The Saturday Evening Post, August 14, 1915
UNTIL to-day Aline would have resented the suggestion that she was in love with George. She liked to be with him, partly because he was so easy to talk to and partly because it was exciting to be continually resisting the will power he made no secret of trying to exercise. But to-day there was a difference. She had suspected it at luncheon and she realized it now. As she looked down at him from behind the curtain, and marked his air of gloom, she could no longer disguise it from herself.
She felt maternal—horribly maternal. George was in trouble and she wanted to comfort him.
Freddie, too, was in trouble. But did she want to comfort Freddie? No. On the contrary, she was already regretting her promise, so lightly given before luncheon, to go and sit with him that afternoon. A well-marked feeling of annoyance that he had been so silly as to tumble downstairs and sprain his ankle was her chief sentiment respecting Freddie.
George Emerson continued to perambulate and Aline continued to watch him. At last she could endure it no longer. She gathered up her letters, stacked them in a corner of the dressing table and left the room.
George had reached the end of the terrace and turned when she began to descend the stone steps outside the front door. He quickened his pace as he caught sight of her. He halted before her and surveyed her morosely.
“I have been looking for you,” he said.
“And here I am. Cheer up, George! Whatever is the matter? I’ve been sitting in my room looking at you, and you have been simply prowling. What has gone wrong?”
“How do you mean—everything?”
“Exactly what I say. I’m done for. Read this.” Aline took the yellow slip of paper. “A cable,” added George. “I got it this morning—mailed on from my rooms in London. Read it.”
“I’m trying to. It doesn’t seem to make sense.”
George laughed grimly.
“It makes sense all right.”
“I don’t see how you can say that. ‘Meredith elephant kangaroo——’ ”
“Office cipher; I was forgetting. ‘Elephant’ means ‘Seriously ill and unable to attend to duty.’ Meredith is one of the partners in my firm in New York.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry! Do you think he is very sick? Are you very fond of Mr. Meredith?”
“Meredith is a good fellow and I like him; but if it were simply a matter of his being ill I’m afraid I could manage to bear up. Unfortunately ‘kangaroo’ means ‘Return, without fail, by the next boat.’ ”
“You must return by the next boat?” Aline looked at him, in her eyes a slow-growing comprehension of the situation. “Oh!” she said at length.
“I put it stronger than that,” said George.
“But—the next boat—— That means on Wednesday.”
“Wednesday morning, from Southampton. I shall have to leave here to-morrow.”
Aline’s eyes were fixed on the blue hills across the valley, but she did not see them. There was a mist between. She was feeling crushed and ill-treated and lonely. It was as though George were already gone and she left alone in an alien land.
“But, George!” she said; she could find no other words for her protest against the inevitable.
“It’s bad luck,” said Emerson quietly; “but I shouldn’t wonder if it was the best thing that really could have happened. It finishes me cleanly, instead of letting me drag on and make both of us miserable. If this cable hadn’t come I suppose I should have gone on bothering you up to the day of your wedding. I should have fancied, to the last moment, that there was a chance for me; but this ends me with one punch.
“Even I haven’t the nerve to imagine that I can work a miracle in the few hours before the train leaves to-morrow. I must just make the best of it. If we ever meet again—though I don’t see why we should—you will be married. My particular brand of mental suggestion doesn’t work at long range. I shan’t hope to influence you by telepathy.”
He leaned on the balustrade at her side and spoke in a low, level voice.
“This thing,” he said, “coming as a shock, coming out of the blue sky without warning—Meredith is the last man in the world you would expect to crack up; he looked as fit as a dray horse the last time I saw him—somehow seems to have hammered a certain amount of sense into me. Odd it never struck me before; but I suppose I have been about the most bumptious, conceited fool that ever happened.
“Why I should have imagined that there was a sort of irresistible fascination in me, which was bound to make you break off your engagement and upset the whole universe simply to win the wonderful reward of marrying me, is more than I can understand. I suppose it takes a shock to make a fellow see exactly what he really amounts to. I couldn’t think any more of you than I do; but, if I could, the way you have put up with my mouthing and swaggering and posing as a sort of superman would make me do it. You have been wonderful!”
Aline could not speak. She felt as though her whole world had been turned upside down in the last quarter of an hour. This was a new George Emerson, a George at whom it was impossible to laugh, an insidiously attractive George. Her heart beat quickly. Her mind was not clear; but dimly she realized that he had pulled down her chief barrier of defense and that she was more open to attack than she had ever been. Obstinacy, the automatic desire to resist the pressure of a will that attempted to overcome her own, had kept her cool and level-headed in the past. With masterfulness she had been able to cope. Humility was another thing altogether.
Soft-heartedness was Aline’s weakness. She had never clearly recognized it, but it had been partly pity that had induced her to accept Freddie; he had seemed so downtrodden and sorry for himself during those autumn days when they had first met. Prudence warned her that strange things might happen if once she allowed herself to pity George Emerson.
