Dialstone Lane by W.W. Jacobs
Miss Drewitt sat for some time in her room after the visitors had departed, eyeing with some disfavour the genuine antiques which she owed to the enterprise, not to say officiousness, of Edward Tredgold. That they were in excellent taste was undeniable, but there was a flavour of age and a suspicion of decay about them which did not make for cheerfulness.
She rose at last, and taking off her watch went through the nightly task of wondering where she had put the key after using it last. It was not until she had twice made a fruitless tour of the room with the candle that she remembered that she had left it on the mantelpiece downstairs.
The captain was still below, and after a moment's hesitation she opened her door and went softly down the steep winding stairs.
The door at the foot stood open, and revealed the captain standing by the table. There was an air of perplexity and anxiety about him such as she had never seen before, and as she waited he crossed to the bureau, which stood open, and searched feverishly among the papers which littered it. Apparently dissatisfied with the result, he moved it out bodily and looked behind and beneath it. Coming to an erect position again he suddenly became aware of the presence of his niece.
"It's gone," he said, in an amazed voice.
"Gone?" repeated Prudence. "What has gone?"
"The map," said the captain, tumbling his beard. "I put it in this end pigeon-hole the other night after showing it and I haven't touched it since; and it's gone."
"But you burnt it!" said Prudence, with an astonished laugh.
The captain started. "No; I was going to," he said, eyeing her in manifest confusion.
"But you said that you had," persisted his niece.
"Yes," stammered the captain, "I know I did, but I hadn't. I was just looking ahead a bit, that was all. I went to the bureau just now to do it."
Miss Drewitt eyed him with mild reproach. "You even described how you did it," she said, slowly. "You said that Mount Lonesome turned into a volcano. Wasn't it true?"
"Figure o' speech, my dear," said the unhappy captain; "I've got a talent for description that runs away with me at times."
His niece gazed at him in perplexity.
"You know what Chalk is," said Captain Bowers, appealingly. "I was going to do it yesterday, only I forgot it, and he would have gone down on his knees for another sight of it. I don't like to seem disobliging to friends, and it seemed to me a good way out of it. Chalk is so eager-- it's like refusing a child, and I hurt his feelings only the other day."
"Perhaps you burnt it after all and forgot it?" said Prudence.
For the first time in her knowledge of him the captain got irritable with her. "I've not burnt it," he said, sharply. "Where's that Joseph? He must know something about it!"
He moved to the foot of the staircase, but Miss Drewitt laid a detaining hand on his arm.
"Joseph was in the room when you said that you had burnt it," she exclaimed. "You can't contradict yourself like that before him. Besides, I'm sure he has had nothing to do with it."
"Somebody's got it," grumbled her uncle, pausing.
He dropped into his chair and looked at her in consternation. "Good heavens! Suppose they go after it," he said, in a choking voice.
"Well, it won't be your fault," said Prudence. You haven't broken your word intentionally."
But the captain paid no heed. He was staring wild-eyed into vacancy and rumpling his grey hair until it stood at all angles. His face reflected varying emotions.
"Somebody has got it," he said again.
"Whoever it is will get no good by it," said Miss Drewitt, who had had a pious upbringing.
"And if they've got the map they'll go after the island," said the captain, pursuing his train of thought.
"Perhaps they won't find it after all," said Prudence.
"Perhaps they won't," said the captain, gruffly.
He got up and paced the room restlessly. Prudence, watching him with much sympathy, had a sudden idea.
"Edward Tredgold was in here alone this afternoon," she said, significantly.
"No, no," said the captain, warmly. "Whoever has got it, it isn't Edward Tredgold. I expect the talk about it has leaked out and somebody has slipped in and taken it. I ought to have been more careful."
"He started when you said that you had burnt it," persisted Miss Drewitt, unwilling to give up a theory so much to her liking. "You mark my words if his father and Mr. Chalk and that Mr. Stobell don't go away for a holiday soon. Good-night."
She kissed him affectionately under the left eye--a place overlooked by his beard--and went upstairs again. The captain filled his pipe and, resuming his chair, sat in a brown study until the clock of the neighbouring church struck two.
