The young man came into the club-house. There was a frown on his usually cheerful face, and he ordered a ginger-ale in the sort of voice which an ancient Greek would have used when asking the executioner to bring on the hemlock.
Sunk in the recesses of his favourite settee the Oldest Member had watched him with silent sympathy.
"How did you get on?" he inquired.
"He beat me."
The Oldest Member nodded his venerable head.
"You have had a trying time, if I am not mistaken. I feared as much when I saw you go out with Pobsley. How many a young man have I seen go out with Herbert Pobsley exulting in his youth, and crawl back at eventide looking like a toad under the harrow! He talked?"
"All the time, confound it! Put me right off my stroke."
The Oldest Member sighed.
"The talking golfer is undeniably the most pronounced pest of our complex modern civilization," he said, "and the most difficult to deal with. It is a melancholy thought that the noblest of games should have produced such a scourge. I have frequently marked Herbert Pobsley in action. As the crackling of thorns under a pot.... He is almost as bad as poor George Mackintosh in his worst period. Did I ever tell you about George Mackintosh?"
"I don't think so."
"His," said the Sage, "is the only case of golfing garrulity I have ever known where a permanent cure was affected. If you would care to hear about it----?"
* * * * *
George Mackintosh (said the Oldest Member), when I first knew him, was one of the most admirable young fellows I have ever met. A handsome, well-set-up man, with no vices except a tendency to use the mashie for shots which should have been made with the light iron. And as for his positive virtues, they were too numerous to mention. He never swayed his body, moved his head, or pressed. He was always ready to utter a tactful grunt when his opponent foozled. And when he himself achieved a glaring fluke, his self-reproachful click of the tongue was music to his adversary's bruised soul. But of all his virtues the one that most endeared him to me and to all thinking men was the fact that, from the start of a round to the finish, he never spoke a word except when absolutely compelled to do so by the exigencies of the game. And it was this man who subsequently, for a black period which lives in the memory of all his contemporaries, was known as Gabby George and became a shade less popular than the germ of Spanish Influenza. Truly, corruptio optimi pessima!
One of the things that sadden a man as he grows older and reviews his life is the reflection that his most devastating deeds were generally the ones which he did with the best motives. The thought is disheartening. I can honestly say that, when George Mackintosh came to me and told me his troubles, my sole desire was to ameliorate his lot. That I might be starting on the downward path a man whom I liked and respected never once occurred to me.
One night after dinner when George Mackintosh came in, I could see at once that there was something on his mind, but what this could be I was at a loss to imagine, for I had been playing with him myself all the afternoon, and he had done an eighty-one and a seventy-nine. And, as I had not left the links till dusk was beginning to fall, it was practically impossible that he could have gone out again and done badly. The idea of financial trouble seemed equally out of the question. George had a good job with the old-established legal firm of Peabody, Peabody, Peabody, Peabody, Cootes, Toots, and Peabody. The third alternative, that he might be in love, I rejected at once. In all the time I had known him I had never seen a sign that George Mackintosh gave a thought to the opposite sex.
Yet this, bizarre as it seemed, was the true solution. Scarcely had he seated himself and lit a cigar when he blurted out his confession.
"What would you do in a case like this?" he said.
"Well----" He choked, and a rich blush permeated his surface. "Well, it seems a silly thing to say and all that, but I'm in love with Miss Tennant, you know!"
"You are in love with Celia Tennant?"
"Of course I am. I've got eyes, haven't I? Who else is there that any sane man could possibly be in love with? That," he went on, moodily, "is the whole trouble. There's a field of about twenty-nine, and I should think my place in the betting is about thirty-three to one."
"I cannot agree with you there," I said. "You have every advantage, it appears to me. You are young, amiable, good-looking, comfortably off, scratch----"
"But I can't talk, confound it!" he burst out. "And how is a man to get anywhere at this sort of game without talking?"
"You are talking perfectly fluently now."
"Yes, to you. But put me in front of Celia Tennant, and I simply make a sort of gurgling noise like a sheep with the botts. It kills my chances stone dead. You know these other men. I can give Claude Mainwaring a third and beat him. I can give Eustace Brinkley a stroke a hole and simply trample on his corpse. But when it comes to talking to a girl, I'm not in their class."
"You must not be diffident."
