Chapter XV. Drama at a Country House
 

As I read over the last few chapters of this narrative, I see that I have been giving the reader rather too jumpy a time. To almost a painful degree I have excited his pity and terror; and, though that is what Aristotle says one ought to do, I feel that a little respite would not be out of order. The reader can stand having his emotions tortured up to a certain point; after that he wants to take it easy for a bit. It is with pleasure, therefore, that I turn now to depict a quiet, peaceful scene in domestic life. It won't last long--three minutes, perhaps, by a good stop-watch--but that is not my fault. My task is to record facts as they happened.

The morning sunlight fell pleasantly on the garden of Windles, turning it into the green and amber Paradise which Nature had intended it to be. A number of the local birds sang melodiously in the undergrowth at the end of the lawn, while others, more energetic, hopped about the grass in quest of worms. Bees, mercifully ignorant that, after they had worked themselves to the bone gathering honey, the proceeds of their labour would be collared and consumed by idle humans, buzzed industriously to and fro and dived head foremost into flowers. Winged insects danced sarabands in the sunshine. In a deck-chair under the cedar-tree Billie Bennett, with a sketching-block on her knee, was engaged in drawing a picture of the ruined castle. Beside her, curled up in a ball, lay her Pekinese dog, Pinky-Boodles. Beside Pinky-Boodles slept Smith, the bulldog. In the distant stable-yard, unseen but audible, a boy in shirt-sleeves was washing the car and singing as much as a treacherous memory would permit of a popular sentimental ballad.

You may think that was all. You may suppose that nothing could be added to deepen the atmosphere of peace and content. Not so. At this moment, Mr. Bennett emerged from the French windows of the drawing-room, clad in white flannels and buckskin shoes, supplying just the finishing touch that was needed.

Mr. Bennett crossed the lawn, and sat down beside his daughter. Smith, the bulldog, raising a sleepy head, breathed heavily; but Mr. Bennett did not quail. Since their last unfortunate meeting, relations of distant, but solid, friendship had come to exist between pursuer and pursued. Sceptical at first, Mr. Bennett had at length allowed himself to be persuaded of the mildness of the animal's nature and the essential purity of his motives; and now it was only when they encountered each other unexpectedly round sharp corners that he ever betrayed the slightest alarm. So now, while Smith slept on the grass, Mr. Bennett reclined in the chair. It was the nearest thing modern civilisation has seen to the lion lying down with the lamb.

"Sketching?" said Mr. Bennett.

"Yes," said Billie, for there were no secrets between this girl and her father. At least, not many. She occasionally omitted to tell him some such trifle as that she had met Samuel Marlowe on the previous morning in a leafy lane, and intended to meet him again this afternoon, but apart from that her mind was an open book.

"It's a great morning," said Mr. Bennett.

"So peaceful," said Billie.

"The eggs you get in the country in England," said Mr. Bennett, suddenly striking a lyrical note, "are extraordinary. I had three for breakfast this morning which defied competition, simply defied competition. They were large and brown, and as fresh as new-mown hay!"

He mused for a while in a sort of ecstasy.

"And the hams!" he went on. "The ham I had for breakfast was what I call ham! I don't know when I've had ham like that. I suppose it's something they feed the pigs on!" he concluded, in soft meditation. And he gave a little sigh. Life was very beautiful.

Silence fell, broken only by the snoring of Smith. Billie was thinking of Sam, and of what Sam had said to her in the lane yesterday; of his clean-cut face, and the look in his eyes--so vastly superior to any look that ever came into the eyes of Bream Mortimer. She was telling herself that her relations with Sam were an idyll; for, being young and romantic, she enjoyed this freshet of surreptitious meetings which had come to enliven the stream of her life. It was pleasant to go warily into deep lanes where forbidden love lurked. She cast a swift side-glance at her father--the unconscious ogre in her fairy-story. What would he say if he knew? But Mr. Bennett did not know, and consequently continued to meditate peacefully on ham.

They had sat like this for perhaps a minute--two happy mortals lulled by the gentle beauty of the day--when from the window of the drawing-room there stepped out a white-capped maid. And one may just as well say at once--and have done with it--that this is the point where the quiet, peaceful scene in domestic life terminates with a jerk, and pity and terror resume work at the old stand.

The maid--her name, not that it matters, was Susan, and she was engaged to be married, though the point is of no importance, to the second assistant at Green's Grocery Stores in Windlehurst--approached Mr. Bennett.

