THE LITTLE NUGGET
By P. G. Wodehouse
In which the Little Nugget is introduced to the reader, and plans are made for his future by several interested parties. In which, also, the future Mr Peter Burns is touched upon. The whole concluding with a momentous telephone-call.
THE LITTLE NUGGET
If the management of the Hotel Guelph, that London landmark, could have been present at three o'clock one afternoon in early January in the sitting-room of the suite which they had assigned to Mrs Elmer Ford, late of New York, they might well have felt a little aggrieved. Philosophers among them would possibly have meditated on the limitations of human effort; for they had done their best for Mrs Ford. They had housed her well. They had fed her well. They had caused inspired servants to anticipate her every need. Yet here she was, in the midst of all these aids to a contented mind, exhibiting a restlessness and impatience of her surroundings that would have been noticeable in a caged tigress or a prisoner of the Bastille. She paced the room. She sat down, picked up a novel, dropped it, and, rising, resumed her patrol. The clock striking, she compared it with her watch, which she had consulted two minutes before. She opened the locket that hung by a gold chain from her neck, looked at its contents, and sighed. Finally, going quickly into the bedroom, she took from a suit-case a framed oil-painting, and returning with it to the sitting-room, placed it on a chair, and stepped back, gazing at it hungrily. Her large brown eyes, normally hard and imperious, were strangely softened. Her mouth quivered.
'Ogden!' she whispered.
The picture which had inspired this exhibition of feeling would probably not have affected the casual spectator to quite the same degree. He would have seen merely a very faulty and amateurish portrait of a singularly repellent little boy of about eleven, who stared out from the canvas with an expression half stolid, half querulous; a bulgy, overfed little boy; a little boy who looked exactly what he was, the spoiled child of parents who had far more money than was good for them.
As Mrs Ford gazed at the picture, and the picture stared back at her, the telephone bell rang. She ran to it eagerly. It was the office of the hotel, announcing a caller.
'Yes? Yes? Who?' Her voice fell, as if the name was not the one she had expected. 'Oh, yes,' she said. 'Yes, ask Lord Mountry to come to me here, please.'
She returned to the portrait. The look of impatience, which had left her face as the bell sounded, was back now. She suppressed it with an effort as her visitor entered.
Lord Mountry was a blond, pink-faced, fair-moustached young man of about twenty-eight—a thick-set, solemn young man. He winced as he caught sight of the picture, which fixed him with a stony eye immediately on his entry, and quickly looked away.
'I say, it's all right, Mrs Ford.' He was of the type which wastes no time on preliminary greetings. 'I've got him.'
Mrs Ford's voice was startled.
'Stanborough, you know.'
'Oh! I—I was thinking of something else. Won't you sit down?'
Lord Mountry sat down.
'The artist, you know. You remember you said at lunch the other day you wanted your little boy's portrait painted, as you only had one of him, aged eleven—'
'This is Ogden, Lord Mountry. I painted this myself.'
His lordship, who had selected a chair that enabled him to present a shoulder to the painting, and was wearing a slightly dogged look suggestive of one who 'turns no more his head, because he knows a frightful fiend doth close behind him tread', forced himself round, and met his gaze with as much nonchalance as he could summon up.
'Er, yes,' he said.
'Fine manly little fellow—what?' he continued.
'Yes, isn't he?'
His lordship stealthily resumed his former position.
'I recommended this fellow, Stanborough, if you remember. He's a great pal of mine, and I'd like to give him a leg up if I could. They tell me he's a topping artist. Don't know much about it myself. You told me to bring him round here this afternoon, you remember, to talk things over. He's waiting downstairs.'
'Oh yes, yes. Of course, I've not forgotten. Thank you so much, Lord Mountry.'
'Rather a good scheme occurred to me, that is, if you haven't thought over the idea of that trip on my yacht and decided it would bore you to death. You still feel like making one of the party—what?'
Mrs Ford shot a swift glance at the clock.
'I'm looking forward to it,' she said.
'Well, then, why shouldn't we kill two birds with one stone? Combine the voyage and the portrait, don't you know. You could bring your little boy along—he'd love the trip—and I'd bring Stanborough—what?'
This offer was not the outcome of a sudden spasm of warm-heartedness on his lordship's part. He had pondered the matter deeply, and had come to the conclusion that, though it had flaws, it was the best plan. He was alive to the fact that a small boy was not an absolute essential to the success of a yachting trip, and, since seeing Ogden's portrait, he had realized still more clearly that the scheme had draw-backs. But he badly wanted Stanborough to make one of the party. Whatever Ogden might be, there was no doubt that Billy Stanborough, that fellow of infinite jest, was the ideal companion for a voyage. It would make just all the difference having him. The trouble was that Stanborough flatly refused to take an indefinite holiday, on the plea that he could not afford the time. Upon which his lordship, seldom blessed with great ideas, had surprised himself by producing the scheme he had just sketched out to Mrs Ford.
He looked at her expectantly, as he finished speaking, and was surprised to see a swift cloud of distress pass over her face. He rapidly reviewed his last speech. No, nothing to upset anyone in that. He was puzzled.
She looked past him at the portrait. There was pain in her eyes.
'I'm afraid you don't quite understand the position of affairs,' she said. Her voice was harsh and strained.
'You see—I have not—' She stopped. 'My little boy is not—Ogden is not living with me just now.'
'At school, eh?'
'No, not at school. Let me tell you the whole position. Mr Ford and I did not get on very well together, and a year ago we were divorced in Washington, on the ground of incompatibility, and—and—'
She choked. His lordship, a young man with a shrinking horror of the deeper emotions, whether exhibited in woman or man, writhed silently. That was the worst of these Americans! Always getting divorced and causing unpleasantness. How was a fellow to know? Why hadn't whoever it was who first introduced them—he couldn't remember who the dickens it was—told him about this? He had supposed she was just the ordinary American woman doing Europe with an affectionate dollar-dispensing husband in the background somewhere.
'Er—' he said. It was all he could find to say.
'And—and the court,' said Mrs Ford, between her teeth, 'gave him the custody of Ogden.'
Lord Mountry, pink with embarrassment, gurgled sympathetically.
'Since then I have not seen Ogden. That was why I was interested when you mentioned your friend Mr Stanborough. It struck me that Mr Ford could hardly object to my having a portrait of my son painted at my own expense. Nor do I suppose that he will, when—if the matter is put to him. But, well, you see it would be premature to make any arrangements at present for having the picture painted on our yacht trip.'
'I'm afraid it knocks that scheme on the head,' said Lord Mountry mournfully.
'I don't want to make plans yet, but—it is possible that Ogden may be with us after all. Something may be—arranged.'
'You think you may be able to bring him along on the yacht after all?'
'I am hoping so.'
Lord Mountry, however willing to emit sympathetic gurgles, was too plain and straightforward a young man to approve of wilful blindness to obvious facts.
'I don't see how you are going to override the decision of the court. It holds good in England, I suppose?'
'I am hoping something may be—arranged.'
'Oh, same here, same here. Certainly.' Having done his duty by not allowing plain facts to be ignored, his lordship was ready to become sympathetic again. 'By the way, where is Ogden?'
'He is down at Mr Ford's house in the country. But—'
She was interrupted by the ringing of the telephone bell. She was out of her seat and across the room at the receiver with what appeared to Lord Mountry's startled gaze one bound. As she put the instrument to her ear a wave of joy swept over her face. She gave a little cry of delight and excitement.
'Send them right up at once,' she said, and turned to Lord Mountry transformed.
'Lord Mountry,' she said quickly, 'please don't think me impossibly rude if I turn you out. Some—some people are coming to see me. I must—'
His lordship rose hurriedly.
'Of course. Of course. Certainly. Where did I put my—ah, here.' He seized his hat, and by way of economizing effort, knocked his stick on to the floor with the same movement. Mrs Ford watched his bendings and gropings with growing impatience, till finally he rose, a little flushed but with a full hand—stick, gloves, and hat, all present and correct.
'Good-bye, then, Mrs Ford, for the present. You'll let me know if your little boy will be able to make one of our party on the yacht?'
'Yes, yes. Thank you ever so much. Good-bye.'
He reached the door and opened it.
'By Jove,' he said, springing round—'Stanborough! What about Stanborough? Shall I tell him to wait? He's down below, you know!'
'Yes, yes. Tell Mr Stanborough I'm dreadfully sorry to have to keep him waiting, and ask him if he won't stay for a few minutes in the Palm Room.'
Inspiration came to Lord Mountry.
'I'll give him a drink,' he said.
'Yes, yes, anything. Lord Mountry, you really must go. I know I'm rude. I don't know what I'm saying. But—my boy is returning to me.'
The accumulated chivalry of generations of chivalrous ancestors acted like a spur on his lordship. He understood but dimly, yet enough to enable him to realize that a scene was about to take place in which he was most emphatically not 'on'. A mother's meeting with her long-lost child, this is a sacred thing. This was quite clear to him, so, turning like a flash, he bounded through the doorway, and, as somebody happened to be coming in at the same time, there was a collision, which left him breathing apologies in his familiar attitude of stooping to pick up his hat.
The new-comers were a tall, strikingly handsome girl, with a rather hard and cynical cast of countenance. She was leading by the hand a small, fat boy of about fourteen years of age, whose likeness to the portrait on the chair proclaimed his identity. He had escaped the collision, but seemed offended by it; for, eyeing the bending peer with cold distaste, he summed up his opinion of him in the one word 'Chump!'
Lord Mountry rose.
'I beg your pardon,' he said for perhaps the seventh time. He was thoroughly unstrung. Always excessively shy, he was embarrassed now by quite a variety of causes. The world was full of eyes—Mrs Ford's saying 'Go!' Ogden's saying 'Fool!' the portrait saying 'Idiot!' and, finally, the eyes of this wonderfully handsome girl, large, grey, cool, amused, and contemptuous saying—so it seemed to him in that feverish moment—'Who is this curious pink person who cumbers the ground before me?'
'I—I beg your pardon.' he repeated.
'Ought to look where you're going,' said Ogden severely.
'Not at all,' said the girl. 'Won't you introduce me, Nesta?'
'Lord Mountry—Miss Drassilis,' said Mrs Ford.
