The Absent-minded Man


You ask him to dine with you on Thursday to meet a few people who are anxious to know him.

“Now don’t make a muddle of it,” you say, recollectful of former mishaps, “and come on the Wednesday.”

He laughs good-naturedly as he hunts through the room for his diary.

“Shan’t be able to come Wednesday,” he says, “shall be at the Mansion House, sketching dresses, and on Friday I start for Scotland, so as to be at the opening of the Exhibition on Saturday. It’s bound to be all right this time. Where the deuce is that diary! Never mind, I’ll make a note of it on this—you can see me do it.”

You stand over him while he writes the appointment down on a sheet of foolscap, and watch him pin it up over his desk. Then you come away contented.

“I do hope he’ll turn up,” you say to your wife on the Thursday evening, while dressing.

“Are you sure you made it clear to him?” she replies, suspiciously, and you instinctively feel that whatever happens she is going to blame you for it.

Eight o’clock arrives, and with it the other guests. At half-past eight your wife is beckoned mysteriously out of the room, where the parlour-maid informs her that the cook has expressed a determination, in case of further delay, to wash her hands, figuratively speaking, of the whole affair.

Your wife, returning, suggests that if the dinner is to be eaten at all it had better be begun. She evidently considers that in pretending to expect him you have been merely playing a part, and that it would have been manlier and more straightforward for you to have admitted at the beginning that you had forgotten to invite him.

During the soup and the fish you recount anecdotes of his unpunctuality. By the time the entrée arrives the empty chair has begun to cast a gloom over the dinner, and with the joint the conversation drifts into talk about dead relatives.

On Friday, at a quarter past eight, he dashes to the door and rings violently. Hearing his voice in the hall, you go to meet him.

“Sorry I’m late,” he sings out cheerily. “Fool of a cabman took me to Alfred Place instead of—”

“Well, what do you want now you are come?” you interrupt, feeling anything but genially inclined towards him. He is an old friend, so you can be rude to him.

He laughs, and slaps you on the shoulder.

“Why, my dinner, my dear boy, I’m starving.”

“Oh,” you grunt in reply. “Well, you go and get it somewhere else, then. You’re not going to have it here.”

“What the devil do you mean?” he says. “You asked me to dinner.”

“I did nothing of the kind,” you tell him. “I asked you to dinner on Thursday, not on Friday.”

He stares at you incredulously.

“How did I get Friday fixed in my mind?” inquiringly.

“Because yours is the sort of mind that would get Friday firmly fixed into it, when Thursday was the day,” you explain. “I thought you had to be off to Edinburgh to-night,” you add.

“Great Scott!” he cries, “so I have.”

And without another word he dashes out, and you hear him rushing down the road, shouting for the cab he has just dismissed.

As you return to your study you reflect that he will have to travel all the way to Scotland in evening dress, and will have to send out the hotel porter in the morning to buy him a suit of ready-made clothes, and are glad.

Matters work out still more awkwardly when it is he who is the host. I remember being with him on his house-boat one day. It was a little after twelve, and we were sitting on the edge of the boat, dangling our feet in the river—the spot was a lonely one, half-way between Wallingford and Day’s Lock. Suddenly round the bend appeared two skiffs, each one containing six elaborately-dressed persons. As soon as they caught sight of us they began waving handkerchiefs and parasols.

“Hullo!” I said, “here’s some people hailing you.”

“Oh, they all do that about here,” he answered, without looking up. “Some beanfeast from Abingdon, I expect.”

The boats draw nearer. When about two hundred yards off an elderly gentleman raised himself up in the prow of the leading one and shouted to us.

McQuae heard his voice, and gave a start that all but pitched him into the water.

“Good God!” he cried, “I’d forgotten all about it.”

“About what?” I asked.

“Why, it’s the Palmers and the Grahams and the Hendersons. I’ve asked them all over to lunch, and there’s not a blessed thing on board but two mutton chops and a pound of potatoes, and I’ve given the boy a holiday.”

Another day I was lunching with him at the Junior Hogarth, when a man named Hallyard, a mutual friend, strolled across to us.

“What are you fellows going to do this afternoon?” he asked, seating himself the opposite side of the table.

“I’m going to stop here and write letters,” I answered.

“Come with me if you want something to do,” said McQuae. “I’m going to drive Leena down to Richmond.” (“Leena” was the young lady he recollected being engaged to. It transpired afterwards that he was engaged to three girls at the time. The other two he had forgotten all about.) “It’s a roomy seat at the back.”

“Oh, all right,” said Hallyard, and they went away together in a hansom.

An hour and a half later Hallyard walked into the smoking-room looking depressed and worn, and flung himself into a chair.

“I thought you were going to Richmond with McQuae,” I said.

“So did I,” he answered.

“Had an accident?” I asked.


He was decidedly curt in his replies.

“Cart upset?” I continued.

“No, only me.”

His grammar and his nerves seemed thoroughly shaken.

I waited for an explanation, and after a while he gave it.

“We got to Putney,” he said, “with just an occasional run into a tram-car, and were going up the hill, when suddenly he turned a corner. You know his style at a corner—over the curb, across the road, and into the opposite lamp-post. Of course, as a rule one is prepared for it, but I never reckoned on his turning up there, and the first thing I recollect is finding myself sitting in the middle of the street with a dozen fools grinning at me.

