MADAME TAKES CHARGE

It is fortunate that Madame Gilbert had already indulged her indecent
sense of humour. Had she exploded at this tragic moment I should have
been robbed of my story. I am sure from what I know of Roger Gatepath
that he would have thrust her shrieking from his room, and written her
off for ever as unworthy to be associated with the ancient and still
exalted House of Toppys. She shook, gurgled desperately for an instant,
and then composed her features to a becoming gravity. It was a masterly
effort for one with her vivid imagination. She has told me that before
her, plain to see, she visualised the heir of the Barony of Topsham, a
broad, grinning, coffee-coloured face rising above the crimson and
ermine robes of a peer of England. In one hand he held the patent of his
barony, in the other a stabbing spear. It was a vision gorgeous…. Yet
with this figure of fun before her inward eyes she choked down her
laughter. It was an heroic effort.

Roger Gatepath lay back in his chair, rent and exhausted by professional
suffering. Madame whipped out her case and offered one of those
favourite Russian cigarettes from which even the Bolshevists could not
bereave her. Gatepath grabbed and smoked. He would have grabbed and
smoked opium, hashish, anything which could for an instant unravel the
tangled skein of care.

“You are a great woman, Madame,” he murmured; “not even your cigarettes
are in the least like anyone else’s. Please give me another.”

“Now,” said Madame briskly, when the calm of deep narcotic satisfaction
had smoothed out the lawyer’s face, “I want to hear lots more. I am
intrigued, and your story has got no farther than a thunderous
beginning.”

“It has gone no farther, as yet,” said he, “and can go no farther until
the half-caste savage of the Torres Straits learns of his monstrous
heirship.”

“So you travelled fifteen thousand miles in the crisis of war, when all
men and women within reach of a newspaper thrilled with alternate hope
and fear, just to look once at the Twenty-Eighth Baron Topsham and then
to return. Months of hardship going out, and months more of hardship
coming back. Just to look once without speaking. You are a remarkable
man, Mr. Gatepath. I should, at least, have made his intimate
acquaintance. He may be less of a savage Cannibal than he looks.”

“I went to the hut of the Hon. Mrs. William Toppys,” explained the
lawyer. “It is, I am informed, a high-class hut, thatched on walls and
roof with leaves of sago palm. No aristocrat of the South Seas had ever
a finer or more luxurious residence. Yet it is a hut of one room in
which the Hon. Mrs. William Toppys, her two daughters, and her
son–known to the world of his little island as ‘Willatopy’–live, eat,
and sleep, the four of them indifferent to the most primitive dictates
of decency. At the back is constructed a cookhouse. Neither edifice
boasts a chimney. The Family have resided for years in this loathsome
hovel unattended by the humblest of menials. The Right Honourable Lord
Topsham”–driven by his legal conscience, Gatepath never withheld from
the Heir his lawful title–“The Right Honourable Lord Topsham has not
even a black footboy.”

Madame gurgled. “He has small occasion for a valet, I expect.”

Gatepath groaned. “A bootlace about his middle, and a few feathers stuck
in his frizzy hair, seemed to constitute his entire toilet.”

“It is evident,” observed Madame, “that the late beachcomber, the Hon.
William Toppys, was a very thorough artist. Having determined upon the
simple life, he never looked back. His wife remained a native, his son
and daughters were brought up in exact accordance with native model. We
can dismiss the one living and sleeping room and the absence of menials
as in no sense derogatory to the dignity of Toppys. Have you no worse to
tell of the Family than that?”

Gatepath wriggled uneasily. “His Lordship,” muttered he, after a
blushing pause–Madame was privileged to see a lawyer blush–“did me the
honour to prod me with his spear, in the middle of my back.”

“Wherefor this outrage?”

“I ventured to inform his honourable mother, who stood outside the hut,
that the day was fine.”

“And he misdoubted your intentions?” Madame let herself go for a moment
and laughed, that rippling laugh which plays on the hearts of her
victims like flame on wax. “A widow, I have heard, is in little respect
in the South Seas, and the Heir of Toppys drew cold iron in defence of
his mother, so scandalously accosted by a forward stranger. Come, come,
Mr. Gatepath, this incident suggests no savagery. It may indicate that
the heart of the boy is white after all.”