"But I am diffident. What's the good of saying I mustn't be diffident when I'm the man who wrote the words and music, when Diffidence is my middle name and my telegraphic address? I can't help being diffident."
"Surely you could overcome it?"
"But how? It was in the hope that you might be able to suggest something that I came round tonight."
And this was where I did the fatal thing. It happened that, just before I took up "Braid on the Push-Shot," I had been dipping into the current number of a magazine, and one of the advertisements, I chanced to remember, might have been framed with a special eye to George's unfortunate case. It was that one, which I have no doubt you have seen, which treats of "How to Become a Convincing Talker". I picked up this magazine now and handed it to George.
He studied it for a few minutes in thoughtful silence. He looked at the picture of the Man who had taken the course being fawned upon by lovely women, while the man who had let this opportunity slip stood outside the group gazing with a wistful envy.
"They never do that to me," said George.
"Do what, my boy?"
"Cluster round, clinging cooingly."
"I gather from the letterpress that they will if you write for the booklet."
"You think there is really something in it?"
"I see no reason why eloquence should not be taught by mail. One seems to be able to acquire every other desirable quality in that manner nowadays."
"I might try it. After all, it's not expensive. There's no doubt about it," he murmured, returning to his perusal, "that fellow does look popular. Of course, the evening dress may have something to do with it."
"Not at all. The other man, you will notice, is also wearing evening dress, and yet he is merely among those on the outskirts. It is simply a question of writing for the booklet."
"Sent post free."
"Sent, as you say, post free."
"I've a good mind to try it."
"I see no reason why you should not."
"I will, by Duncan!" He tore the page out of the magazine and put it in his pocket. "I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll give this thing a trial for a week or two, and at the end of that time I'll go to the boss and see how he reacts when I ask for a rise of salary. If he crawls, it'll show there's something in this. If he flings me out, it will prove the thing's no good."
We left it at that, and I am bound to say--owing, no doubt, to my not having written for the booklet of the Memory Training Course advertised on the adjoining page of the magazine--the matter slipped from my mind. When, therefore, a few weeks later, I received a telegram from young Mackintosh which ran:
Worked like magic,
I confess I was intensely puzzled. It was only a quarter of an hour before George himself arrived that I solved the problem of its meaning.
"So the boss crawled?" I said, as he came in.
He gave a light, confident laugh. I had not seen him, as I say, for some time, and I was struck by the alteration in his appearance. In what exactly this alteration consisted I could not at first have said; but gradually it began to impress itself on me that his eye was brighter, his jaw squarer, his carriage a trifle more upright than it had been. But it was his eye that struck me most forcibly. The George Mackintosh I had known had had a pleasing gaze, but, though frank and agreeable, it had never been more dynamic than a fried egg. This new George had an eye that was a combination of a gimlet and a searchlight. Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, I imagine, must have been somewhat similarly equipped. The Ancient Mariner stopped a wedding guest on his way to a wedding; George Mackintosh gave me the impression that he could have stopped the Cornish Riviera express on its way to Penzance. Self-confidence--aye, and more than self-confidence--a sort of sinful, overbearing swank seemed to exude from his very pores.
"Crawled?" he said. "Well, he didn't actually lick my boots, because I saw him coming and side-stepped; but he did everything short of that. I hadn't been talking an hour when----"
"An hour!" I gasped. "Did you talk for an hour?"
"Certainly. You wouldn't have had me be abrupt, would you? I went into his private office and found him alone. I think at first he would have been just as well pleased if I had retired. In fact, he said as much. But I soon adjusted that outlook. I took a seat and a cigarette, and then I started to sketch out for him the history of my connection with the firm. He began to wilt before the end of the first ten minutes. At the quarter of an hour mark he was looking at me like a lost dog that's just found its owner. By the half-hour he was making little bleating noises and massaging my coat-sleeve. And when, after perhaps an hour and a half, I came to my peroration and suggested a rise, he choked back a sob, gave me double what I had asked, and invited me to dine at his club next Tuesday. I'm a little sorry now I cut the thing so short. A few minutes more, and I fancy he would have given me his sock-suspenders and made over his life-insurance in my favour."
"Well," I said, as soon as I could speak, for I was finding my young friend a trifle overpowering, "this is most satisfactory."
