John Dene of Toronto: A Comedy of Whitehall
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"We often come here," said Dorothy lamely, conscious that her mother's eyes were upon her.
"It's fine. I've just been looking around," he remarked, as he took a seat beside Mrs. West. "We haven't anything like this in Can'da," he added generously.
"I suppose you have parks, though," said Mrs. West conversationally.
"Sure," he replied; "but this is way beyond anything we've got."
"You don't think it wants gingering-up then, Mr. Dene," asked Dorothy demurely.
"Dorothy!" expostulated Mrs. West in shocked tones; but John Dene merely looked at her, at first without understanding and then, seeing the point of her remark, he smiled right into her eyes, and again Dorothy blushed and dropped her eyes.
"You see," he said, turning to Mrs. West, "we're a new country and it doesn't matter a bean to us how a thing was done yesterday, if some one comes along and tells us how we can do it better to-morrow, and we don't mind its getting known. That's what she meant," he added, nodding in Dorothy's direction.
"You must all feel delightfully free," murmured Mrs. West tactfully.
"Free," echoed John Dene in a tone of voice that seemed to suggest that in no place of the world was freedom so well understood as in the Dominion. "In Can'da we're just about as free as drinks at an election."
Dorothy giggled; but John Dene seemed to see nothing strange in the simile.
"You see, mother, Mr. Dene thinks we're all hopelessly old-fashioned," said Dorothy with a mischievous side-glance at John Dene; then, as he made no response, she added, "Mr. Dene can do three or four different things at the same time and – and – "
She broke off and began to poke holes in the gravel with the point of her sunshade.
"And what?" he demanded peremptorily.
"Well, we're not all so clever," she concluded, angry to feel herself flushing again. "Oh – "
Suddenly Dorothy started forward. A little boy who had been playing about in front of them for some time past, had tripped and fallen on his face. In an instant she was down on her knees striving to soothe the child's frightened cries, and using her dainty lace-edged handkerchief to staunch the blood that oozed from a cut on his cheek.
John Dene, who had risen also, stood watching her, his usual expression changed to one of deep concern. He looked from the child to Dorothy, obviously struck by the change in her. There was knowledge and understanding of children in the way in which she handled the situation, he decided. He also noticed that she seemed quite oblivious of the fact that she was kneeling on the rough gravel to the detriment of her pretty frock.
When eventually the mother of the child had led it away pacified by the attentions of Dorothy and the largesse of John Dene, he turned to the girl.
"You like them?" he asked, nodding in the direction of the retreating infant.
"I love them," she said softly, with a dreamy look.Then catching John Dene's eye she blushed, and John Dene smiled.
For the next half-hour Mrs. West and John Dene talked, Dorothy remaining a listener. The sympathy and gentleness of Mrs. West led John Dene to talk in a way that surprised Dorothy, accustomed to his habitual suspicion of strangers – British strangers.
"Say, does this bother you any?" he enquired presently of Mrs. West, indicating the cigar from which he was puffing clouds of smoke.
"Not at all," said Mrs. West, striving to keep from choking. "I – I like smoke."
Dorothy tittered in spite of herself at the expression of martyrdom on her mother's face. John Dene turned to her enquiringly; she developed her giggle into a cough.
"But you like England, Mr. Dene?" asked Mrs. West by way of bridging the slight gulf that Dorothy's giggle had caused.
"Sure," said John Dene; "but I don't seem to be able to figure things out here as I did at T'ronto. Over there we're just as dead keen on winning this war as we are on keeping alive; but here – " He filled in the hiatus with a volume of cigar smoke.
"And don't you think we want to win the war, Mr. Dene?" asked Dorothy.
"Well, some of those dancing lizards up at the Admiralty have a funny way of showing it," was the grim rejoinder.
"Please, Mr. Dene, what is a dancing lizard?" asked Dorothy demurely, developing a design that she was making in the gravel with the end of her sunshade.
"Dorothy!" expostulated Mrs. West, and then without giving him an opportunity of replying, she continued: "but, Mr. Dene, I'm sure they are all extremely patriotic and – and – "
"Perhaps it's because I don't understand Englishmen," he conceded. "Why, the other day, when Sir Lyster took me along to see Mr. Llewellyn John about one of the biggest things that's ever likely to come his way, what do you think he talked about?"
Mrs. West shook her head, with a smile that seemed to say it was not for her to suggest what First Lords talked of.
"Pelicans!" Into that simple and unoffending word John Dene managed to precipitate whole dictionaries of contempt and disapproval.
"Pelicans!" repeated Mrs. West in surprise, whilst Dorothy turned aside to hide the smile that was in danger of becoming a laugh.
"Sure," replied John Dene. "Birds with beaks like paddle-blades," he added, as if to leave no room for misunderstanding.
