THE LUNATIC AT LARGE
BY J. STORER CLOUSTON
BRENTANO'S NEW YORK 1915
INTRODUCTORY. PART I. CHAPTER I. CHAPTER II. CHAPTER III. CHAPTER IV. CHAPTER V. CHAPTER VI. CHAPTER VII. PART II. CHAPTER I. CHAPTER II. CHAPTER III. CHAPTER IV. CHAPTER V. CHAPTER VI. CHAPTER VII. CHAPTER VIII. CHAPTER IX. PART III. CHAPTER I. CHAPTER II. CHAPTER III. CHAPTER IV. CHAPTER V. CHAPTER VI. CHAPTER VII. PART IV. CHAPTER I. CHAPTER II. CHAPTER III. CHAPTER IV. CHAPTER V. ERRATA.
THE LUNATIC AT LARGE.
Into the history of Mr Francis Beveridge, as supplied by the obliging candour of the Baron von Blitzenberg and the notes of Dr Escott, Dr Twiddel and his friend Robert Welsh make a kind of explanatory entry. They most effectually set the ball a-rolling, and so the story starts in a small room looking out on a very uninteresting London street.
It was about three o'clock on a November afternoon, that season of fogs and rains and mud, when towns-people long for fresh air and hillsides, and country-folk think wistfully of the warmth and lights of a city, when nobody is satisfied, and everybody has a cold. Outside the window of the room there were a few feet of earth adorned with a low bush or two, a line of railings, a stone-paved street, and on the other side a long row of uniform yellow brick houses. The apartment itself was a modest chamber, containing a minimum of rented furniture and a flickering gas-stove. By a small caseful of medical treatises and a conspicuous stethoscope, the least experienced could see that it was labelled consulting-room.
Dr Twiddel was enjoying one of those moments of repose that occur even in the youngest practitioner's existence. For the purposes of this narrative he may briefly be described as an amiable-looking young man, with a little bit of fair moustache and still less chin, no practice to speak of, and a considerable quantity of unpaid bills. A man of such features and in such circumstances invites temptation. At the present moment, though his waistcoat was unbuttoned and his feet rested on the mantelpiece, his mind seemed not quite at ease. He looked back upon a number of fortunate events that had not occurred, and forward to various unpleasant things that might occur, and then he took a letter from his pocket and read it abstractedly.
"I can't afford to refuse," he reflected, lugubriously; "and yet, hang it! I must say I don't fancy the job."
When metal is molten it can be poured into any vessel; and at that moment a certain deep receptacle stood on the very doorstep.
The doctor heard the bell, sat up briskly, stuffed the letter back into his pocket, and buttoned his waistcoat.
"A patient at last!" and instantly there arose a vision of a simple operation, a fabulous fee, and twelve sickly millionaires an hour ever after. The door opened, and a loud voice hailed him familiarly.
"Only Welsh," he sighed, and the vision went the way of all the others.
The gentleman who swaggered in and clapped the doctor on the back, who next threw himself into the easiest chair and his hat and coat over the table, was in fact Mr Robert Welsh. From the moment he entered he pervaded the room; the stethoscope seemed to grow less conspicuous, Dr Twiddel's chin more diminutive, the apartment itself a mere background to this guest. Why? It would be hard to say precisely. He was a black-moustached, full-faced man, with an air of the most consummate assurance, and a person by some deemed handsome. Yet somehow or other he inevitably recalled the uncles of history. Perhaps this assurance alone gave him his atmosphere. You could have felt his egotism in the dark.
He talked in a loud voice and with a great air of mastery over all the contingencies of a life about town. You felt that here sat one who had seen the world and gave things their proper proportions, who had learned how meretricious was orthodoxy, and which bars could really be recommended. He chaffed, patronised, and cheered the doctor. Patients had been scarce, had they? Well, after all, there were many consolations. Did Twiddle say he was hard up? Welsh himself in an even more evil case. He narrated various unfortunate transactions connected with the turf and other pursuits, with regret, no doubt, and yet with a fine rakish defiance of destiny. Twiddel's face cleared, and he began to show something of the same gallant spirit. He brought out a tall bottle with a Celtic superscription; Welsh half filled his glass, poured in some water from a dusty decanter, and proposed the toast of "Luck to the two most deserving sinners in London!"
The doctor was fired, he drew the same letter from his pocket, and cried, "By Jove, Welsh, I'd almost forgotten to tell you of a lucky offer that came this morning."
This was not strictly true, for as a matter of fact the doctor had only hesitated to tell of this offer lest he should be shamed to a decision. But Welsh was infectious.
"Congratulations, old man!" said his friend. "What's it all about?"
"Here's a letter from an old friend of my people's—Dr Watson, by name. He has a very good country practice, and he offers me this job."
He handed the letter to Welsh, and then added, with a flutter of caution, "I haven't made up my mind yet. There are drawbacks, as you'll see."
Welsh opened the letter and read:—
"DEAR TWIDDEL,—I am happy to tell you that I am at last able to put something in your way. A gentleman in this neighbourhood, one of my most esteemed patients, has lately suffered from a severe mental and physical shock, followed by brain fever, and is still, I regret to say, in an extremely unstable mental condition. I have strongly recommended quiet and change of scene, and at my suggestion he is to be sent abroad under the care of a medical attendant. I have now much pleasure in offering you the post, if you would care to accept it. You will find your patient, Mr Mandell-Essington, an extremely agreeable young man when in possession of his proper faculties. He has large means and no near relatives; he comes of one of the best families in the county; and though he has, I surmise, sown his wild oats pretty freely, he was considered of unusual promise previous to this unfortunate illness. He is of an amiable and pleasant disposition, though at present, we fear, inclined to suicidal tendencies. I have no particular reason to think he is at all homicidal; still, you will see that he naturally requires most careful watching. It is possible that you may hesitate to leave your practice (which I trust prospers); but as the responsibility is considerable, the fee will be proportionately generous—L500, and all expenses paid."
("Five hundred quid!" exclaimed Welsh.)
"I would suggest a trip on the Continent. The duration and the places to be visited will be entirely at your discretion. It is of course hardly necessary to say that you will seek quiet localities. Trusting to hear from you at your very earliest convenience, believe me, yours sincerely,
Welsh looked at his friend with the respect that prosperity naturally excites. He smiled on him as an equal, and cried, heartily, "Congratulations again! When do you start?"
Twiddel fidgeted uncomfortably, "I—er—well, you see—ah—I haven't quite made up my mind yet."
"What's the matter?"
"Hang it, Welsh—er—the fact is I don't altogether like the job."
Scruples of any kind always surprised Welsh.
"Can't afford to leave the practice?" he asked with a laugh.
"That's—ah—partly the reason," replied Twiddel, uncomfortably.
"Rot, old man! There's a girl in the case. Out with it!"
"No, it isn't that. You see it's the very devil of a responsibility."
At this confession of weakness he looked guiltily at his heroic friend. From the bottom of his heart he wished he had screwed up his courage in private. Welsh had so little imagination.
"By Gad," exclaimed Welsh, "I'd manage a nunnery for L500!"
"I daresay you would, but a suicidal, and possibly homicidal, lunatic isn't a nunnery."
Welsh looked at his friend with diminished respect.
"Then you are going to chuck up L500 and a free trip on the Continent?" he said.
"Dr Watson himself admits the responsibility."
"With a—what is it?—agreeable young man?"
"Only when in possession of his proper faculties," said the doctor, dismally.
"And an amiable disposition?"
"With suicidal tendencies, hang it!"
"I should have thought," said Welsh, with a laugh, "that they would only matter to himself."
"But he is homicidal too—or at least it's doubtful. I want to know a little more about that, thank you!"
"What is the man's name?"
"Sounds aristocratic. He might come in useful afterwards, when he's cured."
Welsh spoke with an air of reflection, which might have been entirely disinterested.
"He'd probably commit suicide first," said Twiddel, "and of course I'd get all the blame."
"Or homicide," replied Welsh, "When he would."
"No, he wouldn't—that's the worst of it; I'd be blamed for having my own throat cut."
"Twiddel," said his friend, deliberately, "it seems to me you're a fool."
"I'm at least alive," cried Twiddel, warming with sympathy for himself, "which I probably wouldn't be for long in Mr Essington's company."
"I don't blame your nerves, dear boy," said Welsh, with a smile that showed all his teeth, "only your head. Here are L500 going a-begging. There must be some way——" He paused, deep in reflection. "How would it do," he remarked in a minute, "if I were to go in your place?"
Twiddel laughed and shook his head.
"Couldn't be managed?"
"Couldn't possibly, I'm afraid."
"No," said Welsh. "I foresee difficulties."
He fished a pipe out of his pocket, filled and lit it, and leaned back in his chair gazing at the ceiling.
"Twiddel, my boy," he said at length, "will you give me a percentage of the fee if I think of a safe dodge for getting the money and preserving your throat?"
"Rather!" he said.
"I am perfectly serious," replied Welsh, keenly. "I'm certain the thing is quite possible."
He half closed his eyes and ruminated in silence. The doctor watched him—fascinated, afraid. Somehow or other he felt that he was already a kind of Guy Fawkes. There was something so unlawful in Welsh's expression.
They sat there without speaking for about ten minutes, and then all of a sudden Welsh sprang up with a shout of laughter, slapping first his own leg and then the doctor's back.
"By Gad, I've got it!" he cried. "I have it!"
And he had; hence this tale.
In a certain fertile and well-wooded county of England there stands a high stone wall. On a sunny day the eye of the traveller passing through this province is gratified by the sparkle of myriads of broken bottles arranged closely and continuously along its coping-stone. Above these shining facets the boughs of tall trees swing in the wind and throw their shadows across the highway. The wall at last leaves the road and follows the park round its entire extent. Its height never varies; the broken bottles glitter perpetually; and only through two entrances, and that when the gates are open, can one gain a single glimpse inside: for the gates are solid, with no chinks for the curious.
