The Girl on the Boat by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XVII. A Crowded Night
If there is one thing more than another which weighs upon the mind of a story-teller as he chronicles the events which he has set out to describe, it is the thought that the reader may be growing impatient with him for straying from the main channel of his tale and devoting himself to what are, after all, minor developments. This story, for instance, opened with Mrs. Horace Hignett, the world-famous writer on Theosophy, going over to America to begin a lecturing-tour; and no one realises more keenly than I do that I have left Mrs. Hignett flat. I have thrust that great thinker into the background and concentrated my attention on the affairs of one who is both her mental and her moral inferior, Samuel Marlowe. I seem at this point to see the reader--a great brute of a fellow with beetling eyebrows and a jaw like the ram of a battleship, the sort of fellow who is full of determination and will stand no nonsense--rising to remark that he doesn't care what happened to Samuel Marlowe and that what he wants to know is, how Mrs. Hignett made out on her lecturing-tour. Did she go big in Buffalo? Did she have 'em tearing up the seats in Schenectady? Was she a riot in Chicago and a cyclone in St. Louis? Those are the points on which he desires information, or give him his money back.
I cannot supply the information. And, before you condemn me, let me hastily add that the fault is not mine but that of Mrs. Hignett herself. The fact is, she never went to Buffalo. Schenectady saw nothing of her. She did not get within a thousand miles of Chicago, nor did she penetrate to St. Louis. For the very morning after her son Eustace sailed for England in the liner "Atlantic," she happened to read in the paper one of those abridged passenger-lists which the journals of New York are in the habit of printing, and got a nasty shock when she saw that, among those whose society Eustace would enjoy during the voyage, was "Miss Wilhelmina Bennett, daughter of J. Rufus Bennett of Bennett, Mandelbaum and Co.". And within five minutes of digesting this information, she was at her desk writing out telegrams cancelling all her engagements. Iron-souled as this woman was, her fingers trembled as she wrote. She had a vision of Eustace and the daughter of J. Rufus Bennett strolling together on moonlit decks, leaning over rails damp with sea-spray and, in short, generally starting the whole trouble all over again.
In the height of the tourist season it is not always possible for one who wishes to leave America to spring on to the next boat. A long morning's telephoning to the offices of the Cunard and the White Star brought Mrs. Hignett the depressing information that it would be a full week before she could sail for England. That meant that the inflammable Eustace would have over two weeks to conduct an uninterrupted wooing, and Mrs. Hignett's heart sank, till suddenly she remembered that so poor a sailor as her son was not likely to have had leisure for any strolling on the deck during the voyage on the "Atlantic."
Having realised this, she became calmer and went about her preparations for departure with an easier mind. The danger was still great, but there was a good chance that she might be in time to intervene. She wound up her affairs in New York, and on the following Wednesday, boarded the "Nuronia" bound for Southampton.
The "Nuronia" is one of the slowest of the Cunard boats. It was built at a time when delirious crowds used to swoon on the dock if an ocean liner broke the record by getting across in nine days. It rolled over to Cherbourg, dallied at that picturesque port for some hours, then sauntered across the Channel and strolled into Southampton Water in the evening of the day on which Samuel Marlowe had sat in the lane plotting with Webster, the valet. At almost the exact moment when Sam, sidling through the windows of the drawing-room, slid into the cupboard behind the piano, Mrs. Hignett was standing at the Customs barrier telling the officials that she had nothing to declare.
Mrs. Hignett was a general who believed in forced marches. A lesser woman might have taken the boat-train to London and proceeded to Windles at her ease on the following afternoon. Mrs. Hignett was made of sterner stuff. Having fortified herself with a late dinner, she hired a car and set out on the cross-country journey. It was only when the car, a genuine antique, had broken down three times in the first ten miles, that she directed the driver to take her instead to the "Blue Boar" in Windlehurst, where she arrived, tired but thankful to have reached it at all, at about eleven o'clock.
At this point many, indeed most, women would have gone to bed; but the familiar Hampshire air and the knowledge that half an hour's walking would take her to her beloved home acted on Mrs. Hignett like a restorative. One glimpse of Windles she felt that she must have before she retired for the night, if only to assure herself that it was still there. She had a cup of coffee and a sandwich brought to her by the night-porter whom she had roused from sleep, for bedtime is early in Windlehurst, and then informed him that she was going for a short walk and would ring when she returned.
Her heart leaped joyfully as she turned in at the drive gates of her home and felt the well-remembered gravel crunching under her feet. The silhouette of the ruined castle against the summer sky gave her the feeling which all returning wanderers know. And, when she stepped on to the lawn and looked at the black bulk of the house, indistinct and shadowy with its backing of trees, tears came into her eyes. She experienced a rush of emotion which made her feel quite faint, and which lasted until, on tiptoeing nearer to the house in order to gloat more adequately upon it, she perceived that the French windows of the drawing-room were standing ajar. Sam had left them like this in order to facilitate departure, if a hurried departure should by any mischance be rendered necessary, and drawn curtains had kept the household from noticing the fact.
All the proprietor in Mrs. Hignett was roused. This, she felt indignantly, was the sort of thing she had been afraid would happen the moment her back was turned. Evidently laxity--one might almost say anarchy--had set in directly she had removed the eye of authority. She marched to the window and pushed it open. She had now completely abandoned her kindly scheme of refraining from rousing the sleeping house and spending the night at the inn. She stepped into the drawing-room with the single-minded purpose of routing Eustace out of his sleep and giving him a good talking-to for having failed to maintain her own standard of efficiency among the domestic staff. If there was one thing on which Mrs. Horace Hignett had always insisted it was that every window in the house must be closed at lights-out.
She pushed the curtains apart with a rattle and, at the same moment, from the direction of the door there came a low but distinct gasp which made her resolute heart jump and flutter. It was too dark to see anything distinctly, but, in the instant before it turned and fled, she caught sight of a shadowy male figure, and knew that her worst fears had been realised. The figure was too tall to be Eustace, and Eustace, she knew, was the only man in the house. Male figures, therefore, that went flitting about Windles, must be the figures of burglars.
Mrs. Hignett, bold woman though she was, stood for an instant spell-bound, and for one moment of not unpardonable panic tried to tell herself that she had been mistaken. Almost immediately, however, there came from the direction of the hall a dull chunky sound as though something soft had been kicked, followed by a low gurgle and the noise of staggering feet. Unless he were dancing a pas seul out of sheer lightness of heart, the nocturnal visitor must have tripped over something.
The latter theory was the correct one. Montagu Webster was a man who, at many a subscription ball, had shaken a gifted dancing-pump, and nothing in the proper circumstances pleased him better than to exercise the skill which had become his as the result of twelve private lessons at half-a-crown a visit; but he recognised the truth of the scriptural adage that there is a time for dancing, and that this was not it. His only desire when, stealing into the drawing-room he had been confronted through the curtains by a female figure, was to get back to his bedroom undetected. He supposed that one of the feminine members of the house-party must have been taking a stroll in the grounds, and he did not wish to stay and be compelled to make laborious explanations of his presence there in the dark. He decided to postpone the knocking on the cupboard door, which had been the signal arranged between himself and Sam, until a more suitable occasion. In the meantime he bounded silently out into the hall, and instantaneously tripped over the portly form of Smith, the bulldog, who, roused from a light sleep to the knowledge that something was going on, and being a dog who always liked to be in the centre of the maelstrom of events, had waddled out to investigate.
By the time Mrs. Hignett had pulled herself together sufficiently to feel brave enough to venture into the hall, Webster's presence of mind and Smith's gregariousness had combined to restore that part of the house to its normal nocturnal condition of emptiness. Webster's stagger had carried him almost up to the green baize door leading to the servants' staircase, and he proceeded to pass through it without checking his momentum, closely followed by Smith who, now convinced that interesting events were in progress which might possibly culminate in cake, had abandoned the idea of sleep, and meant to see the thing through. He gambolled in Webster's wake up the stairs and along the passage leading to the latter's room, and only paused when the door was brusquely shut in his face. Upon which he sat down to think the thing over. He was in no hurry. The night was before him, promising, as far as he could judge from the way it had opened, excellent entertainment.