"Please, sir, a gentleman to see you."

"Eh?" said Mr. Bennett, torn from a dream of large pink slices edged with bread-crumbed fat.

"A gentleman to see you, sir. In the drawing-room. He says you are expecting him."

"Of course, yes. To be sure."

Mr. Bennett heaved himself out of the deck-chair. Beyond the French windows he could see an indistinct form in a grey suit, and remembered that this was the morning on which Sir Mallaby Marlowe's clerk--who was taking those Schultz and Bowen papers for him to America--had written that he would call. To-day was Friday; no doubt the man was sailing from Southampton to-morrow.

He crossed the lawn, entered the drawing-room, and found Mr. Jno. Peters with an expression on his ill-favoured face, which looked like one of consternation, of uneasiness, even of alarm.

"Morning, Mr. Peters," said Mr. Bennett. "Very good of you to run down. Take a seat, and I'll just go through the few notes I have made about the matter."

"Mr. Bennett," exclaimed Jno. Peters. "May--may I speak?"

"What do you mean? Eh? What? Something to say? What is it?"

Mr. Peters cleared his throat awkwardly. He was feeling embarrassed at the unpleasantness of the duty which he had to perform, but it was a duty, and he did not intend to shrink from performing it. Ever since, gazing appreciatively through the drawing-room windows at the charming scene outside, he had caught sight of the unforgettable form of Billie, seated in her chair with the sketching-block on her knee, he had realised that he could not go away in silence, leaving Mr. Bennett ignorant of what he was up against.

One almost inclines to fancy that there must have been a curse of some kind on this house of Windles. Certainly everybody who entered it seemed to leave his peace of mind behind him. Jno. Peters had been feeling notably happy during his journey in the train from London, and the subsequent walk from the station. The splendour of the morning had soothed his nerves, and the faint wind that blew inshore from the sea spoke to him hearteningly of adventure and romance. There was a jar of pot-pourri on the drawing-room table, and he had derived considerable pleasure from sniffing at it. In short, Jno. Peters was in the pink, without a care in the world, until he had looked out of the window and seen Billie.

"Mr. Bennett," he said, "I don't want to do anybody any harm, and, if you know all about it, and she suits you, well and good; but I think it is my duty to inform you that your stenographer is not quite right in her head. I don't say she's dangerous, but she isn't compos. She decidedly is not compos, Mr. Bennett!"

Mr. Bennett stared at his well-wisher dumbly for a moment. The thought crossed his mind that, if ever there was a case of the pot calling the kettle black, this was it. His opinion of Jno. Peters' sanity went down to zero.

"What are you talking about? My stenographer? What stenographer?"

It occurred to Mr. Peters that a man of the other's wealth and business connections might well have a troupe of these useful females. He particularised.

"I mean the young lady out in the garden there, to whom you were dictating just now. The young lady with the writing-pad on her knee."

"What! What!" Mr. Bennett spluttered. "Do you know who that is?" he exclaimed.

"Oh, yes, indeed!" said Jno. Peters. "I have only met her once, when she came into our office to see Mr. Samuel, but her personality and appearance stamped themselves so forcibly on my mind, that I know I am not mistaken. I am sure it is my duty to tell you exactly what happened when I was left alone with her in the office. We had hardly exchanged a dozen words, Mr. Bennett, when--"--here Jno. Peters, modest to the core, turned vividly pink--"when she told me--she told me that I was the only man she loved!"

Mr. Bennett uttered a loud cry.

"Sweet spirits of nitre! What!"

"Those were her exact words."

"Five!" ejaculated Mr. Bennett, in a strangled voice. "By the great horn spoon, number five!"

Mr. Peters could make nothing of this exclamation, and he was deterred from seeking light by the sudden action of his host, who, bounding from his seat with a vivacity of which one would not have believed him capable, charged to the French window and emitted a bellow.

"Wilhelmina!"

Billie looked up from her sketching-block with a start. It seemed to her that there was a note of anguish, of panic, in that voice. What her father could have found in the drawing-room to be frightened at, she did not know; but she dropped her block and hurried to his assistance.

"What is it, father?"