The country all round is undulating, and here and there from the crest of an eminence you can see a great space of well-timbered park land within this wall; and in winter, when the leaves are off the trees, you may spy an imposing red-brick mansion in the midst.
Any native will inform you, with a mixture of infectious awe and becoming pride, that this is no less than the far-famed private asylum of Clankwood.
This ideal institution bore the enviable reputation of containing the best-bred lunatics in England. It was credibly reported that however well marked their symptoms and however well developed their delusions, none but ladies and gentlemen of the most unblemished descent were permitted to enjoy its seclusion. The dances there were universally considered the most agreeable functions in the county. The conversation of many of the inmates was of the widest range and the most refreshing originality, and the demeanour of all, even when most free from the conventional trammels of outside society, bore evidence of an expensive, and in some cases of a Christian, upbringing. This is scarcely to be wondered at, when beneath one roof were assembled the heirs-presumptive to three dukedoms, two suicidal marquises, an odd archbishop or so, and the flower of the baronetage and clergy. As this list only includes a few of the celebrities able or willing to be introduced to distinguished visitors, and makes no mention of the uncorroborated dignities (such as the classical divinities and Old Testament duplicates), the anxiety shown by some people to certify their relations can easily be understood.
Dr Congleton, the proprietor and physician of Clankwood, was a gentleman singularly well fitted to act as host on the occasion of asylum reunions. No one could exceed him in the respect he showed to a coroneted head, even when cracked; and a bishop under his charge was always secured, as far as possible, from the least whisper of heretical conversation. He possessed besides a pleasant rubicund countenance and an immaculate wardrobe. He was further fortunate in having in his assistants, Dr Escott and Dr Sherlaw, two young gentlemen whose medical knowledge was almost equal to the affability of their manners and the excellence of their family connections.
One November night these two were sitting over a comfortable fire in Sherlaw's room. Twelve o'clock struck, Escott finished the remains of something in a tumbler, rose, and yawned sleepily.
"Time to turn in, young man," said he.
"I suppose it is," replied Sherlaw, a very pleasant and boyish young gentleman. "Hullo! What's that? A cab?"
They both listened, and some way off they could just pick out a sound like wheels upon gravel.
"It's very late for any one to be coming in," said Escott.
The sound grew clearer and more unmistakably like a cab rattling quickly up the drive.
"It is a cab," said Sherlaw.
They heard it draw up before the front door, and then there came a pause.
"Who the deuce can it be?" muttered Escott.
In a few minutes there came a knock at the door, and a servant entered.
"A new case, sir. Want's to see Dr Congleton particular."
"A man or a woman?"
"All right," growled Sherlaw. "I'll come, confound him."
"Bad luck, old man," laughed Escott. "I'll wait here in case by any chance you want me."
He fell into his chair again, lit a cigarette, and sleepily turned over the pages of a book. Dr Sherlaw was away for a little time, and when he returned his cheerful face wore a somewhat mystified expression.
"Well?" asked Escott.
"Rather a rum case," said his colleague, thoughtfully.
"What's the matter?"
"Who was it?"
"Don't know that either."
Escott opened his eyes.
"What happened, then?"
"Well," said Sherlaw, drawing his chair up to the fire again, "I'll tell you just what did happen, and you can make what you can out of it. Of course, I suppose it's all right, really, but—well, the proceedings were a little unusual, don't you know.
"I went down to the door, and there I found a four-wheeler with a man standing beside it. The door of the cab was shut, and there seemed to be two more men inside. This chap who'd got out—a youngish man—hailed me at once as though he'd bought the whole place.
" 'You Dr Congleton?'
" 'Damn your impertinence!' I said to myself, 'ringing people up at this hour, and talking like a bally drill-sergeant.'
"I told him politely I wasn't old Congers, but that I'd make a good enough substitute for the likes of him.
" 'I tell you what it is,' said the Johnnie, 'I've brought a patient for Dr Congleton, a cousin of mine, and I've got a doctor here, too. I want to see Dr Congleton.'
" 'He's probably in bed,' I said, 'but I'll do just as well. I suppose he's certified, and all that.'
" 'Oh, it's all right,' said the man, rather as though he expected me to say that it wasn't. He looked a little doubtful what to do, and then I heard some one inside the cab call him. He stuck his head in the window and they confabbed for a minute, and then he turned to me and said, with the most magnificent air you ever saw, like a chap buying a set of diamond studs, 'My friend here is a great personal friend of Dr Congleton, and it's a damned—— I mean it's an uncommonly delicate matter. We must see him.'
" 'Well, if you insist, I'll see if I can get him,' I said; 'but you'd better come in and wait.'
"So the Johnnie opened the door of the cab, and there was a great hauling and pushing, my friend pulling an arm from the outside, and the doctor shoving from within, and at last they fetched out their patient. He was a tall man, in a very smart-looking, long, light top-coat, and a cap with a large peak shoved over his eyes, and he seemed very unsteady on his pins.
" 'Drunk, by George!' I said to myself at first.
"The doctor—another young-looking man—hopped out after him, and they each took an arm, lugged their patient into the waiting-room, and popped him into an armchair. There he collapsed, and sat with his head hanging down as limp as a sucked orange.
"I asked them if anything was the matter with him.
" 'Only tired,—just a little sleepy,' said the cousin.
"And do you know, Escott, what I'd stake my best boots was the matter with him?"
"The man was drugged!"
Escott looked at the fire thoughtfully.
"Well," he said, "it's quite possible; he might have been too violent to manage."
"Why couldn't they have said so, then?"
"H'm. Not knowing, can't say. What happened next?"
"Next thing was, I asked the doctor what name I should give. He answered in a kind of nervous way, 'No name; you needn't give any name. I know Dr Congleton personally. Ask him to come, please.' So off I tooled, and found old Congers just thinking of turning in.
" 'My clients are sometimes unnecessarily discreet', he remarked in his pompous way when I told him about the arrival, and of course he added his usual platitude about our reputation for discretion.
"I went back with him to the waiting-room, and just stood at the door long enough to see him hail the doctor chap very cordially and be introduced to the patient's cousin, and then I came away. Rather rum, isn't it?"
"You've certainly made the best of the yarn," said Escott with a laugh.
"By George, if you'd been there you'd have thought it funny too."
"Well, good-night, I'm off. We'll probably hear to-morrow what it's all about."
But in the morning there was little more to be learned about the new-comer's history and antecedents. Dr Congleton spoke of the matter to the two young men, with the pompous cough that signified extreme discretion.
"Brought by an old friend of mine," he said. "A curious story, Escott, but quite intelligible. There seem to be the best reasons for answering no questions about him; you understand?"
"Certainly, sir," said the two assistants, with the more assurance as they had no information to give.
"I am perfectly satisfied, mind you—perfectly satisfied," added their chief.
"By the way, sir," Sherlaw ventured to remark, "hadn't they given him something in the way of a sleeping-draught?"
"Eh? Indeed? I hardly think so, Sherlaw, I hardly think so. Case of reaction entirely. Good morning."
"Congleton seems satisfied," remarked Escott.
"I'll tell you what," said the junior, profoundly. "Old Congers is a very good chap, and all that, but he's not what I should call extra sharp. I should feel uncommon suspicious."
"H'm," replied Escott. "As you say, our worthy chief is not extra sharp. But that's not our business, after all."
"By the way," said Escott, a couple of days later, "how is your mysterious man getting on? I haven't seen him myself yet."
"He's turning out a regular sportsman, by George! For the first day he was more or less in the same state in which he arrived. Then he began to wake up and ask questions. 'What the devil is this place?' he said to me in the evening. It may sound profane, but he was very polite, I assure you. I told him, and he sort of raised his eyebrows, smiled, and thanked me like a Prime Minister acknowledging an obligation. Since then he has steadily developed sporting, not to say frisky, tastes. He went out this morning, and in five minutes had his arm round one of the prettiest nurses' waist. And she didn't seem to mind much either, by George!"
"He'll want a bit of looking after, I take it."
"Seems to me he is uncommonly capable of taking care of himself. The rest of the establishment will want looking after, though."
From this time forth the mysterious gentleman began to regularly take the air and to be remarked, and having once remarked him, people looked again.
Mr Francis Beveridge, for such it appeared was his name, was distinguished even for Clankwood. Though his antecedents were involved in mystery, so much confidence was placed in Dr Congleton's discrimination that the unknown stranger was at once received on the most friendly terms by every one; and, to tell the truth, it would have been hard to repulse him for long. His manner was perfect, his conversation witty to the extremest verge of propriety, and his clothes, fashionable in cut and of unquestionable fit, bore on such of the buttons as were made of metal the hall mark of a leading London firm. He wore the longest and most silky moustaches ever seen, and beneath them a short well-tended beard completed his resemblance—so the ladies declared—to King Charles of unhappy memory. The melancholic Mr Jones (quondam author of 'Sunflowers—A Lyrical Medley') declared, indeed, that for Mr Beveridge shaving was prohibited, and darkly whispered "suicidal," but his opinion was held of little account.
It was upon a morning about a week after his arrival that Dr Escott, alone in the billiard-room, saw him enter. Escott had by this time made his acquaintance, and, like almost everybody else, had already succumbed to the fascination of his address.
"Good morning, doctor," he said; "I wish you to do me a trifling favour, a mere bending of your eyes."
"I shall be delighted. What is it?"
Mr Beveridge unbuttoned his waistcoat and displayed his shirt-front.
"I only want you to be good enough to read the inscription written here."
The doctor bent down.
" 'Francis Beveridge,' " he said. "That's all I see."
"And that's all I see," said Mr Beveridge. "Now what can you read here? I am not troubling you?"
He held out his handkerchief as he spoke.
"Not a bit," laughed the doctor, "but I only see 'Francis Beveridge' here too, I'm afraid."