“It takes a man a few minutes in such a case to think where he is and what has happened, and when I got up they were some distance away. I ran after them for a quarter of a mile, shouting at the top of my voice, and accompanied by a mob of boys, all yelling like hell on a Bank Holiday. But one might as well have tried to hail the dead, so I took the ’bus back.

“They might have guessed what had happened,” he added, “by the shifting of the cart, if they’d had any sense. I’m not a light-weight.”

He complained of soreness, and said he would go home. I suggested a cab, but he replied that he would rather walk.

I met McQuae in the evening at the St. James’s Theatre. It was a first night, and he was taking sketches for The Graphic. The moment he saw me he made his way across to me.

“The very man I wanted to see,” he said. “Did I take Hallyard with me in the cart to Richmond this afternoon?”

“You did,” I replied.

“So Leena says,” he answered, greatly bewildered, “but I’ll swear he wasn’t there when we got to the Queen’s Hotel.”

“It’s all right,” I said, “you dropped him at Putney.”

“Dropped him at Putney!” he repeated. “I’ve no recollection of doing so.”

“He has,” I answered. “You ask him about it. He’s full of it.”

Everybody said he never would get married; that it was absurd to suppose he ever would remember the day, the church, and the girl, all in one morning; that if he did get as far as the altar he would forget what he had come for, and would give the bride away to his own best man. Hallyard had an idea that he was already married, but that the fact had slipped his memory. I myself felt sure that if he did marry he would forget all about it the next day.

But everybody was wrong. By some miraculous means the ceremony got itself accomplished, so that if Hallyard’s idea be correct (as to which there is every possibility), there will be trouble. As for my own fears, I dismissed them the moment I saw the lady. She was a charming, cheerful little woman, but did not look the type that would let him forget all about it.

I had not seen him since his marriage, which had happened in the spring. Working my way back from Scotland by easy stages, I stopped for a few days at Scarboro’. After table d’hôte I put on my mackintosh, and went out for a walk. It was raining hard, but after a month in Scotland one does not notice English weather, and I wanted some air. Struggling along the dark beach with my head against the wind, I stumbled over a crouching figure, seeking to shelter itself a little from the storm under the lee of the Spa wall.

I expected it to swear at me, but it seemed too broken-spirited to mind anything.

“I beg your pardon,” I said. “I did not see you.”

At the sound of my voice it started to its feet.

“Is that you, old man?” it cried.

“McQuae!” I exclaimed.

“By Jove!” he said, “I was never so glad to see a man in all my life before.”

And he nearly shook my hand off.

“But what in thunder!” I said, “are you doing here? Why, you’re drenched to the skin.”

He was dressed in flannels and a tennis-coat.

“Yes,” he answered. “I never thought it would rain. It was a lovely morning.”

I began to fear he had overworked himself into a brain fever.

“Why don’t you go home?” I asked.

“I can’t,” he replied. “I don’t know where I live. I’ve forgotten the address.”

“For heaven’s sake,” he said, “take me somewhere, and give me something to eat. I’m literally starving.”

“Haven’t you any money?” I asked him, as we turned towards the hotel.

“Not a sou,” he answered. “We got in here from York, the wife and I, about eleven. We left our things at the station, and started to hunt for apartments. As soon as we were fixed, I changed my clothes and came out for a walk, telling Maud I should be back at one to lunch. Like a fool, I never took the address, and never noticed the way I was going.

“It’s an awful business,” he continued. “I don’t see how I’m ever going to find her. I hoped she might stroll down to the Spa in the evening, and I’ve been hanging about the gates ever since six. I hadn’t the threepence to go in.”

“But have you no notion of the sort of street or the kind of house it was?” I enquired.

“Not a ghost,” he replied. “I left it all to Maud, and didn’t trouble.”

“Have you tried any of the lodging-houses?” I asked.

“Tried!” he exclaimed bitterly. “I’ve been knocking at doors, and asking if Mrs. McQuae lives there steadily all the afternoon, and they slam the door in my face, mostly without answering. I told a policeman—I thought perhaps he might suggest something—but the idiot only burst out laughing, and that made me so mad that I gave him a black eye, and had to cut. I expect they’re on the lookout for me now.”

“I went into a restaurant,” he continued gloomily, “and tried to get them to trust me for a steak. But the proprietress said she’d heard that tale before, and ordered me out before all the other customers. I think I’d have drowned myself if you hadn’t turned up.”

After a change of clothes and some supper, he discussed the case more calmly, but it was really a serious affair. They had shut up their flat, and his wife’s relatives were travelling abroad. There was no one to whom he could send a letter to be forwarded; there was no one with whom she would be likely to communicate. Their chance of meeting again in this world appeared remote.

Nor did it seem to me—fond as he was of his wife, and anxious as he undoubtedly was to recover her—that he looked forward to the actual meeting, should it ever arrive, with any too pleasurable anticipation.

“She will think it strange,” he murmured reflectively, sitting on the edge of the bed, and thoughtfully pulling off his socks. “She is sure to think it strange.”

The following day, which was Wednesday, we went to a solicitor, and laid the case before him, and he instituted inquiries among all the lodging-house keepers in Scarborough, with the result that on Thursday afternoon McQuae was restored (after the manner of an Adelphi hero in the last act) to his home and wife.

I asked him next time I met him what she had said.

“Oh, much what I expected,” he replied.

But he never told me what he had expected.


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