I read it twice, then I said, “Well, why don’t you?”
“Why don’t I what?”
“Why don’t you wish her many happy returns? It doesn’t seem much to ask.”
“But she says on her birthday.”
“Well, when is her birthday?”
“Can’t you understand?” said Bobbie. “I’ve forgotten.”
“Forgotten!” I said.
“Yes,” said Bobbie. “Forgotten.”
“How do you mean, forgotten?” I said. “Forgotten whether it’s the twentieth or the twenty-first, or what? How near do you get to it?”
“I know it came somewhere between the first of January and the thirty-first of December. That’s how near I get to it.”
“Think? What’s the use of saying ‘Think’? Think I haven’t thought? I’ve been knocking sparks out of my brain ever since I opened that letter.”
“And you can’t remember?”
I rang the bell and ordered restoratives.
“Well, Bobbie,” I said, “it’s a pretty hard case to spring on an untrained amateur like me. Suppose someone had come to Sherlock Holmes and said, ‘Mr. Holmes, here’s a case for you. When is my wife’s birthday?’ Wouldn’t that have given Sherlock a jolt? However, I know enough about the game to understand that a fellow can’t shoot off his deductive theories unless you start him with a clue, so rouse yourself out of that pop-eyed trance and come across with two or three. For instance, can’t you remember the last time she had a birthday? What sort of weather was it? That might fix the month.”
Bobbie shook his head.
“It was just ordinary weather, as near as I can recollect.”
“Well, fairly cold, perhaps. I can’t remember.”
I ordered two more of the same. They seemed indicated in the Young Detective’s Manual. “You’re a great help, Bobbie,” I said. “An invaluable assistant. One of those indispensable adjuncts without which no home is complete.”
Bobbie seemed to be thinking.
“I’ve got it,” he said suddenly. “Look here. I gave her a present on her last birthday. All we have to do is to go to the shop, hunt up the date when it was bought, and the thing’s done.”
“Absolutely. What did you give her?”
“I can’t remember,” he said.
Getting ideas is like golf. Some days you’re right off, others it’s as easy as falling off a log. I don’t suppose dear old Bobbie had ever had two ideas in the same morning before in his life; but now he did it without an effort. He just loosed another dry Martini into the undergrowth, and before you could turn round it had flushed quite a brain-wave.
Do you know those little books called When were you Born? There’s one for each month. They tell you your character, your talents, your strong points, and your weak points at fourpence halfpenny a go. Bobbie’s idea was to buy the whole twelve, and go through them till we found out which month hit off Mary’s character. That would give us the month, and narrow it down a whole lot.
A pretty hot idea for a non-thinker like dear old Bobbie. We sallied out at once. He took half and I took half, and we settled down to work. As I say, it sounded good. But when we came to go into the thing, we saw that there was a flaw. There was plenty of information all right, but there wasn’t a single month that didn’t have something that exactly hit off Mary. For instance, in the December book it said, “December people are apt to keep their own secrets. They are extensive travellers.” Well, Mary had certainly kept her secret, and she had travelled quite extensively enough for Bobbie’s needs. Then, October people were “born with original ideas” and “loved moving.” You couldn’t have summed up Mary’s little jaunt more neatly. February people had “wonderful memories”—Mary’s speciality.
We took a bit of a rest, then had another go at the thing.
Bobbie was all for May, because the book said that women born in that month were “inclined to be capricious, which is always a barrier to a happy married life”; but I plumped for February, because February women “are unusually determined to have their own way, are very earnest, and expect a full return in their companion or mates.” Which he owned was about as like Mary as anything could be.
In the end he tore the books up, stamped on them, burnt them, and went home.
It was wonderful what a change the next few days made in dear old Bobbie. Have you ever seen that picture, “The Soul’s Awakening”? It represents a flapper of sorts gazing in a startled sort of way into the middle distance with a look in her eyes that seems to say, “Surely that is George’s step I hear on the mat! Can this be love?” Well, Bobbie had a soul’s awakening too. I don’t suppose he had ever troubled to think in his life before—not really think. But now he was wearing his brain to the bone. It was painful in a way, of course, to see a fellow human being so thoroughly in the soup, but I felt strongly that it was all for the best. I could see as plainly as possible that all these brainstorms were improving Bobbie out of knowledge. When it was all over he might possibly become a rotter again of a sort, but it would only be a pale reflection of the rotter he had been. It bore out the idea I had always had that what he needed was a real good jolt.
I saw a great deal of him these days. I was his best friend, and he came to me for sympathy. I gave it him, too, with both hands, but I never failed to hand him the Moral Lesson when I had him weak.
One day he came to me as I was sitting in the club, and I could see that he had had an idea. He looked happier than he had done in weeks.
“Reggie,” he said, “I’m on the trail. This time I’m convinced that I shall pull it off. I’ve remembered something of vital importance.”
“Yes?” I said.
“I remember distinctly,” he said, “that on Mary’s last birthday we went together to the Coliseum. How does that hit you?”
“It’s a fine bit of memorizing,” I said; “but how does it help?”
“Why, they change the programme every week there.”