"Everything has got it," said Mr Beveridge, shaking his head, it would be hard to say whether humorously or sadly. " 'Francis Beveridge' on everything. It follows, I suppose, that I am Francis Beveridge?"
"What else?" asked Escott, who was much amused.
"That's just it. What else?" said the other. He smiled a peculiarly charming smile, thanked the doctor with exaggerated gratitude, and strolled out again.
"He is a rum chap," reflected Escott.
And indeed in the outside world he might safely have been termed rather rum, but here in this backwater, so full of the oddest flotsam, his waywardness was rather less than the average. He had, for instance, a diverting habit of modifying the time, and even the tune, of the hymns on Sunday, and he confessed to having kissed all the nurses and housemaids except three. But both Escott and Sherlaw declared they had never met a more congenial spirit. Mr Beveridge's game of billiards was quite remarkable even for Clankwood, where the enforced leisure of many of the noblemen and gentlemen had made them highly proficient on the spot; he showed every promise, on his rare opportunities, of being an unusually entertaining small hour, whisky-and-soda raconteur; in fact, he was evidently a man whose previous career, whatever it might have been (and his own statements merely served to increase the mystery round this point), had led him through many humorous by-paths, and left him with few restrictive prejudices.
November became December, and to all appearances he had settled down in his new residence with complete resignation, when that unknowable factor that upsets so many calculations came upon the scene,—the factor, I mean, that wears a petticoat.
Mr Beveridge strolled into Escott's room one morning to find the doctor inspecting a mixed assortment of white kid gloves.
"Do these mean past or future conquests?" he asked with his smile.
"Both," laughed the doctor. "I'm trying to pick out a clean pair for the dance to-night."
"You go a-dancing, then?"
"Don't you know it's our own monthly ball here?"
"Of course," said Mr Beveridge, passing his hand quickly across his brow. "I must have heard, but things pass so quickly through my head nowadays."
He laughed a little conventional laugh, and gazed at the gloves.
"You are coming, of course?" said Escott.
"If you can lend me a pair of these. Can you spare one?"
"Help yourself," replied the doctor.
Mr Beveridge selected a pair with the care of a man who is particular in such matters, put them in his pocket, thanked the doctor, and went out.
"Hope he doesn't play the fool," thought Escott.
Invitations to the balls at Clankwood were naturally in great demand throughout the county, for nowhere were noblemen so numerous and divinities so tangible. Carriages and pairs rolled up one after another, the mansion glittered with lights, the strains of the band could be heard loud and stirring or low and faintly all through the house.
"Who is that man dancing opposite my daughter?" asked the Countess of Grillyer.
"A Mr Beveridge," replied Dr Congleton.
Mr Beveridge, in fact, the mark of all eyes, was dancing in a set of lancers. The couple opposite to him consisted of a stout elderly gentleman who, doubtless for the best reasons, styled himself the Emperor of the two Americas, and a charming little pink and flaxen partner—the Lady Alicia a Fyre, as everybody who was anybody could have told you. The handsome stranger moved, as might be expected, with his accustomed grace and air of distinction, and, probably to convince his admirers that there was nothing meretricious in his performance, he carried his hands in his pockets the whole time. This certainly caused a little inconvenience to his partner, but to be characteristic in Clankwood one had to step very far out of the beaten track.
For two figures the Emperor snorted disapproval, but at the end of the third, when Mr Beveridge had been skipping round the outskirts of the set, his hands still thrust out of sight, somewhat to the derangement of the customary procedure, he could contain himself no longer.
"Hey, young man!" he asked in his most stentorian voice, as the music ceased, "are you afraid of having your pockets picked?"
"Alas!" replied Mr Beveridge, "it would take two men to do that."
"Huh!" snorted the Emperor, "you are so d—d strong, are you?"
"I mean," answered his vis-a-vis with his polite smile, "that it would take one man to put something in and another to take it out."
This remark not only turned the laugh entirely on Mr Beveridge's side, but it introduced the upsetting factor.
The Lady Alicia a Fyre, though of the outer everyday world herself, had, in common with most families of any pretensions to ancient dignity, a creditable sprinkling of uncles and cousins domiciled in Clankwood, and so she frequently attended these dances.
To-night her eye had been caught by a tall, graceful figure executing a pas seul in the middle of the room with its hands in its pockets. The face of this gentleman was so composed and handsome, and he seemed so oblivious to the presence of everybody else, that her interest was immediately excited. During the set of lancers in which he was her vis-a-vis she watched him furtively with a growing feeling of admiration. She had never heard him say a word, and it was with a sensation of the liveliest interest that she listened to his brief passage with her partner. At his final retort her tender heart was overcome with pity. He was poor, then, or at least he was allowed the use of no money. And all of him that was outside his pockets seemed so sane and so gentlemanly; it seemed a pity to let him lack a little sympathy.
The Lady Alicia might be described as a becoming frock stuffed with sentiment. Through a pair of large blue eyes she drank in romance, and with the reddest and most undecided of lips she felt a vague desire to kiss something. At the end of the dance she managed by a series of little manoeuvres to find herself standing close to his elbow. She sighed twice, but he still seemed absorbed in his thoughts. Then with a heroic effort she summed up her courage, and said in a low and rather shaky voice, "You—you—you are unha—appy."
Mr Beveridge turned and looked down on her with great interest. Her eyes met his for a moment and straightway sought the floor. Thus she saw nothing of a smile that came and went like the shadow of a puff of smoke. He took his hands out of his pockets, folded his arms, and, with an air of the deepest dejection, sighed heavily. She took courage and looked up again, and then, as he only gazed into space in the most romantically melancholy fashion and made no answer, she asked again very timidly, "Wh—what is the matter?"
Without saying a word Mr Beveridge bent courteously and offered her his right arm. She took it with the most delicious trepidation, glancing round hurriedly to see whether the Countess noticed her. Another dance was just beginning, and in the general movement her mysterious acquaintance led her without observation to a seat in the window of a corridor. There he pressed her hand gently, stroked his long moustaches for a minute, and then said, with an air of reflection: "There are three ways of making a woman like one. I am slightly out of practice. Would you be kind enough to suggest a method of procedure?"
Such a beginning was so wholly unexpected that Lady Alicia could only give a little gasp of consternation. Her companion, after pausing an instant for a reply, went on in the same tone, "I am aware that I have begun well. I attracted your attention, I elicited your sympathy, and I pressed your hand; but for the life of me I can't remember what I generally do next."
Poor Lady Alicia, who had come with a bucketful of sympathy ready to be gulped down by this unfortunate gentleman, was only able to stammer, "I—I really don't know, Mr——"
"Hamilton," said Mr Beveridge, unblushingly. "At least that name belongs to me as much as anything can be said to in a world where my creditors claim my money and Dr Congleton my person."
"You are confined and poor, you mean?" asked Lady Alicia, beginning to see her way again.
"Poor and confined, to put them in their proper order, for if I had the wherewithal to purchase a balloon I should certainly cease to be confined."
His admirer found it hard to reply adequately to this, and Mr Beveridge continued, "To return to the delicate subject from which we strayed, what would you like me to do,—put my arm round your waist, relate my troubles, or turn my back on you?"
"Are—are those the three ways you spoke of—to make women like you, I mean?" Lady Alicia ventured to ask, though she was beginning to wish the sofa was larger.
"They are examples of the three classical methods: cuddling, humbugging, and piquing. Which do you prefer?"
"Tell me about your—your troubles," she answered, gaining courage a little.
"You belong to the sex which makes no mention of figs and spades," he rejoined; "but I understand you to mean that you prefer humbugging."
He drew a long face, sighed twice, and looking tenderly into Lady Alicia's blue eyes, began in a gentle, reminiscent voice, "My boyhood was troubled and unhappy: no kind words, no caresses. I was beaten by a cruel stepfather, ignored and insulted for my physical deformities by a heartless stepmother."
He stopped to sigh again, and Lady Alicia, with a boldness that surprised herself, and a perspicacity that would have surprised her friends, asked, "How could they—I mean, were they both step?"
"Several steps," he replied; "in fact, quite a long journey."
With this explanation Lady Alicia was forced to remain satisfied; but as he had paused a second time, and seemed to be immersed in the study of his shoes, she inquired again, "You spoke of physical infirmities; do you mean——?"
"Deformities," he corrected; "up to the age of fourteen years I could only walk sideways, and my hair parted in the middle."
He spoke so seriously that these unusual maladies seemed to her the most touching misfortunes she had ever heard of. She murmured gently, "Yes?"
"As the years advanced," Mr Beveridge continued, "and I became more nearly the same weight as my stepfather, my life grew happier. It was decided to send me to college, so I was provided with an insufficient cheque, a complete set of plated forks, and three bath-towels, and despatched to the University of Oxford. At least I think that was the name of the corporation which took my money and endeavoured to restrict my habits, though, to confess the truth, my memory is not what it used to be. There I learned wisdom by the practice of folly—the most amusing and effective method. My tutor used to tell me I had some originality. I apologised for its presence in such a respectable institution, and undertook to pass an examination instead. I believe I succeeded: I certainly remember giving a dinner to celebrate something. Thereupon at my own expense the University inflicted a degree upon me, but I was shortly afterwards compensated by the death of my uncle and my accession to his estates. Having enjoyed a university education, and accordingly possessing a corrected and regulated sentiment, I was naturally inconsolable at the decease of this venerable relative, who for so long had shown a kindly interest in the poor orphan lad."
He stopped to sigh again, and Lady Alicia asked with great interest, "But your step-parents, you always had them, hadn't you?"
"Never!" he replied, sadly.
"Never?" she exclaimed in some bewilderment.
"Certainly not often," he answered, "and oftener than not, never. If you had told me beforehand you wished to hear my history, I should have pruned my family tree into a more presentable shape. But if you will kindly tell me as I go along which of my relatives you disapprove of, and who you would like to be introduced, I shall arrange the plot to suit you."
"I only wish to hear the true story, Mr Hamilton."