'I'm afraid we're driving Lord Mountry away,' said the girl. Her eyes seemed to his lordship larger, greyer, cooler, more amused, and more contemptuous than ever. He floundered in them like an unskilful swimmer in deep waters.
'No, no,' he stammered. 'Give you my word. Just going. Good-bye. You won't forget to let me know about the yacht, Mrs Ford—what? It'll be an awfully jolly party. Good-bye, good-bye, Miss Drassilis.'
He looked at Ogden for an instant, as if undecided whether to take the liberty of addressing him too, and then, his heart apparently failing him, turned and bolted. From down the corridor came the clatter of a dropped stick.
Cynthia Drassilis closed the door and smiled.
'A nervous young person!' she said. 'What was he saying about a yacht, Nesta?'
Mrs Ford roused herself from her fascinated contemplation of Ogden.
'Oh, nothing. Some of us are going to the south of France in his yacht next week.'
'What a delightful idea!'
There was a certain pensive note in Cynthia's voice.
'A splendid idea!' she murmured.
Mrs Ford swooped. She descended on Ogden in a swirl and rustle of expensive millinery, and clasped him to her.
It is not given to everybody to glide neatly into a scene of tense emotion. Ogden failed to do so. He wriggled roughly from the embrace.
'Got a cigarette?' he said.
He was an extraordinarily unpleasant little boy. Physically the portrait standing on the chair did him more than justice. Painted by a mother's loving hand, it flattered him. It was bulgy. He was more bulgy. It was sullen. He scowled. And, art having its limitations, particularly amateur art, the portrait gave no hint of his very repellent manner. He was an intensely sophisticated child. He had the air of one who has seen all life has to offer, and is now permanently bored. His speech and bearing were those of a young man, and a distinctly unlovable young man.
Even Mrs Ford was momentarily chilled. She laughed shakily.
'How very matter-of-fact you are, darling!' she said.
Cynthia was regarding the heir to the Ford millions with her usual steady, half-contemptuous gaze.
'He has been that all day,' she said. 'You have no notion what a help it was to me.'
Mrs Ford turned to her effusively.
'Oh, Cynthia, dear, I haven't thanked you.'
'No,' interpolated the girl dryly.
'You're a wonder, darling. You really are. I've been repeating that ever since I got your telegram from Eastnor.' She broke off. 'Ogden, come near me, my little son.'
He lurched towards her sullenly.
'Don't muss a fellow now,' he stipulated, before allowing himself to be enfolded in the outstretched arms.
'Tell me, Cynthia,' resumed Mrs Ford, 'how did you do it? I was telling Lord Mountry that I hoped I might see my Ogden again soon, but I never really hoped. It seemed too impossible that you should succeed.'
'This Lord Mountry of yours,' said Cynthia. 'How did you get to know him? Why have I not seen him before?'
'I met him in Paris in the fall. He has been out of London for a long time, looking after his father, who was ill.'
'He has been most kind, making arrangements about getting Ogden's portrait painted. But, bother Lord Mountry. How did we get sidetracked on to him? Tell me how you got Ogden away.'
'It was extraordinarily easy, as it turned out, you see.'
'Ogden, darling,' observed Mrs Ford, 'don't go away. I want you near me.'
'Oh, all right.'
'Then stay by me, angel-face.'
'Oh, slush!' muttered angel-face beneath his breath. 'Say, I'm darned hungry,' he added.
It was if an electric shock had been applied to Mrs Ford. She sprang to her feet.
'My poor child! Of course you must have some lunch. Ring the bell, Cynthia. I'll have them send up some here.'
'I'll have mine here,' said Cynthia.
'Oh, you've had no lunch either! I was forgetting that.'
'I thought you were.'
'You must both lunch here.'
'Really,' said Cynthia, 'I think it would be better if Ogden had his downstairs in the restaurant.'
'Want to talk scandal, eh?'
'Ogden, dearest!' said Mrs Ford. 'Very well, Cynthia. Go, Ogden. You will order yourself something substantial, marvel-child?'
'Bet your life,' said the son and heir tersely.
There was a brief silence as the door closed. Cynthia gazed at her friend with a peculiar expression.
'Well, I did it, dear,' she said.
'Yes. It's splendid. You're a wonder, darling.'
'Yes,' said Cynthia.
There was another silence.
'By the way,' said Mrs Ford, 'didn't you say there was a little thing, a small bill, that was worrying you?'
'Did I mention it? Yes, there is. It's rather pressing. In fact, it's taking up most of the horizon at present. Here it is.'
'Is it a large sum?' Mrs Ford took the slip of paper and gave a slight gasp. Then, coming to the bureau, she took out her cheque-book.
'It's very kind of you, Nesta,' said Cynthia. 'They were beginning to show quite a vindictive spirit about it.'
She folded the cheque calmly and put it in her purse.
'And now tell me how you did it,' said Mrs Ford.
She dropped into a chair and leaned back, her hands behind her head. For the first time, she seemed to enjoy perfect peace of mind. Her eyes half closed, as if she had been making ready to listen to some favourite music.
'Tell me from the very beginning,' she said softly.
Cynthia checked a yawn.
'Very well, dear,' she said. 'I caught the 10.20 to Eastnor, which isn't a bad train, if you ever want to go down there. I arrived at a quarter past twelve, and went straight up to the house—you've never seen the house, of course? It's quite charming—and told the butler that I wanted to see Mr Ford on business. I had taken the precaution to find out that he was not there. He is at Droitwich.'
'Rheumatism,' murmured Mrs Ford. 'He has it sometimes.'
'The man told me he was away, and then he seemed to think that I ought to go. I stuck like a limpet. I sent him to fetch Ogden's tutor. His name is Broster—Reggie Broster. He is a very nice young man. Big, broad shoulders, and such a kind face.'
'Yes, dear, yes?'
'I told him I was doing a series of drawings for a magazine of the interiors of well-known country houses.'
'He believed you?'
'He believed everything. He's that kind of man. He believed me when I told him that my editor particularly wanted me to sketch the staircase. They had told me about the staircase at the inn. I forget what it is exactly, but it's something rather special in staircases.'
'So you got in?'
'So I got in.'
'And saw Ogden?'
'Only for a moment—then Reggie—'
'Mr Broster. I always think of him as Reggie. He's one of Nature's Reggies. Such a kind, honest face. Well, as I was saying, Reggie discovered that it was time for lessons, and sent Ogden upstairs.'
'By himself! Reggie and I chatted for a while.'
Mrs Ford's eyes opened, brown and bright and hard.
'Mr Broster is not a proper tutor for my boy,' she said coldly.
'I suppose it was wrong of Reggie,' said Cynthia. 'But—I was wearing this hat.'
'Well, after a time, I said I must be starting my work. He wanted me to start with the room we were in. I said no, I was going out into the grounds to sketch the house from the EAST. I chose the EAST because it happens to be nearest the railway station. I added that I supposed he sometimes took Ogden for a little walk in the grounds. He said yes, he did, and it was just about due. He said possibly he might come round my way. He said Ogden would be interested in my sketch. He seemed to think a lot of Ogden's fondness for art.'
'Mr Broster is not a proper tutor for my boy.'
'Well, he isn't your boy's tutor now, is he, dear?'
'What happened then?'
'I strolled off with my sketching things. After a while Reggie and Ogden came up. I said I hadn't been able to work because I had been frightened by a bull.'
'Did he believe that?'
'Certainly he believed it. He was most kind and sympathetic. We had a nice chat. He told me all about himself. He used to be very good at football. He doesn't play now, but he often thinks of the past.'
'But he must have seen that you couldn't sketch. Then what became of your magazine commission story?'
'Well, somehow the sketch seemed to get shelved. I didn't even have to start it. We were having our chat, you see. Reggie was telling me how good he had been at football when he was at Oxford, and he wanted me to see a newspaper clipping of a Varsity match he had played in. I said I'd love to see it. He said it was in his suit-case in the house. So I promised to look after Ogden while he fetched it. I sent him off to get it just in time for us to catch the train. Off he went, and here we are. And now, won't you order that lunch you mentioned? I'm starving.'
Mrs Ford rose. Half-way to the telephone she stopped suddenly.
'My dear child! It has only just struck me! We must leave here at once. He will have followed you. He will guess that Ogden has been kidnapped.'
'Believe me, it takes Reggie quite a long time to guess anything. Besides, there are no trains for hours. We are quite safe.'
'Are you sure?'
'Absolutely. I made certain of that before I left.'
Mrs Ford kissed her impulsively.
'Oh, Cynthia, you really are wonderful!'
She started back with a cry as the bell rang sharply.
'For goodness' sake, Nesta,' said Cynthia, with irritation, 'do keep control of yourself. There's nothing to be frightened about. I tell you Mr Broster can't possibly have got here in the time, even if he knew where to go to, which I don't see how he could. It's probably Ogden.'
The colour came back into Mrs Ford's cheeks.
'Why, of course.'
Cynthia opened the door.
'Come in, darling,' said Mrs Ford fondly. And a wiry little man with grey hair and spectacles entered.
'Good afternoon, Mrs Ford,' he said. 'I have come to take Ogden back.'
There are some situations in life so unexpected, so trying, that, as far as concerns our opinion of those subjected to them, we agree, as it were, not to count them; we refuse to allow the victim's behaviour in circumstances so exacting to weigh with us in our estimate of his or her character. We permit the great general, confronted suddenly with a mad bull, to turn and run, without forfeiting his reputation for courage. The bishop who, stepping on a concealed slide in winter, entertains passers-by with momentary rag-time steps, loses none of his dignity once the performance is concluded.
In the same way we must condone the behaviour of Cynthia Drassilis on opening the door of Mrs Ford's sitting-room and admitting, not Ogden, but this total stranger, who accompanied his entry with the remarkable speech recorded at the close of the last section.
She was a girl who prided herself on her carefully blase' and supercilious attitude towards life; but this changeling was too much for her. She released the handle, tottered back, and, having uttered a discordant squeak of amazement, stood staring, eyes and mouth wide open.
On Mrs Ford the apparition had a different effect. The rather foolish smile of welcome vanished from her face as if wiped away with a sponge. Her eyes, fixed and frightened like those of a trapped animal, glared at the intruder. She took a step forward, choking.
'What—what do you mean by daring to enter my room?' she cried.