Mrs. Hignett had listened fearfully to the uncouth noises from the hall. The burglars--she had now discovered that there were at least two of them--appeared to be actually romping. The situation had grown beyond her handling. If this troupe of terpsichorean marauders was to be dislodged she must have assistance. It was man's work. She made a brave dash through the hall mercifully unmolested; found the stairs; raced up them; and fell through the doorway of her son Eustace's bedroom like a spent Marathon runner staggering past the winning-post.
At about the moment when Mrs. Hignett was crunching the gravel of the drive, Eustace was lying in bed, listening to Jane Hubbard as she told the story of how an alligator had once got into her tent while she was camping on the banks of the Issawassi River in Central Africa. Ever since he had become ill, it had been the large-hearted girl's kindly practice to soothe him to rest with some such narrative from her energetic past.
"And what happened then?" asked Eustace, breathlessly.
He had raised himself on one elbow in his bed. His eyes shone excitedly from a face which was almost the exact shape of an Association football; for he had reached the stage of mumps when the patient begins to swell as though somebody were inflating him with a bicycle-pump.
"Oh, I jabbed him in the eye with a pair of nail-scissors, and he went away!" said Jane Hubbard.
"You know, you're wonderful!" cried Eustace. "Simply wonderful!"
Jane Hubbard flushed a little beneath her tan. She loved his pretty enthusiasm. He was so genuinely stirred by what were to her the merest commonplaces of life.
"Why, if an alligator got into my tent," said Eustace, "I simply wouldn't know what to do! I should be nonplussed."
"Oh, it's just a knack," said Jane, carelessly. "You soon pick it up."
"It ruined them, unfortunately. They were never any use again. For the rest of the trip I had to manicure myself with a hunting-spear."
"You're a marvel!"
Eustace lay back in bed and gave himself up to meditation. He had admired Jane Hubbard before, but the intimacy of the sick-room and the stories which she had told him to relieve the tedium of his invalid state had set the seal on his devotion. It has always been like this since Othello wooed Desdemona. For three days Jane Hubbard had been weaving her spell about Eustace Hignett, and now she monopolised his entire horizon. She had spoken, like Othello, of antres vast and deserts idle, rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touched heaven, and of the cannibals that each other eat, the Anthropophagi, and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders. This to hear would Eustace Hignett seriously incline, and swore, in faith, 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange, 'twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful. He loved her for the dangers she had passed, and she loved him that he did pity them. In fact, one would have said that it was all over except buying the licence, had it not been for the fact that his very admiration served to keep Eustace from pouring out his heart. It seemed incredible to him that the queen of her sex, a girl who had chatted in terms of equality with African head-hunters and who swatted alligators as though they were flies, could ever lower herself to care for a man who looked like the "after-taking" advertisement of a patent food.
But even those whom Nature has destined to be mates may misunderstand each other, and Jane, who was as modest as she was brave, had come recently to place a different interpretation on his silence. In the last few days of the voyage she had quite made up her mind that Eustace Hignett loved her and would shortly intimate as much in the usual manner; but, since coming to Windles, she had begun to have doubts. She was not blind to the fact that Billie Bennett was distinctly prettier than herself and far more the type to which the ordinary man is attracted. And, much as she loathed the weakness and despised herself for yielding to it, she had become distinctly jealous of her. True, Billie was officially engaged to Bream Mortimer, but she had had experience of the brittleness of Miss Bennett's engagements, and she could by no means regard Eustace as immune.
"Do you suppose they will be happy?" she asked.
"Eh? Who?" said Eustace, excusably puzzled, for they had only just finished talking about alligators. But there had been a pause since his last remark, and Jane's thoughts had flitted back to the subject that usually occupied them.
"Billie and Bream Mortimer."
"Oh!" said Eustace. "Yes, I suppose so."
"She's a delightful girl."
"Yes," said Eustace without much animation.
"And, of course, it's nice their fathers being so keen on the match. It doesn't often happen that way."
"No. People's people generally want people to marry people people don't want to marry," said Eustace, clothing in words a profound truth which from the earliest days of civilisation has deeply affected the youth of every country.
"I suppose your mother has got somebody picked out for you to marry?" said Jane casually.
"Mother doesn't want me to marry anybody," said Eustace with gloom. It was another obstacle to his romance.
"Why ever not?"
"As far as I can make out, if I marry, I get this house and mother has to clear out. Silly business!"
"Well, you wouldn't let your mother stand in the way if you ever really fell in love?" said Jane.
"It isn't so much a question of letting her stand in the way. The tough job would be preventing her. You've never met my mother!"
"No, I'm looking forward to it!"
"You're looking forward...!" Eustace eyed her with honest amazement.
"But what could your mother do? I mean, supposing you had made up your mind to marry somebody."
"What could she do? Why, there isn't anything she wouldn't do. Why, once...." Eustace broke off. The anecdote which he had been about to tell contained information which, on reflection, he did not wish to reveal.
"Once--...?" said Jane.
"Oh, well, I was just going to show you what mother is like. I--I was going out to lunch with a man, and--and--" Eustace was not a ready improvisator--"and she didn't want me to go, so she stole all my trousers!"
Jane Hubbard started, as if, wandering through one of her favourite jungles, she had perceived a snake in her path. She was thinking hard. That story which Billie had told her on the boat about the man to whom she had been engaged, whose mother had stolen his trousers on the wedding morning ... it all came back to her with a topical significance which it had never had before. It had lingered in her memory, as stories will, but it had been a detached episode, having no personal meaning for her. But now.... "She did that just to stop you going out to lunch with a man?" she said slowly.
"Yes, rotten thing to do, wasn't it?"
Jane Hubbard moved to the foot of the bed, and her forceful gaze, shooting across the intervening counterpane, pinned Eustace to the pillow. She was in the mood which had caused spines in Somaliland to curl like withered leaves.
"Were you ever engaged to Billie Bennett?" she demanded.
Eustace Hignett licked dry lips. His face looked like a hunted melon. The flannel bandage, draped around it by loving hands, hardly supported his sagging jaw.
"Were you?" cried Jane, stamping an imperious foot. There was that in her eye before which warriors of the lower Congo had become as chewed blotting-paper. Eustace Hignett shrivelled in the blaze. He was filled with an unendurable sense of guilt.
"Well--er--yes," he mumbled weakly.
Jane Hubbard buried her face in her hands and burst into tears. She might know what to do when alligators started exploring her tent, but she was a woman.
This sudden solution of steely strength into liquid weakness had on Eustace Hignett the stunning effects which the absence of the last stair has on the returning reveller creeping up to bed in the dark. It was as though his spiritual foot had come down hard on empty space and caused him to bite his tongue. Jane Hubbard had always been to him a rock of support. And now the rock had melted away and left him wallowing in a deep pool.
He wallowed gratefully. It had only needed this to brace him to the point of declaring his love. His awe of this girl had momentarily vanished. He felt strong and dashing. He scrambled down the bed and peered over the foot of it at her huddled form.
"Have some barley-water," he urged. "Try a little barley-water."
It was all he had to offer her except the medicine which, by the doctor's instructions, he took three times a day in a quarter of a glass of water.
"Go away!" sobbed Jane Hubbard.
The unreasonableness of this struck Eustace.
"But I can't. I'm in bed. Where could I go?"
"I hate you!"
"Oh, don't say that!"
"You're still in love with her!"
"Nonsense! I never was in love with her."
"Then why were you going to marry her?"