"But didn't Nero fiddle while Rome burned?" enquired Dorothy mischievously.
"Maybe," was the reply, "but I'll auction it didn't put the fire out."
"You see, Mr. Dene," said Mrs. West gently, "different countries have different traditions – "
"I've no use for traditions," was the uncompromising rejoinder. "It seems to me that in this country every one's out to try and prevent every one else from knowing what they're thinking. I've a rare picnic to find out what Sir Lyster's thinking when I'm talking to him." He bit savagely into the end of his cigar, when turning suddenly to Mrs. West he said, "Here, will you and your daughter come and have some tea with me? I suppose we can get tea around here?" he enquired, apparently of the surrounding landscape.
"It's very kind of you, Mr. Dene," said Mrs. West sweetly. "We should be delighted, shouldn't we, Dorothy?"
"Yes, mother," said Dorothy without enthusiasm.
John Dene turned suddenly and looked at her. Again he smiled.
"Why, I hadn't thought of that," he said.
"Thought of what?" she asked.
"Why, you see enough of me all the week without my butting in on your holidays."
"Oh, Mr. Dene!" cried Dorothy reproachfully, "how can you be so unkind? Now we shall insist upon your taking us to tea, won't we, mother?"
Mrs. West smiled up at John Dene who had risen. "I'm afraid we can't let you off now, Mr. Dene," she said sweetly.
"Well, I take it, I shan't be tugging at the halter," he said, as they walked towards where the pagoda reared its slim, un-English body above the trees.
Having found a table and ordered tea, John Dene looked about him appreciatively.
"We haven't got anything like this in T'ronto," he repeated, as if anxious to give full justice to the old country for at least one unique feature.
"Thank you for that tribute," said Dorothy demurely.
"But it's true," said John Dene, turning to her.
"But you don't always say a thing just because it's true, do you?" she enquired.
"Sure," was the uncompromising response.
"But," continued Dorothy, "suppose one day I was looking very plain and unattractive, would you tell me of it?"
This was said with such an air of conviction that Dorothy felt her cheeks burn, and she lowered her eyes. John Dene, she decided, could be extremely embarrassing. His conversation seemed to consist of one-pound notes: he had no small change.
For some time she remained silent, again leaving the conversation to John Dene and her mother. He was telling her something of his early struggles and adventures, first in Canada, then in America and finally in Canada again. How he had lost both his parents when a child, and had been adopted by an uncle and aunt who, apparently, made no attempt to disguise the fact that they regarded him as an expensive nuisance. At twelve he had run away, determined to carve out his own career, "And I did it," he concluded.
"But how did you manage to do it in the time?" asked Mrs. West.
"I was thirty-seven last fall. I began at twelve. You can do a rare lot in twenty-five years – if you don't happen to have too many ancestors hanging around," he added grimly.
"I think you are very wonderful," was Mrs. West's comment, and John Dene knew she meant it.
"If I'd been in this country," he remarked with a return of his old self-assertiveness, "I'd probably be driving a street-car, or picking up cigarette-stubs."
"Why?" enquired Mrs. West, puzzled at the remark.
"You can't jump over a wall when you're wearing leaden soles on your boots," was the terse rejoinder.
"And haven't you sometimes missed not having a mother?" enquired Mrs. West gently, tears in her sympathetic eyes at the thought of this solitary man who had never known the comforts of a home. "She would have been proud of you."
"Would she?" he enquired simply, as he crumbled his cake and threw it to a flurry of birds that was hopefully fluttering on the fringe of the tables.
"A son's success means more to a mother than anything else," said Mrs. West.
"I seem to have been hustling around most of my time," said John Dene. "I'm always working when I'm not asleep. Perhaps I haven't felt it as much – "
He left the sentence uncompleted; but there was a look in his eyes that was not usually there.
Mrs. West sighed with all a mother's sympathy for a lonely man.
"Do you like birds, Mr. Dene?" asked Dorothy.
"Why, sure," he replied, "I like all animals. That's what I don't understand about you over here," he continued.
"But we love animals," said Mrs. West.
"I mean stag and fox-hunting." There was a hard note in his voice. "If I had a place in this country and anyone came around hunting foxes on my land, there'd be enough trouble to keep the whole place from going to sleep for the next month."
"What should you do?" enquired Dorothy wickedly.
"Well, if anything had to be killed that day it wouldn't be the fox."
"I'm afraid you wouldn't be very popular with your neighbours," said Dorothy.
"I don't care a pea-nut whether I'm popular or not," he said grimly; "but they'd have to sort of learn that if they wanted to run foxes, they must go somewhere else than on my land."
Dorothy decided that the English county that opened its gates to John Dene would have an unexpectedly exciting time. Mentally she pictured him, a revolver in each hand, holding up a whole fox-hunt, the sudden reining in of horses, the shouting of the huntsman and the master, whilst the dogs streamed across the country after their quarry. Perhaps it was as well, she decided, that John Dene had no intention of settling in England.
