Three Men and a Maid by P.G. Wodehouse
A half-past two that afternoon, full of optimism and cold beef, gaily unconscious that Webster, with measured strides was approaching ever nearer with the note that was to give it him in the neck, proper, Samuel Marlowe dangled his feet from the top bar of the gate at the end of the lane and smoked contentedly as he waited for Billie to make her appearance. He had had an excellent lunch; his pipe was drawing well, and all Nature smiled. The breeze from the sea across the meadows, tickled pleasantly the back of his head, and sang a soothing song in the long grass and ragged-robins at his feet. He was looking forward with a roseate glow of anticipation to the moment when the white flutter of Billie's dress would break the green of the foreground. How eagerly he would jump from the gate! How lovingly he would....
The elegant figure of Webster interrupted his reverie. Sam had never seen Webster before, and it was with no pleasure that he saw him now. He had come to regard this lane as his own property, and he resented trespassers. He tucked his legs under him, and scowled at Webster under the brim of his hat.
The valet advanced towards him with the air of an affable executioner stepping daintily to the block.
"Mr. Marlowe, sir?" he enquired politely.
Sam was startled. He could make nothing of this.
"Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. S. Marlowe?"
"Yes, that's my name."
"Mine is Webster, sir, I am Mr. Bennett's personal gentleman's gentleman. Miss Bennett entrusted me with this note to deliver to you, sir."
Sam began to grasp the situation. For some reason or other, the dear girl had been prevented from coming this afternoon, and she had written to explain and to relieve his anxiety. It was like her. It was just the sweet, thoughtful thing he would have expected her to do. His contentment with the existing scheme of things returned. The sun shone out again, and he found himself amiably disposed towards the messenger.
"Fine day," he said, as he took the note.
"Extremely, sir," said Webster, outwardly unemotional, inwardly full of a grave pity.
It was plain to him that there had been no previous little rift to prepare the young man for the cervical operation which awaited him, and he edged a little nearer, in order to be handy to catch Sam if the shock knocked him off the gate.
As it happened, it did not. Having read the opening words of the note, Sam rocked violently; but his feet were twined about the lower bars and this saved him from overbalancing. Webster stepped back, relieved.
The note fluttered to the ground. Webster, picking it up and handing it back, was enabled to get a glimpse of the first two sentences. They confirmed his suspicions. The note was hot stuff. Assuming that it continued as it began, it was about the warmest thing of its kind that pen had ever written. Webster had received one or two heated epistles from the sex in his time--your man of gallantry can hardly hope to escape these unpleasantnesses--but none had got off the mark quite so swiftly, and with quite so much frigid violence as this.
"Thanks," said Sam, mechanically.
"Not at all, sir. You are very welcome."
Sam resumed his reading. A cold perspiration broke out on his forehead. His toes curled, and something seemed to be crawling down the small of his back. His heart had moved from its proper place and was now beating in his throat. He swallowed once or twice to remove the obstruction, but without success. A kind of pall had descended on the landscape, blotting out the sun.
Of all the rotten sensations in this world, the worst is the realisation that a thousand-to-one chance has come off, and caused our wrong-doing to be detected. There had seemed no possibility of that little ruse of his being discovered, and yet here was Billie in full possession of the facts. It almost made the thing worse that she did not say how she had come into possession of them. This gave Sam that feeling of self-pity, that sense of having been ill-used by Fate, which makes the bringing home of crime so particularly poignant.
"Fine day!" he muttered. He had a sort of subconscious feeling that it was imperative to keep engaging Webster in light conversation.
"Yes, sir. Weather still keeps up," agreed the valet suavely.
Sam frowned over the note. He felt injured. Sending a fellow notes didn't give him a chance. If she had come in person and denounced him it would not have been an agreeable experience, but at least it would have been possible then to have pleaded and cajoled and--and all that sort of thing. But what could he do now? It seemed to him that his only possible course was to write a note in reply, begging her to see him. He explored his pockets and found a pencil and a scrap of paper. For some moments he scribbled desperately. Then he folded the note.
