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The sunshine of a fair Spring morning fell graciously on London town. Out in Piccadilly its heartening warmth seemed to infuse into traffic and pedestrians alike a novel jauntiness, so that bus drivers jested and even the lips of chauffeurs uncurled into not unkindly smiles. Policemen whistled at their posts, clerks, on their way to work; beggars approached the task of trying to persuade perfect strangers to bear the burden of their maintenance with that optimistic vim which makes all the difference. It was one of those happy mornings.
At nine o’clock precisely the door of Number Seven 1 Arundell Street, Leicester Square, opened and a young man stepped out.
Of all the spots in London which may fairly be described as backwaters there is none that answers so completely to the description as Arundell Street, Leicester Square. Passing along the north sidewalk of the square, just where it joins Piccadilly, you hardly notice the bottleneck opening of the tiny cul-de-sac.
Day and night the human flood roars past, ignoring it. Arundell Street is less than forty yards in length; and, though there are two hotels in it, they are not fashionable hotels. It is just a backwater.
In shape Arundell Street is exactly like one of those flat stone jars in which Italian wine of the cheaper sort is stored. The narrow neck that leads off Leicester Square opens abruptly into a small court. Hotels occupy two sides of this; the third is at present given up to rooming houses for the impecunious. These are always just going to be pulled down in the name of Progress to make room for another hotel, but they never do meet with that fate; and as they stand now so will they in all probability stand for generations to come.
They provide single rooms of moderate size, the bed modestly hidden during the day behind a battered screen. The rooms contain a table, an easy-chair, a hard chair, a bureau, and a round tin bath, which, like the bed, goes into hiding after its useful work is performed. And you may rent one of these rooms, with breakfast thrown in, for five dollars a week.
Ashe Marson had done so. He had rented the second-floor front of Number Seven.
2 Twenty-six years before this story opens there had been born to Joseph Marson, minister, and Sarah his wife, of Hayling, Massachusetts, in the United States of America, a son. This son, christened Ashe after a wealthy uncle who subsequently double-crossed them by leaving his money to charities, in due course proceeded to Harvard to study for the ministry. So far as can be ascertained from contemporary records, he did not study a great deal for the ministry; but he did succeed in running the mile in four minutes and a half and the half mile at a correspondingly rapid speed, and his researches in the art of long-jumping won him the respect of all.
That he should be awarded, at the conclusion of his Harvard career, one of those scholarships at Oxford University instituted by the late Cecil Rhodes for the encouragement of the liberal arts, was a natural sequence of events.
That was how Ashe came to be in England.
The rest of Ashe’s history follows almost automatically. He won his Blue for Athletics at Oxford, and gladdened thousands by winning the mile and the half mile two years in succession against Cambridge at Queen’s Club. But, owing to the pressure of other engagements, he unfortunately omitted to do any studying, and, when the hour of parting arrived, he was peculiarly unfitted for any of the learned professions. Having, however, managed to obtain a sort of degree, enough to enable him to call himself a Bachelor of Arts, and realizing that you can fool some of the people some of the time, he applied for and secured a series of private tutorships.
A private tutor is a sort of blend of poor relation and nursemaid, and few of the stately homes of England are without one. He is supposed to instill learning and deportment into the small son of the house; but what he is really there for is to prevent the latter from being a nuisance to his parents when he is home from school on his vacation. Having saved a little money at this dreadful trade, Ashe came to London and tried newspaper work. After two years of moderate success, he got in touch with the Mammoth Publishing Company.
The Mammoth Publishing Company, which controls several important newspapers, a few weekly journals, and a number of other things, does not disdain the pennies of the office-boy and the junior clerk. One of its many profitable ventures is a series of paper-covered tales of crime and adventure. It was here that Ashe found his niche. Those ‘Adventures of Gridley Quayle, Investigator’, which are so popular with a certain section of the reading public, were his work.
Until the advent of Ashe and Mr Quayle, the ‘British Pluck Library’ had been written by many hands and had included the adventures of many heroes: but in Gridley Quayle the proprietors held that the ideal had been reached, and Ashe received a commission to conduct the entire ‘British Pluck Library’ (monthly) himself. On the meager salary paid him for these labors he had been supporting himself ever since.
That was how Ashe came to be in Arundell Street, Leicester Square, on this May morning.
He was a tall, well-built, fit-looking young man, with a clear eye and a strong chin; and he was dressed, as he closed the front door behind him, in a sweater, flannel trousers, and rubber-soled gymnasium shoes. In one hand he bore a pair of Indian clubs, in the other a skipping-rope.
Having drawn in and expelled the morning air in a measured and solemn fashion, which the initiated observer would have recognized as that ‘scientific deep breathing’ which is so popular nowadays, he laid down his clubs, adjusted his rope and began to skip. 3
When he had taken the second-floor front of Number Seven, three months before, Ashe Marson had realized that he must forego those morning exercises which had become a second nature to him, or else defy London’s unwritten law and brave London’s mockery. He had not hesitated long. Physical fitness was his gospel. On the subject of exercise he was confessedly a crank. He decided to defy London.
The first time he appeared in Arundell Street in his sweater and flannels he had barely whirled his Indian clubs once around his head before he had attracted the following audience:
a) two cabmen (one intoxicated);
b) four waiters from the Hotel Mathis;
c) six waiters from the Hotel Previtali;
d) six chambermaids from the Hotel Mathis;
e) five chambermaids from the Hotel Previtali;
f) the proprietor of the Hotel Mathis;
g) the proprietor of the Hotel Previtali;
h) a street cleaner;
i) eleven nondescript loafers;
j) twenty-seven children;
k) a cat.
They all laughed, even the cat, and kept on laughing. The intoxicated cabman called Ashe “Sunny Jim”. 4 And Ashe kept on swinging his clubs.
A month later, such is the magic of perseverance, his audience had narrowed down to the twenty-seven children. They still laughed, but without that ringing conviction which the sympathetic support of their elders had lent them.
And now, after three months, the neighborhood, having accepted Ashe and his morning exercises as a natural phenomenon, paid him no further attention.
On this particular morning Ashe Marson skipped with even more than his usual vigor. This was because he wished to expel by means of physical fatigue a small devil of discontent, of whose presence within him he had been aware ever since getting out of bed. It is in the Spring that the ache for the larger life comes on us, and this was a particularly mellow Spring morning. It was the sort of morning when the air gives us a feeling of anticipation, a feeling that, on a day like this, things surely cannot go jogging along in the same dull old groove; a premonition that something romantic and exciting is about to happen to us.
But the south-west wind of Spring brings also remorse. We catch the vague spirit of unrest in the air and we regret our misspent youth.
Ashe was doing this. Even as he skipped, he was conscious of a wish that he had studied harder at college and was now in a position to be doing something better than hack-work for a soulless publishing company. Never before had he been so completely certain that he was sick to death of the rut into which he had fallen.
Skipping brought no balm. He threw down his rope and took up the Indian clubs.
Indian clubs left him still unsatisfied. The thought came to him that it was a long time since he had done his Larsen Exercises. Perhaps they would heal him.
The Larsen Exercises, invented by a certain Lieutenant Larsen, of the Swedish Army, 5 have almost every sort of merit. They make a man strong, supple, and slender. But they are not dignified. Indeed, to one seeing them suddenly and without warning for the first time, they are markedly humorous. The only reason why King Henry of England, whose son sank with the White Ship, never smiled again, was because Lieutenant Larsen had not then invented his admirable exercises.
So complacent, so insolently unselfconscious had Ashe become in the course of three months, owing to his success in inducing the populace to look on anything he did with the indulgent eye of understanding, that it simply did not occur to him, when he abruptly twisted his body into the shape of a corkscrew, in accordance with the directions in the lieutenant’s book for the consummation of Exercise One, that he was doing anything funny. And the behavior of those present seemed to justify his confidence. The proprietor of the Hotel Mathis regarded him without a smile. The proprietor of the Hotel Previtali might have been in a trance, for all the interest he displayed. The hotel employees continued their tasks impassively. The children were blind and dumb. The cat across the way stropped its backbone against the railings unheeding.
But, even as he unscrambled himself and resumed a normal posture, from his immediate rear there rent the quiet morning air a clear and musical laugh. It floated out on the breeze and hit him like a bullet.
Three months ago Ashe would have accepted the laugh as inevitable, and would have refused to allow it to embarrass him; but long immunity from ridicule had sapped his resolution. He spun round with a jump, flushed and self-conscious.
From the window of the first-floor front of Number Seven a girl was leaning. The Spring sunshine played on her golden hair and lit up her bright blue eyes, fixed on his flanneled and sweatered person with a fascinated amusement. Even as he turned, the laugh smote him afresh.
For the space of perhaps two seconds they stared at each other, eye to eye. Then she vanished into the room.
Ashe was beaten. Three months ago a million girls could have laughed at his morning exercises without turning him from his purpose. Today this one scoffer, alone and unaided, was sufficient for his undoing. The depression which exercise had begun to dispel surged back on him. He had no heart to continue. Sadly gathering up his belongings, he returned to his room, and found a cold bath tame and uninspiring.
The breakfasts (included in the rent) provided by Mrs Bell, the landlady of Number Seven, were held by some authorities to be specially designed to quell the spirits of their victims, should they tend to soar excessively. By the time Ashe had done his best with the disheveled fried egg, the chicory, blasphemously called coffee, and the charred bacon, Misery had him firmly in its grip. And when he forced himself to the table, and began to try to concoct the latest of the adventures of Gridley Quayle, Investigator, his spirit groaned within him.
This morning, as he sat and chewed his pen, his loathing for Gridley seemed to have reached its climax. It was his habit, in writing these stories to think of a good title first, and then fit an adventure to it.
And overnight, in a moment of inspiration, he had jotted down on an envelope the words:
THE ADVENTURE OF THE WAND OF DEATH
It was with the sullen repulsion of a vegetarian who finds a caterpillar in his salad that he now sat glaring at them.
The title had seemed so promising overnight, so full of strenuous possibilities. It was still speciously attractive; but now that the moment had arrived for writing the story its flaws became manifest.
What was a Wand of Death? It sounded good; but, coming down to hard facts, what was it? You cannot write a story about a wand of death without knowing what a wand of death is; and, conversely, if you have thought of such a splendid title you cannot jettison it offhand.
Ashe rumpled his hair and gnawed his pen.
There came a knock at the door.
Ashe spun round in his chair. This was the last straw! If he had told Mrs Ball once that he was never to be disturbed in the morning on any pretext whatsoever, he had told her twenty times. It was simply too infernal to be endured if his work time was to be cut into like this. Ashe ran over in his mind a few opening remarks.
“Come in!” he shouted, and braced himself for battle.
A girl walked in, the girl of the first-floor front, the girl with the blue eyes who had laughed at his Larsen Exercises.
Various circumstances contributed to the poorness of the figure Ashe cut in the opening moments of this interview. In the first place, he was expecting to see his landlady, whose height was about four feet six, and the sudden entry of somebody who was about five feet seven threw the universe temporarily out of focus. In the second place, in anticipation of Mrs Bell’s entry, he had twisted his face into a forbidding scowl, and it was no slight matter to change this on the spur of the moment into a pleasant smile. Finally, a man who has been sitting for half an hour in front of a sheet of paper bearing the words:
THE ADVENTURE OF THE WAND OF DEATH
and trying to decide what a wand of death might be, has not his mind under proper control.
The net result of these things was that, for perhaps half a minute, Ashe behaved absurdly. He goggled and he yammered. An alienist, 6 had one been present, would have made up his mind about him without further investigation. For an appreciable time he did not think of rising from his seat. When he did, the combined leap and twist he executed practically amounted to a Larsen Exercise.
Nor was the girl unembarrassed. If Ashe had been calmer he would have observed on her cheek the flush which told that she, too, was finding the situation trying. But, woman being ever better equipped with poise than man, it was she who spoke first.
“I’m afraid I’m disturbing you.”
“No, no!” said Ashe. “Oh, no; not at all, not at all! No. Oh, no, not at all, no!” and would have continued to play on the theme indefinitely had not the girl spoken again.
“I wanted to apologize”, she said, “for my abominable rudeness in laughing at you just now. It was idiotic of me and I don’t know why I did it. I’m sorry.”
Science, with a thousand triumphs to her credit, has not yet succeeded in discovering the correct reply for a young man to make who finds himself in the appalling position of being apologized to by a pretty girl. If he says nothing he seems sullen and unforgiving. If he says anything he makes a fool of himself. Ashe, hesitating between these two courses, suddenly caught sight of the sheet of paper over which he had been poring so long.
“What is a wand of death?” he asked.
“I beg your pardon?”
“A wand of death?”
“I don’t understand.”
The delirium of the conversation was too much for Ashe. He burst out laughing. A moment later the girl did the same. And simultaneously embarrassment ceased to be.
“I suppose you think I’m mad?” said Ashe.
“Certainly”, said the girl.
“Well, I should have been if you hadn’t come in.”
“Why was that?”
“I was trying to write a detective story.”
“I was wondering whether you were a writer.”
“Do you write?”
“Yes. Do you ever read Home Gossip?”
“You are quite right to speak in that thankful tone. It’s a horrid little paper, all brown-paper patterns and advice to the lovelorn, and puzzles. I do a short story for it every week, under various names. A duke or an earl goes with each story. I loathe it intensely.”
“I am sorry for your troubles”, said Ashe firmly; “but we are wandering from the point. What is a wand of death?”
“A wand of death?”
“A wand of death.”
The girl frowned reflectively.
“Why, of course; it’s the sacred ebony stick stolen from the Indian temple, which is supposed to bring death to whoever possesses it. The hero gets hold of it, and the priests dog him and send him threatening messages. What else could it be?”
Ashe could not restrain his admiration.
“This is genius!”
“Absolute genius. I see it all. The hero calls in Gridley Quayle, and that patronizing ass, by the aid of a series of wicked coincidences, solves the mystery; and there am I, with another month’s work done.”
She looked at him with interest.
“Are you the author of ‘Gridley Quayle’?”
“Don’t tell me you read him!”
“I do not read him! But he is published by the same firm that publishes Home Gossip, and I can’t help seeing his cover sometimes while I am waiting in the waiting room to see the editress.”
Ashe felt like one who meets a boyhood’s chum on a desert island. Here was a real bond between them.
“Does the Mammoth publish you, too? Why, we are comrades in misfortune—fellow serfs! We should be friends. Shall we be friends?”
“I should be delighted.”
“Shall we shake hands, sit down, and talk about ourselves a little?”
“But I am keeping you from your work.”
“An errand of mercy.”
She sat down. It is a simple act, this of sitting down; but, like everything else, it may be an index to character. There was something wholly satisfactory to Ashe in the manner in which this girl did it. She neither seated herself on the extreme edge of the easy-chair, as one braced for instant flight; nor did she wallow in the easy-chair, as one come to stay for the week-end. She carried herself in an unconventional situation with an unstudied self-confidence that he could not sufficiently admire. Etiquette is not rigid in Arundell Street; but, nevertheless, a girl in a first-floor front may be excused for showing surprise and hesitation when invited to a confidential chat with a second-floor front young man whom she has known only five minutes. But there is a freemasonry among those who live in large cities on small earnings.
“Shall we introduce ourselves?” said Ashe. “Or did Mrs Bell tell you my name? By the way, you have not been here long, have you?”
“I took my room day before yesterday. But your name, if you are the author of Gridley Quayle, is Felix Clovelly, isn’t it?”
“Good heavens, no! Surely you don’t think anyone’s name could really be Felix Clovelly? That is only the cloak under which I hide my shame. My real name is Marson. Ashe Marson. And yours?”
“Valentine. Joan Valentine.”
“Will you tell me the story of your life, or shall I tell mine first?”
“I don’t know that I have any particular story. I am an American.” 7
“Because it is too extraordinary, too much like a Gridley Quayle coincidence. I am an American!”
“Well, so are a good many other people.”
“You miss the point. We are not only fellow serfs, we are fellow exiles. You can’t round the thing off by telling me you were born in Hayling, Massachusetts, I suppose?”
“I was born in New York.”
“Surely not! I didn’t know anybody was.”
“Why Hayling, Massachusetts?”
“That was where I was born.”
“I’m afraid I never heard of it.”
“Strange. I know your home town quite well. But I have not yet made my birthplace famous. In fact, I doubt whether I ever shall. I am beginning to realize that I am one of the failures.”
“How old are you?”
“You are only twenty-six and you call yourself a failure? I think that is a shameful thing to say.”
“What would you call a man of twenty-six whose only means of making a living was the writing of Gridley Quayle stories? An empire builder?”
“How do you know it’s your only means of making a living? Why don’t you try something new?”
“How should I know? Anything that comes along. Good gracious, Mr Marson; here you are in the biggest city in the world, with chances for adventure simply shrieking to you on every side—”
“I must be deaf. The only thing I have heard shrieking to me on every side has been Mrs Bell—for the week’s rent.”
“Read the papers. Read the advertisement columns. I’m sure you will find something sooner or later. Don’t get into a groove. Be an adventurer. Snatch at the next chance, whatever it is.”
“Continue”, he said. “Proceed. You are stimulating me.”
“But why should you want a girl like me to stimulate you? Surely London is enough to do it without my help? You can always find something new, surely? Listen, Mr Marson. I was thrown on my own resources about five years ago. Never mind how. Since then I have worked in a shop, done typewriting, been on the stage, had a position as governess, been a lady’s maid—”
“A what! A lady’s maid?”
“Why not? It was all experience; and I can assure you I would much rather be a lady’s maid than a governess.”
“I think I know what you mean. I was a private tutor once. I suppose a governess is the female equivalent. I have often wondered what General Sherman would have said about private tutoring if he expressed himself so breezily about mere War. Was it fun being a lady’s maid?”
“It was pretty good fun; and it gave me an opportunity of studying the aristocracy in its native haunts, which has made me the Gossip’s established authority on dukes and earls.”
Ashe drew a deep breath—not a scientific deep breath, but one of admiration.
“You are perfectly splendid!”
“I mean, you have such pluck.”
“Oh, well; I keep on trying. I’m twenty-three and I haven’t achieved anything much yet; but I certainly don’t feel like sitting back and calling myself a failure.”
Ashe made a grimace.
“All right”, he said. “I’ve got it.”
“I meant you to”, said Joan placidly. “I hope I haven’t bored you with my autobiography, Mr Marson. I’m not setting myself up as a shining example; but I do like action and hate stagnation.”
“You are absolutely wonderful!” said Ashe. “You are a human correspondence course in efficiency—one of the ones you see advertised in the back pages of the magazines, beginning, ‘Young man, are you earning enough?’ with a picture showing the dead beat gazing wistfully at the boss’ chair. You would galvanize a jellyfish.”
“If I have really stimulated you—”
“I think that was another slam, 8 said Ashe pensively. “Well, I deserve it. Yes, you have stimulated me. I feel like a new man. It’s queer that you should have come to me right on top of everything else. I don’t remember when I have felt so restless and discontented as this morning.”
“It’s the Spring.”
“I suppose it is. I feel like doing something big and adventurous.”
“Well, do it then. You have a Morning Post on the table. Have you read it yet?”
“I glanced at it.”
“But you haven’t read the advertisement pages? Read them. They may contain just the opening you want.”
“Well, I’ll do it; but my experience of advertisement pages is that they are monopolized by philanthropists who want to lend you any sum from ten to a hundred thousand pounds on your note of hand only. However, I will scan them.”
Joan rose and held out her hand.
“Good-by, Mr Marson. You’ve got your detective story to write, and I have to think out something with a duke in it by to-night; so I must be going.” She smiled. “We have traveled a good way from the point where we started, but I may as well go back to it before I leave you. I’m sorry I laughed at you this morning.”
Ashe clasped her hand in a fervent grip.
“I’m not. Come and laugh at me whenever you feel like it. I like being laughed at. Why, when I started my morning exercises, half of London used to come and roll about the sidewalks in convulsions. I’m not an attraction any longer and it makes me feel lonesome. There are twenty-nine of those Larsen Exercises and you saw only part of the first. You have done so much for me that if I can be of any use to you, in helping you to greet the day with a smile, I shall be only too proud. Exercise Six is a sure-fire mirth-provoker; I’ll start with it to-morrow morning. I can also recommend Exercise Eleven—a scream! Don’t miss it.”
“Very well. Well, good-by for the present.”
She was gone; and Ashe, thrilling with new emotions, stared at the door which had closed behind her. He felt as though he had been wakened from sleep by a powerful electric shock.
Close beside the sheet of paper on which he had inscribed the now luminous and suggestive title of his new Gridley Quayle story lay the Morning Post, the advertisement columns of which he had promised her to explore. The least he could do was to begin at once.
His spirits sank as he did so. It was the same old game. A Mr Brian MacNeill, though doing no business with minors, was willing, even anxious, to part with his vast fortune to anyone over the age of twenty-one whose means happened to be a trifle straitened. This good man required no security whatever; nor did his rivals in generosity, the Messrs Angus Bruce, Duncan Macfarlane, Wallace Mackintosh and Donald MacNab. They, too, showed a curious distaste for dealing with minors; but anyone of maturer years could simply come round to the office and help himself. 9
Ashe threw the paper down wearily. He had known all along that it was no good. Romance was dead and the Unexpected no longer happened.
He picked up his pen and began to write the Adventure of the Wand of Death.
In a bedroom on the fourth floor of the Hotel Guelph in Piccadilly, the Honorable Frederick Threepwood sat in bed, with his knees drawn up to his chin, and glared at the day with the glare of mental anguish. He had very little mind, but what he had was suffering.
He had just remembered.
It is like that in this life. You wake up, feeling as fit as a fiddle; you look at the window and see the sun, and thank Heaven for a fine day; you begin to plan a perfectly corking luncheon party with some of the chappies you met last night at the National Sporting Club; and then—you remember.
“Oh, dash it!” said the Honorable Freddie. And after a moment’s pause: “And I was feeling so dashed happy!”
For the space of some minutes he remained plunged in sad meditation; then, picking up the telephone from the table at his side, he asked for a number.
“Hello!” responded a rich voice at the other end of the wire.
“Oh, I say! Is that you, Dickie?”
“Who is that?”
“This is Freddie Threepwood. I say, Dickie, old top, I want to see you about something devilish important. Will you be in at twelve?”
“Certainly. What’s the trouble?”
“I can’t explain over the wire; but it’s deuced serious.”
“Very well. By the way, Freddie, congratulations on the engagement.”
“Thanks, old man. Thanks very much, and so on, but you won’t forget to be in at twelve, will you? Good-by.”
He replaced the receiver quickly and sprang out of bed, for he had heard the door handle turn. When the door opened he was giving a correct representation of a young man wasting no time in beginning his toilet for the day.
An elderly, thin-faced, bald-headed, amiably vacant man entered. He regarded the Honorable Freddie with a certain disfavor.
“Are you only just getting up, Frederick?”
“Hello, guv’nor. Good morning. I shan’t be two ticks now.”
“You should have been out and about two hours ago. The day is glorious.”
“Shan’t be more than a minute, guv’nor, now. Just got to have a tub and then chuck on a few clothes.”
He disappeared into the bathroom. His father, taking a chair, placed the tips of his fingers together and in this attitude remained motionless, a figure of disapproval and suppressed annoyance.
Like many fathers in his rank of life, the Earl of Emsworth had suffered much through that problem which, with the exception of Mr Lloyd-George, is practically the only fly in the British aristocratic amber—the problem of What To Do With The Younger Sons. It is useless to try to gloss over the fact—in the aristocratic families of Great Britain, the Younger Son is not required. 10
Apart, however, from the fact that he was a younger son, and, as such, a nuisance in any case, the Honorable Freddie had always annoyed his father in a variety of ways. The Earl of Emsworth was so constituted that no man or thing really had the power to trouble him deeply; but Freddie had come nearer to doing it than anybody else in the world. There had been a consistency, a perseverance, about his irritating performances that had acted on the placid peer as dripping water on a stone. Isolated acts of annoyance would have been powerless to ruffle his calm; but Freddie had been exploding bombs under his nose since he went to Eton.
