Grand Magazine, October 1923
CHAPTER X (Continued)
“Yes, Miss Halliday?”
The Brains of Blandings looked abstractedly up from his desk. It was only some half-hour since luncheon had finished, but already he was in the library surrounded by large books like a sea-beast among rocks. Most of his time was spent in the library when the castle was full of guests, for his lofty mind was ill attuned to the frivolous babblings of society butterflies.
“I wonder if you could spare me, this afternoon?” said Eve.
Baxter directed the glare of his spectacles upon her inquisitorially.
“The whole afternoon?”
“If you don’t mind. You see, I had a letter by the second post from a great friend of mine, saying that she will be in Market Blandings this afternoon and asking me to meet her there. I must see her, Mr. Baxter, please. You’ve no notion how important it is.”
Eve’s manner was excited, and her eyes as they met Baxter’s sparkled in a fashion that might have disturbed a man made of less stern stuff. If it had been the Hon. Freddie Threepwood, for instance, who had been gazing into their blue depths, that impulsive youth would have tied himself into knots and yapped like a dog. Baxter, the superman, felt no urge towards any such display. He reviewed her request calmly and judicially and decided that it was a reasonable one.
“Very well, Miss Halliday.”
“Thank you ever so much. I’ll make up for it by working twice as hard to-morrow.”
Eve flitted to the door, pausing there to bestow a grateful smile upon him before going out; and Baxter returned to his reading. For a moment he was conscious of a feeling of regret that this quite attractive and uniformly respectful girl should be the partner in crime of a man of whom he disapproved even more than he disapproved of most malefactors. Then he crushed down the weak emotion and was himself again.
Eve trotted downstairs, humming happily to herself. She had expected a longer and more strenuous struggle before she obtained her order of release, and told herself that despite a manner which seldom deviated from the forbidding, Baxter was really quite nice. In short, it seemed to her that nothing could possibly occur to mar the joyfulness of this admirable afternoon; and it was only when a voice hailed her as she was going through the hall a few minutes later that she realized that she was mistaken. The voice, which trembled throatily, was that of the Hon. Freddie; and her first look at him told Eve, an expert diagnostician, that he was going to propose to her again.
“Well, Freddie?” said Eve, resignedly.
The Hon. Frederick Threepwood was a young man who was used to hearing people say, “Well, Freddie?” resignedly when he appeared. His father said it; his aunt Constance said it; all his other aunts and uncles said it. Widely differing personalities in every other respect, they all said, “Well, Freddie?” resignedly directly they caught sight of him. Eve’s words, therefore, and the tone in which they were spoken did not damp him as they might have damped another. His only feeling was one of solemn gladness at the thought that at last he had managed to get her alone for half a minute.
The fact that this was the first time he had been able to get her alone since her arrival at the castle had caused Freddie a good deal of sorrow. Bad luck was what he attributed it to, thereby giving the object of his affections less credit than was her due for a masterly policy of evasion. He sidled up, looking like a well-dressed sheep.
“Going anywhere?” he inquired.
“Yes. I’m going to Market Blandings. Isn’t it a lovely afternoon? I suppose you are busy all the time now that the house is full? Good-bye,” said Eve.
“Eh?” said Freddie, blinking.
“Good-bye. I must be hurrying.”
“Where did you say you were going?”
“I’ll come with you.”
“No, I want to be alone. I’ve got to meet someone there.”
“Come with you as far as the gates,” said Freddie, the human limpet.
The afternoon sun seemed to Eve to be shining a little less brightly as they started down the drive. She was a kind-hearted girl, and it irked her to have to be continually acting as a black frost in Freddie’s garden of dreams. There appeared, however, to be but two ways out of the thing; either she must accept him or he must stop proposing. The first of these alternatives she resolutely declined to consider, and, as far as was ascertainable from his actions, Freddie declined just as resolutely to consider the second. The result was that solitary interviews between them were seldom wholly free from embarrassing developments.
They walked for awhile in silence. Then—
“You’re dashed hard on a fellow,” said Freddie.
“How’s your putting coming on?” asked Eve.
“Your putting. You told me you had so much trouble with it.”
She was not looking at him, for she had developed a habit of not looking at him on these occasions; but she assumed that the odd sound which greeted her remark was a hollow, mirthless laugh.
“Well, you told me yourself it’s the most important part of golf.”
“Golf! Do you think I have time to worry about golf these days?”
“Oh, how splendid, Freddie. Are you really doing some work of some kind? It’s quite time, you know. Think how pleased your father will be.”
“I say,” said Freddie, “I do think you might marry a chap.”
“I suppose I shall some day,” said Eve, “if I meet the right one.”
“No, no,” said Freddie, despairingly. She was not usually so dense as this. He had always looked on her as a dashed clever girl. “I mean me.”
Eve sighed. She had hoped to avert the inevitable.
“Oh, Freddie!” she exclaimed, exasperated. She was still sorry for him, but she could not help being irritated. It was such a splendid afternoon and she had been feeling so happy. And now he had spoiled everything. It always took her at least half an hour to get over the nervous strain of refusing his proposals.
“I love you, dash it,” said Freddie.
“Well, do stop loving me,” said Eve. “I’m an awful girl, really. I’d make you miserable.”
“Happiest man in the world,” corrected Freddie, devoutly.
“I’ve got a frightful temper.”
“You’re an angel.”
Eve’s exasperation increased. She always had a curious fear that one of these days, if he went on proposing, she might say “Yes” by mistake. She wished that there was some way known to science of stopping him once and for all. And in her desperation she thought of a line of argument which she had not yet employed.
“It’s so absurd, Freddie,” she said. “Really, it is. Apart from the fact that I don’t want to marry you, how can you marry anyone? Anyone, I mean, who hasn’t plenty of money.”
“Wouldn’t dream of marrying for money.”
“No, of course not, but——”
“Cupid,” said Freddie woodenly, “pines and sickens in a gilded cage.”
Eve had not expected to be surprised by anything her companion might say, it being her experience that he possessed a vocabulary of about forty-three words and a sum total of ideas that hardly ran into two figures; but this poetic remark took her aback.
Freddie repeated the observation. When it had been flashed on the screen as a spoken sub-title in the six-reel wonder-film, Love or Mammon (Leatrice Comely and Brian Fraser), he had approved and made a note of it.
“Oh?” said Eve, and was silent. As Miss Peavey would have put it, it held her for awhile. “What I meant,” she went on after a moment, “was that you can’t possibly marry a girl without money unless you’ve some money of your own.”
“I say, dash it!” A strange note of jubilation had come into the wooer’s voice. “I say, is that really all that stands between us? Because——”
“No, it isn’t!”
“Because, look here, I’m going to have quite a good deal of money at any moment. It’s more or less of a secret, you know—in fact, a pretty deadish secret, so keep it dark, but Uncle Joe is going to give me a couple of thousand quid. He promised me. Two thousand of the crispest. Absolutely!”
“You know. Old Keeble. He’s going to give me a couple of thousand quid, and then I’m going to buy a partnership in a bookie’s business and simply coin money. Stands to reason, I mean. You can’t help making your bally fortune. Look at all the mugs who are losing money all the time at the races. It’s the bookies that get the stuff. A pal of mine who was up at Oxford with me is in a bookie’s office and they’re going to let me in if I——”
The momentous nature of his information had caused Eve to deviate now from her policy of keeping her eyes off Freddie when in emotional vein. And, if she had desired to check his lecture on finance, she could have chosen no better method than to look at him; for, meeting her gaze, Freddie immediately lost the thread of his discourse and stood yammering. A direct hit from Eve’s eyes always affected him in this way.
“Mr. Keeble is going to give you two thousand pounds!”
A wave of mortification swept over Eve. If there was one thing on which she prided herself, it was the belief that she was a loyal friend, a staunch pal; and now for the first time she found herself facing the unpleasant truth that she had been neglecting Phyllis Jackson’s interests in the most abominable way ever since she had come to Blandings. She had definitely promised Phyllis that she would tackle this step-father of hers and shame him with burning words into yielding up the three thousand pounds which Phyllis needed so desperately for her Lincolnshire farm. And what had she done? Nothing.