"Will you take this to Miss Bennett," he said, holding it out.
Webster took the missive, because he wanted to read it later at his leisure; but he shook his head.
"Useless, I fear, sir," he said gravely.
"What do you mean?"
"I am afraid it would effect little or nothing, sir, sending our Miss B. notes. She is not in the proper frame of mind to appreciate them. I saw her face when she handed me the letter you have just read, and I assure you, sir, she is not in a malleable mood."
"You seem to know a lot about it!"
"I have studied the sex, sir," said Webster modestly.
"I mean, about my business, confound it! You seem to know all about it!"
"Why, yes, sir, I think I may say that I have grasped the position of affairs. And, if you will permit me to say so, sir, you have my respectful sympathy."
Dignity is a sensitive plant which flourishes only under the fairest conditions. Sam's had perished in the bleak east wind of Billie's note. In other circumstances he might have resented this intrusion of a stranger into his most intimate concerns. His only emotion now, was one of dull but distinct gratitude. The four winds of heaven blew chilly upon his raw and unprotected soul, and he wanted to wrap it up in a mantle of sympathy, careless of the source from which he borrowed that mantle. If Webster, the valet, felt disposed, as he seemed to indicate, to comfort him, let the thing go on. At that moment Sam would have accepted condolences from a coal-heaver.
"I was reading a story--one of the Nosegay Novelettes; I do not know if you are familiar with the series, sir?--in which much the same situation occurred. It was entitled 'Cupid or Mammon!' The heroine, Lady Blanche Trefusis, forced by her parents to wed a wealthy suitor, despatches a note to her humble lover, informing him it cannot be. I believe it often happens like that, sir."
"You're all wrong," said Sam. "It's not that at all."
"Indeed, sir? I supposed it was."
"Nothing like it! I--I--"
Sam's dignity, on its death-bed, made a last effort to assert itself.
"I don't know what it's got to do with you!"
"Precisely, sir!" said Webster, with dignity. "Just as you say! Good afternoon, sir!"
He swayed gracefully, conveying a suggestion of departure without moving his feet. The action was enough for Sam. Dignity gave an expiring gurgle, and passed away, regretted by all.
"Don't go!" he cried.
The idea of being alone in this infernal lane, without human support, overpowered him. Moreover, Webster had personality. He exuded it. Already Sam had begun to cling to him in spirit, and rely on his support.
"Certainly not, if you do not wish it, sir."
Webster coughed gently, to show his appreciation of the delicate nature of the conversation. He was consumed with curiosity, and his threatened departure had been but a pretence. A team of horses could not have moved Webster at that moment.
"Might I ask, then what...?"
"There's been a misunderstanding," said Sam. "At least, there was, but now there isn't, if you see what I mean."
"I fear I have not quite grasped your meaning, sir."
"Well, I--I--played a sort of--you might almost call it a sort of trick on Miss Bennett. With the best motives, of course!"
"Of course, sir!"
"And she's found out. I don't know how she's found out, but she has. So there you are!"
"Of what nature would the trick be, sir? A species of ruse, sir,--some kind of innocent deception?"
"Well, it was like this."
It was a complicated story to tell, and Sam, a prey to conflicting emotions, told it badly; but such was the almost superhuman intelligence of Webster, that he succeeded in grasping the salient points. Indeed, he said that it reminded him of something of much the same kind in the Nosegay Novelette, "All for Her," where the hero, anxious to win the esteem of the lady of his heart, had bribed a tramp to simulate an attack upon her in a lonely road.
"The principle's the same," said Webster.
"Well what did he do when she found out?"
"She did not find out, sir. All ended happily, and never had the wedding-bells in the old village church rung out a blither peal than they did at the subsequent union."
Sam was thoughtful.
"Bribed a tramp to attack her, did he?"