He had been expelled from Eton for breaking out at night and roaming the streets of Windsor in a false mustache. He had been sent down from Oxford for pouring ink from a second-story window on to the Junior Dean of his college. He had spent two years at an expensive London crammer’s and failed to pass into the Army. He had also accumulated an almost record series of racing debts, besides as shady a gang of friends, for the most part vaguely connected with the turf, as any young man of his age ever contrived to collect.
These things try the most placid of parents; and finally Lord Emsworth had put his foot down. It was the only occasion in his life when he had acted with decision, and he did it with the accumulated energy of years. He stopped his son’s allowance, haled him home to Blandings Castle, and kept him there so relentlessly that until the previous night, when they had come up together by an afternoon train, Freddie had not seen London for nearly a year.
Possibly it was the reflection that, whatever his secret troubles, he was at any rate once more in his beloved metropolis that caused Freddie at this point to burst into discordant song. He splashed and warbled simultaneously.
Lord Emsworth’s frown deepened and he began to tap his fingers together irritably. Then his brow cleared and a pleased smile flickered over his face. He, too, had remembered.
What Lord Emsworth remembered was this: Late in the previous autumn, the next estate to Blandings had been rented by an American, a Mr Peters, a man with many millions, chronic dyspepsia, and one fair daughter, Aline. The two families had met. Freddie and Aline had been thrown together; and, only a few days before, the engagement had been announced. And for Lord Emsworth the only flaw in this best of all possible worlds had been removed.
Yes, he was glad Freddie was engaged to be married to Aline Peters. He liked Aline. He liked Mr Peters. Such was the relief he experienced that he found himself feeling almost affectionate toward Freddie, who emerged from the bathroom at this moment, clad in a pink bathrobe, to find the paternal wrath evaporated, and all, so to speak, right with the world.
Nevertheless, he wasted no time about his dressing. He was always ill at ease in his father’s presence and he wished to be elsewhere with all possible speed. He sprang into his trousers with such energy that he nearly tripped himself up.
As he disentangled himself, he recollected something that had slipped his memory.
“By the way, guv’nor, I met an old pal of mine last night and asked him down to Blandings this week. That’s all right, isn’t it? He’s a man named Emerson, an American. He knows Aline quite well, he says—has known her since she was a kid.” 11
“I do not remember any friend of yours named Emerson.”
“Well, as a matter of fact, I met him last night for the first time. But it’s all right. He’s a good chap, don’t you know, and all that sort of rot.”
Lord Emsworth was feeling too benevolent to raise the objections he certainly would have raised had his mood been less sunny.
“Certainly; let him come if he wishes.”
Freddie completed his toilet.
“Doing anything special this morning, guv’nor? I rather thought of getting a bit of breakfast and then strolling round a bit. Have you had breakfast?”
“Two hours ago. I trust that in the course of your strolling you will find time to call at Mr Peters’ and see Aline. I shall be going there directly after lunch. Mr Peters wishes to show me his collection of—I think scarabs was the word he used.”
“Oh, I’ll look in all right! Don’t you worry! Or, if I don’t, I’ll call the old boy up on the phone and pass the time of day. Well, I rather think I’ll be popping off and getting that bit of breakfast, what?”
Several comments on this speech suggested themselves to Lord Emsworth. In the first place, he did not approve of Freddie’s allusion to one of America’s merchant princes as ‘the old boy’. Secondly, his son’s attitude did not strike him as the ideal attitude of a young man toward his betrothed. There seemed a lack of warmth. But, he reflected, possibly this was simply another manifestation of the Modern Spirit; and in any case it was not worth bothering about, so he offered no criticism. And presently, Freddie having given his shoes a flick with a silk handkerchief and thrust the latter carefully up his sleeve, they passed out and down into the main lobby of the hotel, where they parted, Freddie to his bit of breakfast, his father to potter about the streets and kill time till lunch. London was always a trial to the Earl of Emsworth. His heart was in the country and the city held no fascinations for him.
On one of the floors in one of the buildings in one of the streets that slope precipitously from the Strand to the Thames Embankment, there is a door that would be all the better for a lick of paint, which bears what is perhaps the most modest and unostentatious announcement of its kind in London. The grimy ground-glass displays the words:
Simply that and nothing more. It is rugged in its simplicity. You wonder, as you look at it, if you have time to look at and wonder about these things, who this Jones may be and what is the business he conducts with such coy reticence.
As a matter of fact, these speculations had passed through suspicious minds at Scotland Yard, which had for some time taken not a little interest in R Jones. But beyond ascertaining that he bought and sold curios, did a certain amount of bookmaking during the flat-racing season, and had been known to lend money, Scotland Yard did not find out much about Mr Jones and presently dismissed him from its thoughts.
On the theory, given to the world by William Shakespeare, that it is the lean and hungry-looking men who are dangerous, and that the fat, sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o’ nights, are harmless, R Jones should have been above suspicion. He was infinitely the fattest man in the west-central postal district of London. He was a round ball of a man, who wheezed when he walked upstairs, which was seldom, and shook like jelly if some tactless friend, wishing to attract his attention, tapped him unexpectedly on the shoulder. But this occurred still less frequently than his walking upstairs; for in R Jones’ circle it was recognized that nothing is a greater breach of etiquette and worse form than to tap people unexpectedly on the shoulder. That, it was felt, should be left to those who are paid by the government to do it.
R Jones was about fifty years old, gray-haired, of a mauve complexion, jovial among his friends, and perhaps even more jovial with chance acquaintances. It was estimated by envious intimates that his joviality with chance acquaintances, especially with young men of the upper classes, with large purses and small foreheads, was worth hundreds of pounds a year to him. There was something about his comfortable appearance and his jolly manner that irresistibly attracted a certain type of young man. It was his good fortune that this type of young man should be the type, financially, most worth attracting.
Freddie Threepwood had fallen under his spell during his short but crowded life in London. They had met for the first time at the Derby, and ever since then R Jones had held, in Freddie’s estimation, that position of guide, philosopher, and friend, which he held in the estimation of so many young men of Freddie’s stamp.
That was why, at twelve o’clock punctually on this Spring day, he tapped with his cane on R Jones’ ground-glass, and showed such satisfaction and relief when the door was opened by the proprietor in person.
“Well, well, well!” said R Jones rollickingly. “Whom have we here? The dashing bridegroom-to-be, and no other!”
R Jones, like Lord Emsworth, was delighted that Freddie was about to marry a nice girl with plenty of money. The sudden turning-off of the tap from which Freddie’s allowance had flowed had hit him hard. He had other sources of income, of course, but few so easy and unfailing as Freddie had been in the days of his prosperity.
“The prodigal son, by George! Creeping back into the fold after all this weary time! It seems years since I saw you, Freddie. The old guv’nor put his foot down, didn’t he, and stopped the funds? Damned shame! I take it that things have loosened up a bit since the engagement was announced, eh?”
Freddie sat down and chewed the knob of his cane unhappily.
“Well, as a matter of fact, Dickie, old top”, he said, “not so that you could notice it, don’t you know. Things are still pretty much the same. I managed to get away from Blandings for a night, because the governor had to come to London, but I’ve got to go back with him on the three-o’clock train. And, as for money, I can’t get a quid out of him. As a matter of fact, I’m in the deuce of a hole, and that’s why I’ve come to you.”
Even fat, jovial men have their moments of depression. R Jones’ face clouded, and jerky remarks about hardness of times and losses on the Stock Exchange began to proceed from him. As Scotland Yard had discovered, he lent money on occasion, but he did not lend it to youths in Freddie’s unfortunate position.
“Oh, I don’t want to make a touch, you know”, Freddie hastened to explain. “It isn’t that. As a matter of fact, I managed to raise five hundred of the best this morning. That ought to be enough.”
“Depends on what you want it for”, said R Jones, magically genial once more. The thought entered his mind, as it had so often done, that the world was full of easy marks. He wished he could meet the money-lender who had been rash enough to advance the Honorable Freddie five hundred pounds. Those philanthropists cross our path too seldom.
Freddie felt in his pocket, produced a cigarette case, and from it extracted a newspaper clipping.
“Did you read about poor old Percy in the papers? The case, you know?”
“Lord Stockheath, you know.”
“Oh, the Stockheath breach-of-promise case? I did more than that. I was in court all three days.” R Jones emitted a cozy chuckle. “Is he a pal of yours? A cousin, eh? I wish you had seen him in the witness box, with Jellicoe-Smith cross-examining him! The funniest thing I ever heard. And his letters to the girl! They read them out in court, and of all the—”
“Don’t, old man! Dickie, old top, please! I know all about it. I read the reports. They made poor old Percy look like an absolute ass.”
“Well, Nature had done that already, but I’m bound to say they improved on Nature’s work. I should think your Cousin Percy must have felt like a plucked chicken.”
A spasm of pain passed over the Honorable Freddie’s vacant face. He wriggled in his chair.
“Dickie, old man, I wish you wouldn’t talk like that. It makes me feel ill.”
“Why, is he such a pal of yours as all that?”
“It’s not that. It’s—the fact is, Dickie, old top, I’m in exactly the same bally hole as poor old Percy was, myself.”
“What! You have been sued for breach of promise?”
“Not absolutely that—yet. Look here; I’ll tell you the whole thing. Do you remember a show at the Piccadilly about a year ago called ‘The Baby Doll’? 12 There was a girl in the chorus.”
“Several. I remember noticing.”
“No. I mean one particular girl—a girl called Joan Valentine. The rotten part is that I never met her.”
“Pull yourself together, Freddie. What exactly is the trouble?”
“Well, don’t you see, I used to go to the show every other night, and I fell frightfully in love with this girl—”
“Without having met her?”
“Yes. You see, I was rather an ass in those days.”
“No, no”, said R Jones handsomely.
“I must have been, or I wouldn’t have been such an ass, don’t you know. Well, as I was saying, I used to write this girl letters, saying how much I was in love with her, and—and—”
“Specifically proposing marriage?”
“I can’t remember. I expect I did. I was awfully in love.”
“How was that if you never met her?”
“She wouldn’t meet me. She wouldn’t even come out to lunch. She didn’t even answer my letters—just sent word down by the Johnnie at the stage door. And then—”
Freddie’s voice died away. He thrust the knob of his cane into his mouth in a sort of frenzy.
“What then?” inquired R Jones.
A scarlet blush manifested itself on Freddie’s young face. His eyes wandered sideways. After a long pause a single word escaped him, almost inaudible:
R Jones trembled as though an electric current had been passed through his plump frame. His little eyes sparkled with merriment.
“You wrote her poetry!”
“Yards of it, old boy, yards of it!” groaned Freddie.
Panic filled him with speech.
“You see the frightful hole I’m in? This girl is bound to have kept the letters. I don’t remember whether I actually proposed to her or not, but anyway she’s got enough material to make it worth while to have a dash at an action, especially after poor old Percy has just got soaked for such a pile of money, and made breach-of-promise cases the fashion, so to speak. And now that the announcement of my engagement is out, she’s certain to get busy. Probably she has been waiting for something of the sort. Don’t you see that all the cards are in her hands? We couldn’t afford to let the thing come into court. That poetry would dish my marriage for a certainty. I’d have to emigrate or something! Goodness knows what would happen at home. My old governor would murder me. So you see what a frightful hole I’m in, don’t you, Dickie, old man?”
“And what do you want me to do?”
“Why, to get hold of this girl and get back the letters, don’t you see? I can’t do it myself, cooped up miles away in the country. And besides, I shouldn’t know how to handle a thing like that. It needs a chappie with a lot of sense and a persuasive sort of way with him.”
“Thanks for the compliment, Freddie, but I should imagine that something a little more solid than a persuasive way would be required in a case like this. You said something a while ago about five hundred pounds?”
“Here it is, old man, in notes. I brought it on purpose. Will you really take the thing on? Do you think you can work it for five hundred?”
“I can have a try.”
Freddie rose with an expression approximating to happiness on his face. Some men have the power of inspiring confidence in some of their fellows, while filling others with distrust. Scotland Yard might look askance at R Jones, but to Freddie he was all that was helpful and reliable. He shook R Jones’ hand several times in his emotion.
“That’s absolutely topping of you, old man”, he said. “Then I’ll leave the whole thing to you. Write me the moment you have done anything, won’t you? Good-by, old top, and thanks ever so much.”
The door closed. R Jones remained where he sat, his fingers straying luxuriously among the crackling paper. A feeling of complete happiness warmed R Jones’ bosom. He was not certain whether or not his mission would be successful, and, to be truthful, he was not letting this worry him much. What he was certain of, was the fact that the Heavens had opened unexpectedly and dropped five hundred pounds into his lap.
The Earl of Emsworth stood in the doorway of the Senior Conservative Club’s vast dining-room, and beamed with a vague sweetness on the two hundred or so Senior Conservatives, who, with much clattering of knives and forks, were keeping body and soul together by means of the coffee-room luncheon. He might have been posing for a Statue of Amiability. His pale blue eyes shone with a friendly light through their protecting glasses; the smile of a man at peace with all men curved his weak mouth; his bald head, reflecting the sunlight, seemed almost to wear a halo.
Nobody appeared to notice him. He so seldom came to London these days that he was practically a stranger in the club; and in any case your Senior Conservative, when at lunch, has little leisure for observing anything not immediately on the table in front of him. To attract attention in the dining-room of the Senior Conservative Club between the hours of one and two-thirty, you have to be a mutton-chop, not an earl.
It is possible that, lacking the initiative to make his way down the long aisle and find a table for himself, he might have stood there indefinitely, but for the restless activity of Adams, the head steward. It was Adams’ mission in life to flit to and fro, hauling would-be lunchers to their destinations, as a St Bernard dog hauls travelers out of Alpine snow-drifts.
He sighted Lord Emsworth and secured him with a genteel pounce.
“A table, your lordship? This way, your lordship.”
Adams remembered him, of course. Adams remembered everybody.
Lord Emsworth followed him beamingly, and presently came to anchor at a table in the farther end of the room. Adams handed him the bill of fare and stood brooding over him like a Providence.
“Don’t often see your lordship in the club”, he opened chattily. It was his business to know the tastes and dispositions of all the five thousand or so members of the Senior Conservative Club and to suit his demeanor to them. To some he would hand the bill of fare swiftly, silently, almost brusquely, as one who realizes that there are moments in life too serious for talk. Others, he knew, liked conversation, and to those he introduced the subject of food almost as a sub-motive.
Lord Emsworth, having examined the bill of fare with a mild curiosity, laid it down and became conversational.
“No, Adams, I seldom visit London nowadays. London does not attract me. The country . . . the fields . . . the woods . . . the birds . . .”
Something across the room seemed to attract his attention, and his voice trailed off. He inspected this for some time with bland interest, then turned to Adams once more.
“What was I saying, Adams?”
“The birds, your lordship.”
“Birds? What birds? What about birds?”
“You were speaking of the attractions of life in the country, your lordship. You included the birds in your remarks.”
“Oh, yes, yes, yes. Oh, yes, yes. Oh, yes, to be sure. Do you ever go to the country, Adams?”
“Generally to the seashore, your lordship, when I take my annual vacation.”
Whatever was the attraction across the room once more exercised its spell. His lordship concentrated himself on it to the exclusion of all other mundane matters. Presently he came out of his trance again.
“What were you saying, Adams?”
“I said that I generally went to the seashore, your lordship.”
“For my annual vacation, your lordship.”
“My annual vacation, your lordship.”
“What about it?”
Adams never smiled during business hours, unless professionally, as it were, when a member made a joke, but he was storing up in the recesses of his highly respectable body a large laugh, to be shared with his wife when he reached home that night. Mrs Adams never wearied of hearing of the eccentricities of the members of the club. It occurred to Adams that he was in luck today. He was expecting a little party of friends to supper that night, and he was a man who loved an audience. You would never have thought it, to look at him when engaged in his professional duties, but Adams had built up a substantial reputation as a humorist in his circle by his imitations of certain members of the club, and it was a matter of regret to him that he got so few opportunities nowadays of studying the absent-minded Lord Emsworth. It was rare luck, his lordship coming in today, evidently in his best form.
“Adams, who is the gentleman over by the window? The gentleman in the brown suit?”
“That is Mr Simmonds, your lordship. He joined us last year.”
“I never saw a man take such large mouthfuls. Did you ever see a man take such large mouthfuls, Adams?”
Adams refrained from expressing an opinion, but inwardly he was thrilling with artistic fervor. Mr Simmonds, eating, was one of his best imitations, though Mrs Adams was inclined to object to it on the score that it was a bad example for the children. To be privileged to witness Lord Emsworth watching and criticizing Mr Simmonds was to collect material for a double-barreled character-study which would assuredly make the hit of the evening.
“That man”, went on Lord Emsworth, “is digging his grave with his teeth. Digging his grave with his teeth, Adams. Do you take large mouthfuls, Adams?”
“No, your lordship.”
“Quite right. Very sensible of you, Adams. Very sensible of you. Very sen . . . What was I saying, Adams?”
“About my not taking large mouthfuls, your lordship.”
“Quite right. Quite right. Never take large mouthfuls, Adams. Never gobble. Have you any children, Adams?”
“Two, your lordship.”
“I hope you teach them not to gobble. They pay for it in later life. Americans gobble when young and ruin their digestions. My American friend, Mr Peters, suffers terribly from his digestion.”
Adams lowered his voice to a confidential murmur.
“If you will pardon the liberty, your lordship—I saw it in the paper—”
“About Mr Peters’ digestion?”
“About Miss Peters, your lordship, and the Honorable Frederick. May I be permitted to offer my congratulations?”
“Eh? Oh, yes, the engagement. Yes, yes, yes. Yes, to be sure. Yes, very satisfactory in every respect. High time he settled down and got a little sense. I put it to him straight. I cut off his allowance and made him stay at home. That made him think, lazy young devil. I—”
Lord Emsworth had his lucid moments, and in the one that occurred now it came home to him that he was not talking to himself, as he had imagined, but confiding intimate family secrets to the head steward of his club’s dining-room. He checked himself abruptly, and with a slight decrease of amiability fixed his gaze on the bill of fare and ordered cold beef. For an instant he felt resentful against Adams for luring him on to soliloquize, but the next moment his whole mind was gripped by the fascinating spectacle of Mr Simmonds dealing with a wedge of Stilton cheese, and Adams was forgotten.
The cold beef 13 had the effect of restoring his lordship to complete amiability, and, when Adams in the course of his wanderings again found himself at the table, he was once more disposed for light conversation.
“So you saw the news of the engagement in the paper, did you, Adams?”
“Yes, your lordship, in the Mail. It had quite a long piece about it. And the Honorable Frederick’s photograph and the young lady’s were in the Mirror. Mrs Adams clipped them out and put them in an album, knowing that your lordship was a member of ours. If I may say so, your lordship, a beautiful young lady.”
“Devilish attractive, Adams, and devilish rich. Mr Peters is a millionaire, Adams.”
“So I read in the paper, your lordship.”
“Damme, they all seem to be millionaires in America. Wish I knew how they managed it. Honestly, I hope. Mr Peters is an honest man, but his digestion is bad. He used to bolt his food. You don’t bolt your food, I hope, Adams?”
“No, your lordship, I am most careful.”
“The late Mr Gladstone used to chew each mouthful thirty-three times. Deuced good notion, if you aren’t in a hurry. What cheese would you recommend, Adams?”
“The gentlemen are speaking well of the gorgonzola.”
“All right, bring me some. You know, Adams, what I admire about Americans is their resource. Mr Peters tells me that, as a boy of eleven, he earned twenty dollars a week selling mint to saloon-keepers, as they call publicans over there. Why they wanted mint I cannot recollect. Mr Peters explained the reason to me, and it seemed highly plausible at the time, but I have forgotten it. Possibly for mint-sauce. It impressed me, Adams. Twenty dollars is four pounds. I never earned four pounds a week when I was a boy of eleven. In fact, I don’t think I ever earned four pounds a week. His story impressed me, Adams. Every man ought to have an earning capacity. I was so struck with what he told me that I began to paint.” 14
“Landscapes, your lordship?”
“Furniture. It is unlikely that I shall ever be compelled to paint furniture for a living, but it is a consolation to me to feel that I could do so if called on. There is a fascination about painting furniture, Adams. I have painted the whole of my bedroom at Blandings and am now engaged on the museum. You would be surprised at the fascination of it. It suddenly came back to me the other day that I had been inwardly longing to mess about with paints and things since I was a boy. They stopped me when I was a boy. I recollect my old father beating me with a walking stick . . . Tell me, Adams, have I eaten my cheese?”
“Not yet, your lordship. I was about to send the waiter for it.”
“Never mind. Tell him to bring the bill instead. I remember that I have an appointment. I must not be late.”
“Shall I take the fork, your lordship?”
“Your lordship has inadvertently put a fork in your coat-pocket.”
Lord Emsworth felt in the pocket indicated, and, with the air of an inexpert conjurer whose trick has succeeded contrary to his expectations, produced a silver-plated fork. He regarded it with surprise, then he looked wonderingly at Adams.
“Adams, I’m getting absent-minded. Have you ever noticed any traces of absent-mindedness in me before?”
“Oh, no, your lordship.”
“Well, it’s deuced peculiar. I have no recollection whatsoever of placing that fork in my pocket . . . Adams, I want a taxicab.”
He glanced round the room, as if expecting to locate one by the fireplace.
“The hall-porter will whistle one for you, your lordship.”
“So he will, by George, so he will. Good day, Adams.”
“Good day, your lordship.”
The Earl of Emsworth ambled benevolently to the door, leaving Adams with the feeling that his day had not been ill-spent. He gazed almost with reverence after the slow-moving figure.
“What a nut!” said Adams to his immortal soul.
Wafted through the sun-lit streets in his taxi-cab, the Earl of Emsworth smiled benevolently upon London’s teeming millions. He was as completely happy as only a fluffy-minded old man with excellent health and a large income can be. Other people worried about all sorts of things—strikes, wars, suffragettes, diminishing birth rates, the growing materialism of the age, and a score of similar subjects. Worrying, indeed, seemed to be the twentieth century’s speciality. Lord Emsworth never worried. Nature had equipped him with a mind so admirably constructed for withstanding the disagreeableness of life that, if an unpleasant thought entered it, it passed out again a moment later. Except for a few of Life’s fundamental facts, such as that his cheque-book was in the right-hand top-drawer of his desk, that the Honorable Freddie Threepwood was a young idiot who required perpetual restraint, and that, when in doubt about anything, he had merely to apply to his secretary, Rupert Baxter—except for these basic things, he never remembered anything for more than a few minutes.
At Eton, in the sixties, they had called him Fathead.
His was a life which lacked, perhaps, the sublimer emotions which raised Man to the level of the gods, but it was undeniably an extremely happy one. He never experienced the thrill of ambition fulfilled, but, on the other hand, he never knew the agony of ambition frustrated. His name, when he died, would not live forever in England’s annals; he was spared the pain of worrying about this by the fact that he had no desire to live forever in England’s annals. He was possibly as nearly contented as a human being can be in this century of alarms and excursions. Indeed, as he bowled along in his cab, and reflected that a really charming girl, not in the chorus of any West End theater, a girl with plenty of money and excellent breeding, had—in a moment, doubtless, of mental aberration—become engaged to be married to the Honorable Freddie, he told himself that life was at last absolutely without a crumpled rose-leaf.
The cab drew up before a house gay with flowered window-boxes. Lord Emsworth paid the driver, and stood on the sidewalk looking up at this cheerful house, trying to remember why on earth he had told the man to drive there.
A few moments’ steady thought gave him the answer to the riddle. This was Mr Peters’ town house, and he had come to it by invitation to look at Mr Peters’ collection of scarabs.