Mr. Bennett had retired within the room when she arrived; and, going in after him, she perceived at once what had caused his alarm. There before her, looking more sinister than ever, stood the lunatic Peters; and there was an ominous bulge in his right coat-pocket which to her excited senses betrayed the presence of the revolver. What Jno. Peters was, as a matter of fact, carrying in his right coat-pocket was a bag of mixed chocolates which he had purchased in Windlehurst. But Billie's eyes, though bright, had no X-ray quality. Her simple creed was that, if Jno. Peters bulged at any point, that bulge must be caused by a pistol. She screamed, and backed against the wall. Her whole acquaintance with Jno Peters had been one constant backing against walls.

"Don't shoot!" she cried, as Mr. Peters absent-mindedly dipped his hand into the pocket of his coat. "Oh, please don't shoot!"

"What the deuce do you mean?" said Mr. Bennett irritably. "Wilhelmina, this man says that you told him you loved him."

"Yes, I did, and I do. Really, really, Mr. Peters, I do!"

"Suffering cats!"

Mr. Bennett clutched at the back of his chair.

"But you've only met him once," he added almost pleadingly.

"You don't understand, father dear," said Billie desperately. "I'll explain the whole thing later, when...."

"Father!" ejaculated Jno. Peters feebly. "Did you say 'father?'"

"Of course I said 'father!'"

"This is my daughter, Mr. Peters."

"My daughter! I mean, your daughter! Are--are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure. Do you think I don't know my own daughter?"

"But she called me Mr. Peters!"

"Well, it's your name, isn't it?"

"But, if she--if this young lady is your daughter, how did she know my name?"

The point seemed to strike Mr. Bennett. He turned to Billie.

"That's true. Tell me, Wilhelmina, when did you and Mr. Peters meet?"

"Why, in--in Sir Mallaby Marlowe's office, the morning you came there and found me when I was talking to Sam."

Mr. Peters uttered a subdued gargling sound. He was finding this scene oppressive to a not very robust intellect.

"He--Mr. Samuel--told me your name was Miss Milliken," he said dully.

Billie stared at him.

"Mr. Marlowe told you my name was Miss Milliken!" she repeated.

"He told me that you were the sister of the Miss Milliken who acts as stenographer for the guv'--for Sir Mallaby, and sent me in to show you my revolver, because he said you were interested and wanted to see it."

Billie uttered an exclamation. So did Mr. Bennett, who hated mysteries.

"What revolver? Which revolver? What's all this about a revolver? Have you a revolver?"

"Why, yes, Mr. Bennett. It is packed now in my trunk, but usually I carry it about with me everywhere in order to take a little practice at the Rupert Street range. I bought it when Sir Mallaby told me he was sending me to America, because I thought I ought to be prepared--because of the Underworld, you know."

A cold gleam had come into Billie's eyes. Her face was pale and hard. If Sam Marlowe--at that moment carolling blithely in his bedroom at the Blue Boar in Windlehurst, washing his hands preparatory to descending to the coffee-room for a bit of cold lunch--could have seen her, the song would have frozen on his lips. Which, one might mention, as showing that there is always a bright side, would have been much appreciated by the travelling gentleman in the adjoining room, who had had a wild night with some other travelling gentlemen, and was then nursing a rather severe headache, separated from Sam's penetrating baritone only by the thickness of a wooden wall.

Billie knew all. And, terrible though the fact is as an indictment of the male sex, when a woman knows all, there is invariably trouble ahead for some man. There was trouble ahead for Samuel Marlowe. Billie, now in possession of the facts, had examined them and come to the conclusion that Sam had played a practical joke on her, and she was a girl who strongly disapproved of practical humour at her expense.

"That morning I met you at Sir Mallaby's office, Mr. Peters," she said in a frosty voice, "Mr. Marlowe had just finished telling me a long and convincing story to the effect that you were madly in love with a Miss Milliken, who had jilted you, and that this had driven you off your head, and that you spent your time going about with a pistol, trying to shoot every red-haired woman you saw, because you thought they were Miss Milliken. Naturally, when you came in and called me Miss Milliken, and brandished a revolver, I was very frightened. I thought it would be useless to tell you that I wasn't Miss Milliken, so I tried to persuade you that I was and hadn't jilted you after all."

"Good gracious!" said Mr. Peters, vastly relieved; and yet--for always there is bitter mixed with the sweet--a shade disappointed. "Then--er--you don't love me after all?"

"No!" said Billie. "I am engaged to Bream Mortimer, and I love him and nobody else in the world!"

