The Saturday Evening Post - May 24, 1919
THE first requisite of an invading army is a base. George, having entered Belpher Village and thus accomplished the first stage in his forward movement on the castle, selected as his base the Marshmoreton Arms. Selected is perhaps hardly the right word, as it implies choice, and in George’s case there was no choice. There are two inns at Belpher, but the Marshmoreton Arms is the only one that offers accommodation for man and beast, assuming, that is to say, that the man and beast desire to spend the night. The other house, the Blue Boar, is a mere beerhouse, where the lower strata of Belpher society gather of a night to quench their thirst and to tell one another interminable stories without any point whatsoever.
But the Marshmoreton Arms is a comfortable, respectable hostelry, catering for the village plutocrats. There of an evening you will find the local veterinary surgeon smoking a pipe with the grocer, the baker and the butcher, with perhaps a sprinkling of neighboring farmers to help the conversation along. On Saturdays there is a “shilling ordinary”—which is rural English for a cut off the joint and a boiled potato, followed by hunks of the sort of cheese which believes that it pays to advertise—and this is usually well attended. On the other days of the week, until late in the evening, however, the visitor to the Marshmoreton Arms has the place almost entirely to himself.
It is to be questioned whether in the whole length and breadth of the world there is a more admirable spot for a man in love to pass a day or two than the typical English village. The Rocky Mountains, that traditional stamping ground for the heartbroken, may be well enough in their way; but a lover has to be cast in a pretty stern mold to be able to be introspective when at any moment he may meet an annoyed cinnamon bear. In the English village there are no such obstacles to meditation. It combines the comforts of civilization with the restfulness of solitude in a manner equaled by no other spot except the New York Public Library. Here your lover may wander to and fro unmolested, speaking to nobody, by nobody addressed, and have the satisfaction of sitting down to a capitally cooked chop and chips, lubricated by golden English ale.
Belpher, in addition to all the advantages of the usual village, has a quiet charm all its own, due to the fact that it has seen better days. In a sense, it is a ruin, and ruins are always soothing to the bruised soul. Ten years before Belpher had been a flourishing center of the South of England oyster trade. It is situated by the shore, where Hayling Island, lying athwart the mouth of the bay, forms the waters into a sort of brackish lagoon, in much the same way as Fire Island shuts off the Great South Bay of Long Island from the waves of the Atlantic. The water of Belpher Creek is shallow even at high tide, and when the tide runs out it leaves glistening mud flats, which it is the peculiar taste of the oyster to prefer to any other habitation. For years Belpher oysters had been the mainstay of gay supper parties at the Savoy, the Carlton and Romano’s. Dukes doted on them; chorus girls wept if they were not on the bill of fare. And then, in an evil hour, somebody discovered that what made the Belpher oyster so particularly plump and succulent was the fact that it breakfasted, lunched and dined almost entirely on the local sewage. There is but a thin line ever between popular homage and popular execration. We see it in the case of politicians, generals and prize fighters; and oysters are no exception to the rule. There was a typhoid scare, quite a passing and unjustified scare, but strong enough to do its deadly work; and almost overnight Belpher passed from a place of flourishing industry to the sleepy, by-the-world-forgotten spot which it was when George Bevan discovered it. The shallow water is still there; the mud is still there; even the oyster beds are still there; but not the oysters or the little world of activity which had sprung up round them. The glory of Belpher is dead; and over its gates Ichabod is written. But if it has lost in importance it has gained in charm; and George, for one, had no regrets. To him, in his present state of mental upheaval, Belpher was the ideal spot.
It was not at first that George roused himself to the point of asking why he was here, and what—now that he was here—he proposed to do. For two languorous days he loafed, sufficiently occupied with his thoughts. He smoked long, peaceful pipes in the stable yard, watching the ostlers as they groomed horses; he played with the inn puppy, bestowed respectful caresses on the inn cat. He walked down the quaint, cobbled street to the harbor, sauntered along the shore, and lay on his back on the little beach at the other side of the lagoon, from where he could see the red roofs of the village, while the imitation waves splashed busily on the stones, trying to conceal with bustle and energy the fact that the water even two hundred yards from shore was only eighteen inches deep. For it is the abiding hope of Belpher Creek that it may be able to deceive the visitor into mistaking it for the open sea.
And presently the tide would ebb. The waste of waters became a sea of mud, cheerfully covered as to much of its surface with green grasses. The evening sun struck rainbow colors from the moist softness. Birds sang in the thickets. And George, heaving himself up, walked back to the friendly coziness of the Marshmoreton Arms. And the remarkable part of it was that everything seemed perfectly natural and sensible to him, nor had he any particular feeling that in falling in love with Lady Maud Marsh, and pursuing her to Belpher, he had set himself anything in the nature of a hopeless task. Like one kissed by a goddess in a dream, he walked on air; and while one is walking on air it is easy to overlook the bowlders in the path.