To be sure. He remembered now. His collection of scarabs.
Or was it Arabs?
Lord Emsworth smiled. Scarabs, of course. You couldn’t collect Arabs. He wondered idly, as he rang the bell, what scarabs might be. But he was interested in a fluffy kind of way in all forms of collecting, and he was very pleased to have the opportunity of examining these objects, whatever they were.
He rather thought they were a kind of fish.
There are men in this world who cannot rest, who are so constituted that they can only take their leisure in the shape of a change of work. To this fairly numerous class belonged Mr J Preston Peters, father of Freddie’s Aline. And to this merit—or defect—is to be attributed his almost maniacal devotion to that rather unattractive species of curio—the Egyptian scarab.
Five years before, a nervous breakdown had sent Mr Peters to a New York specialist.
The specialist had grown rich on similar cases, and his advice was always the same. He insisted on Mr Peters taking up a hobby.
“What sort of a hobby?” inquired Mr Peters irritably. His digestion had just begun to trouble him at the time, and his temper now was not of the best.
“Now my hobby”, said the specialist, “is the collecting of scarabs. Why should you not collect scarabs?”
“Because”, said Mr Peters, “I shouldn’t know one if you brought it to me on a plate. What are scarabs?”
“Scarabs”, said the specialist, warming to his subject, “are Egyptian hieroglyphs.”
“And what”, inquired Mr Peters, “are Egyptian hieroglyphs?”
The specialist began to wonder whether it would not have been better to advise Mr Peters to collect postage stamps.
“A scarab”, he said, “derived from the Latin scarabeus, is literally a beetle.”
“I will not collect beetles!” said Mr Peters definitely. “They give me the willies.”
“Scarabs are Egyptian symbols in the form of beetles”, the specialist hurried on. “The most common form of scarab is in the shape of a ring. Scarabs were used for seals. They were also employed as beads or ornaments. Some scarabei bear inscriptions having reference to places, as, for instance, ‘Memphis is mighty for ever.'”
Mr Peters’ scorn changed to active interest.
“Have you got one like that?”
“A scarab boosting Memphis. It’s my home town.”
“I think it possible that some other Memphis was alluded to.”
“There isn’t any other except the one in Tennessee”, said Mr Peters patriotically.
The specialist owed the fact that he was a nerve doctor instead of a nerve patient to his habit of never arguing with his visitors.
“Perhaps”, he said, “you would care to glance at my collection. It is in the next room.”
That was the beginning of Mr Peters’ devotion to scarabs. At first he did his collecting without any love of it, partly because he had to collect something or suffer, but principally because of a remark the specialist made as he was leaving the room.
“How long would it take me to get together that number of the things?” Mr Peters inquired, when, having looked his fill upon the dullest assortment of objects he remembered ever to have seen, he was preparing to take his leave.
The specialist was proud of his collection.
“How long? To make a collection as large as mine? Years, Mr Peters. Oh, many, many years.”
“I’ll bet you a hundred dollars I do it in six months.”
And from that moment Mr Peters had brought to the collecting of scarabs the same furious energy which had given him so many dollars and so much indigestion. He went after scarabs like a dog after rats. He scooped in scarabs from all the four corners of the earth, until, at the end of a year, he found himself possessed of what, purely as regarded quantity, was a record collection.
This marked the end of the first phase of, so to speak, the scarabean side of his life. Collecting had become a habit with him, but he was not yet a real enthusiast. It occurred to him that the time had arrived for a certain amount of pruning and elimination. He called in an expert, and bade him go through the collection and weed out what he felicitously termed the ‘dead ones’. The expert did his job thoroughly. When he had finished, the collection was reduced to a mere dozen specimens.
“The rest”, he explained, “are practically valueless. If you are thinking of making a collection that will have any value in the eyes of archaeologists, I should advise you to throw them away. The remaining twelve are good.”
“How do you mean ‘Good’? Why is one of these things valuable and another so much junk? They all look alike to me.”
And then the expert had talked to Mr Peters for nearly two hours about the New Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, Osiris, Ammon, Mut, Bubastis, Dynasties, Cheops, the Hyksos kings, cylinders, bezels, Amenophis III, Queen Taia, the Princess Gilukhipa of Mitanni, the Lake of Zarukhe, Naucratis, and the Book of the Dead. He did it with a relish. He liked doing it.
When he had finished, Mr Peters thanked him and went to the bathroom, where he bathed his temples with eau de Cologne.
That talk changed J Preston Peters from a supercilious scooper-up of random scarabs to a genuine scarab maniac. It does not matter what a man collects; if Nature has given him the collector’s mind he will become a fanatic on the subject of whatever collection he sets out to make. Mr Peters had collected dollars, he began to collect scarabs with precisely the same enthusiasm. He would have become just as enthusiastic about butterflies, or old china, if he had turned his thoughts to them, but it chanced that what he had taken up was the collecting of the scarab, and it gripped him more and more as the years went on. Gradually he came to love his scarabs with that love passing the love of women which only collectors know. He became an expert on those curious relics of a dead civilization. For a time they ran neck and neck in his thoughts with business. When he retired from business, he was free to make them the master passion of his life. He treasured each individual scarab in his collection as a miser treasures gold.
Collecting, as Mr Peters did it, resembles the drink habit. It begins as an amusement, and ends as an obsession.
He was gloating over his treasures when the maid announced Lord Emsworth.
A curious species of mutual toleration—it could hardly be dignified by the title of friendship—had sprung up between these two men, so opposite in practically every respect. Each regarded the other with that feeling of perpetual amazement with which we encounter those whose whole viewpoint and mode of life is foreign to our own. The American’s force and nervous energy fascinated Lord Emsworth. As for Mr Peters, nothing like the earl had ever happened to him before in a long and varied life. Each, in fact, was to the other a perpetual freak-show, with no charge for admission. And, if anything had been needed to cement the alliance, it would have been supplied by the fact that they were both collectors.
They differed in collecting as they did in everything else. Mr Peters’ collecting, as has been shown, was keen, furious, concentrated; Lord Emsworth’s had the amiable dodderingness which marked every branch of his life. In the museum at Blandings Castle you might find every manner of valuable and valueless curio. There was no central motive, the place was simply an amateur junk-shop. Side by side with a Gutenberg Bible for which rival collectors would have bidden without a limit, you would come upon a bullet from the field of Waterloo, one of a consignment of ten thousand shipped there for the use of tourists by a Birmingham firm. Each was equally attractive to its owner.
“My dear Mr Peters”, said Lord Emsworth sunnily, advancing into the room, “I trust I am not unpunctual. I have been lunching at my club.”
“I’d have asked you to lunch here”, said Mr Peters, “but you know how it is with me. I’ve promised the doctor I’ll give those nuts and grasses of his a fair trial, and I can do it pretty well when I’m alone with Aline. But to have to sit by and see someone else eating real food would be trying me too high.”
Lord Emsworth murmured sympathetically. The other’s digestive tribulations touched a ready chord. An excellent trencherman himself, he understood what Mr Peters must suffer.
“Too bad”, he said.
Mr Peters turned the conversation into other channels.
“These are my scarabs”, he said.
Lord Emsworth adjusted his glasses, and the mild smile disappeared from his face, to be succeeded by a set look. A stage director of a moving-picture firm would have recognized the look; Lord Emsworth was ‘registering’ interest—interest which, he perceived from the first instant, would have to be completely simulated; for instinct told him, as Mr Peters began to talk, that he was about to be bored as he had seldom been bored in his life.
Mr Peters, in his character of showman, threw himself into his work with even more than his customary energy. His flow of speech never faltered. He spoke of the New Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, Osiris, and Ammon; waxed eloquent concerning Mut, Bubastis, Cheops, the Hyksos kings, cylinders, bezels, and Amenophis III; and became at times almost lyrical when touching on Queen Taia, the Princess Gilukhipa of Mitanni, the Lake of Zarukhe, Naucratis and the Book of the Dead.
Time slid by . . .
“Take a look at this, Lord Emsworth.”
As one who, brooding on love or running over business projects in his mind, walks briskly into a lamp-post and comes back to the realities of life with a sense of jarring shock, Lord Emsworth started, blinked, and returned to consciousness. Far away his mind had been, seventy miles away, in the pleasant hothouses and shady garden-walks of Blandings Castle. He came back to London to find that his host, with a mingled air of pride and reverence, was extending towards him a small, dingy-looking something.
He took it and looked at it. That, apparently, was what he was meant to do. So far, all was well.
“Ah!” he said.
That blessed word, covering everything. He repeated it, pleased at his ready resource.
“A Cheops of the Fourth Dynasty”, said Mr Peters fervently.
“I beg your pardon?”
“A Cheops! Of the Fourth Dynasty!”
Lord Emsworth began to feel like a hunted stag. He could not go on saying “Ah!” indefinitely, yet what else was there to say to this curious little beastly sort of a beetle kind of thing?
“Dear me! A Cheops!”
“Of the Fourth Dynasty!”
“Bless my soul! The Fourth Dynasty!”
“What do you think of that, eh?”
Strictly speaking, Lord Emsworth thought nothing of it, and he was wondering how to veil this opinion in diplomatic words, when the providence which looks after all good men saved him by causing a knock at the door to occur.
In response to Mr Peters’ irritated cry, a maid entered.
“If you please, sir. Mr Threepwood wishes to speak to you on the telephone.”
Mr Peters turned to his guest.
“Excuse me for one moment.”
“Certainly”, said Lord Emsworth gratefully. “Certainly, certainly, certainly. By all means.”
The door closed behind Mr Peters. Lord Emsworth was alone.
For some moments he stood where he had been left, a figure with small signs of alertness about it. But Mr Peters did not return immediately. The booming of his voice came faintly from some distant region. Lord Emsworth strolled to the window and looked out.
The sun still shone brightly on the quiet street. Across the road were trees. Lord Emsworth was fond of trees; he looked at these approvingly. Then round the corner came a vagrom man, wheeling flowers in a barrow.
Flowers! Lord Emsworth’s mind shot back to Blandings like a homing pigeon. Flowers! Had he or had he not given head-gardener Thorne adequate instructions as to what to do with those hydrangeas? Assuming that he had not, was Thorne to be depended on to do the right thing by them by the light of his own intelligence?
Lord Emsworth began to brood upon head-gardener Thorne.
He was aware of some curious little object in his hand; he accorded it a momentary inspection. It had no message for him. It was probably something, but he could not remember what.
He put it in his pocket, and returned to his meditations.
At about the hour when the Earl of Emsworth was driving to keep his appointment with Mr Peters, a party of two sat at a corner table at Simpson’s Restaurant, in the Strand. One of the two was a small, pretty, good-natured-looking girl of about twenty; the other, a thick-set young man, with a wiry crop of red-brown hair and an expression of mingled devotion and determination. The girl was Aline Peters; the young man’s name was George Emerson. He, also, was an American, a rising member in a New York law firm. He had a strong, square face, with a dogged and persevering chin.
There are all sorts of restaurants in London, from the restaurant which makes you fancy you are in Paris to the restaurant which makes you wish you were. There are palaces in Piccadilly, quaint lethal chambers in Soho, and strange food factories in Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. There are restaurants which specialize in ptomaine and restaurants which specialize in sinister vegetable messes. But there is only one Simpson’s.
Simpson’s, in the Strand, is unique. Here, if he wishes, the Briton may for the small sum of half a dollar stupefy himself with food. The god of fatted plenty has the place under his protection. Its keynote is solid comfort.
It is a pleasant, soothing, hearty place—a restful temple of food. No strident orchestra forces the diner to bolt beef in ragtime. No long central aisle distracts his attention with its stream of new arrivals. There he sits, alone with his food, while white-robed priests, wheeling their smoking trucks, move to and fro, ever ready with fresh supplies.
All round the room—some at small tables, some at large tables—the worshipers sit, in their eyes that resolute, concentrated look which is the peculiar property of the British luncher, ex-President Roosevelt’s man-eating fish, and the American army worm.
Conversation does not flourish at Simpson’s. Only two of all those present on this occasion showed any disposition toward chattiness. They were Aline Peters and her escort.
“The girl you ought to marry”, Aline was saying, “is Joan Valentine.”
“The girl I am going to marry”, said George Emerson, “is Aline Peters.”
For answer, Aline picked up from the floor beside her an illustrated paper and, having opened it at a page toward the end, handed it across the table.
George Emerson glanced at it disdainfully. There were two photographs on the page. One was of Aline; the other of a heavy, loutish-looking youth, who wore that expression of pained glassiness which Young England always adopts in the face of a camera.
Under one photograph were printed the words: “Miss Aline Peters, who is to marry the Honorable Frederick Threepwood in June”; under the other: “The Honorable Frederick Threepwood, who is to marry Miss Aline Peters in June.” Above the photographs was the legend: “Forthcoming International Wedding. Son of the Earl of Emsworth to marry American heiress.” In one corner of the picture a Cupid, draped in the Stars and Stripes, aimed his bow at the gentleman; in the other another Cupid, clad in a natty Union Jack, was drawing a bead on the lady.
The subeditor had done his work well. He had not been ambiguous. What he intended to convey to the reader was that Miss Aline Peters, of America, was going to marry the Honorable Frederick Threepwood, son of the Earl of Emsworth; and that was exactly the impression the average reader got.
George Emerson, however, was not an average reader. The subeditor’s work did not impress him.
“You mustn’t believe everything you see in the papers”, he said. “What are the stout children in the one-piece bathing suits supposed to be doing?”
“Those are Cupids, George, aiming at us with their little bow—a pretty and original idea.”
“Cupid is the god of love.”
“What has the god of love got to do with it?”
Aline placidly devoured a fried potato. “You’re simply trying to make me angry”, she said; “and I call it very mean of you. You know perfectly well how fatal it is to get angry at meals. It was eating while he was in a bad temper that ruined father’s digestion. George, that nice, fat carver is wheeling his truck this way. Flag him and make him give me some more of that mutton.”
George looked round him morosely.
“This”, he said, “is England—this restaurant, I mean. You don’t need to go any farther. Just take a good look at this place and you have seen the whole country and can go home again. You may judge a country by its meals. A people with imagination will eat with imagination. Look at the French; look at ourselves. The Englishman loathes imagination. He goes to a place like this and says: ‘Don’t bother me to think. Here’s half a dollar. Give me food—any sort of food—until I tell you to stop.’ And that’s the principle on which he lives his life. ‘Give me anything, and don’t bother me!’ That’s his motto.”
“If that was meant to apply to Freddie and me, I think you’re very rude. Do you mean that any girl would have done for him, so long as it was a girl?”
George Emerson showed a trace of confusion. Being honest with himself, he had to admit that he did not exactly know what he did mean—if he meant anything. That, he felt rather bitterly, was the worst of Aline. She would never let a fellow’s good things go purely as good things; she probed and questioned and spoiled the whole effect. He was quite sure that when he began to speak he had meant something, but what it was escaped him for the moment. He had been urged to the homily by the fact that at a neighboring table he had caught sight of a stout young Briton, with a red face, who reminded him of the Honorable Frederick Threepwood. He mentioned this to Aline.
“Do you see that fellow in the gray suit—I think he has been sleeping in it—at the table on your right? Look at the stodgy face. See the glassy eye. If that man sandbagged your Freddie and tied him up somewhere, and turned up at the church instead of him, can you honestly tell me you would know the difference? Come, now, wouldn’t you simply say, ‘Why, Freddie, how natural you look!’ and go through the ceremony without a suspicion?”
“He isn’t a bit like Freddie.”
“My dear girl, there isn’t a man in this restaurant under the age of thirty who isn’t just like Freddie. All Englishmen look exactly alike, talk exactly alike, and think exactly alike.”
“And you oughtn’t to speak of him as Freddie. You don’t know him.”
“Yes, I do. And, what is more, he expressly asked me to call him Freddie. ‘Oh, dash it, old top, don’t keep on calling me Threepwood! Freddie to pals!’ Those were his very words.”
“George, you’re making this up.”
“Not at all. We met last night at the National Sporting Club. Porky Jones was going twenty rounds with Eddie Flynn. I offered to give three to one on Eddie. Freddie, who was sitting next to me, took me in fivers. And if you want any further proof of your young man’s pin-headedness, mark that! A child could have seen that Eddie had him going. Eddie comes from Pittsburgh—God bless it! My own home town!”
“Did your Eddie win?”
“You don’t listen—I told you he was from Pittsburgh. And afterward Threepwood chummed up with me and told me that to real pals like me he was Freddie. I was a real pal, as I understood it, because I would have to wait for my money. The fact was, he explained, his old governor had cut off his bally allowance.”
“You’re simply trying to poison my mind against him; and I don’t think it’s very nice of you, George.”
“What do you mean—poison your mind? I’m not poisoning your mind; I’m simply telling you a few things about him. You know perfectly well that you don’t love him, and that you aren’t going to marry him—and that you are going to marry me.”
“How do you know I don’t love my Freddie?”
“If you can look me straight in the eyes and tell me you do, I will drop the whole thing and put on a little page’s dress and carry your train up the aisle. Now, then!”
“And all the while you’re talking you’re letting my carver get away”, said Aline.
George called to the willing priest, who steered his truck toward them. Aline directed his dissection of the shoulder of mutton by word and gesture.
“Enjoy yourself!” said Emerson coldly.
“So I do, George; so I do. What excellent meat they have in England!”
“It all comes from America”, said George patriotically. “And, anyway, can’t you be a bit more spiritual? I don’t want to sit here discussing food products.”
“If you were in my position, George, you wouldn’t want to talk about anything else. It’s doing him a world of good, poor dear; but there are times when I’m sorry Father ever started this food-reform thing. You don’t know what it means for a healthy young girl to try and support life on nuts and grasses.”
“And why should you?” broke out Emerson. “I’ll tell you what it is, Aline—you are perfectly absurd about your father. I don’t want to say anything against him to you, naturally; but—”
“Go ahead, George. Why this diffidence? Say what you like.”
“Very well, then, I will. I’ll give it to you straight. You know quite well that you have let your father bully you since you were in short frocks. I don’t say it is your fault or his fault, or anybody’s fault; I just state it as a fact. It’s temperament, I suppose. You are yielding and he is aggressive; and he has taken advantage of it.
“We now come to this idiotic Freddie-marriage business. Your father has forced you into that. It’s all very well to say that you are a free agent and that fathers don’t coerce their daughters nowadays. The trouble is that your father does. You let him do what he likes with you. He has got you hypnotized; and you won’t break away from this Freddie foolishness because you can’t find the nerve. I’m going to help you find the nerve. I’m coming down to Blandings Castle when you go there on Friday.”
“Coming to Blandings!”
“Freddie invited me last night. I think it was done by way of interest on the money he owed me; but he did it and I accepted.”
“But, George, my dear boy, do you never read the etiquette books and the hints in the Sunday papers on how to be the perfect gentleman? Don’t you know you can’t be a man’s guest and take advantage of his hospitality to try to steal his fiancee away from him?”
A dreamy look came into Aline’s eyes. “I wonder what it feels like, being a countess”, she said.
“You will never know.” George looked at her pityingly. “My poor girl”, he said, “have you been lured into this engagement in the belief that pop-eyed Frederick, the Idiot Child, is going to be an earl some day? You have been stung! Freddie is not the heir. His older brother, Lord Bosham, is as fit as a prize-fighter and has three healthy sons. Freddie has about as much chance of getting the title as I have.”
“George, your education has been sadly neglected. Don’t you know that the heir to the title always goes on a yachting cruise, with his whole family, and gets drowned—and the children too? It happens in every English novel you read.”
“Listen, Aline! Let us get this thing straight: I have been in love with you since I wore knickerbockers. I proposed to you at your first dance—”
“But sincerely. Last year, when I found that you had gone to England, I came on after you as soon as the firm could spare me. And I found you engaged to this Freddie excrescence.”
“I like the way you stand up for Freddie. So many men in your position might say horrid things about him.”
“Oh, I’ve nothing against Freddie. He is practically an imbecile and I don’t like his face; outside of that he’s all right. But you will be glad later that you did not marry him. You are much too real a person. What a wife you will make for a hard-working man!”
“What does Freddie work hard at?”
“I am alluding at the moment not to Freddie but to myself. I shall come home tired out. Maybe things will have gone wrong downtown. I shall be fagged, disheartened. And then you will come with your cool, white hands and, placing them gently on my forehead—”
Aline shook her head. “It’s no good, George. Really, you had better realize it. I’m very fond of you, but we are not suited!”
“You are too overwhelming—too much like a bomb. I think you must be one of the supermen one reads about. You would want your own way and nothing but your own way. Now, Freddie will roll through hoops and sham dead, and we shall be the happiest pair in the world. I am much too placid and mild to make you happy. You want somebody who would stand up to you—somebody like Joan Valentine.”
“That’s the second time you have mentioned this Joan Valentine. Who is she?”
“She is a girl who was at school with me. We were the greatest chums—at least, I worshipped her and would have done anything for her; and I think she liked me. Then we lost touch with one another and didn’t meet for years. I met her on the street yesterday, and she is just the same. She has been through the most awful times. Her father was quite rich; he died suddenly while he and Joan were in Paris, and she found that he hadn’t left a cent. He had been living right up to his income all the time. His life wasn’t even insured. She came to London; and, so far as I could make out from the short talk we had, she has done pretty nearly everything since we last met. She worked in a shop and went on the stage, and all sorts of things. Isn’t it awful, George!”
“Pretty tough”, said Emerson. He was but faintly interested in Miss Valentine.
“She is so plucky and full of life. She would stand up to you.”
“Thanks! My idea of marriage is not a perpetual scrap. My notion of a wife is something cozy and sympathetic and soothing. That is why I love you. We shall be the happiest—”
“Dear old George! Now pay the check and get me a taxi. I’ve endless things to do at home. If Freddie is in town I suppose he will be calling to see me. Who is Freddie, do you ask? Freddie is my fiance, George. My betrothed. My steady. The young man I’m going to marry.”
Emerson shook his head resignedly. “Curious how you cling to that Freddie idea. Never mind! I’ll come down to Blandings on Friday and we shall see what happens. Bear in mind the broad fact that you and I are going to be married, and that nothing on earth is going to stop us.”
It was Aline Peters who had to bear the brunt of her father’s mental agony when he discovered, shortly after Lord Emsworth had left him, that the gem of his collection of scarabs had done the same. It is always the innocent bystander who suffers.
“The darned old sneak thief!” said Mr Peters.
“Don’t sit there saying ‘Father!’ What’s the use of saying ‘Father!’? Do you think it is going to help—your saying ‘Father!’? I’d rather the old pirate had taken the house and lot than that scarab. He knows what’s what! Trust him to walk off with the pick of the whole bunch! I did think I could leave the father of the man who’s going to marry my daughter for a second alone with the things. There’s no morality among collectors—none! I’d trust a syndicate of Jesse James, Captain Kidd and Dick Turpin sooner than I would a collector. My Cheops of the Fourth Dynasty! I wouldn’t have lost it for five thousand dollars!”
“But, father, couldn’t you write him a letter, asking for it back? He’s such a nice old man! I’m sure he didn’t mean to steal the scarab.”
Mr Peters’ overwrought soul blew off steam in the shape of a passionate snort.
“Didn’t mean to steal it! What do you think he meant to do—take it away and keep it safe for me for fear I should lose it? Didn’t mean to steal it! Bet you he’s well-known in society as a kleptomaniac. Bet you that when his name is announced his friends pick up their spoons and send in a hurry call to police headquarters for a squad to come and see that he doesn’t sneak the front door. Of course he meant to steal it! He has a museum of his own down in the country. My Cheops is going to lend tone to that. I’d give five thousand dollars to get it back. If there’s a man in this country with the spirit to break into that castle and steal that scarab and hand it back to me, there’s five thousand waiting for him right here; and if he wants to he can knock that old safe blower on the head with a jimmy into the bargain.”