Eve was honest to the core, even in her dealings with herself. A less conscientious girl might have argued that she had had no opportunity of a private interview with Mr. Keeble. She scorned to soothe herself with this specious plea. If she had given her mind to it, she could have brought about a dozen private interviews, and she knew it. No. She had allowed the pleasant persistence of Psmith to take up her time, and Phyllis and her troubles had been thrust into the background. She confessed, despising herself, that she had hardly given Phyllis a thought.
And all the while this Mr. Keeble had been in a position to scatter largess, thousands of pounds of it, to undeserving people like Freddie. Why, a word from her about Phyllis would have——
“Two thousand pounds?” she repeated dizzily. “Mr. Keeble!”
“Absolutely!” cried Freddie radiantly. The first shock of looking into her eyes had passed and he was now revelling in that occupation.
Freddie’s rapt gaze flickered. Love, he perceived, had nearly caused him to be indiscreet.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he mumbled. “He’s just giving it to me, you know, don’t you know.”
“Did you simply go to him and ask him for it?”
“Well—er—well, yes. That was about the strength of it.”
“And he didn’t object?”
“No. He seemed rather pleased.”
“Pleased!” Eve found breathing difficult. She was feeling rather like a man who suddenly discovers that the hole in his back yard which he has been passing nonchalantly for months is a gold-mine. If the operation of extracting money from Mr. Keeble was not only easy but also agreeable to the victim . . . She became aware of a sudden imperative need for Freddie’s absence. She wanted to think this thing over.
“Well, then,” said Freddie, “coming back to it, will you?”
“What?” said Eve, distrait.
“Marry me, you know. What I mean to say is, I worship the very ground you walk on and all that sort of rot . . . I mean, and all that. And now that you realise that I’m going to get this couple of thousand—and the bookie’s business—and what not, I mean to say——”
“Freddie,” said Eve, tensely, expressing her harassed nerves in a voice that came hotly through clenched teeth, “go away!”
“I don’t want to marry you, and I’m sick of having to keep on telling you so. Will you please go away and leave me alone.”
She stopped. Her sense of fairness told her that she was working off on her hapless suitor venom which should have been expended on herself. “I’m sorry, Freddie,” she said, softening; “I didn’t mean to be such a beast as that. I know you’re awfully fond of me, but really, really I can’t marry you. You don’t want to marry a girl who doesn’t love you, do you?”
“Yes, I do,” said Freddie, stoutly. “If it’s you, I mean. Love is a tiny seed that coldness can wither, but if tended and nurtured in the fostering warmth of an honest heart——”
“Blossoms into a flower,” concluded Freddie, rapidly. “What I mean to say is, love would come after marriage.”
“Well, that’s the way it happened in A Society Mating.”
“Freddie,” said Eve, “I really don’t want to talk any more. Will you be a dear and just go away? I’ve got a lot of thinking to do.”
“Oh, thinking?” said Freddie, impressed. “Right ho!”
“Thank you so much.”
“Oh—er—not at all. Well—pip-pip.”
“See you later, what?”
“Of course, of course.”
And the Hon. Freddie, not ill-pleased—for it seemed to him that at long last he detected signs of melting in the party of the second part—swivelled round on his long legs and started for home.
THE little town of Market Blandings was a peaceful sight as it slept in the sun. For the first time since Freddie had left her, Eve became conscious of a certain tranquility as she entered the old grey High Street, which was the centre of the place’s life and thought. Market Blandings had a comforting air of having been exactly the same for centuries. Troubles might vex the generations it housed, but they did not worry that lichened church with its sturdy four-square tower, nor those red-roofed shops, nor the age-old inns whose second stories bulged so comfortably out over the pavements.
As Eve walked in slow meditation towards the Emsworth Arms, the intensely respectable hostelry which was her objective, archways met her gaze, opening with a picturesque unexpectedness to show heartening glimpses of ancient nooks all cool and green. There was about the High Street of Market Blandings a suggestion of a slumbering Cathedral close. Nothing was modern in it except the moving-picture house, and even that called itself an Electric Theatre and was ivy-covered and surmounted by stone gables.
On second thoughts, that statement is too sweeping. There was one other modern building in the High Street—Jno. Banks, hairdresser, to wit, and Eve was just coming abreast of Mr. Banks’ emporium now.
In any ordinary surroundings these premises would have been a tolerably attractive sight, but in Market Blandings they were almost an eyesore; and Eve, finding herself at the door, was jarred out of her reverie as if she had heard a false note in a solemn anthem. She was on the point of hurrying past when the door opened, and a short, solid figure came out. And at the sight of this short, solid figure Eve stopped abruptly.
It was with the object of getting his grizzled locks clipped in preparation for the County Ball that Joseph Keeble had come to Mr. Banks’ shop as soon as he had finished lunch. As he emerged now into the High Street he was wondering why he had permitted Mr. Banks to finish off the job with a heliotrope-scented hair-wash. It seemed to Mr. Keeble that the air was heavy with heliotrope, and it came to him suddenly that heliotrope was a scent which he always found particularly objectionable.
Ordinarily Joseph Keeble was accustomed to show an iron front to hairdressers who tried to inflict lotions upon him; and the reason his vigilance had relaxed under the ministrations of Jno. Banks was that the second post, which arrived at the castle at the luncheon hour, had brought him a plaintive letter from his step-daughter Phyllis—which had caused him to tackle his masterful wife in the smoking-room.
Immediately after the conclusion of his business deal with the Hon. Freddie, he had written to Phyllis in a vein of optimism rendered glowing by Freddie’s promises, assuring her that at any moment he would be in a position to send her the three thousand pounds which she required to clinch the purchase of that dream-farm in Lincolnshire. To this she had replied with thanks. And after that there had been a lapse of days and still he had not made good. Phyllis was becoming worried, and said so in six closely-written pages.
Mr. Keeble, as he sat in the barber’s chair going over this letter in his mind, had groaned in spirit, while Jno. Banks, with gleaming eyes, did practically what he liked with the heliotrope bottle. Not for the first time since the formation of their partnership, Joseph Keeble was tormented with doubts as to his wisdom in entrusting a commission so delicate as the purloining of his wife’s diamond necklace to one of his nephew Freddie’s known feebleness of intellect.
Here, he told himself unhappily, was a job of work which would have tested the combined abilities of a syndicate consisting of Charles Peace and the James Brothers, and he had put it in the hands of a young man who in all his life had only once shown genuine inspiration and initiative—on the occasion when he had parted his hair in the middle at a time when all the other members of the Bachelors’ Club were brushing it straight back. The more Mr. Keeble thought of Freddie’s chances, the slimmer they appeared.
By the time Jno. Banks had released him from the spotted apron he was thoroughly pessimistic, and as he passed out of the door, “so perfumed that the winds were love-sick with him,” his estimate of his colleague’s abilities was reduced to a point where he began to doubt whether the stealing of a mere milk-can was not beyond his scope. So deeply immersed was he in these gloomy thoughts that Eve had to call his name twice before he came out of them.
“Miss Halliday?” he said, apologetically. “I beg your pardon. I was thinking.”
Eve, though they had hardly exchanged a word since her arrival at the castle, had taken a liking to Mr. Keeble; and she felt in consequence none of the embarrassment which might have handicapped her in the discussion of an extremely delicate matter with another man. By nature direct and straightforward, she came to the point at once.
“Can you spare me a moment or two, Mr. Keeble?” she said. She glanced at the clock on the church tower and saw that she had ample time before her own appointment. “I want to talk to you about Phyllis.”
Mr. Keeble jerked his head back in astonishment, and the world became noisome with heliotrope. It was as if the Voice of Conscience had suddenly addressed him.