"Yes, sir. She had never thought much of him till that moment, sir. Very cold and haughty she had been, his social status being considerably inferior to her own. But, when she cried for help, and he dashed out from behind a hedge, well, it made all the difference."
"I wonder where I could get a good tramp," said Sam, meditatively.
Webster shook his head.
"I really would hardly recommend such a procedure, sir."
"No, it would be difficult to make a tramp understand what you wanted."
"I've got it! You pretend to attack her, and I'll...."
"I couldn't, sir! I couldn't really! I should jeopardise my situation."
"Oh, come! Be a man!"
"No, sir, I fear not. There's a difference between handing in your resignation--I was compelled to do that only recently, owing to a few words I had with the guv'nor, though subsequently prevailed upon to withdraw it--I say there's a difference between handing in your resignation and being given the sack, and that's what would happen--without a character, what's more, and lucky if it didn't mean a prison cell. No, sir; I could not contemplate such a thing."
"Then I don't see that there's anything to be done," said Sam morosely.
"Oh, I shouldn't say that, sir," said Webster, encouragingly. "It's simply a matter of finding the way. The problem confronting us--you, I should say...."
"Us," said Sam. "Most decidedly us."
"Thank you very much, sir. I would not have presumed, but if you say so--The problem confronting us, as I envisage it, resolves itself into this. You have offended our Miss B. and she has expressed a disinclination ever to see you again. How, then, is it possible, in spite of her attitude, to recapture her esteem?"
"Exactly," said Sam.
"There are several methods which occur to one...."
"They don't occur to me!"
"Well, for example, you might rescue her from a burning building as in 'True As Steel'...."
"Set fire to the house, eh?" said Sam, reflectively. "Yes, there might be something in that."
"I would hardly advise such a thing," said Webster, a little hastily--flattered at the readiness with which his disciple was taking his advice, yet acutely alive to the fact that he slept at the top of the house himself.
"A little drastic, if I may say so. It might be better to save her from drowning, as in 'The Earl's Secret'."
"Ah, but where could she drown?"
"Well, there is a lake in the grounds...."
"Excellent!" said Sam. "Terrific! I knew I could rely on you. Say no more! The whole thing's settled. You take her out rowing on the lake, and upset the boat. I plunge in ... I suppose you can swim?"
"Oh? Well, never mind. You'll manage somehow, I expect. Cling to the upturned boat or something, I shouldn't wonder. There's always a way. Yes, that's the plan. When is the earliest you could arrange this?"
"I fear such a course must be considered out of the question, sir. It really wouldn't do."
"I can't see a flaw in it."
"Well, in the first place, it would certainly jeopardise my situation...."
"Oh, hang your situation! You talk as if you were Prime Minister or something. You can easily get another situation. A valuable man like you," said Sam, ingratiatingly.
"No, sir," said Webster firmly. "From boyhood up I've always had a regular horror of the water. I can't so much as go paddling without an uneasy feeling."
The image of Webster paddling was arresting enough to occupy Sam's thoughts for a moment. It was an inspiring picture, and for an instant uplifted his spirits. Then they fell again.
"Well, I don't see what there is to be done," he said, gloomily. "It's no good making suggestions, if you have some frivolous objection to all of them."
"My idea," said Webster, "would be something which did not involve my own personal and active co-operation, sir. If it is all the same to you, I should prefer to limit my assistance to advice. I am anxious to help, but I am a man of regular habits, which I do not wish to disturb. Did you ever read 'Footpaths of Fate,' in the Nosegay series, sir? I've only just remembered it, and it contains the most helpful suggestion of the lot. There had been a misunderstanding between the heroine and the hero--their names have slipped my mind, though I fancy his was Cyril--and she had told him to hop it...."
"To leave her for ever, sir. And what do you think he did?"
"How the deuce do I know?"
"He kidnapped her little brother, sir, to whom she was devoted, kept him hidden for a bit, and then returned him, and in her gratitude all was forgotten and forgiven, and never...."
"I know. Never had the bells of the old village church...."