"Oh, I don't know. It seemed a good idea at the time."
"Oh! Oh! Oh!"
Eustace bent a little further over the end of the bed and patted her hair.
"Do have some barley-water," he said. "Just a sip!"
"You are in love with her!" sobbed Jane.
"I'm not! I love you!"
"Pardon me!" said Eustace firmly. "I've loved you ever since you gave me that extraordinary drink with Worcester sauce in it on the boat."
"They why didn't you say so before?"
"I hadn't the nerve. You always seemed so--I don't know how to put it--I always seemed such a worm. I was just trying to get the courage to propose when I caught the mumps, and that seemed to me to finish it. No girl could love a man with three times the proper amount of face."
"As if that could make any difference! What does your outside matter? I have seen your inside!"
"I beg your pardon?"
Eustace fondled her back hair.
"Jane! Queen of my soul! Do you really love me?"
"I've loved you ever since we met on the Subway." She raised a tear-stained face. "If only I could be sure that you really loved me!"
"I can prove it!" said Eustace proudly. "You know how scared I am of my mother. Well, for your sake I overcame my fear, and did something which, if she ever found out about it, would make her sorer than a sunburned neck! This house. She absolutely refused to let it to old Bennett and old Mortimer. They kept after her about it, but she wouldn't hear of it. Well, you told me on the boat that Wilhelmina Bennett had invited you to spend the summer with her, and I knew that, if they didn't come to Windles, they would take some other place, and that meant I wouldn't see you. So I hunted up old Mortimer, and let it to him on the quiet, without telling my mother anything about it!"
"Why, you darling angel child," cried Jane Hubbard joyfully. "Did you really do that for my sake? Now I know you love me!"
"Of course, if mother ever got to hear of it...!"
Jane Hubbard pushed him gently into the nest of bedclothes, and tucked him in with strong, calm hands. She was a very different person from the girl who so short a while before had sobbed on the carpet. Love is a wonderful thing.
"You mustn't excite yourself," she said. "You'll be getting a temperature. Lie down and try to get to sleep." She kissed his bulbous face. "You have made me so happy, Eustace darling."
"That's good," said Eustace cordially. "But it's going to be an awful jar for mother!"
"Don't you worry about that. I'll break the news to your mother. I'm sure she will be quite reasonable about it."
Eustace opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again.
"Lie back quite comfortably, and don't worry," said Jane Hubbard. "I'm going to my room to get a book to read you to sleep. I shan't be five minutes. And forget about your mother. I'll look after her."
Eustace closed his eyes. After all, this girl had fought lions, tigers, pumas, cannibals, and alligators in her time with a good deal of success. There might be a sporting chance of victory for her when she moved a step up in the animal kingdom and tackled his mother. He was not unduly optimistic, for he thought she was going out of her class; but he felt faintly hopeful. He allowed himself to drift into pleasant meditation.
There was a scrambling sound outside the door. The handle turned.
"Hullo! Back already?" said Eustace, opening his eyes.
The next moment he opened them wider. His mouth gaped slowly like a hole in a sliding cliff. Mrs. Horace Hignett was standing at his bedside.
In the moment which elapsed before either of the two could calm their agitated brains to speech, Eustace became aware, as never before, of the truth of that well-known line--"Peace, perfect peace, with loved ones far away." There was certainly little hope of peace with loved ones in his bedroom. Dully, he realised that in a few minutes Jane Hubbard would be returning with her book, but his imagination refused to envisage the scene which would then occur.
Mrs. Hignett gasped, hand on heart.
"Eustace!" For the first time Mrs. Hignett seemed to become aware that it was a changed face that confronted hers. "Good gracious! How stout you've grown!"
"Yes, I've got mumps."
Mrs. Hignett's mind was too fully occupied with other matters to allow her to dwell on this subject.
"Eustace, there are men in the house!"
This fact was just what Eustace had been wondering how to break to her.
"I know," he said uneasily.
"You know!" Mrs. Hignett stared. "Did you hear them?"
"Hear them?" said Eustace, puzzled.
"The drawing-room window was left open, and there are two burglars in the hall!"
"Oh, I say, no! That's rather rotten!" said Eustace.
"I saw them and heard them! I--oh!" Mrs. Hignett's sentence trailed off into a suppressed shriek, as the door opened and Jane Hubbard came in.
Jane Hubbard was a girl who by nature and training was well adapted to bear shocks. Her guiding motto in life was that helpful line of Horace--Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem. (For the benefit of those who have not, like myself, enjoyed an expensive classical education,--memento--Take my tip--servare--preserve--aequam--an unruffled--mentem--mind--rebus in arduis--in every crisis). She had only been out of the room a few minutes, and in that brief period a middle-aged lady of commanding aspect had apparently come up through a trap. It would have been enough to upset most girls, but Jane Hubbard bore it calmly. All through her vivid life her bedroom had been a sort of cosy corner for murderers, alligators, tarantulas, scorpions, and every variety of snake, so she accepted the middle-aged lady without comment.
"Good evening," she said placidly.
Mrs. Hignett, having rallied from her moment of weakness, glared at the new arrival dumbly. She could not place Jane. From the airy way in which she had strolled into the room, she appeared to be some sort of a nurse; but she wore no nurse's uniform.
"Who are you?" she asked stiffly.
"Who are you?" asked Jane.
"I," said Mrs. Hignett portentously, "am the owner of this house, and I should be glad to know what you are doing in it. I am Mrs. Horace Hignett."
A charming smile spread itself over Jane's finely-cut face.
"I'm so glad to meet you," she said. "I have heard so much about you."
"Indeed?" said Mrs. Hignett coldly. "And now I should like to hear a little about you."
"I've read all your books," said Jane. "I think they're wonderful."
In spite of herself, in spite of a feeling that this young woman was straying from the point, Mrs. Hignett could not check a slight influx of amiability. She was an authoress who received a good deal of incense from admirers, but she could always do with a bit more. Besides, most of the incense came by post. Living a quiet and retired life in the country, it was rarely that she got it handed to her face to face. She melted quite perceptibly. She did not cease to look like a basilisk, but she began to look like a basilisk who has had a good lunch.
"My favourite," said Jane, who for a week had been sitting daily in a chair in the drawing-room adjoining the table on which the authoress's complete works were assembled, "is 'The Spreading Light.' I do like 'The Spreading Light!'"
"It was written some years ago," said Mrs. Hignett with something approaching cordiality, "and I have since revised some of the views I state in it, but I still consider it quite a good text-book."
"Of course, I can see that 'What of the Morrow?' is more profound," said Jane. "But I read 'The Spreading Light' first, and of course that makes a difference."
"I can quite see that it would," agreed Mrs. Hignett. "One's first step across the threshold of a new mind, one's first glimpse...."
"Yes, it makes you feel...."
"Like some watcher of the skies," said Mrs. Hignett, "when a new planet swims into his ken, or like...."
"Yes, doesn't it!" said Jane.
Eustace, who had been listening to the conversation with every muscle tense, in much the same mental attitude as that of a peaceful citizen in a Wild West Saloon who holds himself in readiness to dive under a table directly the shooting begins, began to relax. What he had shrinkingly anticipated would be the biggest thing since the Dempsey-Carpentier fight seemed to be turning into a pleasant social and literary evening not unlike what he imagined a meeting of old Girton students must be. For the first time since his mother had come into the room he indulged in the luxury of a deep breath.
"But what are you doing here?" asked Mrs. Hignett, returning almost reluctantly to the main issue.
Eustace perceived that he had breathed too soon. In an unobtrusive way he subsided into the bed and softly pulled the sheets over his head, following the excellent tactics of the great Duke of Wellington in his Peninsular campaign. "When in doubt," the Duke used to say, "retire and dig yourself in."
"I'm nursing dear Eustace," said Jane.