The man held his ground, unmoved. His bearing was a curious blend of diffidence and aggressiveness. He was determined, but apologetic. A hired assassin of the Middle Ages, resolved to do his job loyally, yet conscious of causing inconvenience to his victim, might have looked the same.
'I am sorry,' he said, 'but I must ask you to let me have the boy, Mrs Ford.'
Cynthia was herself again now. She raked the intruder with the cool stare which had so disconcerted Lord Mountry.
'Who is this gentleman?' she asked languidly.
The intruder was made of tougher stuff than his lordship. He met her eye with quiet firmness.
'My name is Mennick,' he said. 'I am Mr Elmer Ford's private secretary.'
'What do you want?' said Mrs Ford.
'I have already explained what I want, Mrs Ford. I want Ogden.'
Cynthia raised her eyebrows.
'What does he mean, Nesta? Ogden is not here.'
Mr Mennick produced from his breast-pocket a telegraph form, and in his quiet, business-like way proceeded to straighten it out.
'I have here,' he said, 'a telegram from Mr Broster, Ogden's tutor. It was one of the conditions of his engagement that if ever he was not certain of Ogden's whereabouts he should let me know at once. He tells me that early this afternoon he left Ogden in the company of a strange young lady'—Mr Mennick's spectacles flashed for a moment at Cynthia—'and that, when he returned, both of them had disappeared. He made inquiries and discovered that this young lady caught the 1.15 express to London, Ogden with her. On receipt of this information I at once wired to Mr Ford for instructions. I have his reply'—he fished for and produced a second telegram—'here.'
'I still fail to see what brings you here,' said Mrs Ford. 'Owing to the gross carelessness of his father's employees, my son appears to have been kidnapped. That is no reason—'
'I will read Mr Ford's telegram,' proceeded Mr Mennick unmoved. 'It is rather long. I think Mr Ford is somewhat annoyed. "The boy has obviously been stolen by some hireling of his mother's." I am reading Mr Ford's actual words,' he said, addressing Cynthia with that touch of diffidence which had marked his manner since his entrance.
'Don't apologize,' said Cynthia, with a short laugh. 'You're not responsible for Mr Ford's rudeness.'
Mr Mennick bowed.
'He continued: "Remove him from her illegal restraint. If necessary call in police and employ force."'
'Charming!' said Mrs Ford.
'Practical,' said Mr Mennick. 'There is more. "Before doing anything else sack that fool of a tutor, then go to Agency and have them recommend good private school for boy. On no account engage another tutor. They make me tired. Fix all this today. Send Ogden back to Eastnor with Mrs Sheridan. She will stay there with him till further notice." That is Mr Ford's message.'
Mr Mennick folded both documents carefully and replaced them in his pocket.
Mrs Ford looked at the clock.
'And now, would you mind going, Mr Mennick?'
'I am sorry to appear discourteous, Mrs Ford, but I cannot go without Ogden.'
'I shall telephone to the office to send up a porter to remove you.'
'I shall take advantage of his presence to ask him to fetch a policeman.'
In the excitement of combat the veneer of apologetic diffidence was beginning to wear off Mr Mennick. He spoke irritably. Cynthia appealed to his reason with the air of a bored princess descending to argument with a groom.
'Can't you see for yourself that he's not here?' she said. 'Do you think we are hiding him?'
'Perhaps you would like to search my bedroom?' said Mrs Ford, flinging the door open.
Mr Mennick remained uncrushed.
'Quite unnecessary, Mrs Ford. I take it, from the fact that he does not appear to be in this suite, that he is downstairs making a late luncheon in the restaurant.'
'I shall telephone—'
'And tell them to send him up. Believe me, Mrs Ford, it is the only thing to do. You have my deepest sympathy, but I am employed by Mr Ford and must act solely in his interests. The law is on my side. I am here to fetch Ogden away, and I am going to have him.'
'I may add that, when I came up here, I left Mrs Sheridan—she is a fellow-secretary of mine. You may remember Mr Ford mentioning her in his telegram—I left her to search the restaurant and grill-room, with instructions to bring Ogden, if found, to me in this room.'
The door-bell rang. He went to the door and opened it.
'Come in, Mrs Sheridan. Ah!'
A girl in a plain, neat blue dress entered the room. She was a small, graceful girl of about twenty-five, pretty and brisk, with the air of one accustomed to look after herself in a difficult world. Her eyes were clear and steady, her mouth sensitive but firm, her chin the chin of one who has met trouble and faced it bravely. A little soldier.
She was shepherding Ogden before her, a gorged but still sullen Ogden. He sighted Mr Mennick and stopped.
'Hello!' he said. 'What have you blown in for?'
'He was just in the middle of his lunch,' said the girl. 'I thought you wouldn't mind if I let him finish.'
'Say, what's it all about, anyway?' demanded Ogden crossly. 'Can't a fellow have a bit of grub in peace? You give me a pain.'
Mr Mennick explained.
'Your father wishes you to return to Eastnor, Ogden.'
'Oh, all right. I guess I'd better go, then. Good-bye, ma.'
Mrs Ford choked.
'Kiss me, Ogden.'
Ogden submitted to the embrace in sulky silence. The others comported themselves each after his or her own fashion. Mr Mennick fingered his chin uncomfortably. Cynthia turned to the table and picked up an illustrated paper. Mrs Sheridan's eyes filled with tears. She took a half-step towards Mrs Ford, as if about to speak, then drew back.
'Come, Ogden,' said Mr Mennick gruffly. Necessary, this Hired Assassin work, but painful—devilish painful. He breathed a sigh of relief as he passed into the corridor with his prize.
At the door Mrs Sheridan hesitated, stopped, and turned.
'I'm sorry,' she said impulsively.
Mrs Ford turned away without speaking, and went into the bedroom.
Cynthia laid down her paper.
'One moment, Mrs Sheridan.'
The girl had turned to go. She stopped.
'Can you give me a minute? Come in and shut the door. Won't you sit down? Very well. You seemed sorry for Mrs Ford just now.'
'I am very sorry for Mrs Ford. Very sorry. I hate to see her suffering. I wish Mr Mennick had not brought me into this.'
'Nesta's mad about that boy,' said Cynthia. 'Heaven knows why. I never saw such a repulsive child in my life. However, there it is. I am sorry for you. I gathered from what Mr Mennick said that you were to have a good deal of Ogden's society for some time to come. How do you feel about it?'
Mrs Sheridan moved towards the door.
'I must be going,' she said. 'Mr Mennick will be waiting for me.'
'One moment. Tell me, don't you think, after what you saw just now, that Mrs Ford is the proper person to have charge of Ogden? You see how devoted she is to him?'
'May I be quite frank with you?'
'Well, then, I think that Mrs Ford's influence is the worst possible for Ogden. I am sorry for her, but that does not alter my opinion. It is entirely owing to Mrs Ford that Ogden is what he is. She spoiled him, indulged him in every way, never checked him—till he has become—well, what you yourself called him, repulsive.'
'Oh well,' she said, 'I only talked that mother's love stuff because you looked the sort of girl who would like it. We can drop all that now, and come down to business.'
'I don't understand you.'
'You will. I don't know if you think that I kidnapped Ogden from sheer affection for Mrs Ford. I like Nesta, but not as much as that. No. I'm one of the Get-Rich-Quick-Wallingfords, and I'm looking out for myself all the time. There's no one else to do it for me. I've a beastly home. My father's dead. My mother's a cat. So—'
'Please stop,' said Mrs Sheridan. I don't know why you are telling me all this.'
'Yes, you do. I don't know what salary Mr Ford pays you, but I don't suppose it's anything princely. Why don't you come over to us? Mrs Ford would give you the earth if you smuggled Ogden back to her.'
'You seem to be trying to bribe me,' said Mrs Sheridan.
'In this case,' said Cynthia, 'appearances aren't deceptive. I am.'
'Don't be a little fool.'
The door slammed.
'Come back!' cried Cynthia. She took a step as if to follow, but gave up the idea with a laugh. She sat down and began to read her illustrated paper again. Presently the bedroom door opened. Mrs Ford came in. She touched her eyes with a handkerchief as she entered. Cynthia looked up.
'I'm very sorry, Nesta,' she said.
Mrs Ford went to the window and looked out.
'I'm not going to break down, if that's what you mean,' she said. 'I don't care. And, anyhow, it shows that it can be done.'
Cynthia turned a page of her paper.
'I've just been trying my hand at bribery and corruption.'
'What do you mean?'
'Oh, I promised and vowed many things in your name to that secretary person, the female one—not Mennick—if she would help us. Nothing doing. I told her to let us have Ogden as soon as possible, C.O.D., and she withered me with a glance and went.'
Mrs Ford shrugged her shoulders impatiently.
'Oh, let her go. I'm sick of amateurs.'
'Thank you, dear,' said Cynthia.
'Oh, I know you did your best. For an amateur you did wonderfully well. But amateurs never really succeed. There were a dozen little easy precautions which we neglected to take. What we want is a professional; a man whose business is kidnapping; the sort of man who kidnaps as a matter of course; someone like Smooth Sam Fisher.'
'My dear Nesta! Who? I don't think I know the gentleman.'
'He tried to kidnap Ogden in 1906, when we were in New York. At least, the police put it down to him, though they could prove nothing. Then there was a horrible man, the police said he was called Buck MacGinnis. He tried in 1907. That was in Chicago.'
'Good gracious! Kidnapping Ogden seems to be as popular as football. And I thought I was a pioneer!'
Something approaching pride came into Mrs Ford's voice.
'I don't suppose there's a child in America,' she said, 'who has had to be so carefully guarded. Why, the kidnappers had a special name for him—they called him "The Little Nugget". For years we never allowed him out of our sight without a detective to watch him.'
'Well, Mr Ford seems to have changed all that now. I saw no detectives. I suppose he thinks they aren't necessary in England. Or perhaps he relied on Mr Broster. Poor Reggie!'
'It was criminally careless of him. This will be a lesson to him. He will be more careful in future how he leaves Ogden at the mercy of anybody who cares to come along and snap him up.'
'Which, incidentally, does not make your chance of getting him away any lighter.'
'Oh, I've given up hope now,' said Mrs Ford resignedly.
'I haven't,' said Cynthia.