“Phyllis!” he gasped, and the letter crackled in the breast-pocket.
“Your step-daughter Phyllis.”
“Do you know her?”
“She was my best friend at school. I had tea with her just before I came to the castle.”
“Extraordinary!” said Mr. Keeble.
A customer in quest of a shave thrust himself between them and went into the shop. They moved away a few paces.
“Of course if you say it is none of my business——”
“My dear young lady——”
“Well, it is my business, because she’s my friend,” said Eve, firmly. “Mr. Keeble, Phyllis told me she had written to you about buying that farm. Why don’t you help her?”
The afternoon was warm, but not warm enough to account for the moistness of Mr. Keeble’s brow. He drew out a large handkerchief and mopped his forehead. A hunted look was in his eyes. The hand which was not occupied with the handkerchief had sought his pocket and was busy rattling keys.
“I want to help her. I would do anything in the world to help her.”
“Then why don’t you?”
“I—I am curiously situated.”
“Yes, Phyllis told me something about that. I can see that it is a difficult position for you. But, Mr. Keeble, surely, surely if you can manage to give Freddie Threepwood two thousand pounds to start a bookmaker’s business——”
Her words were cut short by a strangled cry from her companion. Sheer panic was in his eyes now, and in his heart an overwhelming regret that he had ever been fool enough to dabble in crime in the company of a mere animated talking-machine like his nephew Freddie.
This girl knew! And if she knew, how many others knew! The young imbecile had probably babbled his hideous secret into the ears of every human being in the place who would listen to him.
“He told you!” he stammered. “He t-told you?”
“Yes. Just now.”
“Goosh!” muttered Mr. Keeble, brokenly.
Eve stared at him in surprise. She could not understand this emotion. The handkerchief, after a busy session, was lowered now, and he was looking at her imploringly.
“You haven’t told anyone?” he croaked, hoarsely.
“Of course not. I said I had only heard of it just now.”
“You wouldn’t tell anyone?”
“Why should I?”
Mr. Keeble’s breath, which had seemed to him for a moment gone for ever, began to return timidly. Relief for a space held him dumb. What nonsense, he reflected, these newspapers and people talked about the modern girl. It was this very broad-mindedness of hers, to which they objected so absurdly, that made her a creature of such charm. She might behave in certain ways in a fashion that would have shocked her grandmother, but how comforting it was to find her calm and unmoved in the contemplation of another’s crime. His heart warmed to Eve.
“You’re wonderful!” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Of course,” argued Mr. Keeble, “it isn’t really stealing.”
“I shall buy my wife another necklace.”
“So everything will be all right. Constance will be perfectly happy, and Phyllis will have her money, and——”
Something in Eve’s astonished gaze seemed to smite Mr. Keeble.
“Don’t you know?” he broke off.
“Know? Know what?”
Mr. Keeble perceived that he had wronged Freddie. The young ass had been a fool even to mention the money to this girl, but he had at least, it seemed, stopped short of disclosing the entire plot. An oyster-like reserve came upon him.
“Nothing, nothing,” he said, hastily. “Forgot what I was going to say. Well, I must be going, I must be going.”
Eve clutched wildly at his retreating sleeve. Unintelligible though his words had been, one sentence had come home to her, the one about Phyllis having her money. It was no time for half-measures. She grabbed him.
“Mr. Keeble,” she cried, urgently. “I don’t know what you mean, but you were just going to say something which sounded—— Mr. Keeble, do trust me. I’m Phyllis’ best friend, and if you’ve thought out any way of helping her I wish you would tell me—you must tell me. I might be able to help.”
Mr. Keeble, as she began her broken speech, had been endeavouring with deprecatory tugs to disengage his coat from her grasp. But now he ceased to struggle. Those doubts of Freddie’s efficiency which had troubled him in Jno. Banks’ chair still lingered. His opinion that Freddie was but a broken reed had not changed. Indeed, it had grown. He looked at Eve. He looked at her searchingly. Into her pleading eyes he directed a stare that sought to probe her soul, and saw there honesty, sympathy, and—better still—intelligence.
He might have stood and gazed into Freddie’s fishy eyes for weeks without discovering a tithe of such intelligence. His mind was made up. This girl was an ally. A girl of dash and vigour. A girl worth a thousand Freddies—not, however, reflected Mr. Keeble, that that was saying much. He hesitated no longer.
“It’s like this,” said Mr. Keeble.
a shooting star
THE information, authoritatively conveyed to him during breakfast by Lady Constance, that he was scheduled that night to read select passages from Ralston McTodd’s “Songs of Squalor” to the entire house-party assembled in the big drawing-room, had come as a complete surprise to Psmith, and to his fellow-guests—such of them as were young and of the soulless sex—as a shock from which they found it hard to rally. True, they had before now gathered in a vague sort of way that he was one of those literary fellows, but so normal and engaging had they found his whole manner and appearance that it had never occurred to them that he concealed anything up his sleeve as lethal as “Songs of Squalor.”
Among these members of the younger set the consensus of opinion was that it was a bit thick, and that at such a price even the lavish hospitality of Blandings was scarcely worth having. Only those who had visited the castle before, during the era of her ladyship’s flirtation with Art, could have been described as resigned. These stout hearts argued that while this latest blister was probably going to be pretty bad, he could hardly be worse than the chappie who had lectured on Theosophy last November and must almost of necessity be better than the bird who, during the Shiffley race-week, had attempted in a two-hour discourse to convert them to vegetarianism.
Psmith himself regarded the coming ordeal with equanimity. He was not one of those whom the prospect of speaking in public afflicts with nervous horror. He liked the sound of his own voice, and night when it came found him entirely cheerful. He listened contentedly to the sound of the drawing-room filling up as he strolled on the star-lit terrace, smoking a last cigarette before duty called him elsewhere. And when, some few yards away, seated on the terrace-wall gazing out into the velvet darkness, he perceived Eve Halliday, his sense of well-being became acute.
All day he had been conscious of a growing desire for another of those cosy chats with Eve which had done so much to make life agreeable for him during his stay at Blandings. Her prejudice—which he deplored—in favour of doing a certain amount of work to justify her salary had kept him during the morning away from the little room off the library where she was wont to sit cataloguing books; and when he had gone there after lunch he had found it empty.
As he approached her now, he was thinking pleasantly of all those delightful walks, those excellent driftings on the lake, and those cheery conversations which had gone to cement his conviction that of all possible girls she was the only possible one. It seemed to him that in addition to being beautiful she brought out all that was best in him of intellect and soul. That is to say, she let him talk oftener and longer than any girl he had ever known.
It struck him as a little curious that she made no move to greet him. She remained apparently unaware of his approach. And yet the summer night was not of such density as to hide him from view, and, even if she could not see him, she must undoubtedly have heard him, for only a moment before he had tripped with some violence over a large flower-pot, one of a row of sixteen which Angus McAllister, doubtless for some good purpose, had placed in the fairway that afternoon.
“A pleasant night,” he said, seating himself gracefully beside her on the wall.
She turned her head for a brief instant, and, having turned it, looked away again.
“Yes,” she said.
Her manner was not effusive, but Psmith persevered.
“The stars,” he proceeded, indicating them with a kindly yet not patronising wave of the hand. “Bright, twinkling, and—if I may say so—rather neatly arranged. When I was a mere lad, someone whose name I cannot recollect taught me which was Orion. Also Mars, Venus, and Jupiter. This thoroughly useless chunk of knowledge has, I am happy to say, long since passed from my mind. However, I am in a position to state that that wiggly thing up there a little to the right is King Charles’ Wain.”
“Yes, indeed, I assure you.” It struck Psmith that astronomy was not gripping his audience, so he tried travel. “I hear,” he said, “you went to Market Blandings this afternoon.”
“An attractive settlement.”
There was a pause. Psmith removed his monocle and polished it thoughtfully. The summer night seemed to him to have taken on a touch of chill.
