THE MAN WHO
DROVE THE CAR
"THE GIRL WITH THE RED HAIR"
"THE IRON PIRATE" ETC.
Printed by BALLANTYNE & Co. LIMITED
Tavistock Street, Coven Garden, London
I. THE ROOM IN BLACK II. THE SILVER WEDDING III. IN ACCOUNT WITH DOLLY ST. JOHN IV. THE LADY WHO LOOKED ON V. THE BASKET IN THE BOUNDARY ROAD VI. THE COUNTESS
THE ROOM IN BLACK
They say that every man should have a master, but, for my part, I prefer a mistress. Give me a nice young woman with plenty of money in her pocket, and a bit of taste for seeing life, and I'll leave you all the prying "amatoors" that ever sniffed about a gear-box without knowing what was inside that same.
I have driven plenty of pretty girls in my life; but I don't know that the prettiest wasn't Fauny Dartel, of the Apollo. This story isn't about her—except in a way—so it doesn't much matter; but when I first knew Fauny she was getting thirty bob a week in "The Boys of Boulogne," and, as she paid me three pound ten every Saturday, and the car cost her some four hundred per annum to run, she must have been of a saving disposition. Certainly a better mistress no man wants—not Lal Britten, which is yours truly. I drove her for five months, and never had a word with her. Then a man, who said he was a bailiff, came and took her car away, and there was no money for me on the Saturday. So I suppose she married into the peerage.
My story isn't about Fauny Dartel, though it's got to do with her. It's about a man who didn't know who he was—at least, he said so—and couldn't tell you why he did it. We picked him up outside the Carlton Hotel, Fauny and me, three nights before "The Boys of Boulogne" went into the country, and "The Girls" from some other shop took their place. She was going to sup with her brother, I remember—astonishing how many brothers she had, too—and I was to return to the mews off Lancaster Gate, when, just as I had set her down and was about to drive away, up comes a jolly-looking man in a fine fur coat and an opera hat, and asks me if I was a taxi. Lord, how I stared at him!
"Taxi yourself," says I, "and what asylum have you escaped out of?"
"Oh, come, come," says he, "don't be huffy. I only wanted to go as far as Portman Square."
"Then call a furniture van," says I, "and perhaps they'll get you aboard."
My dander was up, I tell you, for I was on the box of as pretty a Daimler landaulette as ever came out of Coventry, and if there's anything I never want to be, it's the driver of a pillar-box with a flag in his left ear. No doubt I should have said much more to the gentleman, when what do you think happens—why, Fauny herself comes up and tells me to take him.
"I'm sure we should like some one to do the same for us if no taxis were about," says she very sweetly; "please take the gentleman, Britten, and then you can go home."
Well, I sat there as amazed a man as any in the Haymarket. It's true there weren't any taxis on the rank at the minute; but he could have got one by walking a hundred yards along Trafalgar Square, and she must have known it as well as he did. All the same, she smiled sweetly at him and he at her—and then, with a tremendous sweep of his hat, he makes a gallant speech to her.
"I am under a thousand obligations," says he; "really, I couldn't intrude."
"Oh, get in and go off," says she, almost pushing him. "I shall lose my supper if you don't."
He obeyed her immediately, and away we went. You will remember that his talk had been of a house in Portman Square; but no sooner had I turned the corner by the Criterion than he began speaking through the tube, and telling me to go to Playford's in Berkeley Square. There he stopped, notwithstanding that it was getting on for twelve o'clock; and when he had rung the bell and entered the house, I had to wait a good fifteen minutes before he was ready for the second stage.
"Is it Portman Square now?" I asked him. He laughed and slipped a sovereign into my hand.
"I can see you're one of the right sort," he said. "Would you mind running round to the King's Road, Chelsea, for ten minutes? Perhaps there'll be another sovereign before we get to bed to-night."
I pocketed the money—you don't find many drivers who are long off the fourth speed in that line, and Lal Britten is no exception. As for the gentleman, he did seem a merry fellow, and his air was that of a Duke all over—the kind of man who says "Do it," and finds you there every time. We were round at the King's Road, Chelsea, perhaps a quarter of an hour after he had spoken, and there we stopped at the door of a lot of studios, which I have been told since are where some of the great painters of the country keep their pictures. Here my friend was gone perhaps twenty minutes, and when next I saw him he had three flash-up ladies with him, and every one as classy as he was.
"Relations of mine," says he, as he pushes 'em into the landaulette, and closes the door himself. "Now you may drive to Portman Square just as fast as you please, for I'm an early bird myself, and don't approve of late hours."
Well, I stared, be sure of it, though staring didn't fit that riddle, not by a long way. My mistress had lent her landaulette to a stranger; but I felt sure that she wouldn't have liked this sort of thing—and yet, remember, the gentleman had told me to drive to Portman Square, so there could not be much the matter, after all.
As for the ladies, it wasn't for me to quarrel with them. They were all very well dressed, and behaved themselves perfectly. I came to the conclusion that I was dealing with some rich man who had a bee in his bonnet, and, my curiosity getting the better of me, I drove away to Portman Square without as much as a word.
Now, this would have been some time after twelve o'clock. It was, I think, a quarter to one when we turned into Portman Square, and he began to work the signal on the driver's seat which tells you whether you are to go to the right or the left, slow or easy, out or home again. All sorts of contradictory orders baffling me, we drew up at last before a big house on the Oxford Street side, and this, to my astonishment, had a "To Let" board in the window, and another at the pillar of the front door. What was even more astonishing was the fact that this empty house—for I saw at a glance it was that—was just lighted up from cellar to attic, while there was as many as three furniture vans drawn up against the pavement, and sending in their contents as fast as a dozen men could carry them. All this, mind you, I took in at a glance. No time was given me to think about it, for the stranger was out of the car in a jiffy and had given me my instructions in two.
"Here's your sovereign," says he; "if you want to earn ten times as many come back for me at four o'clock—or, better still, stay and give 'em a hand inside. We want all the help we can get to-night, and no mistake about it. You can get your supper here, and bring that car round when I'm ready."
Well, I didn't know what to do. My mistress had said nothing about stopping up until four o'clock—but for that matter she hadn't mentioned ten pounds sterling either—and here was this merry gentleman talking about it glibly enough.
For my part the fun of the whole thing began to take hold of me, and I determined to see it through whatever the cost. There were goings on in Portman Square, and no mistake about it—and why should Lal Britten be left out in the cold? Not much, I can tell you. And I had the car away in the garage off the Edgware Road, and was back at the old gentleman's house just about as quick as any driver could have made the journey.
There I found the square half full of people. Three policemen stood at the door of the house, and a pretty crowd of loafers, such as a party in London can always bring together, watched the fun, although they couldn't make much of it. Asking what the hullabaloo was about, a fellow told me that Lord Crossborough had come up from the country suddenly, and was "a-keeping of his jubilee" at No. 20B.
"Half the Gaiety's there, to say nothing of the Merry Widow," says he, as I pushed past him, "and don't you be in a hurry, guv'nor, 'cause you've forgotten yer diamond collar. They won't say nothink up there, not if you was to go in a billycock 'at and a duster, s'welp me, they wouldn't——" But I didn't listen to him, and going up the front door steps by the policemen, I told them I was Lord Crossborough's driver, and passed right in.
Now I have been through many funny scenes in my life, seen many funny gentlemen, to say nothing of funny ladies, and have had many a good time on many a good car. But this I shall say at once, that I never got a greater surprise than when I got back to 2OB, and found myself in the empty hall among twenty or thirty pairs of yellow breeches and as many cooks in white aprons, all pushing and shouting, and swearing that the area gate was locked and bolted, and the kitchen in no fit state to serve supper to a dog.
Upstairs on the landings men in white aprons were carrying plants in pots, and building up banks of roses; while higher up still stood Lord Crossborough himself—the gentleman I had driven from the Carlton—shouting to them to do this and to do that, smoking a cigar as long as your arm, and all the time as merry as a two-year-old at a morning gallop.
As for the young ladies, they had taken off their cloaks, and all wore pretty gowns, same as they would wear for any party in that part of the world, and they were standing by his lordship's side, apparently just as much amused as he was. What astonished me in particular was this nobleman's affability towards me, for he cried out directly he saw me, and implored me for heaven's sake to get the padlock off the area gate, or, says he, "I'm d—d if they won't be cooking the ducks in the drawing-room."
I was only too ready to oblige him, that goes without saying, though I had to run round to the garage for a file and a chisel, and when I got back for the second time, it took me twenty minutes to get off the padlock, after which they sent me upstairs, as they said, "to help with the flats." Then I discovered that a play, or something, was to be given in the drawing-room, the back part of which was full of scenery, showing a castle on the top of a precipice and a view of the Thames Embankment just below it, while away in the small library on the other side of the staircase stood twenty or thirty ballet girls, just come from one of the West End theatres.