"So-so," said George. "Not un-so-so. A man wants an addition to his income when he is going to get married."
"Ah!" I said. "That, of course, will be the real test."
"What do you mean?"
"Why, when you propose to Celia Tennant. You remember you were saying when we spoke of this before--"
"Oh, that!" said George, carelessly. "I've arranged all that."
"Oh, yes. On my way up from the station. I looked in on Celia about an hour ago, and it's all settled."
"Well, I don't know. I just put the thing to her, and she seemed to see it."
"I congratulate you. So now, like Alexander, you have no more worlds to conquer."
"Well, I don't know so much about that," said George. "The way it looks to me is that I'm just starting. This eloquence is a thing that rather grows on one. You didn't hear about my after-dinner speech at the anniversary banquet of the firm, I suppose? My dear fellow, a riot! A positive stampede. Had 'em laughing and then crying and then laughing again and then crying once more till six of 'em had to be led out and the rest down with hiccoughs. Napkins waving ... three tables broken ... waiters in hysterics. I tell you, I played on them as on a stringed instrument...."
"Can you play on a stringed instrument?"
"As it happens, no. But as I would have played on a stringed instrument if I could play on a stringed instrument. Wonderful sense of power it gives you. I mean to go in pretty largely for that sort of thing in future."
"You must not let it interfere with your golf."
He gave a laugh which turned my blood cold.
"Golf!" he said. "After all, what is golf? Just pushing a small ball into a hole. A child could do it. Indeed, children have done it with great success. I see an infant of fourteen has just won some sort of championship. Could that stripling convulse a roomful of banqueters? I think not! To sway your fellow-men with a word, to hold them with a gesture ... that is the real salt of life. I don't suppose I shall play much more golf now. I'm making arrangements for a lecturing-tour, and I'm booked up for fifteen lunches already."
Those were his words. A man who had once done the lake-hole in one. A man whom the committee were grooming for the amateur championship. I am no weakling, but I confess they sent a chill shiver down my spine.
* * * * *
George Mackintosh did not, I am glad to say, carry out his mad project to the letter. He did not altogether sever himself from golf. He was still to be seen occasionally on the links. But now--and I know of nothing more tragic that can befall a man--he found himself gradually shunned, he who in the days of his sanity had been besieged with more offers of games than he could manage to accept. Men simply would not stand his incessant flow of talk. One by one they dropped off, until the only person he could find to go round with him was old Major Moseby, whose hearing completely petered out as long ago as the year '98. And, of course, Celia Tennant would play with him occasionally; but it seemed to me that even she, greatly as no doubt she loved him, was beginning to crack under the strain.
So surely had I read the pallor of her face and the wild look of dumb agony in her eyes that I was not surprised when, as I sat one morning in my garden reading Ray on Taking Turf, my man announced her name. I had been half expecting her to come to me for advice and consolation, for I had known her ever since she was a child. It was I who had given her her first driver and taught her infant lips to lisp "Fore!" It is not easy to lisp the word "Fore!" but I had taught her to do it, and this constituted a bond between us which had been strengthened rather than weakened by the passage of time.
She sat down on the grass beside my chair, and looked up at my face in silent pain. We had known each other so long that I know that it was not my face that pained her, but rather some unspoken malaise of the soul. I waited for her to speak, and suddenly she burst out impetuously as though she could hold back her sorrow no longer.
"Oh, I can't stand it! I can't stand it!"
"You mean...?" I said, though I knew only too well.
"This horrible obsession of poor George's," she cried passionately. "I don't think he has stopped talking once since we have been engaged."
"He is chatty," I agreed. "Has he told you the story about the Irishman?"
"Half a dozen times. And the one about the Swede oftener than that. But I would not mind an occasional anecdote. Women have to learn to bear anecdotes from the men they love. It is the curse of Eve. It is his incessant easy flow of chatter on all topics that is undermining even my devotion."
"But surely, when he proposed to you, he must have given you an inkling of the truth. He only hinted at it when he spoke to me, but I gather that he was eloquent."
"When he proposed," said Celia dreamily, "he was wonderful. He spoke for twenty minutes without stopping. He said I was the essence of his every hope, the tree on which the fruit of his life grew; his Present, his Future, his Past ... oh, and all that sort of thing. If he would only confine his conversation now to remarks of a similar nature, I could listen to him all day long. But he doesn't. He talks politics and statistics and philosophy and ... oh, and everything. He makes my head ache."
