The time was Saturday afternoon; the place was Surrey; the person of the drama was Philip Christy.
He had come down by the early fast train to Brackenhurst. All the world knows Brackenhurst, of course, the greenest and leafiest of our southern suburbs. It looked even prettier than its wont just then, that town of villas, in the first fresh tenderness of its wan spring foliage, the first full flush of lilac, laburnum, horse-chestnut, and guelder-rose. The air was heavy with the odour of May and the hum of bees. Philip paused a while at the corner, by the ivied cottage, admiring it silently. He was glad he lived there-so very aristocratic! What joy to glide direct, on the enchanted carpet of the South-Eastern Railway, from the gloom and din and bustle of Cannon Street, to the breadth and space and silence and exclusiveness of that upland village! For Philip Christy was a gentlemanly clerk in Her Majesty's Civil Service.
As he stood there admiring it all with roving eyes, he was startled after a moment by the sudden, and as it seemed to him unannounced apparition of a man in a well-made grey tweed suit, just a yard or two in front of him. He was aware of an intruder. To be sure, there was nothing very remarkable at first sight either in the stranger's dress, appearance, or manner. All that Philip noticed for himself in the newcomer's mien for the first few seconds was a certain distinct air of social superiority, an innate nobility of gait and bearing. So much at least he observed at a glance quite instinctively. But it was not this quiet and unobtrusive tone, as of the Best Society, that surprised and astonished him; Brackenhurst prided itself, indeed, on being a most well-bred and distinguished neighbourhood; people of note grew as thick there as heather or whortleberries. What puzzled him more was the abstruser question, where on earth the stranger could have come from so suddenly. Philip had glanced up the road and down the road just two minutes before, and was prepared to swear when he withdrew his eyes not a soul loomed in sight in either direction. Whence, then, could the man in the grey suit have emerged? Had he dropped from the clouds? No gate opened into the road on either side for two hundred yards or more; for Brackenhurst is one of those extremely respectable villa neighbourhoods where every house-an eligible family residence-stands in its own grounds of at least six acres. Now Philip could hardly suspect that so well dressed a man of such distinguished exterior would be guilty of such a gross breach of the recognised code of Brackenhurstian manners as was implied in the act of vaulting over a hedgerow. So he gazed in blank wonder at the suddenness of the apparition, more than half inclined to satisfy his curiosity by inquiring of the stranger how the dickens he had got there.
A moment's reflection, however, sufficed to save the ingenuous young man from the pitfall of so serious a social solecism. It would be fatal to accost him. For, mark you, no matter how gentlemanly and well-tailored a stranger may look, you can never be sure nowadays (in these topsy-turvy times of subversive radicalism) whether he is or is not really a gentleman. That makes acquaintanceship a dangerous luxury. If you begin by talking to a man, be it ever so casually, he may desire to thrust his company upon you, willy-nilly, in future; and when you have ladies of your family living in a place, you really CANNOT be too particular what companions you pick up there, were it even in the most informal and momentary fashion. Besides, the fellow might turn out to be one of your social superiors, and not care to know you; in which case, of course, you would only be letting yourself in for a needless snubbing. In fact, in this modern England of ours, this fatherland of snobdom, one passes one's life in a see-saw of doubt, between the Scylla and Charybdis of those two antithetical social dangers. You are always afraid you may get to know somebody you yourself do not want to know, or may try to know somebody who does not want to know you.
Guided by these truly British principles of ancestral wisdom, Philip Christy would probably never have seen anything more of the distinguished-looking stranger had it not been for a passing accident of muscular action, over which his control was distinctly precarious. He happened in brushing past to catch the stranger's eye. It was a clear blue eye, very deep and truthful. It somehow succeeded in riveting for a second Philip's attention. And it was plain the stranger was less afraid of speaking than Philip himself was. For he advanced with a pleasant smile on his open countenance, and waved one gloveless hand in a sort of impalpable or half-checked salute, which impressed his new acquaintance as a vaguely polite Continental gesture. This affected Philip favourably: the newcomer was a somebody then, and knew his place: for just in proportion as Philip felt afraid to begin conversation himself with an unplaced stranger, did he respect any other man who felt so perfectly sure of his own position that he shared no such middle-class doubts or misgivings. A duke is never afraid of accosting anybody. Philip was strengthened, therefore, in his first idea, that the man in the grey suit was a person of no small distinction in society, else surely he would not have come up and spoken with such engaging frankness and ease of manner.
