THE SECRET SIN OF SEPTIMUS BROPE

“Who and what is Mr. Brope?” demanded the aunt of Clovis

suddenly.

Mrs. Riversedge, who had been snipping off the heads of

defunct roses, and thinking of nothing in particular, sprang

hurriedly to mental attention. She was one of those

old-fashioned hostesses who consider that one ought to know

something about one’s guests, and that the something ought

to be to their credit.

“I believe he comes from Leighton Buzzard,” she observed

by way of preliminary explanation.

“In these days of rapid and convenient travel,” said

Clovis, who was dispersing a colony of green-fly with

visitations of cigarette smoke, “to come from Leighton

Buzzard does not necessarily denote any great strength of

character. It might only mean mere restlessness. Now if he

had left it under a cloud, or as a protest against the

incurable and heartless frivolity of its inhabitants, that

would tell us something about the man and his mission in

life.”

“What does he do?” pursued Mrs. Troyle magisterially.

“He edits the Cathedral Monthly,” said her hostess,

“and he’s enormously learned about memorial brasses and

transepts and the influence of Byzantine worship on modern

liturgy, and all those sort of things. Perhaps he is just a

little bit heavy and immersed in one range of subjects, but

it takes all sorts to make a good house-party, you know.

You don’t find him too dull, do you?”

“Dulness I could overlook,” said the aunt of Clovis:

“what I cannot forgive is his making love to my maid.”

“My dear Mrs. Troyle,” gasped the hostess, “what an

extraordinary idea! I assure you Mr. Brope would not dream

of doing such a thing.”

“His dreams are a matter of indifference to me; for all I

care his slumbers may be one long indiscretion of unsuitable

erotic advances, in which the entire servants’ hall may be

involved. But in his waking hours he shall not make love to

my maid. It’s no use arguing about it, I’m firm on the

point.”

“But you must be mistaken,” persisted Mrs. Riversedge;

“Mr. Brope would be the last person to do such a thing.”

“He is the first person to do such a thing, as far as my

information goes, and if I have any voice in the matter he

certainly shall be the last. Of course, I am not referring

to respectably-intentioned lovers.”

“I simply cannot think that a man who writes so

charmingly and informingly about transepts and Byzantine

influences would behave in such an unprincipled manner,”

said Mrs. Riversedge; “what evidence have you that he’s

doing anything of the sort? I don’t want to doubt your word,

of course, but we mustn’t be too ready to condemn him

unheard, must we?”

“Whether we condemn him or not, he has certainly not been

unheard. He has the room next to my dressing-room, and on

two occasions, when I dare say he thought I was absent, I

have plainly heard him announcing through the wall, `I love

you, Florrie.’ Those partition walls upstairs are very thin;

one can almost hear a watch ticking in the next room.”

“Is your maid called Florence?”

“Her name is Florinda.”

“What an extraordinary name to give a maid!”

“I did not give it to her; she arrived in my service

already christened.”

“What I mean is,” said Mrs. Riversedge, “that when I

get maids with unsuitable names I call them Jane; they soon

get used to it.”

“An excellent plan,” said the aunt of Clovis coldly;

“unfortunately I have got used to being called Jane myself.

It happens to be my name.”

She cut short Mrs. Riversedge’s flood of apologies by

abruptly remarking:

“The question is not whether I’m to call my maid

Florinda, but whether Mr. Brope is to be permitted to call

her Florrie. I am strongly of opinion that he shall not.”

“He may have been repeating the words of some song,”

said Mrs. Riversedge hopefully; “there are lots of those

sorts of silly refrains with girls’ names,” she continued,

turning to Clovis as a possible authority on the subject.

“ `You mustn’t call me Mary—‘ “

“I shouldn’t think of doing so,” Clovis assured her;

“in the first place, I’ve always understood that your name

was Henrietta; and then I hardly know you well enough to

take such a liberty.”

“I mean there’s a song with that refrain,” hurriedly

explained Mrs. Riversedge, “and there’s `Rhoda, Rhoda kept

a pagoda,’ and `Maisie is a daisy,’ and heaps of others.

Certainly it doesn’t sound like Mr. Brope to be singing

such songs, but I think we ought to give him the benefit of

the doubt.”

“I had already done so,” said Mrs. Troyle, “until

further evidence came my way.

She shut her lips with the resolute finality of one who

enjoys the blessed certainty of being implored to open them

again.

“Further evidence!” exclaimed her hostess; “do tell

me!”

“As I was coming upstairs after breakfast Mr. Brope was

just passing my room. In the most natural way in the world

a piece of paper dropped out of a packet that he held in his

hand and fluttered to the ground just at my door. I was

going to call out to him `You’ve dropped something,’ and

then for some reason I held back and didn’t show myself till

he was safely in his room. You see it occurred to me that I

was very seldom in my room just at that hour, and that

Florinda was almost always there tidying up things about

that time. So I picked up that innocent-looking piece of

paper.”

Mrs. Troyle paused again, with the self-applauding air of

one who has detected an asp lurking in an apple-charlotte.