“But, father, why can’t you simply go to him and say it’s yours and that you must have it back?”
“And have him come back at me by calling off this engagement of yours? Not if I know it! You can’t go about the place charging a man with theft and ask him to go on being willing to have his son marry your daughter, can you? The slightest suggestion that I thought he had stolen this scarab and he would do the Proud Old English Aristocrat and end everything. He’s in the strongest position a thief has ever been in. You can’t get at him.”
“I didn’t think of that.”
“You don’t think at all. That’s the trouble with you”, said Mr Peters.
Years of indigestion had made Mr Peters’ temper, even when in a normal mood, perfectly impossible; in a crisis like this it ran amuck. He vented it on Aline because he had always vented his irritabilities on Aline; because the fact of her sweet, gentle disposition, combined with the fact of their relationship, made her the ideal person to receive the overflow of his black moods. While his wife had lived he had bullied her. On her death Aline had stepped into the vacant position.
Aline did not cry, because she was not a girl who was given to tears; but, for all her placid good temper, she was wounded. She was a girl who liked everything in the world to run smoothly and easily, and these scenes with her father always depressed her. She took advantage of a lull in Mr Peters’ flow of words and slipped from the room.
Her cheerfulness had received a shock. She wanted sympathy. She wanted comforting. For a moment she considered George Emerson in the role of comforter; but there were objections to George in this character. Aline was accustomed to tease and chat with George, but at heart she was a little afraid of him; and instinct told her that, as comforter, he would be too volcanic and supermanly for a girl who was engaged to marry another man in June. George, as comforter, would be far too prone to trust to action rather than to the soothing power of the spoken word. George’s idea of healing the wound, she felt, would be to push her into a cab and drive to the nearest registrar’s.
No; she would not go to George. To whom, then? The vision of Joan Valentine came to her—of Joan as she had seen her yesterday, strong, cheerful, self-reliant, bearing herself, in spite of adversity, with a valiant jauntiness. Yes; she would go and see Joan. She put on her hat and stole from the house.
Curiously enough, only a quarter of an hour before, R Jones had set out with exactly the same object in view.
At almost exactly the hour when Aline Peters set off to visit her friend, Miss Valentine, three men sat in the cozy smoking-room of Blandings Castle.
They were variously occupied. In the big chair nearest the door the Honorable Frederick Threepwood—Freddie to pals—was reading. Next to him sat a young man whose eyes, glittering through rimless spectacles, were concentrated on the upturned faces of several neat rows of playing cards—Rupert Baxter, Lord Emsworth’s invaluable secretary, had no vices, but he sometimes relaxed his busy brain with a game of solitaire. Beyond Baxter, a cigar in his mouth and a weak highball at his side, the Earl of Emsworth took his ease.
The book the Honorable Freddie was reading was a small paper-covered book. Its cover was decorated with a color scheme in red, black and yellow, depicting a tense moment in the lives of a man with a black beard, a man with a yellow beard, a man without any beard at all, and a young woman who, at first sight, appeared to be all eyes and hair. The man with the black beard, to gain some private end, had tied this young woman with ropes to a complicated system of machinery, mostly wheels and pulleys. The man with the yellow beard was in the act of pushing or pulling a lever. The beardless man, protruding through a trapdoor in the floor, was pointing a large revolver at the parties of the second part.
Beneath this picture were the words: “Hands up, you scoundrels!”
Above it, in a meandering scroll across the page, was: “Gridley Quayle, Investigator. The Adventure of the Secret Six. By Felix Clovelly”
The Honorable Freddie did not so much read as gulp the adventure of the Secret Six. His face was crimson with excitement; his hair was rumpled; his eyes bulged. He was absorbed.
This is peculiarly an age in which each of us may, if we do but search diligently, find the literature suited to his mental powers. Grave and earnest men, at Eton and elsewhere, had tried Freddie Threepwood with Greek, with Latin and with English; and the sheeplike stolidity with which he declined to be interested in the masterpieces of all three tongues had left them with the conviction that he would never read anything.
And then, years afterward, he had suddenly blossomed out as a student—only, it is true, a student of the Adventures of Gridley Quayle; but still a student. His was a dull life and Gridley Quayle was the only person who brought romance into it. Existence for the Honorable Freddie was simply a sort of desert, punctuated with monthly oases in the shape of new Quayle adventures. It was his ambition to meet the man who wrote them.
Lord Emsworth sat and smoked, and sipped and smoked again, at peace with all the world. His mind was as nearly a blank as it is possible for the human mind to be. The hand that had not the task of holding the cigar was at rest in his trousers pocket. The fingers of it fumbled idly with a small, hard object.
Gradually it filtered into his lordship’s mind that this small, hard object was not familiar. It was something new—something that was neither his keys nor his pencil; nor was it his small change. He yielded to a growing curiosity and drew it out. He examined it. It was a little something, rather like a fossilized beetle. It touched no chord in him. He looked at it with amiable distaste.
“Now how in the world did that get there?” he said.
The Honorable Freddie paid no attention to the remark. He was now at the very crest of his story, when every line intensified the thrill. Incident was succeeding incident. The Secret Six were here, there and everywhere, like so many malignant June bugs.
Annabel, the heroine, was having a perfectly rotten time—kidnapped, and imprisoned every few minutes. Gridley Quayle, hot on the scent, was covering somebody or other with his revolver almost continuously. Freddie Threepwood had no time for chatting with his father. Not so Rupert Baxter. Chatting with Lord Emsworth was one of the things for which he received his salary. He looked up from his cards.
“I have found a curious object in my pocket, Baxter. I was wondering how it got there.”
He handed the thing to his secretary. Rupert Baxter’s eyes lit up with sudden enthusiasm. He gasped.
“Magnificent!” he cried. “Superb!”
Lord Emsworth looked at him inquiringly.
“It is a scarab, Lord Emsworth; and unless I am mistaken—and I think I may claim to be something of an expert—a Cheops of the Fourth Dynasty. A wonderful addition to your museum!”
“Is it? By Gad! You don’t say so, Baxter!”
“It is, indeed. If it is not a rude question, how much did you give for it, Lord Emsworth? It must have been the gem of somebody’s collection. Was there a sale at Christie’s this afternoon?”
Lord Emsworth shook his head. “I did not get it at Christie’s, for I recollect that I had an important engagement which prevented my going to Christie’s. To be sure; yes—I had promised to call on Mr Peters and examine his collection of—Now I wonder what it was that Mr Peters said he collected!”
“Mr Peters is one of the best-known living collectors of scarabs.”
“Scarabs! You are quite right, Baxter. Now that I recall the episode, this is a scarab; and Mr Peters gave it to me.”
“Gave it to you, Lord Emsworth?”
“Yes. The whole scene comes back to me. Mr Peters, after telling me a great many exceedingly interesting things about scarabs, which I regret to say I cannot remember, gave me this. And you say it is really valuable, Baxter?”
“It is, from a collector’s point of view, of extraordinary value.”
“Bless my soul!” Lord Emsworth beamed. “This is extremely interesting, Baxter. One has heard so much of the princely hospitality of Americans. How exceedingly kind of Mr Peters! I shall certainly treasure it, though I must confess that from a purely spectacular standpoint it leaves me a little cold. However, I must not look a gift horse in the mouth—eh, Baxter?”
From afar came the silver booming of a gong. Lord Emsworth rose.
“Time to dress for dinner? I had no idea it was so late. Baxter, you will be going past the museum door. Will you be a good fellow and place this among the exhibits? You will know what to do with it better than I. I always think of you as the curator of my little collection, Baxter—ha-ha! Mind how you step when you are in the museum. I was painting a chair there yesterday and I think I left the paint pot on the floor.”
He cast a less amiable glance at his studious son.
“Get up, Frederick, and go and dress, for dinner. What is that trash you are reading?”
The Honorable Freddie came out of his book much as a sleepwalker wakes—with a sense of having been violently assaulted. He looked up with a kind of stunned plaintiveness.
“Make haste! Beach rang the gong five minutes ago. What is that you are reading?”
“Oh, nothing, gov’nor—just a book.”
“I wonder you can waste your time on such trash. Make haste!”
He turned to the door, and the benevolent expression once more wandered athwart his face.
“Extremely kind of Mr Peters!” he said. “Really, there is something almost Oriental in the lavish generosity of our American cousins.”
It had taken R Jones just six hours to discover Joan Valentine’s address. That it had not taken him longer is a proof of his energy and of the excellence of his system of obtaining information; but R Jones, when he considered it worth his while, could be extremely energetic, and he was a past master at the art of finding out things.
He poured himself out of his cab and rang the bell of Number Seven. A disheveled maid answered the ring.
“Miss Valentine in?”
R Jones produced his card.
“On important business, tell her. Half a minute—I’ll write it.”
He wrote the words on the card and devoted the brief period of waiting to a careful scrutiny of his surroundings. He looked out into the court and he looked as far as he could down the dingy passage; and the conclusions he drew from what he saw were complimentary to Miss Valentine.
“If this girl is the sort of girl who would hold up Freddie’s letters”, he mused, “she wouldn’t be living in a place like this. If she were on the make she would have more money than she evidently possesses. Therefore, she is not on the make; and I am prepared to bet that she destroyed the letters as fast as she got them.”
Those were, roughly, the thoughts of R Jones as he stood in the doorway of Number Seven; and they were important thoughts inasmuch as they determined his attitude toward Joan in the approaching interview. He perceived that this matter must be handled delicately—that he must be very much the gentleman. It would be a strain, but he must do it.
The maid returned and directed him to Joan’s room with a brief word and a sweeping gesture.
“Eh?” said R Jones. “First floor?”
“Front”, said the maid.
R Jones trudged laboriously up the short flight of stairs. It was very dark on the stairs and he stumbled. Eventually, however, light came to him through an open door. Looking in, he saw a girl standing at the table. She had an air of expectation; so he deduced that he had reached his journey’s end.
“Please come in.”
R Jones waddled in.
“Not much light on your stairs.”
“No. Will you take a seat?”
One glance at the girl convinced R Jones that he had been right. Circumstances had made him a rapid judge of character, for in the profession of living by one’s wits in a large city the first principle of offense and defense is to sum people up at first sight. This girl was not on the make.
Joan Valentine was a tall girl with wheat-gold hair and eyes as brightly blue as a November sky when the sun is shining on a frosty world. There was in them a little of November’s cold glitter, too, for Joan had been through much in the last few years; and experience, even though it does not harden, erects a defensive barrier between its children and the world.
Her eyes were eyes that looked straight and challenged. They could thaw to the satin blue of the Mediterranean Sea, where it purrs about the little villages of Southern France; but they did not thaw for everybody. She looked what she was—a girl of action; a girl whom life had made both reckless and wary—wary of friendly advances, reckless when there was a venture afoot.
Her eyes, as they met R Jones’ now, were cold and challenging. She, too, had learned the trick of swift diagnosis of character, and what she saw of R Jones in that first glance did not impress her favorably.
“You wished to see me on business?”
“Yes”, said R Jones. “Yes. . . . Miss Valentine, may I begin by begging you to realize that I have no intention of insulting you?”
Joan’s eyebrows rose. For an instant she did her visitor the injustice of suspecting that he had been dining too well.
“I don’t understand.”
“Let me explain: I have come here”, R Jones went on, getting more gentlemanly every moment, “on a very distasteful errand, to oblige a friend. Will you bear in mind that whatever I say is said entirely on his behalf?”
By this time Joan had abandoned the idea that this stout person was a life-insurance tout, and was inclining to the view that he was collecting funds for a charity.
“I came here at the request of the Honorable Frederick Threepwood.”
“I don’t quite understand.”
“You never met him, Miss Valentine; but when you were in the chorus at the Piccadilly Theatre, I believe, he wrote you some very foolish letters. Possibly you have forgotten them?”
“I certainly have.”
“You have probably destroyed them—eh?”
“Certainly! I never keep letters. Why do you ask?”
“Well, you see, Miss Valentine, the Honorable Frederick Threepwood is about to be married; and he thought that possibly, on the whole, it would be better that the letters—and poetry—which he wrote you were nonexistent.”
Not all R Jones’ gentlemanliness—and during this speech he diffused it like a powerful scent in waves about him—could hide the unpleasant meaning of the words.
“He was afraid I might try to blackmail him?” said Joan, with formidable calm.
R Jones raised and waved a fat hand deprecatingly.
“My dear Miss Valentine!”
Joan rose and R Jones followed her example. The interview was plainly at an end.
“Please tell Mr Threepwood to make his mind quite easy. He is in no danger.”
“Exactly—exactly; precisely! I assured Threepwood that my visit here would be a mere formality. I was quite sure you had no intention whatever of worrying him. I may tell him definitely, then, that you have destroyed the letters?”
“Good-evening, Miss Valentine.”
The closing of the door behind him left him in total darkness, but he hardly liked to return and ask Joan to reopen it in order to light him on his way. He was glad to be out of her presence. He was used to being looked at in an unfriendly way by his fellows, but there had been something in Joan’s eyes that had curiously discomfited him.
R Jones groped his way down, relieved that all was over and had ended well. He believed what she had told him, and he could conscientiously assure Freddie that the prospect of his sharing the fate of poor old Percy was nonexistent. It is true that he proposed to add in his report that the destruction of the letters had been purchased with difficulty, at a cost of just five hundred pounds; but that was a mere business formality.
He had almost reached the last step when there was a ring at the front door. With what he was afterward wont to call an inspiration, he retreated with unusual nimbleness until he had almost reached Joan’s door again. Then he leaned over the banister and listened.
The disheveled maid opened the door. A girl’s voice spoke:
“Is Miss Valentine in?”
“She’s in; but she’s engaged.”
“I wish you would go up and tell her that I want to see her. Say it’s Miss Peters—Miss Aline Peters.”
The banister shook beneath R Jones’ sudden clutch. For a moment he felt almost faint. Then he began to think swiftly. A great light had dawned on him, and the thought outstanding in his mind was that never again would he trust a man or woman on the evidence of his senses. He could have sworn that this Valentine girl was on the level. He had been perfectly satisfied with her statement that she had destroyed the letters. And all the while she had been playing as deep a game as he had come across in the whole course of his professional career! He almost admired her. How she had taken him in!
It was obvious now what her game was. Previous to his visit she had arranged a meeting with Freddie’s fiancee, with the view of opening negotiations for the sale of the letters. She had held him, Jones, at arm’s length because she was going to sell the letters to whoever would pay the best price. But for the accident of his happening to be here when Miss Peters arrived, Freddie and his fiancee would have been bidding against each other and raising each other’s price. He had worked the same game himself a dozen times, and he resented the entry of female competition into what he regarded as essentially a male field of enterprise.
As the maid stumped up the stairs he continued his retreat. He heard Joan’s door open, and the stream of light showed him the disheveled maid standing in the doorway.
“Ow, I thought there was a gentleman with you, miss.”
“He left a moment ago. Why?”
“There’s a lady wants to see you. Miss Peters, her name is.”
“Will you ask her to come up?”
The disheveled maid was no polished mistress of ceremonies. She leaned down into the void and hailed Aline.
“She says will you come up?”
Aline’s feet became audible on the staircase. There were greetings.
“Whatever brings you here, Aline?”
“Am I interrupting you, Joan, dear?”
“No. Do come in! I was only surprised to see you so late. I didn’t know you paid calls at this hour. Is anything wrong? Come in.”
The door closed, the maid retired to the depths, and R Jones stole cautiously down again. He was feeling absolutely bewildered. Apparently his deductions, his second thoughts, had been all wrong, and Joan was, after all, the honest person he had imagined at first sight. Those two girls had talked to each other as though they were old friends; as though they had known each other all their lives. That was the thing which perplexed R Jones.
With the tread of a red Indian, he approached the door and put his ear to it. He found he could hear quite comfortably.
Aline, meantime, inside the room, had begun to draw comfort from Joan’s very appearance, she looked so capable.
Joan’s eyes had changed the expression they had contained during the recent interview. They were soft now, with a softness that was half compassionate, half contemptuous. It is the compensation which life gives to those whom it has handled roughly in order that they shall be able to regard with a certain contempt the small troubles of the sheltered. Joan remembered Aline of old, and knew her for a perennial victim of small troubles. Even in their schooldays she had always needed to be looked after and comforted. Her sweet temper had seemed to invite the minor slings and arrows of fortune. Aline was a girl who inspired protectiveness in a certain type of her fellow human beings. It was this quality in her that kept George Emerson awake at nights; and it appealed to Joan now.
Joan, for whom life was a constant struggle to keep the wolf within a reasonable distance from the door, and who counted that day happy on which she saw her way clear to paying her weekly rent and possibly having a trifle over for some coveted hat or pair of shoes, could not help feeling, as she looked at Aline, that her own troubles were as nothing, and that the immediate need of the moment was to pet and comfort her friend. Her knowledge of Aline told her the probable tragedy was that she had lost a brooch or had been spoken to crossly by somebody; but it also told her that such tragedies bulked very large on Aline’s horizon.
Trouble, after all, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder; and Aline was far less able to endure with fortitude the loss of a brooch than she herself to bear the loss of a position the emoluments of which meant the difference between having just enough to eat and starving.
“You’re worried about something”, she said. “Sit down and tell me all about it.”
Aline sat down and looked about her at the shabby room. By that curious process of the human mind which makes the spectacle of another’s misfortune a palliative for one’s own, she was feeling oddly comforted already. Her thoughts were not definite and she could not analyze them; but what they amounted to was that, though it was an unpleasant thing to be bullied by a dyspeptic father, the world manifestly held worse tribulations, which her father’s other outstanding quality, besides dyspepsia—wealth, to wit—enabled her to avoid.
It was at this point the dim beginnings of philosophy began to invade her mind. The thing resolved itself almost into an equation. If father had not had indigestion he would not have bullied her. But, if father had not made a fortune he would not have had indigestion. Therefore, if father had not made a fortune he would not have bullied her. Practically, in fact, if father did not bully her he would not be rich. And if he were not rich—
She took in the faded carpet, the stained wall paper and the soiled curtains with a comprehensive glance. It certainly cut both ways. She began to be a little ashamed of her misery.
“It’s nothing at all; really”, she said. “I think I’ve been making rather a fuss about very little.”
Joan was relieved. The struggling life breeds moods of depression, and such a mood had come to her just before Aline’s arrival. Life, at that moment, had seemed to stretch before her like a dusty, weary road, without hope. She was sick of fighting. She wanted money and ease, and a surcease from this perpetual race with the weekly bills. The mood had been the outcome partly of R Jones’ gentlemanly-veiled insinuations, but still more, though she did not realize it, of her yesterday’s meeting with Aline.
Mr Peters might be unguarded in his speech when conversing with his daughter—he might play the tyrant toward her in many ways; but he did not stint her in the matter of dress allowance, and, on the occasion when she met Joan, Aline had been wearing so Parisian a hat and a tailor-made suit of such obviously expensive simplicity that green-eyed envy had almost spoiled Joan’s pleasure at meeting this friend of her opulent days.
She had suppressed the envy, and it had revenged itself by assaulting her afresh in the form of the worst fit of the blues she had had in two years.
She had been loyally ready to sink her depression in order to alleviate Aline’s, but it was a distinct relief to find that the feat would not be necessary.
“Never mind”, she said. “Tell me what the very little thing was.”
“It was only father”, said Aline simply.
Joan cast her mind back to the days of school and placed father as a rather irritable person, vaguely reputed to be something of an ogre in his home circle.
“Was he angry with you about something?” she asked.
“Not exactly angry with me; but—well, I was there.”
Joan’s depression lifted slightly. She had forgotten, in the stunning anguish of the sudden spectacle of that hat and that tailor-made suit, that Paris hats and hundred-and-twenty-dollar suits not infrequently had what the vulgar term a string attached to them. After all, she was independent. She might have to murder her beauty with hats and frocks that had never been nearer Paris than the Tottenham Court Road; but at least no one bullied her because she happened to be at hand when tempers were short.
“What a shame!” she said. “Tell me all about it.”
With a prefatory remark that it was all so ridiculous, really, Aline embarked on the narrative of the afternoon’s events.
Joan heard her out, checking a strong disposition to giggle. Her viewpoint was that of the average person, and the average person cannot see the importance of the scarab in the scheme of things. The opinion she formed of Mr Peters was of his being an eccentric old gentleman, making a great to-do about nothing at all. Losses had to have a concrete value before they could impress Joan. It was beyond her to grasp that Mr Peters would sooner have lost a diamond necklace, if he had happened to possess one, than his Cheops of the Fourth Dynasty.
It was not until Aline, having concluded her tale, added one more strand to it that she found herself treating the matter seriously.
“Father says he would give five thousand dollars to anyone who would get it back for him.”
The whole story took on a different complexion for Joan. Money talks. Mr Peters’ words might have been merely the rhetorical outburst of a heated moment; but, even discounting them, there seemed to remain a certain exciting substratum. A man who shouts that he will give five thousand dollars for a thing may very well mean he will give five hundred, and Joan’s finances were perpetually in a condition which makes five hundred dollars a sum to be gasped at.
“He wasn’t serious, surely!”
“I think he was”, said Aline.
“But five thousand dollars!”
“It isn’t really very much to father, you know. He gave away a hundred thousand a year ago to a university.”
“But for a grubby little scarab!”
“You don’t understand how father loves his scarabs. Since he retired from business, he has been simply wrapped up in them. You know collectors are like that. You read in the papers about men giving all sorts of money for funny things.”
Outside the door R Jones, his ear close to the panel, drank in all these things greedily. He would have been willing to remain in that attitude indefinitely in return for this kind of special information; but just as Aline said these words a door opened on the floor above, and somebody came out, whistling, and began to descend the stairs.
R Jones stood not on the order of his going. He was down in the hall and fumbling with the handle of the front door with an agility of which few casual observers of his dimensions would have deemed him capable. The next moment he was out in the street, walking calmly toward Leicester Square, pondering over what he had heard.
Much of R Jones’ substantial annual income was derived from pondering over what he had heard.
In the room Joan was looking at Aline with the distended eyes of one who sees visions or has inspirations. She got up. There are occasions when one must speak standing.
“Then you mean to say that your father would really give five thousand dollars to anyone who got this thing back for him?”
“I am sure he would. But who could do it?”
“I could”, said Joan. “And what is more, I’m going to!”
Aline stared at her helplessly. In their schooldays, Joan had always swept her off her feet. Then, she had always had the feeling that with Joan nothing was impossible. Heroine worship, like hero worship, dies hard. She looked at Joan now with the stricken sensation of one who has inadvertently set powerful machinery in motion.
“But, Joan!” It was all she could say.
“My dear child, it’s perfectly simple. This earl of yours has taken the thing off to his castle, like a brigand. You say you are going down there on Friday for a visit. All you have to do is to take me along with you, and sit back and watch me get busy.”
“Where’s the difficulty?”
“I don’t see how I could take you down very well.”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“But what is your objection?”
“Well—don’t you see?—if you went down there as a friend of mine and were caught stealing the scarab, there would be just the trouble father wants to avoid—about my engagement, you see, and so on.”
It was an aspect of the matter that had escaped Joan. She frowned thoughtfully.
“I see. Yes, there is that; but there must be a way.”
“You mustn’t, Joan—really! don’t think any more about it.”
“Not think any more about it! My child, do you even faintly realize what five thousand dollars—or a quarter of five thousand dollars—means to me? I would do anything for it—anything! And there’s the fun of it. I don’t suppose you can realize that, either. I want a change. I’ve been grubbing away here on nothing a week for years, and it’s time I had a vacation. There must be a way by which you could get me down—Why, of course! Why didn’t I think of it before! You shall take me on Friday as your lady’s maid!”
“But, Joan, I couldn’t!”
Joan advanced on her where she sat and grasped her firmly by the shoulders. Her face was inflexible.