Immediately after they had arrived, a number of fiddlers came tumbling up the stairs, and the fun began in earnest. A proper gentleman, who seemed to know what he was talking about, though, to be sure, he did call all the ladies his "darlings," started to put 'em through their paces. I saw one of our leading musical ladies coming down the stairs from the rooms above, and presently a lot of guests arrived from the hall below, and went into the great drawing-room, where the audience was to sit. "After all," says I, "this is just his lordship's bit of fun—he's giving one of those impromptu parties we've heard so much about, and this play-acting is the surprise of it." You shall see presently how very wrong I was.
Well, the play went merry enough, as it should have done, seeing it was performed by people who have to make their living by plays. When it was over, his lordship gets up and says something about their having supper, not in the English way but the French, same as they do at the Catsare in Paris. This pleased them all very much, and I could see that the most part of them were not real ladies and gentlemen at all, but riff-raff Bohemian stuff out for a spree, and determined to have one. The supper itself was the most amusing affair you ever saw; for what must they do but flop down on the floor just where they stood, not minding the bare boards at all, and eat cold chicken and twist rolls from paper bags the footman threw to them. As for the liquor, you would have thought they never could have enough of it—but it's not for me to say anything about that, seeing I had a bottle of the best to myself down in the corner by the conservatory, and more than one paper bag when the first was empty.
Now, this supper occupied them until nearly three in the morning. I make out—as I had to do to the police—that it was just a quarter past three when the real business began, and a pretty frightening business, as my sequel will show. First it began with the sweepers, who swept up the wreck of the vittals with long brooms, and sprinkled scented water afterwards to lay the dust. Then the musicians played a mournful sort of tune, and after that, what do you think?—why, in came a number of stage carpenters, who began to hang the whole place with black.
I have told you already that it was an empty house and not a stick of furniture in it, save what we carried there—so you will see that all this affair must have been arranged a long time before, for the black hangings were all made to fit the room, and upon them they hung black candlesticks with yellow candles in them—as melancholy as those used for a funeral, and just the same kind, so far as I could see. This interested the company very much. I could hear all sorts of remarks from the riff-raff who were making love on the stairs; and presently they all crowded into the room and listened to Lord Crossborough while he made them a speech.
Let me confess that what I know about this speech I learned chiefly from the newspapers. His lordship spoke of his family affairs, and spoke of them in a way that might very well astonish the company.
To begin with, he mentioned his own eccentricities during the last five months, when, as he reminded them, he had retired from public life and gone down to Hertfordshire to found an academy where, with a few convivials, he might study Latin and Greek and forget the high old time he had had in London formerly.
This, he said, had been a pretty slow business, and quite given him the jumps. He began to find himself sighing for the old days. Plato and Socrates were fine old boys, but he preferred "The Boys of Boulogne" at the Apollo, and no mistake about it. So he had given up keeping house with Plato and the other gentleman, and was going over to France, when he discovered Captain Blackham's adventure with Jenny Frobisher of the Opera House, and wanted to know more about it. Did they think he would put up with that? Not for a minute, and, seeing that you can't get law in such affairs in this country, he meant to do his own law-making. That very night he had asked Captain Blackham to come to this house that they might meet and have it out like gentlemen should do. One of them would not return—he left it to the company to bear witness that all was done squarely as between men of honour, and he begged them to keep his confidence. It was then half-past three. They might expect the Captain in ten minutes, during which time he would make his preparations. He was sure they would never betray him.
You may imagine the excitement this speech gave rise to. I was at the bottom of the stairs at the time, and I could hear the women crying out to each other, and the men asking what it all meant. Such a confusion and babel I shall never listen to again in any house. What with some running downstairs and calling for their carriages, the band playing, his lordship bawling for his servants—and, upon all this, the sudden arrival of the Captain, who carried a pair of swords in his hand—why, no madhouse could have matched it.
Well enough, I say, for Lord Crossborough to ask people not to betray him; but what woman could hold her tongue under such circumstances, and how did he think that such a game could be played and the police hear nothing of it? Why, I tell you that half a dozen girls were bawling "Murder!" before five minutes were past, and as many more imploring the police outside to step up and stop it. For myself I made no bones about the matter; and, not wishing to appear in a police court next day, and thinking certainly that Lord Crossborough was as mad as any first-floor tenant of Hanwell, I pushed my way through the press and went off to the garage. Ten pound or no ten pound, I was for bed. Will you ask me if I was surprised when, going up to the car, the very first person I met was his lordship, with a cigar about seven inches long in his mouth, and as pretty a smile above his long black beard as I have seen this many a day.
"Well, my boy," says he, opening the door quite calmly and stepping inside with no more concern than if I had just driven him from the Carlton to Hyde Park Corner, "well, now I think we shall soon have earned that extra ten-pound note. The next house is in Hertfordshire—three miles from Potter's Bar, on the road to Five Corners. Do you happen to know it, by the way?"
I could hardly answer him for amazement.
"But what about the Captain, sir," cried I.
"Oh," says he, "the Captain will never trouble me again. Now get up and make haste. Is your back lamp all right? That's good—I particularly wish all the policemen to get our number. Go right ahead and stop for no one. It's a big house, I am told, and we cannot miss it."
"But," cried I, "isn't it your lordship's house?"
He laughed, the merriest laugh in all the world.
"I was never there in my life," says he; "now get on, for heaven's sake, or you'll have the morning here."
I hadn't a word for this, and, wondering whether I had gone dotty or he, I let the Daimler out and drove straight up Baker Street, through the Park and out on to the Finchley Road. The police have eyes all round their heads for this track as a rule, but never a policeman do I remember seeing that night, and we travelled forty-five an hour after Barnet if we travelled a mile.
My directions, you will remember, had been to go straight through Potter's Bar, and then on to a place called Five Corners—a locality I had never heard of, well as I know Hertfordshire and the roads round about. This I told his lordship as we slowed up in the village, and his answer was surprising, for he told me to go to the police station and to ask there. So I slowed up in Potter's Bar, and, seeing a policeman, I asked him to direct me.
"Keep to the right and turn to the right again," says he, staring hard at his lordship and at me. "That's Lord Crossborough's house, isn't it?"
"Why, yes," says I, naturally enough, "and it's his lordship I am driving."
He nodded pleasantly at this, and his lordship putting his head out of the window at the moment, he spoke to him direct.
"Rather late to-night, my lord."
"Yes, yes, very late, and a driver who doesn't know the road. I am much obliged to you, constable. Tell him how to go, and here's a sovereign for you."
A policeman doesn't like a sovereign, of course, and this fellow was just as nasty about it as the others. I suppose he spent the next quarter of an hour directing me how to go, and when that was done he saluted his lordship in fine military fashion. To be truthful, I may say that we went out of Potter's Bar with flying colours, and for the next ten minutes I drove slowly down dark lanes with corners sharp enough for copybooks, and hedges so high that a man couldn't feel himself for the darkness. When we got out of this we came to five cross-roads, and a big sign-post; and here, I remembered, the policeman had told me to take the middle road to the left, and that I should find Five Corners a quarter of a mile further down. So I was just swinging the big car round when what should happen but that the signal told me to stop, and, bringing to in a jiffy, I waited for his lordship to speak.
"Britten," says he, for I had told him my name half a dozen times already, "Britten, this is very important to me. I'll make it fifteen pounds if you do the job well. Just drive up to the lodge, and when the man opens, you say 'His lordship is very late to-night.' After that, you'll keep to the lower of two roads and come to another lodge. There, when you wake them up, you will say, 'His lordship is very early this morning,' and after that, drive away just as hard as the old car can take you. I'm in the mood to have some fun to-night, and whatever I do is no responsibility of yours, so don't you be troubled about it, my lad. I shall exonerate you if there's any tale; but there can't be one, for surely a man may drive through his own park when he has the mind to."
I said "Of course he had," for what else could I say? The further I got into this job the madder it appeared to be. Perhaps just because of its madness, I determined to see the end of it. After all, I had been ordered by my mistress to drive this gentleman, and whatever he might choose to do was no concern of mine. If I tell the whole truth, and say I thought him a lunatic with whom it would be dangerous to quarrel, well, there's no harm in that; for how many would have done different, and where's the blame? Lords go mad like other people, for all their coronets; and fine times they appear to have in that condition. I said Lord Crossborough was either daft or had some deep game going; and, with that to keep me up, I drove straight to the lodge gates, and bawled for them to let me in.
There was a long wait here, fifteen good minutes or more before a tousled-haired girl opened the little window of the cottage, and asked me what I wanted. When I told her to look sharp and not keep his lordship waiting, I do believe she laughed in my face.
"Why, he's not left the house for a month!" cries she. "Now don't tell me!"
"Oh, but I'm going to tell you—that and a lot more, if you don't hurry up. Don't you see that I've brought his lordship home?"
"Oh, dear me," says she, all flustered; "I'm sure I beg his lordship's pardon——" and with that she came down like a shot and opened the gate. For my part I had nothing more to say to her, except the remark which Lord Crossborough had ordered me to make, and exclaiming, "His lordship is late to-night," I let the clutch in and started the car. A glance behind me showed me my passenger fast asleep, with the girl staring at him with all her eyes. But she said no more, and I drove on, and hadn't gone fifty yards before the signal was working again.
