in her service, and Nell felt that she liked this young man.

‘I am so sorry to have troubled you, Mr.——Mr.——’ began the young lady.

‘My name is Angus,’ said Rob; ‘I am a reporter on the Silchester Mirror.’

Greybrooke started, and Nell drew back in horror, but the next second she was smiling. Rob thought it was kindliness that made her do it, but it was really a smile of triumph. She felt that she was on the point of making a discovery at last. Greybrooke would have blurted out a question, but Nell stopped him.

‘Get me a wrap of some kind, Mr. Greybrooke,’ she said, with such sweet imperiousness that the captain went without a word. Half-way he stopped to call himself a fool, for he had remembered all at once about Raleigh and his cloak, and seen how he might have adapted that incident to his advantage by offering to put his own coat round Nell’s shoulders.

It was well that Greybrooke did not look back, for he would have seen Miss Meredith take Rob’s arm—which made Rob start—and lead him in the direction in which Miss Abinger was supposed to have gone.

‘The literary life must be delightful,’ said artful Nell, looking up into her companion’s face.

Rob appreciated the flattery, but his pride made him say that the literary life was not the reporter’s.

‘I always read the Mirror,’ continued Nell, on whom the moon was having a bad effect to-night, ‘and often I wonder who writes the articles. There was a book-review in it a few days ago that I—I liked very much.’

‘Do you remember what the book was?’ asked Rob, jumping into the pit.

‘Let me see,’ said Nell, putting her head to the side, ‘it was—yes, it was a novel called—called The Scorn of Scorns.’

Rob’s good angel was very near him at that moment, but not near enough to put her palm over his mouth.

‘That review was mine,’ said Rob, with uncalled-for satisfaction.

‘Was it?’ cried his companion, pulling away her arm viciously.

The path had taken them to the top of the pile of rocks, from which it is a sheer descent of a hundred feet to the Dome. At this point the river is joined by a smaller but not less noisy stream, which rushes at it at right angles. Two of the castle walls rise up here as if part of the cliff, and though the walk goes round them, they seem to the angler looking up from the opposite side of the Dome to be part of the rock. From the windows that look to the west and north one can see down into the black waters, and hear the Ferret, as the smaller stream is called, fling itself over jagged boulders into the Dome.

The ravine coming upon him suddenly, took away Rob’s breath, and he hardly felt Nell snatch away her arm. She stood back, undecided what to do for a moment, and they were separated by a few yards. Then Rob heard a man’s voice, soft and low, but passionate. He knew it to be Sir Clement Dowton’s, though he lost the words. A girl’s voice answered, however, a voice so exquisitely modulated, so clear and pure, that Rob trembled with delight in it. This is what it said—

‘No, Sir Clement Dowton, I bear you no ill-will, but I do not love you. Years ago I made an idol and worshipped it, because I knew no better, but I am a foolish girl no longer, and I know now that it was a thing of clay.’

To Rob’s amazement he found himself murmuring these words even before they were spoken. He seemed to know them so well, that had the speaker missed anything, he could have put her right. It was not sympathy that worked this marvel. He had read all this before, or something very like it, in The Scorn of Scorns.

Nell, too, heard the voice, but did not catch the words. She ran forward, and as she reached Rob, a tall girl in white, with a dark hood over her head, pushed aside a bush and came into view.

‘Mary,’ cried Miss Meredith, ‘this gentleman here is the person who wrote that in the Mirror. Let me introduce you to him, Mr. Angus, Miss——’ and then Nell shrank back in amazement, as she saw who was with her friend.

‘Sir Clement Dowton!’ she exclaimed.

Rob, however, did not hear her, nor see the baronet, for looking up with a guilty feeling at his heart, his eyes met Mary Abinger.


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