I - THE FROGS
It was of interest to those who study the psychology of the mass that, until the prosperous but otherwise insignificant James G. Bliss became the object of their attention, the doings and growth of the Frogs were almost unnoticed. There were strong references in some of the country newspapers to the lawless character of the association; one Sunday journal had an amusing article headed:
“TRAMPS’ TRADE UNION TAKES FROG FOR SYMBOL OF MYSTIC ORDER”
It gave a humorous and quite fanciful extract from its rules and ritual. The average man made casual references: “I say, have you seen this story about the tramps’ Union—every member a walking delegate?…”
There was a more serious leading article on the growth of trade unionism, in which the Frogs were cited, and although from time to time came accounts of mysterious outrages which had been put to the discredit of the Frogs, the generality of citizens regarded the society, order, or whatever it was, as something benevolent in its intentions and necessarily eccentric in its constitution, and, believing this, were in their turn benevolently tolerant. In some such manner as the mass may learn with mild interest of a distant outbreak of epidemic disease, which slays its few, and wake one morning to find the sinister malady tapping at their front doors, so did the world become alive and alarmed at the terror-growth which suddenly loomed from the mists.
James G. Bliss was a hardware merchant, and a man well known on exchange, where he augmented the steady profits of the Bliss General Hardware Corporation with occasional windfalls from legitimate speculation. A somewhat pompous and, in argument, aggressive person, he had the advantage which mediocrity, blended with a certain expansive generosity, gives to a man, in that he had no enemies; and since his generosity was run on sane business principles, it could no: even be said of him, as is so often said of others, that his worst enemy was himself. He held, and still holds, the bulk of the stock in the B.G.H. Corporation—a fact which should be noted because it was a practice of Mr. Bliss to manipulate from time to time the price of his shares by judicious operations. It was at a time coincident with the little boom in industrials which brought Bliss Hardware stock at a jump from 12.50 to 23.75, that the strange happening occurred which focussed for the moment all eyes upon the Frogs.
Mr. Bliss has a country place at Long Beach, Hampshire. It is referred to as “The Hut,” but is the sort of hut that King Solomon might have built for the Queen of Sheba, had that adventurous man been sufficiently well acquainted with modern plumbing, the newest systems of heating and lighting, and the exigent requirements of up-to-date chauffeurs. In these respects Mr. Bliss was wiser than Solomon.
He bad returned to his country home after a strenuous day in the City, and was walking in the garden in the cool of the evening. He was (and is) married, but his wife and two daughters were spending the spring in Paris—a wise course, since the spring is the only season when Paris has the slightest pretensions to being a beautiful city.
He had come from his kennels, and was seen walking across the home park toward a covert which bordered his property. Hearing a scream, his kennel man and a groom ran toward the wood, to discover Bliss lying on the ground unconscious, his face and shoulders covered with blood. He had been struck down by some heavy weapon: there were a slight fracture of the parietal bone and several very ugly scalp wounds.
For three weeks this unfortunate man hovered between life and death, unconscious except at intervals, and unable during his lucid moments to throw any light on, or make any coherent statement concerning, the assault, except to murmur, “Frog…frog…left arm…frog.”
It was the first of many similar outrages, seemingly purposeless and wanton, in no case to be connected with robbery, and invariably (except once) committed upon people occupied fairly unimportant positions in the social hierarchy. The Frogs advanced instantly to a first-class topic. The disease was found to be widespread, and men who had read, light-heartedly, of minor victimizations, began to bolt their own doors and carry lethal weapons when they went abroad at nights.
And they were wise, for there was a force in being that had been born in fear and had matured in obscurity (to the wonder of its creator) so that it wielded the tyrannical power of governments.
In the centre of many ramifications sat the Frog, drunk with authority, merciless, terrible. One who lived two lives and took full pleasure from both, and all the time nursing the terror that Saul Morris had inspired one foggy night in London, when the grimy streets were filled with armed policemen looking for the man who cleaned the strongroom of the S.S.
of three million pounds between the port of Southampton and the port of Cherbourg.
I - AT MAYTREE COTTAGE
A dry radiator coincided with a burst tyre. The second coincidence was the proximity of Maytree Cottage on the Horsham Road. The cottage was larger than most, with a timbered front and a thatched roof. Standing at the gate, Richard Gordon stopped to admire. The house dated back to the days of Elizabeth, but his interest and admiration were not those of the antiquary.
Nor, though he loved flowers, of the horticulturist, though the broad garden was a patchwork of colour and the fragrance of cabbage roses came to delight his senses. Nor was it the air of comfort and cleanliness that pervaded the place, the scrubbed red-brick pathway that led to the door, the spotless curtains behind leaded panes.
It was the girl, in the red-lined basket chair, that arrested his gaze. She sat on a little lawn in the shade of a mulberry tree, with her shapely young limbs stiffly extended, a book in her hand, a large box of chocolates by her side. Her hair, the colour of old gold, an old gold that held life and sheen; a flawless complexion, and, when she turned her head in his direction, a pair of grave, questioning eyes, deeper than grey, yet greyer than blue…
She drew up her feet hurriedly and rose.
“I’m so sorry to disturb you,”—Dick, hat in hand, smiled his apology—“but I want water for my poor little Lizzie. She’s developed a prodigious thirst.”
She frowned for a second, and then laughed.
“Lizzie—you mean a car? If you’ll come to the back of the cottage I’ll show you where the well is.”
He followed, wondering who she was. The tiny hint of patronage in her tone he understood. It was the tone of matured girlhood addressing a boy of her own age. Dick, who was thirty and looked eighteen, with his smooth, boyish face, had been greeted in that “little boy” tone before, and was inwardly amused.