“He prodded me in the back, he pursued me to my boat, and would
doubtless have killed and eaten my body had I not fled with incredible
speed. I have never run so fast since I won the hundred yards sprint for
Cambridge at the Queen’s Club.”

“You and the Hon. Mrs. William Toppys must have been deeply absorbed in
the beauties of the weather when the Cannibal with his spear broke in
upon the pretty conversation.”

“On my honour I did but speak with her for a minute. She is light of
colour and of a countenance not disagreeable. Her English is not fluent,
yet she speaks it with intelligence and has the language of social
courtesy. Her accent too is not unpleasant, she softens the hard English
consonants, and gives full tone value to the rich English vowels.”

“It seems to have been a very fine day, and taken a lot of talking
about,” said Madame drily.

“I wanted to discover why the Hon. William Toppys had married the woman,
and why he made so certain of the proofs of his marriage.”

“Quite so. And while engaged upon your researches, discovered that the
Hon. William Toppys was not so very mad after all?”

“No,” declared the lawyer stoutly. “He was a mad and wicked criminal to
marry her. But I could realise that some twenty years earlier, in the
first bloom of her pale brown beauty, the Hon. Mrs. William Toppys was
worth the sacrifice of any man’s moral scruples. I could, as a
youngster, have loved her myself. But then I should never have made the
hideous, the ghastly blunder of marrying her–except in native fashion.”

“We progress,” said Madame, laughing again. “The mother of the Cannibal
has found favour in your sight, and the Cannibal ran you down to the
boat lest you should find favour in hers. And how long, pray, was this
island idyll in the playing?”

“I was less than half-an-hour on the island.”

“So you came, saw, and conquered all within half-an-hour. And then there
broke in the heir of Toppys with his most intrusive spear. It was
exceedingly tactless of him. A widow, especially a South Sea widow,
would not have tarried long in the wooing. I can understand now that
your feelings towards the heir must be tempestuous. A journey of fifteen
thousand miles, a talk for less than half-an-hour with a pale brown
widow of fascinating accent and aspect. Then the crushing arrival of the
too jealous son, the rending asunder of scarce joined hearts, the flight
to the boat without a moment of farewell, and–fifteen thousand weary
miles of return. In your place, Mr. Gatepath, I should whole-heartedly
loathe that doubly inconvenient son.”

“You are pleased to be witty at my expense, Madame Gilbert,” grumbled
Gatepath. “And we wander sadly from the purpose of the interview with
which you have honoured me this morning. That was to talk about the
Cannibal, and not about the Cannibal’s mother.”

“Proceed,” said Madame, lying back in her chair, and lighting yet
another cigarette. “I am dying to make his further acquaintance.”

“You are an astute woman, Madame Gilbert, and will already have grasped
that the Trustees of the settled estates of the Barony of Topsham–of
whom I am the legal adviser–are in a position profoundly embarrassing.
They don’t know what the devil to do, and I don’t know what the devil of
advice to give. Our strictly legal duty is beyond doubt. We should
notify the heir of his succession, and take the necessary steps to have
him seised of his ancestral lands and revenues. They are not great
although they represent a fair competence, even in these days of
exorbitant estate duties. There are wealthy members of the Family of
Toppys engaged in business pursuits, but they, though deeply interested,
are not at present in the direct line of succession. Some eight months
have passed since Lord Topsham died, and no steps have been taken to
acquaint the Twenty-Eighth Baron of his–of his damnable ill-fortune. We
ought to have moved long since, we must move soon, yet how, and in what
direction, can we move? I went to the Torres Straits to spy out the land
and to consider a course of action. I have returned baffled. The
Trustees are baffled. The Family of Toppys is baffled. We cannot delay
much longer. The Family of Toppys is of the highest distinction, the
Barony of Topsham is a part of the National history. A failure on the
part of the Trustees to produce an heir cannot pass unnoticed. There are
in my profession many unscrupulous practitioners, hedge lawyers, who
would greedily wallow in the chance of hunting up an heir and securing
his interest and business for themselves. The Trustees cannot permit
this; Gatepaths cannot permit this. It were better that my firm should
act for a cannibal lordship than that he should be the helpless prey of
a legal pirate. And yet if Gatepaths did what is their undoubted
duty–namely, notified the heir and represented him–they would
infallibly lose the valuable, the very valuable, connections of all the
other members of the family. We are in a horrid quandary. We cannot let
slip from among our clients the Baron of Topsham, and we cannot let slip
the other members, some of them very wealthy, of the House of Toppys.
But how to keep both passes understanding. I have mentioned the risk,
and it is no small risk, lest some hedge lawyer should get his nose upon
the trail of His Cannibal Lordship of the Torres Straits. There is
another risk which will become more insistent with every month of delay.
The Twenty-Eighth Baron is nineteen years old, an age of full virile
maturity in the South Sea. He may marry any day some native woman, and
raise, with the utmost celerity, a crop of savage heirs to his body. If,
at the instigation of his mother, he follows the detestable practice of
his late father, the marriage will be legal by our law, and the spawn of
it legitimate. Should this further disaster have time to mature–and
nothing is more certain of consummation in a minimum of time–the
coffee-coloured Cannibal line of Toppys will be impregnably entrenched.
Nothing but a special Act of Parliament could bomb it out, and in these
days of revolutionary socialism, the House of Commons would never pass a
Disabling Act. The ribald cynicism of many Members would lead them to
enjoy the gross humiliation of the Upper Chamber. We can look for no
help from Parliament; we must look to our own brains and hands. I have
gone to the Torres Straits and failed. It does not follow that Madame
Gilbert would also fail.”