Consider his position, you faint-hearted and self-pitying young men who think you have a tough row to hoe just because, when you pay your evening visit with the pound box of candy under your arm, you see the handsome sophomore from Yale sitting beside her on the porch, playing the ukulele. If ever the world has turned black to you in such a situation, and the moon gone in behind a cloud, think of George Bevan and what he was up against. You, at least, are on the spot. You can, at least, put up a fight. If there are ukuleles in the world, there are also guitars, and to-morrow it may be you and not he who sits on the moonlit porch; it may be he and not you who arrives late. Who knows? To-morrow he may not show up till you have finished The Bedouin Love Song and are annoying the local birds roosting in the trees with Poor Butterfly.
What I mean to say is, you are on the map. You have a sporting chance. Whereas George —— Well, just go over to England and try wooing an earl’s daughter whom you have met only once, and then without an introduction; whose brother’s hat you have smashed beyond repair; whose family wishes her to marry some other man; who wants to marry some other man herself—and not the same other man but another other man; who is closely immured in a medieval castle. Well, all I say is—try it. And then go back to your porch with a chastened spirit and admit that you might be a whole lot worse off.
George, as I say, had not envisaged the peculiar difficulties of his position. Nor did he until the evening of his second day at the Marshmoreton Arms. Until then, as I have indicated, he roamed in a golden mist of dreamy meditation among the soothing by-ways of the village of Belpher. But after lunch on the second day it came upon him that all this sort of thing was pleasant but not practical. Action was what was needed. Action.
The first, the obvious move was to locate the castle. Inquiries at the Marshmoreton Arms elicited the fact that it was “a step” up the road that ran past the front door of the inn. But this wasn’t the day of the week when the general public was admitted. The sightseer could invade Belpher Castle on Thursdays only, between the hours of two and four. On other days of the week all he could do was to stand like Moses on Pisgah and take in the general effect from a distance. As this was all that George had hoped to be able to do, he set forth.
It speedily became evident to George that “a step” was a euphemism. Five miles did he tramp before, trudging wearily up a winding lane, he came out on a breeze-swept hilltop, and saw below him, nestling in its trees, what was now for him the center of the world. He sat on a stone wall and lit a pipe. Belpher Castle. Her home. There it was. And now what?
The first thought that came to him was practical, even prosaic—the thought that he couldn’t possibly do this five-miles-there-and-five-miles-back walk every time he wanted to see the place. He must shift his base nearer the scene of operations. One of those trim thatched cottages down there in the valley would be just the thing, if he could arrange to take possession of it. They sat there all round the castle, singly and in groups, like small dogs round their master. They looked as if they had been there for centuries. Probably they had, as they were made of stone as solid as that of the castle. There must have been a time, thought George, when the castle was the central rallying point for all those scattered homes; when rumor of danger from marauders had sent all that little community scuttling for safety to the sheltering walls.
For the first time since he had set out on his expedition, a certain chill, a discomforting sinking of the heart, afflicted George as he gazed down at the grim gray fortress which he had undertaken to storm. So must have felt those marauders of old when they climbed to the top of this very hill to spy out the land. And George’s case was even worse than theirs. They could at least hope that a strong arm and a stout heart would carry them past those solid walls; they had not to think of social etiquette. Whereas George was so situated that an unsympathetic butler could put him to rout by refusing him admittance.
The evening was drawing in. Already, in the brief time he had spent on the hilltop, the sky had turned from blue to saffron and from saffron to gray. The plaintive voices of homing cows floated up to him from the valley below. A bat had left its shelter and was wheeling round him, a sinister blot against the sky. George felt cold. He turned. The shadows of night wrapped him round, and little things in the hedge-rows chirped and chittered mockery at him as he stumbled down the lane.
George’s request for a lonely furnished cottage somewhere in the neighborhood of the castle did not, as he had feared, strike the Belpher house agent as the demand of a lunatic. Every well-dressed stranger who comes to Belpher is automatically set down by the natives as an artist, for the picturesqueness of the place has caused it to be much infested by the brothers and sisters of the brush. In asking for a cottage, indeed, George did precisely as Belpher society expected him to do; and the agent was reaching for his list almost before the words were out of his mouth. In less than half an hour George was out in the street again, the owner for the season of what the agent described as a “gem” and the employer of a farmer’s wife who lived near by and would, as was her custom with artists, come in morning and evening to “do” for him. The interview would have taken but a few minutes, had it not been prolonged by the chattiness of the agent on the subject of the occupants of the castle, to which George listened attentively. He was not greatly encouraged by what he heard of Lord Marshmoreton. The earl had made himself notably unpopular in the village recently by his firm—the house agent said “pig-headed”—attitude in respect to a certain dispute about a right of way. It was Lady Caroline, and not the easy-going peer, who was really to blame in the matter; but the impression that George got from the house agent’s description of Lord Marshmoreton was that the latter was a sort of Nero, possessing, in addition to the qualities of a Roman tyrant, many of the least lovable traits of the Gila monster of Arizona. Hearing this about her father, and having already had the privilege of meeting her brother and studying him at first-hand, his heart bled for Maud. It seemed to him that existence at the castle in such society must be little short of torture.