"Fortescue," he corrected. "I certainly prefer to be called by one name at a time, but never by the same twice running."
He smiled so agreeably as he said this that Lady Alicia, though puzzled and a little hurt, could not refrain from smiling back.
"Let me hear the rest," she said.
"It is no truer than the first part, but quite as entertaining. So, if you like, I shall endeavour to recall the series of painful episodes that brought me to Clankwood," he answered, very seriously.
Lady Alicia settled herself comfortably into one corner of the sofa and prepared to feel affected. But at that moment the portly form of Dr Congleton appeared from the direction of the ballroom with a still more portly dowager on his arm.
"My mother!" exclaimed Lady Alicia, rising quickly to her feet.
"Indeed?" said Mr Beveridge, who still kept his seat. "She certainly looks handsome enough."
This speech made Lady Alicia blush very becomingly, and the Countess looked at her sharply.
"Where have you been, Alicia?"
"The room was rather warm, mamma, and——"
"In short, madam," interrupted Mr Beveridge, rising and bowing, "your charming daughter wished to study a lunatic at close quarters. I am mad, and I obligingly raved. Thus——" He ran one hand through his hair so as to make it fall over his eyes, blew out his cheeks, and uttering a yell, sprang high into the air, and descended in a sitting posture on the floor.
"That, madam, is a very common symptom," he explained, with a smile, smoothing down his hair again, "as our friend Dr Congleton will tell you."
Both the doctor and the Countess were too astonished to make any reply, so he turned again to Lady Alicia, and offering his arm, said, "Let me lead you back to our fellow-fools."
"Is he safe?" whispered the Countess.
"I—I believe so," replied Dr Congleton in some confusion; "but I shall have him watched more carefully."
As they entered the room Mr Beveridge whispered, "Will you meet a poor lunatic again?" And the Lady Alicia pressed his arm.
On the morning after the dance Dr Congleton summoned Dr Escott to his room.
"Escott," he began, "we must keep a little sharper eye on Mr Beveridge."
"Indeed, sir?" said Escott; "he seems to me harmless enough."
"Nevertheless, he must be watched. Lady Grillyer was considerably alarmed by his conduct last night, and a client who has confided so many of her relatives to my care must be treated with the greatest regard. I receive pheasants at Christmas from no fewer than fourteen families of title, and my reputation for discretion is too valuable to be risked. When Mr Beveridge is not under your own eyes you must see that Moggridge always keeps him in sight."
Accordingly Moggridge, a burly and seasoned attendant on refractory patients, was told off to keep an unobtrusive eye on that accomplished gentleman. His duties appeared light enough, for, as I have said, Mr Beveridge's eccentricities had hitherto been merely of the most playful nature.
After luncheon on this same day he gave Escott twelve breaks and a beating at billiards, and then having borrowed and approved of one of his cigars, he strolled into the park. If he intended to escape observation, he certainly showed the most skilful strategy, for he dodged deviously through the largest trees, and at last, after a roundabout ramble, struck a sheltered walk that ran underneath the high, glass-decked outer wall. It was a sunny winter afternoon. The boughs were stripped, and the leaves lay littered on the walk or flickered and stirred through the grass. In this spot the high trees stood so close and the bare branches were so thick that there was still an air of quiet and seclusion where he paced and smoked. Every now and then he stopped and listened and looked at his watch, and as he walked backwards and forwards an amused smile would come and go.
All at once he heard something move on the far side of the wall: he paused to make sure, and then he whistled, the sounds outside ceased, and in a moment something fell softly behind him. He turned quickly and snatched up a little buttonhole of flowers with a still smaller note tied to the stems.
"An uncommonly happy idea," he said to himself, looking at the missive with the air of one versed in these matters. Then he leisurely proceeded to unfold and read the note.
"To my friend," he read, "if I may call you a friend, since I have known you only such a short time—may I? This is just to express my sympathy, and although I cannot express it well, still perhaps you will forgive my feeble effort!!"
At this point, just as he was regarding the double mark of exclamation with reminiscent entertainment, a plaintive voice from the other side of the wall cried in a stage whisper, "Have you got it?"
Mr Beveridge composed his face, and heaving his shoulders to his ears in the effort, gave vent to a prodigious sigh.
"A million thanks, my fairest and kindest of friends," he answered in the same tone. "I read it now: I drink it in, I——"
He kissed the back of his hand loudly two or three times, sighed again, and continued his reading.
"I wish I could help you," it ran, "but I am afraid I cannot, as the world is so censorious, is it not? So you must accept a friend's sympathy if it does not seem to you too bold and forward of her!!! Perhaps we may meet again, as I sometimes go to Clankwood. Au revoir.—Your sympathetic well-wisher. A. A. F."
He folded it up and put it in his waistcoat-pocket, then he exclaimed in an audible aside, his voice shaking with the most affecting thrill, "Perhaps we may meet again! Only perhaps! O Alicia!" And then dropping again into a stage whisper, he asked, "Are you still there, Lady Alicia?"
A timorous voice replied, "Yes, Mr Fortescue. But I really must go now!"
"Now? So soon?"
"I have stayed too long already."
"'Tis better to have stayed too long than never to wear stays at all," replied Mr Beveridge.
There was no response for a moment. Then a low voice, a little hurt and a good deal puzzled, asked with evident hesitation, "What—what did you say, Mr Fortescue?"
"I said that Lady Alicia's stay cannot be too long," he answered, softly.
"But—but what good can I be?"
"The good you cannot help being."
There was another moment's pause, then the voice whispered, "I don't quite understand you."
"My Alicia understands me not!" Mr Beveridge soliloquised in another audible aside. Aloud, or rather in a little lower tone, he answered, "I am friendless, poor, and imprisoned. What is the good in your staying? Ah, Lady Alicia! But why should I detain you? Go, fair friend! Go and forget poor Francis Beveridge!"
There came a soft, surprised answer, "Francis Beveridge?"
"Alas! you have guessed my secret. Yes, that is the name of the unhappiest of mortals."
As he spoke these melancholy words he threw away the stump of his cigar, took another from his case, and bit off the end.
The voice replied, "I shall remember it—among my friends."
Mr Beveridge struck a match.
"H'sh! Whatever is that?" cried the voice in alarm.
"A heart breaking," he replied, lighting his cigar.
"Don't talk like that," said the voice. "It—it distresses me." There was a break in the voice.
"And, alas! between distress and consolation there are fifteen perpendicular feet of stone and mortar and the relics of twelve hundred bottles of Bass," he replied.
"Perhaps,"—the voice hesitated—"perhaps we may see each other some day."
"Say to-morrow at four o'clock," he suggested, pertinently. "If you could manage to be passing up the drive at that hour."
There was another pause.
"Perhaps——" the voice began.
At that moment he heard the sharp crack of a branch behind him, and turning instantly he spied the uncompromising countenance of Moggridge peering round a tree about twenty paces distant. Lack of presence of mind and quick decision were not amongst Mr Beveridge's failings. He struck a theatrical attitude at once, and began in a loud voice, gazing up at the tops of the trees, "He comes! A stranger comes! Yes, my fair friend, we may meet again. Au revoir, but only for a while! Ah, that a breaking heart should be lit for a moment and then the lamp be put out!"
Meanwhile Moggridge was walking towards him.
"Ha, Moggridge!" he cried. "Good day."
"Time you was goin' in, sir," said Moggridge, stolidly; and to himself he muttered, "He's crackeder than I thought, a-shoutin' and a-ravin' to hisself. Just as well I kept a heye on 'im."
Like most clever people, Mr Beveridge generally followed the line of least resistance. He slipped his arm through his attendant's, shouted a farewell apparently to some imaginary divinity overhead, and turned towards the house.
"This is an unexpected pleasure," he remarked.
"Yes, sir," replied Moggridge.
"Funny thing your turning up. Out for a walk, I suppose?"
"For a stroll, sir—that's to say——" he stopped.
"That on these chilly afternoons the dear good doctor is afraid of my health?"
"That's kind o' it, sir."
"But of course I'm not supposed to notice anything, eh?"
Moggridge looked a trifle uncomfortable and was discreetly silent. Mr Beveridge smiled at his own perspicacity, and then began in the most friendly tone, "Well, I feel flattered that so stout a man has been told off to take care of me. What an arm you've got, man."
"Pretty fair, sir," said Moggridge, complacently.
"And I am thankful, too," continued Mr Beveridge, "that you're a man of some sense. There are a lot of fools in the world, Moggridge, and I'm somewhat of an epicure in the matter of heads."
"Mine 'as been considered pretty sharp," Moggridge admitted, with a gratified relaxation of his wooden countenance.
"Have a cigar?" his patient asked, taking out his case.
"Thank you, sir, I don't mind if I do."
"You will find it a capital smoke. I don't throw them away on every one."
Moggridge, completely thawed, lit his cigar and slackened his pace, for such frank appreciation of his merits was rare in a critical world.
"You can perhaps believe, Moggridge," said Mr Beveridge, reflectively, "that one doesn't often have the chance of talking confidentially to a man of sense in Clankwood."
"No, sir, I should himagine not."
"And so one has sometimes to talk to oneself."
This was said so sadly that Moggridge began to feel uncomfortably affected.
"Ah, Moggridge, one cannot always keep silence, even when one least wants to be overheard. Have you ever been in love, Moggridge?"
The burly keeper changed countenance a little at this embarrassingly direct question, and answered diffidently, "Well, sir, to be sure men is men and woming will be woming."
"The deuce, they will!" replied Mr Beveridge, cordially; "and it's rather hard to forget 'em, eh?"
"Hindeed it is, sir."
"I remembered this afternoon, but I should like you as a good chap to forget. You won't mention my moment of weakness, Moggridge?"
"No, sir," said Moggridge, stoutly. "I suppose I hought to report what I sees, but I won't this time."
"Thank you," said Mr Beveridge, pressing his arm. "I had, you know, a touch of the sun in India, and I sometimes talk when I shouldn't. Though, after all, that isn't a very uncommon complaint."