There was something in her voice which made her companion turn sharply and look at her. Mrs Ford might affect to be resigned, but she was a woman of determination, and if the recent reverse had left her bruised, it had by no means crushed her.
'Cynthia! What do you mean? What are you hinting?'
'You despise amateurs, Nesta, but, for all that, it seems that your professionals who kidnap as a matter of course and all the rest of it have not been a bit more successful. It was not my want of experience that made me fail. It was my sex. This is man's work. If I had been a man, I should at least have had brute force to fall back upon when Mr Mennick arrived.'
Mrs Ford nodded.
'And,' continued Cynthia, 'as all these Smooth Sam Fishers of yours have failed too, it is obvious that the only way to kidnap Ogden is from within. We must have some man working for us in the enemy's camp.'
'Which is impossible,' said Mrs Ford dejectedly.
'Not at all.'
'You know a man?'
'I know the man.'
'Cynthia! What do you mean? Who is he?'
'His name is Peter Burns.'
Mrs Ford shook her head.
'I don't know him.'
'I'll introduce you. You'll like him.'
'But, Cynthia, how do you know he would be willing to help us?'
'He would do it for me,' Cynthia paused. 'You see,' she went on, 'we are engaged to be married.'
'My dear Cynthia! Why did you not tell me? When did it happen?'
'Last night at the Fletchers' dance.'
Mrs Ford's eyes opened.
'Last night! Were you at a dance last night? And two railway journeys today! You must be tired to death.'
'Oh, I'm all right, thanks. I suppose I shall be a wreck and not fit to be seen tomorrow, but just at present I feel as if nothing could tire me. It's the effect of being engaged, perhaps.'
'Tell me about him.'
'Well, he's rich, and good-looking, and amiable'—Cynthia ticked off these qualities on her fingers—'and I think he's brave, and he's certainly not so stupid as Mr Broster.'
'And you're very much in love with him?'
'I like him. There's no harm in Peter.'
'You certainly aren't wildly enthusiastic!'
'Oh, we shall hit it off quite well together. I needn't pose to you, Nesta, thank goodness! That's one reason why I'm fond of you. You know how I am situated. I've got to marry some one rich, and Peter's quite the nicest rich man I've ever met. He's really wonderfully unselfish. I can't understand it. With his money, you would expect him to be a perfect horror.'
A thought seemed to strike Mrs Ford.
'But, if he's so rich—' she began. 'I forget what I was going to say,' she broke off.
'Dear Nesta, I know what you were going to say. If he's so rich, why should he be marrying me, when he could take his pick of half London? Well, I'll tell you. He's marrying me for one reason, because he's sorry for me: for another, because I had the sense to make him. He didn't think he was going to marry anyone. A few years ago he had a disappointment. A girl jilted him. She must have been a fool. He thought he was going to live the rest of his life alone with his broken heart. I didn't mean to allow that. It's taken a long time—over two years, from start to finish—but I've done it. He's a sentimentalist. I worked on his sympathy, and last night I made him propose to me at the Fletchers' dance.'
Mrs Ford had not listened to these confidences unmoved. Several times she had tried to interrupt, but had been brushed aside. Now she spoke sharply.
'You know I was not going to say anything of the kind. And I don't think you should speak in this horrible, cynical way of—of—'
She stopped, flushing. There were moments when she hated Cynthia. These occurred for the most part when the latter, as now, stirred her to an exhibition of honest feeling which she looked on as rather unbecoming. Mrs Ford had spent twenty years trying to forget that her husband had married her from behind the counter of a general store in an Illinois village, and these lapses into the uncultivated genuineness of her girlhood made her uncomfortable.
'I wasn't going to say anything of the kind,' she repeated.
Cynthia was all smiling good-humour.
'I know. I was only teasing you. "Stringing", they call it in your country, don't they?'
Mrs Ford was mollified.
'I'm sorry, Cynthia. I didn't mean to snap at you. All the same ...' She hesitated. What she wanted to ask smacked so dreadfully of Mechanicsville, Illinois. Yet she put the question bravely, for she was somehow feeling quite troubled about this unknown Mr Burns. 'Aren't you really fond of him at all, Cynthia?'
'Of course I am! He's a dear. Nothing would make me give him up. I'm devoted to old Peter. I only told you all that about him because it shows you how kind-hearted he is. He'll do anything for me. Well, shall I sound him about Ogden?'
The magic word took Mrs Ford's mind off the matrimonial future of Mr Burns, and brought him into prominence in his capacity of knight-errant. She laughed happily. The contemplation of Mr Burns as knight-errant healed the sting of defeat. The affair of Mr Mennick began to appear in the light of a mere skirmish.
'You take my breath away!' she said. 'How do you propose that Mr Burns shall help us?'
'It's perfectly simple. You heard Mr Mennick read that telegram. Ogden is to be sent to a private school. Peter shall go there too.'
'But how? I don't understand. We don't know which school Mr Mennick will choose.'
'We can very soon find out.'
'But how can Mr Burns go there?'
'Nothing easier. He will be a young man who has been left a little money and wants to start a school of his own. He goes to Ogden's man and suggests that he pay a small premium to come to him for a term as an extra-assistant-master, to learn the business. Mr Man will jump at him. He will be getting the bargain of his life. Peter didn't get much of a degree at Oxford, but I believe he was wonderful at games. From a private-school point of view he's a treasure.'
'But—would he do it?'
'I think I can persuade him.'
Mrs Ford kissed her with an enthusiasm which hitherto she had reserved for Ogden.
'My darling girl,' she cried, 'if you knew how happy you have made me!'
'I do,' said Cynthia definitely. 'And now you can do the same for me.'
'Anything, anything! You must have some more hats.'
'I don't want any more hats. I want to go with you on Lord Mountry's yacht to the Riviera.'
'Of course,' said Mrs Ford after a slight pause, 'it isn't my party, you know, dear.'
'No. But you can work me in, darling.'
'It's quite a small party. Very quiet.'
'Crowds bore me. I enjoy quiet.'
Mrs Ford capitulated.
'I fancy you are doing me a very good turn,' she said. 'You must certainly come on the yacht.'
'I'll tell Peter to come straight round here now,' said Cynthia simply. She went to the telephone.
In which other interested parties, notably one Buck MacGinnis and a trade rival, Smooth Sam Fisher, make other plans for the Nugget's future. Of stirring times at a private school for young gentlemen. Of stratagems, spoils, and alarms by night. Of journeys ending in lovers' meetings. The whole related by Mr Peter Burns, gentleman of leisure, who forfeits that leisure in a good cause.
Peter Burns's Narrative
I am strongly of the opinion that, after the age of twenty-one, a man ought not to be out of bed and awake at four in the morning. The hour breeds thought. At twenty-one, life being all future, it may be examined with impunity. But, at thirty, having become an uncomfortable mixture of future and past, it is a thing to be looked at only when the sun is high and the world full of warmth and optimism.
This thought came to me as I returned to my rooms after the Fletchers' ball. The dawn was breaking as I let myself in. The air was heavy with the peculiar desolation of a London winter morning. The houses looked dead and untenanted. A cart rumbled past, and across the grey street a dingy black cat, moving furtively along the pavement, gave an additional touch of forlornness to the scene.
I shivered. I was tired and hungry, and the reaction after the emotions of the night had left me dispirited.
I was engaged to be married. An hour back I had proposed to Cynthia Drassilis. And I can honestly say that it had come as a great surprise to me.
Why had I done it? Did I love her? It was so difficult to analyse love: and perhaps the mere fact that I was attempting the task was an answer to the question. Certainly I had never tried to do so five years ago when I had loved Audrey Blake. I had let myself be carried on from day to day in a sort of trance, content to be utterly happy, without dissecting my happiness. But I was five years younger then, and Audrey was—Audrey.
I must explain Audrey, for she in her turn explains Cynthia.
I have no illusions regarding my character when I first met Audrey Blake. Nature had given me the soul of a pig, and circumstances had conspired to carry on Nature's work. I loved comfort, and I could afford to have it. From the moment I came of age and relieved my trustees of the care of my money, I wrapped myself in comfort as in a garment. I wallowed in egoism. In fact, if, between my twenty-first and my twenty-fifth birthdays, I had one unselfish thought, or did one genuinely unselfish action, my memory is a blank on the point.
It was at the height of this period that I became engaged to Audrey. Now that I can understand her better and see myself, impartially, as I was in those days, I can realize how indescribably offensive I must have been. My love was real, but that did not prevent its patronizing complacency being an insult. I was King Cophetua. If I did not actually say in so many words, 'This beggar-maid shall be my queen', I said it plainly and often in my manner. She was the daughter of a dissolute, evil-tempered artist whom I had met at a Bohemian club. He made a living by painting an occasional picture, illustrating an occasional magazine-story, but mainly by doing advertisement work. A proprietor of a patent Infants' Food, not satisfied with the bare statement that Baby Cried For It, would feel it necessary to push the fact home to the public through the medium of Art, and Mr Blake would be commissioned to draw the picture. A good many specimens of his work in this vein were to be found in the back pages of the magazines.
A man may make a living by these means, but it is one that inclines him to jump at a wealthy son-in-law. Mr Blake jumped at me. It was one of his last acts on this earth. A week after he had—as I now suspect—bullied Audrey into accepting me, he died of pneumonia.
His death had several results. It postponed the wedding: it stirred me to a very crescendo of patronage, for with the removal of the bread-winner the only flaw in my Cophetua pose had vanished: and it gave Audrey a great deal more scope than she had hitherto been granted for the exercise of free will in the choice of a husband.
This last aspect of the matter was speedily brought to my notice, which till then it had escaped, by a letter from her, handed to me one night at the club, where I was sipping coffee and musing on the excellence of life in this best of all possible worlds.
It was brief and to the point. She had been married that morning.
To say that that moment was a turning point in my life would be to use a ridiculously inadequate phrase. It dynamited my life. In a sense it killed me. The man I had been died that night, regretted, I imagine, by few. Whatever I am today, I am certainly not the complacent spectator of life that I had been before that night.
I crushed the letter in my hand, and sat staring at it, my pigsty in ruins about my ears, face to face with the fact that, even in a best of all possible worlds, money will not buy everything.