It was about the same time that Mr. Chalk fell asleep, thoroughly worn out by the events of the evening and a conversation with Mr. Stobell and Mr. Tredgold, whom he had met on the way home waiting for him.
The opinion of Mr. Tredgold senior, an opinion in which Mr. Stobell fully acquiesced, was that Mr. Chalk had ruined everything by displaying all along a youthful impetuosity sadly out of place in one of his years and standing. The offender's plea that he had thought it best to strike while the iron was hot only exposed him to further contumely.
"Well, it's no good talking about it," said Mr. Tredgold, impatiently. "It's all over now and done with."
"Half a million clean chucked away," said Mr. Stobell.
Mr. Chalk shook his head and, finding that his friends had by no means exhausted the subject, suddenly bethought himself of an engagement and left them.
Miss Vickers, who heard the news from Mr. Joseph Tasker, received it with an amount of amazement highly gratifying to his powers as a narrator. Her strongly expressed opinion afterwards that he had misunderstood what he had heard was not so agreeable.
"I suppose I can believe my own ears?" he said, in an injured voice.
"He must have been making fun of them all," said Selina. "He couldn't have burnt it--he couldn't."
"Why not?" inquired the other, surprised at her vehemence.
Miss Vickers hesitated. "Because it would be such a silly thing to do," she said, at last. "Now, tell me what you heard all over again--slow."
Mr. Tasker complied.
"I can't make head or tail of it," said Miss Vickers when he had finished.
"Seems simple enough to me," said Joseph, staring at her.
"All things seem simple when you don't know them," said Miss Vickers, vaguely.
She walked home in a thoughtful mood, and for a day or two went about the house with an air of preoccupation which was a source of much speculation to the family. George Vickers, aged six, was driven to the verge of madness by being washed. Three times in succession one morning; a gag of well-soaped flannel being applied with mechanical regularity each time that he strove to point out the unwashed condition of Martha and Charles. His turn came when the exultant couple, charged with having made themselves dirty in the shortest time on record, were deprived of their breakfast. Mr. Vickers, having committed one or two minor misdemeanours unchallenged, attributed his daughter's condition to love, and began to speak of that passion with more indulgence than he had done since his marriage.
Miss Vickers's' abstraction, however, lasted but three days. On the fourth she was herself again, and, having spent the day in hard work, dressed herself with unusual care in the evening and went out.
The evening was fine and the air, to one who had been at work indoors all day, delightful. Miss Vickers walked briskly along with the smile of a person who has solved a difficult problem, but as she drew near the Horse and Groom, a hostelry of retiring habits, standing well back from the road, the smile faded and she stood face to face with the stern realities of life.
A few yards from the side-door Mr. Vickers stood smoking a contemplative pipe; the side-door itself had just closed behind a tall man in corduroys, who bore in his right hand a large mug made of pewter.
"Ho!" said Selina," so this is how you go on the moment my back is turned, is it?"
"What d'ye mean?" demanded Mr. Vickers, blustering.
"You know what I mean," said his daughter, "standing outside and sending Bill Russell in to get you beer. That's what I mean."
Mr. Vickers turned, and with a little dramatic start intimated that he had caught sight of Mr. Russell for the first time that evening. Mr. Russell himself sought to improve the occasion.
"Wish I may die--" he began, solemnly.
"Like a policeman," continued Selina, regarding her father indignantly.
"I wish I was a policeman," muttered Mr. Vickers. "I'd show some of you."
"What have you got to say for yourself?" demanded Miss Vickers, shortly.
"Nothing," said the culprit. "I s'pose I can stand where I like? There's no law agin it."
"Do you mean to say that you didn't send Bill in to get you some beer?" said his daughter.
"Certainly not," said Mr. Vickers, with great indignation. "I shouldn't think of such a thing."
"I shouldn't get it if 'e did," said Mr. Russell, virtuously.
"Whose beer is it, then?" said Selina.
"Why, Bill's, I s'pose; how should I know?" replied Mr. Vickers.
"Yes, it's mine," said Mr. Russell.