“I must do something,” he muttered. “I must do something quick.”
“Beg pardon?” said the house agent.
“Nothing,” said George. “Well, I’ll take that cottage. I’d better write you a check for the first month’s rent now.”
So George took up his abode, full of strenuous, if vague, purpose, in the plainly furnished but not uncomfortable cottage known locally as “the one down by Platt’s.” He might have found a worse billet. It was a two-storied building of stained red brick, not one of the thatched nests on which he had looked down from the hill. Those were not for rent, being occupied by families whose ancestors had occupied them for generations back. The one down by Platt’s was a more modern structure—a speculation, in fact, of the farmer whose wife came to “do” for George, and designed especially to accommodate the stranger who had the desire and the money to rent it. It so departed from type that it possessed a small but undeniable bathroom. Besides this miracle there was a cozy sitting room, a larger bedroom on the floor above, and next to this an empty room facing north, which had evidently served artist occupants as a studio. The remainder of the ground floor was taken up by kitchen and scullery. The furniture was just furniture, constructed by somebody who would probably have done very well if he had taken up some other line of industry; but it was mitigated by a very fine and comfortable wicker easy-chair, left there by one of last year’s artists; and other artists had helped along the good work by relieving the plainness of the walls with a landscape or two. In fact, when George had removed from the room two antimacassars, three group photographs of the farmer’s relations, an illuminated text, and a china statuette of the Infant Samuel, and stacked them in a corner of the empty studio, the place became almost a home from home.
Solitude can be very unsolitary if a man is in love. George never even began to be bored. The only thing that in any way troubled his peace was the thought that he was not accomplishing a great deal in the matter of helping Maud out of whatever trouble it was that had befallen her. The most he could do was to prowl about roads near the castle in the hope of an accidental meeting. And such was his good fortune that, on the fourth day of his vigil, the accidental meeting occurred.
Taking his morning prowl along the lanes he was rewarded by the sight of a gray racing-car at the side of the road. It was empty, but from underneath it protruded a pair of long legs, while beside it stood a girl, at the sight of whom George’s heart began to thump so violently that the long-legged one might have been pardoned had he supposed that his engine had started again of its own volition.
Until he spoke the soft grass had kept her from hearing his approach. He stopped close behind her and cleared his throat. She started and turned, and their eyes met.
For a moment hers were empty of any recognition. Then they lit up. She caught her breath quickly, and a faint flush came into her face.
“Can I help you?” asked George.
The long legs wriggled out into the road, followed by a long body. The young man under the car sat up, turning a grease-streaked and pleasant face to George.
“Can I help you? I know how to fix a car.”
The young man beamed in friendly fashion.
“It’s awfully good of you, old chap, but so do I. It’s the only thing I can do well. Thanks very much and so forth all the same.”
George fastened his eyes on the girl’s. She had not spoken.
“If there is anything in the world I can possibly do for you,” he said slowly, “I hope you will let me know. I should like above all things to help you.”
The girl spoke.
“Thank you,” she said in a low voice, almost inaudible.
George walked away. The grease-streaked young man followed him with his gaze.
“Civil cove, that,” he said. “Rather gushing, though, what? American, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, I think he was.”
“Americans are the civilest coves I ever struck. I remember asking the way of a chappie at Baltimore a couple of years ago when I was there in my yacht, and he followed me for miles, shrieking advice and encouragement. I thought it deuced civil of him.”
“I wish you would hurry and get the car right, Reggie. We shall be awfully late for lunch.”
Reggie Byng began to slide backward under the automobile.
“All right, dear heart. Rely on me. It’s something quite simple.”
“Well, do be quick.”
“Imitation of greased lightning—very difficult,” said Reggie encouragingly. “Be patient. Try and amuse yourself somehow. Ask yourself a riddle. Tell yourself a few anecdotes. I’ll be with you in a moment. I say, I wonder what that cove is doing at Belpher. Deuced civil cove,” said Reggie approvingly. “I liked him. And now, business of repairing breakdown.”
His smiling face vanished under the car like the Cheshire cat. Maud stood looking thoughtfully down the road in the direction in which George had disappeared.