The silence lengthened. Aline could find nothing to say. In her present mood there was danger in speech.
“We have known each other so long,” said Emerson, “and I have told you so often that I love you, we have come to make almost a joke of it, as though we were playing some game. It just happens that that is our way—to laugh at things; but I am going to say it once again, even though it has come to be a sort of catch phrase. I love you! I’m reconciled to the fact that I am done for, out of the running, and that you are going to marry somebody else; but I am not going to stop loving you.
“It isn’t a question of whether I should be happier if I forgot you. I can’t do it! It’s just an impossibility—and that’s all there is to it. Whatever I may be to you, you are part of me, and you always will be part of me. I might just as well try to go on living without breathing as living without loving you.”
He stopped and straightened himself.
“That’s all! I don’t want to spoil a perfectly good spring afternoon for you by pulling out the tragic stop. I had to say all that; but it’s the last time. It shan’t occur again. There will be no tragedy when I step into the train to-morrow. Is there any chance that you might come and see me off?”
“You will? That will be splendid! Now I’ll go and pack and break it to my host that I must leave him. I expect it will be news to him that I am here. I doubt whether he knows me by sight.”
Aline stood where he had left her, leaning on the balustrade. In the fullness of time there came to her the recollection that she had promised Freddie that shortly after luncheon she would sit with him.
The Honorable Freddie, draped in purple pyjamas and propped up with many pillows, was lying in bed, reading Gridley Quayle, Investigator. Aline’s entrance occurred at a peculiarly poignant moment in the story and gave him a feeling of having been brought violently to earth from a flight in the clouds. It is not often an author has the good fortune to grip a reader as the author of Gridley Quayle gripped Freddie.
One of the results of his absorbed mood was that he greeted Aline with a stare of an even glassier quality than usual. His eyes were by nature a trifle prominent; and to Aline, in the overstrung condition in which her talk with George Emerson had left her, they seemed to bulge at her like a snail’s. A man seldom looks his best in bed, and to Aline, seeing him for the first time at this disadvantage, the Honorable Freddie seemed quite repulsive. It was with a feeling of positive panic that she wondered whether he would want her to kiss him.
Freddie made no such demand. He was not one of your demonstrative lovers. He contented himself with rolling over in bed and dropping his lower jaw.
Aline sat down on the edge of the bed.
Her betrothed improved his appearance a little by hitching up his lower jaw. As though feeling that would be too extreme a measure, he did not close his mouth altogether; but he diminished the abyss. The Honorable Freddie belonged to the class of persons who move through life with their mouths always restfully open.
It seemed to Aline that on this particular afternoon a strange dumbness had descended on her. She had been unable to speak to George and now she could not think of anything to say to Freddie. She looked at him and he looked at her; and the clock on the mantelpiece went on ticking.
“It was that bally cat of Aunt Ann’s,” said Freddie at length, essaying light conversation. “It came legging it up the stairs and I took the most frightful toss. I hate cats! Do you hate cats? I knew a fellow in London who couldn’t stand cats.”
Aline began to wonder whether there was not something permanently wrong with her organs of speech. It should have been a simple matter to develop the cat theme; but she found herself unable to do so. Her mind was concentrated, to the exclusion of all else, on the repellent nature of the spectacle provided by her loved one in pyjamas. Freddie resumed the conversation.
“I was just reading a corking book. Have you ever read these things? They come out every month, and they’re corking. The fellow who writes them must be a corker. It beats me how he thinks of these things. They are about a detective—a chap called Gridley Quayle. Frightfully exciting!”
An obvious remedy for dumbness struck Aline.
“Shall I read to you, Freddie?”
“Right-ho! Good scheme! I’ve got to the top of this page.” Aline took the paper-covered book.
“ ‘Seven guns covered him with deadly precision.’ Did you get as far as that?”
“Yes; just beyond. It’s a bit thick, don’t you know! This chappie Quayle has been trapped in a lonely house, thinking he was going to see a pal in distress; and instead of the pal there pop out a whole squad of masked blighters with guns. I don’t see how he’s going to get out of it, myself; but I’ll bet he does. He’s a corker!”
If anybody could have pitied Aline more than she pitied herself, as she waded through the adventures of Mr. Quayle, it would have been Ashe Marson. He had writhed as he wrote the words and she writhed as she read them. The Honorable Freddie also writhed, but with tense excitement.
“What’s the matter? Don’t stop!” he cried as Aline’s voice ceased.
“I’m getting hoarse, Freddie.”
Freddie hesitated. The desire to remain on the trail with Gridley struggled with rudimentary politeness.
“How would it be—— Would you mind if I just took a look at the rest of it myself? We could talk afterward, you know. I shan’t be long.”
“Of course! Do read if you want to. But do you really like this sort of thing, Freddie?”
“Me? Rather! Why—don’t you?”