Mrs. Hignett quivered, and cast an eye on the hump in the bedclothes which represented dear Eustace. A cold fear had come upon her.
"'Dear Eustace!'" she repeated mechanically.
"We're engaged," said Jane.
"Engaged! Eustace, is this true?"
"Yes," said a muffled voice from the interior of the bed.
"And poor Eustace is so worried," continued Jane, "about the house." She went on quickly. "He doesn't want to deprive you of it, because he knows what it means to you. So he is hoping--we are both hoping--that you will accept it as a present when we are married. We really shan't want it, you know. We are going to live in London. So you will take it, won't you--to please us?"
We all of us, even the greatest of us, have our moments of weakness. Only a short while back, in this very room, we have seen Jane Hubbard, that indomitable girl, sobbing brokenly on the carpet. Let us then not express any surprise at the sudden collapse of one of the world's greatest female thinkers. As the meaning of this speech smote on Mrs. Horace Hignett's understanding, she sank weeping into a chair. The ever-present fear that had haunted her had been exorcised. Windles was hers in perpetuity. The relief was too great. She sat in her chair and gulped; and Eustace, greatly encouraged, emerged slowly from the bedclothes like a worm after a thunderstorm.
How long this poignant scene would have lasted, one cannot say. It is a pity that it was cut short, for I should have liked to dwell upon it. But at this moment, from the regions downstairs, there suddenly burst upon the silent night such a whirlwind of sound as effectually dissipated the tense emotion in the room. Somebody appeared to have touched off the orchestrion in the drawing-room, and that willing instrument had begun again in the middle of a bar at the point where Jane Hubbard had switched it off four afternoons ago. Its wailing lament for the passing of Summer filled the whole house.
"That's too bad!" said Jane, a little annoyed. "At this time of night!"
"It's the burglars!" quavered Mrs. Hignett. In the stress of recent events she had completely forgotten the existence of those enemies of Society. "They were dancing in the hall when I arrived, and now they're playing the orchestrion!"
"Light-hearted chaps!" said Eustace, admiring the sang-froid of the criminal world. "Full of spirits!"
"This won't do," said Jane Hubbard, shaking her head. "We can't have this sort of thing. I'll go and fetch my gun."
"They'll murder you, dear!" panted Mrs. Hignett, clinging to her arm.
Jane Hubbard laughed.
"Murder me!" she said amusedly. "I'd like to catch them at it!"
Mrs. Hignett stood staring at the door as Jane closed it softly behind her.
"Eustace," she said solemnly, "that is a wonderful girl!"
"Yes! She once killed a panther--or a puma, I forget which--with a hat-pin!" said Eustace with enthusiasm.
"I could wish you no better wife!" said Mrs. Hignett.
She broke off with a sharp wail. Out in the passage something like a battery of artillery had roared.
The door opened and Jane Hubbard appeared, slipping a fresh cartridge into the elephant-gun.
"One of them was popping about outside here," she announced. "I took a shot at him, but I'm afraid I missed. The visibility was bad. At any rate he went away."
In this last statement she was perfectly accurate. Bream Mortimer, who had been aroused by the orchestrion and who had come out to see what was the matter, had gone away at the rate of fifty miles an hour. He had been creeping down the passage when he found himself suddenly confronted by a dim figure which, without a word, had attempted to slay him with an enormous gun. The shot had whistled past his ears and gone singing down the corridor. This was enough for Bream. He had returned to his room in three strides, and was now under the bed. The burglars might take everything in the house and welcome, so that they did not molest his privacy. That was the way Bream looked at it. And very sensible of him, too, I consider.
"We'd better go downstairs," said Jane. "Bring the candle. Not you, Eustace darling. You stay where you are or you may catch a chill. Don't stir out of bed!"
"I won't," said Eustace obediently.
Of all the leisured pursuits, there are few less attractive to the thinking man than sitting in a dark cupboard waiting for a house-party to go to bed; and Sam, who had established himself in the one behind the piano at a quarter to eight, soon began to feel as if he had been there for an eternity. He could dimly remember a previous existence in which he had not been sitting in his present position, but it seemed so long ago that it was shadowy and unreal to him. The ordeal of spending the evening in this retreat had not appeared formidable when he had contemplated it that afternoon in the lane; but, now that he was actually undergoing it, it was extraordinary how many disadvantages it had.
Cupboards, as a class, are badly ventilated, and this one seemed to contain no air at all; and the warmth of the night, combined with the cupboard's natural stuffiness, had soon begun to reduce Sam to a condition of pulp. He seemed to himself to be sagging like an ice-cream in front of a fire. The darkness, too, weighed upon him. He was abominably thirsty. Also he wanted to smoke. In addition to this, the small of his back tickled, and he more than suspected the cupboard of harbouring mice. Not once or twice but many hundred times he wished that the ingenious Webster had thought of something simpler.
His was a position which would just have suited one of those Indian mystics who sit perfectly still for twenty years, contemplating the Infinite, but it reduced Sam to an almost imbecile state of boredom. He tried counting sheep. He tried going over his past life in his mind from the earliest moment he could recollect, and thought he had never encountered a duller series of episodes. He found a temporary solace by playing a succession of mental golf-games over all the courses he could remember, and he was just teeing up for the sixteenth at Muirfield, after playing Hoylake, St. Andrew's, Westward Ho, Hanger Hill, Mid-Surrey, Walton Heath, and Sandwich, when the light ceased to shine through the crack under the door, and he awoke with a sense of dull incredulity to the realisation that the occupants of the drawing-room had called it a day and that his vigil was over.
But was it? Once more alert, Sam became cautious. True, the light seemed to be off, but did that mean anything in a country-house, where people had the habit of going and strolling about the garden to all hours? Probably they were still popping about all over the place. At any rate, it was not worth risking coming out of his lair. He remembered that Webster had promised to come and knock an all-clear signal on the door. It would be safer to wait for that.
But the moments went by, and there was no knock. Sam began to grow impatient. The last few minutes of waiting in a cupboard are always the hardest. Time seemed to stretch out again interminably. Once he thought he heard footsteps but they led to nothing. Eventually, having strained his ears and finding everything still, he decided to take a chance. He fished in his pocket for the key, cautiously unlocked the door, opened it by slow inches, and peered out.
The room was in blackness. The house was still. All was well. With the feeling of a life-prisoner emerging from the Bastille, he began to crawl stiffly forward; and it was just then that the first of the disturbing events occurred which were to make this night memorable to him. Something like a rattlesnake suddenly went off with a whirr, and his head, jerking up, collided with the piano. It was only the cuckoo-clock, which now, having cleared its throat as was its custom before striking, proceeded to cuck eleven times in rapid succession before subsiding with another rattle; but to Sam it sounded like the end of the world.
He sat in the darkness, massaging his bruised skull. His hours of imprisonment in the cupboard had had a bad effect on his nervous system, and he vacillated between tears of weakness and a militant desire to get at the cuckoo-clock with a hatchet. He felt that it had done it on purpose and was now chuckling to itself in fancied security. For quite a minute he raged silently, and any cuckoo-clock which had strayed within his reach would have had a bad time of it. Then his attention was diverted.
So concentrated was Sam on his private vendetta with the clock that no ordinary happening would have had the power to distract him. What occurred now was by no means ordinary, and it distracted him like an electric shock. As he sat on the floor, passing a tender hand over the egg-shaped bump which had already begun to manifest itself beneath his hair, something cold and wet touched his face, and paralysed him so completely both physically and mentally that he did not move a muscle but just congealed where he sat into a solid block of ice. He felt vaguely that this was the end. His heart had stopped beating and he simply could not imagine it ever starting again, and, if your heart refuses to beat, what hope is there for you?
At this moment something heavy and solid struck him squarely in the chest, rolling him over. Something gurgled asthmatically in the darkness. Something began to lick his eyes, ears, and chin in a sort of ecstasy; and, clutching out, he found his arms full of totally unexpected bulldog.