I remember, as I sat there, a man, a club acquaintance, a bore from whom I had fled many a time, came and settled down beside me and began to talk. He was a small man, but he possessed a voice to which one had to listen. He talked and talked and talked. How I loathed him, as I sat trying to think through his stream of words. I see now that he saved me. He forced me out of myself. But at the time he oppressed me. I was raw and bleeding. I was struggling to grasp the incredible. I had taken Audrey's unalterable affection for granted. She was the natural complement to my scheme of comfort. I wanted her; I had chosen and was satisfied with her, therefore all was well. And now I had to adjust my mind to the impossible fact that I had lost her.
Her letter was a mirror in which I saw myself. She said little, but I understood, and my self-satisfaction was in ribbons—and something deeper than self-satisfaction. I saw now that I loved her as I had not dreamed myself capable of loving.
And all the while this man talked and talked.
I have a theory that speech, persevered in, is more efficacious in times of trouble than silent sympathy. Up to a certain point it maddens almost beyond endurance; but, that point past, it soothes. At least, it was so in my case. Gradually I found myself hating him less. Soon I began to listen, then to answer. Before I left the club that night, the first mad frenzy, in which I could have been capable of anything, had gone from me, and I walked home, feeling curiously weak and helpless, but calm, to begin the new life.
Three years passed before I met Cynthia. I spent those years wandering in many countries. At last, as one is apt to do, I drifted back to London, and settled down again to a life which, superficially, was much the same as the one I had led in the days before I knew Audrey. My old circle in London had been wide, and I found it easy to pick up dropped threads. I made new friends, among them Cynthia Drassilis.
I liked Cynthia, and I was sorry for her. I think that, about that time I met her, I was sorry for most people. The shock of Audrey's departure had had that effect upon me. It is always the bad nigger who gets religion most strongly at the camp-meeting, and in my case 'getting religion' had taken the form of suppression of self. I never have been able to do things by halves, or even with a decent moderation. As an egoist I had been thorough in my egoism; and now, fate having bludgeoned that vice out of me, I found myself possessed of an almost morbid sympathy with the troubles of other people.
I was extremely sorry for Cynthia Drassilis. Meeting her mother frequently, I could hardly fail to be. Mrs Drassilis was a representative of a type I disliked. She was a widow, who had been left with what she considered insufficient means, and her outlook on life was a compound of greed and querulousness. Sloane Square and South Kensington are full of women in her situation. Their position resembles that of the Ancient Mariner. 'Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.' For 'water' in their case substitute 'money'. Mrs Drassilis was connected with money on all sides, but could only obtain it in rare and minute quantities. Any one of a dozen relations-in-law could, if they had wished, have trebled her annual income without feeling it. But they did not so wish. They disapproved of Mrs Drassilis. In their opinion the Hon. Hugo Drassilis had married beneath him—not so far beneath him as to make the thing a horror to be avoided in conversation and thought, but far enough to render them coldly polite to his wife during his lifetime and almost icy to his widow after his death. Hugo's eldest brother, the Earl of Westbourne, had never liked the obviously beautiful, but equally obviously second-rate, daughter of a provincial solicitor whom Hugo had suddenly presented to the family one memorable summer as his bride. He considered that, by doubling the income derived from Hugo's life-insurance and inviting Cynthia to the family seat once a year during her childhood, he had done all that could be expected of him in the matter.
He had not. Mrs Drassilis expected a great deal more of him, the non-receipt of which had spoiled her temper, her looks, and the peace of mind of all who had anything much to do with her.
It used to irritate me when I overheard people, as I occasionally have done, speak of Cynthia as hard. I never found her so myself, though heaven knows she had enough to make her so, to me she was always a sympathetic, charming friend.
Ours was a friendship almost untouched by sex. Our minds fitted so smoothly into one another that I had no inclination to fall in love. I knew her too well. I had no discoveries to make about her. Her honest, simple soul had always been open to me to read. There was none of that curiosity, that sense of something beyond that makes for love. We had reached a point of comradeship beyond which neither of us desired to pass.
Yet at the Fletchers' ball I asked Cynthia to marry me, and she consented.
* * * * *
Looking back, I can see that, though the determining cause was Mr Tankerville Gifford, it was Audrey who was responsible. She had made me human, capable of sympathy, and it was sympathy, primarily, that led me to say what I said that night.
But the immediate cause was certainly young Mr Gifford.
I arrived at Marlow Square, where I was to pick up Cynthia and her mother, a little late, and found Mrs Drassilis, florid and overdressed, in the drawing-room with a sleek-haired, pale young man known to me as Tankerville Gifford—to his intimates, of whom I was not one, and in the personal paragraphs of the coloured sporting weeklies, as 'Tanky'. I had seen him frequently at restaurants. Once, at the Empire, somebody had introduced me to him; but, as he had not been sober at the moment, he had missed any intellectual pleasure my acquaintanceship might have afforded him. Like everybody else who moves about in London, I knew all about him. To sum him up, he was a most unspeakable little cad, and, if the drawing-room had not been Mrs Drassilis's, I should have wondered at finding him in it.
Mrs Drassilis introduced us.
'I think we have already met,' I said.
He stared glassily.
I was not surprised.
At this moment Cynthia came in. Out of the corner of my eye I observed a look of fuddled displeasure come into Tanky's face at her frank pleasure at seeing me.
I had never seen her looking better. She is a tall girl, who carries herself magnificently. The simplicity of her dress gained an added dignity from comparison with the rank glitter of her mother's. She wore unrelieved black, a colour which set off to wonderful advantage the clear white of her skin and her pale-gold hair.
'You're late, Peter,' she said, looking at the clock.
'I know. I'm sorry.'
'Better be pushing, what?' suggested Tanky.
'My cab's waiting.'
'Will you ring the bell, Mr Gifford?' said Mrs Drassilis. 'I will tell Parker to whistle for another.'
'Take me in yours,' I heard a voice whisper in my ear.
I looked at Cynthia. Her expression had not changed. Then I looked at Tanky Gifford, and I understood. I had seen that stuffed-fish look on his face before—on the occasion when I had been introduced to him at the Empire.
'If you and Mr Gifford will take my cab,' I said to Mrs Drassilis, 'we will follow.'
Mrs Drassilis blocked the motion. I imagine that the sharp note in her voice was lost on Tanky, but it rang out like a clarion to me.
'I am in no hurry,' she said. 'Mr Gifford, will you take Cynthia? I will follow with Mr Burns. You will meet Parker on the stairs. Tell him to call another cab.'
As the door closed behind them, she turned on me like a many-coloured snake.
'How can you be so extraordinarily tactless, Peter?' she cried. 'You're a perfect fool. Have you no eyes?'
'I'm sorry,' I said.
'He's devoted to her.'
'What do you mean?'
'Sorry for her.'
She seemed to draw herself together inside her dress. Her eyes glittered. My mouth felt very dry, and my heart was beginning to thump. We were both furiously angry. It was a moment that had been coming for years, and we both knew it. For my part I was glad that it had come. On subjects on which one feels deeply it is a relief to speak one's mind.
'Oh!' she said at last. Her voice quivered. She was clutching at her self-control as it slipped from her. 'Oh! And what is my daughter to you, Mr Burns!'
'A great friend.'
'And I suppose you think it friendly to try to spoil her chances?'
'If Mr Gifford is a sample of them—yes.'
'What do you mean?'
'I see. I understand. I am going to put a stop to this once and for all. Do you hear? I have noticed it for a long time. Because I have given you the run of the house, and allowed you to come in and out as you pleased, like a tame cat, you presume—'
'Presume—' I prompted.
'You come here and stand in Cynthia's way. You trade on the fact that you have known us all this time to monopolize her attention. You spoil her chances. You—'
The invaluable Parker entered to say that the cab was at the door.
We drove to the Fletchers' house in silence. The spell had been broken. Neither of us could recapture that first, fine, careless rapture which had carried us through the opening stages of the conflict, and discussion of the subject on a less exalted plane was impossible. It was that blessed period of calm, the rest between rounds, and we observed it to the full.
When I reached the ballroom a waltz was just finishing. Cynthia, a statue in black, was dancing with Tanky Gifford. They were opposite me when the music stopped, and she caught sight of me over his shoulder.
She disengaged herself and moved quickly towards me.
'Take me away,' she said under her breath. 'Anywhere. Quick.'
It was no time to consider the etiquette of the ballroom. Tanky, startled at his sudden loneliness, seemed by his expression to be endeavouring to bring his mind to bear on the matter. A couple making for the door cut us off from him, and following them, we passed out.
Neither of us spoke till we had reached the little room where I had meditated.
She sat down. She was looking pale and tired.
'Oh, dear!' she said.
I understood. I seemed to see that journey in the cab, those dances, those terrible between-dances ...
It was very sudden.
I took her hand. She turned to me with a tired smile. There were tears in her eyes ...
I heard myself speaking ...
She was looking at me, her eyes shining. All the weariness seemed to have gone out of them.
I looked at her.
There was something missing. I had felt it when I was speaking. To me my voice had had no ring of conviction. And then I saw what it was. There was no mystery. We knew each other too well. Friendship kills love.
She put my thought into words.
'We have always been brother and sister,' she said doubtfully.
'You have changed tonight? You really want me?'
Did I? I tried to put the question to myself and answer it honestly. Yes, in a sense, I had changed tonight. There was an added appreciation of her fineness, a quickening of that blend of admiration and pity which I had always felt for her. I wanted with all my heart to help her, to take her away from her dreadful surroundings, to make her happy. But did I want her in the sense in which she had used the word? Did I want her as I had wanted Audrey Blake? I winced away from the question. Audrey belonged to the dead past, but it hurt to think of her.
Was it merely because I was five years older now than when I had wanted Audrey that the fire had gone out of me?
I shut my mind against my doubts.
'I have changed tonight,' I said.
And I bent down and kissed her.
I was conscious of being defiant against somebody. And then I knew that the somebody was myself.
I poured myself out a cup of hot coffee from the flask which Smith, my man, had filled against my return. It put life into me. The oppression lifted.
And yet there remained something that made for uneasiness, a sort of foreboding at the back of my mind.
I had taken a step in the dark, and I was afraid for Cynthia. I had undertaken to give her happiness. Was I certain that I could succeed? The glow of chivalry had left me, and I began to doubt.