"Oh," says I, "then we've got no sort of dormouse up to be sure. Asleep and awake again all in five minutes"; but I slowed up the car as he directed, and immediately afterwards he called my attention to another party who shared the road with us, and was as curious as the girl. He was a policeman, and he had passed through the lodge gates right on our heels.
I don't know how it is, but if you are doing anything you have any doubt about at all, the sight of a policeman always gives you the creeps. I never see one, but I wonder if he has been timing me, or quarrelling with my number-plates, or doing one or other of those things which policemen do, and we poor devils pay for.
This time I was right down afraid, and made no bones about it. The scene in Portman Square, the women's screams, the empty house, the black hangings, the talk concerning the duel, and his lordship's mysterious words about Captain Blackham never troubling him any more: they came upon me in a flash, and almost drove me silly. Not so my lord himself—I had never seen him calmer.
"Good-morning, constable," says he, "and what can I do for you?"
"I beg your pardon, sir," says the man, dismounting as he spoke, "but there's a telegram from London about your house in Portman Square, and I came up to see if you know anything about it."
"Of course I do, constable—very good of you, though. Tell them it's all right, just a little party to some of my old friends. And here's a sovereign for you; call again later on if you have anything to say. I'm half asleep and dead tired."
He threw a sovereign out on to the grass, and the police sergeant picked it up sharp enough. I thought there was a kind of hesitation in his manner, but couldn't make much of it. Whatever he thought or wished to say, however, that he kept to himself, and after remarking that the morning would break fine, and that he was much obliged to his lordship, he mounted and rode away. This was the moment Lord Crossborough ceased to work the signal, and, opening the front window, spoke to me direct.
"Stop your engine," he says in a low voice, "and see you don't start it until that fellow is out of the park."
I thought it a strange order, but did as he wished. It was plain to me, as it would have been plain to any one, that he didn't wish the constable to see us take the lower road, and had thought out this trick to work his will. I am a pretty good hand myself at stopping my engine, and being unable to start her, especially when my master or mistress wants to get there in a hurry and doesn't consult my convenience. So I was down in a jiffy when his lordship spoke, and there I stood, pretending to swing the handle and to poke about inside the bonnet until the sergeant had turned the corner of the drive, and it was safe to go ahead again.
The second lodge lay perhaps the third of a mile from the place where we had halted, and we must pass within a hundred yards of the house itself to get to it. I didn't need to be told not to sound my horn as we went by, and we were creeping along nicely when—and this was something which seemed to hit me in the very face—we came upon a man walking under the trees by the lake side, and he—believe me or not as you like—was the very living image of my passenger. "Good God!" says I, "then there are two of 'em," and in a very twinkling the whole nature of this night's business seemed clear to me.
A man just like his lordship, dressed in a tweed suit and with a thick stick in his hand—a man with a bushy black beard, a full round forehead, and the very walk and movement of the man I carried. What was I to make of him, what to think of it? Well, I can hardly tell you that, for, no sooner did we catch sight of the man than my passenger roared to me to go straight on, and, ducking down inside the landaulette, he hid himself as completely from sight as though he had been in the tool-box. For my part, remembering the old adage about "In for a penny in for a pound," I just let the Daimler fly, and we went down the drive and up to the lodge as fast as car ever travelled that particular road or will travel it whatever the circumstances.
"Gate," I roared, "gate, gate!" for the padlock was plain enough and a good stout chain about it. No one answered me for more than five minutes, I suppose, and no sooner did an old man appear, than I saw the stranger with his bushy black beard, his lordship's double, running down the drive for all he was worth, and bawling to the gate-keeper not to open.
A critical moment this, upon my word, and one to bring a man's heart into his mouth—the doddering old man tottering to the gate; the stranger running like a prize-winner; Lord Crossborough himself, doubled up in the bottom of the landaulette, and me sitting there with my foot on the clutch, my hand on the throttle, and my pulse going like one o'clock. Should we do it or should we not? Would it be shut or open? The question answered itself a moment later, when the lodge-keeper, not seeing the other fellow, half opened the iron gates and let my bonnet in between them. The car almost knocked him down as we raced through—I could hear him bawling "Stop!" even above the hum of the engine.
You will not have forgotten that his lordship had told me to go, hell for leather, directly I was through the gate, and right well I obeyed him. The lanes were narrow and twisty; there were morning mists blowing up from the fields; we passed more than one market cart, and nearly lost our wings. But I was out to earn fifteen of the best, and right well I worked for them. Slap bang into Potter's Bar, slap bang out of it and round the bend towards Prickly Hill. I couldn't have driven faster if I had had the whole county police at my heels—and the Lord knows whether I had or not.
This brought us to Barnet in next to no time. We were still doing forty as we entered the town, and would have run out of it at twenty-five after we'd passed the church and the police station—would have, I say, but for one little fact, and that was a fat sergeant of police right in the middle of the road, with his hand held up like a leg of mutton, and a voice that might have been hailing a burglar.
"Here, you," he cried, as I drew up, "who have you got in that car?"
"Why," says I, "who should I have but somebody who has a right to be there? Ask his lordship for himself."
"His lordship—do you mean Lord Crossborough?"
I went to say "Yes," just as he opened the door. You shall judge what I thought of it when a glance behind me showed that the landaulette was empty.
"Now, who are you making game of?" cried the sergeant, throwing the door wide open. "There ain't no lordship in here. What do you mean by saying there was?"
"Well, he was there when I left Five Corners——"
"What! you've come from his house?"
"Straight away," says I, "and no calls. Ask him for yourself."
He could see that I was flabbergasted and telling him the truth. There was the landaulette as empty as a box of chocolates when the parlourmaid has done with them. How Lord Crossborough got out or where he had gone to when he did get out, I knew no more than the dead. One thing was plain—I was as clean sold as any greenhorn at any country fair. And I made no bones about telling the sergeant as much.
"He asked me to drive him down from town to his house at Five Corners. My mistress told me to take him, and I did. I was to have fifteen of the best for the job—and here you see what I get. Oh, you bet I'm happy."
I spoke with some feeling, and you may be sure I felt pretty kind towards Lord Crossborough just then. To be kept up all night and run about like a "yellow breeches," to have my ears crammed with promises and my skin drenched with the mists, to find myself stranded in Barnet at the end. It was more than any man's temper could stand, and that I told the sergeant.
"Well," says I, "next time I meet him, I shall have something pretty strong to say to that same Lord Crossborough, and you may tell him so when you see him."
"See him—I wish we could see him. There's half the county police looking for him this minute. Oh, we'd like to see him all right, and a few others as well. Now, you come down to the station and tell us all about it. There'll be a cup of hot coffee there, and I daresay you won't mind that."
I said that I wouldn't, and went along with him. An inspector at the station took my story down from the time I set off from the Carlton to the moment I quitted Five Corners. What he wanted it for, what Lord Crossborough had done, or what he was going to do, they didn't tell me, nor did I care. But they gave me a jolly good breakfast before they sent me off, and that was about the best thing I had had for twelve long hours. It was eleven o'clock when I got back to town at last. And at three o'clock precisely I saw my mistress again.
You will readily imagine that I was glad of this interview, and had been looking forward to it anxiously from the time I drove the car into the stable until the moment it came off. Miss Dartel had a flat in Bayswater just then; but she didn't send for me there, and it was at the theatre I saw her, in her own dressing-room between the acts of a rehearsal. A clean-shaven gentleman was talking to her when I went in, and for a little while I didn't recognise him; but presently he turned round, and something in his manner and tone of voice caused me to look up sharp enough.
"Why," says I, "his lordship!"
They both laughed at this, and Miss Dartel held up her finger.
"Whatever are you saying, Britten?" cried she. "That's Mr. Jermyn, of the Hicks Theatre."
"Jermyn or French," says I, my temper getting up, "he's the man I drove to Five Corners last night—and fifteen pounds he owes me, neither more nor less."
Well, they both laughed again, and the gentleman, he took a pocket-book from the inside pocket of his coat and laid three five-pound notes on the table. While they were there, Miss Dartel puts her pretty fingers upon them, and begins to speak quite confidentially—
"Britten," says she, "there's fifteen pounds. I daresay it would be fifty if you had a very bad memory, Britten, and couldn't recognise the gentleman you picked up last night. Now, do you think you have such a bad memory as all that?"
I twigged it in a minute, and answered them quite honestly.
"I must know more or less, madame," says I. "Remember my interests are not this gentleman's interests."