Mrs. Riversedge snipped vigorously at the nearest rose

bush, incidentally decapitating a Viscountess Folkestone

that was just coming into bloom.

“What was on the paper?” she asked.

“Just the words in pencil, `I love you, Florrie,’ and

then underneath, crossed out with a faint line, but

perfectly plain to read, `Meet me in the garden by the yew.’

“There is a yew tree at the bottom of the garden,”

admitted Mrs. Riversedge.

“At any rate he appears to be truthful,” commented

Clovis.

“To think that a scandal of this sort should be going on

under my roof!” said Mrs. Riversedge indignantly.

“I wonder why it is that scandal seems so much worse

under a roof,” observed Clovis; “I’ve always regarded it

as a proof of the superior delicacy of the cat tribe that it

conducts most of its scandals above the slates.”

“Now I come to think of it,” resumed Mrs. Riversedge,

“there are things about Mr. Brope that I’ve never been able

to account for. His income, for instance: he only gets two

hundred a year as editor of the Cathedral Monthly, and I

know that his people are quite poor, and he hasn’t any

private means. Yet he manages to afford a flat somewhere in

Westminster, and he goes abroad to Bruges and those sorts of

places every year, and always dresses well, and gives quite

nice luncheon-parties in the season. You can’t do all that

on two hundred a year, can you?”

“Does he write for any other papers?” queried Mrs.

Troyle.

“No, you see he specializes so entirely on liturgy and

ecclesiastical architecture that his field is rather

restricted. He once tried the Sporting and Dramatic with

an article on church edifices in famous fox-hunting centres,

but it wasn’t considered of sufficient general interest to

be accepted. No, I don’t see how he can support himself in

his present style merely by what be writes.”

“Perhaps he sells spurious transepts to American

enthusiasts,” suggested Clovis.

“How could you sell a transept?” said Mrs. Riversedge;

“such a thing would be impossible.”

“Whatever he may do to eke out his income,” interrupted

Mrs. Troyle, “he is certainly not going to fill in his

leisure moments by making love to my maid.”

“Of course not,” agreed her hostess; “that must be put

a stop to at once. But I don’t quite know what we ought to

do.”

“You might put a barbed wire entanglement round the yew

tree as a precautionary measure,” said Clovis.

“I don’t think that the disagreeable situation that has

arisen is improved by flippancy,” said Mrs. Riversedge; “a

good maid is a treasure—”

“I am sure I don’t know what I should do without

Florinda,” admitted Mrs. Troyle; “she understands my hair.

I’ve long ago given up trying to do anything with it myself.

I regard one’s hair as I regard husbands: as long as one is

seen together in public one’s private divergences don’t

matter. Surely that was the luncheon gong.”

Septimus Brope and Clovis had the smoking-room to

themselves after lunch. The former seemed restless and

preoccupied, the latter quietly observant.

“What is a lorry?” asked Septimus suddenly; “I don’t

mean the thing on wheels, of course I know what that is, but

isn’t there a bird with a name like that, the larger form of

a lorikeet?”

“I fancy it’s a lory, with one `r,’ “ said Clovis

lazily, “in which case it’s no good to you.”

Septimus Brope stared in some astonishment.

“How do you mean, no good to me?” he asked, with more

than a trace of uneasiness in his voice.

“Won’t rhyme with Florrie,” explained Clovis briefly.

Septimus sat upright in his chair, with unmistakable alarm

on his face.

“How did you find out? I mean how did you know I was

trying to get a rhyme to Florrie?” he asked sharply.

“I didn’t know,” said Clovis, “I only guessed. When

you wanted to turn the prosaic lorry of commerce into a

feathered poem flitting through the verdure of a tropical

forest, I knew you must be working up a sonnet, and Florrie

was the only female name that suggested itself as rhyming

with lorry.”

Septimus still looked uneasy.

“I believe you know more,” be said.

Clovis laughed quietly, but said nothing.

“How much do you know?” Septimus asked desperately.

“The yew tree in the garden,” said Clovis.

“There! I felt certain I’d dropped it somewhere. But you

must have guessed something before. Look here, you have

surprised my secret. You won’t give me away, will you? It

is nothing to be ashamed of, but it wouldn’t do for the

editor of the Cathedral Monthly to go in openly for that

sort of thing, would it?”

“Well, I suppose not,” admitted Clovis.

“You see,” continued Septimus, “I get quite a decent

lot of money out of it. I could never live in the style I

do on what I get as editor of the Cathedral Monthly.”

Clovis was even more startled than Septimus had been

earlier in the conversation, but he was better skilled in

repressing surprise.

“Do you mean to say you get money out of—Florrie?” he

asked.

“Not out of Florrie, as yet,” said Septimus; “in fact,

I don’t mind saying that I’m having a good deal of trouble

over Florrie. But there are a lot of others.”

Clovis’s cigarette went out.

“This is very interesting,” he said slowly. And then,

with Septimus Brope’s next words, illumination dawned on

him.

“There are heaps of others; for instance:

“ `Cora with the lips of coral,

You and I will never quarrel.’