Audrey had taken from me something that I could not recover—poetry was as near as I could get to a definition of it. Yes, poetry. With Cynthia my feet would always be on the solid earth. To the end of the chapter we should be friends and nothing more.
I found myself pitying Cynthia intensely. I saw her future a series of years of intolerable dullness. She was too good to be tied for life to a battered hulk like myself.
I drank more coffee and my mood changed. Even in the grey of a winter morning a man of thirty, in excellent health, cannot pose to himself for long as a piece of human junk, especially if he comforts himself with hot coffee.
My mind resumed its balance. I laughed at myself as a sentimental fraud. Of course I could make her happy. No man and woman had ever been more admirably suited to each other. As for that first disaster, which I had been magnifying into a life-tragedy, what of it? An incident of my boyhood. A ridiculous episode which—I rose with the intention of doing so at once—I should now proceed to eliminate from my life.
I went quickly to my desk, unlocked it, and took out a photograph.
And then—undoubtedly four o'clock in the morning is no time for a man to try to be single-minded and decisive—I wavered. I had intended to tear the thing in pieces without a glance, and fling it into the wastepaper-basket. But I took the glance and I hesitated.
The girl in the photograph was small and slight, and she looked straight out of the picture with large eyes that met and challenged mine. How well I remembered them, those Irish-blue eyes under their expressive, rather heavy brows. How exactly the photographer had caught that half-wistful, half-impudent look, the chin tilted, the mouth curving into a smile.
In a wave all my doubts had surged back upon me. Was this mere sentimentalism, a four-in-the-morning tribute to the pathos of the flying years, or did she really fill my soul and stand guard over it so that no successor could enter in and usurp her place?
I had no answer, unless the fact that I replaced the photograph in its drawer was one. I felt that this thing could not be decided now. It was more difficult than I had thought.
All my gloom had returned by the time I was in bed. Hours seemed to pass while I tossed restlessly aching for sleep.
When I woke my last coherent thought was still clear in my mind. It was a passionate vow that, come what might, if those Irish eyes were to haunt me till my death, I would play the game loyally with Cynthia.
The telephone bell rang just as I was getting ready to call at Marlow Square and inform Mrs Drassilis of the position of affairs. Cynthia, I imagined, would have broken the news already, which would mitigate the embarrassment of the interview to some extent; but the recollection of my last night's encounter with Mrs Drassilis prevented me from looking forward with any joy to the prospect of meeting her again.
Cynthia's voice greeted me as I unhooked the receiver.
'Hullo, Peter! Is that you? I want you to come round here at once.'
'I was just starting,' I said.
'I don't mean Marlow Square. I'm not there. I'm at the Guelph. Ask for Mrs Ford's suite. It's very important. I'll tell you all about it when you get here. Come as soon as you can.'
My rooms were conveniently situated for visits to the Hotel Guelph. A walk of a couple of minutes took me there. Mrs Ford's suite was on the third floor. I rang the bell and Cynthia opened the door to me.
'Come in,' she said. 'You're a dear to be so quick.'
'My rooms are only just round the corner.' She shut the door, and for the first time we looked at one another. I could not say that I was nervous, but there was certainly, to me, a something strange in the atmosphere. Last night seemed a long way off and somehow a little unreal. I suppose I must have shown this in my manner, for she suddenly broke what had amounted to a distinct pause by giving a little laugh. 'Peter,' she said, 'you're embarrassed.' I denied the charge warmly, but without real conviction. I was embarrassed. 'Then you ought to be,' she said. 'Last night, when I was looking my very best in a lovely dress, you asked me to marry you. Now you see me again in cold blood, and you're wondering how you can back out of it without hurting my feelings.'
I smiled. She did not. I ceased to smile. She was looking at me in a very peculiar manner.
'Peter,' she said, 'are you sure?'
'My dear old Cynthia,' I said, 'what's the matter with you?'
'You are sure?' she persisted.
'Absolutely, entirely sure.' I had a vision of two large eyes looking at me out of a photograph. It came and went in a flash.
I kissed Cynthia.
'What quantities of hair you have,' I said. 'It's a shame to cover it up.' She was not responsive. 'You're in a very queer mood today, Cynthia,' I went on. 'What's the matter?'
'I've been thinking.'
'Out with it. Something has gone wrong.' An idea flashed upon me. 'Er—has your mother—is your mother very angry about—'
'Mother's delighted. She always liked you, Peter.'
I had the self-restraint to check a grin.
'Then what is it?' I said. 'Tired after the dance?'
'Nothing as simple as that.'
'It's so difficult to put it into words.'
She was playing with the papers on the table, her face turned away. For a moment she did not speak.
'I've been worrying myself, Peter,' she said at last. 'You are so chivalrous and unselfish. You're quixotic. It's that that is troubling me. Are you marrying me just because you're sorry for me? Don't speak. I can tell you now if you will just let me say straight out what's in my mind. We have known each other for two years now. You know all about me. You know how—how unhappy I am at home. Are you marrying me just because you pity me and want to take me out of all that?'
'My dear girl!'
'You haven't answered my question.'
'I answered it two minutes ago when you asked me if—'
'You do love me?'
All this time she had been keeping her face averted, but now she turned and looked into my eyes with an abrupt intensity which, I confess, startled me. Her words startled me more.
'Peter, do you love me as much as you loved Audrey Blake?'
In the instant which divided her words from my reply my mind flew hither and thither, trying to recall an occasion when I could have mentioned Audrey to her. I was convinced that I had not done so. I never mentioned Audrey to anyone.
There is a grain of superstition in the most level-headed man. I am not particularly level-headed, and I have more than a grain in me. I was shaken. Ever since I had asked Cynthia to marry me, it seemed as if the ghost of Audrey had come back into my life.
'Good Lord!' I cried. 'What do you know of Audrey Blake?'
She turned her face away again.
'Her name seems to affect you very strongly,' she said quietly.
I recovered myself.
'If you ask an old soldier,' I said, 'he will tell you that a wound, long after it has healed, is apt to give you an occasional twinge.'
'Not if it has really healed.'
'Yes, when it has really healed—when you can hardly remember how you were fool enough to get it.'
She said nothing.
'How did you hear about—it?' I asked.
'When I first met you, or soon after, a friend of yours—we happened to be talking about you—told me that you had been engaged to be married to a girl named Audrey Blake. He was to have been your best man, he said, but one day you wrote and told him there would be no wedding, and then you disappeared; and nobody saw you again for three years.'
'Yes,' I said: 'that is all quite true.'
'It seems to have been a serious affair, Peter. I mean—the sort of thing a man would find it hard to forget.'
I tried to smile, but I knew that I was not doing it well. It was hurting me extraordinarily, this discussion of Audrey.
'A man would find it almost impossible,' I said, 'unless he had a remarkably poor memory.'
'I didn't mean that. You know what I mean by forget.'
'Yes,' I said, 'I do.'
She came quickly to me and took me by the shoulders, looking into my face.
'Peter, can you honestly say you have forgotten her—in the sense I mean?'
'Yes,' I said.
Again that feeling swept over me—that curious sensation of being defiant against myself.
'She does not stand between us?'
'No,' I said.
I could feel the effort behind the word. It was as if some subconscious part of me were working to keep it back.
There was a soft smile on her face; as she raised it to mine I put my arms around her.
She drew away with a little laugh. Her whole manner had changed. She was a different being from the girl who had looked so gravely into my eyes a moment before.
'Oh, my dear boy, how terribly muscular you are! You've crushed me. I expect you used to be splendid at football, like Mr Broster.'
I did not reply at once. I cannot wrap up the deeper emotions and put them back on their shelf directly I have no further immediate use for them. I slowly adjusted myself to the new key of the conversation.
'Who's Broster?' I asked at length.
'He used to be tutor to'—she turned me round and pointed—'to that.'
I had seen a picture standing on one of the chairs when I entered the room but had taken no particular notice of it. I now gave it a closer glance. It was a portrait, very crudely done, of a singularly repulsive child of about ten or eleven years old.
Was he, poor chap! Well, we all have our troubles, don't we! Who is this young thug! Not a friend of yours, I hope?'
'That is Ogden, Mrs Ford's son. It's a tragedy—'
'Perhaps it doesn't do him justice. Does he really squint like that, or is it just the artist's imagination?'
'Don't make fun of it. It's the loss of that boy that is breaking Nesta's heart.'
I was shocked.
'Is he dead? I'm awfully sorry. I wouldn't for the world—'
'No, no. He is alive and well. But he is dead to her. The court gave him into the custody of his father.'
'Mrs Ford was the wife of Elmer Ford, the American millionaire. They were divorced a year ago.'
Cynthia was gazing at the portrait.
'This boy is quite a celebrity in his way,' she said. 'They call him "The Little Nugget" in America.'
'Oh! Why is that?'
'It's a nickname the kidnappers have for him. Ever so many attempts have been made to steal him.'
She stopped and looked at me oddly.
'I made one today, Peter,' she said. I went down to the country, where the boy was, and kidnapped him.'
'Cynthia! What on earth do you mean?'
'Don't you understand? I did it for Nesta's sake. She was breaking her heart about not being able to see him, so I slipped down and stole him away, and brought him back here.'
I do not know if I was looking as amazed as I felt. I hope not, for I felt as if my brain were giving way. The perfect calmness with which she spoke of this extraordinary freak added to my confusion.
'No; I stole him.'
'But, good heavens! The law! It's a penal offence, you know!'
'Well, I did it. Men like Elmer Ford aren't fit to have charge of a child. You don't know him, but he's just an unscrupulous financier, without a thought above money. To think of a boy growing up in that tainted atmosphere—at his most impressionable age. It means death to any good there is in him.'
My mind was still grappling feebly with the legal aspect of the affair.
'But, Cynthia, kidnapping's kidnapping, you know! The law doesn't take any notice of motives. If you're caught—'
She cut through my babble.
'Would you have been afraid to do it, Peter?'
'Well—' I began. I had not considered the point before.
'I don't believe you would. If I asked you to do it for my sake—'
'But, Cynthia, kidnapping, you know! It's such an infernally low-down game.'
'I played it. Do you despise me?'
I perspired. I could think of no other reply.
'Peter,' she said, 'I understand your scruples. I know exactly how you feel. But can't you see that this is quite different from the sort of kidnapping you naturally look on as horrible? It's just taking a boy away from surroundings that must harm him, back to his mother, who worships him. It's not wrong. It's splendid.'
