HIS LORDSHIP

Madame Gilbert’s war service ended when Austria fell out. She had been
in Italy busied with those obscure intrigues for the confounding of an
enemy which are excused, and dignified, as patriotic propaganda. She is
satisfied that on the Italian Front she, and those who worked with her,
really won the war.

The war satisfactorily won, Madame Gilbert sped home to revel in the
first holiday which she had known since August, 1914. She always seems
to travel with fewer restrictions and at greater speed than any except
Prime Ministers and commanding Generals. In Italy she is an Italian and
in France a Frenchwoman–a dazzling Italian and a very winning
Frenchwoman. The police of both countries make smooth her path with
their humble bodies upon which Madame is graciously pleased to trample.
“I never trouble much about passports or credentials,” says she, “though
I carry them just as I do my .25 automatic pistol; in practice I find
that I need draw my papers as rarely as I draw my gun. Most of the
police and officials who have seen me once know me when I come again,
and rush to my assistance.” She is never grateful for service. I do not
believe she knows the sentiment of gratitude. A poor man renders her aid
in defiance of regulations, and maybe at the risk of his neck; she
smiles upon him, and the debt is instantly discharged. He is dismissed
until perchance Madame may again have occasion for his devotion. Then
she reveals the royal accomplishment of never forgetting a face. Imagine
a harassed, weary _chef du train_, before whose official unseeing eyes
travellers flit like figures on a cinema screen, imagine such a one
addressed by name and rank by the most beautiful and gracious of mortal
women, by a woman who remembers all those little family confidences
which he had poured into her sympathetic ears some twelve months before,
by a woman who enquires sweetly after his good wife–using her pet
name–laments that the brave son–also accurately named–is still
missing beyond those impenetrable Boche lines. Will not the _chef du
train_, cooed over thus and softly patted as one pats butter, break
every French rule the most iron-bound to speed Madame upon her way? Of
course he will. In war time, as in peace time, that is the royal manner
of Madame Gilbert. She does not travel; she makes a progress.

Madame came home after the armistice with Austria, and, being discharged
of liability to the propagandist headquarters, found herself a free and
idle woman. The first time for more than four years.

She had a little money from her late husband (the real one), and had
been lavishly paid for her services during the war. War prices in London
seemed quite moderate to her after the extortions of France and Italy.
She re-occupied her old rooms near Shaftesbury Avenue–and incidentally
made homeless a pair of exiled Belgians–and fed after the fashion that
she loved in the restaurants of Soho. Madame enjoyed her food. She
always scoffed at Beauty Specialists. “Look at me,” she would say. “Look
closely at my skin, at my hair, at my teeth if you like. What you see is
God’s gift improved by exact care for my health. I do physical exercises
for twenty minutes every night and morning. I plunge all over into cold
water whenever I can get together enough to cover me, and I eat and
drink whatever I like. I shall go on living for just as long as I am
beautiful and healthy. When I have to think of my digestion or of the
colour of my skin, I shall say Good-bye and go West in a dream of
morphia.” Superficially, Madame is a Roman Catholic; at heart she is a
Greek Pagan.

It was at La Grande Patisserie Belge that Madame stumbled across the
lawyer who was fated to introduce her to the Cannibal of whom she told
me in Whitehall.

It was a melancholy afternoon in January, peace had not brought
plenty–especially of coal–and Madame was fortifying herself against
the damp chills of London by long draughts of the hottest coffee and the
sweetest and stickiest confectionery which even she could relish. About
six feet distant, on what one may describe as her port quarter, sat a
middle-aged Englishman whose bagging clothes showed that war rations
had dealt sorely with his once ample person. Madame, who without turning
her head examined him in critical detail, judged that his loss in weight
was three stone. He had the clean, shaven face and alert aspect of a
lawyer or doctor. In fancied security a little to the left and rear of
Madame Gilbert the stranger stared openly at her cheek and ear and the
coils of bright copper hair. Madame knew that he was watching her, and
rather liked the scrutiny. She had recognized him at once, and would
have been slightly humiliated if he had failed to be interested in her.
It is true that she had met him but once before in her life, and that
some four years since, but as Madame had condescended to recollect
him–I have said that her memory for faces was royal–a failure on his
part to remember her would have been an offence unpardonable.

Madame continued to munch sweet stuff, and the man, his tea completed,
rose, paid his bill, and then passed slowly in front of her. He needed
encouragement before he would speak. So Madame gave it, a quick look and
a smile of invitation. He bowed.

“Have I not the honour to meet again the Signora Guilberti?” said he.

