BERRY AND CO.
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
Published by Ward, Lock & Co.:— BERRY AND CO. JONAH AND CO. MAIDEN STAKES. THE STOLEN MARCH. ANTHONY LYVEDEN. VALERIE FRENCH. AND FIVE WERE FOOLISH. AS OTHER MEN ARE. THE BROTHER OF DAPHNE. THE COURTS OF IDLENESS.
Published by Hodder & Stoughton:— BLIND CORNER. PERISHABLE GOODS. BLOOD ROYAL. FIRE BELOW. ADELE AND CO.
BERRY AND CO.
WARD, LOCK & CO., LIMITED
LONDON AND MELBOURNE
PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN BY PURNELL AND SONS PAULTON (SOMERSET) AND LONDON
When a writer admits that he has an affection for something which he has written, it is high time to pray for his soul. Yet I make bold to confess that there are in this book some passages which I hold dear—a seeming vanity, which must be explained.
Many times you have found me at work upon these chapters. Often you have taken ill-written pages of manuscript from my table and, sitting down in a chair, deciphered them for what they were worth. Once or twice, whilst you read, you have fallen into silvery laughter.
Do you wonder that I treasure the sentences which drew forth such music?
This is my dedication.
As many as see you are glad of the sight. All who know you are proud of the honour. But the man whose efforts your mirth has commended is the proudest and happiest of the lot.
Need I say that your name is not Valerie? I think not. You will know whom I mean.
Most faithfully yours,
Pau, November, 1920.
I HOW WILL NOGGIN WAS FOOLED, AND BERRY RODE FORTH AGAINST HIS WILL
II HOW DAPHNE WROTE FOR ASSISTANCE, AND MR. HOLLY WAS OUTBID
III HOW A MAN MAY FOLLOW HIS OWN HAT, AND BERRY TOOK A LAMP IN HIS HAND
IV HOW NOBBY CAME TO SLEEP UPON MY BED, AND BERRY FELL AMONG THIEVES
V HOW JILL'S EDUCATION WAS IMPROVED, AND DAPHNE GAVE HER HUSBAND THE SLIP
VI HOW NOBBY ATTENDED A WEDDING, AND BERRY SPOKE NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH
VII HOW JONAH OBEYED HIS ORDERS, AND DAPHNE AND KATHARINE FESTIVAL BACKED THE SAME HORSE
VIII HOW JILL SLEPT UNDISTURBED, AND NOBBY ATTENDED CHURCH PARADE
IX HOW ADELE FESTE ARRIVED, AND MR. DUNKELSBAUM SUPPED WITH THE DEVIL
X HOW ADELE BROKE HER DREAM, AND VANDY PLEYDELL TOOK EXERCISE
XI HOW NOBBY MET BLUE BANDALA, AND ADELE GAVE JONAH A KISS
HOW WILL NOGGIN WAS FOOLED, AND BERRY RODE FORTH AGAINST HIS WILL.
"Who's going to church?" said Daphne, consulting her wrist-watch.
There was a profound silence.
My sister turned to Jill.
"Are you coming?" she said. "Berry and I are."
"I beg your pardon," said her husband.
"Of course you're coming," said Daphne.
"Not in these trousers. This is the first time I've worn them, and I'm not going to kneel in them for any one."
"Then you'll change," said his wife. "You've plenty of time."
"This is sheer Bolshevism," he said. "Is not my soul my own?"
"We shall start," said Daphne, "in twenty minutes."
It was nearly half-past ten in the morning of a beautiful summer day, and we were all taking our ease in the sunshine upon the terrace. It was the first Sunday which we had spent all together at White Ladies for nearly five years.
So far as the eye could see, nothing had changed.
At the foot of the steps the great smooth lawn stretched like a fine green carpet, its shadowed patches yet bright with dew. There were the tall elms and the copper beech and all the proud company of spreading giants—what were five years to them? There was the clump of rhododendrons, a ragged blotch of crimson, seemingly spilled upon the green turf, and there the close box hedge that walled away the rose-garden. Beyond the sunk fence a gap showed an acre or so of Bull's Mead—a great deep meadow, and in it two horses beneath a chestnut tree, their long tails a-swish, sleepily nosing each other to rout the flies; while in the distance the haze of heat hung like a film over the rolling hills. Close at hand echoed the soft impertinence of a cuckoo, and two fat wood-pigeons waddled about the lawn, picking and stealing as they went. The sky was cloudless, and there was not a breath of wind.
The stable clock chimed the half-hour.
My sister returned to the attack.
"Are you coming, Boy?"
"Yes," said I. "I am."
Berry sat up and stared at me.
"Don't be silly," he said. "There's a service this morning. Besides, they've changed the lock of the poor-box."
"I want to watch the Vicar's face when he sees you," said I.
"It will be a bit of a shock," said Jonah, looking up from the paper. "Is his heart all right?"
"Rotten," said Daphne. "But that doesn't matter. I sent him a note to warn him yesterday."
"What did you say?" demanded her husband.
"I said, 'We're back at last, and—don't faint—we're all coming to Church to-morrow, and you've got to come back to lunch.' And now, for goodness' sake, go and change."
"But we shall perspire," said Berry. "Profusely. To walk half a mile in this sun is simply asking for it. Besides——"
"What's the car done?" said Jonah. "I'm going, and I can't hurry with this." He tapped his short leg affectionately. "We needn't take Fitch. Boy or I can drive."
"Right oh," said my sister, rising. "Is ten-minutes-to early enough?"
"This," said Berry, "is a conspiracy for which you will all pay. Literally. I shall take the plate round, and from you four I shall accept nothing but paper. Possibly I shall——"
Here the girls fell upon him and bore him protesting into the house and out of earshot.
"Who's going to look after the car while we're in church?" said I.
"There's sure to be somebody ready to earn a couple of bob," said Jonah. "Besides, we can always disconnect the north-east trunnion, or jack her up and put the wheels in the vestry or something."
"All right. Only we don't want her pinched." With a yawn I rose to my feet. "And now I suppose I'd better go and turn her out."
"Right oh," said Jonah, picking up his paper again.
I strolled into the house.
We were proud of the car. She was a 1914 Rolls, and we had bought her at a long price less than a week ago. Fresh from the coach-builder's, her touring body was painted silver-grey, while her bonnet was of polished aluminium. Fitted with every conceivable accessory, she was very good-looking, charming alike to ride or drive, and she went like the wind. In a word, she did as handsome as she was.
It was eight minutes to eleven as we slid past the lodge and on to the Bilberry road.
Before we had covered two furlongs, we swung round a corner to see a smart two-seater at rest by the dusty hedgerow, and a slight dark girl in fresh blue and white standing with one foot on the step, wiping her dainty fingers on a handful of cotton-waste.
"Agatha!" cried Daphne and Jill. "Stop, Boy, stop!"
Obediently I slowed to a standstill, as my lady came running after us.
"You might have told me," she panted. "I never knew you were back. And I am so glad."
"We only arrived on Friday, dear," said Daphne, and introduced Berry and me. Jonah, it appeared, had met Miss Deriot at tennis in 1914.
"But you had your hair down then," he said gravely.
"It's a wonder I haven't got it down now," said Miss Deriot. "Why didn't you come along ten minutes earlier? Then you could have changed my tire."
"And why are you driving away from church?" said Jill.
"One of the colts has sprained his shoulder, and we're out of embrocation; so I'm going to get some from Brooch."
"I'll come with you," said Berry eagerly, preparing to leave the car. "I don't like to think of you——"
"Nonsense," said Daphne, detaining him.
"But supposing she has another puncture?"
"Yes, I can see you mending it on a day like this."
"It's very kind of you," said Miss Deriot, with a puzzled smile.
"Don't thank the fool," said my sister. "If I thought he'd be the slightest use to you, I'd send him; but he only wants an excuse to get out of going to church."
"Poor Jade," said her husband. "I am a knight, a simple starlit knight, a Quixote of to-day. Your brutish instincts——"
"Carry on, Boy," said Daphne. I let in the clutch. "And come over this afternoon, Agatha, and we'll tell you all about everything."
"Yes, do," cried Jill.
"All right," said Miss Deriot. "So long."
Three minutes later I was berthing the car close to the lich-gate in the shade of sweet-smelling limes, that made a trembling screen of foliage within the churchyard wall.
As luck would have it, Will Noggin, once a groom in our service and now a trooper of the Dragoon Guards, was leaning lazily against the grey wall, taking his ease. As we drew abreast of him, he stood to attention and saluted, a pleased grin of recognition lighting his healthy face. We greeted him gladly.
"Glad to see you're all right, Will," said Jill.
"Thank you, miss."
"Aren't you going to church?" said Daphne.
"Not to-day, m'm. I'm on leave, and I've 'ad my share o' church parades i' the last four years, m'm."
We all laughed.
"Well, if you're not going," said I, "we want some one to keep an eye on the car."
"I'll do it gladly, sir."
"Right oh! She's a pretty piece of goods, isn't she?"
"She is that, sir," said Will, visibly impressed.
As I followed the others into the porch, I glanced back to see our sentinel walking about his charge, bending an appreciative gaze upon her points.
They were singing the Venite.
On the ledge of our old pew lay a note addressed to "Major Pleydell" in the Vicar's handwriting. When Berry had read it he passed it to Daphne, and I was able to read it over her shoulder.
Sometimes in the old days you used to read the Lessons. I think we should all like it if you would do so to-day; but don't, if you don't want to.
Yours very sincerely,
In a postscript the writer named the appointed passages of Holy Writ.
So soon as the first Psalm had started Berry stepped to the lectern, found his places and cast his eye over the text. Before the second Psalm was finished, he was once more in his place.