“Wait a bit,” quoth Madame. “I must know a lot more and see a lot more
before I take any hand in this business. I confess frankly that my
sympathies lean towards the Cannibal. He, the undoubted heir of an
ancient family, is without friends in a far island. He is the son of his
father, and, despite his skin, must be half white in blood. He may be
more than half white in heart and brain. What have you against him
except the rich Melanesian infusion in his veins? Nothing except the
exquisite simplicity of his dress–you said, I recall, that he wore a
bootlace about his middle and adorned his frizzy hair with feathers.
Your visit was on the edge of the Southern summer at a season when even
you or I would gladly travel light in clothing. I feel that a feather
headdress and a petticoat of stripped banana leaves would become me
mightily. Our Mother Eve was red golden like me and must have shone
gloriously in a fig-leaf apron. If the Twenty-Eighth Baron Topsham were
really a savage cannibal, in fact as well as by birth, I might perhaps
share your wrath and agitation. But at present I am frankly on his side.
His appearance in the House of Lords would be startling, but the old
dears would be the better for a shock. So would London society. I
confess that I look forward to his succession with intense amusement. It
would be perfectly lovely, _une bizarrerie superbe_.”

“You will excuse my inability to appreciate your levity,” growled
Gatepath.

“That is why you are baffled by this little domestic problem,” said
Madame. “If you and the portentous Family of Toppys had enough of humour
to take yourselves less seriously, you would perceive that all the world
will laugh when the disclosure comes. It is more agreeable to laugh with
the world than to be laughed at by it. You think that your retainers,
male and female, discreetly solemn in your presence, are desolated by
the misfortunes of the family. Believe me when I tell you that they are
howling with derision. Your men-servants and your maid-servants within
your gates are roaring together over the Family humiliation. Your ox and
your ass, and your old family coach-horse are gaping at you. Your
chauffeur, educated maybe in a modern Radical school of motoring, is
inclined by your misfortunes towards belief in a righteous Providence.
Even your Rolls-Royce forgets its aristocratic ghostly calm and gurgles.
Make up your ancient Toppys’ minds, Mr. Gatepath, that no man or woman
in this modern world cares a depreciated tuppence for the woes of an
historic peerage. You and your Family of Toppys suffer from distorted
vision. Laugh, man, laugh, and recover some sense of perspective. Put
yourself outside this museum of mouldy antiquities, of which you are the
hereditary legal adviser, and regard them for a moment from a point of
detachment. Have you got that? Now laugh.”

But the gloom upon the countenance of Gatepath remained unbroken. It was
less the embarrassments of Toppys that obsessed him than the predicament
into which his firm had drifted. If he stood by the Heir he lost the
business of Toppys; if he stood by the Family he resigned the Heir to
some intrusive perspicuous supplanter. The firm would get left either
way. It is not surprising that Roger Gatepath and humour had become
strangers.

The conspirators sat speechless for the space of two minutes, which is a
long, long time of silence between Western people. It was Madame, of
course, who broke the pause of contemplation.

“Who will benefit?” asked she suddenly.

“I don’t understand,” muttered Gatepath.