“The Signora Guilberti,” assented Madame, “or Madame Guilbert, or Madame
Gilbert, as rendered by the rough English tongue. I have stooped to
anglicise my name,” she went on, “though I hate the clipped English
version.” She indicated a chair, and the lawyer–he was a lawyer–sat
down.

“Is it possible that Madame honours me with remembrance?”

“Let me place you,” said she, happy in the display of her
accomplishments, “and don’t seek to guide my memory. It was in the
Spring of 1915, at a reception in the garden of Devonshire House. You
were in attendance upon Her Majesty the Queen-Mother of Portugal. There
were present representatives of the Italian Red Cross, for Italy, the
land of my late husband, had ranged herself with the Allies. You are a
lawyer of the _haute noblesse_. Your clients are peers and princes, of
old princes in exile and of new peers in possession. I recall you most
distinctly, though at that time, my poor friend, you were not a little
portly, and now you are a man shrunken.”

“And my name?” he asked, flattered that a beautiful woman should recall
him so distinctly.

“It is a strange name–Gatepath. An old English name redolent of the
soil. Roger Gatepath. Your firm bears no prefix of initials and no
suffix of company. You call yourselves Gatepaths. Just Gatepaths, as
though your status were territorial.”

He crowed with pleasure. By an exercise in memory, Madame Gilbert had
tied him to her chariot wheels.

“Right!” cried he. “Right in every particular. You are the most
wonderful of women. For two minutes I spoke with you, and that was
nearly four years ago. I was one of a large party, an insignificant
lawyer lost in a dazzling company of titles. Yet you have remembered.”

Madame left the sense of flattery to soak in. She did not spoil the
impression that she had made by explaining that she would have
remembered a lackey with just the same accuracy.

“And you, Madame?” he asked. “Have you been all these years doing war
work with the Italian Red Cross? The years have passed and left no mark
upon your face and figure. I, who comfortably filled out my clothes, am
shrunken, yet time and sorrow have spared you.”

“Nevertheless, I have been pretty hard at work,” said Madame briskly. “I
was present at that party ostensibly as an official of the Italian Red
Cross. In fact I was there to see that no harm befell the Royal
Personages who were in my charge. While we moved about those pleasant
grounds, chatting and sipping tea, I was watching, watching. And my hand
was never far from the butt of the Webley automatic which, slung from my
waist, was hidden in a bag of silk.”

“Heavens!” he cried out. “You are….”

“Hush,” interposed Madame. “A lawyer and a Gatepath should be more
discreet. The war is over, and I can tell you now that I fought every
minute of it in the Secret Service, the Civil branch. I was the head
woman, the bright particular star, in Dawson’s Secret Corps.”

“Is it discreet to tell me this?” he asked, countering her reproof of a
moment earlier.

She smiled rather wickedly. “Are you not a lawyer and a Gatepath? And
can one not tell anything to a lawyer and a Gatepath? Besides, I have
sent in my resignation, and am now a free woman. It has been a good
time, a very good time. I have fought devils and mastered devils in
England and France and Italy for four long years, and now I would rest.
You say that time and sorrow have spared me. Yet I have known both time
and sorrow. Have I not lost….”

He broke into a babble of apologies. “I did not know…. I did not
realise….”

She waved a hand, and he fell silent. “I do not wear the trappings of
woe, for though I am eternally widowed, I glory in my loss. It was in
the rearguard at Caporetto, when all less gallant souls had fled, that
my Guilberti fell.”

Of course from that moment Gatepath was her slave. She had flattered him
and humbugged him as she flattered and humbugged all of us. Madame had
no designs against Gatepath, yet she could not forbear to triumph over
him. “One never knows,” she said, “when one may need a devoted friend,
and need him badly. I always look forward.”

Two or three weeks later Madame found a letter at her club signed
“Gatepaths.” It was the club in Dover Street with those steep steps down
which the members tumble helplessly in frosty weather. Madame calls it
“The Club of Falling Women.”

It appears that Gatepath, hunting for an adviser of ripe wisdom, had
sought out the Chief of Dawson and lately of Madame, and laid bare his
pressing troubles. The Chief is one of those rare men to whom all his
friends, and they are as the stars in number, go seeking counsel in
their crimes and follies. Nothing shocks him, nothing surprises him. And
from the depths of his wise, humorous, sympathetic mind, he will almost
always draw waters of comfort. Suppose, for example, one had slain a man
and urgently sought to dispose of the corpse–a not uncommon problem in
crowded cities–to whom could one more profitably turn than to the
Chief of His Majesty’s Detective Service? Or if, in a passing fit of
absence of mind, one had wedded three wives, and the junior in rank
began to suspect the existence of one or more seniors; do we not all
suffer from lapses of memory? One does not put these problems before the
Chief as one’s own–there is a decent convention in these matters–but,
of course, he knows. To know all is to pardon all, and there is very
little that the Chief does not know about you or me.