And so it happened that no rumour prejudicial either to his sanity or to the progress of his friendship with the Lady Alicia reached the ears of the authorities.
Towards four o'clock on the following afternoon Mr Beveridge and Moggridge were walking leisurely down the long drive leading from the mansion of Clankwood to the gate that opened on the humdrum outer world. Finding that an inelastic matter of yards was all the tether he could hope for, Mr Beveridge thought it best to take the bull by the horns, and make a companion of this necessity. So he kept his attendant by his side, and regaled him for some time with a series of improbable reminiscences and tolerable cigars, till at last, round a bend of the avenue, a lady on horseback came into view. As she drew a little nearer he stopped with an air of great surprise and pleasure.
"I believe, Moggridge, that must be Lady Alicia a Fyre!" he exclaimed.
"It looks huncommon like her, sir," replied Moggridge.
"I must really speak to her. She was"—and Mr Beveridge assumed his inimitable air of manly sentiment—"she was one of my poor mother's dearest friends. Do you mind, Moggridge, falling behind a little? In fact, if you could step behind a tree and wait here for me, it would be pleasanter for us both. We used to meet under happier circumstances, and, don't you know, it might distress her to be reminded of my misfortunes."
Such a reasonable request, beseechingly put by so fine a gentleman, could scarcely be refused. Moggridge retired behind the trees that lined the avenue, and Mr Beveridge advanced alone to meet the Lady Alicia. She blushed very becomingly as he raised his hat.
"I hardly expected to see you to-day, Mr Beveridge," she began.
"I, on the other hand, have been thinking of nothing else," he replied.
She blushed still deeper, but responded a little reprovingly, "It's very polite of you to say so, but——"
"Not a bit," said he. "I have a dozen equally well-turned sentences at my disposal, and, they tell me, a most deluding way of saying them."
Suddenly out of her depth again, poor Lady Alicia could only strike out at random.
"Who tell you?" she managed to say.
"First, so far as my poor memory goes, my mother's lady's-maid informed me of the fact; then I think my sister's governess," he replied, ticking off his informants on his fingers with a half-abstracted air. "After that came a number of more or less reliable individuals, and lastly the Lady Alicia a Fyre."
"Me? I'm sure I never said——"
"None of them ever said," he interrupted.
"But what have I done, then?" she asked, tightening her reins, and making her horse fidget a foot or two farther away.
"You have begun to be a most adorable friend to a most unfortunate man."
Still Lady Alicia looked at him a little dubiously, and only said, "I—I hope I'm not too friendly."
"There are no degrees in friendly," he replied. "There are only aloofly, friendly, and more than friendly."
"I—I think I ought to be going on, Mr Beveridge."
That experienced diplomatist perceived that it was necessary to further embellish himself.
"Are you fond of soldiers?" he asked, abruptly.
"I beg your pardon?" she said in considerable bewilderment.
"Does a red coat, a medal, and a brass band appeal to you? Are you apt to be interested in her Majesty's army?"
"I generally like soldiers," she admitted, still much surprised at the turn the conversation had taken.
"Then I was a soldier."
"I held a commission in one of the crackest cavalry regiments," he began dramatically, and yet with a great air of sincerity. "I was considered one of the most promising officers in the mess. It nearly broke my heart to leave the service."
He turned away his head. Lady Alicia was visibly affected.
"I am so sorry!" she murmured.
Still keeping his face turned away, he held out his hand and she pressed it gently.
"Sorrow cannot give me my freedom," he said.
"If there is anything I can do——" she began.
"Dismount," he said, looking up at her tenderly.
Lady Alicia never quite knew how it happened, but certainly she found herself standing on the ground, and the next moment Mr Beveridge was in her place.
"An old soldier," he exclaimed, gaily; "I can't resist the temptation of having a canter." And with that he started at a gallop towards the gate.
With a blasphemous ejaculation Moggridge sprang from behind his tree, and set off down the drive in hot pursuit.
Lady Alicia screamed, "Stop! stop! Francis—I mean, Mr Beveridge; stop, please!"
But the favorite of the crack regiment, despite the lady's saddle, sat his steed well, and rapidly left cries and footsteps far behind. The lodge was nearly half a mile away, and as the avenue wound between palisades of old trees, the shouts became muffled, and when he looked over his shoulder he saw in the stretch behind him no sign of benefactress or pursuer. By continued exhortations and the point of his penknife he kept his horse at full stretch; round the next bend he knew he should see the gates.
"Five to one on the blank things being shut," he muttered.
He swept round the curve, and there ahead of him he saw the gates grimly closed, and at the lodge door a dismounted groom, standing beside his horse.
Only remarking "Damn!" he reined up, turned, and trotted quietly back again. Presently he met Moggridge, red in the face, muddy as to his trousers, and panting hard.
"Nice little nag this, Moggridge," he remarked, airily.
"Nice sweat you've give me," rejoined his attendant, wrathfully.
"You don't mean to say you ran after me?"
"I does mean to say," Moggridge replied grimly, seizing the reins.
"Want to lead him? Very well—it makes us look quite like the Derby winner coming in."
"Derby loser you means, thanks to them gates bein' shut."
"Gates shut? Were they? I didn't happen to notice."
"No, o' course not," said Moggridge, sarcastically; "that there sunstroke you got in India prevented you, I suppose?"
"Have a cigar?"
To this overture Moggridge made no reply. Mr Beveridge laughed and continued lightly, "I had no idea you were so fond of exercise. I'd have given you a lead all round the park if I'd known."
"You'd 'ave given me a lead all round the county if them gates 'ad been open."
"It might have been difficult to stop this fiery animal," Mr Beveridge admitted. "But now, Moggridge, the run is over. I think I can take Lady Alicia's horse back to her myself."
Moggridge smiled grimly.
"You won't let go?"
Mr Beveridge put his hand behind his back and silently drove the penknife a quarter of an inch into his mount's hind quarters. In an instant his keeper felt himself being lifted nearly off his feet, and in another actually deposited on his face. Off went the accomplished horseman again at top speed, but this time back to Lady Alicia. He saw her standing by the side of the drive, her handkerchief to her eyes, a penitent and disconsolate little figure. When she heard him coming, she dried her eyes and looked up, but her face was still tearful.
"Well, I am back from my ride," he remarked in a perfectly usual voice, dismounting as he spoke.
"The man!" she cried, "where is that dreadful man?"
"What man?" he asked in some surprise.
"The man who chased you."
Mr Beveridge laughed aloud, at which Lady Alicia took fresh refuge in her handkerchief.
"He follows on foot," he replied.
"Did he catch you? Oh, why didn't you escape altogether?" she sobbed.
Mr Beveridge looked at her with growing interest.
"I had begun to forget my petticoat psychology," he reflected (aloud, after his unconventional fashion).
"Oh, here he comes," she shuddered. "All blood! Oh, what have you done to him?"
"On my honour, nothing,—I merely haven't washed his face."
By this time Moggridge was coming close upon them.
"You won't forget a poor soldier?" said Mr Beveridge in a lower voice.
There was no reply.
"A poor soldier," he added, with a sigh, glancing at her from the corner of his eye. "So poor that even if I had got out, I could only have ridden till I dropped."
"Would you accept——?" she began, timidly.
"What day?" he interrupted, hurriedly.
"Tuesday," she hesitated.
"Four o'clock, again. Same place as before. When I whistle throw it over at once."
Before they had time to say more, Moggridge, blood- and gravel-stained, came up.
"It's all right, miss," he said, coming between them; "I'll see that he plays no more of 'is tricks. There's nothin' to be afrightened of."
"Stand back!" she cried; "don't come near me!"
Moggridge was too staggered at this outburst to say a word.
"Stand away!" she said, and the bewildered attendant stood away. She turned to Mr Beveridge.
"Now, will you help me up?"
She mounted lightly, said a brief farewell, and, forgetting all about the call at Clankwood she had ostensibly come to pay, turned her horse's head towards the lodge.
"Well, I'm blowed!" said Moggridge.
"They do blow one," his patient assented.
Naturally enough the story of this equestrian adventure soon ran through Clankwood. The exact particulars, however, were a little hard to collect, for while Moggridge supplied many minute and picturesque details, illustrating his own activity and presence of mind and the imminent peril of the Lady Alicia, Mr Beveridge recounted an equally vivid story of a runaway horse recovered by himself to its fair owner's unbounded gratitude. Official opinion naturally accepted the official account, and for the next few days Mr Beveridge became an object of considerable anxiety and mistrust.
"I can't make the man out," said Sherlaw to Escott. "I had begun to think there was nothing much the matter with him."
"No more there is," replied Escott. "His memory seems to me to have suffered from something, and he simply supplies its place in conversation from his imagination, and in action from the inspiration of the moment. The methods of society are too orthodox for such an aberration, and as his friends doubtless pay a handsome fee to keep him here, old Congers labels him mad and locks the door on him."
A day or two afterwards official opinion was a little disturbed. Lady Alicia, in reply to anxious inquiries, gave a third version of the adventure, from which nothing in particular could be gathered except that nothing in particular had happened.
"What do you make of this, Escott?" asked Dr Congleton, laying her note before his assistant.
"Merely that a woman wrote it."
"Hum! I suppose that is the explanation."
Upon which the doctor looked profound and went to lunch.
"Two five-pound notes, half-a-sovereign, and seven and sixpence in silver," said Mr Beveridge to himself. "Ah, and a card."
On the card was written, "From a friend, if you will accept it. A."
He was standing under the wall, in the secluded walk, holding a little lady's purse in his hand, and listening to two different footsteps. One little pair of feet were hurrying away on the farther side of the high wall, another and larger were approaching him at a run.
"Wot's he bin up to now, I wonder," Moggridge panted to himself—for the second pair of feet belonged to him. "Shamming nose-bleed and sending me in for an 'andkerchief, and then sneaking off here by 'isself!"