"I beg your pardon," the stranger said, addressing him in pure and limpid English, which sounded to Philip like the dialect of the very best circles, yet with some nameless difference of intonation or accent which certainly was not foreign, still less provincial, or Scotch, or Irish; it seemed rather like the very purest well of English undefiled Philip had ever heard,-only, if anything, a little more so; "I beg your pardon, but I'm a stranger hereabouts, and I should be so VERY much obliged if you could kindly direct me to any good lodgings."
His voice and accent attracted Philip even more now he stood near at hand than his appearance had done from a little distance. It was impossible, indeed, to say definitely in set terms what there was about the man that made his personality and his words so charming; but from that very first minute, Philip freely admitted to himself that the stranger in the grey suit was a perfect gentleman. Nay, so much did he feel it in his ingenuous way that he threw off at once his accustomed cloak of dubious reserve, and, standing still to think, answered after a short pause, "Well, we've a great many very nice furnished houses about here to let, but not many lodgings. Brackenhurst's a cut above lodgings, don't you know; it's a residential quarter. But I should think Miss Blake's, at Heathercliff House, would perhaps be just the sort of thing to suit you."
"Oh, thank you," the stranger answered, with a deferential politeness which charmed Philip once more by its graceful expressiveness. "And could you kindly direct me to them? I don't know my way about at all, you see, as yet, in this country."
"With pleasure," Philip replied, quite delighted at the chance of solving the mystery of where the stranger had dropped from. "I'm going that way myself, and can take you past her door. It's only a few steps. Then you're a stranger in England?"
The newcomer smiled a curious self-restrained smile. He was both young and handsome. "Yes, I'm a stranger in your England," he answered, gravely, in the tone of one who wishes to avoid an awkward discussion. "In fact, an Alien. I only arrived here this very morning."
"From the Continent?" Philip inquired, arching his eyebrows slightly.
The stranger smiled again. "No, not from the Continent," he replied, with provoking evasiveness.
"I thought you weren't a foreigner," Philip continued in a blandly suggestive voice. "That is to say," he went on, after a second's pause, during which the stranger volunteered no further statement, "you speak English like an Englishman."
"Do I?" the stranger answered. "Well, I'm glad of that. It'll make intercourse with your Englishmen so much more easy."
By this time Philip's curiosity was thoroughly whetted. "But you're not an Englishman, you say?" he asked, with a little natural hesitation.
"No, not exactly what you call an Englishman," the stranger replied, as if he didn't quite care for such clumsy attempts to examine his antecedents. "As I tell you, I'm an Alien. But we always spoke English at home," he added with an afterthought, as if ready to vouchsafe all the other information that lay in his power.
"You can't be an American, I'm sure," Philip went on, unabashed, his eagerness to solve the question at issue, once raised, getting the better for the moment of both reserve and politeness.
"No, I'm certainly not an American," the stranger answered with a gentle courtesy in his tone that made Philip feel ashamed of his rudeness in questioning him.
"Nor a Colonist?" Philip asked once more, unable to take the hint.
"Nor a Colonist either," the Alien replied curtly. And then he relapsed into a momentary silence which threw upon Philip the difficult task of continuing the conversation.
The member of Her Britannic Majesty's Civil Service would have given anything just that minute to say to him frankly, "Well, if you're not an Englishman, and you're not an American, and you're not a Colonist, and you ARE an Alien, and yet you talk English like a native, and have always talked it, why, what in the name of goodness do you want us to take you for?" But he restrained himself with difficulty. There was something about the stranger that made him feel by instinct it would be more a breach of etiquette to question him closely than to question any one he had ever met with.