"Oh, that's quite fair, Britten, though naturally, we know nothing. But they do say that poor Lord Crossborough has gone quite silly about the rural life. He's been reading Tolstoy's books, and wants to live upon a shilling a day; while poor Lady Crossborough, who knows my cousin, Captain Blackham, very well, she's bored to death, and it will kill her if it goes on. So, you see, she persuaded his lordship to give that funny party at his old house in Portman Square last night, and all the papers are laughing at it to-day, and he'll be chaffed out of his life. I'm sure Lady Crossborough will get her way now, Britten; and when the police hear it was only an eccentricity upon his lordship's part, they won't say anything. Now, do you think that you would be able to swear that the man you drove last night was very like Lord Crossborough? If so, it would be lucky, and I'm sure her ladyship will give you fifty pounds."
I thought about it a minute, rolling up the notes and putting them into my pocket. Of course I could swear as she wanted me to. And fifty of the best. Good Lord, what a temptation!
But I'll tell you straight that I got the fifty, and never swore nothing at all. The party was a job put up by Lady Crossborough. The man I drove was Mr. Jermyn, of the Hicks Theatre, and the world and the newspapers laughed so loud at his lordship, who never convinced anybody he hadn't done it, that he went off to India in a hurry, and never came back for twelve months. Which proves to me that honesty is the best policy, as I shall always declare.
And one thing more—where did Mr. Jermyn get out of my car? Why, just as I slowed up for the corner by the church at Barnet—not a hundred yards from where the constable stopped me. A clever actor—why, yes, he is that.
 The Editor has left Mr. Britten to speak for himself in his own manner when that seems characteristic of his employment.
 Mr. Britten's spelling of Quat'z-Arts is eccentric.
THE SILVER WEDDING
Yes, I shall never forget "Benny," and I shall never forget his beautiful red hair. Gentlemen, I have driven for many ... and the other sort, but "Benny" was neither the one nor the other—not a man, but a tribe ... not a Jew nor yet a Christian, but just something you meet every day and all days—a big, blundering heap of good-nature, which quarrels with one half the world and takes Bass's beer with the other. That was Benjamin Colmacher—"Benny" for short—that was the master I want to tell you about.
I was out of a job at the time, and had picked up an endorsement at Hayward's Heath and left a matter of six pounds there for the justices to get busy with. Time is money, they say, and I have found it to be so ... generally five pounds and costs, though more if you take a quantity. It isn't easy for a good man with a road mechanic's knowledge and five years' experience, racing and otherwise, to place himself nowadays, when any groom can get made a slap-bang "shuffer" for five pounds at a murder-shop, and any old coachman is young enough to put his guv'nor in the ditch. My knowledge and my experience had gone begging for exactly three months when I heard of Benny, and hurried round to his flat off Russell Square, "just the chap for you," they said at the garage. I thought so, too, when I saw him.
It was a fine flat, upon my word, and filled up with enough fal-de-lals to please a duchess from the Gaiety. Benny himself, his red hair combed flat on his head and oiled like a missing commutator, wore a Japanese silk dressing-gown which would have fired a steam car. His breakfast, I observed, consisted of one brandy-and-soda and a bunch of grapes; but the cigar he offered me was as long as a policeman's boot, and the fellow to it stuck out of a mouth as full of fine white teeth as a pod of peas.
"Good-morning," says he, nodding affably enough; and then, "You are Lionel Britten, I suppose?"
"Yes," says I—for no road mechanic who respects himself is going to "sir" such as Benny Colmacher to begin with—"that's my name, though my friends call me Lal for short. You're wanting a driver, I hear."
He sat himself in a great armchair and looked me up and down as a vet looks at a horse.
"I do want a driver," says he, "though how you got to know it, the Lord knows."
"Why," says I, "that's funny, isn't it? We're both wanting the same thing, for I can see you're just the gentleman I would like to take on with."
He smiled at this, and seemed to be thinking about it. Presently he asked a plain question. I answered him as shortly.
"Where did you hear of me?" he asked.
"At Blundell's garage," I answered.
"And I was buying a car?"
"Yes, a fifty-seven Daimler ... that was the talk."
"Could you drive a car like that?"
"Could I—oh, my godfathers——"
"Then you have handled fast cars?"
"I drove with Fournier in the Paris-Bordeaux, was through the Florio for the Fiat people, and have driven the big Delahaye just upon a hundred and three miles an hour. Read my papers, sir ... they'll show you what I've done."
I put a bundle into his hand, and he read a few words of them. When next he looked at me, there was something in his eyes which surprised me considerably. Some would have called it cunning, some curiosity; I didn't know what to make of it.
"Why would you like to drive for me?" he asked presently.
"Because," said I, quickly enough, "it's plain that you're a gentleman anybody would like to drive for."
"But you don't know anything at all about me."
"That's just it, sir. The nicest people are those we don't know anything at all about."
He laughed loudly at this, and helped himself to the brandy-and-soda, but didn't drink over-much of it. I could see that he was much relieved, and he spoke afterwards with more freedom.
"You're one that knows how to hold his tongue?" he suggested. I rejoined that, so far as tongues went, I had mine in a four-inch vice.
"Especially where the ladies are concerned?"
"I'd sooner talk to them than about them, sir."
"That's right, that's right. Don't take the maid when you can get the mistress, eh?"
"Take 'em both for choice, that's my motto."
"You're not married, Britten?"
"No such misfortune has overtaken me, sir."
"Ha!"—here he leered just like an actor at the Vic—"and you don't mind driving at night?"
"I much prefer it, sir."
He leered again, and seemed mightily pleased. A few more questions put and answered found me with that job right enough ... and a right good job, too, as things are nowadays. I was to have four pounds a week and liveries. Such a mug as "Benny" Colmacher would not be the man to ask about tyres and petrol, and if he did, I knew how to fill up his tanks for him. Be sure I went away on my top speed and ate a better lunch than had come my way for six months or more. Who the man was, or what he was, I didn't care a dump. I had got the job, and to-morrow I would get up in the driver's seat of a car again. You can't wonder I was pleased.
I slept well that night, and was round at Benny's early on the following morning. If I had been surprised at my good luck yesterday, surprise was no word for what I felt when the valet opened the door to me and told me that Mr. Colmacher was in the country and wouldn't be back for a month. Not a word had been said about this, mind you—not a hint at it; and yet the stiff and starched gentleman could tell me the news just as coolly as though he had said, "My master has gone across the street to see a friend." When I asked him if there was no message for me, he answered simply, "None."
"He didn't give no instructions about the car?"
"The car is at the yard being repaired."
"But I was engaged to drive her——"
"You will drive Mr. Colmacher when he returns."
"And my wages——?"
"Oh, those will be paid. This is a place where they know what is due to us."
"And I am to do nothing meanwhile?"
"If you have nothing to do, by all means."
It was an odd thing to hear, to be sure, and you can well understand my hesitation as I stood there on the landing and watched that stiff and starched valet, who might have just come out of a tailor's shop. Gentlemen are not usually reserved between themselves, but this fellow beat me altogether, and I liked him but little. Such a "don't-touch-me-or-I-shall-vanish" manner you don't come across often even in Park Lane, and I soon saw that whatever else happened, Joseph, the valet, as they called him, and Lal Britten, the "shuffer," were never going to the North Pole together.
"If it's doing nothing," said I at last, "Mr. Colmacher won't have cause to complain of his driver. Am I to call again, or will he send for me?"
"He will send for you, unless you like to see Mr. Walter in the meantime?"
I looked up at this. There had been no "Mr. Walter" in the business before.
"Mr. Walter—and who may Mr. Walter be?"
"He is Mr. Colmacher's son."
"Then I will see him just as soon as you like."
He nodded his head and invited me in. Presently I found myself in a fine bedroom on the far side of the flat, and what was my astonishment to discover Mr. Walter himself in bed with a big cut across his forehead and his right arm in a sling. He was a lean, pale youth, but with as cadaverous a face as I have ever looked upon; and when he spoke his voice appeared to come from the back of his head.
"You are the new driver my father has engaged?"
"Yes, sir, I am the same."
"I hope you understand powerful cars. Did my father tell you that ours is a steam car?"
"He talked about a fifty-seven Daimler, sir."
"But you have had experience with steam cars——"
"How did you know that, sir?"
He smiled softly.
"We have made inquiries—naturally, we should do so."
"Then you have not been misinformed. I drove a thirty-horse White three months last year."
"Ah, the same car that we drive. Unfortunately, I cannot help my father just now, for I have met with an accident—in the hunting field."
I jibbed at this. Motor-men don't know much about the hunting field, as a rule, but I wasn't such a ninny that I supposed men hunted in July.
"Hunting, did you say, sir?"
"That is, trying a horse for the hunting season. Well, you may go now. Leave your address with Joseph. My father will send for you when he returns, and meanwhile you are at liberty."
I thanked him and went off. Oddly enough, this fellow pleased me no more than the valet. His smile was ugly, his scowl uglier still—especially when I made that remark about the hunting field. "Better have held your tongue, Lal, my boy," said I to myself; and resolving to hold it for the future, I went to my own diggings and heard no more of the Colmachers, father or son, for exactly twenty-one days. The morning of the twenty-second found me at the flat again. "Benny" Colmacher had returned, and remembered that he had paid me three weeks' wages.