Doors and windows were open as wide as they could be set, and the little church was flooded with light and fresh warm air, that coaxed the edge from the chill of thick stone walls and pillars, and made the frozen pavements cool and refreshing. Mustiness was clean gone, swept from her frequent haunts by the sweet breath of Nature. The "dim, religious light" of Milton's ordering was this day displaced by Summer's honest smile, simpler maybe, but no less reverent. And, when the singing was stilled, you overheard the ceaseless sleepy murmur of that country choir of birds and beasts and insects that keeps its rare contented symphony for summer days in which you can find no fault.
My impious eye wandered affectionately over familiar friends—the old oak pews, almost chin-high, the Spanish organ, the reluctant gift of a proud galleon wrecked on the snarling coast ten miles away, the old "three-decker" with its dull crimson cushions and the fringed cloths that hung so stiffly. A shaft of sunlight beat full on an old black hatchment, making known the faded quarterings, while, underneath, a slender panel of brass, but two years old, showed that the teaching of its grim forbear had not been vain.
For so fair a morning, Bilberry village had done well. The church was two-thirds full, and, though there were many strange faces, it was pleasant here and there to recognize one we had known in the old days, and to learn from an involuntary smile that we had not been forgotten.
It was just after the beginning of the Second Lesson that we heard the engine start. There was no mistaking the purr of our Rolls-Royce. For a second the girls and Jonah and I stared at one another, panic-stricken. Then with one impulse we all started instinctively to our feet. As I left the pew I heard Daphne whisper, "Hsh! We can't all——" and she and Jonah and Jill sank back twittering. Berry's eyes met mine for an instant as I stepped into the aisle. They spoke volumes, but to his eternal credit his voice never faltered.
I almost ran to the porch, and I reached the lich-gate to see our beautiful car, piloted by a man in a grey hat, scudding up the straight white road, while in her wake tore a gesticulating trooper, shouting impotently, ridiculously out-distanced. Even as I watched, the car flashed round a bend and disappeared.
For a moment I stood still in the middle of the road, stupefied. Then I heard a horn sounded behind me, and I mechanically stepped to one side. Fifty yards away was the two-seater we had encountered on our way to church.
Frantically I signalled to the girl at the wheel. As I did so, a burst of music signified that the Second Lesson had come to an end.
"Whatever's the matter?" cried Miss Deriot, as she pulled up.
"Somebody's pinched the Rolls. Will you——"
"Of course. Get in. Which way did they go?"
"Straight ahead," said I, opening the door.
We were well under way before I had taken my seat. As we came to the bend I threw a glance over my shoulder, to see four figures that I knew standing without the lich-gate. They appeared to be arguing. As we turned the corner a stentorian voice yelled—
"The Bloodstock road, sir! I can see their blinkin' dust."
Perched on one of the lower branches of a wayside oak, Will Noggin was pointing a shaking finger in the direction he named.
* * * * *
We were less than three miles from Bloodstock when the off hind tire burst. Miss Deriot brought the car to the side of the road and stopped in the shadow of an old barn.
"That," she said, "has just done it."
I opened the door and stepped down into the road.
"It means a delay when we least want it," said I ruefully.
"Worse. I've had one burst already, and I only brought one spare wheel."
"Then we are indeed done," said I. "I'm awfully sorry. Heaven knows how far you are from your home. This comes of helping a comparative stranger. Let it be a lesson to you."
My companion smiled.
"I don't mind for myself," she said, "but what about your car?"
I spread out my hands.
"Reason dictates that I should foot-slog it to Bloodstock and try and get the police moving; but I can't leave you here."
"You can easily, but you're not going to. I don't want to sit here for the rest of the day." She pointed to the barn. "Help me to get her in here, and then we'll push off to Bloodstock together."
A hurried reconnaissance led to the discovery of a little farmhouse, and two minutes later I was making urgent representations to the owner of the barn. To our relief the latter proved sympathetic and obliging, and before we again took to the road the two-seater was safely under lock and key.
"And now," said Miss Deriot, "how did it happen?"
"The theft? I can't imagine. We left that fool who yelled at us in charge. I suppose he left her to get a drink or something. This is only the fourth time we've had her out," I added gloomily.
"Oh, I say! Never mind. You're bound to get her again. Look at that meadow-sweet. Isn't it lovely? I wish I could paint. Can you?"
"I painted a key-cupboard once. It was hung, too. Outside the stillroom."
"Pity you didn't keep it up," said Miss Deriot. "It's a shame to waste talent like that. Isn't it just broiling? I should love a bathe now."
"I hope you don't wear stockings in the water," said I.
Miss Deriot glanced at her white ankles.
"Is that a reflection?" she demanded.
I shook my head.
"By no manner of means. But there's a place for everything, isn't there? I mean——"
We both laughed.
"That's better," said my companion. "I couldn't bear to see you so worried this beautiful morning."
"My dear," said I, "you've a nice kind heart, and I thank you."
"Don't mention it," said Miss Deriot.
From the crown of her broad-brimmed hat to the soles of her buckskin shoes she was the pink of daintiness. Health was springing in her fresh cheeks, eagerness danced in her eyes, energy leapt from her carriage. Had she been haughty, you would have labelled her "Diana," and have done with it; but her eyes were gentle, and there was a tenderness about her small mouth that must have pardoned Actaeon. A plain gold wrist-watch on a black silk strap was all her jewellery.
"We'd better strike across the next field," said Miss Deriot. "There's a path that'll bring us out opposite The Thatcher. It'll save us about five minutes."
"You might have been born here," said I.
"I was," said Agatha. She nodded towards a beech wood that stood a furlong away. "The trees hide the house. But we left when I was seven, and only came back to the County five years ago. And here's our field."
The five-barred gate was padlocked. I looked at my companion.
"Shall I get over, advance ten paces, and gaze Into the middle distance? Or aren't you that sort?"
Miss Deriot flung back her head and laughed.
"I'd rather you gave me a leg up," she said.
With a hand on my shoulder and a foot in my hand she was up and over in an instant. I vaulted after her.
"You know," I said, "we ought to perform, you and I. With a painter's ladder, a slack wire, and a little practice, we should do wonders. On non-matinee days I might even lift you with my teeth. That always goes well, and no one would know you were as light as a rose-leaf."
"Seven stone three in the bathroom," said Agatha. "Without stockings. Some rose-leaf."
We were going uphill. The meadow through which we were passing sloped to an oaken fence, stoutly constructed to save the cattle from a perilous fall. For on its farther side the ground fell away sheer, so that at this point a bluff formed one high wall of the sunken road for which we were making. The Thatcher, I remembered, stood immediately opposite to the rough grass-grown steps, hewn years ago for the convenience of such passengers as we. There was a stile set in the fence, and as I swung myself over I glanced down past the edge of the bluff and into the road below.
In the little curved space that fronted the inn the Rolls was standing silent and unoccupied.
I must have exclaimed, for Agatha was over the stile In an instant, and asking me what was the matter. Then she saw, and the words died on her lips. Together we stood spell-bound.
The door of the inn was shut, and there was no one in sight.
My first impulse was to dart down the steps, beat upon the door of the tavern, and confront the thief. But valour yielded to discretion. The great thing was to recover the car. I had but a slip of a girl with me, the spot was a lonely one, and it was more than likely that the highwayman was not working alone. Besides, Agatha must not be involved in any violence.
I turned to my lady.
"You stay here. I'm going to take her and drive straight to the police-station. I'll pick up some police and come back just as quickly as ever I can."
Miss Deriot shook her pretty head.
"I'm coming with you," she said. "Carry on."
"But, my dear——"
"I often wish I wasn't so obstinate." She spoke meditatively. "But we're all like that. Mules aren't in it with the Deriots," she added, with a dazzling smile.
"Neither, apparently, are cucumbers," said I, and with that I began to descend the rough stairs, stepping as delicately as I could.
Half-way down I turned to look at my companion, and at that moment the step upon which I was standing gave way. The scrambling sounds which proclaimed my fall were followed by the rasping protest of yielding cloth, and I came to rest six feet from the road at the expense of a pre-War coat, which had caught the corner of one of the unplaned risers. All had been so still, that in that hollow place the noise could not have failed to attract the attention of any one who was within earshot, and I lay for a moment where I had fallen, straining my ears for the sound of footsteps or voices.
"Are you all right?" whispered a soft voice above me.
I turned my head and nodded. Miss Deriot, standing with clasped hands, heaved a sigh of relief and prepared to continue her descent.
Gingerly I stepped down into the sandy road and started to cross it a-tiptoe.
Facing towards Bloodstock, the car presented her off side to us.
With the utmost caution I proceeded to induct myself into the driver's seat. As I sat down, Miss Deriot slipped in front of the bonnet and round to the near side. She was opening the high side-door and my foot was on the self-starter, when I heard the murmur of voices.
We were not a second too soon.
The moment I had started the engine there was a cry followed by the clattering of heavy shoes upon cobbles, and as the car slid into the road a man in a grey hat came tearing out of the inn's courtyard, waving his arms and yelling like one possessed. Hard on his heels came pounding his supporters, three of them, all bellowing like bulls.
So much I saw for myself. Agatha, kneeling on the seat by my side, kept me informed of their movements till we swept out of sight.
"He's simply dancing. The one in the grey hat, I mean. Now he's shaking his fist at us. Oh, he's mad. He's thrown his hat on the ground. O-o-o, Boy, he's trying to kick one of the others. Oh, I wish you could see...." The merry voice dissolved into peals of laughter.
Then the road curled, and Agatha turned left about and settled herself by my side.
"How did you know my Christian name?" I demanded.