"And your heart also, I fear," I said gravely.
"I love him!" she replied simply. "In spite of everything, I love him dearly. But what to do? What to do? I have an awful fear that when we are getting married instead of answering 'I will,' he will go into the pulpit and deliver an address on Marriage Ceremonies of All Ages. The world to him is a vast lecture-platform. He looks on life as one long after-dinner, with himself as the principal speaker of the evening. It is breaking my heart. I see him shunned by his former friends. Shunned! They run a mile when they see him coming. The mere sound of his voice outside the club-house is enough to send brave men diving for safety beneath the sofas. Can you wonder that I am in despair? What have I to live for?"
"There is always golf."
"Yes, there is always golf," she whispered bravely.
"Come and have a round this afternoon."
"I had promised to go for a walk ..." She shuddered, then pulled herself together. "... for a walk with George."
I hesitated for a moment.
"Bring him along," I said, and patted her hand. "It may be that together we shall find an opportunity of reasoning with him."
She shook her head.
"You can't reason with George. He never stops talking long enough to give you time."
"Nevertheless, there is no harm in trying. I have an idea that this malady of his is not permanent and incurable. The very violence with which the germ of loquacity has attacked him gives me hope. You must remember that before this seizure he was rather a noticeably silent man. Sometimes I think that it is just Nature's way of restoring the average, and that soon the fever may burn itself out. Or it may be that a sudden shock ... At any rate, have courage."
"I will try to be brave."
"Capital! At half-past two on the first tee, then."
"You will have to give me a stroke on the third, ninth, twelfth, fifteenth, sixteenth and eighteenth," she said, with a quaver in her voice. "My golf has fallen off rather lately."
I patted her hand again.
"I understand," I said gently. "I understand."
* * * * *
The steady drone of a baritone voice as I alighted from my car and approached the first tee told me that George had not forgotten the tryst. He was sitting on the stone seat under the chestnut-tree, speaking a few well-chosen words on the Labour Movement.
"To what conclusion, then, do we come?" he was saying. "We come to the foregone and inevitable conclusion that...."
"Good afternoon, George," I said.
He nodded briefly, but without verbal salutation. He seemed to regard my remark as he would have regarded the unmannerly heckling of some one at the back of the hall. He proceeded evenly with his speech, and was still talking when Celia addressed her ball and drove off. Her drive, coinciding with a sharp rhetorical question from George, wavered in mid-air, and the ball trickled off into the rough half-way down the hill. I can see the poor girl's tortured face even now. But she breathed no word of reproach. Such is the miracle of women's love.
"Where you went wrong there," said George, breaking off his remarks on Labour, "was that you have not studied the dynamics of golf sufficiently. You did not pivot properly. You allowed your left heel to point down the course when you were at the top of your swing. This makes for instability and loss of distance. The fundamental law of the dynamics of golf is that the left foot shall be solidly on the ground at the moment of impact. If you allow your heel to point down the course, it is almost impossible to bring it back in time to make the foot a solid fulcrum."
I drove, and managed to clear the rough and reach the fairway. But it was not one of my best drives. George Mackintosh, I confess, had unnerved me. The feeling he gave me resembled the self-conscious panic which I used to experience in my childhood when informed that there was One Awful Eye that watched my every movement and saw my every act. It was only the fact that poor Celia appeared even more affected by his espionage that enabled me to win the first hole in seven.
On the way to the second tee George discoursed on the beauties of Nature, pointing out at considerable length how exquisitely the silver glitter of the lake harmonized with the vivid emerald turf near the hole and the duller green of the rough beyond it. As Celia teed up her ball, he directed her attention to the golden glory of the sand-pit to the left of the flag. It was not the spirit in which to approach the lake-hole, and I was not surprised when the unfortunate girl's ball fell with a sickening plop half-way across the water.
"Where you went wrong there," said George, "was that you made the stroke a sudden heave instead of a smooth, snappy flick of the wrists. Pressing is always bad, but with the mashie----"
"I think I will give you this hole," said Celia to me, for my shot had cleared the water and was lying on the edge of the green. "I wish I hadn't used a new ball."