"Get out!" whispered Sam tensely, recovering his faculties with a jerk. "Go away!"
Smith took the opportunity of Sam's lips having opened to lick the roof of his mouth. Smith's attitude in the matter was that Providence in its all-seeing wisdom had sent him a human being at a moment when he had reluctantly been compelled to reconcile himself to a total absence of such indispensable adjuncts to a good time. He had just trotted downstairs in rather a disconsolate frame of mind after waiting with no result in front of Webster's bedroom door, and it was a real treat to him to meet a man, especially one seated in such a jolly and sociable manner on the floor. He welcomed Sam like a long-lost friend.
Between Smith and the humans who provided him with dog-biscuits and occasionally with sweet cakes there had always existed a state of misunderstanding which no words could remove. The position of the humans was quite clear; they had elected Smith to his present position on a straight watch-dog ticket. They expected him to be one of those dogs who rouse the house and save the spoons. They looked to him to pin burglars by the leg and hold on till the police arrived. Smith simply could not grasp such an attitude of mind. He regarded Windles not as a private house but as a social club, and was utterly unable to see any difference between the human beings he knew and the strangers who dropped in for a late chat after the place was locked up. He had no intention of biting Sam. The idea never entered his head. At the present moment what he felt about Sam was that he was one of the best fellows he had ever met and that he loved him like a brother.
Sam, in his unnerved state, could not bring himself to share these amiable sentiments. He was thinking bitterly that Webster might have had the intelligence to warn him of bulldogs on the premises. It was just the sort of woollen-headed thing fellows did, forgetting facts like that. He scrambled stiffly to his feet and tried to pierce the darkness that hemmed him in. He ignored Smith, who snuffled sportively about his ankles, and made for the slightly less black oblong which he took to be the door leading into the hall. He moved warily, but not warily enough to prevent his cannoning into and almost upsetting a small table with a vase on it. The table rocked and the vase jumped, and the first bit of luck that had come to Sam that night was when he reached out at a venture and caught it just as it was about to bound on to the carpet.
He stood there, shaking. The narrowness of the escape turned him cold. If he had been an instant later, there would have been a crash loud enough to wake a dozen sleeping houses. This sort of thing could not go on. He must have light. It might be a risk; there might be a chance of somebody upstairs seeing it and coming down to investigate; but it was a risk that must be taken. He declined to go on stumbling about in this darkness any longer. He groped his way with infinite care to the door, on the wall adjoining which, he presumed, the electric-light switch would be. It was nearly ten years since he had last been inside Windles, and it never occurred to him that in this progressive age even a woman like his Aunt Adeline, of whom he could believe almost anything, would still be using candles and oil-lamps as a means of illumination. His only doubt was whether the switch was where it was in most houses, near the door.
It is odd to reflect that, as his searching fingers touched the knob, a delicious feeling of relief came to Samuel Marlowe. This misguided young man actually felt at that moment that his troubles were over. He positively smiled as he placed a thumb on the knob and shoved.
He shoved strongly and sharply, and instantaneously there leaped at him out of the darkness a blare of music which appeared to his disordered mind quite solid. It seemed to wrap itself round him. It was all over the place. In a single instant the world had become one vast bellow of Tosti's "Good-bye."
How long he stood there, frozen, he did not know; nor can one say how long he would have stood there had nothing further come to invite his notice elsewhere. But, suddenly, drowning even the impromptu concert, there came from somewhere upstairs the roar of a gun; and, when he heard that, Sam's rigid limbs relaxed and a violent activity descended upon him. He bounded out into the hall, looking to right and to left for a hiding-place. One of the suits of armour which had been familiar to him in his boyhood loomed up in front of him, and with the sight came the recollection of how, when a mere child on his first visit to Windles, playing hide and seek with his cousin Eustace, he had concealed himself inside this very suit, and had not only baffled Eustace through a long summer evening but had wound up by almost scaring him into a decline by booing at him through the vizor of the helmet. Happy days, happy days! He leaped at the suit of armour. Having grown since he was last inside it, he found the helmet a tight fit, but he managed to get his head into it at last, and the body of the thing was quite roomy.
"Thank heaven!" said Sam.
He was not comfortable, but comfort just then was not his primary need.
Smith the bulldog, well satisfied with the way the entertainment had opened, sat down, wheezing slightly, to await developments.
He had not long to wait. In a few minutes the hall had filled up nicely. There was Mr. Mortimer in his shirt-sleeves, Mr. Bennett in blue pyjamas and a dressing-gown, Mrs. Hignett in a travelling costume, Jane Hubbard with her elephant-gun, and Billie in a dinner dress. Smith welcomed them all impartially.
Somebody lit a lamp, and Mrs. Hignett stared speechlessly at the mob.
"Mr. Bennett! Mr. Mortimer!"
"Mrs. Hignett! What are you doing here?"
Mrs. Hignett drew herself up stiffly.
"What an odd question, Mr. Mortimer! I am in my own house!"
"But you rented it to me for the summer. At least, your son did."
"Eustace let you Windles for the summer!" said Mrs. Hignett incredulously.
Jane Hubbard returned from the drawing-room, where she had been switching off the orchestrion.
"Let us talk all that over cosily to-morrow," she said. "The point now is that there are burglars in the house."
"Burglars!" cried Mr. Bennett aghast. "I thought it was you playing that infernal instrument, Mortimer."
"What on earth should I play it for at this time of night?" said Mr. Mortimer irritably.
"It woke me up," said Mr. Bennett complainingly. "And I had had great difficulty in dropping off to sleep. I was in considerable pain. I believe I've caught the mumps from young Hignett."
"Nonsense! You're always imagining yourself ill," snapped Mr. Mortimer.
"My face hurts," persisted Mr. Bennett.
"You can't expect a face like that not to hurt," said Mr. Mortimer.
It appeared only too evident that the two old friends were again on the verge of one of their distressing fallings-out; but Jane Hubbard intervened once more. This practical-minded girl disliked the introducing of side-issues into the conversation. She was there to talk about burglars, and she intended to do so.
"For goodness sake stop it!" she said, almost petulantly for one usually so superior to emotion. "There'll be lots of time for quarrelling to-morrow. Just now we've got to catch these...."
"I'm not quarrelling," said Mr. Bennett.
"Yes, you are," said Mr. Mortimer.
"I'm not arguing!"
Jane Hubbard had practically every noble quality which a woman can possess with the exception of patience. A patient woman would have stood by, shrinking from interrupting the dialogue. Jane Hubbard's robuster course was to raise the elephant-gun, point it at the front door, and pull the trigger.
"I thought that would stop you," she said complacently, as the echoes died away and Mr. Bennett had finished leaping into the air. She inserted a fresh cartridge, and sloped arms. "Now, the question is...."
"You made me bite my tongue!" said Mr. Bennett, deeply aggrieved.
"Serve you right!" said Jane placidly. "Now, the question is, have the fellows got away or are they hiding somewhere in the house? I think they're still in the house."
"The police!" exclaimed Mr. Bennett, forgetting his lacerated tongue and his other grievances. "We must summon the police!"
"Obviously!" said Mrs. Hignett, withdrawing her fascinated gaze from the ragged hole in the front door, the cost of repairing which she had been mentally assessing. "We must send for the police at once."
"We don't really need them, you know," said Jane. "If you'll all go to bed and just leave me to potter round with my gun...."
"And blow the whole house to pieces!" said Mrs. Hignett tartly. She had begun to revise her original estimate of this girl. To her, Windles was sacred, and anyone who went about shooting holes in it forfeited her esteem.
"Shall I go for the police?" said Billie. "I could bring them back in ten minutes in the car."
"Certainly not!" said Mr. Bennett. "My daughter gadding about all over the countryside in an automobile at this time of night!"