The family solicitor of peers and princes poured into the Chief’s ear
the fantastic cause of his present distresses. He delivered himself of
the story in all seriousness, for it was dreadfully serious to him.
Never in all his experience, and in that of his century-old firm, had
anything so dreadfully serious occurred. The Chief controlled himself
until the end was reached, and then exploded in a yell of laughter.

“It is nothing to laugh at,” grumbled Gatepath.

“Not for you, perhaps. But to my mind the situation is gorgeous. Has
this man the legal right of succession?”

“Beyond a doubt,” groaned Gatepath. “His father saw to that.”

“Then why not leave matters to take their legal course?” asked the
Chief, still laughing. “The House of Lords will be the better for a
shock. They are a dull lot. And your lively friend will administer the
shock all right.”

Roger Gatepath spread out his hands in agony. “But it is one of the
oldest peerages in the country, as old almost as the Barony of Arundel.
Can’t you see how frightful it will be for the family if this–this
person–is allowed to succeed?”

“There is no question of allowing him. If he is the legal heir he must
succeed. The family must just put him in their pipe and smoke him. What
else can they do?”

“I thought that you, with all your experience of the South, might
suggest something. Would it not be possible to buy the man off–or might
he not—-”

“How can you buy him off when he is the heir? You people are nothing but
trustees, who must account to him for every penny. If he claims the
peerage and estates, you must accept him. You admit that legally he is
the heir. I can see what is in your mind, but it won’t do, Gatepath, it
won’t do. If you try any hanky-panky, that pretty neck of yours will
find itself in a hempen collar. Now if it was only a case for judicious
kidnapping—-”

Gatepath looked around anxiously. The men were alone in a recess of the
club smoking-room. “Yes,” he whispered eagerly. “Yes, go on.”

“I shall not do anything of the sort. You are a nice sort of family
solicitor, Gatepath. Apart from the personal danger of playing tricks,
can’t you see that your interest lies with the bouncing heir, not with
the snuffy old family? Don’t be an ass. Bring him home, give the House
of Lords the sensation of their placid lives, and let the good old
British public enjoy a week of laughter. How they will bellow with joy.
And the newspapers! I can see, Gatepath, that your agreeable young heir
is going to be the Success of the Season.”

“You are not very helpful,” groaned Gatepath. “There must be a
solution; there must be some way of shielding the Family from this
frightful humiliation.”

The interview with the Chief was a complete failure, and Gatepath parted
from his old friend both hurt and angry. He had not expected ribald
laughter in so grave a social crisis. The Chief must be a Radical, a
Socialist, even a Bolshevik, one empty of all decent political
principles.

It was on his way home that Gatepath bethought him of Madame Gilbert.
She, that beautiful, loyal-hearted woman, would not laugh. He remembered
the glitter of unshed tears in the violet eyes when she had bade him
farewell. It was his tactless hand upon the open wound of Caporetto
which had aroused those tears. He remembered also that Madame was free,
and that she had been trained to do the ruthless, unscrupulous work of
the Secret Service. She did not look either ruthless or unscrupulous,
and it was in a strictly professional sense that Gatepath connected her
with these unfeminine attributes. In his troubles Gatepath needed advice
and sympathy, and Madame Gilbert, to his mind, filled the double bill. I
do not know how far Gatepath seriously expected Madame to resolve his
appalling difficulties. I suspect that he, a young bachelor of fifty or
so, was glad of any excuse to persuade Madame to sit beside him and hold
his hand. At any rate he did not know, now that the Chief had failed
him, any man or any woman who was more likely than Madame to be sweetly
helpful.

When Madame read the formal typewritten communication signed “Gatepaths”
she grinned. It did not surprise her that a recent victim should seek
the excuse of urgent business to gain access to her presence. The letter
asked for an appointment at a time and place agreeable to her
convenience. It jumped with her bizarre humour to suggest Charing Cross
Station at two o’clock in the morning, but ultimately she rang up Roger
on the telephone, and fixed an hour in the forenoon at his own office in
Lincoln’s Inn Fields. To Charing Cross Station at two o’clock in the
morning she would have gleefully gone in the long black cloak and velvet
mask of a conspirator, but for the interview in Lincoln’s Inn Fields she
was pleased to cast herself in the part of a woman of business, severe,
solemn business. Gatepath’s welcome was nervous; he scarcely recognised
in the solemnly severe woman of business the bereaved widow of La Grande
Patisserie Beige. Madame seated herself, spread out her wide sombre
skirts, and prepared to listen to the urgencies which had impelled the
adviser of peers and princes to seek her cooperation.