"Drink it up, then," commanded Miss Vickers, sternly.
Both men started, and then Mr. Russell, bestowing a look of infinite compassion upon his unfortunate friend, raised the mug obediently to his sensitive lips. Always a kind-hearted man, he was glad when the gradual tilting necessary to the occasion had blotted out the picture of indignation which raged helplessly before him.
"I 'ope you're satisfied now," he said severely to the girl, as he turned a triumphant glance on Mr. Vickers, which that gentleman met with a cold stare.
Miss Vickers paid no heed. "You get off home," she said to her father; "I'll see to the Horse and Groom to-morrow."
Mr. Vickers muttered something under his breath, and then, with a forlorn attempt at dignity, departed.
Miss Vickers, ignoring the remarks of one or two fathers of families who were volunteering information as to what they would do if she were their daughter, watched him out of sight and resumed her walk. She turned once or twice as though to make sure that she was not observed, and then, making her way in the direction of Mr. Chalk's house, approached it cautiously from the back.
Mr. Chalk, who was in the garden engaged in the useful and healthful occupation of digging, became aware after a time of a low whistle proceeding from the farther end. He glanced almost mechanically in that direction, and then nearly dropped his spade as he made out a girl's head surmounted by a large hat. The light was getting dim, but the hat had an odd appearance of familiarity. A stealthy glance in the other direction showed him the figure of Mrs. Chalk standing to attention just inside the open French windows of the drawing-room.
The whistle came again, slightly increased in volume. Mr. Chalk, pausing merely to wipe his brow, which had suddenly become very damp, bent to his work with renewed vigour. It is an old idea that whistling aids manual labour; Mr. Chalk, moistening his lips with a tongue grown all too feverish for the task, began to whistle a popular air with much liveliness.
The idea was ingenious, but hopeless from the start. The whistle at the end of the garden became piercing in its endeavour to attract attention, and, what was worse, developed an odd note of entreaty. Mr. Chalk, pale with apprehension, could bear no more.
"Well, I think I've done enough for one night," he observed, cheerfully and loudly, as he thrust his spade into the ground and took his coat from a neighbouring bush.
He turned to go indoors and, knowing his wife's objection to dirty boots, made for the door near the kitchen. As he passed the drawing-room window, however, a low but imperative voice pronounced his name.
"Yes, my dear," said Mr. Chalk.
"There's a friend of yours whistling for you," said his wife, with forced calmness.
"Whistling? "said Mr. Chalk, with as much surprise as a man could assume in face of the noise from the bottom of the garden.
"Do you mean to tell me you can't hear it?" demanded his wife, in a choking voice.
Mr. Chalk lost his presence of mind. "I thought it was a bird," he said, assuming a listening attitude.
"Bird?" gasped the indignant Mrs. Chalk. "Look down there. Do you call that a bird?"
Mr. Chalk looked and uttered a little cry of astonishment.
"I suppose she wants to see one of the servants," he said, at last;" but why doesn't she go round to the side entrance? I shall have to speak to them about it."
Mrs. Chalk drew herself up and eyed him with superb disdain.
"Go down and speak to her," she commanded. "Certainly not," said Mr. Chalk, braving her, although his voice trembled.
"Because if I did you would ask me what she said, and when I told you you wouldn't believe me," said Mr. Chalk.
"You--you decline to go down?" said his wife, in a voice shaking with emotion.
"I do," said Mr. Chalk, firmly. "Why don't you go yourself?"
Mrs. Chalk eyed him for a moment in scornful silence, and then stepped to the window and sailed majestically down the garden. Mr. Chalk watched her, with parted lips, and then he began to breathe more freely as the whistle ceased and the head suddenly disappeared. Still a little nervous, he watched his wife to the end of the garden and saw her crane her head over the fence. By the time she returned he was sitting in an attitude of careless ease, with his back to the window.
"Well?" he said, with assurance.
Mrs. Chalk stood stock-still, and the intensity of her gaze drew Mr. Chalk's eyes to her face despite his will. For a few seconds she gazed at him in silence, and then, drawing her skirts together, swept violently out of the room.