'You will do it for me, Peter?' she said.
'I don't understand,' I said feebly. 'It's done. You've kidnapped him yourself.'
'They tracked him and took him back. And now I want you to try.' She came closer to me. 'Peter, don't you see what it will mean to me if you agree to try? I'm only human, I can't help, at the bottom of my heart, still being a little jealous of this Audrey Blake. No, don't say anything. Words can't cure me; but if you do this thing for me, I shall be satisfied. I shall know.'
She was close beside me, holding my arm and looking into my face. That sense of the unreality of things which had haunted me since that moment at the dance came over me with renewed intensity. Life had ceased to be a rather grey, orderly business in which day succeeded day calmly and without event. Its steady stream had broken up into rapids, and I was being whirled away on them.
'Will you do it, Peter? Say you will.'
A voice, presumably mine, answered 'Yes'.
'My dear old boy!'
She pushed me into a chair, and, sitting on the arm of it, laid her hand on mine and became of a sudden wondrously business-like.
'Listen,' she said, 'I'll tell you what we have arranged.'
It was borne in upon me, as she began to do so, that she appeared from the very beginning to have been extremely confident that that essential part of her plans, my consent to the scheme, could be relied upon as something of a certainty. Women have these intuitions.
Looking back, I think I can fix the point at which this insane venture I had undertaken ceased to be a distorted dream, from which I vaguely hoped that I might shortly waken, and took shape as a reality of the immediate future. That moment came when I met Mr Arnold Abney by appointment at his club.
Till then the whole enterprise had been visionary. I gathered from Cynthia that the boy Ogden was shortly to be sent to a preparatory school, and that I was to insinuate myself into this school and, watching my opportunity, to remove him; but it seemed to me that the obstacles to this comparatively lucid scheme were insuperable. In the first place, how were we to discover which of England's million preparatory schools Mr Ford, or Mr Mennick for him, would choose? Secondly, the plot which was to carry me triumphantly into this school when—or if—found, struck me as extremely thin. I was to pose, Cynthia told me, as a young man of private means, anxious to learn the business, with a view to setting up a school of his own. The objection to that was, I held, that I obviously did not want to do anything of the sort. I had not the appearance of a man with such an ambition. I had none of the conversation of such a man.
I put it to Cynthia.
'They would find me out in a day,' I assured her. 'A man who wants to set up a school has got to be a pretty brainy sort of fellow. I don't know anything.'
'You got your degree.'
'A degree. At any rate, I've forgotten all I knew.'
'That doesn't matter. You have the money. Anybody with money can start a school, even if he doesn't know a thing. Nobody would think it strange.'
It struck me as a monstrous slur on our educational system, but reflection told me it was true. The proprietor of a preparatory school, if he is a man of wealth, need not be able to teach, any more than an impresario need be able to write plays.
'Well, we'll pass that for the moment,' I said. 'Here's the real difficulty. How are you going to find out the school Mr Ford has chosen?'
'I have found it out already—or Nesta has. She set a detective to work. It was perfectly easy. Ogden's going to Mr Abney's. Sanstead House is the name of the place. It's in Hampshire somewhere. Quite a small school, but full of little dukes and earls and things. Lord Mountry's younger brother, Augustus Beckford, is there.'
I had known Lord Mountry and his family well some years ago. I remembered Augustus dimly.
'Mountry? Do you know him? He was up at Oxford with me.'
She seemed interested.
'What kind of a man is he?' she asked.
'Oh, quite a good sort. Rather an ass. I haven't seen him for years.'
'He's a friend of Nesta's. I've only met him once. He is going to be your reference.'
'You will need a reference. At least, I suppose you will. And, anyhow, if you say you know Lord Mountry it will make it simpler for you with Mr Abney, the brother being at the school.'
'Does Mountry know about this business? Have you told him why I want to go to Abney's?'
'Nesta told him. He thought it was very sporting of you. He will tell Mr Abney anything we like. By the way, Peter, you will have to pay a premium or something, I suppose. But Nesta will look after all expenses, of course.'
On this point I made my only stand of the afternoon.
'No,' I said; 'it's very kind of her, but this is going to be entirely an amateur performance. I'm doing this for you, and I'll stand the racket. Good heavens! Fancy taking money for a job of this kind!'
She looked at me rather oddly.
'That is very sweet of you, Peter,' she said, after a slight pause. 'Now let's get to work.'
And together we composed the letter which led to my sitting, two days later, in stately conference at his club with Mr Arnold Abney, M.A., of Sanstead House, Hampshire.
Mr Abney proved to be a long, suave, benevolent man with an Oxford manner, a high forehead, thin white hands, a cooing intonation, and a general air of hushed importance, as of one in constant communication with the Great. There was in his bearing something of the family solicitor in whom dukes confide, and something of the private chaplain at the Castle.
He gave me the key-note to his character in the first minute of our acquaintanceship. We had seated ourselves at a table in the smoking-room when an elderly gentleman shuffled past, giving a nod in transit. My companion sprang to his feet almost convulsively, returned the salutation, and subsided slowly into his chair again.
'The Duke of Devizes,' he said in an undertone. 'A most able man. Most able. His nephew, Lord Ronald Stokeshaye, was one of my pupils. A charming boy.'
I gathered that the old feudal spirit still glowed to some extent in Mr Abney's bosom.
We came to business.
'So you wish to be one of us, Mr Burns, to enter the scholastic profession?'
I tried to look as if I did.
'Well, in certain circumstances, the circumstances in which I—ah—myself, I may say, am situated, there is no more delightful occupation. The work is interesting. There is the constant fascination of seeing these fresh young lives develop—and of helping them to develop—under one's eyes; in any case, I may say, there is the exceptional interest of being in a position to mould the growing minds of lads who will some day take their place among the country's hereditary legislators, that little knot of devoted men who, despite the vulgar attacks of loudmouthed demagogues, still do their share, and more, in the guidance of England's fortunes. Yes.'
He paused. I said I thought so, too.
'You are an Oxford man, Mr Burns, I think you told me? Ah, I have your letter here. Just so. You were at—ah, yes. A fine college. The Dean is a lifelong friend of mine. Perhaps you knew my late pupil, Lord Rollo?—no, he would have been since your time. A delightful boy. Quite delightful ... And you took your degree? Exactly. And represented the university at both cricket and Rugby football? Excellent. Mens sana in—ah—corpore, in fact, sano, yes!'
He folded the letter carefully and replaced it in his pocket.
'Your primary object in coming to me, Mr Burns, is, I gather, to learn the—ah—the ropes, the business? You have had little or no previous experience of school-mastering?'
'Then your best plan would undoubtedly be to consider yourself and work for a time simply as an ordinary assistant-master. You would thus get a sound knowledge of the intricacies of the profession which would stand you in good stead when you decide to set up your own school. School-mastering is a profession, which cannot be taught adequately except in practice. "Only those who—ah—brave its dangers comprehend its mystery." Yes, I would certainly recommend you to begin at the foot of the ladder and go, at least for a time, through the mill.'
'Certainly,' I said. 'Of course.'
My ready acquiescence pleased him. I could see that he was relieved. I think he had expected me to jib at the prospect of actual work.
'As it happens,' he said, 'my classical master left me at the end of last term. I was about to go to the Agency for a successor when your letter arrived. Would you consider—'
I had to think this over. Feeling kindly disposed towards Mr Arnold Abney, I wished to do him as little harm as possible. I was going to rob him of a boy, who, while no moulding of his growing mind could make him into a hereditary legislator, did undoubtedly represent a portion of Mr Abney's annual income; and I did not want to increase my offence by being a useless assistant-master. Then I reflected that, if I was no Jowett, at least I knew enough Latin and Greek to teach the rudiments of those languages to small boys. My conscience was satisfied.
'I should be delighted,' I said.
'Excellent. Then let us consider that as—ah—settled,' said Mr Abney.
There was a pause. My companion began to fiddle a little uncomfortably with an ash-tray. I wondered what was the matter, and then it came to me. We were about to become sordid. The discussion of terms was upon us.
And as I realized this, I saw simultaneously how I could throw one more sop to my exigent conscience. After all, the whole thing was really a question of hard cash. By kidnapping Ogden I should be taking money from Mr Abney. By paying my premium I should be giving it back to him.
I considered the circumstances. Ogden was now about thirteen years old. The preparatory-school age limit may be estimated roughly at fourteen. That is to say, in any event Sanstead House could only harbour him for one year. Mr Abney's fees I had to guess at. To be on the safe side, I fixed my premium at an outside figure, and, getting to the point at once, I named it.
It was entirely satisfactory. My mental arithmetic had done me credit. Mr Abney beamed upon me. Over tea and muffins we became very friendly. In half an hour I heard more of the theory of school-mastering than I had dreamed existed.
We said good-bye at the club front door. He smiled down at me benevolently from the top of the steps.
'Good-bye, Mr Burns, good-bye,' he said. 'We shall meet at—ah—Philippi.'
When I reached my rooms, I rang for Smith.
'Smith,' I said, 'I want you to get some books for me first thing tomorrow. You had better take a note of them.'
He moistened his pencil.
'A Latin Grammar.'
'A Greek Grammar.'
'Brodley Arnold's Easy Prose Sentences.'
'And Caesar's Gallic Wars.'
'What name, sir?'
'Thank you, sir. Anything else, sir?'
'No, that will be all.'
'Very good, sir.'
He shimmered from the room.
Thank goodness, Smith always has thought me mad, and is consequently never surprised at anything I ask him to do.
Sanstead House was an imposing building in the Georgian style. It stood, foursquare, in the midst of about nine acres of land. For the greater part of its existence, I learned later, it had been the private home of a family of the name of Boone, and in its early days the estate had been considerable. But the progress of the years had brought changes to the Boones. Money losses had necessitated the sale of land. New roads had come into being, cutting off portions of the estate from their centre. New facilities for travel had drawn members of the family away from home. The old fixed life of the country had changed, and in the end the latest Boone had come to the conclusion that to keep up so large and expensive a house was not worth his while.
That the place should have become a school was the natural process of evolution. It was too large for the ordinary purchaser, and the estate had been so whittled down in the course of time that it was inadequate for the wealthy. Colonel Boone had been glad to let it to Mr Abney, and the school had started its career.