Gatepath got to work at once. He saw that Madame expected value for her
complaisance, and he gave it in full measure.

“You will have heard, Madame, of the family of Toppys, pronounced Tops.
Like other famous families of Devon when the Conqueror came they were at
home. In the twelfth century they were the recognised holders of the
Barony of Topsham, a village and manor on the River Exe. Topsham means
the Home of Toppys, pronounced Tops. The title fell into abeyance for a
couple of centuries, and the Manor of Topsham has long since passed to
the Courtenays. But her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth revived the
ancient barony. Ever since then, for three hundred and fifty years, the
Head of the Family of Toppys has been Baron of Topsham. We”–Gatepath,
in his excited interest, identified himself with the famous family of
Toppys, pronounced Tops–“we are allowed to date the peerage from the
original writ of summons, and the Lord Topsham whose lamented death
occurred last year was the Twenty-Seventh Baron. I wish you to
appreciate the almost unapproachable lineage of this family upon whom
has fallen a disaster without parallel in history. The Twenty-Seventh
Baron is dead; his successor will be the twenty-eighth. Have you got
that?”

“I have,” said Madame sweetly. She longed to add “Audited and found
correct.” It would sound splendidly businesslike, but might give offence
as frivolous.

“Some twenty years ago one of the brothers of the late Lord Topsham left
this country, and settled on an island in the Torres Straits. It was an
extraordinary thing to do for one who was neither a wastrel nor a
criminal. The Hon. William Toppys was neither. My father, who knew him
well, has told me that he was only mad. To be mad is a misadventure
which may overtake the most cautious of us–ancient Houses are prone to
develop a reputable and characteristic species of insanity–but to
indulge an individual madness to the disgrace of one’s Family is a
crime. In the legal and conventional sense the Hon. William Toppys was
not a criminal, yet he committed the worst of crimes against his ancient
and glorious lineage.” The body of Roger Gatepath swelled with wrath
until it almost filled his pre-war clothes.

Madame longed to say “Good old Bill,” but again refrained. The story was
beginning to amuse her.

“The Hon. William Toppys settled upon an island in the Torres Straits,
and became what is called locally a beachcomber. This degradation was
not forced upon him by poverty. He was not wealthy, but from his late
mother he derived a competence–some few hundreds of pounds a year. We
acted for his trustees, and regularly remitted his dividends to a bank
in Thursday Island. Perhaps, Madame, it will assist you if I ring for an
atlas.”

“Do not trouble,” said Madame sweetly. “I have a rough working
acquaintance with geography. Thursday Island is a little to the north of
Queensland. It is a centre for pearl fishing. That is why I remember the
place.”

“The Hon. William Toppys built himself a hut on a small islet in the
Straits–and married a native woman. A Melanesian woman.”

“Married?” enquired Madame. “How? Native fashion, _sans ceremonie_?”

“Unhappily, no. His marriage was celebrated and registered at the
Melanesian Mission’s station on Thursday Island. It was–I repeat
unhappily–as legal a contract as your own marriage.”

“You shock me,” said Madame primly, though she struggled against
laughter. “Would you have had the Hon. William Toppys live–in sin–with
a native woman?”

“I would,” shouted Gatepath.

Madame covered her face with her hands and her silks–her businesslike
silks–rustled with emotion.

“It pains me to express sentiments which you must regard as
immoral”–the silks went on rustling–“but I must look at that fatal
marriage from the point of view, the just point of view, of the ancient
family of Toppys.”

“Pronounced Tops,” whispered Madame, as she came up to breathe.

“The Hon. William Toppys sent us word of his marriage. That was nearly
twenty years ago. He also, with unparalleled effrontery, communicated to
his brother, the late Lord Topsham, the dates of birth of his son and
his two daughters. Those births were all registered in due form at
Thursday Island. If the Hon. William Toppys had designed to humiliate,
to outrage, the most ancient and honourable Family in Devon–save only
that of the Courtenays–he could not have gone about the business more
thoroughly or systematically. He is dead. He died in 1912. But I cannot
speak good of the dead. He committed a crime, a series of crimes. He
lawfully married a Melanesian woman and he lawfully begat a son and
heir!”

“What about the two daughters?” whispered Madame in throes of
suffocation.

“The daughters don’t matter,” said Gatepath. “He could have had a dozen
if he pleased. The Barony of Topsham descends to heirs male, not to
heirs general.”