THE following day was a Thursday, and on Thursdays, as has been stated, Belpher Castle was thrown open to the general public between the hours of two and four. It was a tradition of long standing, this periodical lowering of the barriers, and had always been faithfully observed by Lord Marshmoreton ever since his accession to the title. By the permanent occupants of the castle the day was regarded with mixed feelings. Lord Belpher, while approving of it in theory, as he did of all the family traditions—for he was a great supporter of all things feudal and took his position as one of the hereditary aristocracy of Great Britain extremely seriously—heartily disliked it in practice. More than once he had been obliged to exit hastily by a farther door in order to keep from being discovered by a drove of tourists intent on inspecting the library or the great drawing-room; and now it was his custom to retire to his bedroom immediately after lunch and not to emerge until the tide of invasion had ebbed away.
Keggs, the butler, always looked forward to Thursdays with pleasurable anticipation. He enjoyed the sense of added authority which it gave him to herd these poor outcasts to and fro among the surroundings which were an everyday commonplace to himself. Also he liked hearing the sound of his own voice as it lectured in rolling periods on the objects of interest by the wayside. But even to Keggs there was bitter mixed with the sweet. No one was better aware than himself that the nobility of his manner, excellent as a means of impressing the mob, worked against him when it came to a question of tips. Again and again had he been harrowed by the spectacle of tourists, huddled together like sheep, debating among themselves in nervous whispers as to whether they could offer this personage anything so contemptible as half a crown for himself—and deciding that such an insult was out of the question. It was his constant endeavor, especially toward the end of the proceedings, to cultivate a manner blending a dignity fitting his position with a sunny geniality which would allay the timid doubts of the tourist and indicate to him that, bizarre as the idea might seem, there was nothing to prevent his placing his poor silver in more worthy hands.
Possibly the only member of the castle community who was absolutely indifferent to these public visits was Lord Marshmoreton. He made no difference between Thursday and any other day. Precisely as usual he donned his stained corduroys and pottered about his beloved garden; and when, as happened on an average once a quarter, some visitor, strayed from the main herd, came upon him as he worked and mistook him for one of the gardeners, he accepted the error without any attempt at explanation, sometimes going so far as to encourage it by adopting a rustic accent in keeping with his appearance. This sort of thing tickled the simple-minded peer.
George joined the procession punctually at two o’clock, just as Keggs was clearing his throat preparatory to saying: “We are now in the main ’all and before going any further I would like to call your attention to Sir Peter Lely’s portrait of ——” It was his custom to begin his Thursday lectures with this remark, but to-day it was postponed; for no sooner had George appeared than a breezy voice on the outskirts of the throng spoke in a tone that made competition impossible.
“For goodness’ sake, George.”
And Billie Dore detached herself from the group, a trim vision in blue. She wore a dustcoat and a motor veil, and her eyes and cheeks were glowing from the fresh air.
“For goodness’ sake, George, what are you doing here?”
“I was just going to ask you the same thing.”
“Oh, I motored down with a boy I know. We had a breakdown just outside the gates. We were on our way to Brighton for lunch. He suggested I should pass the time seeing the sights while he fixed up the sprockets or the differential gear or whatever it was. He’s coming to pick me up when he’s through. But on the level, George, how do you get this way? You sneak out of town and leave the show flat, and nobody has a notion where you are. Why, we were thinking of advertising for you or going to the police or something. For all anybody knew, you might have been sandbagged or dropped in the river.”
This aspect of the matter had not occurred to George till now. His sudden descent on Belpher had seemed to him the only natural course to pursue. He had not realized that he would be missed and that his absence might have caused grave inconvenience to a large number of people.
“I never thought of that. I—well, I just happened to come here.”
“You aren’t living in this old castle?”
“Not quite. I’ve a cottage down the road. I wanted a few days in the country, so I rented it.”
“But what made you choose this place?”
Keggs, who had been regarding these disturbers of the peace with dignified disapproval, coughed.
“If you would not mind, madam, we are waiting.”
“Eh? How’s that?” Miss Dore looked up with a bright smile. “I’m sorry. Come along, George. Get in the game.” She nodded cheerfully to the butler. “All right. All set now. You may fire when ready, Gridley.”
Keggs bowed austerely and cleared his throat again.
“We are now in the main ’all, and before going any further I would like to call your attention to Sir Peter Lely’s portrait of the fifth countess. Said by experts to be in his best manner.”
There was an almost soundless murmur from the mob, expressive of wonder and awe, like a gentle breeze rustling leaves. Billie Dore resumed her conversation in a whisper.
“Yes, there was an awful lot of excitement when they found that you had disappeared. They were phoning the Carlton every ten minutes, trying to get you. You see, the summer-time number flopped on the second night, and they hadn’t anything to put in its place. But it’s all right. They took it out and sewed up the wound, and now you’d never know there had been anything wrong. The show was ten minutes too long anyway.”
“How’s the show going?”
“It’s a riot. They think it will run two years in London. As far as I can make it out, you don’t call it a success in London unless you can take your grandchildren to see the thousandth night.”
“That’s splendid. And how is everybody? All right?”
“Fine. That fellow Gray is still hanging round Babe. It beats me what she sees in him. Anybody but an infant could see the man wasn’t on the level. Well, I don’t blame you for quitting London, George. This sort of thing is worth fifty Londons.”