“What I like about the English rural districts,” he went on, “is that when the authorities have finished building a place they stop. Somewhere about the reign of Henry the Eighth, I imagine that the master-mason gave the final house a pat with his trowel and said, ‘Well, boys, that’s Market Blandings.’ To which his assistants no doubt assented with many a hearty ‘Grammercy!’ and ‘I’fackins!’ these being expletives to which they were much addicted. And they went away and left it, and nobody has touched it since. And I, for one, thoroughly approve. I think it makes the place soothing. Don’t you?”
As far as the darkness would permit, Psmith subjected Eve to an inquiring glance through his monocle. This was a strange new mood in which he had found her. Hitherto, though she had always endeared herself to him by permitting him the major portion of the dialogue, they had usually split conversations on at least a seventy-five-twenty-five basis. And though it gratified Psmith to be allowed to deliver a monologue when talking with most people, he found Eve more companionable when in a slightly chattier vein.
“Are you coming in to hear me read?” he asked.
It was a change from “Yes,” but that was the best that could be said of it. A good deal of discouragement was always required to damp Psmith, but he could not help feeling a slight diminution of buoyancy. However, he kept on trying.
“You show your usual sterling good sense,” he said, approvingly. “A scalier method of passing the scented summer night could hardly be hit upon.” He abandoned the topic of reading. It did not grip. That was manifest. It lacked appeal. “I went to Market Blandings this afternoon, too,” he said. “Comrade Baxter informed me that you had gone thither, so I went after you. Not being able to find you, I turned in for half an hour at the local moving-picture palace. They were showing Episode Eleven of a serial. It concluded with the heroine, kidnapped by Indians, stretched on the sacrificial altar with the high-priest making passes at her with a knife. The hero meanwhile had started to climb a rather nasty precipice on his way to the rescue. The final picture was a close-up of his fingers slipping slowly off a rock. Episode Twelve next week.”
Eve looked out into the night without speaking.
“I’m afraid it won’t end happily,” said Psmith with a sigh. “I think he’ll save her.”
Eve turned on him with a menacing abruptness.
“Shall I tell you why I went to Market Bindings this afternoon?” she said.
“Do,” said Psmith, cordially. “It is not for me to criticise, but as a matter of fact I was rather wondering when you were going to begin telling me all about your adventures. I have been monopolising the conversation.”
“I went to meet Cynthia.”
Psmith’s monocle fell out of his eye and swung jerkily on its cord. He was not easily disconcerted, but this unexpected piece of information, coming on top of her peculiar manner, undoubtedly jarred him. He foresaw difficulties, and once again found himself thinking hard thoughts of this confounded female who kept bobbing up when least expected. How simple life would have been, he mused wistfully, had Ralston McTodd only had the good sense to remain a bachelor.
“Oh, Cynthia?” he said.
“Yes, Cynthia,” said Eve. The inconvenient Mrs. McTodd possessed a Christian name admirably adapted for being hissed between clenched teeth, and Eve hissed it now. It became evident to Psmith that the dear girl was in a condition of hardly suppressed fury and that trouble was coming his way. He braced himself to meet it.
“Directly after we had that talk on the lake, the day I arrived,” continued Eve, tensely, “I wrote to Cynthia, telling her to come here at once and meet me at the Emsworth Arms——”
“In the High Street,” said Psmith. “I know it. Good beer.”
“I said they sell good beer.”
“Never mind about the beer,” cried Eve.
“No, no. I merely mentioned it in passing.”
“At lunch to-day I got a letter from her saying that she would be there this afternoon. So I hurried off. I wanted”—Eve laughed a hollow, mirthless laugh of a calibre which even the Hon. Freddie Threepwood would have found beyond his powers, and he was a specialist—“I wanted to try to bring you two together. I thought that if I could see her and have a talk with her that you might become reconciled.”
Psmith, though obsessed with a disquieting feeling that he was fighting in the last ditch, pulled himself together sufficiently to pat her hand as it lay beside him on the wall like some white and fragile flower.
“That was like you,” Psmith murmured. “That was an act worthy of your great heart. But I fear that the rift between Cynthia and myself has reached such dimensions——”
Eve drew her hand away. She swung round, and the battery of her indignant gaze raked him furiously.
“I saw Cynthia,” she said, “and she told me that her husband was in Paris.”
“Now, how in the world,” said Psmith, struggling bravely, but with a growing sense that they were coming over the plate a bit too fast for him, “how in the world did she get an idea like that?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“I do, indeed.”
“Then I’ll tell you. She got the idea because she had had a letter from him, begging her to join him there. She had just finished telling me this, when I caught sight of you from the inn window, walking along the High Street. I pointed you out to Cynthia and she said she had never seen you before in her life.”
“Women soon forget,” sighed Psmith.
“The only excuse I can find for you,” stormed Eve, in a vibrant undertone necessitated by the fact that somebody had just emerged from the castle door and they no longer had the terrace to themselves, “is that you’re mad. When I think of all you said to me about poor Cynthia on the lake that afternoon, when I think of all the sympathy I wasted on you——”
“Not wasted,” corrected Psmith, firmly. “It was by no means wasted. It made me love you—if possible—even more.”
Eve had supposed that she had embarked on a tirade which would last until she had worked off her indignation and felt composed again, but this extraordinary remark scattered the thread of her harangue so hopelessly that all she could do was to stare at him in amazed silence.
“Womanly intuition,” proceeded Psmith, gravely, “will have told you long ere this that I love you with a fervour which with my poor vocabulary I cannot hope to express. True, as you are about to say, we have known each other but a short time, as time is measured. But what of that?”
Eve raised her eyebrows. Her voice was cold and hostile.
“After what has happened,” she said, “I suppose I ought not to be surprised at finding you capable of anything, but—are you really choosing this moment to—to propose to me?”
“To employ a favourite word of your own—yes.”
“And you expect me to take you seriously?”
“Assuredly not. I look upon the present disclosure purely as a sighting shot. You may regard it, if you will, as a kind of formal proclamation. I wish simply to go on record as an aspirant to your hand. I want you, if you will be so good, to make a note of my words and give them a thought from time to time. As Comrade Cootes—a young friend of mine whom you have not yet met—would say, chew on them.”
“It is possible,” continued Psmith, “that black moments will come to you—for they come to all of us, even the sunniest—when you will find yourself saying, ‘Nobody loves me!’ On such occasions I should like you to add, ‘No, I am wrong. There is somebody who loves me.’ At first, it may be, that reflection will bring but scant balm. Gradually, however, as the days go by and we are constantly together and my nature unfolds itself before you like the petals of some timid flower beneath the rays of the sun——”
Eve’s eyes opened wider. She had supposed herself incapable of further astonishment, but she saw that she had been mistaken.
“You surely aren’t dreaming of staying on here now?” she gasped.
“Most decidedly. Why not?”
“But—but what is to prevent my telling everybody that you are not Mr. McTodd?”
“Your sweet, generous nature,” said Psmith. “Your big heart. Your angelic forbearance.”
“Considering that I only came here as McTodd—and if you had seen him you would realise that he is not a person for whom the man of sensibility and refinement would lightly allow himself to be mistaken—I say considering that I only took on the job of understudy so as to get to the castle and be near you, I hardly think that you will be able to bring yourself to get me slung out.
“You must try to understand what happened. When Lord Emsworth started chatting with me under the impression that I was Comrade McTodd, I encouraged the mistake purely with the kindly intention of putting him at his ease. Even when he informed me that he was expecting me to come down to Blandings with him on the five o’clock train, it never even occurred to me to do so. It was only when I saw you talking to him in the street and he revealed the fact that you were about to enjoy his hospitality that I decided that there was no other course open to the man of spirit. Consider! Twice that day you had passed out of my life—may I say taking the sunshine with you?—and I began to fear you might pass out of it for ever. So, loth though I was to commit the solecism of planting myself in this happy home under false pretences, I could see no other way. And here I am!”