“Aline, my pet, it’s no good arguing. You might just as well argue with a wolf on the trail of a fat Russian peasant. I need that money. I need it in my business. I need it worse than anybody has ever needed anything. And I’m going to have it! From now on, until further notice, I am your lady’s maid. You can give your present one a holiday.”
Aline met her eyes waveringly. The spirit of the old schooldays, when nothing was impossible where Joan was concerned, had her in its grip. Moreover, the excitement of the scheme began to attract her.
“But, Joan”, she said, “you know it’s simply ridiculous. You could never pass as a lady’s maid. The other servants would find you out. I expect there are all sorts of things a lady’s maid has got to do and not do.”
“My dear Aline, I know them all. You can’t stump me on below-stairs etiquette. I’ve been a lady’s maid!”
“It’s quite true—three years ago, when I was more than usually impecunious. The wolf was glued to the door like a postage stamp; so I answered an advertisement and became a lady’s maid.”
“You seem to have done everything.”
“I have—pretty nearly. It’s all right for you idle rich, Aline—you can sit still and contemplate life; but we poor working girls have got to hustle.”
“You know, you always could make me do anything you wanted in the old days, Joan. I suppose I have got to look on this as quite settled now?”
“Absolutely settled! Oh, Aline, there’s one thing you must remember: Don’t call me Joan when I’m down at the castle. You must call me Valentine.”
She paused. The recollection of the Honorable Freddie had come to her. No; Valentine would not do!
“No; not Valentine”, she went on—”it’s too jaunty. I used it once years ago, but it never sounded just right. I want something more respectable, more suited to my position. Can’t you suggest something?”
“Simpson! It’s exactly right. You must practice it. Simpson! Say it kindly and yet distantly, as though I were a worm, but a worm for whom you felt a mild liking. Roll it round your tongue.”
“Splendid! Now once again—a little more haughtily.”
Joan regarded her with affectionate approval.
“It’s wonderful!” she said. “You might have been doing it all your life.”
“What are you laughing at?” asked Aline.
“Nothing”, said Joan. “I was just thinking of something. There’s a young man who lives on the floor above this, and I was lecturing him yesterday on enterprise. I told him to go and find something exciting to do. I wonder what he would say if he knew how thoroughly I am going to practice what I preach!”
In the morning following Aline’s visit to Joan Valentine, Ashe sat in his room, the Morning Post on the table before him. The heady influence of Joan had not yet ceased to work within him; and he proposed, in pursuance of his promise to her, to go carefully through the columns of advertisements, however pessimistic he might feel concerning the utility of that action.
His first glance assured him that the vast fortunes of the philanthropists, whose acquaintance he had already made in print, were not yet exhausted. Brian MacNeill still dangled his gold before the public; so did Angus Bruce; so did Duncan Macfarlane and Wallace Mackintosh and Donald MacNab. They still had the money and they still wanted to give it away.
Ashe was reading listlessly down the column when, from the mass of advertisements, one of an unusual sort detached itself.
Young Man of good appearance, who is poor and reckless,
to undertake a delicate and dangerous enterprise.
Good pay for the right man.
Apply between the hours of ten and twelve at offices of
Mainprice, Mainprice & Boole, 3, Denvers Street, Strand.
And as he read it, half past ten struck on the little clock on his mantelpiece. It was probably this fact that decided Ashe. If he had been compelled to postpone his visit to the offices of Messrs Mainprice, Mainprice & Boole until the afternoon, it is possible that barriers of laziness might have reared themselves in the path of adventure; for Ashe, an adventurer at heart, was also uncommonly lazy. As it was, however, he could make an immediate start.
Pausing but to put on his shoes, and having satisfied himself by a glance in the mirror that his appearance was reasonably good, he seized his hat, shot out of the narrow mouth of Arundell Street like a shell, and scrambled into a taxicab, with the feeling that—short of murder—they could not make it too delicate and dangerous for him.
He was conscious of strange thrills. This, he told himself, was the only possible mode of life with spring in the air. He had always been partial to those historical novels in which the characters are perpetually vaulting on chargers and riding across country on perilous errands. This leaping into taxicabs to answer stimulating advertisements in the Morning Post was very much the same sort of thing. It was with fine fervor animating him that he entered the gloomy offices of Mainprice, Mainprice & Boole. His brain was afire and he felt ready for anything.
“I have come in ans—” he began, to the diminutive office boy, who seemed to be the nearest thing visible to a Mainprice or a Boole.
“Siddown. Gottatakeyerturn”, said the office boy; and for the first time Ashe perceived that the ante-room in which he stood was crowded to overflowing.
This, in the circumstances, was something of a damper. He had pictured himself, during his ride in the cab, striding into the office and saying. “The delicate and dangerous enterprise. Lead me to it!” He had not realized until now that he was not the only man in London who read the advertisement columns of the Morning Post, and for an instant his heart sank at the sight of all this competition. A second and more comprehensive glance at his rivals gave him confidence.
The Wanted column of the morning paper is a sort of dredger, which churns up strange creatures from the mud of London’s underworld. Only in response to the dredger’s operations do they come to the surface in such numbers as to be noticeable, for as a rule they are of a solitary habit and shun company; but when they do come they bring with them something of the horror of the depths.
It is the saddest spectacle in the world—that of the crowd collected by a Wanted advertisement. They are so palpably not wanted by anyone for any purpose whatsoever; yet every time they gather together with a sort of hopeful hopelessness. What they were originally—the units of these collections—Heaven knows. Fate has battered out of them every trace of individuality. Each now is exactly like his neighbor—no worse; no better.
Ashe, as he sat and watched them, was filled with conflicting emotions. One-half of him, thrilled with the glamour of adventure, was chafing at the delay, and resentful of these poor creatures as of so many obstacles to the beginning of all the brisk and exciting things that lay behind the mysterious brevity of the advertisement; the other, pitifully alive to the tragedy of the occasion, was grateful for the delay.
On the whole, he was glad to feel that if one of these derelicts did not secure the “good pay for the right man”, it would not be his fault. He had been the last to arrive, and he would be the last to pass through that door which was the gateway of adventure, the door with ‘Mr Boole’ inscribed on its ground glass, behind which sat the author of the mysterious request for assistance, interviewing applicants. It would be through their own shortcomings—not because of his superior attractions—if they failed to please that unseen arbiter.
That they were so failing was plain. Scarcely had one scarred victim of London’s unkindness passed through before the bell would ring; the office boy, who, in the intervals of frowning sternly on the throng, as much as to say that he would stand no nonsense, would cry, “Next!” and another dull-eyed wreck would drift through, to be followed a moment later by yet another. The one fact at present ascertainable concerning the unknown searcher for reckless young men of good appearance was that he appeared to be possessed of considerable decision of character, a man who did not take long to make up his mind. He was rejecting applicants now at the rate of two a minute.
Expeditious though he was, he kept Ashe waiting for a considerable time. It was not until the hands of the fat clock over the door pointed to twenty minutes past eleven that the office boy’s “Next!” found him the only survivor. He gave his clothes a hasty smack with the palm of his hand and his hair a fleeting dab to accentuate his good appearance, and turned the handle of the door of fate.
The room assigned by the firm to their Mr Boole for his personal use was a small and dingy compartment, redolent of that atmosphere of desolation which lawyers alone know how to achieve. It gave the impression of not having been swept since the foundation of the firm, in the year 1786. There was one small window, covered with grime. It was one of those windows you see only in lawyers’ offices. Possibly some reckless Mainprice or harebrained Boole had opened it in a fit of mad excitement induced by the news of the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815, and had been instantly expelled from the firm. Since then, no one had dared to tamper with it.
Gazing through this window—or, rather, gazing at it, for X-rays could hardly have succeeded in actually penetrating the alluvial deposits on the glass—was a little man. As Ashe entered, he turned and looked at him as though he hurt him rather badly in some tender spot.
Ashe was obliged to own to himself that he felt a little nervous. It is not every day that a young man of good appearance, who has led a quiet life, meets face to face one who is prepared to pay him well for doing something delicate and dangerous. To Ashe the sensation was entirely novel. The most delicate and dangerous act he had performed to date had been the daily mastication of Mrs Bell’s breakfast—included in the rent. Yes, he had to admit it—he was nervous: and the fact that he was nervous made him hot and uncomfortable.
To judge him by his appearance, the man at the window was also hot and uncomfortable. He was a little, truculent-looking man, and his face at present was red with a flush that sat unnaturally on a normally lead-colored face. His eyes looked out from under thick gray eyebrows with an almost tortured expression. This was partly owing to the strain of interviewing Ashe’s preposterous predecessors, but principally to the fact that the little man had suddenly been seized with acute indigestion, a malady to which he was peculiarly subject.
He removed from his mouth the black cigar he was smoking, inserted a digestive tabloid, and replaced the cigar. Then he concentrated his attention on Ashe. As he did so the hostile expression of his face became modified. He looked surprised and—grudgingly—pleased.
“Well, what do you want?” he said.
“I came in answer to—”
“In answer to my advertisement? I had given up hope of seeing anything part human. I thought you must be one of the clerks. You’re certainly more like what I advertised for. Of all the seedy bunches of dead beats I ever struck, the aggregation I’ve just been interviewing was the seediest! When I spend good money in advertising for a young man of good appearance, I want a young man of good appearance—not a tramp of fifty-five.”
Ashe was sorry for his predecessors, but he was bound to admit that they certainly had corresponded somewhat faithfully to the description just given. The comparative cordiality of his own reception removed the slight nervousness that had been troubling him. He began to feel confident—almost jaunty.
“I’m through”, said the little man wearily. “I’ve had enough of interviewing applicants. You’re the last one I’ll see. Are there any more hobos outside?”
“Not when I came in.”
“Then we’ll get down to business. I’ll tell you what I want done, and if you are willing you can do it; if you are not willing you can leave it—and go to the devil! Sit down.”
Ashe sat down. He resented the little man’s tone, but this was not the moment for saying so. His companion scrutinized him narrowly.
“So far as appearance goes”, he said, “you are what I want.” Ashe felt inclined to bow. “Whoever takes on this job has got to act as my valet, and you look like a valet.” Ashe felt less inclined to bow.
“You’re tall and thin and ordinary-looking. Yes; so far as appearance goes, you fill the bill.”
It seemed to Ashe that it was time to correct an impression the little man appeared to have formed.
“I am afraid”, he said, “if all you want is a valet, you will have to look elsewhere. I got the idea from your advertisement that something rather more exciting was in the air. I can recommend you to several good employment agencies if you wish.” He rose. “Good-morning!” he said.
He would have liked to fling the massive pewter inkwell at this little creature who had so keenly disappointed him.
“Sit down!” snapped the other.
Ashe resumed his seat. The hope of adventure dies hard on a Spring morning when one is twenty-six, and he had the feeling that there was more to come.
“Don’t be a damned fool!” said the little man. “Of course I’m not asking you to be a valet and nothing else.”
“You would want me to do some cooking and plain sewing on the side, perhaps?”
Their eyes met in a hostile glare. The flush on the little man’s face deepened.
“Are you trying to get fresh with me?” he demanded dangerously.
“Yes”, said Ashe.
The answer seemed to disconcert his adversary. He was silent for a moment.
“Well”, he said at last, “maybe it’s all for the best. If you weren’t full of gall probably you wouldn’t have come here at all; and whoever takes on this job of mine has got to have gall if he has nothing else. I think we shall suit each other.”
“What is the job?”
The little man’s face showed doubt and perplexity.
“It’s awkward. If I’m to make the thing clear to you I’ve got to trust you. And I don’t know a thing about you. I wish I had thought of that before I inserted the advertisement.”
Ashe appreciated the difficulty.
“Couldn’t you make an A – B case out of it?”
“Maybe I could if I knew what an A – B case was.”
“Call the people mixed up in it A and B.”
“And forget, halfway through, who was which! No; I guess I’ll have to trust you.”
“I’ll play square.”
The little man fastened his eyes on Ashe’s in a piercing stare. Ashe met them smilingly. His spirits, always fairly cheerful, had risen high by now. There was something about the little man, in spite of his brusqueness and ill temper, which made him feel flippant.
“Pure white!” said Ashe.
“My soul! And this”—he thumped the left section of his waistcoat—”solid gold. You may fire when ready, Gridley. Proceed, professor.”
“I don’t know where to begin.”
“Without presuming to dictate, why not at the beginning?”
“It’s all so darned complicated that I don’t rightly know which is the beginning. Well, see here . . . I collect scarabs. I’m crazy about scarabs. Ever since I quit business, you might say that I have practically lived for scarabs.”
“Though it sounds like an unkind thing to say of anyone”, said Ashe. “Incidentally, what are scarabs?” He held up his hand. “Wait! It all comes back to me. Expensive classical education, now bearing belated fruit. Scarabaeus—Latin; noun, nominative—a beetle. Scarabaee—evocative—O you beetle! Scarabaeum—accusative—the beetle. Scarabaei—of the beetle. Scarabaeo—to or for the beetle. I remember now. Egypt—Rameses—pyramids—sacred scarabs! Right!”
“Well, I guess I’ve gotten together the best collection of scarabs outside the British Museum, and some of them are worth what you like to me. I don’t reckon money when it comes to a question of my scarabs. Do you understand?”
Displeasure clouded the little man’s face.
“My name is not Mike.”
“I used the word figuratively, as it were.”
“Well, don’t do it again. My name is J Preston Peters, and Mr Peters will do as well as anything else when you want to attract my attention.”
“Mine is Marson. You were saying, Mr Peters—?”
“Well, it’s this way”, said the little man.
Shakespeare and Pope have both emphasized the tediousness of a twice-told tale; the Episode of the Stolen Scarab need not be repeated at this point, though it must be admitted that Mr Peters’ version of it differed considerably from the calm, dispassionate description the author, in his capacity of official historian, has given earlier in the story.
In Mr Peters’ version the Earl of Emsworth appeared as a smooth and purposeful robber, a sort of elderly Raffles, worming his way into the homes of the innocent, and only sparing that portion of their property which was too heavy for him to carry away. Mr Peters, indeed, specifically described the Earl of Emsworth as an oily old second-story man.
It took Ashe some little time to get a thorough grasp of the tangled situation; but he did it at last.
Only one point perplexed him.
“You want to hire somebody to go to this castle and get this scarab back for you. I follow that. But why must he go as your valet?”
“That’s simple enough. You don’t think I’m asking him to buy a black mask and break in, do you? I’m making it as easy for him as possible. I can’t take a secretary down to the castle, for everybody knows that, now I’ve retired, I haven’t got a secretary; and if I engaged a new one and he was caught trying to steal my scarab from the earl’s collection, it would look suspicious. But a valet is different. Anyone can get fooled by a crook valet with bogus references.”
“I see. There’s just one other point: Suppose your accomplice does get caught—what then?”
“That”, said Mr Peters, “is the catch; and it’s just because of that I am offering good pay to my man. We’ll suppose, for the sake of argument, that you accept the contract and get caught. Well, if that happens you’ve got to look after yourself. I couldn’t say a word. If I did it would all come out, and so far as the breaking off of my daughter’s engagement to young Threepwood is concerned, it would be just as bad as though I had tried to get the thing back myself.
“You’ve got to bear that in mind. You’ve got to remember it if you forget everything else. I don’t appear in this business in any way whatsoever. If you get caught you take what’s coming to you without a word. You can’t turn round and say: ‘I am innocent. Mr Peters will explain all’—because Mr Peters certainly won’t. Mr Peters won’t utter a syllable of protest if they want to hang you.
“No; if you go into this, young man, you go into it with your eyes open. You go into it with a full understanding of the risks—because you think the reward, if you are successful, makes the taking of those risks worth while. You and I know that what you are doing isn’t really stealing; it’s simply a tactful way of getting back my own property. But the judge and jury will have different views.”
“I am beginning to understand”, said Ashe thoughtfully, “why you called the job delicate and dangerous.”
Certainly it had been no overstatement. As a writer of detective stories for the British office boy, he had imagined in his time many undertakings that might be so described, but few to which the description was more admirably suited.
“It is”, said Mr Peters; “and that is why I’m offering good pay. Whoever carries this job through gets one thousand pounds.”
“One thousand pounds—five thousand dollars!”
“When do I begin?”
“You’ll do it?”
“For five thousand dollars I certainly will.”
“With your eyes open?”
A look of positive geniality illuminated Mr Peters’ pinched features. He even went so far as to pat Ashe on the shoulder.
“Good boy!” he said. “Meet me at Paddington Station at four o’clock on Friday. And if there’s anything more you want to know come round to this address.”
There remained the telling of Joan Valentine; for it was obviously impossible not to tell her. When you have revolutionized your life at the bidding of another you cannot well conceal the fact, as though nothing had happened. Ashe had not the slightest desire to conceal the fact. On the contrary, he was glad to have such a capital excuse for renewing the acquaintance.
He could not tell her, of course, the secret details of the thing. Naturally those must remain hidden. No, he would just go airily in and say:
“You know what you told me about doing something new? Well, I’ve just got a job as a valet.”
So he went airily in and said it.
“To whom?” said Joan.
“To a man named Peters—an American.”
Women are trained from infancy up to conceal their feelings. Joan did not start or otherwise express emotion.
“Not Mr J Preston Peters?”
“Yes. Do you know him? What a remarkable thing.”
“His daughter”, said Joan, “has just engaged me as a lady’s maid.”
“It will not be quite the same thing as three years ago”, Joan explained. “It is just a cheap way of getting a holiday. I used to know Miss Peters very well, you see. It will be more like traveling as her guest.”
“But—but—” Ashe had not yet overcome his amazement.
“But what an extraordinary coincidence!”
“Yes. By the way, how did you get the situation? And what put it into your head to be a valet at all? It seems such a curious thing for you to think of doing.”
Ashe was embarrassed.
“I—I—well, you see, the experience will be useful to me, of course, in my writing.”
“Oh! Are you thinking of taking up my line of work? Dukes?”
“No, no—not exactly that.”
“It seems so odd. How did you happen to get in touch with Mr Peters?”
“Oh, I answered an advertisement.”
Ashe was becoming conscious of an undercurrent of something not altogether agreeable in the conversation. It lacked the gay ease of their first interview. He was not apprehensive lest she might have guessed his secret. There was, he felt, no possible means by which she could have done that. Yet the fact remained that those keen blue eyes of hers were looking at him in a peculiar and penetrating manner. He felt damped.
“It will be nice, being together”, he said feebly.
“Very!” said Joan.
There was a pause.
“I thought I would come and tell you.”
There was another pause.
“It seems so funny that you should be going out as a lady’s maid.”
“But, of course, you have done it before.”
“The really extraordinary thing is that we should be going to the same people.”
“It—it’s remarkable, isn’t it?”
Ashe reflected. No; he did not appear to have any further remarks to make.
“Good-by for the present”, he said.
Ashe drifted out. He was conscious of a wish that he understood girls. Girls, in his opinion, were odd.
When he had gone Joan Valentine hurried to the door and, having opened it an inch, stood listening. When the sound of his door closing came to her she ran down the stairs and out into Arundell Street. She went to the Hotel Mathis.
“I wonder”, she said to the sad-eyed waiter, “if you have a copy of the Morning Post?”
The waiter, a child of romantic Italy, was only too anxious to oblige youth and beauty. He disappeared and presently returned with a crumpled copy. Joan thanked him with a bright smile.
Back in her room, she turned to the advertisement pages. She knew that life was full of what the unthinking call coincidences; but the miracle of Ashe having selected by chance the father of Aline Peters as an employer was too much of a coincidence for her. Suspicion furrowed her brow.
It did not take her long to discover the advertisement that had sent Ashe hurrying in a taxicab to the offices of Messrs Mainprice, Mainprice & Boole. She had been looking for something of the kind.
She read it through twice and smiled. Everything was very clear to her. She looked at the ceiling above her and shook her head.
“You are quite a nice young man, Mr Marson”, she said softly; “but you mustn’t try to jump my claim. I dare say you need that money too; but I’m afraid you must go without. I am going to have it—and nobody else!”
The four-fifteen express slid softly out of Paddington Station and Ashe Marson settled himself in the corner seat of his second-class compartment. Opposite him Joan Valentine had begun to read a magazine. Along the corridor, in a first-class smoking compartment, Mr Peters was lighting a big black cigar. Still farther along the corridor, in a first-class non-smoking compartment, Aline Peters looked through the window and thought of many things.
In English trains the tipping classes travel first; valets, lady’s maids, footmen, nurses, and head stillroom maids, second; and housemaids, grooms, and minor and inferior stillroom maids, third. But for these social distinctions, the whole fabric of society, would collapse and anarchy stalk naked through the land—as in the United States.
Ashe was feeling remarkably light-hearted. He wished he had not bought Joan that magazine and thus deprived himself temporarily of the pleasure of her conversation; but that was the only flaw in his happiness. With the starting of the train, which might be considered the formal and official beginning of the delicate and dangerous enterprise on which he had embarked, he had definitely come to the conclusion that the life adventurous was the life for him. He had frequently suspected this to be the case, but it had required the actual experiment to bring certainty.
Almost more than physical courage, the ideal adventurer needs a certain lively inquisitiveness, the quality of not being content to mind his own affairs; and in Ashe this quality was highly developed. From boyhood up he had always been interested in things that were none of his business. And it is just that attribute which the modern young man, as a rule, so sadly lacks.
The modern young man may do adventurous things if they are thrust on him; but left to himself he will edge away uncomfortably and look in the other direction when the goddess of adventure smiles at him. Training and tradition alike pluck at his sleeve and urge him not to risk making himself ridiculous. And from sheer horror of laying himself open to the charge of not minding his own business he falls into a stolid disregard of all that is out of the ordinary and exciting. He tells himself that the shriek from the lonely house he passed just now was only the high note of some amateur songstress, and that the maiden in distress whom he saw pursued by the ruffian with a knife was merely earning the salary paid her by some motion-picture firm. And he proceeds on his way, looking neither to left nor right.
Ashe had none of this degenerate coyness toward adventure. Though born within easy distance of Boston and deposited by circumstances in London, he possessed, nevertheless, to a remarkable degree, that quality so essentially the property of the New Yorker—the quality known, for want of a more polished word, as rubber. It is true that it had needed the eloquence of Joan Valentine to stir him from his groove; but that was because he was also lazy. He loved new sights and new experiences. Yes; he was happy. The rattle of the train shaped itself into a lively march. He told himself that he had found the right occupation for a young man in the Spring.
Joan, meantime, intrenched behind her magazine, was also busy with her thoughts. She was not reading the magazine; she held it before her as a protection, knowing that if she laid it down Ashe would begin to talk. And just at present she had no desire for conversation. She, like Ashe, was contemplating the immediate future, but, unlike him, was not doing so with much pleasure. She was regretting heartily that she had not resisted the temptation to uplift this young man and wishing that she had left him to wallow in the slothful peace in which she had found him.
It is curious how frequently in this world our attempts to stimulate and uplift swoop back on us and smite us like boomerangs. Ashe’s presence was the direct outcome of her lecture on enterprise, and it added a complication to an already complicated venture.
She did her best to be fair to Ashe. It was not his fault that he was about to try to deprive her of five thousand dollars, which she looked on as her personal property; but illogically she found herself feeling a little hostile.
She glanced furtively at him over the magazine, choosing by ill chance a moment when he had just directed his gaze at her. Their eyes met and there was nothing for it but to talk; so she tucked away her hostility in a corner of her mind, where she could find it again when she wanted it, and prepared for the time being to be friendly. After all, except for the fact that he was her rival, this was a pleasant and amusing young man, and one for whom, until he made the announcement that had changed her whole attitude toward him, she had entertained a distinct feeling of friendship—nothing warmer.
There was something about him that made her feel that she would have liked to stroke his hair in a motherly way and straighten his tie, and have cozy chats with him in darkened rooms by the light of open fires, and make him tell her his inmost thoughts, and stimulate him to do something really worth while with his life; but this, she held, was merely the instinct of a generous nature to be kind and helpful even to a comparative stranger.