"Your sister used it this morning. You see, I've forgotten your other, and I can't keep on saying 'you.' But I won't do it again."
"Deriot. One 'r.' I say, you've torn your coat properly."
"It feels as if it was in two pieces," said I.
"If it wasn't for the collar, it would be," said Agatha. "Never mind. Bare backs are still fashionable. And what's a torn coat, when you've got the car again?"
"You're right," I agreed. "You'd hardly believe it," I added, "but I can tell from the feel of her that some stranger's been driving."
"I can believe it. After all, a car's just like a horse."
As she spoke, we sped into the market square of Bloodstock. The police station stood in Love Lane, a couple of streets away.
Here a disappointment was in store. The sole representative of the Law was a station sergeant in his shirt-sleeves and a state of profuse perspiration. Between his lips was a penholder, and he held a telephone receiver to his left ear. In an adjoining room the bell of another telephone was ringing violently in long regular spasms, while, somewhere quite close, a dog was giving ceaseless vent to those short sharp barks which denote impatience of detention.
A sudden elevation of the sergeant's eyebrows invited me to state my business, but before I had spoken two sentences he shifted the penholder from his mouth and shook his head.
"'Fraid I can't 'elp you at the moment, sir. That's the third car what's been stole in this distric' this mornin'. There's a 'ole gang of 'em about. Every one excep' me's out after 'em now. 'Eaven knows when they'll come in. An' there's that other telephone goin' like mad, an' the Chief Constable's lef' his bull-dawg tied up there, an' 'e won't let me within six foot of it." He turned to blare into the mouthpiece. "'Ullo! 'Oo are you? 'Oo are you? Wot! Oh, I can't bear it. 'Ere, for 'Eaven's sake, 'old the line." He set down the receiver, shook the sweat out of his eyes, and sank on to a stool. "Another blinkin' car gone," he said hoarsely. "I dunno wot's the matter with the world. I wish I was back in France."
* * * * *
Love Lane was a narrow street, so I did not attempt to turn the car, but drove on and presently out of the town by back streets on to the Bilberry road.
It would have been better if I had telephoned to White Ladies before leaving Bloodstock, to announce my recovery of the car; but I was expecting to be back there so soon that it seemed unnecessary.
Indeed, it was only when we were once more under way that I thought of the colt and the embrocation, to say nothing of my lady's two-seater, now standing helpless in the gloom of the wayside barn.
"I tell you what," said I. "We'll drive to the barn and pick up the lotion, and then I'll take you home. Then I can run your chauffeur back to the barn with a spare cover, drop him there, and push off to White Ladies."
"I can improve on that," said Agatha, with a glance at her wrist. "It'll be past one by the time we get home, so you must stay to lunch. You can telephone to White Ladies from there. And afterwards I'll go back with you—I was to come over this afternoon, wasn't I?—and we can drop the chauffeur at the barn on the way. And he can come for me in the evening."
Agatha was living at Broadacre, a fine old place on the edge of the forest itself, and thither we came without incident, just as an old-fashioned gong was summoning the household to meat.
Admiral and Mrs. Deriot were kindness itself. First I was given a long, cold, grateful drink. Then the old sailor led me to his own chamber and ministered personally to my wants. My coat was given to a maid to be roughly stitched, and when I appeared at luncheon it was in a jacket belonging to my host. Our story was told and retold, the lawlessness of the year of Grace 1919 was bewailed, and a violent denunciation of motor-thieves was succeeded by a bitter proscription of the County Police.
In the midst of my entertainment I remembered that I had not telephoned to White Ladies, but the servant sent to make the connection was informed by the Exchange that the line was out of order.
"I expect it's fused," said I. "With Berry at one end and that station sergeant at the other, the strain must have been fearful."
* * * * *
It was half-past two before we were once more in the car. On the back seat sat the Deriots' chauffeur, holding a spare wheel between his knees.
It did not take us long to reach the barn, and, so soon as we had once more unearthed the farmer, authorized him to suffer the chauffeur to remove the two-seater, and discharged our debt for "accommodation," I turned the Rolls round and headed for White Ladies.
"She's certainly a beautiful car," said Agatha, as the Rolls sailed up a treacherously steep gradient on top. "It's like being in a lift."
"And, but for you, we might never have seen her again. Shall I give you a stamp album, or would you like to drive?"
"D'you really mean that?" said Miss Deriot.
I shot her a glance. There was no mistaking the eagerness of her parted lips and the sparkle of her gay brown eyes. By way of replying I brought the car to a standstill. A moment later we had changed places.
"It's awfully kind of you," said Agatha delightedly, as she let in the clutch. "I've always wanted to drive a Rolls. I hope I shan't hurt her."
"You'll do her good," said I. "I watched you in the two-seater. You've got beautiful hands."
"Thank you, Boy."
"Now you shall have a stamp album as well. Go carefully here. There used to be a wasps' nest in that bank, but it's closed now, same as the German banks. What a war!"
"But I don't collect stamps."
"Then she shall have a dog. What about a Sealyham to sleep on your bed and bite the postman?"
"I'd love one," said Agatha.
"And you'll sit up in bed in the morning, with your hair all about your eyes, and smile at him, and he'll growl back at you—I can just see you."
"Thanks awfully. But you're wrong about my hair."
"Is it never unruly?"
"Only by day. I wish to goodness I could wear it down."
"So do I. Then we could all sit on it when the grass was wet. At the moment there's a particularly beautiful tress caressing your left shoulder. And I think you ought to know that the wind is kissing it quite openly. It's all very embarrassing. I hope I shan't catch it," I added cheerfully.
Miss Deriot made a supreme effort to look severe.
"If you do," she said uncertainly, "I shall drive straight into the horse-pond."
"'Sh!" said I reprovingly. "You oughtn't to jest about such things. You might catch it yourself. Easily." Here we passed the horse-pond. "You know you'll never be able to look fierce so long as you have that dimple. You'll have to fill it up or something. I suppose it's full of dew every morning now."
Without a word Agatha slowed down, turned up a by-road, and stopped. Then she proceeded to back the car.
"What on earth is she doing?" said I.
She turned a glowing face to mine.
"Going back to the horse-pond," she flashed.
I laid a hand on her arm and she stopped.
"My dear, if you must have a bath, you shall have one directly you get to White Ladies. I'll turn on the water for you. But let me beg of you——"
"If I go on, will you promise to behave?"
"And fold your arms and sit like a groom all the way?"
"I suppose you couldn't make it a footman. Then I could stand on the petrol tank. However, as it's your birthday——"
I folded my arms with a sigh. Instantly Agatha leaned towards me with a dazzling smile.
"Good Boy," she said in a caressing tone. "Now he shall have a stamp album."
"But I don't collect stamps."
The smile deepened. But for her red mouth, her little white teeth would have been the prettiest things in the world.
"Well, I'd thought of a stamp album," she said slowly. "However, as it's your birthday——"
A minute later we were back in the main road.
* * * * *
By my direction Miss Deriot drove straight to the stables, and we left the car standing in the middle of the yard.
As we walked round to the front of the house, "We won't tell the others that we've found her just yet," said I. "We'll hear what they've got to say first."
"Perhaps they're all out looking for her," said Agatha.
"Not all. Daphne's sure to be here somewhere."
As I spoke we rounded a clump of laurels to see the lady in question comfortably ensconced in a deck-chair upon the lawn. By her side was Jill, seated upon a cushion, one little foot tucked under her, nursing the other's instep with her slim, brown hand. On a rug at her feet lay Jonah, his chin propped between his two palms and a pipe in his mouth.
All three were gazing contentedly across the grass to where the drive swept wide to the foot of the broad grey steps. There stood a handsome Rolls-Royce, the facsimile of the one from which we had just alighted.
With a great gasp Agatha stopped dead, and I recoiled as from a spectre. Instinctively we clasped one another.
"It's all right," I whispered. "I've seen it too. It'll go away in a moment. Shows what imagination will do."
"But—but it's real!" cried Agatha.
"Real enough, my lady," said Jonah's voice. He seemed to be speaking from a great distance. "And I'll bet you never expected to see her again so soon," he added, looking at me with a smile.
"To tell you the truth," said I, "we didn't."
As in a dream I watched a dazed and stammering Agatha made welcome and set in a chair by my sister's side. Somebody—Jill, I fancy—led me to the rug and persuaded me to sit down. Mechanically I started to fumble for a cigarette. Then I heard Jonah talking, and I came to my senses.
"We thought you'd be surprised," he was saying, "but I didn't think it'd take you like this. After all, there's nothing uncanny about it."
"But I don't understand——"
"Listen. Will Noggin was sitting in the car when he heard a crash, and there was a fellow lying in the middle of the road, about fifty yards away, with a push-bike beside him. Naturally Will jumped out and ran to his help. The man seemed to be having a fit, and Will was just loosening his collar, when he heard the engine start and saw the Rolls moving. He left the chap in the road and ran like mad, but he was too late. Nobody ever saw the fellow with the push-bike again. Of course he was one of the gang, and his fall was a put-up job to get Will out of the way. Pretty smart—what?
"Well, you hadn't been gone five minutes when Fitch arrived on his motor-bike. He'd come to bring us a can of petrol, for after we'd left he remembered the tank was almost empty.
"That gave me a bit of hope. If they stuck to the main road you were pretty well bound to catch them, for Fitch swore they'd never get five miles. But, of course, they might turn off. So I thought the rest of us had better follow and search the by-roads for all we were worth. So I sat on Fitch's carrier with the can under one arm, and Daphne commandeered the curate's push-bike and sent Berry after us."
"Isn't he back yet?" said I, looking round.
"Not yet," said Jonah, with a grin.