"If you think I ought not to go alone, I could take Bream."
"Where is Bream?" said Mr. Mortimer.
The odd fact that Bream was not among those present suddenly presented itself to the company.
"Where can he be?" said Billie.
Jane Hubbard laughed the wholesome, indulgent laugh of one who is broad-minded enough to see the humour of the situation even when the joke is at her expense.
"What a silly girl I am!" she said. "I do believe that was Bream I shot at upstairs. How foolish of me making a mistake like that!"
"You shot my only son!" cried Mr. Mortimer.
"I shot at him," said Jane. "My belief is that I missed him. Though how I came to do it beats me. I don't suppose I've missed a sitter like that since I was a child in the nursery. Of course," she proceeded, looking on the reasonable side, "the visibility wasn't good, but it's no use saying I oughtn't at least to have winged him, because I ought." She shook her head with a touch of self-reproach. "I shall get chaffed about this if it comes out," she said regretfully.
"The poor boy must be in his room," said Mr. Mortimer.
"Under the bed, if you ask me," said Jane, blowing on the barrel of her gun and polishing it with the side of her hand. "He's all right! Leave him alone, and the housemaid will sweep him up in the morning."
"Oh, he can't be!" cried Billie, revolted.
A girl of high spirit, it seemed to her repellent that the man she was engaged to marry should be displaying such a craven spirit. At that moment she despised and hated Bream Mortimer. I think she was wrong, mind you. It is not my place to criticise the little group of people whose simple annals I am relating--my position is merely that of a reporter--; but personally I think highly of Bream's sturdy common-sense. If somebody loosed off an elephant-gun at me in a dark corridor, I would climb on to the roof and pull it up after me. Still, rightly or wrongly, that was how Billie felt; and it flashed across her mind that Samuel Marlowe, scoundrel though he was, would not have behaved like this. And for a moment a certain wistfulness added itself to the varied emotions then engaging her mind.
"I'll go and look, if you like," said Jane agreeably. "You amuse yourselves somehow till I come back."
She ran easily up the stairs, three at a time. Mr. Mortimer turned to Mr. Bennett.
"It's all very well your saying Wilhelmina mustn't go, but, if she doesn't, how can we get the police? The house isn't on the 'phone, and nobody else can drive the car."
"That's true," said Mr. Bennett, wavering.
"Of course, we could drop them a post-card first thing to-morrow morning," said Mr. Mortimer in his nasty sarcastic way.
"I'm going," said Billie resolutely. It occurred to her, as it has occurred to so many women before her, how helpless men are in a crisis. The temporary withdrawal of Jane Hubbard had had the effect which the removal of the rudder has on a boat. "It's the only thing to do. I shall be back in no time."
She stepped firmly to the coat-rack, and began to put on her motoring-cloak. And just then Jane Hubbard came downstairs, shepherding before her a pale and glassy-eyed Bream.
"Right under the bed," she announced cheerfully, "making a noise like a piece of fluff in order to deceive burglars."
Billie cast a scornful look at her fiance. Absolutely unjustified, in my opinion, but nevertheless she cast it. But it had no effect at all. Terror had stunned Bream Mortimer's perceptions. His was what the doctors call a penumbral mental condition.
"Bream," said Billie, "I want you to come in the car with me to fetch the police."
"All right," said Bream.
"Get your coat."
"All right," said Bream.
"All right," said Bream.
He followed Billie in a docile manner out through the front door, and they made their way to the garage at the back of the house, both silent. The only difference between their respective silences was that Billie's was thoughtful, while Bream's was just the silence of a man who has unhitched his brain and is getting along as well as he can without it.
In the hall they had left, Jane Hubbard once more took command of affairs.
"Well, that's something done," she said, scratching Smith's broad back with the muzzle of her weapon. "Something accomplished, something done, has earned a night's repose. Not that we're going to get it yet. I think those fellows are hiding somewhere, and we ought to search the house and rout them out. It's a pity Smith isn't a bloodhound. He's a good cake-hound, but as a watch-dog he doesn't finish in the first ten."
The cake-hound, charmed at the compliment, frisked about her feet like a young elephant.
"The first thing to do," continued Jane, "is to go through the ground-floor rooms...." She paused to strike a match against the suit of armour nearest to her, a proceeding which elicited a sharp cry of protest from Mrs. Hignett, and lit a cigarette. "I'll go first, as I've got a gun...." She blew a cloud of smoke. "I shall want somebody with me to carry a light, and...."
"What?" said Jane.
"I didn't speak," said Mr. Mortimer. "Who am I to speak?" he went on bitterly. "Who am I that it should be supposed that I have anything sensible to suggest?"
"Somebody spoke," said Jane. "I...."
"Do you feel a draught, Mr. Bennett?" cried Jane sharply, wheeling round on him.
"There is a draught," began Mr. Bennett.
"Well, finish sneezing and I'll go on."
"I didn't sneeze!"
"It seemed to come from just behind you," said Mrs. Hignett nervously.
"It couldn't have come from just behind me," said Jane, "because there isn't anything behind me from which it could have...." She stopped suddenly, in her eyes the light of understanding, on her face the set expression which was wont to come to it on the eve of action. "Oh!" she said in a different voice, a voice which was cold and tense and sinister. "Oh, I see!" She raised her gun, and placed a muscular forefinger on the trigger. "Come out of that!" she said. "Come out of that suit of armour and let's have a look at you!"
"I can explain everything," said a muffled voice through the vizor of the helmet. "I can--achoo!" The smoke of the cigarette tickled Sam's nostrils again, and he suspended his remarks.
"I shall count three," said Jane Hubbard, "One--two--"
"I'm coming! I'm coming!" said Sam petulantly.
"You'd better!" said Jane.
"I can't get this dashed helmet off!"
"If you don't come quick, I'll blow it off."
Sam stepped out into the hall, a picturesque figure which combined the costumes of two widely separated centuries. Modern as far as the neck, he slipped back at that point to the Middle Ages.
"Hands up!" commanded Jane Hubbard.
"My hands are up!" retorted Sam querulously, as he wrenched at his unbecoming head-wear.
"Never mind trying to raise your hat," said Jane. "If you've lost the combination, we'll dispense with the formalities. What we're anxious to hear is what you're doing in the house at this time of night, and who your pals are. Come along, my lad, make a clean breast of it and perhaps you'll get off easier. Are you a gang?"
"Do I look like a gang?"
"If you ask me what you look like...."
"My name is Marlowe ... Samuel Marlowe...."
"Alias nothing! I say my name is Samuel Marlowe...."
An explosive roar burst from Mr. Bennett.
"The scoundrel! I know him! I forbade him the house, and...."
"And by what right did you forbid people my house, Mr. Bennett?" said Mrs. Hignett with acerbity.
"I've rented the house, Mortimer and I rented it from your son...."
"Yes, yes, yes," said Jane Hubbard. "Never mind about that. So you know this fellow, do you?"
"I don't know him!"
"You said you did."
"I refuse to know him!" went on Mr. Bennett. "I won't know him! I decline to have anything to do with him!"
"But you identify him?"
"If he says he's Samuel Marlowe," assented Mr. Bennett grudgingly, "I suppose he is. I can't imagine anybody saying he was Samuel Marlowe if he didn't know it could be proved against him."
"Are you my nephew Samuel?" said Mrs. Hignett.
"Yes," said Sam.
"Well, what are you doing in my house?"
"It's my house," said Mr. Bennett, "for the summer, Henry Mortimer's and mine. Isn't that right, Henry?"
"Dead right," said Mr. Mortimer.
"There!" said Mr. Bennett. "You hear? And when Henry Mortimer says a thing, it's so. There's nobody's word I'd take before Henry Mortimer's."