“Well, Mr Marson”, she said, “Here we are!”
“Exactly what I was thinking”, said Ashe.
He was conscious of a marked increase in the exhilaration the starting of the expedition had brought to him. At the back of his mind he realized there had been all along a kind of wistful resentment at the change in this girl’s manner toward him. During the brief conversation when he had told her of his having secured his present situation, and later, only a few minutes back, on the platform of Paddington Station, he had sensed a coldness, a certain hostility—so different from her pleasant friendliness at their first meeting.
She had returned now to her earlier manner and he was surprised at the difference it made. He felt somehow younger, more alive. The lilt of the train’s rattle changed to a gay ragtime. This was curious, because Joan was nothing more than a friend. He was not in love with her. One does not fall in love with a girl whom one has met only three times. One is attracted—yes; but one does not fall in love.
A moment’s reflection enabled him to diagnose his sensations correctly. This odd impulse to leap across the compartment and kiss Joan was not love. It was merely the natural desire of a good-hearted young man to be decently chummy with his species.
“Well, what do you think of it all, Mr Marson?” said Joan. “Are you sorry or glad that you let me persuade you to do this perfectly mad thing? I feel responsible for you, you know. If it had not been for me you would have been comfortably in Arundell Street, writing your Wand of Death.”
“You don’t feel any misgivings now that you are actually committed to domestic service?”
Joan, against her will, smiled approval on this uncompromising attitude. This young man might be her rival, but his demeanor on the eve of perilous times appealed to her. That was the spirit she liked and admired—that reckless acceptance of whatever might come. It was the spirit in which she herself had gone into the affair and she was pleased to find that it animated Ashe also—though, to be sure, it had its drawbacks. It made his rivalry the more dangerous. This reflection injected a touch of the old hostility into her manner.
“I wonder whether you will continue to feel so brave.”
“What do you mean?”
Joan perceived that she was in danger of going too far. She had no wish to unmask Ashe at the expense of revealing her own secret. She must resist the temptation to hint that she had discovered his.
“I meant”, she said quickly, “that from what I have seen of him Mr Peters seems likely to be a rather trying man to work for.”
Ashe’s face cleared. For a moment he had almost suspected that she had guessed his errand.
“Yes. I imagine he will be. He is what you might call quick-tempered. He has dyspepsia, you know.”
“What he wants is plenty of fresh air and no cigars, and a regular course of those Larsen Exercises that amused you so much.”
“Are you going to try and persuade Mr Peters to twist himself about like that? Do let me see it if you do.”
“I wish I could.”
“Do suggest it to him.”
“Don’t you think he would resent it from a valet?”
“I keep forgetting that you are a valet. You look so unlike one.”
“Old Peters didn’t think so. He rather complimented me on my appearance. He said I was ordinary-looking.”
“I shouldn’t have called you that. You look so very strong and fit.”
“Surely there are muscular valets?”
“Well, yes; I suppose there are.”
Ashe looked at her. He was thinking that never in his life had he seen a girl so amazingly pretty. What it was that she had done to herself was beyond him; but something, some trick of dress, had given her a touch of the demure that made her irresistible. She was dressed in sober black, the ideal background for her fairness.
“While on the subject”, he said, “I suppose you know you don’t look in the least like a lady’s maid? You look like a disguised princess.”
“That’s very nice of you, Mr Marson, but you’re quite wrong. Anyone could tell I was a lady’s maid, a mile away. You aren’t criticizing the dress, surely?”
“The dress is all right. It’s the general effect. I don’t think your expression is right. It’s—it’s—there’s too much attack in it. You aren’t meek enough.”
Joan’s eyes opened wide.
“Meek! Have you ever seen an English lady’s maid, Mr Marson?”
“Why, no; now that I come to think of it, I don’t believe I have.”
“Well, let me tell you that meekness is her last quality. Why should she be meek? Doesn’t she go in after the groom of the chambers?”
“Go in? Go in where?”
“In to dinner.” She smiled at the sight of his bewildered face. “I’m afraid you don’t know much about the etiquette of the new world you have entered so rashly. Didn’t you know that the rules of precedence among the servants of a big house in England are more rigid and complicated than in English society?”
“I’m not joking. You try going in to dinner out of your proper place when we get to Blandings and see what happens. A public rebuke from the butler is the least you could expect.”
A bead of perspiration appeared on Ashe’s forehead.
“Heavens!” he whispered. “If a butler publicly rebuked me I think I should commit suicide. I couldn’t survive it.”
He stared, with fallen jaw, into the abyss of horror into which he had leaped so light-heartedly. The servant problem, on this large scale, had been nonexistent for him until now. In the days of his youth, at Mayling, Massachusetts, his needs had been ministered to by a muscular Swede. Later, at Oxford, there had been his ‘scout’ and his bed maker, harmless persons both, provided you locked up your whisky. And in London, his last phase, a succession of servitors of the type of the disheveled maid at Number Seven had tended him.
That, dotted about the land of his adoption, there were houses in which larger staffs of domestics were maintained, he had been vaguely aware. Indeed, in “Gridley Quayle, Investigator; the Adventure of the Missing Marquis”—number four of the series—he had drawn a picture of the home life of a duke, in which a butler and two powdered footmen had played their parts; but he had had no idea that rigid and complicated rules of etiquette swayed the private lives of these individuals. If he had given the matter a thought he had supposed that when the dinner hour arrived the butler and the two footmen would troop into the kitchen and squash in at the table wherever they found room.
“Tell me”, he said. “Tell me all you know. I feel as though I had escaped a frightful disaster.”
“You probably have. I don’t suppose there is anything so terrible as a snub from a butler.”
“If there is I can’t think of it. When I was at Oxford I used to go and stay with a friend of mine who had a butler that looked like a Roman emperor in swallowtails. He terrified me. I used to grovel to the man. Please give me all the pointers you can.”
“Well, as Mr Peters’ valet, I suppose you will be rather a big man.”
“I shan’t feel it.”
“However large the house party is, Mr Peters is sure to be the principal guest; so your standing will be correspondingly magnificent. You come after the butler, the housekeeper, the groom of the chambers, Lord Emsworth’s valet, Lady Ann Warblington’s lady’s maid—”
“Who is she?”
“Lady Ann? Lord Emsworth’s sister. She has lived with him since his wife died. What was I saying? Oh, yes! After them come the honorable Frederick Threepwood’s valet and myself—and then you.”
“I’m not so high up then, after all?”
“Yes, you are. There’s a whole crowd who come after you. It all depends on how many other guests there are besides Mr Peters.”
“I suppose I charge in at the head of a drove of housemaids and scullery maids?”
“My dear Mr Marson, if a housemaid or a scullery maid tried to get into the steward’s room and have her meals with us, she would be—”
“Rebuked by the butler?”
“Lynched, I should think. Kitchen maids and scullery maids eat in the kitchen. Chauffeurs, footmen, under-butler, pantry boys, hall boy, odd man and steward’s-room footman take their meals in the servants’ hall, waited on by the hall boy. The stillroom maids have breakfast and tea in the stillroom, and dinner and supper in the hall. The housemaids and nursery maids have breakfast and tea in the housemaid’s sitting-room, and dinner and supper in the hall. The head housemaid ranks next to the head stillroom maid. The laundry maids have a place of their own near the laundry, and the head laundry maid ranks above the head housemaid. The chef has his meals in a room of his own near the kitchen. Is there anything else I can tell you, Mr Marson?”
Ashe was staring at her with vacant eyes. He shook his head dumbly.
“We stop at Swindon in half an hour”, said Joan softly. “Don’t you think you would be wise to get out there and go straight back to London, Mr Marson? Think of all you would avoid!”
Ashe found speech.
“It’s a nightmare!”
“You would be far happier in Arundell Street. Why don’t you get out at Swindon and go back?”
Ashe shook his head.
“I can’t. There’s—there’s a reason.”
Joan picked up her magazine again. Hostility had come out from the corner into which she had tucked it away and was once more filling her mind. She knew it was illogical, but she could not help it. For a moment, during her revelations of servants’ etiquette, she had allowed herself to hope that she had frightened her rival out of the field, and the disappointment made her feel irritable. She buried herself in a short story, and countered Ashe’s attempts at renewing the conversation with cold monosyllables, until he ceased his efforts and fell into a moody silence.
He was feeling hurt and angry. Her sudden coldness, following on the friendliness with which she had talked so long, puzzled and infuriated him. He felt as though he had been snubbed, and for no reason.
He resented the defensive magazine, though he had bought it for her himself. He resented her attitude of having ceased to recognize his existence. A sadness, a filmy melancholy, crept over him. He brooded on the unutterable silliness of humanity, especially the female portion of it, in erecting artificial barriers to friendship. It was so unreasonable.
At their first meeting, when she might have been excused for showing defensiveness, she had treated him with unaffected ease. When that meeting had ended there was a tacit understanding between them that all the preliminary awkwardnesses of the first stages of acquaintanceship were to be considered as having been passed; and that when they met again, if they ever did, it would be as friends. And here she was, luring him on with apparent friendliness, and then withdrawing into herself as though he had presumed.
A rebellious spirit took possession of him. He didn’t care! Let her be cold and distant. He would show her that she had no monopoly of those qualities. He would not speak to her until she spoke to him; and when she spoke to him he would freeze her with his courteous but bleakly aloof indifference.
The train rattled on. Joan read her magazine. Silence reigned in the second-class compartment. Swindon was reached and passed. Darkness fell on the land. The journey began to seem interminable to Ashe; but presently there came a creaking of brakes and the train jerked itself to another stop. A voice on the platform made itself heard, calling:
“Market Blandings! Market Blandings Station!”
The village of Market Blandings is one of those sleepy English hamlets that modern progress has failed to touch; except by the addition of a railroad station and a room over the grocer’s shop where moving pictures are on view on Tuesdays and Fridays. The church is Norman and the intelligence of the majority of the natives Paleozoic. To alight at Market Blandings Station in the dusk of a rather chilly Spring day, when the southwest wind has shifted to due east and the thrifty inhabitants have not yet lit their windows, is to be smitten with the feeling that one is at the edge of the world with no friends near.
Ashe, as he stood beside Mr Peters’ baggage and raked the unsympathetic darkness with a dreary eye, gave himself up to melancholy. Above him an oil lamp shed a meager light. Along the platform a small but sturdy porter was juggling with a milk can. The east wind explored Ashe’s system with chilly fingers.
Somewhere out in the darkness into which Mr Peters and Aline had already vanished in a large automobile, lay the castle, with its butler and its fearful code of etiquette. Soon the cart that was to convey him and the trunks thither would be arriving. He shivered.
Out of the gloom and into the feeble rays of the oil lamp came Joan Valentine. She had been away, tucking Aline into the car. She looked warm and cheerful. She was smiling in the old friendly way.
If girls realized their responsibilities they would be so careful when they smiled that they would probably abandon the practice altogether. There are moments in a man’s life when a girl’s smile can have as important results as an explosion of dynamite.
In the course of their brief acquaintance Joan had smiled at Ashe many times, but the conditions governing those occasions had not been such as to permit him to be seriously affected. He had been pleased on such occasions; he had admired her smile in a detached and critical spirit; but he had not been overwhelmed by it. The frame of mind necessary for that result had been lacking.
Now, however, after five minutes of solitude on the depressing platform of Market Blandings Station, he was what the spiritualists call a sensitive subject. He had reached that depth of gloom and bodily discomfort when a sudden smile has all the effect of strong liquor and good news administered simultaneously, warming the blood and comforting the soul, and generally turning the world from a bleak desert into a land flowing with milk and honey.
It is not too much to say that he reeled before Joan’s smile. It was so entirely unexpected. He clutched Mr Peters’ steamer trunk in his emotion. All his resolutions to be cold and distant were swept away. He had the feeling that in a friendless universe here was somebody who was fond of him and glad to see him.
A smile of such importance demands analysis, and in this case repays it; for many things lay behind this smile of Joan Valentine’s on the platform of Market Blandings Station.
In the first place, she had had another of her swift changes of mood, and had once again tucked away hostility into its corner. She had thought it over and had come to the conclusion that as she had no logical grievance against Ashe for anything he had done to be distant to him was the behavior of a cat. Consequently she resolved, when they should meet again, to resume her attitude of good-fellowship. That in itself would have been enough to make her smile.
There was another reason, however, which had nothing to do with Ashe. While she had been tucking Aline into the automobile she met the eye of the driver of that vehicle and had perceived a curious look in it—a look of amazement and sheer terror. A moment, later, when Aline called the driver Freddie, she had understood. No wonder the Honorable Freddie had looked as though he had seen a ghost.
It would be a relief to the poor fellow when, as he undoubtedly would do in the course of the drive, he inquired of Aline the name of her maid and was told that it was Simpson. He would mutter something about “Reminds me of a girl I used to know”, and would brood on the remarkable way in which Nature produces doubles. But he had a bad moment, and it was partly at the recollection of his face that Joan smiled.
A third reason was because the sight of the Honorable Freddie had reminded her that R Jones had said he had written her poetry. That thought, too, had contributed toward the smile which so dazzled Ashe.
Ashe, not being miraculously intuitive, accepted the easier explanation that she smiled because she was glad to be in his company; and this thought, coming on top of his mood of despair and general dissatisfaction with everything mundane, acted on him like some powerful chemical.
In every man’s life there is generally one moment to which in later years he can look back and say: “In this moment I fell in love!” Such a moment came to Ashe now.
Betwixt the stirrup and the ground,
Mercy I asked; mercy I found.
So sings the poet and so it was with Ashe.
In the almost incredibly brief time it took the small but sturdy porter to roll a milk can across the platform and hump it, with a clang, against other milk cans similarly treated a moment before, Ashe fell in love.
The word is so loosely used, to cover a thousand varying shades of emotion—from the volcanic passion of an Antony for a Cleopatra to the tepid preference of a grocer’s assistant for the Irish maid at the second house on Main Street, as opposed to the Norwegian maid at the first house past the post office—the mere statement that Ashe fell in love is not a sufficient description of his feelings as he stood grasping Mr Peters’ steamer trunk. Analysis is required.
From his fourteenth year onward Ashe had been in love many times. His sensations in the case of Joan were neither the terrific upheaval that had caused him, in his fifteenth year, to collect twenty-eight photographs of the heroine of the road company of a musical comedy which had visited the Hayling Opera House, nor the milder flame that had caused him, when at college, to give up smoking for a week and try to read the complete works of Ella Wheeler Wilcox.
His love was something that lay between these two poles.
He did not wish the station platform of Market Blandings to become suddenly congested with red Indians so that he might save Joan’s life; and he did not wish to give up anything at all. But he was conscious—to the very depths of his being—that a future in which Joan did not figure would be so insupportable as not to bear considering; and in the immediate present he very strongly favored the idea of clasping Joan in his arms and kissing her until further notice.
Mingled with these feelings was an excited gratitude to her for coming to him like this, with that electric smile on her face; a stunned realization that she was a thousand times prettier than he had ever imagined; and a humility that threatened to make him loose his clutch on the steamer trunk and roll about at her feet, yapping like a dog.
Gratitude, so far as he could dissect his tangled emotion was the predominating ingredient of his mood. Only once in his life had he felt so passionately grateful to any human being. On that occasion, too, the object of his gratitude had been feminine.
Years before, when a boy in his father’s home in distant Hayling, Massachusetts, those in authority had commanded that he—in his eleventh year and as shy as one can be only at that interesting age—should rise in the presence of a roomful of strangers, adult guests, and recite “The Wreck of the Hesperus”.
He had risen. He had blushed. He had stammered. He had contrived to whisper: “It was the Schooner Hesperus”. And then, in a corner of the room, a little girl, for no properly explained reason, had burst out crying. She had yelled, she had bellowed, and would not be comforted; and in the ensuing confusion Ashe had escaped to the woodpile at the bottom of the garden, saved by a miracle.
All his life he had remembered the gratitude he had felt for that little timely girl, and never until now had he experienced any other similar spasm. But as he looked at Joan he found himself renewing that emotion of fifteen years ago.
She was about to speak. In a sort of trance he watched her lips part. He waited almost reverently for the first words she should speak to him in her new role of the only authentic goddess.
“Isn’t it a shame?” she said. “I’ve just put a penny in the chocolate slot machine—and it’s empty! I’ve a good mind to write to the company.”
Ashe felt as though he were listening to the strains of some grand sweet anthem.
The small but sturdy porter, weary of his work among the milk cans, or perhaps—let us not do him an injustice even in thought—having finished it, approached them.
“The cart from the castle’s here.”
In the gloom beyond him there gleamed a light which had not been there before. The meditative snort of a horse supported his statement. He began to deal as authoritatively with Mr Peters’ steamer trunk as he had dealt with the milk cans.
“At last!” said Joan. “I hope it’s a covered cart. I’m frozen. Let’s go and see.”
Ashe followed her with the gait of an automaton.
Cold is the ogre that drives all beautiful things into hiding. Below the surface of a frost-bound garden there lurk hidden bulbs, which are only biding their time to burst forth in a riot of laughing color; but shivering Nature dare not put forth her flowers until the ogre has gone. Not otherwise does cold suppress love. A man in an open cart on an English Spring night may continue to be in love; but love is not the emotion uppermost in his bosom. It shrinks within him and waits for better times.
The cart was not a covered cart. It was open to the four winds of heaven, of which the one at present active proceeded from the bleak east. To this fact may be attributed Ashe’s swift recovery from the exalted mood into which Joan’s smile had thrown him, his almost instant emergence from the trance. Deep down in him he was aware that his attitude toward Joan had not changed, but his conscious self was too fully occupied with the almost hopeless task of keeping his blood circulating, to permit of thoughts of love. Before the cart had traveled twenty yards he was a mere chunk of frozen misery.
After an eternity of winding roads, darkened cottages, and black fields and hedges, the cart turned in at a massive iron gate, which stood open giving entrance to a smooth gravel drive. Here the way ran for nearly a mile through an open park of great trees and was then swallowed in the darkness of dense shrubberies. Presently to the left appeared lights, at first in ones and twos, shining out and vanishing again; then, as the shrubberies ended and the smooth lawns and terraces began, blazing down on the travelers from a score of windows, with the heartening effect of fires on a winter night.
Against the pale gray sky Blandings Castle stood out like a mountain. It was a noble pile, of Early Tudor building. Its history is recorded in England’s history books and Viollet-le-Duc has written of its architecture. It dominated the surrounding country.
The feature of it which impressed Ashe most at this moment, however, was the fact that it looked warm; and for the first time since the drive began he found himself in a mood that approximated cheerfulness. It was a little early to begin feeling cheerful, he discovered, for the journey was by no means over. Arrived within sight of the castle, the cart began a detour, which, ten minutes later, brought it under an arch and over cobblestones to the rear of the building, where it eventually pulled up in front of a great door.
Ashe descended painfully and beat his feet against the cobbles. He helped Joan to climb down. Joan was apparently in a gentle glow. Women seem impervious to cold.
The door opened. Warm, kitcheny scents came through it. Strong men hurried out to take down the trunks, while fair women, in the shape of two nervous scullery maids, approached Joan and Ashe, and bobbed curtsies. This under more normal conditions would have been enough to unman Ashe; but in his frozen state a mere curtsying scullery maid expended herself harmlessly on him. He even acknowledged the greeting with a kindly nod.
The scullery maids, it seemed, were acting in much the same capacity as the attaches of royalty. One was there to conduct Joan to the presence of Mrs Twemlow, the housekeeper; the other to lead Ashe to where Beach, the butler, waited to do honor to the valet of the castle’s most important guest.
After a short walk down a stone-flagged passage Joan and her escort turned to the right. Ashe’s objective appeared to be located to the left. He parted from Joan with regret. Her moral support would have been welcome.
Presently his scullery maid stopped at a door and tapped thereon. A fruity voice, like old tawny port made audible, said. “Come in!” Ashe’s guide opened the door.
“The gentleman, Mr Beach”, said she, and scuttled away to the less rarefied atmosphere of the kitchen.
Ashe’s first impression of Beach, the butler, was one of tension. Other people, confronted for the first time with Beach, had felt the same. He had that strained air of being on the very point of bursting that one sees in bullfrogs and toy balloons. Nervous and imaginative men, meeting Beach, braced themselves, involuntarily, stiffening their muscles for the explosion. Those who had the pleasure of more intimate acquaintance with him soon passed this stage, just as people whose homes are on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius become immune to fear of eruptions.
As far back as they could remember Beach had always looked as though an apoplectic fit were a matter of minutes; but he never had apoplexy and in time they came to ignore the possibility of it. Ashe, however, approaching him with a fresh eye, had the feeling that this strain could not possibly continue and that within a very short space of time the worst must happen. The prospect of this did much to rouse him from the coma into which he had been frozen by the rigors of the journey.
Butlers as a class seem to grow less and less like anything human in proportion to the magnificence of their surroundings. There is a type of butler employed in the comparatively modest homes of small country gentlemen who is practically a man and a brother; who hobnobs with the local tradesmen, sings a good comic song at the village inn, and in times of crisis will even turn to and work the pump when the water supply suddenly fails.
The greater the house the more does the butler diverge from this type. Blandings Castle was one of the more important of England’s show places, and Beach accordingly had acquired a dignified inertia that almost qualified him for inclusion in the vegetable kingdom. He moved—when he moved at all—slowly. He distilled speech with the air of one measuring out drops of some precious drug. His heavy-lidded eyes had the fixed expression of a statue’s.
With an almost imperceptible wave of a fat white hand, he conveyed to Ashe that he desired him to sit down. With a stately movement of his other hand, he picked up a kettle, which simmered on the hob. With an inclination of his head, he called Ashe’s attention to a decanter on the table.
In another moment Ashe was sipping a whisky toddy, with the feeling that he had been privileged to assist at some mystic rite. Mr Beach, posting himself before the fire and placing his hands behind his back, permitted speech to drip from him.
“I have not the advantage of your name, Mr——”
Ashe introduced himself. Beach acknowledged the information with a half bow.
“You must have had a cold ride, Mr Marson. The wind is in the east.”
Ashe said yes; the ride had been cold.
“When the wind is in the east”, continued Mr Beach, letting each syllable escape with apparent reluctance, “I suffer from my feet.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I suffer from my feet”, repeated the butler, measuring out the drops. “You are a young man, Mr Marson. Probably you do not know what it is to suffer from your feet.” He surveyed Ashe, his whisky toddy and the wall beyond him, with heavy-lidded inscrutability. “Corns!” he said.
Ashe said he was sorry.
“I suffer extremely from my feet—not only corns. I have but recently recovered from an ingrowing toenail. I suffered greatly from my ingrowing toenail. I suffer from swollen joints.”
Ashe regarded this martyr with increasing disfavor. It is the flaw in the character of many excessively healthy young men that, though kind-hearted enough in most respects, they listen with a regrettable feeling of impatience to the confessions of those less happily situated as regards the ills of the flesh. Rightly or wrongly, they hold that these statements should be reserved for the ear of the medical profession, and other and more general topics selected for conversation with laymen.
“I’m sorry”, he said hastily. “You must have had a bad time. Is there a large house party here just now?”
“We are expecting”, said Mr Beach, “a number of guests. We shall in all probability sit down thirty or more to dinner.”
“A responsibility for you”, said Ashe ingratiatingly, well pleased to be quit of the feet topic.
Mr Beach nodded.
“You are right, Mr Marson. Few persons realize the responsibilities of a man in my position. Sometimes, I can assure you, it preys on my mind, and I suffer from nervous headaches.”
Ashe began to feel like a man trying to put out a fire which, as fast as he checks it at one point, breaks out at another.
“Sometimes when I come off duty everything gets blurred. The outlines of objects grow indistinct and misty. I have to sit down in a chair. The pain is excruciating.”