At this point Madame fell from grace. It had become obvious to one less
alert than she that the lawfully begotten son of the Hon. William Toppys
(pronounced Tops), and the Melanesian wife, was the half-caste
Twenty-Eighth Baron of Topsham, and that the ancient Family of Toppys
was wild about it. So was Gatepath–wild, furious. He gesticulated, his
cheeks puffed out. In him was embodied, for Madame to see and laugh
over, all the fury of all the Toppyses, male and female. She could not
help but laugh–in peals, till the tears came.

Roger Gatepath groaned. “I did think that you, Madame, would refrain
from ribaldry. Consider the position of my clients. This horror that is
come upon them is not an occasion for laughter.”

“I am really awfully sorry,” gasped Madame, wiping her eyes. “It must be
dreadful for you all. But to a stranger like me, it is frightfully
funny.”

“You won’t think it funny when you hear the rest of my story,” growled
Gatepath. “But perhaps I had better stop.”

“Oh! please don’t. I am immensely interested, and thrilled. I want to
hear every word. You tell the story so splendidly, Mr. Gatepath, that I
should be wild if you stopped now.”

Gatepath continued. The sacred fire of vicarious family indignation had
been somewhat abated by Madame’s laughter, but he warmed up as he
proceeded. He was convinced that the gracious Madame Gilbert would share
his horror when the tale reached its tragic close. “You may ask how,
after 350 years of direct succession, the ancient and honourable Family
of Toppys should have failed of heirs–except this half-caste spawn of a
Melanesian savage. It is the war that has brought this disaster upon us.
The only son of the late Lord Topsham was killed at Ypres early in the
war. The two sons of the second brother were in the Flying Corps, and
fell with so many other honourable gentlemen in the spring of 1918. Both
were killed within a week. Their death was a blow from which Lord
Topsham never recovered. His own brothers had both gone before, and the
casualties of war had transferred the succession to that coffee-coloured
monster in the Torres Straits. Lord Topsham just withered away. I
ventured to urge a second marriage, but his lordship had no heart to
struggle. Rather than give heirship to the beachcomber’s brat I would
have married a housemaid by special licence and begat a son though I
never lived to see him born.”

“It might have been a useless daughter,” murmured Madame unkindly.

Gatepath growled.

Madame Gilbert now pulled herself together. Her ribald laughter had
sorely weakened her influence over the solicitor of peers and princes,
and she felt impelled to regain it. It was now her role to become
sympathetically helpful.

“Are you sure, Mr. Gatepath, that you do not make this grievous affair
worse by exaggerating it? The Hon. William Toppys was an English
gentleman. He went in for the simple life as a beachcomber with a
Melanesian wife, but he must have remained a gentleman by instinct. His
son may not be so very brown–some half-castes are almost white–and has
probably, almost surely, been brought up as a gentleman. Why not make
the best of the situation, bring him home, and let me take the boy in
hand? I will make of him a cavalier almost worthy to belong to the
ancient House of Toppys.”

“It is impossible,” said Gatepath, and his air was that of Sir Henry
Irving in _Macbeth_. “I have seen the Twenty-Eighth Baron of Topsham
with my own eyes.”

“That was very sporting of you,” cried Madame in admiration. “Did you go
out all alone to the Torres Straits and beard the lion in his den?”

“I went, and I went alone. It was a fearful journey. The war was still
raging, and it strained all the influence of Gatepaths to secure me a
passage to America in a returning troopship. Thence I travelled to San
Francisco, got a Japanese steamer to Yokohama, another Japanese steamer
to Singapore, and yet another–a small one which rolled abominably–to
Thursday Island. I cannot tell you, without reference to my diary, how
many weeks and months I was tossed about the loathsome deep. The
schooner from Thursday Island to the haunt of the late Hon. William
Toppys was the worst of my tortures. It was crammed with nude men and
women of all colours from pale olive to dark walnut, and it smelt–like
a hogshead of rancid fat. The South Sea Islands are a romantic fraud,
Madame. They reek to Heaven, and brew so many different brands of stinks
that one can never get acclimated. Can you wonder that I, who once was
well favoured in person, am now an old man, shrunken, wizened into
premature senility before my time? I arrived at my journey’s end, and
there, Madame, I saw the young man whom you so very kindly propose to
take in hand and make a cavalier almost worthy of the House of Toppys.
I saw his lordship with my own eyes.”

“And was he so very impossible?” asked Madame, for the solicitor of the
Toppyses had stopped, struck dumb by his emotion.

“Impossible!” he shrieked. “His lordship, the Twenty-Eighth Baron of
Topsham, is a naked Cannibal running about the beach with a spear.”