"And doesn't he know she's found?"
"That pleasure is still awaiting him. Well, Fitch was right. We left the Bloodstock road for the second time at Dew Thicket, and at the foot of the hill there she was, dry as a bone, but as right as rain."
"Apparently. Any way, there was no one in sight. I sent Fitch after you and drove her home. Fitch had a burst directly he'd left me, and had to walk back to Bilberry."
"Is that all?" said I.
"Well, it's enough, isn't it?"
"Not nearly," said I, rising to my feet. "Kindly accompany me to the stables."
"What d'you mean, Boy?" cried Jill.
"'Sh!" said I. "Come and see."
In silence I led the way, Agatha treading solemnly by my side. As we turned under the archway that led to the stable-yard—
"You see," I said carelessly, "we, too, have met with some success."
The Rolls was standing where I had left her, waiting to be backed into the garage.
My sister gave a cry and caught at Jonah's arm. Jonah started violently and smothered an exclamation. Jill put one hand to her eyes, as if to brush away a vision.
There was a long silence.
At length I turned to Jonah.
"I fear that you were hasty, brother. A moment's reflection will show you that you and Fitch have spoiled some poor car-owner's day. Let me suggest that you return your ill-gotten gains to the foot of the hill beyond Dew Thicket without delay. As a matter of fact, I know the police are very concerned about this theft. It was the fourth in this district this morning."
Fitch came forward, touching his hat.
"It's a mistake anybody might make, sir. They're as like as two pins." He pointed to the car. "She's the spit of ours, she is."
"Don't be silly," said I. "I admit they're exactly alike, but that's ours."
Fitch shook his head.
"Different chassis number, sir, to say nothing of the number-plates."
I stared at him. Then—
"Nonsense," I said sturdily.
"It's a fact, sir. The one in the front's ours. I'm afraid you've stole somebody else's car."
* * * * *
We had returned to the front of the house and were wondering what to do, when our attention was attracted by a sudden outburst of cries and the noise of a car's tires tearing at the road. This lay but a hundred odd yards away on the farther side of the brown stream by which the lawn was edged. For the length of a cricket pitch the hedgerow bounding the highway was visible from where we stood, and as this was not more than four feet high, we were able to observe a scene which was clearly but the prologue to a drama in which we were presently to appear.
Under the explosive directions of a man in a grey hat, who was standing upright and holding on to the wind-screen, frantic efforts were being made to turn what seemed to be a small touring car. Even as we looked, a savage gesture in our direction suggested that our friend was identifying the Rolls by our side as stolen property for the benefit of four individuals who crouched timorously behind him. To my consternation I observed that these were no less than an inspector and three constables of the County Police.
The next minute the car had been turned round and was being driven rapidly back to our lodge-gates.
"Leave them to me," said Jonah quietly. "Go and sit down on the lawn, all of you. I'll fix them."
* * * * *
"That's the fellow," said Grey Hat, in a shaking voice, "and that's his accomplice." He pointed a fat hand at myself and Agatha in turn.
"I beg your pardon," said Jonah. Grey Hat turned and looked him up and down. "Were you wanting anything? I mean, I live here."
"I don't know who you are," came the reply. "But that's my car, and those are the people who stole it."
"One thing at a time. My name's Mansel."
"I'm the Chief Constable of the County."
"Good. Now, about the car. I was under the impression that it was mine."
"Don't try and bluff me, sir," roared the other. "You know perfectly well that that car was stolen from the outskirts of Bloodstock only a few hours ago. You're a receiver, sir, a common——" He checked himself with an effort. "Inspector!" The officer addressed came forward and saluted. "Caution the three of them."
"Hadn't you better identify your property first?" said Jonah. "I mean, I don't want to interfere, but if it's a question of our arrest——"
The inspector hesitated, and the Chief Constable's face took on a darker shade of red. He was a coarse-looking man, generously designed and expensively over-dressed. For a moment I thought he was going to strike Jonah. Then he caught a heavy underlip in his teeth, turned on his heel, and strode to the Rolls-Royce.
He cast a proprietor's eye over her points. Then he stepped behind her as though to come to her other side. The next second he was back and shaking his fist in Jonah's face.
"So you've had the infernal audacity to alter the number-plates, have you?" he yelled. "Thought to bluff me, I suppose. You impudent——"
"One moment," said Jonah steadily. "Without looking at the dash, tell me your chassis number. Your chauffeur should know it."
"One double seven eight," came parrot-wise from the lips of the gentleman referred to.
"Thank you," said Jonah.
Grey Hat almost ran to the Rolls, tore open the bonnet, and stared at the dash—stared....
We waited in a silence so charged with expectancy as to be almost unbearable.
At last the Chief Constable straightened his back. His eyes were bulging and his face redder than ever. Twice he essayed to speak without success. Then—
"I said it was my car," said Jonah placidly.
For a moment Grey Hat stood glaring at him. Then, muttering something about "a mistake," he started to lurch towards the police car. As the officers turned shamefacedly to follow their chief, Jonah's parade voice rang out.
"Stop!" At the word of command, master and men alike stood still where they were. "My friends and I have been openly accused of felony and threatened with arrest."
The Chief Constable swallowed before replying.
"I was mistaken," he said thickly. "I—I apologize."
"You mean to say you believed that to be your car?"
"It's exactly like it."
"There must be some difference."
"There's no difference at all. If mine were here, I'd defy you to tell them apart."
"Do you seriously suggest that I shouldn't know my own car?"
"And that such a mistake on my part would be excusable?"
"Thank you," said Jonah. "That excusable mistake was made this morning. My car was stolen and sought for. Your car was found. If you will accompany me to the stables, I shall be happy to restore it to you at once."
Grey Hat started forward, his face transfigured with excitement and relief.
"You mean to say——" he began.
"Come, sir," said Jonah icily. "I feel sure that the ladies will excuse your withdrawal."
* * * * *
It was half an hour later, just when we were finishing tea, that a cry from Jill made us all turn to follow her gaze down the curling drive.
Twenty paces away was Berry, plodding slowly in our direction, wheeling a tired-looking bicycle. His clothes were thick with dust, his collar was like a piece of wet rag, and on his face there was a look of utter and profound resignation.
As we started to our feet—
"Don't touch me," he said. "I'm leading in the Marathon race. The conditions are fearful. Competitors are required not only to walk, but at the same time to propel a bicycle, the hind tire of which must be deflated. You're only allowed five falls, and I've used four of them." With a final effort he reached the edge of the lawn and laid the bicycle gently on its side. "'How we brought the good news from Aix to Ghent,'" he continued. "Yes, I see the car, but I'm not interested. During the last five hours my life has been so crowded with incident that there is no room for anything else. Isn't there a cycling club about here I can join? I've always fancied a grey sweater."
"Did I hear you say that you had fallen, brother?" said I.
"You did. Four times were these noble limbs prostrated in the dust. The first time was when the handle-bars came off. Oh, it's a beautiful machine." Solemnly he waited for the laughter to subside. "But she doesn't turn easily. If my blood counts, there are at least three corners in the County that are for ever England. And now will somebody fetch the Vicar? I shan't last long. And some drinks." He stretched himself upon the grass. "Several drinks. All together in a large vessel."
Jill fled, weak with laughter, to execute his commands. Berry proceeded to remove his collar and tie.
"I can't think," he said suddenly, "why they call them safety bicycles. I suppose it's because they strike only on the box." He turned to Daphne. "Since I left you this morning, woman, I have walked with Death. Oh, more than once. Of course I've walked without him, too. Miles and miles." He groaned. "I never knew there was so much road."
"Didn't you do any riding?" said Jonah. "I know they're called push-bikes, but that's misleading. Lots of people ride them. That's what the saddle's for."
"Foul drain," said my brother-in-law, "your venomous bile pollutes the crystal flood of my narration. Did I ride? That was the undoing of the sage. When he recovered consciousness for the second time, it was to discover that the chain was missing and that the back tire was windless. In my endeavours to find the chain I lost myself. That reminds me. I must put an advertisement in The Times to the effect that any one returning a bicycle-chain to White Ladies will be assaulted. I have no desire to be reminded of to-day. If anybody had told me you could cover about fifty miles of open road in England without meeting anything but road-hogs, who not only failed to stop when I hailed them, but choked and blinded me with their filthy dust, I should have prayed for his soul. And not a pub open!"
He stopped to watch with a glistening eye the approach of Jill, bearing a tankard in one hand and a large jug of some beverage in the other.
"What is it?" he said.
"Heaven will reward you, darling, as I shan't." He took a long draught. "And yet I don't know. I've got an old pair of riding-breeches I don't want, if they're any use to you."
There was a shriek from Agatha and Jill.
"Is anybody going to church?" said Daphne, consulting her wrist-watch.
Gravely, I regarded him.
"Run along and change," said I. "And you can return the curate his bicycle at the same time. Besides, a walk'll do you good."
"Don't tempt me," he replied. "Two hours ago I registered a vow. I shall drink no water till it is accomplished."
"Let's hear it," said I.
"To offer no violence to a fool for six months," said Berry, refilling his tankard. "By the way, you'll have to be very careful when you take off my boots. They're very full of foot this evening." He sank back and closed his eyes. "You know I never look at the almanac, but before I was up this morning I knew that this was a blue-letter day."
"How?" said his wife.
"I left a stud within the bath, and heard Jonah find it." He spread out a dramatic arm.
"And he thereon did only sit, So blind he couldn't see, And then the fat-head yelled and swore, Not at himself, but me."
HOW DAPHNE WROTE FOR ASSISTANCE, AND MR. HOLLY WAS OUTBID.
"Blow this out for me, Boy, there's a dear."