“I am not good to play with,” said Madame, rather sternly. “Not even
Dawson, not even his great Chief, may play tricks with Madame Gilbert.
And they know it. Come, Mr. Gatepath. You did not summon me here to tell
a pleasing story of the embarrassments of the Toppys Family. At the back
of your mind you had a plan. You purposed to ask me to pull chestnuts
out of a fire which is too hot for the fingers of Trustees and
Gatepaths. You are acting in the interests of someone who conceals
himself. Who is it? Who will become the heir of Topsham should Madame
Gilbert be persuaded to kidnap or assassinate the inconvenient
Twenty-Eighth Baron? Who proposes to make himself the Twenty-Ninth in
succession to that noble line?”

Gatepath shuddered at her plain speaking. But he had the sense to see
that with Madame all cards must be placed upon the table. Already she
knew enough to be dangerous. If she went forth in anger then there might
be, there certainly would be, the very Devil to pay.

“The next heir,” said he, shortly, “is Sir John Toppys, Baronet of
Wigan.”

“And who is Sir John Toppys who has chosen so very unattractive a spot
as the seat of his baronetcy?”

“He is first cousin of the late Lord. Their common grandfather was the
Twenty-Fifth Baron. Sir John will infallibly succeed if the senior line
fails. I agree that Wigan is as lacking in residential amenities as
Dundee or Motherwell, but it has been a very mine of golden wealth to
the junior branch of Toppys. Coal and iron, Madame, are more productive
than diamonds. Sir John Toppys was rich before the war; now he has
advanced to wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. His great services to
the State have been plenteously rewarded in spite of the exactions of
the disgraceful excess profits duty. At his works, guns have been made
in thousands, and shells in millions. He and those like him have as
surely won the war as have our heroic soldiers and sailors–who, it must
be confessed, have received less adequate rewards. The wealth and
position of Sir John Toppys are such that he could command a peerage
from any British Government. But to him, a true Toppys of the ancient
line–though of a junior branch–a newly gilt title would have no value.
Is he not at this moment heir presumptive of the Twenty-Eighth
Baron–he of the Torres Straits–and can one feel surprise that he
resents and detests the shameful marriage of the Hon. William Toppys, by
means of which his branch of the Family has been supplanted? I am legal
adviser to Sir John Toppys, and between these close walls, Madame, I may
say that he would stick at nothing to secure–the removal–of
the–obstruction.”

“You and Sir John Toppys are a pretty pair,” quoth Madame. “For sheer
lawlessness, even in time of war, I have come upon nothing which can
compare with you. You deliberately conspire to compass the–the
removal–of the Heir of Topsham, and you do not apparently give heed to
the risks which both of you are running. You think in your foolishness
that if I were bribed by the gold of Wigan to carry through the
enterprise, the pretty neck of Madame Gilbert would be alone imperilled.
Permit me to scatter your illusions. Should Madame Gilbert hang for her
mercenary zeal in the interests of a white succession Sir John Toppys
and Roger Gatepath would stand beside her upon the drop. We should be an
engaging party,” murmured Madame, contemplating the vision with
enjoyment. “Madame Gilbert in the centre by honour of her sex and her
superior infamy, Roger to her left, John on her right. At the word
‘Go’–or whatever is tastefully appropriate to the ceremony–the hangman
would pull the lever, and the three culprits would disappear into what
is termed prophetically The Pit. At the inquest–I always think that an
inquest after a legal hanging is a superb touch of British
humour–evidence would be given to prove that the triple execution had
been well and truly carried out, and that death was instantaneous. We
should all three be buried in quicklime within the precincts of the
jail.” Madame smacked her lips. “No, Mr. Gatepath, not even for this
gratifying conclusion to our joint enterprise am I going to place Sir
John Toppys–for a brief interval before his execution–in the seat of
Willatopy.”

More than once during this horrible deliverance Roger Gatepath had
essayed to stop her, but Madame refused to be interrupted. It pleased
her to describe vividly the last act in the lawless drama, and she
indulged her whim. Madame loves talk almost as much as she loves action.
But there is this difference. In action she is swift, precise, and
shattering. In speech she is diffuse and interminable. Yet there are
many less agreeable occupations than to sit opposite to that royal
beauty and to listen respectfully to her babble.