“Ah!” I said. “Now you are talking.”
“And the week we went one of the turns was Professor Some One’s Terpsichorean Cats. I recollect them distinctly. Now, are we narrowing it down, or aren’t we? Reggie, I’m going round to the Coliseum this minute, and I’m going to dig the date of those Terpsichorean Cats out of them, if I have to use a crowbar.”
So that got him within six days; for the management treated us like brothers; brought out the archives, and ran agile fingers over the pages till they treed the cats in the middle of May.
“I told you it was May,” said Bobbie. “Maybe you’ll listen to me another time.”
“If you’ve any sense,” I said, “there won’t be another time.”
And Bobbie said that there wouldn’t.
Once you get your memory on the run, it parts as if it enjoyed doing it. I had just got off to sleep that night when my telephone-bell rang. It was Bobbie, of course. He didn’t apologize.
“Reggie,” he said, “I’ve got it now for certain. It’s just come to me. We saw those Terpsichorean Cats at a matinee, old man.”
“Yes?” I said.
“Well, don’t you see that that brings it down to two days? It must have been either Wednesday the seventh or Saturday the tenth.”
“Yes,” I said, “if they didn’t have daily matinees at the Coliseum.”
I heard him give a sort of howl.
“Bobbie,” I said. My feet were freezing, but I was fond of him.
“I’ve remembered something too. It’s this. The day you went to the Coliseum I lunched with you both at the Ritz. You had forgotten to bring any money with you, so you wrote a cheque.”
“But I’m always writing cheques.”
“You are. But this was for a tenner, and made out to the hotel. Hunt up your cheque-book and see how many cheques for ten pounds payable to the Ritz Hotel you wrote out between May the fifth and May the tenth.”
He gave a kind of gulp.
“Reggie,” he said, “you’re a genius. I’ve always said so. I believe you’ve got it. Hold the line.”
Presently he came back again.
“Halloa!” he said.
“I’m here,” I said.
“It was the eighth. Reggie, old man, I——”
“Topping,” I said. “Good night.”
It was working along into the small hours now, but I thought I might as well make a night of it and finish the thing up, so I rang up an hotel near the Strand.
“Put me through to Mrs. Cardew,” I said.
“It’s late,” said the man at the other end.
“And getting later every minute,” I said. “Buck along, laddie.”
I waited patiently. I had missed my beauty-sleep, and my feet had frozen hard, but I was past regrets.
“What is the matter?” said Mary’s voice.
“My feet are cold,” I said. “But I didn’t call you up to tell you that particularly. I’ve just been chatting with Bobbie, Mrs. Cardew.”
“Oh! is that Mr. Pepper?”
“Yes. He’s remembered it, Mrs. Cardew.”
She gave a sort of scream. I’ve often thought how interesting it must be to be one of those Exchange girls. The things they must hear, don’t you know. Bobbie’s howl and gulp and Mrs. Bobbie’s scream and all about my feet and all that. Most interesting it must be.
“He’s remembered it!” she gasped. “Did you tell him?”
Well, I hadn’t.
“Was he—has he been—was he very worried?”
I chuckled. This was where I was billed to be the life and soul of the party.
“Worried! He was about the most worried man between here and Edinburgh. He has been worrying as if he was paid to do it by the nation. He has started out to worry after breakfast, and——”
Oh, well, you can never tell with women. My idea was that we should pass the rest of the night slapping each other on the back across the wire, and telling each other what bally brainy conspirators we were, don’t you know, and all that. But I’d got just as far as this, when she bit at me. Absolutely! I heard the snap. And then she said “Oh!” in that choked kind of way. And when a woman says “Oh!” like that, it means all the bad words she’d love to say if she only knew them.
And then she began.
“What brutes men are! What horrid brutes! How you could stand by and see poor dear Bobbie worrying himself into a fever, when a word from you would have put everything right, I can’t——”
“And you call yourself his friend! His friend!” (Metallic laugh, most unpleasant.) “It shows how one can be deceived. I used to think you a kind-hearted man.”
“But, I say, when I suggested the thing, you thought it perfectly——”
“I thought it hateful, abominable.”
“But you said it was absolutely top——”
“I said nothing of the kind. And if I did, I didn’t mean it. I don’t wish to be unjust, Mr. Pepper, but I must say that to me there seems to be something positively fiendish in a man who can go out of his way to separate a husband from his wife, simply in order to amuse himself by gloating over his agony——”
“When one single word would have——”
“But you made me promise not to——” I bleated.
“And if I did, do you suppose I didn’t expect you to have the sense to break your promise?”
I had finished. I had no further observations to make. I hung up the receiver, and crawled into bed.
I still see Bobbie when he comes to the club, but I do not visit the old homestead. He is friendly, but he stops short of issuing invitations. I ran across Mary at the Academy last week, and her eyes went through me like a couple of bullets through a pat of butter. And as they came out the other side, and I limped off to piece myself together again, there occurred to me the simple epitaph which, when I am no more, I intend to have inscribed on my tombstone. It was this: “He was a man who acted from the best motives. There is one born every minute.”