“But it helps you to forget the pain in your feet.”
“No, no. I suffer from my feet simultaneously.”
Ashe gave up the struggle.
“Tell me all about your feet”, he said.
And Mr Beach told him all about his feet.
The pleasantest functions must come to an end, and the moment arrived when the final word on the subject of swollen joints was spoken. Ashe, who had resigned himself to a permanent contemplation of the subject, could hardly believe he heard correctly when, at the end of some ten minutes, his companion changed the conversation.
“You have been with Mr Peters some time, Mr Marson?”
“Eh? Oh! Oh, no only since last Wednesday.”
“Indeed! Might I inquire whom you assisted before that?”
For a moment Ashe did what he would not have believed himself capable of doing—regretted that the topic of feet was no longer under discussion. The question placed him in an awkward position. If he lied and credited himself with a lengthy experience as a valet, he risked exposing himself. If he told the truth and confessed that this was his maiden effort in the capacity of gentleman’s gentleman, what would the butler think? There were objections to each course, but to tell the truth was the easier of the two; so he told it.
“Your first situation?” said Mr Beach. “Indeed!”
“I was—er—doing something else before I met Mr Peters”, said Ashe.
Mr Beach was too well-bred to be inquisitive, but his eyebrows were not.
“Ah!” he said. “?” cried his eyebrows. “?—?—?”
Ashe ignored the eyebrows.
“Something different”, he said.
There was an awkward silence. Ashe appreciated its awkwardness. He was conscious of a grievance against Mr Peters. Why could not Mr Peters have brought him down here as his secretary? To be sure, he had advanced some objection to that course in their conversation at the offices of Mainprice, Mainprice & Boole; but merely a silly, far-fetched objection. He wished he had had the sense to fight the point while there was time; but at the moment when they were arranging plans he had been rather tickled by the thought of becoming a valet. The notion had a pleasing musical-comedy touch about it. Why had he not foreseen the complications that must ensue? He could tell by the look on his face that this confounded butler was waiting for him to give a full explanation. What would he think if he withheld it? He would probably suppose that Ashe had been in prison.
Well, there was nothing to be done about it. If Beach was suspicious, he must remain suspicious. Fortunately the suspicions of a butler do not matter much.
Mr Beach’s eyebrows were still mutely urging him to reveal all, but Ashe directed his gaze at that portion of the room which Mr Beach did not fill. He would be hanged if he was going to let himself be hypnotized by a pair of eyebrows into incriminating himself! He glared stolidly at the pattern of the wallpaper, which represented a number of birds of an unknown species seated on a corresponding number of exotic shrubs.
The silence was growing oppressive. Somebody had to break it soon. And as Mr Beach was still confining himself to the language of the eyebrow and apparently intended to fight it out on that line if it took all Summer, Ashe himself broke it.
It seemed to him as he reconstructed the scene in bed that night that Providence must have suggested the subject to Mr Peters’ indigestion; for the mere mention of his employer’s sufferings acted like magic on the butler.
“I might have had better luck while I was looking for a place”, said Ashe. “I dare say you know how bad-tempered Mr Peters is. He is dyspeptic.”
“So”, responded Mr Beach, “I have been informed.” He brooded for a space. “I, too”, he proceeded, “suffer from my stomach. I have a weak stomach. The lining of my stomach is not what I could wish the lining of my stomach to be.”
“Tell me”, said Ashe gratefully, leaning forward in an attitude of attention, “all about the lining of your stomach.”
It was a quarter of an hour later when Mr Beach was checked in his discourse by the chiming of the little clock on the mantelpiece. He turned round and gazed at it with surprise not unmixed with displeasure.
“So late?” he said. “I shall have to be going about my duties. And you, also, Mr Marson, if I may make the suggestion. No doubt Mr Peters will be wishing to have your assistance in preparing for dinner. If you go along the passage outside you will come to the door that separates our portion of the house from the other. I must beg you to excuse me. I have to go to the cellar.”
Following his directions Ashe came after a walk of a few yards to a green-baize door, which, swinging at his push, gave him a view of what he correctly took to be the main hall of the castle—a wide, comfortable space, ringed with settees and warmed by a log fire burning in a mammoth fireplace. On the right a broad staircase led to the upper regions.
It was at this point that Ashe realized the incompleteness of Mr Beach’s directions. Doubtless, the broad staircase would take him to the floor on which were the bedrooms; but how was he to ascertain, without the tedious process of knocking and inquiring at each door, which was the one assigned to Mr Peters? It was too late to go back and ask the butler for further guidance; already he was on his way to the cellar in quest of the evening’s wine.
As he stood irresolute a door across the hall opened and a man of his own age came out. Through the doorway, which the young man held open for an instant while he answered a question from somebody within, Ashe had a glimpse of glass-topped cases.
Could this be the museum—his goal? The next moment the door, opening a few inches more, revealed the outlying portions of an Egyptian mummy and brought certainty. It flashed across Ashe’s mind that the sooner he explored the museum and located Mr Peters’ scarab, the better. He decided to ask Beach to take him there as soon as he had leisure.
Meantime the young man had closed the museum door and was crossing the hall. He was a wiry-haired, severe-looking young man, with a sharp nose and eyes that gleamed through rimless spectacles—none other, in fact than Lord Emsworth’s private secretary, the Efficient Baxter. Ashe hailed him:
“I say, old man, would you mind telling me how I get to Mr Peters’ room? I’ve lost my bearings.”
He did not reflect that this was hardly the way in which valets in the best society addressed their superiors. That is the worst of adopting what might be called a character part. One can manage the business well enough; it is the dialogue that provides the pitfalls.
Mr Baxter would have accorded a hearty agreement to the statement that this was not the way in which a valet should have spoken to him; but at the moment he was not aware that Ashe was a valet. From his easy mode of address he assumed that he was one of the numerous guests who had been arriving at the castle all day. As he had asked for Mr Peters, he fancied that Ashe must be the Honorable Freddie’s American friend, George Emerson, whom he had not yet met. Consequently he replied with much cordiality that Mr Peters’ room was the second at the left on the second floor.
He said Ashe could not miss it. Ashe said he was much obliged.
“Awfully good of you”, said Ashe.
“Not at all”, said Mr Baxter.
“You lose your way in a place like this”, said Ashe.
“You certainly do”, said Mr Baxter.
Ashe went on his upward path and in a few moments was knocking at the door indicated. And sure enough it was Mr Peters’ voice that invited him to enter.
Mr Peters, partially arrayed in the correct garb for gentlemen about to dine, was standing in front of the mirror, wrestling with his evening tie. As Ashe entered he removed his fingers and anxiously examined his handiwork. It proved unsatisfactory. With a yelp and an oath, he tore the offending linen from his neck.
“Damn the thing!”
It was plain to Ashe that his employer was in no sunny mood. There are few things less calculated to engender sunniness in a naturally bad-tempered man than a dress tie that will not let itself be pulled and twisted into the right shape. Even when things went well, Mr Peters hated dressing for dinner. Words cannot describe his feelings when they went wrong.
There is something to be said in excuse for this impatience: It is a hollow mockery to be obliged to deck one’s person as for a feast when that feast is to consist of a little asparagus and a few nuts.
Mr Peters’ eye met Ashe’s in the mirror.
“Oh, it’s you, is it? Come in, then. Don’t stand staring. Close that door quick! Hustle! Don’t scrape your feet on the floor. Try to look intelligent. Don’t gape. Where have you been all this while? Why didn’t you come before? Can you tie a tie? All right, then—do it!”
Somewhat calmed by the snow-white butterfly-shaped creation that grew under Ashe’s fingers, he permitted himself to be helped into his coat. He picked up the remnant of a black cigar from the dressing-table and relit it.
“I’ve been thinking about you”, he said.
“Yes?” said Ashe.
“Have you located the scarab yet?”
“What the devil have you been doing with yourself then? You’ve had time to collar it a dozen times.”
“I have been talking to the butler.”
“What the devil do you waste time talking to butlers for? I suppose you haven’t even located the museum yet?”
“Yes; I’ve done that.”
“Oh, you have, have you? Well, that’s something. And how do you propose setting about the job?”
“The best plan would be to go there very late at night.”
“Well, you didn’t propose to stroll in in the afternoon, did you? How are you going to find the scarab when you do get in?”
Ashe had not thought of that. The deeper he went into this business the more things did there seem to be in it of which he had not thought.
“I don’t know”, he confessed.
“You don’t know! Tell me, young man, are you considered pretty bright, as Englishmen go?”
“I am not English. I was born near Boston.”
“Oh, you were, were you? You blanked bone-headed, bean-eating boob!” cried Mr Peters, frothing over quite unexpectedly and waving his arms in a sudden burst of fury. “Then if you are an American why don’t you show a little more enterprise? Why don’t you put something over? Why do you loaf about the place as though you were supposed to be an ornament? I want results—and I want them quick!
“I’ll tell you how you can recognize my scarab when you get into the museum. That shameless old green-goods man who sneaked it from me has had the gall, the nerve, to put it all by itself, with a notice as big as a circus poster alongside of it saying that it is a Cheops of the Fourth Dynasty, presented”—Mr Peters choked—”presented by J Preston Peters, Esquire! That’s how you’re going to recognize it.”
Ashe did not laugh, but he nearly dislocated a rib in his effort to abstain from doing so. It seemed to him that this act on Lord Emsworth’s part effectually disposed of the theory that Britons have no sense of humor. To rob a man of his choicest possession and then thank him publicly for letting you have it appealed to Ashe as excellent comedy.
“The thing isn’t even in a glass case”, continued Mr Peters. “It’s lying on an open tray on top of a cabinet of Roman coins. Anybody who was left alone for two minutes in the place could take it! It’s criminal carelessness to leave a valuable scarab about like that. If Lord Jesse James was going to steal my Cheops he might at least have had the decency to treat it as though it was worth something.”
“But it makes it easier for me to get it”, said Ashe consolingly.
“It’s got to be made easy if you are to get it!” snapped Mr Peters. “Here’s another thing: You say you are going to try for it late at night. Well, what are you going to do if anyone catches you prowling round at that time? Have you considered that?”
“You would have to say something, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t chat about the weather, would you? You wouldn’t discuss the latest play? You would have to think up some mighty good reason for being out of bed at that time, wouldn’t you?”
“I suppose so.”
“Oh, you do admit that, do you? Well, what you would say is this: You would explain that I had rung for you to come and read me to sleep. Do you understand?”
“You think that would be a satisfactory explanation of my being in the museum?”
“Idiot! I don’t mean that you’re to say it if you’re caught actually in the museum. If you’re caught in the museum the best thing you can do is to say nothing, and hope that the judge will let you off light because it’s your first offense. You’re to say it if you’re found wandering about on your way there.”
“It sounds thin to me.”
“Does it? Well, let me tell you that it isn’t so thin as you suppose, for it’s what you will actually have to do most nights. Two nights out of three I have to be read to sleep. My indigestion gives me insomnia.” As though to push this fact home, Mr Peters suddenly bent double. “Oof!” he said. “Wow!” He removed the cigar from his mouth and inserted a digestive tabloid. “The lining of my stomach is all wrong”, he added.
It is curious how trivial are the immediate causes that produce revolutions. If Mr Peters had worded his complaint differently Ashe would in all probability have borne it without active protest. He had been growing more and more annoyed with this little person who buzzed and barked and bit at him, yet the idea of definite revolt had not occurred to him. But his sufferings at the hands of Beach, the butler, had reduced him to a state where he could endure no further mention of stomachic linings. There comes a time when our capacity for listening to detailed data about the linings of other people’s stomachs is exhausted.
He looked at Mr Peters sternly. He had ceased to be intimidated by the fiery little man and regarded him simply as a hypochondriac, who needed to be told a few useful facts.
“How do you expect not to have indigestion? You take no exercise and you smoke all day long.”
The novel sensation of being criticized—and by a beardless youth at that—held Mr Peters silent. He started convulsively, but he did not speak. Ashe, on his pet subject, became eloquent. In his opinion dyspeptics cumbered the earth. To his mind they had the choice between health and sickness, and they deliberately chose the latter.
“Your sort of man makes me angry. I know your type inside out. You overwork and shirk exercise, and let your temper run away with you, and smoke strong cigars on an empty stomach; and when you get indigestion as a natural result you look on yourself as a martyr, nourish a perpetual grouch, and make the lives of everybody you meet miserable. If you would put yourself into my hands for a month I would have you eating bricks and thriving on them. Up in the morning, Larsen Exercises, cold bath, a brisk rubdown, sharp walk—”
“Who the devil asked your opinion, you impertinent young hound?” inquired Mr Peters.
“Don’t interrupt—confound you!” shouted Ashe. “Now you have made me forget what I was going to say.”
There was a tense silence. Then Mr Peters began to speak:
“Don’t talk to me like that!”
“I’ll talk to you just—”
Ashe took a step toward the door. “Very well, then”, he said. “I’ll quit! I’m through! You can get somebody else to do this job of yours for you.”
The sudden sagging of Mr Peters’ jaw, the look of consternation that flashed on his face, told Ashe he had found the right weapon—that the game was in his hands. He continued with a feeling of confidence:
“If I had known what being your valet involved I wouldn’t have undertaken the thing for a hundred thousand dollars. Just because you had some idiotic prejudice against letting me come down here as your secretary, which would have been the simple and obvious thing, I find myself in a position where at any moment I may be publicly rebuked by the butler and have the head stillroom maid looking at me as though I were something the cat had brought in.”
His voice trembled with self-pity.
“Do you realize a fraction of the awful things you have let me in for? How on earth am I to remember whether I go in before the chef or after the third footman? I shan’t have a peaceful minute while I’m in this place. I’ve got to sit and listen by the hour to a bore of a butler who seems to be a sort of walking hospital. I’ve got to steer my way through a complicated system of etiquette.
“And on top of all that you have the nerve, the insolence, to imagine that you can use me as a punching bag to work your bad temper off! You have the immortal rind to suppose that I will stand for being nagged and bullied by you whenever your suicidal way of living brings on an attack of indigestion! You have the supreme gall to fancy that you can talk as you please to me!
“Very well! I’ve had enough of it. I resign! If you want this scarab of yours recovered let somebody else do it. I’ve retired from business.”
He took another step toward the door. A shaking hand clutched at his sleeve.
“My boy—my dear boy—be reasonable!”
Ashe was intoxicated with his own oratory. The sensation of bullyragging a genuine millionaire was new and exhilarating. He expanded his chest and spread his feet like a colossus.
“That’s all very well”, he said, coldly disentangling himself from the hand. “You can’t get out of it like that. We have got to come to an understanding. The point is that if I am to be subjected to your—your senile malevolence every time you have a twinge of indigestion, no amount of money could pay me to stop on.”
“My dear boy, it shall not occur again. I was hasty.”
Mr Peters, with agitated fingers, relit the stump of his cigar.
“Throw away that cigar!”
“Throw it away! You say you were hasty. Of course you were hasty; and as long as you abuse your digestion you will go on being hasty. I want something better than apologies. If I am to stop here we must get to the root of things. You must put yourself in my hands as though I were your doctor. No more cigars. Every morning regular exercises.”
“No; stop! Stop! What sort of exercises?”
“I’ll show you to-morrow morning. Brisk walks.”
“I hate walking.”
“No; stop! A cold bath would kill me at my age.”
“It would put new life into you. Do you consent to the cold baths? No? Very well!”
“Yes, yes, yes!”
“All right, then.”
The distant sound of the dinner gong floated in.
“We settled that just in time.” said Ashe.
Mr Peters regarded him fixedly.
“Young man”, he said slowly, “if, after all this, you fail to recover my Cheops for me I’ll—I’ll—By George, I’ll skin you!”
“Don’t talk like that”, said Ashe. “That’s another thing you have got to remember. If my treatment is to be successful you must not let yourself think in that way. You must exercise self-control mentally. You must think beautiful thoughts.”
“The idea of skinning you is a beautiful thought!” said Mr Peters wistfully.
In order that their gayety might not be diminished—and the food turned to ashes in their mouths by the absence from the festive board of Mr Beach, it was the custom for the upper servants at Blandings to postpone the start of their evening meal until dinner was nearly over above-stairs. This enabled the butler to take his place at the head of the table without fear of interruption, except for the few moments when coffee was being served.
Every night shortly before half-past eight—at which hour Mr Beach felt that he might safely withdraw from the dining-room and leave Lord Emsworth and his guests to the care of Merridew, the under-butler, and James and Alfred, the footmen, returning only for a few minutes to lend tone and distinction to the distribution of cigars and liqueurs—those whose rank entitled them to do so made their way to the housekeeper’s room, to pass in desultory conversation the interval before Mr Beach should arrive, and a kitchen maid, with the appearance of one who has been straining at the leash and has at last managed to get free, opened the door, with the announcement: “Mr Beach, if you please, dinner is served.” On which Mr Beach, extending a crooked elbow toward the housekeeper, would say, “Mrs Twemlow!” and lead the way, high and disposedly, down the passage, followed in order of rank by the rest of the company, in couples, to the steward’s room.
For Blandings was not one of those houses—or shall we say hovels?—where the upper servants are expected not only to feed but to congregate before feeding in the steward’s room. Under the auspices of Mr Beach and of Mrs Twemlow, who saw eye to eye with him in these matters, things were done properly at the castle, with the correct solemnity. To Mr Beach and Mrs Twemlow the suggestion that they and their peers should gather together in the same room in which they were to dine would have been as repellent as an announcement from Lady Ann Warblington, the chatelaine, that the house party would eat in the drawing-room.
When Ashe, returning from his interview with Mr Peters, was intercepted by a respectful small boy and conducted to the housekeeper’s room, he was conscious of a sensation of shrinking inferiority akin to his emotions on his first day at school. The room was full and apparently on very cordial terms with itself. Everybody seemed to know everybody and conversation was proceeding in a manner reminiscent of an Old Home Week.
As a matter of fact, the house party at Blandings being in the main a gathering together of the Emsworth clan by way of honor and as a means of introduction to Mr Peters and daughter, the bride-of-the-house-to-be, most of the occupants of the house-keeper’s room were old acquaintances and were renewing interrupted friendships at the top of their voices.
A lull followed Ashe’s arrival and all eyes, to his great discomfort, were turned in his direction. His embarrassment was relieved by Mrs Twemlow, who advanced to do the honors. Of Mrs Twemlow little need be attempted in the way of pen portraiture beyond the statement that she went as harmoniously with Mr Beach as one of a pair of vases or one of a brace of pheasants goes with its fellow. She had the same appearance of imminent apoplexy, the same air of belonging to some dignified and haughty branch of the vegetable kingdom.
“Mr Marson, welcome to Blandings Castle!”
Ashe had been waiting for somebody to say this, and had been a little surprised that Mr Beach had not done so. He was also surprised at the housekeeper’s ready recognition of his identity, until he saw Joan in the throng and deduced that she must have been the source of information.
He envied Joan. In some amazing way she contrived to look not out of place in this gathering. He himself, he felt, had impostor stamped in large characters all over him.
Mrs Twemlow began to make the introductions—a long and tedious process, which she performed relentlessly, without haste and without scamping her work. With each member of the aristocracy of his new profession Ashe shook hands, and on each member he smiled, until his facial and dorsal muscles were like to crack under the strain. It was amazing that so many high-class domestics could be collected into one moderate-sized room.
“Miss Simpson you know”, said Mrs Twemlow, and Ashe was about to deny the charge when he perceived that Joan was the individual referred to. “Mr Judson, Mr Marson. Mr Judson is the Honorable Frederick’s gentleman.”
“You have not the pleasure of our Freddie’s acquaintance as yet, I take it, Mr Marson?” observed Mr Judson genially, a smooth-faced, lazy-looking young man. “Freddie repays inspection.”
“Mr Marson, permit me to introduce you to Mr Ferris, Lord Stockheath’s gentleman.”
Mr Ferris, a dark, cynical man, with a high forehead, shook Ashe by the hand.
“Happy to meet you, Mr Marson.”
“Miss Willoughby, this is Mr Marson, who will take you in to dinner. Miss Willoughby is Lady Mildred Mant’s lady. As of course you are aware, Lady Mildred, our eldest daughter, married Colonel Horace Mant, of the Scots Guards.”
Ashe was not aware, and he was rather surprised that Mrs Twemlow should have a daughter whose name was Lady Mildred; but reason, coming to his rescue, suggested that by ‘our’ she meant the offspring of the Earl of Emsworth and his late countess. Miss Willoughby was a light-hearted damsel, with a smiling face and chestnut hair, done low over her forehead.
Since etiquette forbade that he should take Joan in to dinner, Ashe was glad that at least an apparently pleasant substitute had been provided. He had just been introduced to an appallingly statuesque lady of the name of Chester, Lady Ann Warblington’s own maid, and his somewhat hazy recollections of Joan’s lecture on below-stairs precedence had left him with the impression that this was his destined partner. He had frankly quailed at the prospect of being linked to so much aristocratic hauteur.
When the final introduction had been made conversation broke out again. It dealt almost exclusively, so far as Ashe could follow it, with the idiosyncrasies of the employers of those present. He took it that this happened down the entire social scale below stairs. Probably the lower servants in the servants’ hall discussed the upper servants in the room, and the still lower servants in the housemaids’ sitting-room discussed their superiors of the servants’ hall, and the stillroom gossiped about the housemaids’ sitting-room.
He wondered which was the bottom circle of all, and came to the conclusion that it was probably represented by the small respectful boy who had acted as his guide a short while before. This boy, having nobody to discuss anybody with, presumably sat in solitary meditation, brooding on the odd-job man.
He thought of mentioning this theory to Miss Willoughby, but decided that it was too abstruse for her, and contented himself with speaking of some of the plays he had seen before leaving London. Miss Willoughby was an enthusiast on the drama; and, Colonel Mant’s military duties keeping him much in town, she had had wide opportunities of indulging her tastes. Miss Willoughby did not like the country. She thought it dull.
“Don’t you think the country dull, Mr Marson?”
“I shan’t find it dull here”, said Ashe; and he was surprised to discover, through the medium of a pleased giggle, that he was considered to have perpetrated a compliment.
Mr Beach appeared in due season, a little distrait, as becomes a man who has just been engaged on important and responsible duties.
“Alfred spilled the hock!” Ashe heard him announce to Mrs Twemlow in a bitter undertone. “Within half an inch of his lordship’s arm he spilled it.”
Mrs Twemlow murmured condolences. Mr Beach’s set expression was of one who is wondering how long the strain of existence can be supported.
“Mr Beach, if you please, dinner is served.”
The butler crushed down sad thoughts and crooked his elbow.
Ashe, miscalculating degrees of rank in spite of all his caution, was within a step of leaving the room out of his proper turn; but the startled pressure of Miss Willoughby’s hand on his arm warned him in time. He stopped, to allow the statuesque Miss Chester to sail out under escort of a wizened little man with a horseshoe pin in his tie, whose name, in company with nearly all the others that had been spoken to him since he came into the room, had escaped Ashe’s memory.
“You were nearly making a bloomer!” said Miss Willoughby brightly. “You must be absent-minded, Mr Marson—like his lordship.”
“Is Lord Emsworth absent-minded?”
Miss Willoughby laughed.
“Why, he forgets his own name sometimes! If it wasn’t for Mr Baxter, goodness knows what would happen to him.”
“I don’t think I know Mr Baxter.”
“You will if you stay here long. You can’t get away from him if you’re in the same house. Don’t tell anyone I said so; but he’s the real master here. His lordship’s secretary he calls himself; but he’s really everything rolled into one—like the man in the play.”
Ashe, searching in his dramatic memories for such a person in a play, inquired whether Miss Willoughby meant Pooh-Bah, in “The Mikado”, of which there had been a revival in London recently. Miss Willoughby did mean Pooh-Bah.