“You entirely misread our intentions,” said Gatepath severely, when
Madame at last allowed him to get a word in. “Do you suppose that
Gatepaths, do you suppose that Sir John Toppys, Baronet of–er–Wigan,
do you suppose that the Trustees of the settled estates of Topsham,
would countenance the assassination of the lawful heir to an English
peerage?”

“I do,” said Madame calmly. “What is more, I am quite sure of it.”

Gatepath collapsed. A great many people in their day have tried to
humbug Madame Gilbert. All have failed and collapsed as did Roger
Gatepath.

Then in her masterful fashion, at the moment when vague talk must cease
or anticipate vigorous action, Madame took charge of the destinies of
Toppys.

“You went out to the Torres Straits, Mr. Gatepath, and not to waste time
over polite verbiage, you made an ass of yourself. You philandered with
the pretty pale-skinned Widow Toppys. She responded to your advances. It
is of no use for you to shake your head. I know men, men of your
susceptible age, and I know widows. I am one myself. Am I not always
sweetly responsive to your fascinating middle-aged sex? You aroused the
jealousy of Willatopy, and he, a wise and dutiful son–who also appears
to understand, widows–put you to rout with his spear. Never again dare
you appear on the Island of Willatopy. Your head would infallibly
decorate his baronial residence, and your body would be served up in
ceremonious cutlets. If Willatopy is a Cannibal–which I take leave at
present to doubt–he will devour his enemies as part of a religious
ritual; not for food. He would offer your head to his mistress as a
_gage d’amour_, for no man is of any account in the South Seas as a
lover until he has at least one bleeding head to show for his affection.
The Island of Willatopy is closed to you; no more will you exchange
sweet nothings about the weather with the fair and frail Widow Toppys.
But to me all is open. If you and your accomplice the Wigan Baronet are
willing to pay my expenses on a scale adequate to a profiteer in war
material, I will set sail for the island home of the Twenty-Eighth
Baronet. If he is half white in sentiment, and not altogether a woolly
savage, I will mould him with these subtle fingers. I will be his
shelter from hedge lawyers bent upon thrusting him untimely into the
dreary old House of Lords. If, as may happen, the Heir of Topsham is
definitely and finally impossible I will do my best to move him–willing
or unwilling–to some retreat where he may be less easy of discovery by
your rival practitioners than in his present conspicuous residence. I
gather that the missionary registers of Thursday Island blazon his
address and telephone number. I will do nothing seriously unlawful,
nothing, that is, which could be proved against me to my incarceration.
A spice of adventurous illegality adds zest to an enterprise. But I
won’t go to the scaffold or the prison for all the mouldy Toppyses who
were ever hatched through the centuries. And though I accept nothing but
limited liability, I will make a much more fruitful job of my island
voyage than you did of yours. The widow will have no attractions
for me, and if the Baron of Topsham and Madame Gilbert should
become–_├ępris_–so much the easier will my task be made. Many men,”
murmured Madame sadly, “have given me their honest (or dishonest)
hearts, and most of them have paid heavily for my apparent acceptance of
the gift. There, Mr. Gatepath, it is more than you or that bold bad
Baronet of Wigan deserves; but I have made you a fair sporting offer. I
will go to the Torres Straits, though how in the world I am to get a
passage is for the moment beyond me. All steamers are packed; those
voyagers only who have urgent business have a chance of a berth; an
unemployed widow bound upon a delicate, undescribable mission would be a
poor C 3 in the waiting list.”

“Do not let that worry you,” cried Gatepath. “I am beyond all things
delighted by your offer. Sir John Toppys will be delighted. The Family
of Toppys will be delighted. It is no small thing, Madame, to gain the
regard and influence of the ancient and honourable House of Toppys. I
accept your offer joyfully, and you need not calculate your expenses.
The gold of Wigan will be poured into your lap. And as for the steamer
passage, what care Gatepaths for passenger restrictions now that the
Admiralty have released the _Humming Top_! She is refitting at this
moment at Cowes. You shall sail at your ease in her.”

“And what, please, is the _Humming Top_?” enquired Madame patiently.

“She is a turbine-engined yacht, built by Dennys of Dumbarton, and a
perfect seaboat. A thousand tons, Madame, Thames measurement, and fitted
like a summer palace. Not too small for comfort, and not too big for the
coral reefs of Torres. She is a sea home worthy even of Madame Gilbert.”

“That is the first really sensible speech that you have made to-day,”
said Madame.