Now this was the middle of the month of August, and "Benny" certainly was dressed for country wear. A dot-and-go-one suit of dittoes went for best, so to speak, with his curly red hair, and got the better of it by a long way. He had a white rose in his button-hole, and his manner was as smooth as Vacuum B from a nice clean can. He had just breakfasted off his usual brandy-and-soda and dry toast when I came in; and the big cigar did sentry-go across his mouth all the time he talked to me.
"Come in, come in, Britten," he cried pompously, when I appeared. "You like your place, I hope—you don't find the work too hard?"
"That's so—sir—a very nice sort of place this for a delicate young man like myself."
"Ah, but we are going to be a little busier. Has Mr. Walter shown you the car?"
"No, sir, not yet. I hear she is a White steamer, though."
"Yes, yes; I like steam cars; they don't shake me up. When a man weighs fifteen stun, he doesn't like to be shaken up, Britten—not good for his digestion, eh? Well, you go down to the Bedford Mews, No. 23B, and tell me if you can get the thing going by ten o'clock to-morrow—as far as Watford, Britten. That's the place, Watford. I've something on down there—something very important. Upon my soul, I don't know why I shouldn't tell you. It's about a lady, Britten—ha, ha!—about a lady."
Well, he grinned all over his face just like the laughing gorilla at the Zoo, and went on grinning for a matter of two minutes or more. Such a laugh caught you whether you would or no; and while I didn't care two-pence about his business, and less about the lady, yet here I was laughing as loudly as he, and seemingly just as pleased.
"Is it a young lady?" I ventured to ask presently. But he stopped laughing at that, and looked mighty serious.
"You mustn't question me, my lad," he said, a bit proudly. "I like my servants to be in my confidence, but they must not beg it. We are going down to Watford—that is enough for you. Get the car ready as soon as possible, and let me know at once if there is anything the matter with her."
I promised to do so, and went round to the mews immediately. "Benny" seemed to me just a good-natured lovesick old fool, who had got hold of some new girl in the country and was going off to spoon her. The car I found to be one of the latest forty White's in tip-top trim. She steamed at once, and when I had put a new heater in, there was nothing more to be done to her, except to wash her down, a thing no self-respecting mechanic will ever do if he can get another to take the job on for him. So I hired a loafer who was hanging about the mews, and set him to the work while I read the papers and smoked a cigarette.
He was a playful little cuss to be sure, one of those "ne'er-grow-ups" you meet about stables, and ready enough to gossip when I gave him the chance.
"He's a wonder, is Colmacher," he remarked as he splashed and hissed about the wheels. "Takes his car out half a dozen times in as many hours, and then never rides in her for three months. You would be engaged in place of Mr. Walter, I suppose. They say he's gone to America, though I don't rightly know whether that's true or not."
I answered him without looking up from my paper.
"Who says he's in America?"
"Why, the servants say it. Ellen the housemaid and me—but that ain't for the newspapers. So Mr. Walter's home, is he? Well, he do walk about, to be sure, and him not left for New York ten days ago."
"You seem to be angry about it, my boy."
"Well no, it ain't nothing to me, to be sure, though I must say as Benny's one after my own heart. The girls he do know, and mostly after 'em when the sun's gone down. Would it be the young lady at Bristol this time, or another? He wus took right bad down in Wiltshire larst time I heard of 'im, but perhaps he's cured hisself drinking of the waters. Anyway, it ain't nothing to me, for I'm off to Margate to-morrow."
He waited for me to speak, but seeing that I was bent on reading my paper, made no further remark until his job was done. When next I saw him it was at eleven o'clock on the following day, just as I was driving the car round to "Benny's" to take the old boy down to Watford as he wished. Jumping on the step, the lad put a funny question:
"You're a good sort," he said. "Will you forward this bit of a telegram to me from any place you chance to stop at to-night?"
"Why, what's up now?" I asked.
"Nothing much, but my old uncle won't let me go, and I want to take Ellen to Margate for the day. This telegram says mother's ill and wants me. Will you send it through and put in the name of the place where you stop to-night?"
I said that I would, and sticking the sixpence inside my glove and the form into my pocket, I thought no more about it, and drove straight away to Benny's. The old boy was dressed fit to marry the whole Gaiety ballet, white frock suit, white hat, and a rose as big as a full-blown tomato in his button-hole. To the valet he gave his directions in a voice that could have been heard half down the street. He was going to Watford, and would return in a week.
"Mind," he cried, "I'm staying at the King's Arms, and you can send my letters down there." Then he waved his hand to me, and we set off. The road to Watford via Edgware is traps from end to end, and, well as the White was going, I did not dare to let her out. It was just after half-past eleven when we left town, and about a quarter to one when we dropped down the hill into Watford town. Here "Benny" leant over and spoke to me.
"Shan't lunch here," he cried, as though the idea had come to him suddenly; "get on to St. Albans or to Hatfield if you like. The Red Lion will do me—drive on there and don't hurry."
I made no answer, but drove quietly through the town, and so by the old high road to St. Albans and thence to Hatfield. Truth to tell, the car interested me far more than old Benny or his plans. She was steaming beautifully, and I had six hundred pounds' pressure all the time. While that was so I didn't care the turn of a nut whether old Benny lunched at Watford or at Edinburgh, and as for his adventure with the girl—well, you couldn't expect me to go talking about another man's good luck. In fact, I had forgotten all about it long before we were at Hatfield, and when we had lunched and the old chap suddenly remembered that he would like to spend the night at Newmarket, I was not so surprised—for this is the motorist's habit all the world over, and there's the wonder of the motor-car, that, whether you wish to sleep where you are or a hundred miles distant, she'll do the business for you and make no complaint about it.
Perhaps you will say that I ought to have been surprised, ought to have guessed that this man was up to no good and turned back to the nearest police station. It's easy to be a prophet after the event; and between what a man ought to do and what he does do on any given occasion, there is often a pretty considerable margin when it comes to the facts. I drove Benny willingly, not thinking anything at all about the matter. When he stopped in the town of Royston and said he would take a cup of tea with a cork to it, I thought it just the sort of thing such a man would do. And I was ready myself for a cigarette and a stroll round—for sitting all that time in the car makes a man's legs stiff, and no mistake about it. But I wasn't away more than ten minutes, and when I got back to the hotel "Benny" was already fuming at the door.
"Where have you been to?" he asked in a voice unlike his own—the voice of a man who knows "what's what" and will see that he gets it. "Why weren't you with the car?"
"Been to the telegraph office," said I quietly, for no bluster is going to unship me—not much.
"Telegraph office!" and here his face went white as a sheet, "what the devil did you go there for?"
"What people usually go for, sir—to send a telegram."
We looked each other full in the face for a moment, and I could see he was sorry he had spoken.
"I suppose you wanted to let your friends know," he put it to me. I said it was just that—for such was the shortest way out of it.
"Then get the car out at once and keep to the Newmarket Road. I shall sleep at the Randolph Arms to-night."
I made no answer and we got away again. But, for all that, I thought a lot, and all the time the White was flying along that fine bit of road, I was asking myself why Benny turned pale when he heard I had sent a telegram. Was this business with the girl, then, something which might bring trouble on us both? Was he the man he represented himself to be? Those were the questions I could not answer, and they were still in my head when we reached the village of Whittlesford and Benny suddenly ordered me to stop.
"This looks a likely inn," he said, pointing to a pretty little house on the right-hand side of the road; "I think we might stop the night here, lad. They'll give us a good bed and a good glass of whisky, anyway, and what does a man want more? Run the car into the yard and wait while I talk to them. You won't die if we don't get to Newmarket to-night, I suppose?"
I said that it was all one to me, and put the car into the yard. The inn was a beauty, and I liked the look of it. Perhaps Benny's new manner disarmed me; he was as mild as milk just then, and as affable as a commercial with a sample in his bag. When he appeared again he had the landlord with him, and he told me he was going to stop.
"Get a good dinner into you, lad, and then come and talk to me," he said, putting a great paw on my shoulder, and leering apishly. "We mayn't go to bed to-night, after all, for, to tell you the truth, I don't like the colour of their sheets. You wouldn't mind sitting up, I daresay, not supposing—well, that there was a ten-pound note hanging to it?"
I opened my eyes at this.
"A ten-pound note, sir?"
"Yes, for robbing you of your bed. Didn't you tell me you were a wonder at night driving. Well, I want to see what stuff you're made of."
I did not answer him, and, after talking a lot about my cleverness and the way the car had run, he went in and had his dinner. What to make of him or his proposal I knew no more than the dead. Certainly he had done nothing which gave me any title to judge him, and a man with a job to serve isn't over-ready to be nice about his masters, whatever their doings. I came to the conclusion that he was just a dotty old boy who had gone crazy over some girl, and that he was driving out by night to see her. All the talk about Watford and his letters was so much jibarree and not meant for home consumption; but, in any case, it was no affair of mine, nor could I be held responsible for what he did or what he left undone.