That was one of my earliest successes, and it still brings

me in royalties. And then there is—`Esmeralda, when I

first beheld her,’ and `Fair Teresa, how I love to please

her,’ both of those have been fairly popular. And there is

one rather dreadful one,” continued Septimus, flushing deep

carmine, “which has brought me in more money than any of

the others:

“ `Lively little Lucie

With her naughty nez retrousee’.

Of course, I loathe the whole lot of them; in fact, I’m

rapidly becoming something of a woman-hater under their

influence, but I can’t afford to disregard the financial

aspect of the matter. And at the same time you can

understand that my position as an authority on

ecclesiastical architecture and liturgical subjects would be

weakened, if not altogether ruined, if it once got about

that I was the author of `Cora with the lips of coral’ and

all the rest of them.”

Clovis had recovered sufficiently to ask in a sympathetic,

if rather unsteady, voice what was the special trouble with

“Florrie.”

“I can’t get her into lyric shape, try as I will,” said

Septimus mournfully. “You see, one has to work in a lot of

sentimental, sugary compliment with a catchy rhyme, and a

certain amount of personal biography or prophecy. They’ve

all of them got to have a long string of past successes

recorded about them, or else you’ve got to foretell blissful

things about them and yourself in the future. For instance,

there is:

“ `Dainty little girlie Mavis,

She is such a rara avis.

All the money I can save is

All to be for Mavis mine.’

It goes to a sickening namby-pamby waltz tune, and for

months nothing else was sung and hummed in Blackpool and

other popular centres.”

This time Clovis’s self-control broke down badly.

“Please excuse me,” he gurgled, “but I can’t help it

when I remember the awful solemnity of that article of yours

that you so kindly read us last night, on the Coptic Church

in its relation to early Christian worship.”

Septimus groaned.

“You see how it would be,” he said; “as soon as people

knew me to be the author of that miserable sentimental

twaddle, all respect for the serious labours of my life

would be gone. I dare say I know more about memorial

brasses than any one living, in fact I hope one day to

publish a monograph on the subject, but I should be pointed

out everywhere as the man whose ditties were in the mouths

of nigger minstrels along the entire coast-line of our

Island home. Can you wonder that I positively hate Florrie

all the time that I’m trying to grind out sugar-coated

rhapsodies about her?”

“Why not give free play to your emotions, and be brutally

abusive? An uncomplimentary refrain would have an instant

success as a novelty if you were sufficiently outspoken.”

“I’ve never thought of that,” said Septimus, “and I’m

afraid I couldn’t break away from the habit of fulsome

adulation and suddenly change my style.”

“You needn’t change your style in the least,” said

Clovis; “merely reverse the sentiment and keep to the inane

phraseology of the thing. If you’ll do the body of the song

I’ll knock off the refrain, which is the thing that

principally matters, I believe. I shall charge half-shares

in the royalties, and throw in my silence as to your guilty

secret. In the eyes of the world you shall still be the man

who has devoted his life to the study of transepts and

Byzantine ritual; only sometimes, in the long winter

evenings, when the wind howls drearily down the chimney and

the rain beats against the windows, I shall think of you as

the author of `Cora with the lips of coral.’ Of course, if

in sheer gratitude at my silence you like to take me for a

much-needed holiday to the Adriatic or somewhere equally

interesting, paying all expenses, I shouldn’t dream of

refusing.”

Later in the afternoon Clovis found his aunt and Mrs.

Riversedge indulging in gentle exercise in the Jacobean

garden.

“I’ve spoken to Mr. Brope about F.,” he announced.

“How splendid of you! What did he say?” came in a quick

chorus from the two ladies.

“He was quite frank and straightforward with me when he

saw that I knew his secret,” said Clovis, “and it seems

that his intentions were quite serious, if slightly

unsuitable. I tried to show him the impracticability of the

course that he was following. He said he wanted to be

understood, and he seemed to think that Florinda would excel

in that requirement, but I pointed out that there were

probably dozens of delicately nurtured, pure-hearted young

English girls who would be capable of understanding him,

while Florinda was the only person in the world who

understood my aunt’s hair. That rather weighed with him,

for he’s not really a selfish animal, if you take him in the

right way, and when I appealed to the memory of his happy

childish days, spent amid the daisied fields of Leighton

Buzzard (I suppose daisies do grow there), he was obviously

affected. Anyhow, he gave me his word that he would put

Florinda absolutely out of his mind, and he has agreed to go

for a short trip abroad as the best distraction for his

thoughts. I am going with him as far as Ragusa. If my aunt

should wish to give me a really nice scarf-pin (to be chosen

by myself), as a small recognition of the very considerable

service I had done her, I shouldn’t dream of refusing. I’m

not one of those who think that because one is abroad one

can go about dressed anyhow.”

A few weeks later in Blackpool and places where they sing,

the following refrain held undisputed sway:

“How you bore me, Florrie,

With those eyes of vacant blue;

You’ll be very sorry, Florrie,

If I marry you.

Though I’m easy-goin’, Florrie,

This I swear is true,

I’ll throw you down a quarry, Florrie,

If I marry you.”