The procession had reached one of the upper rooms, and they were looking down from a window that commanded a sweep of miles of the countryside, rolling and green and wooded. Far away beyond the last covert Belpher Bay gleamed like a streak of silver. Billie Dore gave a little sigh.
“There’s nothing like this in the world. I’d like to stand here for the rest of my life, just lapping it up.”
“I will call your attention,” boomed Keggs at their elbow, “to this window, known in the fem’ly tredition as Leonard’s Leap. It was in the year seventeen ’undred and eighty-seven that Lord Leonard Forth, eldest son of ’Is Grace the Dook of Lochlane, ’urled ’imself out of this window in order to avoid compromising the beautiful Countess of Marshmoreton, with oom ’e is related to ’ave ’ad a ninnocent romance. Surprised at an advanced hour by ’is lordship the earl in ’er ladyship’s boudoir, as this room then was, ’e leaped through the open window into the boughs of the cedar tree which stands below, and was fortunate enough to escape with a few ’armless contusions.”
A murmur of admiration greeted the recital of the ready tact of this eighteenth-century Steve Brodie.
“There,” said Billie enthusiastically, “that’s exactly what I mean about this country. It’s just a mass of Leonard’s Leaps and things. I’d like to settle down in this sort of place and spend the rest of my life milking cows and taking forkfuls of soup to the deserving villagers.”
“We will now,” said Keggs, herding the mob with a gesture, “proceed to the amber drawing-room, containing some Gobelin tapestries ’ighly spoken of by connoozers.”
The obedient mob began to drift out in his wake.
“What do you say, George,” asked Billie in an undertone, “if we side-step the amber drawing-room? I’m wild to get into that garden. There’s a man working among those roses. Maybe he would show us round.”
George followed her pointing finger. Just below them a sturdy, brown-faced man in corduroys was pausing to light a stubby pipe.
“Just as you like.”
They made their way down the great staircase. The voice of Keggs, saying complimentary things about the Gobelin tapestry, came to their ears like the roll of distant drums. They wandered out toward the rose garden. The man in corduroys had lit his pipe and was bending once more to his task.
“Well, dadda,” said Billie amiably, “how are the crops?”
The man straightened himself. He was a nice-looking man of middle age, with the kind eyes of a friendly dog. He smiled genially and started to put his pipe away.
Billie stopped him.
“Don’t stop smoking on my account,” she said. “I like it. Well, you’ve got the right sort of a job, haven’t you! If I were a man, there’s nothing I’d like better than to put in my eight hours in a rose garden.” She looked about her. “And this,” she said with approval, “is just what a rose garden ought to be.”
“Are you fond of roses, missy?”
“You bet I am! You must have every kind here that was ever invented. All the fifty-seven varieties.”
“There are nearly three thousand varieties,” said the man in corduroys tolerantly.
“I was speaking colloquially, dadda. You can’t teach me anything about roses. I’m the guy that invented them. Got any Ayrshires?”
The man in corduroys seemed to have come to the conclusion that Billie was the only thing on earth that mattered. This revelation of a kindred spirit had captured him completely. George was merely among those present.
“Those—them—over there are Ayrshires, missy.”
“We don’t get Ayrshires in America—at least, I never ran across them. I suppose they do have them.”
“You want the right soil.”
“Clay and lots of rain.”
There was an earnest expression on Billie Dore’s face that George had never seen there before.
“Say, listen, dadda, in this matter of rose beetles, what would you do if ——”
George moved away. The conversation was becoming too technical for him, and he had an idea that he would not be missed. There had come to him, moreover, in a flash one of those sudden inspirations which great generals get. He had visited the castle this afternoon without any settled plan other than a vague hope that he might somehow see Maud. He now perceived that there was no chance of doing this. Evidently on Thursdays the family went to earth and remained hidden until the sightseers had gone. But there was another avenue of communication open to him.
This gardener seemed an exceptionally intelligent man. He could be trusted to deliver a note to Maud.
In his late rambles about Belpher Castle in the company of Keggs and his followers George had been privileged to inspect the library. It was an easily accessible room, opening off the main hall. He left Billie and her new friend deep in a discussion of slugs and plant lice, and walked quickly back to the house. The library was unoccupied.
George was a thorough young man. He believed in leaving nothing to chance. The gardener had seemed a trustworthy soul, but you never knew. It was possible that he drank. He might forget or lose the precious note. So, with a wary eye on the door, George hastily scribbled it in duplicate.
This took him but a few minutes. He went out into the garden again, to find Billie Dore on the point of stepping into a blue automobile.
“Oh, there you are, George. I wondered where you had got to. Say, I made quite a hit with dadda. I’ve given him my address, and he’s promised to send me a whole lot of roses. By the way, shake hands with Mr. Forsyth. This is George Bevan, Freddie, who wrote the music of our show.”