"When Rufus Bennett makes an assertion," said Mr. Mortimer, highly flattered by these kind words, "you can bank on it. Rufus Bennett's word is his bond. Rufus Bennett is a white man!"
The two old friends, reconciled once more, clasped hands with a good deal of feeling.
"I am not disputing Mr. Bennett's claim to belong to the Caucasian race," said Mrs. Hignett testily. "I merely maintain that this house is m...."
"Yes, yes, yes, yes!" interrupted Jane. "You can thresh all that out some other time. The point is, if this fellow is your nephew, I don't see what we can do. We'll have to let him go."
"I came to this house," said Sam, raising his vizor to facilitate speech, "to make a social call...."
"At this hour of the night!" snapped Mrs. Hignett. "You always were an inconsiderate boy, Samuel."
"I came to inquire after poor Eustace's mumps. I've only just heard that the poor chap was ill."
"He's getting along quite well," said Jane, melting. "If I had known you were so fond of Eustace...."
"All right, is he?" said Sam.
"Well, not quite all right, but he's going on very nicely."
"Eustace and I are engaged, you know!"
"No, really? Splendid! I can't see you very distinctly--how those Johnnies in the old days ever contrived to put up a scrap with things like this on their heads beats me--but you sound a good sort. I hope you'll be very happy."
"Thank you ever so much, Mr. Marlowe. I'm sure we shall."
"Eustace is one of the best."
"How nice of you to say so."
"All this," interrupted Mrs. Hignett, who had been a chaffing auditor of this interchange of courtesies, "is beside the point. Why did you dance in the hall, Samuel, and play the orchestrion?"
"Yes," said Mr. Bennett, reminded of his grievance, "waking people up."
"Scaring us all to death!" complained Mr. Mortimer.
"I remember you as a boy, Samuel," said Mrs. Hignett, "lamentably lacking in consideration for others and concentrated only on your selfish pleasures. You seem to have altered very little."
"Don't ballyrag the poor man," said Jane Hubbard. "Be human! Lend him a sardine opener!"
"I shall do nothing of the sort," said Mrs. Hignett. "I never liked him and I dislike him now. He has got himself into this trouble through his own wrong-headedness."
"It's not his fault his head's the wrong size," said Jane.
"He must get himself out as best he can," said Mrs. Hignett.
"Very well," said Sam with bitter dignity. "Then I will not trespass further on your hospitality, Aunt Adeline. I have no doubt the local blacksmith will be able to get this damned thing off me. I shall go to him now. I will let you have the helmet back by parcel-post at the earliest opportunity. Good-night!" He walked coldly to the front door. "And there are people," he remarked sardonically, "who say that blood is thicker than water! I'll bet they never had any aunts!"
He tripped over the mat and withdrew.
Billie meanwhile, with Bream trotting docilely at her heels, had reached the garage and started the car. Like all cars which have been spending a considerable time in secluded inaction, it did not start readily. At each application of Billie's foot on the self-starter, it emitted a tinny and reproachful sound and then seemed to go to sleep again. Eventually, however, the engines began to revolve and the machine moved reluctantly out into the drive.
"The battery must be run down," said Billie.
"All right," said Bream.
Billie cast a glance of contempt at him out of the corner of her eyes. She hardly knew why she had spoken to him except that, as all motorists are aware, the impulse to say rude things about their battery is almost irresistible. To a motorist the art of conversation consists in rapping out scathing remarks either about the battery or the oiling-system.
Billie switched on the head-lights and turned the car down the dark drive. She was feeling thoroughly upset. Her idealistic nature had received a painful shock on the discovery of the yellow streak in Bream. To call it a yellow streak was to understate the facts. It was a great belt of saffron encircling his whole soul. That she, Wilhelmina Bennett, who had gone through the world seeking a Galahad, should finish her career as the wife of a man who hid under beds simply because people shot at him with elephant guns was abhorrent to her. Why, Samuel Marlowe would have perished rather than do such a thing. You might say what you liked about Samuel Marlowe--and, of course, his habit of playing practical jokes put him beyond the pale--but nobody could question his courage. Look at the way he had dived overboard that time in the harbour at New York! Billie found herself thinking wistfully about Samuel Marlowe.
There are only a few makes of car in which you can think about anything except the actual driving without stalling the engines, and Mr. Bennett's Twin-Six Complex was not one of them. It stopped as if it had been waiting for the signal.... The noise of the engine died away. The wheels ceased to revolve. The car did everything except lie down. It was a particularly pig-headed car and right from the start it had been unable to see the sense in this midnight expedition. It seemed now to have the idea that if it just lay low and did nothing, presently it would be taken back to its cosy garage.
Billie trod on the self-starter. Nothing happened.
"You'll have to get down and crank her," she said curtly.
"All right," said Bream.
"Well, go on," said Billie impatiently.
"Get out and crank her."
Bream emerged for an instant from his trance.
"All right," he said.
The art of cranking a car is one that is not given to all men. Some of our greatest and wisest stand helpless before the task. It is a job towards the consummation of which a noble soul and a fine brain help not at all. A man may have all the other gifts and yet be unable to accomplish a task which the fellow at the garage does with one quiet flick of the wrist without even bothering to remove his chewing gum. This being so, it was not only unkind but foolish of Billie to grow impatient as Bream's repeated efforts failed of their object. It was wrong of her to click her tongue, and certainly she ought not to have told Bream that he was not fit to churn butter. But women are an emotional sex and must be forgiven much in moments of mental stress.
"Give it a good sharp twist," she said.
"All right," said Bream.
"Here, let me do it," cried Billie.
She jumped down and snatched the thingummy from his hand. With bent brows and set teeth she wrenched it round. The engine gave a faint protesting mutter, like a dog that has been disturbed in its sleep, and was still once more.
"May I help?"
It was not Bream who spoke but a strange voice--a sepulchral voice, the sort of voice someone would have used in one of Edgar Allen Poe's cheerful little tales if he had been buried alive and were speaking from the family vault. Coming suddenly out of the night it affected Bream painfully. He uttered a sharp exclamation and gave a bound which, if he had been a Russian dancer would undoubtedly have caused the management to raise his salary. He was in no frame of mind to bear up under sudden sepulchral voices.
Billie, on the other hand, was pleased. The high-spirited girl was just beginning to fear that she was unequal to the task which she had chided Bream for being unable to perform and this was mortifying her.
"Oh, would you mind? Thank you so much. The self-starter has gone wrong."
Into the glare of the headlights there stepped a strange figure, strange, that is to say, in these tame modern times. In the Middle Ages he would have excited no comment at all. Passers by would simply have said to themselves, "Ah, another of those knights off after the dragons!" and would have gone on their way with a civil greeting. But in the present age it is always somewhat startling to see a helmeted head pop up in front of your motor car. At any rate, it startled Bream. I will go further. It gave Bream the shock of a lifetime. He had had shocks already that night, but none to be compared with this. Or perhaps it was that this shock, coming on top of those shocks, affected him more disastrously than it would have done if it had been the first of the series instead of the last. One may express the thing briefly by saying that, as far as Bream was concerned, Sam's unconventional appearance put the lid on it. He did not hesitate. He did not pause to make comments or ask questions. With a single cat-like screech which took years off the lives of the abruptly wakened birds roosting in the neighbouring trees, he dashed away towards the house and, reaching his room, locked the door and pushed the bed, the chest of drawers, two chairs, the towel stand, and three pairs of boots against it.
Out on the drive Billie was staring at the man in armour who had now, with a masterful wrench which informed the car right away that he would stand no nonsense, set the engine going again.
"Why--why," she stammered, "why are you wearing that thing on your head?"
"Because I can't get it off."
Hollow as the voice was, Billie recognised it.
"S--Mr. Marlowe!" she exclaimed.
"Get in," said Sam. He had seated himself at the steering wheel. "Where can I take you?"