"The price of golf-balls," said George, as we started to round the lake, "is a matter to which economists should give some attention. I am credibly informed that rubber at the present time is exceptionally cheap. Yet we see no decrease in the price of golf-balls, which, as I need scarcely inform you, are rubber-cored. Why should this be so? You will say that the wages of skilled labour have gone up. True. But----"
"One moment, George, while I drive," I said. For we had now arrived at the third tee.
"A curious thing, concentration," said George, "and why certain phenomena should prevent us from focusing our attention---- This brings me to the vexed question of sleep. Why is it that we are able to sleep through some vast convulsion of Nature when a dripping tap is enough to keep us awake? I am told that there were people who slumbered peacefully through the San Francisco earthquake, merely stirring drowsily from time to time to tell an imaginary person to leave it on the mat. Yet these same people----"
Celia's drive bounded into the deep ravine which yawns some fifty yards from the tee. A low moan escaped her.
"Where you went wrong there----" said George.
"I know," said Celia. "I lifted my head."
I had never heard her speak so abruptly before. Her manner, in a girl less noticeably pretty, might almost have been called snappish. George, however, did not appear to have noticed anything amiss. He filled his pipe and followed her into the ravine.
"Remarkable," he said, "how fundamental a principle of golf is this keeping the head still. You will hear professionals tell their pupils to keep their eye on the ball. Keeping the eye on the ball is only a secondary matter. What they really mean is that the head should be kept rigid, as otherwise it is impossible to----"
His voice died away. I had sliced my drive into the woods on the right, and after playing another had gone off to try to find my ball, leaving Celia and George in the ravine behind me. My last glimpse of them showed me that her ball had fallen into a stone-studded cavity in the side of the hill, and she was drawing her niblick from her bag as I passed out of sight. George's voice, blurred by distance to a monotonous murmur, followed me until I was out of earshot.
I was just about to give up the hunt for my ball in despair, when I heard Celia's voice calling to me from the edge of the undergrowth. There was a sharp note in it which startled me.
I came out, trailing a portion of some unknown shrub which had twined itself about my ankle.
"Yes?" I said, picking twigs out of my hair.
"I want your advice," said Celia.
"Certainly. What is the trouble? By the way," I said, looking round, "where is your fiance?"
"I have no fiance," she said, in a dull, hard voice.
"You have broken off the engagement?"
"Not exactly. And yet--well, I suppose it amounts to that."
"I don't quite understand."
"Well, the fact is," said Celia, in a burst of girlish frankness, "I rather think I've killed George."
"Killed him, eh?"
It was a solution that had not occurred to me, but now that it was presented for my inspection I could see its merits. In these days of national effort, when we are all working together to try to make our beloved land fit for heroes to live in, it was astonishing that nobody before had thought of a simple, obvious thing like killing George Mackintosh. George Mackintosh was undoubtedly better dead, but it had taken a woman's intuition to see it.
"I killed him with my niblick," said Celia.
I nodded. If the thing was to be done at all, it was unquestionably a niblick shot.
"I had just made my eleventh attempt to get out of that ravine," the girl went on, "with George talking all the time about the recent excavations in Egypt, when suddenly--you know what it is when something seems to snap----"
"I had the experience with my shoe-lace only this morning."
"Yes, it was like that. Sharp--sudden--happening all in a moment. I suppose I must have said something, for George stopped talking about Egypt and said that he was reminded by a remark of the last speaker's of a certain Irishman-----"
I pressed her hand.
"Don't go on if it hurts you," I said, gently.
"Well, there is very little more to tell. He bent his head to light his pipe, and well--the temptation was too much for me. That's all."
"You were quite right."
"You really think so?"
"I certainly do. A rather similar action, under far less provocation, once made Jael the wife of Heber the most popular woman in Israel."
"I wish I could think so too," she murmured. "At the moment, you know, I was conscious of nothing but an awful elation. But--but--oh, he was such a darling before he got this dreadful affliction. I can't help thinking of G-George as he used to be."
She burst into a torrent of sobs.
"Would you care for me to view the remains?" I said.
"Perhaps it would be as well."
She led me silently into the ravine. George Mackintosh was lying on his back where he had fallen.
"There!" said Celia.