The solemn youth at the wheel extended a hand.
“Topping show! Topping music! Topping all round!”
“Well, good-by, George. See you soon, I suppose?”
“Oh, yes. Give my love to everybody.”
“All right. Let her rip, Freddie. Good-by.”
The blue car gathered speed and vanished down the drive. George returned to the man in corduroys, who had bent himself double in pursuit of a slug.
“Just a minute,” said George hurriedly. He pulled out the first of the notes. “Give this to Lady Maud the first chance you get. It’s important. Here’s a sovereign for your trouble.”
He hastened away. He noticed that gratification had turned the other nearly purple in the face, and was anxious to leave him.
He was a modest young man, and effusive thanks always embarrassed him.
There now remained the disposal of the duplicate note. It was hardly worth while, perhaps, taking such a precaution, but George knew that victories are won by those who take no chances. He had wandered perhaps a hundred yards from the rose garden, when he encountered a small boy in the many-buttoned uniform of a page. The boy had appeared from behind a big cedar, where, as a matter of fact, he had been smoking a stolen cigarette.
“Do you want to earn half a crown?” asked George. The market value of messengers had slumped.
The stripling held his hand out.
“Give this note to Lady Maud.”
“See that it reaches her at once.”
George walked off with the consciousness of a good day’s work done. Albert the page, having bitten his half crown, placed it in his pocket. Then he hurried away, a look of excitement and gratification in his deep-blue eyes.
WHILE George and Billie Dore wandered to the rose garden to interview the man in corduroys, Maud had been seated not a hundred yards away, in a very special haunt of her own, a cracked stucco temple set up in the days of the regency on the shores of a little lily-covered pond. She was reading poetry to Albert the page.
Albert the page was a recent addition to Maud’s inner circle. She had interested herself in him some two months back in much the same spirit as the prisoner in his dungeon cell tames and pets the conventional mouse. To educate Albert, to raise him above his groove in life and develop his soul, appealed to her romantic nature as a worthy task and as a good way of filling in the time. It is an exceedingly moot point, and one which his associates of the Servants’ Hall would have combated hotly, whether Albert possessed a soul. The most one can say for certain is that he looked as if he possessed one. To one who saw his deep-blue eyes and their sweet, pensive expression as they searched the middle distance he seemed like a young angel. How was the watcher to know that the thought behind that far-off gaze was simply a speculation as to whether the bird on the cedar tree was or was not within range of his catapult?
Certainly Maud had no such suspicion. She worked hopefully day by day to rouse Albert to an appreciation of the nobler things of life.
Not but what it was tough going. Even she admitted that. Albert’s soul did not soar readily. It refused to leap from the earth. His reception of the poem she was reading could scarcely have been called encouraging. Maud finished it in a hushed voice, and looked pensively across the dappled water of the pool. A gentle breeze stirred the water lilies so that they seemed to sigh.
“Isn’t that beautiful, Albert?” she said.
Albert’s blue eyes lit up. His lips parted eagerly.
“That’s the first hornet I seen this year,” he said, pointing.
Maud felt a little damped.
“Haven’t you been listening, Albert?”
“Oh, yes, m’lady. Ain’t he a wopper too?”
“Never mind the hornet, Albert.”
“Very good, m’lady.”
“I wish you wouldn’t say ‘Very good, m’lady.’ It’s like—like ——” She paused. She had been about to say that it was like a butler, but, she reflected regretfully, it was probably Albert’s dearest ambition to be like a butler. “It doesn’t sound right. Just say ‘Yes.’ ”
Maud was not enthusiastic about the “M’lady,” but she let it go. After all, she had not quite settled in her own mind what exactly she wished Albert’s attitude toward herself to be. Broadly speaking, she wanted him to be as like as he could to a medieval page, one of those silk-and-satined little treasures she had read about in the Ingoldsby Legends. And, of course, they presumably said “my lady.” And yet she felt, not for the first time, that it is not easy to revive the Middle Ages in these curious days. Pages, like other things, seem to have changed since then.
“That poem was written by a very clever man who married one of my ancestresses. He ran away with her from this very castle in the seventeenth century.”
“Lor’!” said Albert as a concession, but he was still interested in the hornet.
“He was far below her in the eyes of the world, but she knew what a wonderful man he was, so she didn’t mind what people said about her marrying beneath her.”
“Like Susan when she married the pleeceman.”
“Who was Susan?”
“Red-’eaded gel that used to be cook ’ere. Mr. Keggs says to ’er, ’e says: ‘You’re marryin’ beneath you, Susan,’ ’e says. I ’eard ’im. I was listenin’ at the door. And she says to ’im, she says, ‘Oh, go and boil your fat ’ead!’ she says.”
This translation of a favorite romance into terms of the servants’ hall chilled Maud like a cold shower. She recoiled from it.