The sun was streaming into the library, in a cage upon the broad hearth there was a blazing log fire, and the appointment of the breakfast-table was good to look upon.
So also was Jill.
Installed behind the cups and silver, my cousin made a sweet picture. Grave eyes set wide in a smiling face, a pile of golden hair crowning her pretty head, the slenderest throat, from which the collar of a green silk coat fell gracefully on either side—so much a cunning painter might have charmed faithfully on to canvas. But the little air of importance, of dignity fresh-gathered that sat so naively upon her brow—this was a thing nor brush nor pencil could capture, but only a man's eye writing upon a grateful heart.
It was but three days since Daphne had left White Ladies for London, and grey-eyed Jill reigned in her stead. Berry had accompanied his wife, but Jonah and I had stayed in the country with Jill, lest we should lose a note of that echo of summer which good St. Luke had this year piped so lustily.
But yesterday the strains had faltered and died. A sour east wind had arisen, that set the trees shivering, and whipped the golden leaves from their galleries, to send them scudding up the cold grey roads. Worse still, by noon the sky was big with snow, so that before the post office was closed, a telegram had fled to London warning my sister to expect us to arrive by car the following afternoon.
Jill renewed her appeal.
Above the little spirit lamp which she was holding hovered a tiny flame, seemingly so sensitive that a rough word would quench it for ever. When I had kissed my cousin, I blew steadily and fiercely from the south-west. Instantly a large tongue of fire flared half-way to where Jonah was eating his porridge and knitting his brows over The Times.
Jill's hand began to shake.
"You wicked child," said I. "You knew——"
"Oh, Boy, but it's so silly. We had to leave it for you. Jonah nearly burst himself just now, trying."
"Thing's bewitched," said Jonah calmly. "The more air you give it, the fiercer it burns. I'd sooner try to blow out a hurricane lamp."
"Nonsense," said I, taking a deep breath.
At the end of the round—
"Yes," said Jonah. "Do you mind blowing the other way next time? It's not my face I'm worrying about, but this is the only copy of The Times in the house."
Jill was helpless with laughter, so I took the lamp away from her and advanced to the fireplace.
"I'll fix the swine," I said savagely.
Two minutes later, with a blast that almost blew the lamp out of my hand, the flame was extinguished in a flurry that would have done credit to a whale. As I straightened my back—
"Well done, Boy," said Jill. "There's a letter for you from Berry. Do see what he says. Then I'll read you Daphne's."
"Read hers first," said I. "Strange as it may seem, I entered this room to eat."
"Right oh!" And in her fresh little voice my cousin began to read.
The sooner you all come up the better. Everything's ready and Berry's more than I can manage alone. His shoulder was aching last night, but when I wanted to rub him he said he was a kind of Aladdin's lamp, and wouldn't be responsible if I did. "Supposing a genie appeared and formed fours, or the slop-pail rotted aside, disclosing a flight of steps." Result, to-day in Bond Street he turned suddenly to look at a passing car, and had a seizure. He just gave a yell as if he'd been shot, and then stood stock still with his head all on one side. Of course I was horrified, but he said he was quite all right, and explained that it was muscular rheumatism. I stopped a taxi and tried to make him get in, for people were beginning to look. Do you think he would? Not a bit of it. Stood there and said it was a judgment, and that he must stay where he was till it had passed. "That may not be for years. They'll put railings round me after a bit, and people will meet at me instead of the Tube. You will be responsible for my meals, some of which you will cook on the spot. I'll have a light lunch to-day about 1300 hours." One or two people stopped, and I got into a taxi just as a man asked him if he was ill. "Brother," said the fool, "my blood tests are more than satisfactory. A malignant Fate, however——" When I asked him if he was coming he told the man I was taunting him, so I just drove home. The Willoughbys brought him back in their car quarter of an hour later. Madge said she'd never laughed so much in her life, but I can't bear it alone. Mrs. Mason is at last reconciled to the idea of an electric cooker, and your new curtains look sweet. Come along. Love to you all.
"Berry's version should be engaging," said Jonah. "Slip along with that porridge."
"Don't hustle me. Gladstone used to masticate every mouthful he took seven million times before swallowing. That's why he couldn't tell a lie. Or am I thinking of Lincoln?"
The hostility with which my cousins received the historical allusion was so marked that it seemed only prudent to open my brother-in-law's letter without further delay.
I did so and read the contents aloud.
Your constant derision of human suffering has satisfied me that the facts I am about to relate will afford you the utmost gratification. Natheless I consider that for form's sake my wife's brother should know that I am in failing health. This morning, whilst faring forth, as is my wont (pronounced "wunt"), upon a mission of charity, I was seized with an agony in the neck and Old Bond Street just opposite the drinking-fountain. Believing it to be appendicitis, I demanded a chirurgeon, but nobody could spell the word. The slightest movement, however, spelt anguish without a mistake. My scruff was in the grip of Torment. Observing that I was helpless, the woman, my wife, summoned a hackney carriage and drove off, taunting and jeering at her spouse. By this time my screams had attracted the attention of a few passers-by. Some stood apparently egg-bound, others hurried away, doubtless to procure assistance. One fool asked me if I was ill. I told him that I had been dead for some days, and asked him if he knew of a good florist, as I wanted them to send no flowers. Had it not been for Madge Willoughby, I should have been there now.
Organized bodies of navvies are slowly but surely ruining the streets. No efforts are made to stop them, and the police seem powerless to interfere.
There is no room in London. I never remember when there was. But don't you come. The air is the purer for your absence, and your silk hats seem to fit me better than my own. My love for Jill is only exceeded by my hatred of you and my contempt for Jonah. I have much more to say, but I have, thank Heaven, something better to do than to communicate with a debauched connection, whose pleasure has ever been my pain, and from whom I have learned more vicious ways than I can remember. For I am by nature a little child. Just before and after rain you may still see traces of the halo which I bought at Eastbourne in '94. My gorge is rising, so I must write no more.
"What's muscular rheumatism?" said Jill, gurgling with laughter.
"Your muscles get stiff," said Jonah, "and you get stuck. Hurts like anything. I've had it."
"Now you know," said I, selecting a sausage. "Will you be ready by hall-past eleven (winter time) or must we lunch here?"
"I'm ready now," said Jill. "But you and Jonah said it was indecent to start earlier."
"So it is. We shall get to Pistol comfortably in an hour and a half, and if we start again at half-past two, we shall be in London for tea."
Jonah rose and limped to the window.
"I'll tell you one thing," he said. "It's going to be a devilish cold run."
* * * * *
Jonah was right.
We sat all three upon the front seat, but even so we were hard put to it to keep warm. The prospect of a hot lunch at Pistol was pleasant indeed. Jonah was driving, and the Rolls slid through the country like a great grey bird, sailing and swooping and swerving so gracefully that it was difficult to believe the tale which the speedometer told. Yet this was true enough, for it was not a quarter to one when we swept round the last corner and into the long straight reach of tarmac, at the top of which lay the village we sought.
Pistol is embedded in a high moor, snug and warm, for all its eminence. The moor itself is girt with waving woods that stretch and toss for miles, making a deep sloping sash of foliage which Autumn will dye with such grave glory that the late loss of Summer and her pretty ways seems easier to bear. Orange and purple copper and gold, russet and crimson—these in a hundred tones tremble and glow in one giant harmony, out of which, at the release of sun, come swelling chords so deep and rich and vivid that the sweet air is quick with stifled music and every passing breeze charged to the full with silent melody.
We had left this girdle of woodland behind us and were within half a mile of the village, when some activity about the gates of a private house attracted our attention. A little knot of men stood arguing in the roadway, three cars and an old fly were berthed close to the hedge, while a good-looking landau was waiting for a furniture van to emerge from the drive.
The next moment we were near enough to learn from a large poster that "the entire contents of Cranmer Place were to be sold by auction" this day, "including a quantity of valuable antique furniture," and with one accord Jill and I called upon Jonah to stop.
"What for?" said the latter, as he brought the car to a standstill. "Don't say you want to go and watch the rector's wife bidding against her conscience and the draper for a what-not."
"Such," said I, "is our intention." I hoisted myself to my feet and, opening the door, descended stiffly into the road. As I helped Jill to follow me, "You push on to Highlands," I added, "and order the lunch. We'll only stay a minute or two."
"And you never know," said Jill, "we might see something priceless."
Jonah shook his head.
"Depend upon it," he said, "the oleographs have gone to Christie's, same as the fumed oak. Only the dud stuff's left. However, have it your own way." With a sigh, he let in the clutch. "If you're not there by a quarter past one, I shall begin."
Jill slid an arm through mine, which she squeezed excitedly.
"I'm sure we shall find something, Boy. I just feel it. It always happens like this. You see, it isn't as if we were looking for a sale. We've just run right into one. And last night I dreamed about cretonnes."
"That settles it," said I, as the Rolls glided out of our way and we started to cross the road. "All the same, Jonah's probably right. But I love a sale. I'm afraid it's curiosity more than anything."
Catalogues were handed us at the front door, and we passed into a fine square hall, where a dresser and a large gate-table, each conspicuously labelled, declared that the late occupant was a man of taste.
"Two very fine pieces, sir," said a voice. "Coming up this afternoon." I turned to see a short stout man in a 1907 bowler and two overcoats, which he wore open, regarding the furniture with an appraising look. With difficulty he extracted a card from an inside pocket. "If you're thinkin' of buyin' anythin', Major, that's me card, an' I'll be very 'appy to ac' for you."
"Thanks, I don't think——"
"All right, Major, all right. Only if you should, I'm always about," he added hastily, turning away in response to a cry which had arisen for "Mr. 'Olly." "Comin', comin'!" he cried, making for what I took to be the drawing room.