“You must be mad!”
“Well, as I was saying, the days will go by, you will have ample opportunity of studying my personality, and it is quite possible that in due season the love of an honest heart may impress you as worth having. I may add that I have loved you since the moment when I saw you sheltering from the rain under that awning in Dover Street, and I recall saying as much to Comrade Walderwick when he was chatting with me some short time later on the subject of his umbrella. I do not press you for an answer now——”
“I should hope not!”
“I merely say ‘Think it over.’ It is nothing to cause you mental distress. Other men love you. Freddie Threepwood loves you. Just add me to the list. That is all I ask. Muse on me from time to time. Reflect that I may be an acquired taste. You probably did not like olives the first time you tasted them. Now you probably do. Give me the same chance you would an olive. Consider, also, how little you actually have against me. What, indeed, does it amount to, when you come to examine it narrowly? All you have against me is the fact that I am not Ralston McTodd. Think how comparatively few people are Ralston McTodd. Let your meditations proceed along these lines and——”
He broke off, for at this moment the individual who had come out of the front door a short while back loomed beside them, and the glint of starlight on glass revealed him as the Efficient Baxter.
“Everybody is waiting, Mr. McTodd,” said the Efficient Baxter. He spoke the name, as always, with a certain sardonic emphasis.
“Of course,” said Psmith, affably, “of course. I was forgetting. I will get to work at once. You are quite sure you do not wish to hear a scuttleful of modern poetry, Miss Halliday?”
“And yet even now, so our genial friend here informs us, a bevy of youth and beauty is crowding the drawing-room, agog for the treat. Well, well! It is these strange clashings of personal taste which constitute what we call Life. I think I will write a poem about it some day. Come, Comrade Baxter, let us be up and doing. I must not disappoint my public.”
For some moments after the two had left her—Baxter, silent and chilly; Psmith, all debonair chumminess, kneading the other’s arm and pointing out as they went objects of interest by the wayside—Eve remained on the terrace wall, thinking. She was laughing now, but behind her amusement there was another feeling, and one that perplexed her. A good many men had proposed to her in the course of her career, but none of them had ever left her with this odd feeling of exhilaration. Psmith was different from any other man who had come her way, and difference was a quality which Eve esteemed.
She had just reached the conclusion that life for whatever girl might eventually decide to risk it in Psmith’s company would never be dull, when strange doings in her immediate neighbourhood roused her from her meditations.
The thing happened as she rose from her seat on the wall and started to cross the terrace on her way to the front door. She had stopped for an instant beneath the huge open window of the drawing-room to listen to what was going on inside. Faintly, with something of the quality of a far-off phonograph, the sound of Psmith reading came to her; and even at this distance there was a composed blandness about his voice which brought a smile to her lips.
And then, with a startling abruptness, the lighted window was dark. And she was aware that all the lighted windows on that side of the castle had suddenly become dark. The lamp that shone over the great door ceased to shine. And above the hubbub of voices in the drawing-room she heard Psmith’s patient drawl.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I think the lights have gone out.”
The night air was rent by a single piercing scream. Something flashed like a shooting-star and fell at her feet; and, stooping, Eve found in her hands Lady Constance Keeble’s diamond necklace.
TO be prepared is everything in this life. Ever since her talk with Mr. Joseph Keeble in the High Street of Market Blandings that afternoon Eve’s mind had been flitting nimbly from one scheme to another, all designed to end in this very act of seizing the necklace in her hands, and each rendered impracticable by some annoying flaw. And now that Fate in its impulsive way had achieved for her what she had begun to feel she could never accomplish for herself she wasted no time in bewildered inaction. The miracle found her ready for it.
For an instant she debated with herself the chances of a dash through the darkened hall up the stairs to her room. But the lights might go on again, and she might meet someone. Memories of sensational novels read in the past told her that on occasions such as this people were detained and searched.
Suddenly, as she stood there, she found the way. Close beside her, lying on its side, was the flower-pot which Psmith had overturned as he came to join her on the terrace-wall. It might have defects as a cache, but at the moment she could perceive none. Most flower-pots are alike, but this was a particularly easily-remembered flower-pot, for in its journeyings from the potting-shed to the terrace it had acquired on its side a splash of white paint. She would be able to distinguish it from its fellows when, late that night, she crept out to retrieve the spoil. And surely nobody would ever think of suspecting——
She plunged her fingers into the soft mould, and straightened herself, breathing quickly. It was not an ideal piece of work, but it would serve.
She rubbed her fingers on the turf, put the flower-pot back in the row with the others, and then, like a flying white phantom, darted across the terrace and into the house. And so, with beating heart, groping her way, to the bath-room to wash her hands.
The twenty-thousand-pound flower-pot looked placidly up at the winking stars.
IT was perhaps two minutes later that Mr. Cootes, sprinting lustily, rounded the corner of the house and burst on to the terrace. Late as usual.
THE Efficient Baxter prowled feverishly up and down the yielding carpet of the big drawing-room. His eyes gleamed behind their spectacles, his dome-like brow was corrugated. Except for himself, the room was empty. As far as the scene of the disaster was concerned, the tumult and the shouting had died. It was going on vigorously in practically every other part of the house, but in the drawing-room there was stillness, if not peace.
Baxter paused, came to a decision, went to the wall, and pressed the bell.
“Thomas,” he said, when that footman presented himself a few moments later.
“Send Susan to me.”
“Yes, Susan!” snapped the Efficient One, who had always a short way with the domestic staff. “Susan, Susan, Susan—the new parlourmaid.”
“Oh yes, sir. Very good, sir.”
Thomas withdrew, outwardly all grave respectfulness, inwardly piqued, as was his wont, at the airy manner in which the secretary flung his orders about at the castle. The domestic staff at Blandings lived in a perpetual state of smouldering discontent under Baxter’s rule.
“Susan,” said Thomas, when he arrived in the lower regions, “you’re to go up to the drawing-room. Nosey Parker wants you.”
The pleasant-faced young woman whom he addressed laid down her knitting.
“Who?” she asked.
“Mister Blooming Baxter. When you’ve been here a little longer you’ll know that he’s the feller that owns the place. How he got it I don’t know. Found it,” said Thomas, satirically, “in his Christmas stocking, I expect. Anyhow, you’re to go up.”
Thomas’s fellow-footman, Stokes, a serious-looking man with a bald forehead, shook that forehead solemnly.
“Something’s the matter,” he asserted. “You can’t tell me that wasn’t a scream we heard when them lights was out. Or,” he added, weightily, for he was a man who looked at every side of a question, “a shriek. It was a shriek or scream. I said so at the time. ‘There,’ I said, ‘listen!’ I said. ‘That’s somebody screaming,’ I said. ‘Or shrieking.’ Something’s up.”
“Well, Baxter hasn’t been murdered, worse luck,” said Thomas, “He’s up there screaming or shrieking for Susan. ‘Send Susan to me!’ ” proceeded Thomas, giving an always popular imitation. “ ‘Susan, Susan, Susan.’ So you’d best go, my girl, and see what he wants.”
“And, Susan,” said Thomas, a tender note creeping into his voice, for already, brief as had been her sojourn at Blandings, he had found the new parlourmaid making a deep impression on him, “if it’s a row of any kind——”
“Or description,” interjected Stokes.
“Or description,” continued Thomas, accepting the word. “If ’e’s ’arsh with you for some reason or other, you come right back to me and sob out your troubles on my chest, see? Lay your little ’ead on my shoulder and tell me all about it.”
The new parlourmaid, primly declining to reply to this alluring invitation, started on her journey upstairs; and Thomas, with a not unmanly sigh, resumed his interrupted game of halfpenny nap with colleague Stokes.
THE Efficient Baxter had gone to the open window, and was gazing out into the night when Susan entered the drawing-room.
“You wished to see me, Mr. Baxter?”