“Wouldn’t you like to get a good education, Albert,” she said perseveringly, “and become a great poet and write wonderful poems?”
Albert considered the point and shook his head.
It was discouraging. But Maud was a girl of pluck. You cannot leap into strange cabs in Piccadilly unless you have pluck. She picked up another book from the stone seat.
“Read me some of this,” she said, “and then tell me if it doesn’t make you feel you want to do big things.”
Albert took the book cautiously. He was getting a little fed up with all this sort of thing. True, her ladyship gave him chocolates to eat during these sessions, but for all that it was too much like school for his taste. He regarded the open page with disfavor.
“Go on,” said Maud, closing her eyes. “It is very beautiful.”
Albert began. He had a husky voice, due, it is to be feared, to precocious cigarette smoking; and his enunciation was not as good as it might have been:
“Wiv bleckest morss the flowerports
Was—I mean were—thickly crusted, one and orl;
Ther rusted niles fell from the knorts
That ’eld the pear to ther garden worll.
Ther broken sheds looked sed and stringe;
Unlifted was the clinking latch;
Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Er-pon ther lownely moated gringe,
She ownly said ‘Me life is dreary,
’E cometh nort,’ she said.”
Albert rather liked this part. He was never happy in narrative unless it could be sprinkled with a plentiful supply of “He said’s” and “She said’s.” He finished with some gusto:
“She said ‘I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I was dead!’ ”
Maud had listened to this rendition of one of her most adored poems with much the same feeling which a composer with an oversensitive ear would suffer on hearing his pet opus assassinated by a schoolgirl. Albert, who was a willing lad and prepared, if such should be her desire, to plow his way through the entire seven stanzas, began the second verse, but Maud gently took the book away from him. Enough was sufficient.
“Now, wouldn’t you like to be able to write a wonderful thing like that, Albert?”
“Not me, m’lady.”
“You wouldn’t like to be a poet when you grow up?”
Albert shook his golden head.
“I want to be a butcher when I grow up, m’lady.”
Maud uttered a little cry.
“Yus, m’lady. Butchers earn good money,” he said, a light of enthusiasm in his blue eyes, for he was now on his favorite subject. “You’ve got to ’ave meat, yer see, m’lady. It ain’t like poetry, m’lady, which no one wants.”
“But, Albert,” cried Maud faintly. “Killing poor animals! Surely you wouldn’t like that?”
Albert’s eyes glowed softly, as might an acolyte’s at the sight of the censer.
“Mr. Widgeon down at the ’ome farm,” he murmured reverently, “he says, if I’m a good boy, ’e’ll let me watch ’im kill a pig Toosday.”
He gazed out over the water lilies, his thoughts far away. Maud shuddered. She wondered if medieval pages were ever quite as earthy as this.
“Perhaps you had better go now, Albert. They may be needing you in the house.”
“Very good, m’lady.”
Albert rose, not unwilling to call it a day. He was conscious of the need for a quiet cigarette. He was fond of Maud, but a man can’t spend all his time with the women.
“Pigs squeal like billy-o, m’lady!” he observed, by way of adding a parting treasure to Maud’s stock of general knowledge. “Oo! ’Ear ’em a mile orf, you can!”
Maud remained where she was, thinking, a wistful figure. Tennyson’s Mariana always made her wistful, even when rendered by Albert. In the occasional moods of sentimental depression which came to vary her normal cheerfulness, it seemed to her that the poem might have been written with a prophetic eye to her special case, so nearly did it crystallize in magic words her own story.
With blackest moss the flowerpots
Were thickly crusted, one and all.
Well, no, not that particular part, perhaps. If he had found so much as one flowerpot of his even thinly crusted with any foreign substance, Lord Marshmoreton would have gone through the place like an east wind, dismissing gardeners and undergardeners with every breath. But
She only said, “My life is dreary,
He cometh not,” she said;
She said, “I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!”
How exactly, at those moments when she was not out on the links picking them off the turf with a mid-iron or engaged in one of those other healthful sports which tend to take the mind off its troubles, those words summed up her case.
Why didn’t Geoffrey come? Or at least write? She could not write to him. Letters from the castle left only by way of the castle post bag, which Rogers, the chauffeur, took down to the village every evening. Impossible to intrust the kind of letter she wished to write to any mode of delivery so public, especially now, when her movements were watched. To open and read another’s letters is a low and dastardly act, but she believed that Lady Caroline would do it like a shot. She longed to pour out her heart to Geoffrey in a long, intimate letter, but she did not dare to take the risk of writing for a wider public. Things were bad enough as it was, after that disastrous sortie to London.