This was the wisest view to take, and it helped me out afterwards. He made a good dinner, they told me, and drank a fine bottle of port, kept in the cellars of the house from the old days when gentlemen drove themselves to Newmarket, and didn't spare the liquor by the way. It was half-past ten when I saw him again, and then he had one of the roly-poly cigars in his mouth and the ten-pound note in his hand.
"Britten," he said quite plain, "you know why I've come down here?"
"I think so, sir."
"Chercher les femmes, as they say in Boolong—I'm down here to meet the girl I'm going to marry."
"Hope you'll find her well, sir."
"Ah, that's just it. I shan't find her well if her old father can help it. Damn him, he's nearly killed her with his oaths and swearing these last two months. But it's going to stop, Britten, and stop to-night. She's waiting for this car over at Fawley Hill, which isn't half a mile from this very door."
He came a step nearer and thrust the ten-pound note under my very nose. "It's Lord Hailsham's place—straight up the hill to the right and on to the high road from Bishop's Stortford. There's a party for a silver wedding, and Miss Davenport is staying there with her father and mother. Bring her to this house and I'll give you fifty pounds. There's ten as earnest money. She's over age and can do what she likes—and it's no responsibility of yours, anyway."
I took the note in my hand and put a question.
"Do I drive to the front door—I'm thinking not?"
"You drive to the edge of the spinney which you'll find directly you turn the corner. Wait there until Miss Davenport comes. Then drive her straight here and your money is earned. I'll answer for the rest and she shall answer for herself."
I nodded my head, and, folding up the note, I put it in my pocket. The night was clear when I drove away from the inn, but there was some mist in the fields and a goodish bit about the spinney they had pointed out to me. A child could have found the road, however, for it was just the highway to Newmarket; and when I had cruised along it a couple of hundred yards, to the very gates of Lord Hailsham's house, I turned about and stood off at the spinney's edge, perhaps three hundred yards away. Then I just lighted a cigarette and waited, as I had been told to do.
It was a funny job, upon my word. Sometimes I laughed when I thought about it; sometimes I had a bit of a shiver down my back, the sort of thing which comes to a man who's engaged in a rum affair, and may not come well out of it. As for the party Lord Hailsham was giving, there could be no doubt about that. I had seen the whole house lighted up from attic to kitchen, and some of the lights were still glistening between the pollards in the spinny; while the stables themselves seemed alive with coachmen, carriages, and motor-cars. The road itself was the only secluded spot you could have pointed out for the third of a mile about—but that was without a living thing upon it, and nothing but a postman's cart passed me for an hour or more.
I should have told you that I had turned the car and that she now stood with her headlights towards home. The mists made the night very cold, and I was glad to wrap myself up in one of the guvnor's rugs and smoke a packet of cigarettes while I waited. From time to time I could hear the music of fiddles, and they came with an odd echo, just as though some merry tune of long ago chided me for being there all alone. When they ceased I must have dropped asleep, for the next thing I knew was that some one was busy about the car and that my head-lamps had both gone out. Be sure I jumped up like a shot at this, and "Hallo," cried I, "what the devil do you think you are doing?" Then I saw my mistake. The new-comer was a girl, one of the maids of the house, it appeared, and she was stowing luggage into the car.
"Oh," says I, "then Miss Davenport is coming, is she?"
The girl went on with her work, hardly looking at me. When she did speak I thought her voice sounded very odd; and instead of answering me she asked a question:
"Do you know the road to Colchester?"
"You take the first to the left when we leave here—then go right ahead until I tell you to stop. Understand, whatever happens you are to get ahead as fast as you can. The rest is with——"
He came to an abrupt halt, and no wonder. If you had given me ten thousand pounds to have kept my tongue still, I would have lost the money that instant. For who do you think the maid was? Why, no other than the starchy valet, Joseph, I had seen at Mr. Colmacher's flat.
"Up you get, my boy," he cried, throwing all disguise to the winds, "Don't you hear that noise? They have discovered Miss Davenport is going and the job's off. We'll tell Benny in the morning—the thing to do to-night is to show them our heels and sharp about it."
He bade me listen, and I heard the ringing of an alarm bell, the barking of hounds, and then the sound of many voices. Some suspicion, ay, more than that, a pretty shrewd guess at the truth was possible then, and I would have laid any man ten pounds to nothing that "love" was not much in this business, whatever the real nature of it might be. For that matter, the fellow had hardly got the words out of his mouth when the glitter of something bright he had dropped on the ground, caused me to stoop and to pick up a gold watch bracelet set in diamonds. The same instant I heard a man running on the road behind me, and who should come up but the very "ne'er-do-well" who helped me to wash down my car but yesterday morning.
"Hold that man!" he cried, throwing himself at the valet. "He's Marchant, the Yankee hotel robber—hold him in the King's name—I'm a police officer, and I have a warrant."
Now, this was something if you like, and I don't think any one is going to wonder either at my surprise, or at the hesitation which overtook me. To find myself, in this way, confronted by two men who had seemed so different from what they were, and that not twenty-four hours ago; to discover one of them disguised as a woman and the other saying he was a police officer—well, do you blame me for standing there with my mouth wide open, and my eyes staring with the surprise of it? Pity I did so, all the same, for the "ne'er-do-well" was on the floor next moment, and it didn't need a second look to tell me that it would be a long time before he got up again.
I shall never forget if I live a hundred years (which would be pretty lucky for a man who thinks less than nothing of speed limits and is known to all the justices in Sussex), I shall never forget the way that valet turned on poor Kennaway (for that was the detective's name) and laid him flat on the grass. Such a snarl of rage I never heard. The man seemed transformed in an instant from a silent, reserved, taciturn servant to a very maniac, fighting with teeth and claw, cursing and swearing horribly, and as strong as a gorilla.
Again and again he struck at his victim, the heavy blows sounding like the thud of iron upon a carpet; and long before I got my wits back and leaped to Kennaway's assistance, that poor fellow was insensible and moaning upon the grass at the roadside. The next thing that I knew about it was that I had a revolver as close to my forehead as a revolver will ever be, and that the man Joseph was pushing me toward the car, the while he said something to which I must listen if I would save my life.
"Get up, you fool," he cried. "Do you want me to treat you as I've treated him? Get up, or by the Lord I'll blow your brains out!"
Well, judge me for it how you will, but I obeyed him as any child. What I had tried to do for poor Kennaway was shown by the cut across my forehead, which I shall carry to my dying day. Such strength and such temper I have never known in any man, and they frightened me beyond all words to tell you. There are human beings and human animals, and this fellow was of the latter sort. No raving maniac could have done worse to any fellow creature; and when I got up to the driver's seat and started the engine, my hands trembled so that I could hardly keep them on the wheel.
We jumped away, a roar of voices behind us and the alarm bell of the house still ringing. What was in my head was chiefly this, that I was going out upon the road with this madman for a companion, and that sooner or later he would make an end of me. Judge of my position, knowing, as I did, that a murderer sat in the tonneau behind, and that he held a revolver at full cock in his hand. My God! it was an awful journey, the most awful I shall ever make.
He would kill me when it suited him to do it. I was as sure of it as of my own existence. In one mile or twenty, here in the lanes of Cambridgeshire, or over yonder when we drew near to the sea, this madman would do the business. More fearful than any danger a man can face was this peril at the back of me. I listened for a word or sound from him; I tried to look behind me and see what he was doing. He never made a movement, and for miles we roared along that silent road, through the mists and the darkness to the unknown goal—a murderer and his victim, as I surely believed myself to be.
There is many a man who has the nerve for a sudden call, but few who can stand a trial long sustained. All that I can tell you of what fear is like, the fear of swift death, and of the pain and torture of it, would convey nothing to you of my sensations during that mad drive. Sometimes I could almost have wished that he would make an end of it then and there, shooting me in mercy where I sat, and sparing me the agony of uncertainty. But mile after mile we went without a sound from him; and when, in sheer despair, I slowed down and asked him a direction, he was on me like a tiger, and I must race again for very life. Through Haverhill, thence to Sibil Ingham and Halstead—ay, until the very spires of Colchester stood out in the dawn light, that race went on. And I began to say that he might spare me after all, that I was necessary to him, and that his destination was Harwich and the morning steamer to Holland. Fool! it was then he fired at me, then that the end came.
I thought that I heard him move; some instinct—for there is an instinct in these things, let others say what they please—caused me to turn half about, and detect him standing in the tonneau. No time for prudence then, no time for resolution or anything but that fear of death which paralyses the limbs and seems to still the very heart. With a cry that was awful to hear, he fired his pistol, and I heard the report of it as thunder in my ear, the while the powder burned my face as the touch of red-hot iron. But a second shot he never fired. A sudden lurch, as I let go the wheel, sent the car bounding on to the grass at the road-side, threw the murderer off his balance and hurled him backwards. There was a tremendous crash, I found myself beneath the tonneau, and then, as it seemed, on the top of it again. At last I went rolling over and over on to the grass, and lay there, God knows how long, in very awe and terror of all that had overtaken me.