And, as she spoke, George Mackintosh gave a kind of snorting groan and sat up. Celia uttered a sharp shriek and sank on her knees before him. George blinked once or twice and looked about him dazedly.
"Save the women and children!" he cried. "I can swim."
"Oh, George!" said Celia.
"Feeling a little better?" I asked.
"A little. How many people were hurt?"
"When the express ran into us." He cast another glance around him. "Why, how did I get here?"
"You were here all the time," I said.
"Do you mean after the roof fell in or before?"
Celia was crying quietly down the back of his neck.
"Oh, George!" she said, again.
He groped out feebly for her hand and patted it.
"Brave little woman!" he said. "Brave little woman! She stuck by me all through. Tell me--I am strong enough to bear it--what caused the explosion?"
It seemed to me a case where much unpleasant explanation might be avoided by the exercise of a little tact.
"Well, some say one thing and some another," I said. "Whether it was a spark from a cigarette----"
Celia interrupted me. The woman in her made her revolt against this well-intentioned subterfuge.
"I hit you, George!"
"Hit me?" he repeated, curiously. "What with? The Eiffel Tower?"
"With my niblick."
"You hit me with your niblick? But why?"
She hesitated. Then she faced him bravely.
"Because you wouldn't stop talking."
"Me!" he said. "I wouldn't stop talking! But I hardly talk at all. I'm noted for it."
Celia's eyes met mine in agonized inquiry. But I saw what had happened. The blow, the sudden shock, had operated on George's brain-cells in such a way as to effect a complete cure. I have not the technical knowledge to be able to explain it, but the facts were plain.
"Lately, my dear fellow," I assured him, "you have dropped into the habit of talking rather a good deal. Ever since we started out this afternoon you have kept up an incessant flow of conversation!"
"Me! On the links! It isn't possible."
"It is only too true, I fear. And that is why this brave girl hit you with her niblick. You started to tell her a funny story just as she was making her eleventh shot to get her ball out of this ravine, and she took what she considered the necessary steps."
"Can you ever forgive me, George?" cried Celia.
George Mackintosh stared at me. Then a crimson blush mantled his face.
"So I did! It's all beginning to come back to me. Oh, heavens!"
"Can you forgive me, George?" cried Celia again.
He took her hand in his.
"Forgive you?" he muttered. "Can you forgive me? Me--a tee-talker, a green-gabbler, a prattler on the links, the lowest form of life known to science! I am unclean, unclean!"
"It's only a little mud, dearest," said Celia, looking at the sleeve of his coat. "It will brush off when it's dry."
"How can you link your lot with a man who talks when people are making their shots?"
"You will never do it again."
"But I have done it. And you stuck to me all through! Oh, Celia!"
"I loved you, George!"
The man seemed to swell with a sudden emotion. His eye lit up, and he thrust one hand into the breast of his coat while he raised the other in a sweeping gesture. For an instant he appeared on the verge of a flood of eloquence. And then, as if he had been made sharply aware of what it was that he intended to do, he suddenly sagged. The gleam died out of his eyes. He lowered his hand.
"Well, I must say that was rather decent of you," he said.
A lame speech, but one that brought an infinite joy to both his hearers. For it showed that George Mackintosh was cured beyond possibility of relapse.
"Yes, I must say you are rather a corker," he added.
"George!" cried Celia.
I said nothing, but I clasped his hand; and then, taking my clubs, I retired. When I looked round she was still in his arms. I left them there, alone together in the great silence.
* * * * *
And so (concluded the Oldest Member) you see that a cure is possible, though it needs a woman's gentle hand to bring it about. And how few women are capable of doing what Celia Tennant did. Apart from the difficulty of summoning up the necessary resolution, an act like hers requires a straight eye and a pair of strong and supple wrists. It seems to me that for the ordinary talking golfer there is no hope. And the race seems to be getting more numerous every day. Yet the finest golfers are always the least loquacious. It is related of the illustrious Sandy McHoots that when, on the occasion of his winning the British Open Championship, he was interviewed by reporters from the leading daily papers as to his views on Tariff Reform, Bimetallism, the Trial by Jury System, and the Modern Craze for Dancing, all they could extract from him was the single word "Mphm!" Having uttered which, he shouldered his bag and went home to tea. A great man. I wish there were more like him.