"Go away!" said Billie.
"I don't want to talk to you."
"I want to talk to you! Get in!"
Sam bent over the side of the car, put his hands under her arms, lifted her like a kitten, and deposited her on the seat beside him. Then throwing in the clutch, he drove at an ever-increasing speed down the drive and out into the silent road. Strange creatures of the night came and went in the golden glow of the head-lights.
"Put me down," said Billie.
"You'd get hurt if I did, travelling at this pace."
"What are you going to do?"
"Drive about till you promise to marry me."
"You'll have to drive a long time."
"Right ho!" said Sam.
The car took a corner and purred down a lane. Billie reached out a hand and grabbed at the steering wheel.
"Of course, if you want to smash up in a ditch!" said Sam, righting the car with a wrench.
"You're a brute!" said Billie.
"Caveman stuff," explained Sam, "I ought to have tried it before."
"I don't know what you expect to gain by this."
"That's all right," said Sam, "I know what I'm about."
"I'm glad to hear it."
"I thought you would be."
"I'm not going to talk to you."
"All right. Lean back and doze off. We've the whole night before us."
"What do you mean?" cried Billie, sitting up with a jerk.
"Have you ever been to Scotland?"
"What do you mean?"
"I thought we might push up there. We've got to go somewhere and, oddly enough, I've never been to Scotland."
Billie regarded him blankly.
"Are you crazy?"
"I'm crazy about you. If you knew what I've gone through to-night for your sake you'd be more sympathetic. I love you," said Sam, swerving to avoid a rabbit. "And what's more, you know it."
"I don't care."
"You will!" said Sam confidently. "How about North Wales? I've heard people speak well of North Wales. Shall we head for North Wales?"
"I'm engaged to Bream Mortimer."
"Oh no, that's all off," Sam assured her.
"Right off!" said Sam firmly. "You could never bring yourself to marry a man who dashed away like that and deserted you in your hour of need. Why, for all he knew, I might have tried to murder you. And he ran away! No, no, we eliminate Bream Mortimer once and for all. He won't do!"
This was so exactly what Billie was feeling herself that she could not bring herself to dispute it.
"Anyway, I hate you!" she said, giving the conversation another turn.
"Why? In the name of goodness, why?"
"How dared you make a fool of me in your father's office that morning?"
"It was a sudden inspiration. I had to do something to make you think well of me, and I thought it might meet the case if I saved you from a lunatic with a pistol. It wasn't my fault that you found out."
"I shall never forgive you!"
"Why not Cornwall?" said Sam. "The Riviera of England! Let's go to Cornwall. I beg your pardon. What were you saying?"
"I said I should never forgive you and I won't."
"Well, I hope you're fond of motoring," said Sam, "because we're going on till you do."
"Very well! Go on, then!"
"I intend to. Of course, it's all right now while it's dark. But have you considered what is going to happen when the sun gets up? We shall have a sort of triumphal procession. How the small boys will laugh when they see a man in a helmet go by in a car! I shan't notice them myself because it's a little difficult to notice anything from inside this thing, but I'm afraid it will be rather unpleasant for you.... I know what we'll do. We'll go to London and drive up and down Piccadilly! That will be fun!"
There was a long silence.
"Is my helmet on straight?" said Sam.
Billie made no reply. She was looking before her down the hedge-bordered road. Always a girl of sudden impulses, she had just made a curious discovery, to wit that she was enjoying herself. There was something so novel and exhilarating about this midnight ride that imperceptibly her dismay and resentment had ebbed away. She found herself struggling with a desire to laugh.
"Lochinvar!" said Sam suddenly. "That's the name of the chap I've been trying to think of! Did you ever read about Lochinvar? 'Young Lochinvar' the poet calls him rather familiarly. He did just what I'm doing now, and everybody thought very highly of him. I suppose in those days a helmet was just an ordinary part of what the well-dressed man should wear. Odd how fashions change!"
Till now dignity and wrath combined had kept Billie from making any inquiries into a matter which had excited in her a quite painful curiosity. In her new mood she resisted the impulse no longer.
"Why are you wearing that thing?"
"I told you. Purely and simply because I can't get it off. You don't suppose I'm trying to set a new style in gents' head-wear, do you?"
"But why did you ever put it on?"
"Well, it was this way. After I came out of the cupboard in the drawing-room...."
"Didn't I tell you about that? Oh yes, I was sitting in the cupboard in the drawing-room from dinner-time onwards. After that I came out and started cannoning about among Aunt Adeline's china, so I thought I'd better switch the light on. Unfortunately I switched on some sort of musical instrument instead. And then somebody started shooting. So, what with one thing and another, I thought it would be best to hide somewhere. I hid in one of the suits of armour in the hall."
"Were you inside there all the time we were...?"
"Yes. I say, that was funny about Bream, wasn't it? Getting under the bed, I mean."
"Don't let's talk about Bream."
"That's the right spirit! I like to see it! All right, we won't. Let's get back to the main issue. Will you marry me?"
"But why did you come to the house at all?"
"To see you."
"To see me! At that time of night?"
"Well, perhaps not actually to see you." Sam was a little perplexed for a moment. Something told him that it would be injudicious to reveal his true motive and thereby risk disturbing the harmony which he felt had begun to exist between them. "To be near you! To be in the same house with you!" he went on vehemently feeling that he had struck the right note. "You don't know the anguish I went through after I read that letter of yours. I was mad! I was ... well, to return to the point, will you marry me?"
Billie sat looking straight before her. The car, now on the main road, moved smoothly on.
"Will you marry me?"
Billie rested her hand on her chin and searched the darkness with thoughtful eyes.
"Will you marry me?"
The car raced on.
"Will you marry me?" said Sam. "Will you marry me? Will you marry me?"
"Oh, don't talk like a parrot," cried Billie. "It reminds me of Bream."
"But will you?"
"Yes," said Billie.
Sam brought the car to a standstill with a jerk, probably very bad for the tyres.
"Did you say 'yes'?"
"Darling!" said Sam, leaning towards her. "Oh, curse this helmet!"
"Well, I rather wanted to kiss you and it hampers me."
"Let me try and get it off. Bend down!"
"Ouch!" said Sam.
"It's coming. There! How helpless men are!"
"We need a woman's tender care," said Sam depositing the helmet on the floor of the car and rubbing his smarting ears. "Billie!"
"You're rather a darling after all," said Billie. "But you want keeping in order," she added severely.
"You will do that when we're married. When we're married!" he repeated luxuriously. "How splendid it sounds!"
"The only trouble is," said Billie, "father won't hear of it."
"No, he won't. Not till it is all over," said Sam.
He started the car again.
"What are you going to do?" said Billie. "Where are you going?"
"To London," said Sam. "It may be news to you but the old lawyer like myself knows that, by going to Doctors' Commons or the Court of Arches or somewhere or by routing the Archbishop of Canterbury out of bed or something, you can get a special licence and be married almost before you know where you are. My scheme--roughly--is to dig this special licence out of whoever keeps such things, have a bit of breakfast, and then get married at our leisure before lunch at a registrar's."
"Oh, not a registrar's!" said Billie.
"I should hate a registrar's."
"Very well, angel. Just as you say. We'll go to a church. There are millions of churches in London. I've seen them all over the place." He mused for a moment. "Yes, you're quite right," he said. "A church is the thing. It'll please Webster."
"Yes, he's rather keen on the church bells never having rung out so blithe a peal before. And we must consider Webster's feelings. After all, he brought us together."
"Oh, I'll tell you all about that some other time," said Sam. "Just for the moment I want to sit quite still and think. Are you comfortable? Fine! Then off we go."
The birds in the trees fringing the road stirred and twittered grumpily as the noise of the engine disturbed their slumbers. But, if they had only known it, they were in luck. At any rate, the worst had not befallen them, for Sam was too happy to sing.