But the valet himself was stone dead, caught by the neck as the car went over and crushed almost beyond recognition. And that was the judgment upon him, as I shall believe to my life's end.
* * * * *
They never caught old "Benny," not for that job, at any rate. He turned out to be the head of a swindling crew, known in America and Paris as the "Red Poll" gang, because of his beautiful sandy hair. He must have been wanted for fifty jobs in Europe, and as many on the other side. As for his supposed son, Mr. Walter, and the valet Marchant, they were but two of the company. And why they came to engage me was because of a motor accident to the man Walter, which put him out of the running when the burglary job at Lord Hailsham's was to be undertaken.
Kennaway, the detective, was three months in hospital after his little lot. It was clever of him to make me post a telegram on the road, for, directly he got it, he wired to the Chief Constable at Cambridge, and came on himself by train. The local police furnished a list of all the house-parties being held about Royston that week-end, and, of course, as Lord Hailsham was celebrating his silver wedding, it didn't need much wit to send Kennaway there; the valet, meanwhile, being already in the house, disguised as a maid.
We were to have had a bit of a silver wedding ourselves, it appears, for I doubt not "Benny" would have led all the silver, to say nothing of the gold and precious stones, to the altar as soon as possible. But the best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley, as do motor-cars when the man who's driving them has a pistol at his head.
IN ACCOUNT WITH DOLLY ST. JOHN
My old father used to say that "woman's looks were his only books and folly was all they taught him," which shows, I suppose, that what he knew about the sex he learned from a circulating library.
Anyway, he never drove a motor-car, or he would have written in another strain. Sometimes I pick up a piece in the newspapers about women and then I laugh to myself, thinking how many mugs there are in the world and how they were born for the other sex to make game of. Let 'em get on the driver's seat and take madam round an afternoon or two. There won't be much talk about gentle shepherdesses after that, I'll wager—though if a crook or two don't get into the story I'm Dutchman.
Well, you must know that this is about Dolly St. John—a little American girl, who hired a car from the Empire Company when I was one of its drivers, and had a pretty little game with us. I used to go for her every afternoon to some hotel or the other, and always a different one, she not being domesticated, so to speak, and never caring to overstay her welcome.
A daintier little body was never fitted upon a chassis. There are some who like them fair, and some who like them dark—but Dolly St. John was betwixt and between, neither the one nor the other, but a type that gets there every time, and turns twenty heads when a policeman stops you at a crossing.
It's very natural that young women should like to talk to their drivers; and, if the truth were told, some of them will tell us things they would never speak of, no, not to their own husbands, if they've got any. Dolly was one of these, and a more talkative little body never existed. I knew her history the very first afternoon I took her round; and by the third, I could have told you that she had met the Hon. John Sarand, and meant to marry him, even if his old father, Lord Badington, had to go on the halls in consequence.
I had driven Dolly about three weeks, if I remember rightly, when our people first began to get uneasy. It was all very well for her to talk about her uncle, Nathaniel St. John, of New York City, who made a hundred thousand dollars a day by blowing bubbles through a telephone; but her bill for seventy-five sixteen and four remained unpaid, and when Hook-Nosed Moss, our manager, asked her for it, all he got was a cigarette out of a bon-bon box, and an intimation that if he came on a similar errand again, she'd write to the papers about it. Had she not been a born little actress, who could have earned twenty a week on any stage in London, the man would have closed the deal on the spot, and left it to the lawyers. But she just tickled him like a carburettor, and he went home to say that the money was better than Consols, and the firm making a fool of itself.
I drove her for another week after this, chiefly to the theatre with the Honorary John, and to supper afterwards. She had a wonderful mania for shopping, and used to spend hours in Regent Street, while I read the Auto-Car outside, and fell to asking myself how long it would last. You don't deceive the man who drives the car—be sure of it. Either she led the Honorary John to the financial altar, or her poor uncle would be on the Rocky Mountains—I hadn't a doubt of it.
I liked her, that goes without saying. A man's a fool who tells you that a pretty woman's charm is less because her bankers are wondering how they shall get the cheque-book back, and the tradesman round the corner is blotting his ledger with tears. In a way I was in love with Miss Dolly, and would have married her myself upon any provocation; but before I could make up my mind to it either way, she'd gone like a flash, and half the bill collectors in London after her. This I learned during the week following the disappearance. She sent for me one day to pick her up at Joran's Hotel, and when I got there, and the hotel porter had handed out two rugs and a Pomeranian, down comes the chambermaid to say madam had not returned since eleven o'clock. And then I knew by some good instinct that the game was up—and, handing the Pomeranian back, I said, "Be good to him, for he's an orphan."
This was a surmise—a surmise and nothing more; and yet how true it proved! I had a 'tec with me on the following afternoon, and a pretty tale he had to tell. Not, mind you, as he himself declared, that Dolly was really dishonest. She had left a few bills behind her; but where is the woman who does not do that, and who would think the better of her if she didn't? Dolly wasn't a thief by a long way—but her shopping mania was wild enough to be written about, and she bought thousands of pounds' worth of goods in London, just for the mere pleasure of ordering them and nothing more.
I often laugh when I think how she fooled the tradesmen in Bond Street and the West End. Just imagine them bowing and scraping when she told 'em to send home a thousand-pound tiara, or a two-hundred-guinea white fox, and promised they should be paid on delivery. Why, they strewed her path with bows and smiles—and when they sent home the goods to a flat by Regent's Park—an address she always gave—they found it empty and no one there to take delivery. No more bows and smiles after that; but what could they do, and what offence had she committed? That was just what the 'tec asked me, and I could not answer.
"We know most of 'em," he said, "but she's a right-down finger-print from the backwoods. Nathaniel St. John cables from New York that he doesn't know her, but will be pleased to make her acquaintance, if we'll frank her over. I tell these people they can sue her—but, man, you might as well sue the statue of Oliver Cromwell——"
"He being stony-broke likewise," said I. "Well, she had a run for her money, and here's good luck to her. I hope that I haven't seen her for the last time."
"If you have," says he, "put me in Madame Tussaud's. When next you hear of Dolly St. John it will be in something big. Remember that when the day comes."
I told him I would not forget it, and we parted upon it. Dolly was a pretty bit of goods for a tea-party, but a driver sees too many faces to keep one over-long in his memory, and I will say straight out, that I had forgotten her very name when next I saw her, and was just about the most astonished man inside the four-mile radius when I picked her up one fine afternoon at a West End hotel, and she told me we were going to drive into the country together.
"But," says I, "this car has been hired by Miss Phyllis More——"
"Oh, you stupid man!" cried she. "Don't you see that I am Miss Phyllis More? I thought you were clever enough to understand that ladies change their names sometimes, Britten. Now, why shouldn't I be Phyllis More if I wish to? Are you going to be unkind enough to tell people about it? I'm sure you are not, for you were so very good to me when last I was in England."
Now all this took place in her private room, to which I had been sent up by the porter. Three months had passed since I drove Dolly and the Honorary John, but not a whit had she changed; and I found her just the same seductive little witch with the dimples and the curly brown hair, who had played the deuce with the West End tradesmen last Christmas-time. Beautifully dressed in green, with a pretty motor veil, she was a picture I must say; and when I looked at her and remembered Hook-Nosed Moss, our traffic manager at the Empire Company, and how he docked me four and nine last Saturday, I swore I'd take her; yes, if she ordered me to drive through to San Francisco.
"I don't suppose I ought to do it, miss," I said, "unless your uncle in New York has left you anything——"
"Oh," she burst out, laughing as she said it, "he's dead, Britten; besides, I don't want any uncles now, for I shall marry Mr. Sarand directly Lord Badington gives his consent—and that won't be long, for we are going down to his house to-night to get it."
I told her frankly that I was glad to hear it, and that I thought Mr. Sarand a very lucky gentleman. What's more, I believed her story, and I knew that if this marriage came off, there would not be much trouble about my firm's seventy-five, and that half the tradesmen in London would be running after Dolly again inside a week. So I made up my mind to do it, and, sending a wire back to the yard, telling them that the lady wanted the car for two or three days, and explaining to her that I must buy myself some luggage as she went—for I do like a clean collar of evenings—I was ready for Miss Phyllis More, and not at all displeased with the venture.
"She'd been hard put to it to keep going in London, while John did the courting," said I to myself, "and that's what caused her to change her name. If she doesn't catch him, we're another twenty-five down, and Moss will have to turn Jew. Well, I can get plenty of jobs as good as his, and there aren't many Dolly St. Johns in the world, all said and done. I'll risk it, and take my gruelling afterwards. What's more, if Mr. John's papa don't come up to the scratch, I'll put a word in for myself. It would make a line in the newspapers anyway, and who knows but what we mightn't both get engaged at the halls?"
Of course, this was only my way of putting it; but I really was pleased to be driving such a pretty girl again; and when her old cane trunk came down, and we fixed it on to the grid behind, and half a dozen hat-boxes littered up the back seats, I felt that old times had come again, and that I was one of the luckiest drivers in the country.