“Here is the bucket and that is the well,” she pointed. “I would send a maid to help you, only we haven’t a maid, and never had a maid, and I don’t think ever shall have a maid!”
“Then some maid has missed a very good job,” said Dick, “for this garden is delightful.”
She neither agreed nor dissented. Perhaps she regretted the familiarity she had shown. She conveyed to him an impression of aloofness, as she watched the process of filling the buckets, and when he carried them to the car on the road outside, she followed.
“I thought it was a—a—what did you call it—Lizzie?”
“She is Lizzie to me,” said Dick stoutly as he filled the radiator of the big Rolls, “and she will never be anything else. There are people who think she should be called Diana,’ but those high-flown names never had any attraction for me. She is Liz—and will always be Liz.”
She walked round the machine, examining it curiously.
“Aren’t you afraid to be driving a big car like that?” she asked. “I should be scared to death. It is so tremendous and…and unmanageable.”
Dick paused with a bucket in hand.
“Fear,” he boasted, “is a word which I have expunged from the bright lexicon of my youth.”
For a second puzzled, she began to laugh softly.
“Did you come by way of Welford?” she asked.
“I wonder if you saw my father on the road?”
“I saw nobody on the road except a sour-looking gentleman of middle age who was breaking the Sabbath by carrying a large brown box on his back.”
“Where did you pass him?” she asked, interested.
“Two miles away—less than that.” And then, a doubt intruding: “I hope that I wasn’t describing your parent?”
“It sounds rather like him,” she said without annoyance. “Daddy is a naturalist photographer. He takes moving pictures of birds and things—he is an amateur, of course.”
“Of course,” agreed Dick.
He brought the buckets back to where he had found them and lingered. Searching for an excuse, he found it in the garden. How far he might have exploited this subject is a matter for conjecture. Interruption came in the shape of a young man who emerged from the front door of the cottage. He was tall and athletic, good-looking…Dick put his age at twenty.
“Hello, Ella! Father back?” he began, and then saw the visitor.
“This is my brother,” said the girl, and Dick Gordon nodded. He was conscious that this free-and-easy method of getting acquainted was due largely, if not entirely, to his youthful appearance. To be treated as an inconsiderable boy had its advantages. And so it appeared.
“I was telling him that boys ought not to be allowed to drive big cars,” she said. “You remember the awful smash there was at the Shoreham cross roads?”
Ray Bennett chuckled.
“This is all part of a conspiracy to keep me from getting a motor-bicycle. Father thinks I’ll kill somebody, and Ella thinks I’ll kill myself.”
Perhaps there was something in Dick Gordon’s quick smile that warned the girl that she had been premature in her appraisement of his age, for suddenly, almost abruptly, she nodded an emphatic dismissal and turned away. Dick was at the gate when a further respite arrived. It was the man he had passed on the road. Tall, loose-framed, grey and gaunt of face, he regarded the stranger with suspicion in his deep-set eyes.
“Good morning,” he said curtly. “Car broken down?”
“No, thank you. I ran out of water, and Miss—er—”
“Bennett,” said the man. “She gave you the water, eh? Well, good morning.”
He stood aside to let Gordon pass, but Dick opened the gate and waited till the owner of Maytree Cottage had entered.
“My name is Gordon,” he said. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Ella had turned back and stood with her brother within earshot. “I am greatly obliged to you for your kindness.” The old man, with a nod, went on carrying his heavy burden into the house, and Dick in desperation turned to the girl.
“You are wrong when you think this is a difficult car to drive—won’t you experiment? Or perhaps your brother?”
The girl hesitated, but not so young Bennett.
“I’d like to try,” he said eagerly. “I’ve never handled a big machine.”
That he could handle one if the opportunity came, he showed. They watched the car gliding round the corner, the girl with a little frown gathering between her eyes, Dick Gordon oblivious to everything except that he had snatched a few minutes’ closer association with the girl. He was behaving absurdly, he told himself. He, a public official, an experienced lawyer, was carrying on like an irresponsible, love-smitten youth of nineteen. The girl’s words emphasized his folly.
“I wish you hadn’t let Ray drive,” she said. “It doesn’t help a boy who is always wanting something better, to put him in charge of a beautiful car…perhaps you don’t understand me. Ray is very ambitious and dreams in millions. A thing like this unsettles him.”
The older man came out at that moment, a black pipe between his teeth, and, seeing the two at the gate, a cloud passed over his face.
“Let him drive your car, have you?” he said grimly. “I wish you hadn’t—it was very kind of you, Mr. Gordon, but in Ray’s case a mistaken kindness.”
“I’m very sorry,” said the penitent Dick. “Here he comes!” The big car spun toward them and halted before the gate.
“She’s a beauty!”
Ray Bennett jumped out and looked at the machine with admiration and regret.
“My word, if she were mine!”
“She isn’t,” snapped the old man, and then, as though regretting his petulance: “Some day perhaps you’ll own a fleet, Ray—are you going to London, Mr. Gordon?”
“Maybe you wouldn’t care to stop and eat a very frugal meal with us?” asked the elder Bennett, to his surprise and joy. “And you’ll be able to tell this foolish son of mine that owning a big car isn’t all joy-riding.”
Dick’s first impression was of the girl’s astonishment. Apparently he was unusually honoured, and this was confirmed after John Bennett had left them.
“You’re the first boy that has ever been asked to dinner,” she said when they were alone. “Isn’t he, Ray?” Ray smiled.
“Dad doesn’t go in for the social life, and that’s a fact,” he said. “I asked him to have Philo Johnson down for a week-end, and he killed the idea before it was born. And the old philosopher is a good fellow and the boss’s confidential secretary. You’ve heard of Maitlands Consolidated, I suppose?”