The secretary spun round. So softly had she opened the door, and so noiselessly had she moved when inside the room that it was not until she spoke that he had become aware of her arrival. It was a characteristic of this girl Susan that she was always apt to be among those present some time before the latter became cognisant of the fact.
“Oh, good evening, Miss Simmons. You came in very quietly.”
“Habit,” said the parlourmaid.
“You gave me quite a start.”
“I’m sorry. What was it,” she asked, dismissing in a positively unfeeling manner the subject of her companion’s jarred nerves, “that you wished to see me about?”
“Shut that door.”
“I have. I always shut doors.”
“Please sit down.”
“No, thank you, Mr. Baxter. It might look odd if anyone should come in.”
“Of course. You think of everything.”
“I always do.”
Baxter stood for a moment frowning.
“Miss Simmons,” he said, “when I thought it expedient to instal a private detective in this house I insisted on Wragge’s sending you. We had worked together before——”
“Sixteenth of December, 1918, to Jan. twelve, 1919, when you were secretary to Mr. Horace Jevons, the American millionaire,” said Miss Simmons, as promptly as if he had touched a spring. It was her hobby to remember dates with precision.
“Exactly. I insisted upon your being sent because I knew from experience that you were reliable. At that time I looked on your presence here merely as a precautionary measure. Now, I am sorry to say——”
“Did someone steal Lady Constance’s necklace to-night?”
“When the lights went out just now?”
“Well, why couldn’t you say so at once? Good gracious, man, you don’t have to break the thing gently to me!”
The Efficient Baxter, though he strongly objected to being addressed as “man,” decided to overlook the solecism.
“The lights suddenly went out,” he said. “There was a certain amount of laughter and confusion. Then a piercing shriek——”
“I heard it.”
“And immediately after Lady Constance’s voice crying that her jewels had been snatched from her neck.”
“Then what happened?”
“Still greater confusion, which lasted until one of the maids arrived with a candle. Eventually the lights went on again, but of the necklace there was no sign whatever.”
“Well? Were you expecting the thief to wear it as a watch-chain or hang it from his teeth?”
Baxter was finding his companion’s manner more trying every minute, but he preserved his calm.
“Naturally, the doors were barred and a complete search instituted. And extremely embarrassing it was. With the single exception of the scoundrel who has been palming himself off as McTodd, all those present were well-known members of Society.”
“Well-known members of Society might not object to getting hold of a twenty-thousand-pound necklace. But still, with the McTodd fellow there, you oughtn’t to have had far to look. What had he to say about it?”
“He was among the first to empty his pockets.”
“Well, then, he must have hidden the thing somewhere.”
“Not in this room. I have searched assiduously.”
There was a silence.
“It is baffling,” said Baxter, “baffling!”
“It is nothing of the kind,” replied Miss Simmons, tartly. “This wasn’t a one-man job. How could it have been? I should be inclined to call it a three-man job. One to switch off the lights, one to snatch the necklace, and one to—was that window open all the time? I thought so. And—and one to pick up the necklace when the second fellow threw it out on to the terrace.”
The word shot from Baxter’s lips with explosive force. Miss Simmons looked at him curiously.
“Thought of something?”
“Miss Simmons,” said the Efficient One, impressively, “everybody was assembled in here waiting for the reading to begin, but the pseudo McTodd was nowhere to be found. I discovered him eventually on the terrace in close talk with the Halliday girl.”
“His partner,” said Miss Simmons, nodding. “We thought so all along. And let me add my little bit. There’s a fellow down in the servants’ hall that calls himself a valet, and I’ll bet he didn’t know what a valet was till he came here. I thought he was a crook the moment I set eyes on him. I can tell ’em in the dark. Now, do you know whose valet he is? This McTodd fellow’s!”
Baxter bounded to and fro like a caged tiger.
“And with my own ears,” he cried, excitedly, “I heard the Halliday girl refuse to come to the drawing-room to listen to the reading. She was out on the terrace throughout the whole affair. Miss Simmons, we must act! We must act!”
“Yes, but not like idiots,” replied the detective, frostily.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you can’t charge out, as you looked as if you wanted to just then, and denounce these crooks where they sit. We’ve got to go carefully.”
“But meanwhile they will smuggle the necklace away!”
“They won’t smuggle any necklace away, not while I’m around. Suspicion’s no good. We’ve made out a nice little case against the three of them, but it’s no use unless we catch them with the goods. The first thing we have to do is to find out where they’ve hidden the stuff. And that’ll take patience. I’ll start by searching that girl’s room. Then I’ll search the valet fellow’s room. And if the stuff isn’t there it’ll mean they’ve hidden it out in the open somewhere.”
“But this McTodd fellow. This fellow who poses as McTodd. He may have it all the while.”
“No. I’ll search his room, too, but the stuff won’t be there. He’s the fellow who’s going to get it in the end, because he’s got that place out in the woods to hide it in. But they wouldn’t have had time to slip it to him yet. That necklace is somewhere right here. And if,” said Miss Simmons, with grim facetiousness, “they can hide it from me, they may keep it as a birthday present.”
HOW wonderful, if we pause to examine it, is Nature’s inexorable law of compensation. Instead of wasting time in envy of our mental superiors, we would do well to reflect that these gifts of theirs which excite our wistful jealousy are ever attended by corresponding penalties. To take an example that lies to hand, it was the very fact that he possessed a brain like a buzz-saw that rendered the Efficient Baxter a bad sleeper. Just as he would be dropping off, bing! would go that brain of his, melting the mists of sleep like snow in a furnace.
This was so even when life was running calmly for him and without excitement. To-night, his mind, bearing the load it did, firmly declined even to consider the question of slumber. The hour of two, chiming from the clock over the stables, found him as wide awake as ever he was at high noon.
Lying in bed in the darkness he reviewed the situation as far as he had the data. Shortly before he retired Miss Simmons had made her report about the bedrooms. Though subjected to the severest scrutiny, neither Psmith’s boudoir, nor Cootes’s attic, nor Eve’s little nook on the third floor had yielded up treasure of any description. And this, Miss Simmons held, confirmed her original view that the necklace must be lying concealed in what might almost be called a public spot—on some window-ledge, maybe, or somewhere in the hall.
Baxter lay considering this theory. It did appear to be the only tenable one; but it offended him by giving the search a frivolous suggestion of being some sort of round game like hunt the slipper or find the thimble. As a child he had held austerely aloof from these silly pastimes, and he resented being compelled to play them now. Still. . . .
He sat up tingling. He had heard a noise.
THE attitude of the majority of people towards noises in the night is one of cautious non-interference. But Rupert Baxter was made of sterner stuff. The sound had seemed to come from downstairs somewhere—perhaps from that very hall where, according to Miss Simmons, the stolen necklace might even now be lying hid.
Whatever it was, it must certainly not be ignored. He reached for the spectacles which lay ever ready to his hand on the table beside him, then climbed out of bed, and, having put on a pair of slippers and opened the door, crept forth into the darkness. As far as he could ascertain by holding his breath and straining his ears, all was still from cellar to roof; but, nevertheless, he was not satisfied. He continued to listen. His room was on the second floor, one of a series that ran along a balcony overlooking the hall; and he stood leaning over the balcony rail, a silent statue of Vigilance.
THE noise which had acted so electrically upon the Efficient Baxter had been a particularly noisy noise, and only the intervening distance and the fact that his door was closed had prevented its sounding to him like an explosion. It had been caused by the crashing downfall of a small table containing a vase, a jar of pot-pourri, an Indian sandalwood box of curious workmanship, and a cabinet-size photograph of the Earl of Emsworth’s eldest son, Lord Bosham; and the table had fallen because Eve, en route across the hall in quest of her precious flower-pot, had collided with it while making for the front door.
Of all indoor sports—and Eve, as she stood pallidly among the ruins, would have been the first to endorse this dictum—the one which offers the minimum of pleasure to the participant is that of roaming in pitch darkness through the hall of a country house. Easily navigable in the daytime, these places become at night mere traps for the unwary.