I slipped his card into my pocket and we passed on.
The tallboy chest was standing alone in its dignity at the top of the broad staircase.
The moment I saw it I knew it was good stuff. And Jill gave a little cry and began to chatter, till I laid my hand on her arm with a warning pressure.
"Hush," I said quickly, "don't give it away. Of course they all know it's good, but we needn't seem over-anxious. Try and look as if you thought it might do for the harness-room if it was enamelled."
Such chests may be handsome and—rarely—elegant, but this was dainty. Standing upon short cabriole legs, it was small, but of exquisite proportions, and had been built, I judged, in the reign of Queen Anne. The walnut which had gone to its making was picked wood, and its drawers were faced with oyster-shell and inlaid with box. Their handles were perfect, and, indeed, the whole chest was untouched and without blemish, shining with that clean lustre which only wax and constant elbow-grease can bring about.
When I had examined the piece as carefully as I dared, I winked at Jill and descended into the hall.
Mr. Holly was awaiting us.
Casually I addressed him.
"There's a tallboy at the top of the stairs, labelled 207. I'm not crazy about it, but it's about the right size for a recess in my bedroom. If you like to buy that for me on a five per cent. basis——"
"Certainly, Major." He wrote in a fat notebook. "Lot 207. An' ow' 'igh will you go?"
"I'll go up to a hundred pounds. But the cheaper you get it, the better for you. Understand?"
"I'm there, Major. Will you be coming back?"
"No. But there's my card. You can telegraph to that address this evening, and I'll send you a cheque."
"Very good, sir."
A minute later we were walking along the road towards Highlands and, while Jill was talking excitedly, I was considering my own recklessness.
As we entered the grounds—
"Don't say anything about it," I said. "Let it be a surprise."
* * * * *
The first person I saw, as I entered the lounge of that hotel, was Berry.
"Do you mind not asking me why I'm here?" he said languidly. "I've just finished telling Jonah, and repetition always wearied me."
"Your movements have never interested me," said I. "All the same, I thought you were in the grip of Torment."
"I was and shall be. For the nonce——" He turned to a tall dark girl who was leaning against the chimney-piece, watching us curiously. "Let me introduce my brother-in-law. Carefully kept from me before marriage and by me ever since. Both the ablative case, I believe, but what a difference? So rich is the English tongue."
The girl threw back her head and laughed. I observed that she had nice teeth.
"Name of Childe," she said in a sweet voice. "After all, we can't expect him to remember everything. Wasn't my brother in your regiment?"
"I knew I'd seen you somewhere," said I. "The last time you were on a towel, leaning against a bottle of hairwash. That was in Flanders in 1916."
"That," said Berry, "will do. Miss Childe and I came here to lunch, not to listen to maudlin memories of the Great War. Did I ever tell you that a Spaniard once compared me to that elusive bloom to be found only upon the ungathered apricot?"
"How much did you lend him?" said I.
"Perhaps he knew more about ferns," said Miss Childe.
"Blind from birth, I suppose," said Jonah's voice.
My brother-in-law rose to his feet and looked about him with the expression of one who has detected an offensive odour.
"He was a man of singular insight and fine feeling," he said. "At the time of his outburst I was giving evidence against him for cruelty to a bullock. And now, for goodness' sake, somebody collect Jill and let's have some lunch."
* * * * *
"As a matter of fact," said Miss Childe, "I've come down to get some butter and eggs. They're usually sent, but the housekeeper's ill, and, as I was going spare, father suggested I should run down and pick them up."
Her voice sounded as if she was speaking from afar, and I knew that I must call up all my reserves of willpower if I was to remain awake.
"But Berry's with you, isn't he?"
"Yes. Your sister came to lunch yesterday and happened to mention that he wanted to go to Pistol to-day, so I offered him a lift. He's much nicer than any chauffeur."
"But whatever did he want to come to Pistol for?"
"Ah." From a great distance I watched Miss Childe's brown eyes take on a look of mischief that seemed at home in its bright setting. "He wouldn't tell you and he didn't tell Captain Mansel the truth, so I shan't give him away." She looked at a tiny wrist-watch. "And now I must be going. We want to start back at half-past three, and I've twenty-five miles to do before then."
"May I come with you?"
I stepped to where Jill was scribbling a note.
"We needn't start before half-past three," I said. "Will you wait for me?"
She nodded abstractedly.
Jonah was dozing over a cigarette. Berry had disappeared.
Three minutes later I was sitting in a comfortable coupe, which Miss Childe was driving at an unlawful speed in the direction of Colt.
"You drive a lot, don't you?" flashed my companion.
"A good deal."
"Then I expect you hate being driven by a stranger?"
"Not at all. Sometimes, of course——" I waited for us to emerge from between two motor-lorries and a traction-engine. As we were doing over forty-five, the pause was but momentary. "I mean——"
"That you're being frightened to death?"
"Not to death. I've still got some feeling in my right arm." We dropped down one of the steepest hills I have ever seen, with two bends in it, at an increased speed. "You keep your guardian angel pretty busy, don't you?"
A suspicion of a smile played for a second about my lady's lips.
"The only thing I'm really frightened of is a hansom cab," she affirmed.
"Try and imagine that there are half a dozen round the next corner, will you?"
The smile deepened.
"Is your heart all right?" she demanded.
"It was when we started."
"But I know this road backwards."
"You needn't tell me that," said I. "We should have been killed long ago if you didn't. Seriously, I don't want to abuse your hospitality, but we're going to have kidneys for breakfast to-morrow, and I should be sorry to miss them."
"Are you fond of kidneys?"
"Passionately. I used to go out and gather them as a child. In the morning and the meadows. Or were we talking of haddock?"
Miss Childe hesitated before replying.
"I used to, too. But I was always afraid of their being toadstools. They're poisonous, aren't they?"
"Deadly. By the way, there are six hansoms full of toadstools at the cross-roads which I observe we are approaching."
"I don't believe you."
I was wrong. But there was a waggon full of logs and a limousine full of children, which were rather worse.
We proceeded amid faint cries of indignation.
"What do you do," said I, "when you come to a level-crossing with the gates shut? "
"I don't," said Miss Childe.
I was still working this out, when my companion slowed down and brought the car to a standstill in front of a high white gate bearing the legend "Private," and keeping a thin brown road that ran for a little way between fair meadows before plunging into a swaying beechwood.
"Anything the matter?" I asked.
Miss Childe laid a hand on my arm.
"Be an angel," she said in a caressing voice.
"Certainly," said I. "With or without wings?"
"And open the gate, so that——"
"I know," I cried, "I know. Don't tell me. 'So that the automobile may pass unobstructed between the gate-posts.' Am I right?"
"How on earth did you know?"
"Instinct." I open the door and stepped backwards into the road. "I'm always like this before eating kidneys," I added.
As I re-entered the car—
"Now we can let her out," said Miss Childe contentedly. "It's such a relief to feel there's no speed limit," she added, with a ravishing smile.
As soon as I could trust my voice—
"I shouldn't think your chauffeurs live very long, do they?"
"On the contrary, they grow old in our service."
"I can believe you," said I heartily. "I myself have aged considerably since we left Highlands."
By this time we had flung through and out of the beechwood, and the car was storming past stretches of gleaming bracken, all red and gold and stuck with spreading oak trees that stood sometimes alone, sometimes in groups of two or three together, and made you think of staring cattle standing knee-deep in a golden flood.
The car tore on.
"We're coming to where I used to gather the mushrooms," my companion announced.
"Because of the dew?"
I sighed. Then—
"Up to now I've been feeling like a large brandy and a small soda," I said. "Now I feel like a sonnet. What is your name, and who gave you that name?"
"I'm sure that's not necessary. I've seen a sonnet 'To a lady upon her birthday.'"
"As you please. Shall I post it to you or pin it to a tree in Battersea Park?"
Miss Childe nodded her head in the direction in which we were going.
"That," she said, "is the house."
At the end of a long avenue of elms I could see the bold flash of windows which the afternoon sun had set afire, and a moment later we swept by the front of an old red mansion and round into a paved court that lay on its farther side.
Here was a door open, and in front of this my companion brought the car to a standstill.
I handed her out. She rang the bell and entered. I followed her in.
"Like to look round the house?" said Miss Childe. "We've given up showing it since the Suffragettes, but if you could give me a reference——"
"Messrs. Salmon and Gluckstein," said I, "are my solicitors."
My lady pointed to a door at the end of the flagged passage in which we stood.
"That'll take you into the hall," she said. "I'll come and find you when I've seen the servants."
I saluted and broke away in the direction she had indicated.
* * * * *
There was a closet that opened out of the great gallery. No door hung in the doorway and I could see china ranged orderly against the panelling of the walls. I descended its two stairs, expecting to find it devoted to china and nothing else. But I was wrong. Facing the window and the sunshine was a facsimile of the tallboy chest which I had coveted so fiercely two hours before.
I gazed at it spell-bound.
"It's very rude to stare," said a voice.
I turned to see Miss Childe framed in the doorway.
Her gown was of apricot, with the bodice cut low and the skirt gathered in loops to show her white silk petticoat, which swelled from under a flowered stomacher so monstrously, that the tiny blue-heeled slipper upon the second stair seemed smaller than ever. Deep frills of lace fell from her short sleeves and a little lace cap was set on her thick dark hair.
I swallowed before replying. Then—
"It's a lovely chest," I said lamely.
"Picked wood," said Miss Childe. "Flogged once a week for years, that tree was."
Suddenly the air was full of music, and a jubilant chorus of voices was singing lustily—
"A woman, a spaniel, and a walnut-tree, The more you beat them, the better they be."