They walked on along the road for some minutes together, the stranger admiring all the way the golden tresses of the laburnum and the rich perfume of the lilac, and talking much as he went of the quaintness and prettiness of the suburban houses. Philip thought them pretty, too (or rather, important), but failed to see for his own part where the quaintness came in. Nay, he took the imputation as rather a slur on so respectable a neighbourhood: for to be quaint is to be picturesque, and to be picturesque is to be old-fashioned. But the stranger's voice and manner were so pleasant, almost so ingratiating, that Philip did not care to differ from him on the abstract question of a qualifying epithet. After all, there's nothing positively insulting in calling a house quaint, though Philip would certainly have preferred, himself, to hear the Eligible Family Residences of that Aristocratic Neighbourhood described in auctioneering phrase as "imposing," "noble," "handsome," or "important-looking."
Just before they reached Miss Blake's door, the Alien paused for a second. He took out a loose handful of money, gold and silver together, from his trouser pocket. "One more question," he said, with that pleasant smile on his lips, "if you'll excuse my ignorance. Which of these coins is a pound, now, and which is a sovereign?"
"Why, a pound IS a sovereign, of course," Philip answered briskly, smiling the genuine British smile of unfeigned astonishment that anybody should be ignorant of a minor detail in the kind of life he had always lived among. To be sure, he would have asked himself with equal simplicity what was the difference between a twenty-franc piece, a napoleon, and a louis, or would have debated as to the precise numerical relation between twenty-five cents and a quarter of a dollar; but then, those are mere foreign coins, you see, which no fellow can be expected to understand, unless he happens to have lived in the country they are used in. The others are British and necessary to salvation. That feeling is instinctive in the thoroughly provincial English nature. No Englishman ever really grasps for himself the simple fact that England is a foreign country to foreigners; if strangers happen to show themselves ignorant of any petty matter in English life, he regards their ignorance as silly and childish, not to be compared for a moment to his own natural unfamiliarity with the absurd practices of foreign nations.
The Alien, indeed, seemed to have learned beforehand this curious peculiarity of the limited English intellect; for he blushed slightly as he replied, "I know your currency, as a matter of arithmetic, of course: twelve pence make one shilling; twenty shillings make one pound-"
"Of course," Philip echoed in a tone of perfect conviction; it would never have occurred to him to doubt for a moment that everybody knew intuitively those beggarly elements of the inspired British monetary system.
"Though they're singularly awkward units of value for any one accustomed to a decimal coinage: so unreasonable and illogical," the stranger continued blandly, turning over the various pieces with a dubious air of distrust and uncertainty.
"I BEG your pardon," Philip said, drawing himself up very stiff, and scarcely able to believe his ears (he was an official of Her Britannic Majesty's Government, and unused to such blasphemy). "Do I understand you to say, you consider pounds, shillings, and pence UNREASONABLE?"
He put an emphasis on the last word that might fairly have struck terror to the stranger's breast; but somehow it did not. "Why, yes," the Alien went on with imperturbable gentleness: "no order or principle, you know. No rational connection. A mere survival from barbaric use. A score, and a dozen. The score is one man, ten fingers and ten toes; the dozen is one man with shoes on-fingers and feet together. Twelve pence make one shilling; twenty shillings one pound. How very confusing! And then, the nomenclature's so absurdly difficult! Which of these is half-a-crown, if you please, and which is a florin? and what are their respective values in pence and shillings?"
Philip picked out the coins and explained them to him separately. The Alien meanwhile received the information with evident interest, as a traveller in that vast tract that is called Abroad might note the habits and manners of some savage tribe that dwells within its confines, and solemnly wrapped each coin up in paper, as his instructor named it for him, writing the designation and value outside in a peculiarly beautiful and legible hand. "It's so puzzling, you see," he said in explanation, as Philip smiled another superior and condescending British smile at this infantile proceeding; "the currency itself has no congruity or order: and then, even these queer unrelated coins haven't for the most part their values marked in words or figures upon them."
"Everybody knows what they are," Philip answered lightly. Though for a moment, taken aback by the novelty of the idea, he almost admitted in his own mind that to people who had the misfortune to be born foreigners, there WAS perhaps a slight initial difficulty in this unlettered system. But then, you cannot expect England to be regulated throughout for the benefit of foreigners! Though, to be sure, on the one occasion when Philip had visited the Rhine and Switzerland, he had grumbled most consumedly from Ostend to Grindelwald, at those very decimal coins which the stranger seemed to admire so much, and had wondered why the deuce Belgium, Germany, Holland, and Switzerland could not agree among themselves upon a uniform coinage; it would be so much more convenient to the British tourist. For the British tourist, of course, is NOT a foreigner.