Eve paused breathlessly. So terrific had the noise sounded to her guilty ears that every moment she was expecting doors to open all over the castle, belching forth shouting men with pistols. But as nothing happened, courage returned to her, and she resumed her journey. She found the great door, ran her fingers along its surface, and drew the chain. The shooting back of the bolts occupied but another instant, and then she was out on the terrace running her hardest towards the row of flower-pots.
Up on his balcony, meanwhile, the Efficient Baxter was stopping, looking, and listening. The looking brought no results, for all below was black as pitch; but the listening proved more fruitful. Faintly from down in the well of the hall there floated up to him a peculiar sound like something rustling in the darkness. Had he reached the balcony a moment earlier he would have heard the rattle of the chain and the click of the bolts; but these noises had occurred just before he came out of his room. Now, all that was audible was this rustling.
He could not analyse the sound, but the fact that there was any sound at all in such a place at such an hour increased his suspicions that dark doings were toward which would pay for investigation. With stealthy steps he crept to the head of the stairs and descended.
One uses the verb “descend” advisedly, for what is required is some word suggesting instantaneous activity. About Baxter’s progress from the second floor to the first there was nothing halting or hesitating. He, so to speak, did it now. Planting his foot firmly on a golf ball which the Hon. Freddie Threepwood, who had been practising putting in the corridor before retiring to bed, had left in his casual fashion just where the steps began, he took the entire staircase in one majestic, volplaning sweep.
There were eleven stairs in all separating his landing from the landing below, and the only ones he hit were the third and tenth. He came to rest with a squattering thud on the lower landing, and for a moment or two the fever of the chase left him.
The fact that many writers in their time have commented at some length on the mysterious manner in which Fate is apt to perform its work must not deter us now from a brief survey of this latest manifestation of its ingenious methods. Had not his interview with Eve that afternoon so stimulated the Hon. Freddie as to revive in him a faint yet definite desire to putt, there would have been no golf ball waiting for Baxter on the stairs. And had he been permitted to negotiate the stairs in a less impetuous manner, Baxter would not at this juncture have switched on the light.
It had not been his original intention to illuminate the theatre of action, but after that Lucifer-like descent from the second floor to the first he was taking no more chances. Safety First was Baxter’s slogan. As soon, therefore, as he had shaken off a dazed sensation of mental and moral collapse, akin to that which comes to the man who steps on the teeth of a rake and is smitten on the forehead by the handle, he rose with infinite caution to his feet and, feeling his way down by the banisters, groped for the switch and pressed it.
And so it came about that Eve, heading for home with her precious flower-pot in her arms, was stopped when at the very door by a sudden warning flood of light. Another instant and she would have been across the threshold of disaster.
For a moment paralysis gripped her. The light had affected her like someone shouting loudly and unexpectedly in her ear. Her heart gave one convulsive bound, and she stood frozen. Then, filled with a blind desire for flight, she dashed like a hunted rabbit into the shelter of a clump of bushes.
BAXTER stood blinking. Gradually his eyes adjusted themselves to the light, and immediately they had done so he was seized by a fresh frenzy of zeal. Now that all things were made visible to him, he could see that that faint rustling sound had been caused by a curtain flapping in the breeze, and that the breeze which made the curtain flap was coming in through the open front door.
Baxter wasted no time in abstract thought. He acted swiftly and with decision. Straightening his spectacles on his nose, he girded up his pyjamas and galloped out into the night.
THE smooth terrace slept under the stars. To a more poetic man than Baxter it would have seemed to wear that faintly reproachful air which a garden always assumes when invaded at unseemly hours by people who ought to be in bed. Baxter, never fanciful, was blind to this. He was thinking, thinking. That shaking-up on the stairs had churned into activity the very depths of his brain, and he was at the fever-point of his reasoning powers.
A thought had come like a full-blown rose, flushing his brow. Miss Simmons, arguing plausibly, had suggested that the stolen necklace might be concealed in the hall. Baxter, inspired, fancied not. Whoever it was that had been at work in the hall just now had been making for the garden. It was not the desire to escape which had led him—or her—to open the front door; for the opening had been done before he, Baxter, had come out on to the balcony—otherwise he must have heard the shooting of the bolts. No. The enemy’s objective had been the garden. In other words, the terrace. And why? Because somewhere on the terrace was the stolen necklace.
Standing there in the starlight, the Efficient Baxter endeavoured to reconstruct the scene, and did so with remarkable accuracy. He saw the jewels flashing down. He saw them picked up. But there he stopped. Try as he might, he could not see them hidden. And yet that they had been hidden—and that within a few feet of where he was now standing—he felt convinced.
He moved from his position near the door and began to roam restlessly. His slippered feet padded over the soft turf.
EVE peered out from her clump of bushes. It was not easy to see any great distance, but Fate, her friend, was still with her. There had been a moment that night when Baxter, disrobing for bed, had wavered absently between his brown and his lemon-coloured pyjamas, little recking of what hung upon the choice. Fate had directed his hand to the lemon-coloured, and he had put them on, with the result that he shone now in the dim light like the white plume of Navarre. Eve could follow his movements perfectly, and, when he was far enough away from his base to make the enterprise prudent, she slipped out and raced for home and safety. Baxter at the moment was leaning on the terrace wall, thinking, thinking, thinking.
It was possibly the cool air, playing about his bare ankles, that at last chilled the secretary’s dashing mood and brought the disquieting thought that he was doing something distinctly dangerous in remaining out here in the open like this. A gang of thieves are ugly customers, likely to stick at little when a valuable necklace is at stake, and it came to the Efficient Baxter that in his light pyjamas he must be offering a tempting mark for any marauder lurking—say, in those bushes.
At the thought, the summer night, though pleasantly mild, grew suddenly chilly. With an almost convulsive rapidity he turned to re-enter the house. Zeal was well enough, but it was silly to be rash. He covered the last few yards of his journey at a rare burst of speed.
It was at this point that he discovered that the lights in the hall had been switched off and that the front door was closed and bolted.
IT is the opinion of most thoughtful students of life that happiness in this world depends chiefly on the ability to take things as they come. An instance of one who may be said to have perfected this attitude is to be found in the writings of a certain eminent Arabian author who tells of a traveller who, sinking to sleep one afternoon upon a patch of turf containing an acorn, discovered when he woke that the warmth of his body had caused the acorn to germinate and that he was now some sixty feet above the ground in the upper branches of a massive oak. Unable to descend, he faced the situation equably. “I cannot,” he observed, “adapt circumstances to my will, therefore I shall adapt my will to circumstances. I decide to remain here.” Which he did.
Rupert Baxter, as he stood, like the Peri at the gates of Paradise, before the barred door of Blandings Castle, was very far from imitating this admirable philosopher. To find oneself locked out of a country house at half-past two in the morning in lemon-coloured pyjamas can never be an unmixedly agreeable experience, and Baxter was a man less fitted by nature to endure it with equanimity than most men.
His was a fiery and an arrogant soul, and he seethed in furious rebellion against the intolerable position into which Fate had manœuvred him. He even went so far as to give the front door a petulant kick. Finding, however, that this hurt his toes and accomplished no useful end, he addressed himself to the task of ascertaining whether there was any way of getting in—short of banging the knocker and rousing the house, a line of action which did not commend itself to him.
He made a practice of avoiding as far as possible the ribald type of young man of which the castle was now full, and he had no desire to meet them at this hour in his present costume. He left the front door and proceeded to make a circuit of the castle walls, and his spirits sank even lower. In the Middle Ages, during that stormy period of England’s history when walls were built six feet thick and a window was not so much a window as a handy place for pouring molten lead on the heads of visitors, Blandings had been an impregnable fortress. But in all its career it can seldom have looked more of a fortress to anyone than it did now to the Efficient Baxter.