The last portion of her observation was intended for the consumption of Mr. Bennett, rather than that of Mr. Peters, and he consumed it joyfully. He folded Billie in his ample embrace.

"I always thought you had a grain of sense hidden away somewhere," he said, paying her a striking tribute. "I hope now that we've heard the last of all this foolishness about that young hound Marlowe."

"You certainly have! I don't want ever to see him again! I hate him!"

"You couldn't do better, my dear," said Mr. Bennett, approvingly. "And now run away. Mr. Peters and I have some business to discuss."

A quarter of an hour later, Webster, the valet, sunning himself in the stable-yard, was aware of the daughter of his employer approaching him.

"Webster," said Billie. She was still pale. Her face was still hard, and her eyes still gleamed coldly.

"Miss?" said Webster politely, throwing away the cigarette with which he had been refreshing himself.

"Will you do something for me?"

"I should be more than delighted, miss."

Billie whisked into view an envelope which had been concealed in the recesses of her dress.

"Do you know the country about here well, Webster?"

"Within a certain radius, not unintimately, miss. I have been for several enjoyable rambles since the fine weather set in."

"Do you know the place where there is a road leading to Havant, and another to Cosham? It's about a mile down...."

"I know the spot well, miss."

"Well, straight in front of you when you get to the sign-post there is a little lane...."

"I know it, miss," said Webster, with a faint smile. Twice had he escorted Miss Trimblett, Billie's maid, thither. "A delightfully romantic spot. What with the overhanging trees, the wealth of blackberry bushes, the varied wild-flowers...."

"Yes, never mind about the wild-flowers now. I want you after lunch, to take this note to a gentleman you will find sitting on the gate at the bottom of the lane...."

"Sitting on the gate, miss. Yes, miss."

"Or leaning against it. You can't mistake him. He is rather tall and ... oh, well, there isn't likely to be anybody else there, so you can't make a mistake. Give him this, will you?"

"Certainly, miss. Er--any message?"

"Any what?"

"Any verbal message, miss?"

"No, certainly not! You won't forget, will you, Webster?"

"On no account whatever, miss. Shall I wait for an answer?"

"There won't be any answer," said Billie, setting her teeth for an instant. "Oh, Webster!"

"Miss?"

"I can rely on you to say nothing to anybody?"

"Most undoubtedly, miss. Most undoubtedly."

"Does anybody know anything about a feller named S. Marlowe?" inquired Webster, entering the kitchen. "Don't all speak at once! S. Marlowe. Ever heard of him?"

He paused for a reply, but nobody had any information to impart.

"Because there's something jolly well up! Our Miss B. is sending me with notes for him to the bottom of lanes."

"And her engaged to young Mr. Mortimer!" said the scullery-maid, shocked. "The way they go on. Chronic!" said the scullery-maid.

"Don't you go getting alarmed! And don't you," added Webster, "go shoving your oar in when your social superiors are talking! I've had to speak to you about that before. My remarks were addressed to Mrs. Withers here."

He indicated the cook with a respectful gesture.

"Yes, here's the note, Mrs. Withers. Of course, if you had a steamy kettle handy, in about half a moment we could ... but no, perhaps it's wiser not to risk it. And, come to that, I don't need to unstick the envelope to know what's inside here. It's the raspberry, ma'am, or I've lost all my power to read the human female countenance. Very cold and proud-looking she was! I don't know who this S. Marlowe is, but I do know one thing; in this hand I hold the instrument that's going to give it him in the neck, proper! Right in the neck, or my name isn't Montagu Webster!"

"Well!" said Mrs. Withers, comfortably, pausing for a moment from her labours. "Think of that!"

"The way I look at it," said Webster, "is that there's been some sort of understanding between our Miss B. and this S. Marlowe, and she's thought better of it and decided to stick to the man of her parent's choice. She's chosen wealth and made up her mind to hand the humble suitor the mitten. There was a rather similar situation in 'Cupid or Mammon,' that Nosegay Novelette I was reading in the train coming down here, only that ended different. For my part I'd be better pleased if our Miss B. would let the cash go, and obey the dictates of her own heart; but these modern girls are all alike! All out for the stuff, they are! Oh, well, it's none of my affair," said Webster, stifling a not unmanly sigh. For beneath that immaculate shirt-front there beat a warm heart. Montagu Webster was a sentimentalist.