It had all the necessary qualifications for a school. It was isolated. The village was two miles from its gates. It was near the sea. There were fields for cricket and football, and inside the house a number of rooms of every size, suitable for classrooms and dormitories.
The household, when I arrived, consisted, besides Mr Abney, myself, another master named Glossop, and the matron, of twenty-four boys, the butler, the cook, the odd-job-man, two housemaids, a scullery-maid, and a parlour-maid. It was a little colony, cut off from the outer world.
With the exception of Mr Abney and Glossop, a dismal man of nerves and mannerisms, the only person with whom I exchanged speech on my first evening was White, the butler. There are some men one likes at sight. White was one of them. Even for a butler he was a man of remarkably smooth manners, but he lacked that quality of austere aloofness which I have noticed in other butlers.
He helped me unpack my box, and we chatted during the process. He was a man of medium height, square and muscular, with something, some quality of springiness, as it were, that seemed unusual in a butler. From one or two things he said, I gathered that he had travelled a good deal. Altogether he interested me. He had humour, and the half-hour which I had spent with Glossop made me set a premium on humour. I found that he, like myself, was a new-comer. His predecessor had left at short notice during the holidays, and he had secured the vacancy at about the same time that I was securing mine. We agreed that it was a pretty place. White, I gathered, regarded its isolation as a merit. He was not fond of village society.
On the following morning, at eight o'clock, my work began.
My first day had the effect of entirely revolutionizing what ideas I possessed of the lot of the private-school assistant-master.
My view, till then, had been that the assistant-master had an easy time. I had only studied him from the outside. My opinion was based on observations made as a boy at my own private school, when masters were an enviable race who went to bed when they liked, had no preparation to do, and couldn't be caned. It seemed to me then that those three facts, especially the last, formed a pretty good basis on which to build up the Perfect Life.
I had not been at Sanstead House two days before doubts began to creep in on this point. What the boy, observing the assistant-master standing about in apparently magnificent idleness, does not realize is that the unfortunate is really putting in a spell of exceedingly hard work. He is 'taking duty'. And 'taking duty' is a thing to be remembered, especially by a man who, like myself, has lived a life of fatted ease, protected from all the minor annoyances of life by a substantial income.
Sanstead House educated me. It startled me. It showed me a hundred ways in which I had allowed myself to become soft and inefficient, without being aware of it. There may be other professions which call for a fiercer display of energy, but for the man with a private income who has loitered through life at his own pace, a little school-mastering is brisk enough to be a wonderful tonic.
I needed it, and I got it.
It was almost as if Mr Abney had realized intuitively how excellent the discipline of work was for my soul, for the kindly man allowed me to do not only my own, but most of his as well. I have talked with assistant-masters since, and I have gathered from them that headmasters of private schools are divided into two classes: the workers and the runners-up-to-London. Mr Abney belonged to the latter class. Indeed, I doubt if a finer representative of the class could have been found in the length and breadth of southern England. London drew him like a magnet.
After breakfast he would take me aside. The formula was always the same.
Myself (apprehensively, scenting disaster, 'like some wild creature caught within a trap, who sees the trapper coming through the wood'). 'Yes? Er—yes?'
'I am afraid I shall be obliged to run up to London today. I have received an important letter from—' And then he would name some parent or some prospective parent. (By 'prospective' I mean one who was thinking of sending his son to Sanstead House. You may have twenty children, but unless you send them to his school, a schoolmaster will refuse to dignify you with the name of parent.)
Then, 'He wishes—ah—to see me,' or, in the case of titled parents, 'He wishes—ah—to talk things over with me.' The distinction is subtle, but he always made it.
And presently the cab would roll away down the long drive, and my work would begin, and with it that soul-discipline to which I have alluded.
'Taking duty' makes certain definite calls upon a man. He has to answer questions; break up fights; stop big boys bullying small boys; prevent small boys bullying smaller boys; check stone-throwing, going-on-the-wet-grass, worrying-the-cook, teasing-the-dog, making-too-much-noise, and, in particular, discourage all forms of hara-kiri such as tree-climbing, water-spout-scaling, leaning-too-far-out-of-the-window, sliding-down-the-banisters, pencil-swallowing, and ink-drinking-because-somebody-dared-me-to.
At intervals throughout the day there are further feats to perform. Carving the joint, helping the pudding, playing football, reading prayers, teaching, herding stragglers in for meals, and going round the dormitories to see that the lights are out, are a few of them.
I wanted to oblige Cynthia, if I could, but there were moments during the first day or so when I wondered how on earth I was going to snatch the necessary time to combine kidnapping with my other duties. Of all the learned professions it seemed to me that that of the kidnapper most urgently demanded certain intervals for leisured thought, in which schemes and plots might be matured.
Schools vary. Sanstead House belonged to the more difficult class. Mr Abney's constant flittings did much to add to the burdens of his assistants, and his peculiar reverence for the aristocracy did even more. His endeavour to make Sanstead House a place where the delicately nurtured scions of the governing class might feel as little as possible the temporary loss of titled mothers led him into a benevolent tolerance which would have unsettled angels.
Success or failure for an assistant-master is, I consider, very much a matter of luck. My colleague, Glossop, had most of the qualities that make for success, but no luck. Properly backed up by Mr Abney, he might have kept order. As it was, his class-room was a bear-garden, and, when he took duty, chaos reigned.
I, on the other hand, had luck. For some reason the boys agreed to accept me. Quite early in my sojourn I enjoyed that sweetest triumph of the assistant-master's life, the spectacle of one boy smacking another boy's head because the latter persisted in making a noise after I had told him to stop. I doubt if a man can experience so keenly in any other way that thrill which comes from the knowledge that the populace is his friend. Political orators must have the same sort of feeling when their audience clamours for the ejection of a heckler, but it cannot be so keen. One is so helpless with boys, unless they decide that they like one.
It was a week from the beginning of the term before I made the acquaintance of the Little Nugget.
I had kept my eyes open for him from the beginning, and when I discovered that he was not at school, I had felt alarmed. Had Cynthia sent me down here, to work as I had never worked before, on a wild-goose chase?
Then, one morning, Mr Abney drew me aside after breakfast.
It was the first time that I had heard those soon-to-be-familiar words.
'I fear I shall be compelled to run up to London today. I have an important appointment with the father of a boy who is coming to the school. He wishes—ah—to see me.'
This might be the Little Nugget at last.
I was right. During the interval before school, Augustus Beckford approached me. Lord Mountry's brother was a stolid boy with freckles. He had two claims to popular fame. He could hold his breath longer than any other boy in the school, and he always got hold of any piece of gossip first.
'There's a new kid coming tonight, sir,' he said—'an American kid. I heard him talking about it to the matron. The kid's name's Ford, I believe the kid's father's awfully rich. Would you like to be rich, sir? I wish I was rich. If I was rich, I'd buy all sorts of things. I believe I'm going to be rich when I grow up. I heard father talking to a lawyer about it. There's a new parlour-maid coming soon, sir. I heard cook telling Emily. I'm blowed if I'd like to be a parlour-maid, would you, sir? I'd much rather be a cook.'
He pondered the point for a moment. When he spoke again, it was to touch on a still more profound problem.
'If you wanted a halfpenny to make up twopence to buy a lizard, what would you do, sir?'
He got it.
Ogden Ford, the El Dorado of the kidnapping industry, entered Sanstead House at a quarter past nine that evening. He was preceded by a Worried Look, Mr Arnold Abney, a cabman bearing a large box, and the odd-job man carrying two suitcases. I have given precedence to the Worried Look because it was a thing by itself. To say that Mr Abney wore it would be to create a wrong impression. Mr Abney simply followed in its wake. He was concealed behind it much as Macbeth's army was concealed behind the woods of Dunsinane.
I only caught a glimpse of Ogden as Mr Abney showed him into his study. He seemed a self-possessed boy, very like but, if anything, uglier than the portrait of him which I had seen at the Hotel Guelph.
A moment later the door opened, and my employer came out. He appeared relieved at seeing me.
'Ah, Mr Burns, I was about to go in search of you. Can you spare me a moment? Let us go into the dining-room.'
'That is a boy called Ford, Mr Burns,' he said, when he had closed the door. 'A rather—er—remarkable boy. He is an American, the son of a Mr Elmer Ford. As he will be to a great extent in your charge, I should like to prepare you for his—ah—peculiarities.'
'Is he peculiar?'
A faint spasm disturbed Mr Abney's face. He applied a silk handkerchief to his forehead before he replied.
'In many ways, judged by the standard of the lads who have passed through my hands—boys, of course, who, it is only fair to add, have enjoyed the advantages of a singularly refined home-life—he may be said to be—ah—somewhat peculiar. While I have no doubt that au fond ... au fond he is a charming boy, quite charming, at present he is—shall I say?—peculiar. I am disposed to imagine that he has been, from childhood up, systematically indulged. There has been in his life, I suspect, little or no discipline. The result has been to make him curiously unboylike. There is a complete absence of that diffidence, that childish capacity for surprise, which I for one find so charming in our English boys. Little Ford appears to be completely blase'. He has tastes and ideas which are precocious, and—unusual in a boy of his age.... He expresses himself in a curious manner sometimes.... He seems to have little or no reverence for—ah—constituted authority.'
He paused while he passed his handkerchief once more over his forehead.
'Mr Ford, the boy's father, who struck me as a man of great ability, a typical American merchant prince, was singularly frank with me about his domestic affairs as they concerned his son. I cannot recall his exact words, but the gist of what he said was that, until now, Mrs Ford had had sole charge of the boy's upbringing, and—Mr Ford was singularly outspoken—was too indulgent, in fact—ah—spoilt him. Indeed—you will, of course, respect my confidence—that was the real reason for the divorce which—ah—has unhappily come about. Mr Ford regards this school as in a measure—shall I say?—an antidote. He wishes there to be no lack of wholesome discipline. So that I shall expect you, Mr Burns, to check firmly, though, of course, kindly, such habits of his as—ah—cigarette-smoking. On our journey down he smoked incessantly. I found it impossible—without physical violence—to induce him to stop. But, of course, now that he is actually at the school, and subject to the discipline of the school ...'