One of the disadvantages of being a man of action, impervious to the softer emotions, is that in moments of trial the beauties of Nature are powerless to soothe the anguished heart. Had Baxter been of a dreamy and poetic temperament he might now have been drawing all sorts of balm from the loveliness of his surroundings. The air was full of the scent of growing things; strange shy creatures came and went about him as he walked; down in the woods a nightingale had begun to sing; and there was something grandly majestic in the huge bulk of the castle as it towered against the sky.
But Baxter had temporarily lost his sense of smell; he feared and disliked the strange shy creatures; the nightingale left him cold; and the only thought the towering castle inspired in him was that it looked as if a fellow would need half a ton of dynamite to get into it.
Baxter paused. He was back now near the spot from which he had started, having completed two laps without finding any solution of his difficulties. The idea in his mind had been to stand under somebody’s window and attract the sleeper’s attention with soft, significant whistles. But the first whistle he emitted had sounded to him in the stillness of early morn so like a steam syren that thereafter he had merely uttered timid, mouse-like sounds which the breezes had carried away the moment they crept out.
He proposed now to halt for awhile and rest his lips before making another attempt. He proceeded to the terrace wall and sat down. The clock over the stables struck three.
To the restless type of thinker like Rupert Baxter, the act of sitting down is nearly always the signal for the brain to begin working with even more than its customary energy. The relaxed body seems to invite thought. And Baxter, having suspended for the moment his physical activities—and glad to do so, for his slippers hurt him—gave himself up to tense speculation as to the hiding-place of Lady Constance Keeble’s necklace.
From the spot where he now sat he was probably, he reflected, actually in a position to see that hiding-place—if only, when he saw it, he was able to recognize it for what it was. Somewhere out here—in yonder bushes or in some unsuspected hole in yonder tree—the jewels must have been placed. Or . . .
Something seemed to go off inside Baxter like a touched spring. One moment he was sitting limply, keenly conscious of a blister on the sole of his left foot; the next, regardless of the blister, he was off the wall and racing madly along the terrace in a flurry of flying slippers. Inspiration had come to him.
Day dawns early in the summer months, and already a sort of unhealthy pallor had begun to manifest itself in the sky. It was still far from light, but objects hitherto hidden in the gloom had begun to take on uncertain shape. And among these there had come into the line of Baxter’s vision a row of fifteen flower-pots.
There they stood, side by side, round and inviting, each with a geranium in its bed of mould. Fifteen flower-pots. There had originally been sixteen, but Baxter knew nothing of that. All he knew was that he was on the trail.
The quest for buried treasure is one which right through the ages has exercised an irresistible spell over humanity. Confronted with a spot where buried treasure may lurk, men do not stand upon the order of their digging; they go at it with both hands. No solicitude for his employer’s geraniums came to hamper Rupert Baxter’s researches. To grasp the first flower-pot and tilt out its contents was with him the work of a moment. He scrabbled his fingers through the little pile of mould . . .
A second geranium lay broken on the ground . . .
A third . . .
THE Efficient Baxter straightened himself painfully. He was unused to stooping, and his back ached. But physical discomfort was forgotten in the agony of hope frustrated. As he stood there, wiping his forehead with an earth-stained hand, fifteen geranium corpses gazed up at him in the growing light, it seemed, with reproach. But Baxter felt no remorse. He included all geraniums, all thieves, and most of the human race in one comprehensive black hatred.
All that Rupert Baxter wanted in this world now was bed. The clock over the stables had just struck four, and he was aware of an overpowering fatigue. Somehow or other, if he had to dig through the walls with his bare hands, he must get into the house. He dragged himself painfully from the scene of carnage and blinked up at the row of silent windows above him. He was past whistling now. He stooped for a pebble and tossed it up at the nearest window.
Nothing happened. Whoever was sleeping up there continued to sleep. The sky had turned pink, birds were twittering in the ivy, other birds had begun to sing in the bushes. All Nature, in short, was waking—except the unseen sluggard up in that room.
He threw another pebble. . . .
IT seemed to Rupert Baxter that he had been standing there throwing pebbles through a nightmare eternity. The whole universe had now become concentrated in his efforts to rouse that log-like sleeper; and for a brief instant fatigue left him, driven away by a sort of Berserk fury. And there floated into his mind, as if from some previous existence, a memory of somebody once standing near where he was standing now and throwing a flower-pot in at a window at someone.
Who it was that had thrown the thing at whom he could not at the moment recall, but the outstanding point on which his mind focussed itself was the fact that the man had had the right idea. This was no time for pebbles. Pebbles were feeble and inadequate. With one voice the birds, the breezes, the grasshoppers, the whole chorus of Nature waking to another day seemed to shout to him, “Say it with flower-pots!”
THE ability to sleep soundly and deeply is the prerogative, as has been pointed out earlier in this straightforward narrative of the simple home-life of the English upper classes, of those who do not think quickly. The Earl of Emsworth, who had not thought quickly since the occasion in the summer of 1874, when he had heard his father’s footsteps approaching the stable-loft in which he, a lad of fifteen, sat smoking his first cigar, was an excellent sleeper. He started early and finished late. It was his gentle boast that for more than twenty years he had never missed his full eight hours. Generally, he managed to get something nearer ten.
But then, as a rule, people did not fling flower-pots through his window at four in the morning.
Even under this unusual handicap, however, he struggled bravely to preserve his record. The first of Baxter’s missiles, falling on a settee, produced no change in his regular breathing. The second, which struck the carpet, caused him to stir. It was the third, colliding sharply with his humped back, that definitely woke him. He sat up in bed and stared at the thing.
In the first moment of his waking, relief was, oddly enough, his chief emotion. The blow had roused him from a disquieting dream in which he had been arguing with Angus McAllister about early spring bulbs, and McAllister, worsted verbally, had hit him in the ribs with a spud.
Even in his dream Lord Emsworth had been perplexed as to what his next move ought to be; and when he found himself awake and in his bedroom he was at first merely thankful that the necessity for making a decision had at any rate been postponed. Angus McAllister might on some future occasion smite him with a spud, but he had not done it yet.
There followed a period of vague bewilderment. He looked at the flower-pot. It held no message for him. He had not put it there. He never took flower-pots to bed. Once, as a child, he had taken a dead pet rabbit, but never a flower-pot. The whole affair was completely inscrutable; and his lordship, unable to solve the mystery, was on the point of taking the statesmanlike course of going to sleep again when something large and solid whizzed through the open window and crashed against the wall, where it broke, but not into such small fragments that he could not perceive that in its prime it, too, had been a flower-pot.
And at this moment his eyes fell on the carpet and then on the settee; and the affair passed still further into the realm of the inexplicable. The Hon. Freddie Threepwood, who had a poor singing voice, but was a game trier, had been annoying his father of late by crooning a ballad ending in the words:—
It is not raining rain at all:
It’s raining vi-o-lets.
It seemed to Lord Emsworth now that matters had gone a step farther. It was raining flower-pots.
(Another long instalment of this splendid story will appear in our next issue.)
See Part 1 for general notes about this edition.
Printer’s errors corrected above:
Magazine had a period rather than a question mark in “Will you be a dear and just go away?”
Magazine had “making a last cigarette”; corrected to “smoking” as in all other editions.
Magazine had “All day he had been conscious of a glowing desire”; corrected to “growing” as in other editions.
Magazine had a colon rather than a semicolon after “wont to sit cataloguing books” as in other editions.
Magazine omitted hyphen in “the local moving-picture palace”; inserted for consistency with earlier mention and with other editions.
Magazine broke “I saw Cynthia,” she said, “and she told me…” into two sentences with a period after “said” and a capital A. Corrected to match other editions.
Magazine omitted comma after “find yourself saying”
Magazine had “all debonnair chumminess”; corrected to “debonair” as here in other editions, in episode 6 of this edition, and in Wodehouse’s usual spelling.
Magazine had “squatting thud”; corrected to “squattering” as in all other editions; see Annotations.
Magazine had “away and in his bedroom”; corrected to “awake” as in all other versions.