"What a time you've been," said Mr Beveridge, slipping the purse with its contents into his pocket. "I was so infernally cold I had to take a little walk. Got the handkerchief?"
In silence and with a suspicious solemnity Moggridge handed him the handkerchief, and they turned back for the house.
"Now for a balloon," Mr Beveridge reflected.
Certainly it was cold. The frost nipped sharp that night, and next morning there were ice gardens on the windows, and the park lay white all through the winter sunshine.
By evening the private lake was reported to be bearing, and the next day it hummed under the first skaters. Hardly necessary to say Mr Beveridge was among the earliest of them, or that he was at once the object of general admiration and envy. He traced "vines" and "Q's," and performed wonderful feats on one leg all morning. At lunch he was in the best of spirits, and was off again at once to the ice.
When he reached the lake in the afternoon the first person he spied was Lady Alicia, and five minutes afterwards they were sailing off together hand in hand.
"I knew you would come to-day," he remarked.
"How could you have known? It was by the merest chance I happened to come."
"It has always been by the merest chance that any of them have ever come."
"Who have ever come?" she inquired, with a vague feeling that he had said something he ought not to have, and that she was doing the same.
"Many things," he smiled, "including purses. Which reminds me that I am eternally your debtor."
She blushed and said, "I hope you didn't mind."
"Not much," he answered, candidly. "In my present circumstances a five-pound note is more acceptable than a caress."
The Lady Alicia again remembered the maidenly proprieties, and tried to change the subject.
"What beautiful ice!" she said.
"The question now is," he continued, paying no heed to this diversion, "what am I to do next?"
"What do you mean?" she asked a little faintly, realising dimly that she was being regarded as a fellow-conspirator in some unlawful project.
"The wall is high, there is bottle-glass on the top, and I shall find it hard to bring away a fresh pair of trousers, and probably draughty if I don't. The gates are always kept closed, and it isn't worth any one's while to open them for L10, 17s. 6d., less the price of a first-class ticket up to town. What are we to do?"
"We?" she gasped.
"You and I," he explained.
"But—but I can't possibly do anything."
" 'Can't possibly' is a phrase I have learned to misunderstand."
"Really, Mr Beveridge, I mustn't do anything."
"Mustn't is an invariable preface to a sin. Never use it; it's a temptation in itself."
"It wouldn't be right," she said, with quite a show of firmness.
He looked at her a little curiously. For a moment he almost seemed puzzled. Then he pressed her hand and asked tenderly, "Why not?"
And in a half-audible aside he added, "That's the correct move, I think."
"What did you say?" she asked.
"I said, 'Why not?' " he answered, with increasing tenderness.
"But you said something else."
"I added a brief prayer for pity."
Lady Alicia sighed and repeated a little less firmly. "It wouldn't be right of me, Mr Beveridge."
"But what would be wrong?"
This was said with even more fervour.
"My conscience—we are very particular, you know."
"Who are 'we'?"
"Papa is very strict High Church."
An idea seemed to strike Mr Beveridge, for he ruminated in silence.
"I asked Mr Candles—our curate, you know," Lady Alicia continued, with a heroic effort to make her position clear.
"You told him!" he exclaimed.
"Oh, I didn't say who it was—I mean what it was I thought of doing—I mean the temptation—that is, the possibility. And he said it was very kind of me to think of it; but I mustn't do anything, and he advised me to read a book he gave me, and—and I mustn't think of it, really, Mr Beveridge."
To himself Mr Beveridge repeated under his breath, "Archbishops, bishops, deacons, curates, fast in Lent, and an anthem after the Creed. I think I remember enough to pass."
Then he assumed a very serious face, and said aloud, "Your scruples do your heart credit. They have given me an insight into your deep and sweet character, which emboldens me to make a confession."
He stopped skating, folded his arms, and continued unblushingly, "I was educated for the Church, but the prejudices of my parents, the immature scepticism of youth, and some uncertainty about obtaining my archbishopric, induced me in an unfortunate moment, which I never ceased to bitterly regret, to quit my orders."
"You are in orders?" she exclaimed.
"I was in several. I cancelled them, and entered the Navy instead."
"The Navy?" she asked, excusably bewildered by these rapid changes of occupation.
"For five years I was never ashore."
"But," she hesitated—"but you said you were in the Army."
Mr Beveridge gave her a look full of benignant compassion that made her, she did not quite know why, feel terribly abashed.
"My regiment was quartered at sea," he condescended to explain. "But in time my conscience awoke. I announced my intention of resuming my charge. My uncle was furious. My enemies were many. I was seized, thrown into this prison-house, and now my only friend fails me."
They were both silent. She ventured once to glance up at his face, and it seemed to her that his eyes were moist—though perhaps it was that her own were a little dim.
"Let us skate on," he said abruptly, with a fine air of resignation.
"By the way," he suddenly added, "I was extremely High Church, in fact almost freezingly high."
For five minutes they skated in silence, then Lady Alicia began softly, "Supposing you—you went away——"
"What is the use of talking of it?" he exclaimed, melodramatically. "Let me forget my short-lived hopes!"
"You have a friend," she said, slowly.
"A friend who tantalises me by 'supposings'!"
"But supposing you did, Mr Beveridge, would you go back to your—did you say you had a parish?"
"I had: a large, populous, and happy parish. It is my one dream to sit once more on its council and direct my curate."
"Of course that makes a difference. Mr Candles didn't know all this."
They had come by this time to the corner of a little island that lay not far from the shore; in the channel ahead a board labelled "Danger" marked a hidden spring; behind them the shining ice was almost bare of skaters, for all but Dr Escott seemed to be leaving; on the bank they could see Moggridge prowling about in the gathering dusk, a vigilant reminder of captivity. Mr Beveridge took the whole scene in with, it is to be feared, a militant rather than an episcopal eye. Then he suddenly asked, "Are you alone?"
"You drive back?"
He took out his watch and made a brief calculation.
"Go now, call at Clankwood or do anything else you like, and pass down the drive again at a quarter to five."
This sudden pinning of her irresolution almost took Lady Alicia's breath away.
"But I never said——" she began.
"My dear friend," he interrupted, "in the hour of action only a fool ever says. Come on."
And while she still hesitated they were off again.
"But——" she tried to expostulate.
"My dearest friend," he whispered, "and my dear old vicarage!"
He gave her no time to protest. Her skates were off, she was on her way to her carriage, and he was striking out again for the middle of the lake before she had time to collect her wits.
He took out his watch and looked at the time. It was nearly a quarter-past four. Then he came up to Escott, who by this time was the only other soul on the ice.
"About time we were going in," said Escott.
"Give me half-an-hour more. I'll show you how to do that vine you admired."
"All right," assented the doctor.
A minute or two later Mr Beveridge, as if struck by a sudden reflection, exclaimed, "By Jove, there's that poor devil Moggridge freezing to death on shore. Can't you manage to look after so dangerous a lunatic yourself? It is his tea-time, too."
"Hallo, so he is," replied Escott; "I'll send him up."
And so there were only left the two men on the ice.
For a little the lesson went on, and presently, leaving the doctor to practise, Mr Beveridge skated away by himself. He first paused opposite a seat on the bank over which hung Dr Escott's great fur coat. This spectacle appeared to afford him peculiar pleasure. Then he looked at his watch. It was half-past four. He shut the watch with a click, threw a glance at his pupil, and struck out for the island. If the doctor had been looking, he might have seen him round it in the gloaming.
Dr Escott, leaning far on his outside edge, met him as he returned.
"What's that under your coat?" he asked.
"A picture I intend to ask your opinion on presently," replied Mr Beveridge; and he added, with his most charming air, "But now, before we go in, let me give you a ride on one of these chairs, doctor."
They started off, the pace growing faster and faster, and presently Dr Escott saw that they were going behind the island.
"Look out for the spring!" he cried.
"It must be bearing now," replied Mr Beveridge, striking out harder than ever; "they have taken away the board."
"All right," said the doctor, "on you go."
As he spoke he felt a violent push, and the chair, slewing round as it went, flew on its course unguided. Mr Beveridge's skates rasped on the ice with a spray of white powder as he stopped himself suddenly. Ahead of him there was a rending crack, and Dr Escott and his chair disappeared. Mr Beveridge laughed cheerfully, and taking from under his coat a board with the legend "Danger" printed in large characters across its face, he placed it beside the jagged hole.
"Here is the picture, doctor," he said, as a dripping, gasping head came up for the second time. "I must ask a thousand pardons for this—shall I say, liberty? But, as you know, I'm off my head. Good night. Let me recommend a hot drink when you come out. There are only five feet of water, so you won't drown." And with that he skated rapidly away.
Escott had a glimpse of him vanishing round the corner of the island, and then the ice broke again, and down he went. Four, five, six times he made a desperate effort to get out, and every time the thin ice tore under his hands, and he slipped back again. By the seventh attempt he had broken his way to the thicker sheet; he got one leg up, slipped, got it up again, and at last, half numbed and wholly breathless, he was crawling circumspectly away. When at last he ventured to rise to his feet, he skated with all the speed he could make to the seat where he had left his coat. A pair of skates lay there instead, but the coat had vanished. Dr Escott's philosophical estimate of Mr Beveridge became considerably modified.
"Thank the Lord, he can't get out of the grounds," he said to himself; "what a dangerous devil he is! But he'll be sorry for this performance, or I'm mistaken."
When he arrived at the house his first inquiries were for his tutor in the art of vine-cutting, and he was rather surprised to hear that he had not yet returned, for he only imagined himself the victim of a peculiarly ill-timed practical joke.
Men with lanterns were sent out to search the park; and still there was no sign of Mr Beveridge. Inquiries were made at the lodge, but the gatekeeper could swear that only a single carriage had passed through. Dr Congleton refused at first to believe that he could possibly have got out.
"Our arrangements are perfect,—the thing's absurd," he said, peremptorily.