As the melody faded—
"I told you so," said Miss Childe. "What about the butter and eggs? Will you pay for them, or shall I have them sent?"
I handed her the largest one pound note I have ever seen.
"Thanks," she said shortly. "Change at Earl's Court."
A peal of boy's laughter floated in at the open window.
"Who's that?" said I.
"Love," said Miss Childe. "The locksmiths are here, and he's laughing at them. I think it's rather unkind myself. Besides——"
A burst of machine-gun fire interrupted her.
As the echoes died down—
"You smell of potpourri," said I.
"Probably. I made three bags full this morning. Bead bags. Do you mind putting some coal on the fire? If there aren't any tongs, use the telephone."
There was no fireplace and no coal-scuttle, so I took off my right boot and put it in the bottom drawer of the tallboy instead.
"Number, please," said Miss Childe, who had entered the closet and was standing a-tiptoe before a mirror to adjust a patch beneath her left eye.
"Lot 207," said I.
"Line's engaged," said Miss Childe. "Didn't you see it in The Times?"
By way of answer, I threw a large plate at her. She seemed more pleased than otherwise with the attention, and began to pluck the delicate flowers with which it was painted and gather them into a nosegay. In some dudgeon, I blew a small jug of great beauty on to a carved prie-dieu, to which it adhered as though made of some slimy substance.
"Cannon," said my lady. "Shall I put you on?"
"I wish you would. It's rather important."
"Tallboy speaking," said a faint voice. "Tallboy. Tallboy."
"How d'ye do?" said I.
"Ill," said the voice, "so ill. All these years I've carried it, and no one knew——"
"Pardon me," said I. "I only put it there five minutes ago. You see, the fire was almost out and——"
"Measurements tell," said the voice. "But they never do that. They polish my panels and lay fair linen within me, and great folk have stood about me telling each other of my elegance, and once a baby child mirrored its little face in one of my sides. And all the time measurements tell. But they never do that."
A sigh floated to my ears, a long, long sigh that rose into a wail of the wind, and a casement behind me blew to with a shaking clash.
Somewhere a dog was howling.
On a sudden I felt cold. The sunshine was gone, and the chamber had become grey and dismal. Misery was in the air.
A stifled exclamation made me look round.
My lady had backed shrinking into a corner, one little hand pressed to her heart, and in her hunted eyes sat Fear dominant. The sweet face was drawn and colourless, and her breath came quickly, so that it was grievous to mark the flutter of her smooth white chest.
Mechanically I turned to seek the cause of her terror.
I saw a powerfully-built man standing square in the closet's doorway. His face was coarse and red and brutal, and his small black eyes glowed with an ugly twinkle as he surveyed his quarry. Upon the thick lips there was a sinister smile, which broadened hideously as he glanced at the nosegay held betwixt his finger and thumb—the little nosegay that she had gathered so lightly from the painted plate. A wide-skirted coat of red fell nearly to his knees and hid his breeches. His short black periwig was bobbed, and a black silk tie was knotted about his neck. Stockings were rolled above his knees, and a huge tongue thrust out from each of his buckled shoes. And in his left hand was a heavy riding-whip whose handle was wrought about with gold. This he kept clapping against his leg with a smack and a ghastly relish that there was no mistaking.
Again that phantom chorus rose up and rang in my ears—
"A woman, a spaniel, and a walnut tree, The more you beat them, the better they be."
But the jubilant note was gone, and, though the tune was the same, the voices were harsh, and there was a dreadful mockery of woe in the stave that made me shudder.
My lady heard it too.
"No, no, Ralph. You do me wrong. I plucked them myself. Who is there now to send me posies? And I am sick—you know it. The last time——" The hurrying voice faltered and stumbled piteously over a sob. "The last time I was near spent, Ralph. So near. And now——You do not know your strength. Indeed——Oh, Ralph, Ralph, what have I done that you should use me so?"
The bitter cry sank into a dull moan, and, setting a frail white arm across her eyes, she bowed her head upon it, as do weeping children, and fell to sobbing with that subdued despair that spells a broken spirit.
My lord's withers were unwrung.
For a moment he stood still, leering like some foul thing that feasts on Anguish. Then he let fall the nosegay and took the whip in his right hand....
And I stood there frozen and paralysed and dumb.
Posing his victim with a horrible precision, the monster raised his whip, but it struck a pendant lantern, and with an oath he turned to the gallery, where he should find room and to spare for his brutality. At this delay my lady fell upon her knees, in a wild hope, I think, to turn her respite into a reprieve, but the beast cried out upon her, struck down her outstretched hands, and, twisting his fingers in her soft dark hair, dragged her incontinently out of the closet. The little whimper she gave was awful....
And I stood there paralysed.
Five minutes, perhaps, had passed, slow-treading, pregnant minutes, when my lord reappeared. He stood for a moment listening at the top of the stairs, his chin on his shoulder. Then he stepped lightly down. His vile face was pale and his eyes shifted uneasily. The devil looked out of them yet, but Fright looked with him. Two paces brought the fellow before the tallboy. He put up his hands as if to pull open a drawer, when something about the whip he was holding caught his attention. For a second he stared at it, muttering. Then, with a glance at the doorway, he thrust the thing beneath the skirt of his coat and wiped it as it had been a rapier....
Again he made to open a drawer, but the spell under which I lay seemed to be lifted, and I shot out a hand and clapped him on the shoulder.
For all the notice he took, I might not have been there. The more incensed, I shook the man violently....
* * * * *
"Repose," said Jonah, "is one thing, gluttonish sloth another. And even if you have once again overestimated the capacity of your stomach, why advertise your intemperance in a public place?" He lifted his hand from my shoulder to look at his watch. "It's now ten minutes to three. Do you think you can stagger, or must you be carried, to the car?"
I sat up and looked about me. Except for Jill, who was standing a-tiptoe before a mirror, we were alone in the lounge.
"I've been dreaming," said I. "About—about——"
"That's all right, old chap. Tell Nanny all about it to-night, after you've had your bath. That's one of the things she's paid for."
"Don't be a fool," said I, putting a hand to my head. "It's important, I tell you. For Heaven's sake let me think. Oh, what was it?" My cousins stared at me. "I'm not rotting. It was real—something that mattered."
"'Orse race?" said Jonah eagerly. "Green hoops leading by twelve lengths or something?"
I waved him away.
"No, no, no. Let me think. Let me think."
I buried my face in my hands and thought and thought.... But to no purpose. The vision was gone.
* * * * *
Hastily I made ready for our journey to Town, all the time racking my brain feverishly for some odd atom of incident that should remember my dream.
It was not until I was actually seated in the Rolls, with my foot upon the self-starter, that I thought about Berry.
Casually I asked what had become of him.
"That's what we want to know," said Jill. "He motored down here with Miss Childe, and now they've pushed off somewhere, but they wouldn't say——"
"Childe!" I shouted. "Miss Childe! I've got it!"
"What on earth's the matter?" said Jonah, as I started the car.
"My dream," I cried. "I remember it all. It was about that tallboy."
"What—the one we saw?" cried Jill.
"I'm going to double my bid," I said. "We simply must have it, whatever the price."
Disregarding Jonah's protests that we were going the wrong way, I swung the car in the direction from which we had come, and streaked down the road to Cranmer Place.
A minute later I dashed into the hall, with Jill at my heels.
The first person I saw was Mr. Holly.
"Has it come up yet?"
I flung the words at him, casting strategy to the winds.
"It 'as, Major, an' I'm sorry to say we've lorst it. I never see such a thing. There was a gent there as meant to 'ave it. 'Cept for 'im, there wasn't a bid after twenty-five pounds. I never thort we'd 'ave to go over fifty, neither. Might 'a bin the owner 'isself, the way 'e was runnin' us up. An' when we was in the eighties, I sez to meself, I sez, 'The one as calls a nundred first 'as it. So 'ere goes.' 'Eighty-nine,' sez'e. 'A nundred pound,' sez I, bold-like. 'Make it guineas,' sez he, as cool as if 'e was buyin' a naporth o' figs. I tell you. Major, it fair knocked me, it did. I come all of a tremble, an' me knees——"
"Where's the fellow who bought it?" said I.
"I'm afraid it's no good, Major. I tell you 'e meant to 'ave them drawers."
With an effort I mastered my impatience.
"Will you tell me where he is? Or, if he's gone, find out——"
"I don't think 'e's gorn," said Mr. Holly, looking round. "I 'alf think——There 'e is," he cried, suddenly, nodding over my shoulder. "That's 'im on the stairs, with the lady in blue."
Excitedly I swung round, to see my brother-in-law languidly descending the staircase, with Miss Childe by his side.
"Hullo," he said. "Do you mind not asking me why I'm here?"
"It's not my practice," said I, "to ask a question, the answer to which I already know." I turned to Mr. Holly and took out a one pound note. "I'm much obliged for your trouble. 'Not a bid after twenty-five pounds,' I think you said." I handed him the note, which he accepted with protests of gratitude. "You did better than you know," I added.
"May I ask," said Berry unsteadily, "if this gentleman and you are in collusion?"
"We were," said I. "At least, I instructed him to purchase some furniture for me. Unfortunately we were outbid. But it's of no consequence."
Berry raised his eyes to heaven and groaned/
"Subtraction," he said, "is not my strongest point, but I make it eighty pounds. Is that right?"
I nodded, and he turned to Miss Childe.
"That viper," he said, "has stung the fool who feeds him to the tune of eighty pounds. Shall I faint here or by the hat-stand? Let's be clear about it. The moment I enter the swoon——"
"Still, as long as it's in the family——" began Jill.