On the door-step of Miss Blake's Furnished Apartments for Families and Gentlemen, the stranger stopped again. "One more question," he interposed in that same suave voice, "if I'm not trespassing too much on your time and patience. For what sort of term-by the day, month, year-does one usually take lodgings?"
"Why, by the week, of course," Philip answered, suppressing a broad smile of absolute surprise at the man's childish ignorance.
"And how much shall I have to pay?" the Alien went on quietly. "Have you any fixed rule about it?"
"Of course not," Philip answered, unable any longer to restrain his amusement (everything in England was "of course" to Philip). "You pay according to the sort of accommodation you require, the number of your rooms, and the nature of the neighbourhood."
"I see," the Alien replied, imperturbably polite, in spite of Philip's condescending manner. "And what do I pay per room in this latitude and longitude?"
For twenty seconds, Philip half suspected his new acquaintance of a desire to chaff him: but as at the same time the Alien drew from his pocket a sort of combined compass and chronometer which he gravely consulted for his geographical bearings, Philip came to the conclusion he must be either a seafaring man or an escaped lunatic. So he answered him to the point. "I should think," he said quietly, "as Miss Blake's are extremely respectable lodgings, in a first-rate quarter, and with a splendid view, you'll probably have to pay somewhere about three guineas."
"Three what?" the stranger interposed, with an inquiring glance at the little heap of coins he still held before him.
Philip misinterpreted his glance. "Perhaps that's too much for you," he suggested, looking severe; for if people cannot afford to pay for decent rooms, they have no right to invade an aristocratic suburb, and bespeak the attention of its regular residents.
"Oh, that's not it," the Alien put in, reading his tone aright. "The money doesn't matter to me. As long as I can get a tidy room, with sun and air, I don't mind what I pay. It's the guinea I can't quite remember about for the moment. I looked it up, I know, in a dictionary at home; but I'm afraid I've forgotten it. Let me see; it's twenty-one pounds to the guinea, isn't it? Then I'm to pay about sixty-three pounds a week for my lodgings."
This was the right spirit. He said it so simply, so seriously, so innocently, that Philip was quite sure he really meant it. He was prepared, if necessary, to pay sixty odd pounds a week in rent. Now, a man like that is the proper kind of man for a respectable neighbourhood. He'll keep a good saddle-horse, join the club, and play billiards freely. Philip briefly explained to him the nature of his mistake, pointing out to him that a guinea was an imaginary coin, unrepresented in metal, but reckoned by prescription at twenty-one shillings. The stranger received the slight correction with such perfect nonchalance, that Philip at once conceived a high opinion of his wealth and solvency, and therefore of his respectability and moral character. It was clear that pounds and shillings were all one to him. Philip had been right, no doubt, in his first diagnosis of his queer acquaintance as a man of distinction. For wealth and distinction are practically synonyms in England for one and the same quality, possession of the wherewithal.
As they parted, the stranger spoke again, still more at sea. "And are there any special ceremonies to be gone through on taking up lodgings?" he asked quite gravely. "Any religious rites, I mean to say? Any poojah or so forth? That is," he went on, as Philip's smile broadened, "is there any taboo to be removed or appeased before I can take up my residence in the apartments?"
By this time Philip was really convinced he had to do with a madman-perhaps a dangerous lunatic. So he answered rather testily, "No, certainly not; how absurd! you must see that's ridiculous. You're in a civilised country, not among Australian savages. All you'll have to do is to take the rooms and pay for them. I'm sorry I can't be of any further use to you, but I'm pressed for time to-day. So now, good-morning."
As for the stranger, he turned up the path through the lodging-house garden with curious misgivings. His heart failed him. It was half-past three by mean solar time for that particular longitude. Then why had this young man said so briskly, "Good morning," at 3.30 P.M., as if on purpose to deceive him? Was he laying a trap? Was this some wile and guile of the English medicine-men?