At this point a soothing vision came to her, the vision of George Bevan knocking off her brother Percy’s hat. It was the only pleasant thing that had happened almost as far back as she could remember. And then for the first time her mind condescended to dwell for a moment on the author of that act, George Bevan, the friend in need, whom she had met only the day before in the lane. What was George doing at Belpher? His presence there was significant and his words more so. He had stated explicitly that he wished to help her. She found herself oppressed by the irony of things. A knight had come to the rescue, but the wrong knight. Why could it not have been Geoffrey who waited in ambush outside the castle, and not a pleasant but negligible stranger? Whether, deep down in her consciousness, she was aware of a fleeting sense of disappointment in Geoffrey, a swiftly passing thought that he had failed her, she could hardly have said, so quickly did she crush it down.
She pondered on the arrival of George. What was the use of his being somewhere in the neighborhood if she had no means of knowing where she could find him? Situated as she was, she could not wander at will about the countryside looking for him. And even if she found him, what then? There was not much that any stranger, however pleasant, could do.
She flushed at a sudden thought. Of course there was something George could do for her, if he were willing. He could receive, dispatch and deliver letters. If only she could get in touch with him, she could, through him, get in touch with Geoffrey.
The whole world changed for her. The sun was setting and chill little winds had begun to stir the lily pads, giving a depressing air to the scene; but to Maud it seemed as if all nature smiled. With the egotism of love, she did not perceive that what she proposed to ask George to do was practically to fulfill the humble rôle of the hollow tree in which lovers dump letters to be extracted later; she did not consider George’s feelings at all. He had offered to help her, and this was his job. The world is full of Georges whose task it is to hang about in the background and make themselves unobtrusively useful.
She had reached this conclusion when Albert, who had taken a short cut the more rapidly to accomplish his errand, burst upon her dramatically from the heart of a rhododendron thicket.
“M’lady! Gentleman give me this to give yer!”
Maud read the note. It was brief and to the point:
“I am staying near the castle at a cottage they call ‘the one down by Platt’s.’ It is a rather new, red-brick place. You can easily find it. I shall be waiting there if you want me.”
It was signed “The Man in the Cab.”
“Do you know a cottage called ‘The one down by Platt’s,’ Albert?” asked Maud.
“Yes, m’lady; it’s down by Platt’s farm. I see a chicken killed there Wednesday week. Do you know, m’lady, after a chicken’s ’ead is cut orf it goes running licketty-split ——”
Maud shivered slightly. Albert’s fresh young enthusiasms frequently jarred upon her.
“I find a friend of mine is staying there. I want you to take a note to him from me.”
“Very good, m’lady.”
“Perhaps it would be as well if you said nothing about this matter to any of your friends.”
In Lord Marshmoreton’s study a council of three was sitting in debate. The subject under discussion was that other note which George had written and so ill-advisedly intrusted to one whom he had taken for a guileless gardener. The council consisted of Lord Marshmoreton, looking rather shamefaced; his son Percy, looking swollen and serious; and Lady Caroline Byng, looking like a tragedy queen.
“This,” Lord Belpher was saying in a determined voice, “settles it. From now on Maud must not be allowed out of our sight.”
Lord Marshmoreton spoke. “I rather wish,” he said regretfully, “I hadn’t spoken about the note. I only mentioned it because I thought you might think it amusing.”
“Amusing!” Lady Caroline’s voice shook the furniture.
“Amusing that the fellow should have handed me of all people a letter for Maud,” explained her brother. “I don’t want to get Maud into trouble.”
“You are criminally weak,” said Lady Caroline severely. “I really honestly believe that you were capable of giving the note to that poor misguided girl and saying nothing about it.” She flushed. “The insolence of the man, coming here and settling down at the very gates of the castle! If it was anybody but that man Platt who was giving him shelter I should insist on his being turned out. But that man Platt would be only too glad to know that he is causing us annoyance.”
“Quite!” said Lord Belpher.
“You must go to this man as soon as possible,” continued Lady Caroline, fixing her brother with a commanding stare, “and do your best to make him see how abominable his behavior is.”
“Oh, I couldn’t!” pleaded the earl. “I don’t know the fellow. He’d throw me out.”
“Nonsense. Go at the very earliest opportunity.”
“Oh, all right, all right, all right. Well, I think I’ll be slipping out to the rose garden again now. There’s a clear hour before dinner.”
There was a tap at the door. Alice Faraday entered, bearing papers, a smile of sweet helpfulness on her pretty face.
“I hoped I should find you here, Lord Marshmoreton. You promised to go over these notes with me, the ones about the Essex branch ——”
The hunted peer looked as if he were about to dive through the window.
“Some other time, some other time. I—I have important matters ——”
“Oh, if you’re busy!”
“Of course Lord Marshmoreton will be delighted to work on your notes, Miss Faraday,” said Lady Caroline crisply. “Take this chair. We are just going.”
Lord Marshmoreton gave one wistful glance through the open window. Then he sat down with a sigh and felt for his reading glasses.
(to be continued)
Note: Thanks to Neil Midkiff for providing the transcription and images for this story.