"This has been fine," said John Dene after a long silence, during which the three seemed content to enjoy the beauty of the afternoon. "I wonder if you – " Then he paused, as he looked across at Mrs. West.
"You wonder if I would what, Mr. Dene?" she asked with a smile.
"I was just going to invite you to dine with me," continued John Dene, "only I remembered that your daughter probably has enough of me – "
"If you word all your invitations like that," said Dorothy, "we shall accept every one, shan't we, mother?"
Mrs. West smiled.
"Say, that's bully," he cried. "We'll get a taxi and drive back. I'd hate to spoil a good day by dining alone;" and he called for his bill.
"That's the third time I've seen that little man this afternoon," said Dorothy, lowering her voice as a man in a blue suit and light boots paused a few yards in front of them to read the label on a tree. "Isn't it funny how one runs across the same person time after time?"
"Sure," said John Dene. There was in his voice a note of grimness that neither Dorothy nor Mrs. West seemed to detect.
At the main gates they secured a taxi. As they hummed eastward, Dorothy noticed that the heavy preoccupied look, so characteristic of John Dene's face had lifted. He smiled more frequently and looked about him, not with that almost fierce penetrating glance to which she had been accustomed; but with a look of genuine interest.
"If it wouldn't bother you any," said John Dene, suddenly leaning across to Mrs. West, "I'd like to get an automobile, and perhaps you'd show me one or two places I ought to see. I'd be glad if – " He looked at her and smiled.
"It's very kind of you – " began Mrs. West.
"Of course I don't want to butt-in," he said a little hastily.
"Am I included in the invitation?" asked Dorothy quietly.
"Sure," he replied, looking at her a little surprised. Then, seeing the twitching at the corners of her mouth, he smiled.
"Then that's fixed up," he said. "I'll have an automobile for next Saturday, and you shall arrange where we're to go."
"But you mustn't joy-ride," said Dorothy, suddenly remembering D.O.R.A. and all her Don't's.
"Mustn't what?" demanded John Dene, in the tone of a man who finds his pleasures suddenly threatened from an unexpected angle.
"It's forbidden to use petrol for pleasure," she explained.
John Dene made a noise in his throat that, from her knowledge of him, Dorothy recognised as a sign that someone was on the eve of being gingered-up.
"I'll get that automobile," he announced; and Dorothy knew that there was trouble impending for Mr. Blair.
"And we'll have a picnic-hamper, shall we?" she cried excitedly.
"Sure," replied John Dene, "I'll order one."
"Oh, won't that be lovely, mother!" she cried, clapping her hands.
Mrs. West smiled her pleasure.
"Where are you taking us to dinner?" enquired Dorothy of John Dene.
"The Ritzton," he replied.
"Oh, but we're not dressed for that!"
"It's war time and I never dress," he announced, as if that settled the matter.
"But – " began Mrs. West hesitatingly.
"Perhaps you'd rather not come?" he began tentatively, his disappointment too obvious to disguise.
"Oh, but we want to come!" said Mrs. West, "only we're not in quite the right clothes for the Ritzton, are we?"
"Don't you worry," he reassured her; then a moment later added, "that's what I'm up against in this country. Everybody's putting on the clothes they think other people expect them to wear. If people don't like my clothes, they can look where I'm not sitting. We're not going to win this war by wearing clothes," he announced.
Then Dorothy started to gurgle. The picture of endeavouring to win the war without clothes struck her as comical.
"Dorothy!" admonished Mrs. West.
"I – I was just thinking, mother."
"Thinking of what?" asked John Dene.
"I was just wondering how Sir Lyster would look trying to win the war without clothes," and she trailed off into a splutter of laughter.
"Dorothy!" Mrs. West turned to John Dene with a comical look of concern. "I'm afraid my daughter is in one of her wilful moods to-day, Mr. Dene," she explained.
"She'll do as she is," he announced with decision
And again Dorothy felt her cheeks burn.
"I like Mr. Dene," announced Mrs. West that night as she and Dorothy sat at the open window of the drawing-room before going to bed.
"So you approve of your future son-in-law, mother mine, I'm so glad," said Dorothy.
"You mustn't say such things, my dear," expostulated Mrs. West.
"I'm afraid I shall have to do the proposing though," Dorothy added.
"It was very strange, meeting Mr. Dene to-day," remarked Mrs. West half to herself.
"Very," remarked Dorothy, and she hastened to talk of something else.
That night John Dene dreamed he was a little boy again, and had fallen down and hurt himself, and a beautiful lady had knelt beside him and kissed him. He awakened with a start just as the lady had turned into Dorothy, with her note-book, asking if there were any more letters.