"That there man, sir," replied Moggridge, who had been summoned, "is the slipperiest customer as ever I seed. 'E's hout, sir, I believe."
"We might at least try the stations," suggested Escott, who had by this time changed, and indulged in the hot drink recommended.
The doctor began to be a little shaken.
"Well, well," said he, "I'll send a man to each of the three stations within walking distance; and whether he's out or in, we'll have him by to-morrow morning. I've always taken care that he had no money in his pockets."
But what is a doctor's care against a woman's heart? For many to-morrows Clankwood had to lament the loss of the gifted Francis Beveridge.
At sixteen minutes to five Mr Beveridge stood by the side of the Clankwood Avenue, comfortably wrapped in Dr Escort's fur coat, and smoking with the greatest relish one of Dr Escott's undeniable cigars.
It was almost dark, the air bit keen, the dim park with its population of black trees was filled with a frosty, eager stillness. All round the invisible wall hemmed him in, the ten pounds, seventeen shillings, and sixpence lay useless in his pocket till that was past, and his one hope depended on a woman. But Mr Beveridge was an amateur in the sex, and he smiled complacently as he smoked.
He had waited barely three minutes when the quick clatter of a pair of horses fell on his ears, and presently the lights of a carriage and pair, driving swiftly away from Clankwood, raked the drive on either side. As they rattled up to him he gave a shout to the coachman to stop, and stepped right in front of the horses. With something that sounded unlike a blessing, the pair were thrown almost on their haunches to check them in time. Never stopping to explain, he threw open the door and sprang in; the coachman, hearing no sound of protest, whipped up again, and Mr Beveridge found himself rolling through the park of Clankwood in the Countess of Grillyer's carriage with a very timid little figure by his side. Even in that moment of triumphant excitement the excellence of his manners was remarkable: the first thing he said was, "Do you mind smoking?"
In her confusion of mind Lady Alicia could only reply "Oh no," and not till some time afterwards did she remember that the odour of a cigar was clinging and the Countess's nose unusually sensitive.
After this first remark he leaned back in silence, gradually filling the carriage with a blue-grey cloud, and looking out of the windows first on one side and then on the other. They passed quickly through the lines of trees and the open spaces of frosty park-land, they drew up at the lodge for a moment, he heard his prison gates swing open, the harness jingled and the hoofs began to clatter again, a swift vision of lighted windows and a man looking on them incuriously swept by, and then they were rolling over a country road between hedgerows and under the free stars.
It was the Lady Alicia who spoke first.
"I never thought you would really come," she said.
"I have been waiting for that remark," he replied, with his most irresistible smile; "now for some more practical conversation."
As he did not immediately begin this conversation himself, her curiosity overcame her, and she asked, "How did you manage to get out?"
"As my friend Dr Escott offered no opposition, I walked away."
"Did he really let you?"
"He never even expostulated."
"Then—then it's all right?" she said, with an inexplicable sensation of disappointment.
"But—didn't they object?"
"Not yet," he replied; "objections to my movements are generally made after they have been performed."
Somehow she felt immensely relieved at this hint of opposition.
"I'm so glad you got away," she whispered, and then repented in a flutter.
"Not more so than I am," he answered, pressing her hand.
"And now," he added, "I should like to know how near Ashditch Junction you propose to take me."
"Where are you going to, Mr Beveridge?"
The "Mr Beveridge" was thrown in as a corrective to the hand-pressure.
"To London; where else, my Alicia? With L10, 17s. 6d. in my pocket, I shall be able to eat at least three good dinners, and, by the third of them, if I haven't fallen on my feet it will be the first time I have descended so unluckily."
"But," she asked, considerably disconcerted, "I thought you were going back to your parish."
For a moment he too seemed a trifle put about. Then he replied readily, "So I am, as soon as I have purchased the necessary outfit, restocked my ecclesiastical library, and called on my bishop."
She felt greatly relieved at this justification of her share in the adventure.
"Drop me at the nearest point to the station," he said.
"I am afraid," she began—"I mean I think you had better get out soon. The first road on the right will take you straight there, and we had better not pass it."
"Then I must bid you farewell," and he sighed most effectively. "Farewell, my benefactress, my dear Alicia! Shall I ever see you, shall I ever hear of you again?"
"I might—I might just write once; if you will answer it: I mean if you would care to hear from such a——"
She found it difficult to finish, and prudently stopped.
"Thanks," he replied cheerfully; "do,—I shall live in hopes. I'd better stop the carriage now."
He let down the window, when she said hastily, "But I don't know your address."
He reflected for an instant. "Care of the Archbishop of York will always find me," he replied; and as if unwilling to let his emotion be observed, he immediately put his head out of the window and called on the coachman to stop.
"Good-bye," he whispered, tenderly, squeezing her fingers with one hand and opening the door with the other.
"Don't quite forget me," she whispered back.
"Never!" he replied, and was in the act of getting out when he suddenly turned, and exclaimed, "I must be more out of practice than I thought; I had almost forgotten the protested salute."
And without further preamble the Lady Alicia found herself kissed at last.
He jumped out and shut the door, and the carriage with its faint halo clattered into the darkness.
"They are wonderfully alike," he reflected.
About twenty minutes later he walked leisurely into Ashditch Junction, and having singled out the station-master, he accosted him with an air of beneficient consideration and inquired how soon he could catch a train for London.
It appeared that the up express was not due for nearly three-quarters of an hour.
"A little too long to wait," he said to himself, as he turned up the collar of his purloined fur coat to keep out the cold, and picked another cigar from its rightful owner's case.
By way of further defying the temperature and cementing his acquaintance with the station-master, he offered to regale that gratified official with such refreshments as the station bar provided. In the consumption of whiskies-and-sodas (a beverage difficult to obtain in any quantity at Clankwood) Mr Beveridge showed himself as accomplished as in every other feat. In thirty-five minutes he had despatched no fewer than six, besides completely winning the station-master's heart. As he had little more than five minutes now to wait, he bade a genial farewell to the lady behind the bar, and started to purchase his ticket.
Hardly had he left the door of the refreshment-room when he perceived an uncomfortably familiar figure just arrived, breathless with running, on the opposite platform. The light of a lamp fell on his shining face: it was Moggridge!
A stout heart might be forgiven for sinking at the sight, but Mr Beveridge merely turned to his now firm friends and said with his easiest air, "On the opposite platform I perceive one of my runaway lunatics. Bring a couple of stout porters as quickly as you can, for he is a person of much strength and address. My name," he drew a card-case from the pocket of his fur coat, "is, as you see, Dr Escott of Clankwood."
Meanwhile Moggridge, after hurriedly investigating the platform he was on, suddenly spied a tall fur-coated figure on the opposite side. Without a moment's hesitation he sprang on to the rails, and had just mounted the other side as the station-master and two porters appeared.
Seeing his allies by his side Mr Beveridge never said a word, but, throwing off his hat, he lowered his head, charged his keeper, and picking him up by the knees threw him heavily on his back. Before he had a chance of recovering himself the other three were seated on his chest employed in winding a coil of rope round and round his prostrate form.
Two minutes later Moggridge was sitting bound hand and foot in the booking office, addressing an amused audience in a strain of perhaps excusable exasperation, which however merely served to impress the Ashditch officials with a growing sense of their address in capturing so dangerous a lunatic. In the middle of this entertaining scene the London express steamed in, and Mr Beveridge, courteously thanking the station-master for his assistance, stepped into a first-class carriage.
"I should be much obliged," he said, leaning on the door of his compartment and blowing the smoke of Dr Escott's last Havannah lightly from his lips, "if you would be kind enough to keep that poor fellow in the station till to-morrow. It is rather too late to send him back now. Good night, and many thanks."
He pressed a coin into the station-master's hand, which that disappointed official only discovered on emptying his pockets at night to be an ordinary sixpence, the guard whistled, and one by one, smoothly and slowly and then in a bright stream, the station lamps slipped by. The last of them flitted into the night, and the train swung and rattled by a mile a minute nearer to London town and farther from the high stone wall. There was no other stop, and for a long hour the adventurer sat with his legs luxuriously stretched along the cushions looking out into a fainter duplicate of his carriage, pierced now and then by the glitter of brighter points as they whisked by some wayside village, or crossed by the black shadows of trees. The whole time he smiled contentedly, doubtless at the prospect of his parish work. All at once he seemed stirred, and, turning in his seat, laid his face upon the window, and pulled down the blind behind his head, so that he could see into the night. He had spied the first bright filaments of London. Quickly they spread into a twinkling network, and then as quickly were shut out by the first line of suburb houses; through the gaps they grew nearer and flared cheerfully; the train hooted over an archway, and in the road below he had a glimpse of shop windows and crowded pavements and moving omnibuses: he was in the world again, and at the foretaste of all this life he laughed like a delighted child. Last of all came the spread of shining rails and the red and yellow lights of many signals, and then the high glass roof and long lamp-lit platforms of St Euston's Cross.
Unencumbered by luggage or plans, Mr Francis Beveridge stuck his hands deep in his pockets and strolled aimlessly enough out of the station into the tideway of the Euston Road. For a little he stood stock-still on the pavement watching the throng of people and the perpetual buses and drays and the jingling hansoms picking their way through it all.
"For a man of brains," he moralised, "even though he be certified as insane, for probably the best of reasons, this London has surely fools enough to provide him with all he needs and more than he deserves. I shall set out with my lantern like a second Diogenes to look for a foolish man."
And so he strolled along again to the first opening southwards. That led him through a region of dingy enough brick by day, but decked now with its string of lamps and bright shop-windows here and there, and kept alive by passing buses and cabs going and coming from the station. Farther on the street grew gloomier, and a dark square with a grove of trees in the middle opened off one side; but, rattle or quiet, flaring shops or sad-looking lodgings, he found it all too fresh and amusing to hurry.