"How far are we going, miss?" I asked her when all was ready.
"To Lord Badington's house—near Sandwich in Kent."
"It's a longish run, and we shan't get there before dark."
"Oh," says she, "they don't expect me until quite late; indeed, I don't think Lord Badington himself returns before the last train from town."
I noticed that she laid a lot of stress upon the words, "Lord Badington," for the benefit of the hotel porters, no doubt; but I wasn't angry with her for that, remembering that she was a single woman, and perhaps unprotected; and without any more words we set out across Westminster Bridge, and were very soon picking our way down the Old Kent Road. A couple of hours later we came to Maidstone, where we had tea; it was a quarter past five precisely when we made a new start for Canterbury, and a good hour and a half later when we entered that musty old town.
I shall never forget that journey, the country just showing the buds of spring, the roads white and beautiful, the twenty Renault running as smooth as a beautiful clock. Three months had passed since I had driven Miss Dolly, and this was the month of May. Yet here she was, just the same wicked little witch as ever, trotting round on a wild errand, and about to come out best, I could swear. As for me, I had the sack before me for a certainty; but little I cared for that. Who would have done, with Dolly St. John for his passenger?
We drove through Canterbury, I say, and set the car going her best on the fair road after Sturry is passed. I know the country hereabouts pretty well, being accustomed to visit fashionable watering-places from time to time, and well acquainted with Ramsgate and Margate, to say nothing of Deal and Dover. My road lay by Monkton, down toward Pegwell Bay, and it was just at the entrance to Minster that Dolly made me stop without much warning, and took me into her confidence for the first time.
"Britten," says she, "there is something I didn't tell you, but which I think I ought to tell you now. I'm not asked to Lord Badington's house at all."
"Not asked," said I, with a mouth wide enough open to swallow a pint of gear-box "B." "Then what's the good of going there, if you're not invited?"
"Oh," says she, more sweetly than ever, "I think they'll be glad to have me if I do get inside, Britten; but we shall have to act our parts very well."
I laughed at this.
"Seeing that neither of us is in the theatrical line, I don't suppose that anybody is going to take me for Sir Beerbohm Tree, or you for the Merry Widow," says I, "but, anyway, I'll do my best."
This pleased her, and she looked at me out of her pretty eyes, just sweet enough to make a man think himself a beauty.
"You see, Britten," says she, "if the car broke down just outside Lord Badington's house, perhaps they would give me shelter for the night; at least, I hope they would, and if they would not, well, it doesn't really matter, and we can go and stop at the hotel at Sandwich. It would have to be a real breakdown, for Lord Badington keeps motor-cars of his own, and his drivers would be sure to be clever at putting anything right——"
"Oh," says I, quickly enough, "if they can get this car right when I have done with it, I'll put up statues to 'em in the British Museum. You say no more, miss. We'll break down right enough, and if you are not breakfasting with his lordship to-morrow morning, don't blame me."
She nodded her head; and I could swear the excitement of it set her eyes on fire. Lord Badington's house, you must know, stands overlooking Pegwell Bay, not very far from the golf links, while the Ramsgate Road runs right before its doors. There is nothing but a bit of an inn near by, and not a cottage in sight. I saw that the place could not have been better chosen, and fifty yards from the big iron gates I got off my seat and prepared for business.
"You're really sure that you mean this, miss?" I asked her, knowing what women are. "You won't change your mind afterwards, and blame me because the car isn't going?"
"How can you ask such a thing?" was her answer. "Doesn't my whole future depend on our success, Britten?"
"Then you won't have long to wait," I rejoined, and, opening the bonnet, I set to work upon the magneto, and in twenty minutes had done the job as surely as it could have been done by the makers themselves.
"If this car is going on to-night," said I, "some one will have to push it. Now will you please tell me what is the next move, miss, for I'm beginning to think I should like my supper?"
She was down on the road herself by this time, and pretty enough she looked in her motor veil, and the beautiful sables which Mr. Sarand had given her last winter. When she told me to go on to the house, and to say that a lady's motor-car had broken down at the gates, I would have laid twenty to one on the success of her scheme, always provided that we weren't left to the menials who bark incivilities at a nobleman's door. Here luck stood by Miss Dolly, for hardly had I pulled the great bell at Lord Badington's gate when his own car came flying up the drive, with his lordship himself sitting in the back of it.
"What do you want, my man?" he asked, in a quick, sharp tone—he's a wonder for fifty-two, and there has been no smarter man in the Guards since he left them. "Where do you come from?"
"Begging your pardon, sir," said I, for I didn't want to pretend that I knew him for a lord, "but my mistress's car has come by a bit of trouble, and she sent me to ask if any one could help her."
"What, you're broken down——"
"It's just that, sir; magneto gone absolutely wrong. I shall have to be towed if I go any further to-night."
He stood on the steps beside me, and seemed to hesitate an instant. A word and he would have told his own chauffeur to drive us on to Sandwich; but it was never spoken, and I'll tell you why. Miss Dolly herself had followed me up the drive, and she arrived upon the scene at that very instant.
"Oh, I am so sorry to trouble you," she cried in her sweetest voice, "but my car's gone all wrong, and I'm so tired and hungry, I don't know what to do. Will you let me rest here just a little while?"
Talk about actresses; there isn't one of 'em in the West End would have done half so well. There she was, looking the picture of distress, and there was his lordship, twisting his moustache, and eyeing her as one who was at his wits' end to know what to do. If he didn't take long to come to a resolution, put it down to Dolly's blue eyes—he couldn't see the colour of them at that time of night, but he could feel them, I'll be bound; and, jumping, as it were, to a conclusion he turned to his man and gave him an order.
"This lady will stay here to-night," he said. "Go and help her driver to get the car in, and see that he is looked after," and without another word he waited for Miss Dolly to enter the house. Believe me, I never thought Mr. John's stock stood higher—and "Britten, my boy," says I to myself, "if this isn't worth a cool fifty when the right time comes, don't you never drive a pretty girl no more."
I had a rare lark that night, partly with Biggs, his lordship's chauffeur, and partly with a motor expert who came along on a bicycle, and said he'd have my Renault going in twenty minutes. I'm not one that can stand a billet in servants' quarters, and I chose rather to put up at the little inn down by the bay and take my luck there. It was here that Biggs came after supper, and he and the motor expert got going on my high-tension magneto.
Bless the pair of them, they might have been a month there, and no better off—for, you must know that I had taken out the armature, and if you take out an armature and don't slip a bit of soft iron in after it, your magnets are done for, and will never be worth anything again until they are re-magnetised. This baffled the pair of them, and they were there until after eleven o'clock, drinking enough beer to float a barge, and confessing that it was a mystery.
"Never see such a thing in ten years' experience," said the motor expert.
"I'm blowed if I don't think the devil has got inside the magneto," said Biggs; and there I agreed with him. For wasn't it Miss Dolly who had done it, and isn't she—but there, that wouldn't be polite to the sex, so I won't write it down.
I learned from Biggs that Lord Badington's daughter and stepson were staying in the house with him, and a couple of old gentlemen, who, when they weren't making laws at Westminster, were making fools of themselves on the links at Sandwich. It was a golfing party, in fact, and next morning early, Biggs took them on to Prince's—and, will you believe me?—the car came back for the ladies by-and-by, and off went Miss Dolly, as calmly as though she had known them all her life. Not a word to me, not a word about going on, or getting the car ready, but just a nod and a laugh as she went by, and a something in her eyes which seemed to say, "Britten, I'm doing famously, and I haven't forgotten you."
The same afternoon about tea-time she sent for me, and had a word with me in the hall. I learned then that she had promised to stop until the following morning, and she asked, in a voice which nobody could mistake, if the car would be ready. When I told her that I was waiting for a new magneto from London I thought she would kiss me on the spot.
"Oh, Britten," she said in a whisper, "suppose we couldn't get on for three or four days."
"In that case," said I, "I should consider that we were really unfortunate, miss, but I'll do my best."
"Are you comfortable at the inn, Britten?"
"Putting on flesh rapidly, miss. I never knew there were so many red herrings in the world."
"And your room?"
"They built it when they thought the King was coming to Sandwich."
She laughed and looked at me, and, just as I was leaving, she whispered, "Do make it three or four days, Britten," and I promised her with a glance she could not mistake. And why not? What was against us? Was it not all plain sailing? Truly so, but for one little fact. I'll tell you in a word—Hook-Nosed Moss and the old bill he carried about like a love-letter—a bill against Dolly St. John for seventy-five pounds sixteen shillings and fourpence.
Well, Moss came down from town suddenly on the second afternoon, and while he carried a new magneto under his arm, the bill was in his pocket right enough. I was standing at the inn door as he drove up in a fly, and when I recognised the face, you might have knocked me down with a cotton umbrella. Not, mind you, that I lost my presence of mind, or said anything foolish, but just that I felt sorry enough for Dolly St. John to risk all I'd got in the world to save her from this land shark. That Moss had found her out, I did not doubt for an instant, and his first words told me I was right.