"Rung out a blither peal. Exactly, sir. Well, there, if you will allow me to say so, you are, sir! You need seek no further for a plan of action."
"Miss Bennett hasn't got a little brother."
"No, sir. But she has a dog, and is greatly attached to it."
Sam stared. From the expression on his face it was evident that Webster imagined himself to have made a suggestion of exceptional intelligence. It struck Sam as the silliest he had ever heard.
"You mean I ought to steal her dog?"
"But, good heavens! Have you seen that dog?"
"The one to which I allude is a small brown animal with a fluffy tail."
"Yes, and a bark like a steam siren, and, in addition to that, about eighty-five teeth, all sharper than razors. I couldn't get within ten feet of that dog without its lifting the roof off, and, if I did, it would chew me into small pieces."
"I had anticipated that difficulty, sir. In 'Footpaths of Fate' there was a nurse who assisted the hero by drugging the child."
"By Jove!" said Sam, impressed.
"He rewarded her," said Webster, allowing his gaze to stray nonchalantly over the country-side, "liberally, very liberally."
"If you mean that you expect me to reward you if you drug the dog," said Sam, "don't worry. Let me bring this thing off, and you can have all I've got, and my cuff-links as well. Come, now, this is really beginning to look like something. Speak to me more of this matter. Where do we go from here?"
"I beg your pardon, sir?"
"I mean, what's the next step in the scheme? Oh, Lord!" Sam's face fell. The light of hope died out of his eyes. "It's all off! It can't be done! How could I possibly get into the house? I take it that the little brute sleeps in the house?"
"That need constitute no obstacle, sir; no obstacle at all. The animal sleeps in a basket in the hall.... Perhaps you are familiar with the interior of the house, sir?"
"I haven't been inside it since I was at school. I'm Mr. Hignett's cousin, you know."
"Indeed, sir? I wasn't aware. Mr. Hignett sprained his ankle this morning, poor gentleman."
"Has he?" said Sam, not particularly interested. "I used to stay with him," he went on, "during the holidays sometimes, but I've practically forgotten what the place is like inside. I remember the hall vaguely. Fireplace at one side, one or two suits of armour standing about, a sort of window-ledge near the front door.."
"Precisely, sir. It is close beside that window-ledge that the animal's basket is situated. If I administer a slight soporific...."
"Yes, but you haven't explained yet how I am to get into the house in the first place."
"Quite easily, sir. I can admit you through the drawing-room windows while dinner is in progress."
"You can then secrete yourself in the cupboard in the drawing-room. Perhaps you recollect the cupboard to which I refer, sir?"
"No, I don't remember any cupboard. As a matter of fact, when I used to stay at the house the drawing-room was barred.... Mrs. Hignett wouldn't let us inside it for fear we should smash her china. Is there a cupboard?"
"Immediately behind the piano, sir. A nice, roomy cupboard. I was glancing into it myself in a spirit of idle curiosity only the other day. It contains nothing except a few knick-knacks on an upper shelf. You could lock yourself in from the interior, and be quite comfortably seated on the floor till the household retired to bed."
"When would that be?"
"They retire quite early, sir, as a rule. By half-past ten the coast is generally clear. At that time I would suggest that I came down and knocked on the cupboard door to notify you that all was well."
Sam was glowing with frank approval.
"You know, you're a master-mind!" he said, enthusiastically.
"You're very kind, sir!"
"One of the lads, by Jove!" said Sam. "And not the worst of them! I don't want to flatter you, but there's a future for you in crime, if you cared to go in for it."
"I am glad that you appreciate my poor efforts, sir. Then we will regard the scheme as passed and approved?"
"I should say we would! It's a bird!"
"Very good, sir."
"I'll be round at about a quarter to eight. Will that be right?"
"And, I say, about that soporific.... Don't overdo it. Don't go killing the little beast."
"Oh, no, sir."
"Well," said Sam, "you can't say it's not a temptation. And you know what you Napoleons of the Underworld are!"