"Back to my parish again," he said to himself, smiling broadly at the drollery of the idea. "If I'm caught to-morrow, I'll at least have one merry night in my wicked, humorous old charge."
He reached Holborn and turned west in the happiest and most enviable of moods; the very policemen seemed to cast a friendly eye on him; the frosty air, he thought, made the lights burn brighter and the crowd move more briskly than ever he had seen them. Suddenly the sight of a hairdresser's saloon brought an inspiration. He stroked his beard, twisted his moustaches half regretfully, and then exclaiming, "Exit Mr Beveridge," turned into the shop.
The Baron Rudolf von Blitzenberg sat by himself at a table in the dining-room of the Hotel Mayonaise, which, as everybody knows, is the largest and most expensive in London. He was a young man of a florid and burly Teutonic type and the most ingenuous countenance. Being possessed of a curious and enterprising disposition, as well as the most ample means, he had left his ancestral castle in Bavaria to study for a few months the customs and politics of England. In the language he was already proficient, and he had promised himself an amusing as well as an instructive visit. But, although he had only arrived in London that morning, he was already beginning to feel an uncomfortable apprehension lest in both respects he should be disappointed. Though his introductions were the best with which the British Ambassador could supply him, they were only three or four in number,—for, not wishing to be hampered with too many acquaintances, he had rather chosen quality than quantity: and now, in the course of the afternoon, he had found to his chagrin that in every case the families were out of town. In fact, so far as he could learn, they were not even at their own country seats. One was abroad, another gone to the seaside to recover from the mumps, or a third paying a round of visits.
The disappointment was sharp, he felt utterly at sea as to what he should do, and he was already beginning to experience the loneliness of a single mortal in a crowded hotel.
As the frosty evening was setting in and the shops were being lit, he had strolled out into the streets in the vague hope of meeting some strange foreign adventure, or perhaps even happily lighting upon some half-forgotten diplomatic acquaintance. But he found the pavements crowded with a throng who took no notice of him at all, but seemed every man and most women of them to be pushing steadily, and generally silently, towards a million mysterious goals. Not that he could tell they were silent except by their set lips, for the noise of wheels and horses on so many hundreds of miles of streets, and the cries of busmen and vendors of evening papers, made such a hubbub that he felt before long in a maze. He lost his way four times, and was patronisingly set right by beneficent policemen; and at last, feeling like a man who has fallen off a precipice on to a soft place—none the worse but quite bewildered—he struggled back to his hotel. There he spun out his time by watching the people come and go, and at last dressed with extra deliberation.
About eight o'clock he sat down to his solitary dinner. The great gilt and panelled room was full of diners and bustling waiters, but there was not a face the Baron had ever seen before. He was just finishing a plate of whitebait when he observed a stranger enter the room and stroll in a very self-possessed manner down the middle, glancing at the tables round him as though he was looking either for a friend or a desirable seat. This gentleman was tall, fair, and clean-shaved; he was dressed in a suit of well-fitting tweeds, and his air impressed the Baron as being natural and yet distinguished. At last his eye fell upon the Baron, who felt conscious of undergoing a quick, critical scrutiny. The table at which that nobleman sat was laid for two, and coming apparently to a sudden resolution, the good-looking stranger seated himself in the vacant chair. In an agreeable voice and with an unmistakably well-bred air he asked a waiter for the wine-list, and then, like a man with an excellent appetite, fell to upon the various hors d'oeuvres, the entire collection of which, in fact, he consumed in a wonderfully short space of time. The Baron, being himself no trifler with his victuals, regarded this feat with sympathetic approval, and began to feel a little less alone in the world. His naturally open disposition was warmed besides, owing to a slight misconception he had fallen into, perfectly excusable however in a foreigner. He thought he had read somewhere that port was the usual accompaniment to the first courses of an English dinner, and as his waiter had been somewhat dilatory in bringing him the more substantial items of the repast, he had already drunk three claret-glasses of this cheering wine. The chill recollections of his sixteen quarterings and the exclusiveness he had determined to maintain as becoming to his rank were already melting, and he met the stranger's eye with what for the life of him he could not help being a cordial look.
His vis-a-vis caught the glance, smiled back, and immediately asked, with the most charming politeness, "Do you care, sir, to split a bottle of champagne?"
"To—er—shplid?" said the Baron, with a disappointed consciousness of having been put at a loss in his English by the very first man who had spoken to him.
"I beg your pardon,—I am afraid I was unintelligibly idiomatic. To divide, I should say, you consuming one-half, I the other. Am I clear, sir?"
For a moment the Baron was a little taken aback, and then recollecting that the dining habits of the English were still new to him, he concluded that the suggestion was probably a customary act of courtesy. He had already come to the conclusion that the gentleman must be a person of rank, and he replied affably, "Yah—zat is, vid pleasure. Zanks, very."
"The pleasure is mine," said the stranger—"and half the bottle," he added, smiling.
The Baron, whose perception of humour had been abnormally increased by this time, laughed hilariously at the infection of his new acquaintance's smile.
"Goot, goot!" he cried. "Ach, yah, zo."
"Am I right, sir, in supposing that, despite the perfection of your English accent, I cannot be fortunate enough to claim you as a countryman?" asked the stranger.
The Baron's resolutions of reticence had vanished altogether before such unexpected and (he could not but think) un-English friendliness. He unburdened his heart with a rush.
"You have ze right. I am Deutsch. I have gom to England zis day for to lairn and to amuse myself. But mein, vat you call?—introdogtions zey are not inside, zat is zey are from off. Not von, all, every single gone to ze gontry or to abroad. I am alone, I eat my dinner in zolitude, I am pleased to meet you, sare."
A cork popped and the champagne frothed into the stranger's glass. Raising it to his lips, he said, "Prosit!"
"Prosit!" responded the Baron, enthusiastically. "You know ze Deutsch, sare?"
"I am safer in English, I confess."
"Ach, das ist goot, I vant for to practeese. Ve vill talk English."
"With all my heart," said the stranger. "I, too, am alone, and I hold myself more than fortunate in making your acquaintance. It's a devilish dull world when one can't share a bottle—or a brace of them, for the matter of that."
"You know London?" asked the Baron.
"I used to, and I daresay my memory will revive."
"I know it not, pairhaps you can inform. I haf gom, as I say, to-day."
"With pleasure," said the stranger, readily. "In fact, if you are ever disengaged I may possibly be able to act as showman."
"Showman!" roared the Baron, thinking he had discovered a jest. "Ha, ha, ha! Goot, zehr goot!"
The other looked a trifle astonished for an instant, and then as he sipped his champagne an expression of intense satisfaction came over his face.
"I can put away my lantern," he said to himself,—"I have found him."
"May I have the boldness to ask your name, sir?" he asked aloud.
"Ze Baron Rudolph von Blitzenberg," that nobleman replied. "Yours, sare—may I dare?"
"Francis Bunker, at your service, Baron."
"You are noble?" queried the Baron a little anxiously, for his prejudices on this point were strong.
"According to your standard I believe I may say so. That's to say, my family have borne arms for two hundred odd generations; twenty-five per cent of them have died of good living; and the most malicious have never accused us of brains. I myself may not be very typical, but I assure you it isn't my ancestors' fault."
The latter part of this explanation entirely puzzled the Baron. The first statement, though eminently satisfactory, was also a little bewildering.
"Two hondred generations?" he asked, courteously. "Zat is a vary old family. All bore arms you say, Mistair Bonker?"
"All," replied Mr Bunker, gravely. "The first few bore tails as well."
"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed the Baron. "You are a fonny man I pairceive, vat you call clown, yes?"
"What my friends call clown, and I call wit," Mr Bunker corrected.
"Vit! Ha, ha, ha!" roared the Baron, whose mind was now in an El Dorado of humour when jokes grew like daisies. His loneliness had disappeared as if by magic; as course succeeded course his contentment showed itself in a perpetually beaming smile: he ceased to worry even about his friend's pedigree, convinced in his mind that manners so delightful and distinguished could only result from repeated quarterings and unoccupied forefathers. Yet by the time dessert arrived and he had again returned to his port, he began to feel an extreme curiosity to know more concerning Mr Bunker. He himself had volunteered a large quantity of miscellaneous information: about Bavaria, its customs and its people, more especially the habits and history of the Blitzenberg family; about himself, his parentage and education; all about his family ghost, his official position as hereditary carpet-beater to the Bavarian Court, and many other things equally entertaining and instructive. Mr Bunker, for his part, had so far confined his confidences to his name.
"My dear Bonker," said the Baron at last—he had become quite familiar by this time—"vat make you in London? I fear you are bird of passage. Do you stay long?"
Mr Bunker cracked a nut, looking very serious; then he leant on one elbow, glanced up at the ceiling pensively, and sighed.
"I hope I do not ask vat I should not," the Baron interposed, courteously.
"My dear Baron, ask what you like," replied Mr Bunker. "In a city full of strangers, or of friends who have forgotten me, you alone have my confidence. My story is a common one of youthful folly and present repentance, but such as it is, you are welcome to it."
The Baron gulped down half a glass of port and leaned forward sympathetically.
"My father," Mr Bunker continued with an air of half-sad reminiscence, "is one of the largest landowners and the head of one of the most ancient families in the north of England. I was his eldest son and heir. I am still, I have every reason to believe, his eldest son, but my heirship, I regret to say, is more doubtful. I spent a prodigal youth and a larger sum of money than my poor father approved of. He was a strict though a kind parent, and for the good of my health and the replenishment of the family coffers, which had been sadly drained by my extravagance, he sent me abroad. There I have led a roving life for the last six years, and at last, my wild oats sown, reaped, and gathered in (and a well-filled stackyard they made, I can assure you), I decided to return to England and become an ornament to respectable society. Like you, I arrived in London to-day, but only to find to my disgust that my family have gone to winter in Egypt. So you see that at present I am like a shipwrecked sailor clinging to a rock and waiting, with what patience I can muster, for a boat to take me off."