“But Nosy Parker is what I call him”, she said. “He minds everybody’s business as well as his own.”
The last of the procession trickled into the steward’s room. Mr Beach said grace somewhat patronizingly. The meal began.
“You’ve seen Miss Peters, of course, Mr Marson?” said Miss Willoughby, resuming conversation with the soup.
“Just for a few minutes at Paddington.”
“Oh! You haven’t been with Mr Peters long, then?”
Ashe began to wonder whether everybody he met was going to ask him this dangerous question.
“Only a day or so.”
“Where were you before that?”
Ashe was conscious of a prickly sensation. A little more of this and he might as well reveal his true mission at the castle and have done with it.
“Oh, I was—that is to say—”
“How are you feeling after the journey, Mr Marson?” said a voice from the other side of the table; and Ashe, looking up gratefully, found Joan’s eyes looking into his with a curiously amused expression.
He was too grateful for the interruption to try to account for this. He replied that he was feeling very well, which was not the case. Miss Willoughby’s interest was diverted to a discussion of the defects of the various railroad systems of Great Britain.
At the head of the table Mr Beach had started an intimate conversation with Mr Ferris, the valet of Lord Stockheath, the Honorable Freddie’s “poor old Percy”—a cousin, Ashe had gathered, of Aline Peters’ husband-to-be. The butler spoke in more measured tones even than usual, for he was speaking of tragedy.
“We were all extremely sorry, Mr Ferris, to read of your misfortune.”
Ashe wondered what had been happening to Mr Ferris.
“Yes, Mr Beach”, replied the valet, “it’s a fact we made a pretty poor show.” He took a sip from his glass. “There is no concealing the fact—I have never tried to conceal it—that poor Percy is not bright.”
Miss Chester entered the conversation.
“I couldn’t see where the girl—what’s her name? was so very pretty. All the papers had pieces where it said she was attractive, and what not; but she didn’t look anything special to me from her photograph in the Mirror. What his lordship could see in her I can’t understand.”
“The photo didn’t quite do her justice, Miss Chester. I was present in court, and I must admit she was svelte—decidedly svelte. And you must recollect that Percy, from childhood up, has always been a highly susceptible young nut. I speak as one who knows him.”
Mr Beach turned to Joan.
“We are speaking of the Stockheath breach-of-promise case, Miss Simpson, of which you doubtless read in the newspapers. Lord Stockheath is a nephew of ours. I fancy his lordship was greatly shocked at the occurrence.”
“He was”, chimed in Mr Judson from down the table. “I happened to overhear him speaking of it to young Freddie. It was in the library on the morning when the judge made his final summing up and slipped it into Lord Stockheath so proper. ‘If ever anything of this sort happens to you, you young scalawag’, he says to Freddie—”
Mr Beach coughed. “Mr Judson!”
“Oh, it’s all right, Mr Beach; we’re all in the family here, in a manner of speaking. It wasn’t as though I was telling it to a lot of outsiders. I’m sure none of these ladies or gentlemen will let it go beyond this room?”
The company murmured virtuous acquiescence.
“He says to Freddie: ‘You young scalawag, if ever anything of this sort happens to you, you can pack up and go on to Canada, for I’ll have nothing more to do with you!’—or words to that effect. And Freddie says: ‘Oh, dash it all, gov’nor, you know—what?'”
However short Mr Judson’s imitation of his master’s voice may have fallen of histrionic perfection, it pleased the company. The room shook with mirth.
“Mr Judson is clever, isn’t he, Mr Marson?” whispered Miss Willoughby, gazing with adoring eyes at the speaker.
Mr Beach thought it expedient to deflect the conversation. By the unwritten law of the room every individual had the right to speak as freely as he wished about his own personal employer; but Judson, in his opinion, sometimes went a trifle too far.
“Tell me, Mr Ferris”, he said, “does his lordship seem to bear it well?”
“Oh, Percy is bearing it well enough.”
Ashe noted as a curious fact that, though the actual valet of any person under discussion spoke of him almost affectionately by his Christian name, the rest of the company used the greatest ceremony and gave him his title with all respect. Lord Stockheath was Percy to Mr Ferris, and the Honorable Frederick Threepwood was Freddie to Mr Judson; but to Ferris, Mr Judson’s Freddie was the Honorable Frederick, and to Judson Mr Ferris’ Percy was Lord Stockheath. It was rather a pleasant form of etiquette, and struck Ashe as somehow vaguely feudal.
“Percy”, went on Mr Ferris, “is bearing it like a little Briton—the damages not having come out of his pocket! It’s his old father—who had to pay them—that’s taking it to heart. You might say he’s doing himself proud. He says it’s brought on his gout again, and that’s why he’s gone to Droitwich instead of coming here. I dare say Percy isn’t sorry.”
“It has been”, said Mr Beach, summing up, “a most unfortunate occurrence. The modern tendency of the lower classes to get above themselves is becoming more marked every day. The young female in this case was, I understand, a barmaid. It is deplorable that our young men should allow themselves to get into such entanglements.”
“The wonder to me”, said the irrepressible Mr Judson, “is that more of these young chaps don’t get put through it. His lordship wasn’t so wide of the mark when he spoke like that to Freddie in the library that time. I give you my word, it’s a mercy young Freddie hasn’t been up against it! When we were in London, Freddie and I”, he went on, cutting through Mr Beach’s disapproving cough, “before what you might call the crash, when his lordship cut off supplies and had him come back and live here, Freddie was asking for it—believe me! Fell in love with a girl in the chorus of one of the theaters. Used to send me to the stage door with notes and flowers every night for weeks, as regular as clockwork.
“What was her name? It’s on the tip of my tongue. Funny how you forget these things! Freddie was pretty far gone. I recollect once, happening to be looking round his room in his absence, coming on a poem he had written to her. It was hot stuff—very hot! If that girl has kept those letters it’s my belief we shall see Freddie following in Lord Stockheath’s footsteps.”
There was a hush of delighted horror round the table.
“Goo!”, said Miss Chester’s escort with unction. “You don’t say so, Mr Judson! It wouldn’t half make them look silly if the Honorable Frederick was sued for breach just now, with the wedding coming on!”
“There is no danger of that.”
It was Joan’s voice, and she had spoken with such decision that she had the ear of the table immediately. All eyes looked in her direction. Ashe was struck with her expression. Her eyes were shining as though she were angry; and there was a flush on her face. A phrase he had used in the train came back to him. She looked like a princess in disguise.
“What makes you say that, Miss Simpson?” inquired Judson, annoyed. He had been at pains to make the company’s flesh creep, and it appeared to be Joan’s aim to undo his work.
It seemed to Ashe that Joan made an effort of some sort as though she were pulling herself together and remembering where she was.
“Well”, she said, almost lamely, “I don’t think it at all likely that he proposed marriage to this girl.”
“You never can tell”, said Judson. “My impression is that Freddie did. It’s my belief that there’s something on his mind these days. Before he went to London with his lordship the other day he was behaving very strange. And since he came back it’s my belief that he has been brooding. And I happen to know he followed the affair of Lord Stockheath pretty closely, for he clipped the clippings out of the paper. I found them myself one day when I happened to be going through his things.”
Beach cleared his throat—his mode of indicating that he was about to monopolize the conversation.
“And in any case, Miss Simpson”, he said solemnly, “with things come to the pass they have come to, and the juries—drawn from the lower classes—in the nasty mood they’re in, it don’t seem hardly necessary in these affairs for there to have been any definite promise of marriage. What with all this socialism rampant, they seem so happy at the idea of being able to do one of us an injury that they give heavy damages without it. A few ardent expressions, and that’s enough for them. You recollect the Havant case, and when young Lord Mount Anville was sued? What it comes to is that anarchy is getting the upper hand, and the lower classes are getting above themselves. It’s all these here cheap newspapers that does it. They tempt the lower classes to get above themselves.
“Only this morning I had to speak severe to that young fellow, James, the footman. He was a good young fellow once and did his work well, and had a proper respect for people; but now he’s gone all to pieces. And why? Because six months ago he had the rheumatism, and had the audacity to send his picture and a testimonial, saying that it had cured him of awful agonies, to Walkinshaw’s Supreme Ointment, and they printed it in half a dozen papers; and it has been the ruin of James. He has got above himself and don’t care for nobody.”
“Well, all I can say is”, resumed Judson, “that I hope to goodness nothing won’t happen to Freddie of that kind; for it’s not every girl that would have him.”
There was a murmur of assent to this truth.
“Now your Miss Peters”, said Judson tolerantly—”she seems a nice little thing.”
“She would be pleased to hear you say so”, said Joan.
“Joan Valentine!” cried Judson, bringing his hands down on the tablecloth with a bang. “I’ve just remembered it. That was the name of the girl Freddie used to write the letters and poems to; and that’s who it is I’ve been trying all along to think you reminded me of, Miss Simpson. You’re the living image of Freddie’s Miss Joan Valentine.”
Ashe was not normally a young man of particularly ready wit; but on this occasion it may have been that the shock of this revelation, added to the fact that something must be done speedily if Joan’s discomposure was not to become obvious to all present, quickened his intelligence. Joan, usually so sure of herself, so ready of resource, had gone temporarily to pieces. She was quite white, and her eyes met Ashe’s with almost a hunted expression.
If the attention of the company was to be diverted, something drastic must be done. A mere verbal attempt to change the conversation would be useless. Inspiration descended on Ashe.
In the days of his childhood in Hayling, Massachusetts, he had played truant from Sunday school again and again in order to frequent the society of one Eddie Waffles, the official bad boy of the locality. It was not so much Eddie’s charm of conversation which had attracted him—though that had been great—as the fact that Eddie, among his other accomplishments, could give a lifelike imitation of two cats fighting in a back yard; and Ashe felt that he could never be happy until he had acquired this gift from the master.
In course of time he had done so. It might be that his absences from Sunday school in the cause of art had left him in later years a trifle shaky on the subject of the Kings of Judah, but his hard-won accomplishment had made him in request at every smoking concert at Oxford; and it saved the situation now.
“Have you ever heard two cats fighting in a back yard?” he inquired casually of his neighbor, Miss Willoughby.
The next moment the performance was in full swing. Young Master Waffles, who had devoted considerable study to his subject, had conceived the combat of his imaginary cats in a broad, almost Homeric, vein. The unpleasantness opened with a low gurgling sound, answered by another a shade louder and possibly more querulous. A momentary silence was followed by a long-drawn note, like rising wind, cut off abruptly and succeeded by a grumbling mutter. The response to this was a couple of sharp howls. Both parties to the contest then indulged in a discontented whining, growing louder and louder until the air was full of electric menace. And then, after another sharp silence, came war, noisy and overwhelming.
Standing at Master Waffles’ side, you could follow almost every movement of that intricate fray, and mark how now one and now the other of the battlers gained a short-lived advantage. It was a great fight. Shrewd blows were taken and given, and in the eye of the imagination you could see the air thick with flying fur. Louder and louder grew the din; and then, at its height, it ceased in one crescendo of tumult, and all was still, save for a faint, angry moaning.
Such was the cat fight of Master Eddie Waffles; and Ashe, though falling short of the master, as a pupil must, rendered it faithfully and with energy.
To say that the attention of the company was diverted from Mr Judson and his remarks by the extraordinary noises which proceeded from Ashe’s lips would be to offer a mere shadowy suggestion of the sensation caused by his efforts. At first, stunned surprise, then consternation, greeted him. Beach, the butler, was staring as one watching a miracle, nearer apparently to apoplexy than ever. On the faces of the others every shade of emotion was to be seen.
That this should be happening in the steward’s room at Blandings Castle was scarcely less amazing than if it had taken place in a cathedral. The upper servants, rigid in their seats, looked at each other, like Cortes’ soldiers—”with a wild surmise”.
The last faint moan of feline defiance died away and silence fell on the room. Ashe turned to Miss Willoughby.
“Just like that!” he said. “I was telling Miss Willoughby”, he added apologetically to Mrs Twemlow, “about the cats in London. They were a great trial.”
For perhaps three seconds his social reputation swayed to and fro in the balance, while the company pondered on what he had done. It was new; but it was humorous—or was it vulgar? There is nothing the English upper servant so abhors as vulgarity. That was what the steward’s room was trying to make up its mind about.
Then Miss Willoughby threw her shapely head back and the squeal of her laughter smote the ceiling. And at that the company made its decision. Everybody laughed. Everybody urged Ashe to give an encore. Everybody was his friend and admirer—everybody but Beach, the butler. Beach, the butler, was shocked to his very core. His heavy-lidded eyes rested on Ashe with disapproval. It seemed to Beach, the butler, that this young man Marson had got above himself.
Ashe found Joan at his side. Dinner was over and the diners were making for the housekeeper’s room.
“Thank you, Mr Marson. That was very good of you and very clever.” Her eyes twinkled. “But what a terrible chance you took! You have made yourself a popular success, but you might just as easily have become a social outcast. As it is, I am afraid Mr Beach did not approve.”
“I’m afraid he didn’t. In a minute or so I’m going to fawn on him and make all well.”
Joan lowered her voice.
“It was quite true, what that odious little man said. Freddie Threepwood did write me letters. Of course I destroyed them long ago.”
“But weren’t you running the risk in coming here that he might recognize you? Wouldn’t that make it rather unpleasant for you?”
“I never met him, you see. He only wrote to me. When he came to the station to meet us this evening he looked startled to see me; so I suppose he remembers my appearance. But Aline will have told him that my name is Simpson.”
“That fellow Judson said he was brooding. I think you ought to put him out of his misery.”
“Mr Judson must have been letting his imagination run away with him. He is out of his misery. He sent a horrid fat man named Jones to see me in London about the letters, and I told him I had destroyed them. He must have let him know that by this time.”
They went into the housekeeper’s room. Mr Beach was standing before the fire. Ashe went up to him. It was not an easy matter to mollify Mr Beach. Ashe tried the most tempting topics. He mentioned swollen feet—he dangled the lining of Mr Beach’s stomach temptingly before his eyes; but the butler was not to be softened. Only when Ashe turned the conversation to the subject of the museum did a flicker of animation stir him.
Mr Beach was fond and proud of the Blandings Castle museum. It had been the means of getting him into print for the first and only time in his life. A year before, a representative of the Intelligencer and Echo, from the neighboring town of Blatchford, had come to visit the castle on behalf of his paper; and he had begun one section of his article with the words: “Under the auspices of Mr Beach, my genial cicerone, I then visited his lordship’s museum—” Mr Beach treasured the clipping in a special writing-desk.
He responded almost amiably to Ashe’s questions. Yes; he had seen the scarab—he pronounced it scayrub—which Mr Peters had presented to his lordship. He understood that his lordship thought very highly of Mr Peters’ scayrub. He had overheard Mr Baxter telling his lordship that it was extremely valuable.
“Mr Beach”, said Ashe, “I wonder whether you would take me to see Lord Emsworth’s museum?”
Mr Beach regarded him heavily.
“I shall be pleased to take you to see his lordship’s museum”, he replied.
One can attribute only to the nervous mental condition following the interview he had had with Ashe in his bedroom the rash act Mr Peters attempted shortly after dinner.
Mr Peters, shortly after dinner, was in a dangerous and reckless mood. He had had a wretched time all through the meal. The Blandings chef had extended himself in honor of the house party, and had produced a succession of dishes, which in happier days Mr Peters would have devoured eagerly. To be compelled by considerations of health to pass these by was enough to damp the liveliest optimist. Mr Peters had suffered terribly. Occasions of feasting and revelry like the present were for him so many battlefields, on which greed fought with prudence.
All through dinner he brooded on Ashe’s defiance and the horrors which were to result from that defiance. One of Mr Peters’ most painful memories was of a two weeks’ visit he had once paid to Mr Muldoon in his celebrated establishment at White Plains. He had been persuaded to go there by a brother millionaire whom, until then, he had always regarded as a friend. The memory of Mr Muldoon’s cold shower baths and brisk system of physical exercise still lingered.
The thought that under Ashe’s rule he was to go through privately very much what he had gone through in the company of a gang of other unfortunates at Muldoon’s froze him with horror. He knew those health cranks who believed that all mortal ailments could be cured by cold showers and brisk walks. They were all alike and they nearly killed you. His worst nightmare was the one where he dreamed he was back at Muldoon’s, leading his horse up that endless hill outside the village.
He would not stand it! He would be hanged if he’d stand it! He would defy Ashe. But if he defied Ashe, Ashe would go away; and then whom could he find to recover his lost scarab?
Mr Peters began to appreciate the true meaning of the phrase about the horns of a dilemma. The horns of this dilemma occupied his attention until the end of the dinner. He shifted uneasily from one to the other and back again. He rose from the table in a thoroughly overwrought condition of mind. And then, somehow, in the course of the evening, he found himself alone in the hall, not a dozen feet from the unlocked museum door.
It was not immediately that he appreciated the significance of this fact. He had come to the hall because its solitude suited his mood. It was only after he had finished a cigar—Ashe could not stop his smoking after dinner—that it suddenly flashed on him that he had ready at hand a solution of all his troubles. A brief minute’s resolute action and the scarab would be his again, and the menace of Ashe a thing of the past. He glanced about him. Yes; he was alone.
Not once since the removal of the scarab had begun to exercise his mind had Mr Peters contemplated for an instant the possibility of recovering it himself. The prospect of the unpleasantness that would ensue had been enough to make him regard such an action as out of the question. The risk was too great to be considered for a moment; but here he was, in a position where the risk was negligible!
Like Ashe, he had always visualized the recovery of his scarab as a thing of the small hours, a daring act to be performed when sleep held the castle in its grip. That an opportunity would be presented to him of walking in quite calmly and walking out again with the Cheops in his pocket, had never occurred to him as a possibility.
Yet now this chance was presenting itself in all its simplicity, and all he had to do was to grasp it. The door of the museum was not even closed. He could see from where he stood that it was ajar.
He moved cautiously in its direction—not in a straight line as one going to a museum, but circuitously as one strolling without an aim. From time to time he glanced over his shoulder. He reached the door, hesitated, and passed it. He turned, reached the door again—and again passed it. He stood for a moment darting his eyes about the hall; then, in a burst of resolution, he dashed for the door and shot in like a rabbit.
At the same moment the Efficient Baxter, who, from the shelter of a pillar on the gallery that ran around two-thirds of the hall, had been eyeing the peculiar movements of the distinguished guest with considerable interest for some minutes, began to descend the stairs.
Rupert Baxter, the Earl of Emsworth’s indefatigable private secretary, was one of those men whose chief characteristic is a vague suspicion of their fellow human beings. He did not suspect them of this or that definite crime; he simply suspected them. He prowled through life as we are told the hosts of Midian prowled.
His powers in this respect were well-known at Blandings Castle. The Earl of Emsworth said: “Baxter is invaluable—positively invaluable.” The Honorable Freddie said: “A chappie can’t take a step in this bally house without stumbling over that damn feller, Baxter!” The manservant and the maidservant within the gates, like Miss Willoughby, employing that crisp gift for characterization which is the property of the English lower orders, described him as a Nosy Parker.
Peering over the railing of the balcony and observing the curious movements of Mr Peters, who, as a matter of fact, while making up his mind to approach the door, had been backing and filling about the hall in a quaint serpentine manner like a man trying to invent a new variety of the tango, the Efficient Baxter had found himself in some way—why, he did not know—of what, he could not say—but in some nebulous way, suspicious.
He had not definitely accused Mr Peters in his mind of any specific tort or malfeasance. He had merely felt that something fishy was toward. He had a sixth sense in such matters.
But when Mr Peters, making up his mind, leaped into the museum, Baxter’s suspicions lost their vagueness and became crystallized. Certainty descended on him like a bolt from the skies. On oath, before a notary, the Efficient Baxter would have declared that J Preston Peters was about to try to purloin the scarab.
Lest we should seem to be attributing too miraculous powers of intuition to Lord Emsworth’s secretary, it should be explained that the mystery which hung about that curio had exercised his mind not a little since his employer had given it to him to place in the museum. He knew Lord Emsworth’s power of forgetting and he did not believe his account of the transaction. Scarab maniacs like Mr Peters did not give away specimens from their collections as presents. But he had not divined the truth of what had happened in London.
The conclusion at which he had arrived was that Lord Emsworth had bought the scarab and had forgotten all about it. To support this theory was the fact that the latter had taken his check book to London with him. Baxter’s long acquaintance with the earl had left him with the conviction that there was no saying what he might not do if left loose in London with a check book.
As to Mr Peters’ motive for entering the museum, that, too, seemed completely clear to the secretary. He was a curio enthusiast himself and he had served collectors in a secretarial capacity; and he knew, both from experience and observation, that strange madness which may at any moment afflict the collector, blotting out morality and the nice distinction between meum and tuum, as with a sponge. He knew that collectors who would not steal a loaf if they were starving might—and did—fall before the temptation of a coveted curio.
He descended the stairs three at a time, and entered the museum at the very instant when Mr Peters’ twitching fingers were about to close on his treasure. He handled the delicate situation with eminent tact. Mr Peters, at the sound of his step, had executed a backward leap, which was as good as a confession of guilt, and his face was rigid with dismay; but the Efficient Baxter pretended not to notice these phenomena. His manner, when he spoke, was easy and unembarrassed.
“Ah! Taking a look at our little collection, Mr Peters? You will see that we have given the place of honor to your Cheops. It is certainly a fine specimen—a wonderfully fine specimen.”
Mr Peters was recovering slowly. Baxter talked on, to give him time. He spoke of Mut and Bubastis, of Ammon and the Book of the Dead. He directed the other’s attention to the Roman coins.
He was touching on some aspects of the Princess Gilukhipa of Mitanni, in whom his hearer could scarcely fail to be interested, when the door opened and Beach, the butler, came in, accompanied by Ashe. In the bustle of the interruption Mr Peters escaped, glad to be elsewhere, and questioning for the first time in his life the dictum that if you want a thing well done you must do it yourself.
“I was not aware, sir”, said Beach, the butler, “that you were in occupation of the museum. I would not have intruded; but this young man expressed a desire to examine the exhibits, and I took the liberty of conducting him.”
“Come in, Beach—come in”, said Baxter.
The light fell on Ashe’s face, and he recognized him as the cheerful young man who had inquired the way to Mr Peters’ room before dinner and who, he had by this time discovered, was not the Honorable Freddie’s friend, George Emerson—or, indeed, any other of the guests of the house. He felt suspicious.
“Just a moment.”
He drew the butler into the hall, out of earshot.
“Beach, who is that man?”
“Mr Peters’ valet, sir.”
“Mr Peters’ valet!”
“Has he been in service long?” asked Baxter, remembering that a mere menial had addressed him as “old man”.
Beach lowered his voice. He and the Efficient Baxter were old allies, and it seemed right to Beach to confide in him.
“He has only just joined Mr Peters, sir; and he has never been in service before. He told me so himself, and I was unable to elicit from him any information as to his antecedents. His manner struck me, sir, as peculiar. It crossed my mind to wonder whether Mr Peters happened to be aware of this. I should dislike to do any young man an injury; but it might be anyone coming to a gentleman without a character, like this young man. Mr Peters might have been deceived, sir.”
The Efficient Baxter’s manner became distraught. His mind was working rapidly.
“Should he be informed, sir?”
“Mr Peters, sir—in case he should have been deceived?”
“No, no; Mr Peters knows his own business.”
“Far from me be it to appear officious, sir; but—”
“Mr Peters probably knows all about him. Tell me, Beach, who was it suggested this visit to the museum? Did you?”
“It was at the young man’s express desire that I conducted him, sir.”
The Efficient Baxter returned to the museum without a word. Ashe, standing in the middle of the room, was impressing the topography of the place on his memory. He was unaware of the piercing stare of suspicion that was being directed at him from behind.
He did not see Baxter. He was not even thinking of Baxter; but Baxter was on the alert. Baxter was on the warpath. Baxter knew!