"Exactly," said I. "The main thing is, we've got it. And when you've heard my tale——"
"Eighty paper pounds," said Berry. "Can you beat it?"
"That'd only be about thirty-five before the War," said Miss Childe in a shaking voice.
"Yes," said I. "Look at it that way. And what's thirty-five? A bagatelle, brother, a bagatelle. Now, if we were in Russia——"
"Yes," said Berry grimly, "and if we were in Patagonia, I suppose I should be up on the deal. You can cut that bit."
Miss Childe and Jill dissolved into peals of merriment.
"That's right," said Berry. "Deride the destitute. Mock at bereavement. As for you," he added, turning to Jill, "your visit to the Zoo is indefinitely postponed. Other children shall feel sick in the monkey-house and be taken to smell the bears. But you, never." He turned to Miss Childe and laid a hand on her arm. "Shut your eyes, my dear, and repeat one of Alfred Austin's odes. This place is full of the ungodly."
* * * * *
My determination to carry the tallboy chest to London in the Rolls met with stern opposition, but in the end I prevailed, and at six o'clock that evening it was safely housed in Mayfair.
To do him justice, Berry's annoyance was considerably tempered by the strange story which I unfolded during a belated tea.
The house and park which I had seen we were unable to identify, and the Post Office Guide was silent as to the whereabouts of Colt. But the excitement which Daphne's production of a tape-measure aroused was only exceeded by the depression which was created by our failure to discover anything unusual about the chest.
We measured the cornice and we measured the plinth. We measured the frame and we measured the drawers. But if the linear measurements afforded us little satisfaction, the square measurements revealed considerably less, while, since no one of us was a mathematician, the calculation of the cubic capacity proved, not only unprofitable, but provocative of such bitter arguments and insulting remarks that Daphne demanded that we should desist.
"All right," said Berry, "if you don't believe me, call in a consulting engineer. I've worked the blinking thing out three times. I admit the answers were entirely different, but that's not my fault. I never did like astrology. I tell you the beastly chest holds twenty-seven thousand point nine double eight recurring cubic inches of air. Some other fool can reduce that to rods, and there you are. I'm fed up with it. Thanks to the machinations of that congenital idiot with the imitation mustachios, I've paid more than four times its value, and I'm not going to burst my brains trying to work out which drawer would have had a false bottom if it had been built by a dipsomaniac who kept fowls. And that's that."
Tearfully Miss Childe announced that it was time for her to be going, and I elected to escort her as far as the garage. As we stepped on to the pavement—
"I know a lot more about you than you think," said I. "I never told you half what I dreamed."
"What do you know?"
"Oh, nothing momentous. Just the more intimate details of your everyday life. Your partiality to mushrooms, your recognition of Love, your recklessness, pretty peculiarities of your toilet——"
"Good Heavens!" cried Miss Childe.
"But you wouldn't tell me your name."
"False modesty. Seriously you don't mean to say——"
"But I do. Nothing was hid from me. Your little bare feet——"
A stifled scream interrupted me.
"This," said Miss Childe, "is awful." We turned into the mews. "What are you doing to-morrow?"
"Dictating. You see, there's a dream I want recorded."
"I shall expect you at half-past one. We can start after lunch. I've a beautiful hand."
"I know you have. Two of them. They were bare, too," I added reflectively.
With a choking sound, Miss Childe got into the car.
"Half-past one," she said, as she slid into the driver's seat.
"Without fail." I raised my hat. "By the way, who shall I ask for?"
Miss Childe flung me a dazzling smile.
"I've no sisters," she said.
Moodily I returned to the house.
I entered the library to find that the others had retired, presumably to dress for dinner. Mechanically I crossed to the tallboy, which we had so fruitlessly surveyed, and began to finger it idly, wondering all the time whether my dream was wanton, or whether there was indeed some secret which we might discover. It did not seem possible, and yet.... That distant voice rang in my ears. "Measurements tell, measurements tell. But they never do that." What?
A sudden idea came to me, and I drew out the second long drawer. Then in some excitement I withdrew the first, and placed it exactly upon the top of the second, so that I might see if they were of the same size. The second was the deeper by an inch and a half.
I thrust my arms into the empty frame, feeling feverishly for a bolt or catch, which should be holding a panel in place at the back of where the first drawer had lain. At first I could find nothing, then my right hand encountered a round hole in the wood, just large enough to admit a man's finger. Almost immediately I came upon a similar hole on the left-hand side. Their office was plain....
A moment later, and I had drawn the panel out of its standing and clear of the chest.
My hands were trembling as I thrust them into the dusty hiding-place.
* * * * *
"Hullo! Aren't you going to dress?" said Jonah some two minutes later.
But I was still staring at a heavy riding-whip whose handle was wrought about with gold.
HOW A MAN MAY FOLLOW HIS OWN HAT, AND BERRY TOOK A LAMP IN HIS HAND.
"What are you doing this morning?" said Daphne.
Berry turned to the mantelpiece and selected a pipe before replying.
"I have," he said, "several duties to discharge. All, curiously enough, to myself. First, if not foremost, I must hire some sock-suspenders. Secondly, I must select some socks for the sock-suspenders to suspend. Is that clear? Neither last nor least——"
"As a matter of fact," said his wife, "you're going to help me choose a present for Maisie Dukedom. Besides, I've got to go to Fortnum and Mason's, and I want you——"
"To carry the string-bag. I know. And we can get the chops at the same time. We'd better take some newspaper with us. And a perambulator."
"Tell you what," said Jonah, "let's all join together and give her a Persian rug."
"That's rather an idea," said my sister. "And they wear for ever."
"You're sure of that, aren't you?" said Berry. "I mean, I shouldn't like her to have to get a new one in about six hundred years. I like a present to last."
Before Daphne could reply—
"How d'you spell 'business'?" said Jill, looking up from a letter.
"Personally," said I, "I don't. It's one of the words I avoid. If you must, I should write it down both ways and see what it looks like."
The telephone bell began to ring.
"Wrong number, for a fiver," said Jonah. "They always do it about this time."
Berry crossed the room and picked up the receiver. We listened expectantly.
"Have I got a taxi! My dear fellow, I've got a whole school of them. Would you like a Renault or a baby grand? What? Oh, I'm afraid I couldn't send it at once. You see, I've only got one boy, and he's having his hair cut. I can post it to you, and I should think you'll get it to-morrow morning. No, I'm not mad. No, I'm not the cab-rank, either. Well, you should have asked me. Never mind. Let's talk of something else. I wonder if you're interested in rock-worms.... I beg your pardon...." Gravely he restored the receiver to its perch. "Not interested," he added for our information. "He didn't actually say so, but from the directions he gave concerning them—happily, I may say, quite impracticable——"
"Talking of telephoning," said Jonah uncertainly, "don't forget we've got to ring up and say whether we want those tickets."
"So we have," said my sister. "Wednesday week, isn't it? Let's see." She fell to examining a tiny engagement-book, murmuring to herself as she deciphered or interpreted the entries.
I continued to survey the street.
It was a dark morning in December, and we were all In the library, where there was a good fire, warming ourselves preparatory to venturing abroad and facing the north-east wind which was making London so unpleasant.
The tickets to which Jonah referred would make us free of the Albert Hall for a ball which promised to surpass all its predecessors in splendour and discomfort. No one was to be admitted who was not clad in cloth either of gold or silver, and, while there were to be no intervals between the dances, a great deal of the accommodation usually reserved for such revellers as desired rest or refreshment was being converted into seats to be sold to any who cared to witness a pageant of unwonted brilliancy. The fact that no one of us had attended a function of this sort for more than five years, and the excellence of the cause on behalf of which it was being promoted, were responsible for our inclination to take the tickets, for, with the exception of Jill, we were not eager to subscribe to an entertainment which it was not at all certain we should enjoy.
"I suppose we'd better take the tickets," I said reflectively. "If we don't want to go, we needn't use them."
"Oh, we must use them," said Daphne; "and we've got nothing on on Wednesday, as far as I can see."
Berry cleared his throat.
"It is patent," he said, "that my personal convenience is of no consideration. But let that pass. I have no objection to setting, as it were, the seal of success upon the ball in question, provided that my costume buttons in front, and has not less than two pockets which are at once accessible and of a reasonable capacity. I dare say they weren't fashionable in the fourteenth century. No doubt our forefathers thought it a scream to keep their handkerchiefs in their boots or the seat of their trousers. But I'm funny like that. Last time I had to give the fellow in the cloak-room half a crown every time I wanted to blow my nose."
"You four go," said Jonah. "I always feel such a fool in fancy dress."
"If you feel anything like the fool you look," said Berry, "I'm sorry for you."
Jonah lowered The Sportsman and surveyed the speaker.
"What you want," he said, "is a little honest toil. I should take up scavenging, or sewerage. Something that appeals to you."
"I agree" said Daphne. "But you can't start this morning, because you're coning with Jill and me to choose the rug." She turned to me. "Boy dear, ring up and take those tickets, will you?"
The spirit of reckless generosity which is so prominent a characteristic of "Exchange" was very noticeable this morning. The number I asked for, which was faithfully repeated by the operator, was Mayfair 976. I was connected successively to Hammersmith 24, Museum 113, and Mayfair 5800. After a decent interval I began again.
"Kennington Road Police Station," said a voice.
"Kennington or Kennington Road?" said I.
"Kennington Road. There ain't no Kennington."
"Ain't—I mean, aren't there? I always thought.... Never mind. How are the police?"
"I say this is Kennington Road Police Station," replied the voice with some heat.
"I know you did. I heard you. Just now. If you remember, I asked you if it was Kennington or Kennington Road, and you said——"