Freddie had become absorbed in his story. Aline did not attempt further analysis of her attitude toward Mr. Quayle; she relapsed into silence.
It was a silence pregnant with thought. For the first time in their relations she was trying to visualize to herself exactly what marriage with this young man would mean. Hitherto, it struck her, she had really seen so little of Freddie that she had scarcely had a chance of examining him. In the crowded world outside he had always seemed a tolerable enough person.
To-day, somehow, he was different. Everything was different to-day.
This, she took it, was a fair sample of what she might expect after marriage. Marriage meant—to come to essentials—that two people were very often and for lengthy periods alone together, dependent on each other for mutual entertainment. What exactly would it be like, being alone often and for lengthy periods with Freddie? Well, it would, she assumed, be like this.
“It’s all right,” said Freddie without looking up. “He did get out! He had a bomb on him, and he threatened to drop it and blow the place to pieces unless the blighters let him go. So they cheesed it. I knew he had something up his sleeve.”
Like this! Aline drew a deep breath. It would be like this—forever and ever and ever—until she died. She bent forward and stared at him.
“Freddie,” she said, “do you love me?” There was no reply. “Freddie, do you love me? Am I a part of you? If you hadn’t me would it be like trying to go on living without breathing?”
The Honorable Freddie raised a flushed face and gazed at her with an absent eye.
“Eh? What?” he said. “Do I—— Oh, yes. Rather! I say, one of the blighters has just loosed a rattlesnake into Gridley Quayle’s bedroom through the transom!”
Aline rose from her seat and left the room softly. The Honorable Freddie read on.
Ashe Marson had not greatly overshot the truth in his estimate of the probable effect on Mr. Peters of the information that his precious scarab had once more been removed by alien hands and was now farther from his grasp than ever. A drawback to success in life is that failure, when it does come, acquires an exaggerated importance. Success had made Mr. Peters, in certain aspects of his character, a spoiled child.
At the moment when Ashe broke the news he would have parted with half his fortune to recover the scarab. Its recovery had become a point of honor. He saw it as the prize of a contest between his will and that of whatever malignant powers there might be ranged against him in the effort to show him that there were limits to what he could achieve. He felt as he had felt in the old days when people sneaked up on him in Wall Street and tried to loosen his grip on a railroad or a pet stock. He was suffering from that form of paranoia which makes men multimillionaires. Nobody would be foolish enough to become a multimillionaire if it were not for the desire to prove himself irresistible.
Mr. Peters obtained a small relief for his feelings by doubling the existing reward, and Ashe went off in search of Joan, hoping that this new stimulus, acting on their joint brains, might develop inspiration.
“Have any fresh ideas been vouchsafed to you?” he asked. “You may look on me as baffled.”
Joan shook her head.
“Don’t give up,” she urged. “Think again. Try to realize what this means, Mr. Marson. Between us we have lost ten thousand dollars in a single night. I can’t afford it. It is like losing a legacy. I absolutely refuse to give in without an effort and go back to writing duke-and-earl stories for Home Gossip.”
“The prospect of tackling Gridley Quayle again——”
“Why, I was forgetting that you were a writer of detective stories. You ought to be able to solve this mystery in a moment. Ask yourself, What would Gridley Quayle have done?’”
“I can answer that. Gridley Quayle would have waited helplessly for some coincidence to happen to help him out.”
“Had he no methods?”
“He was full of methods; but they never led him anywhere without the coincidence. However, we might try to figure it out. What time did you get to the museum?”
“And you found the scarab gone. What does that suggest to you?”
“Nothing. What does it suggest to you?”
“Absolutely nothing. Let us try again. Whoever took the scarab must have had special information that Peters was offering the reward.”
“Then why hasn’t he been to Mr. Peters and claimed it?”
“True! That would seem to be a flaw in the reasoning. Once again: Whoever took it must have been in urgent and immediate need of money.”
“And how are we to find out who was in urgent and immediate need of money?”
“Exactly! How indeed?”
There was a pause.
“I should think your Mr. Quayle must have been a great comfort to his clients, wasn’t he?” said Joan.
“Inductive reasoning, I admit, seems to have fallen down to a certain extent,” said Ashe. “We must wait for the coincidence. I have a feeling that it will come.” He paused. “I am very fortunate in the way of coincidences.”
Ashe looked about him and was relieved to find that they appeared to be out of earshot of their species. It was not easy to achieve this position at the castle if you happened to be there as a domestic servant. The space provided for the ladies and gentlemen attached to the guests was limited, and it was rarely that you could enjoy a stroll without bumping into a maid, a valet or a footman; but now they appeared to be alone. The drive leading to the back regions of the castle was empty. As far as the eye could reach there were no signs of servants—upper or lower. Nevertheless, Ashe lowered his voice.
“Was it not a strange coincidence,” he said, “that you came into my life at all?”
“Not very,” said Joan prosaically. “It was quite likely that we should meet sooner or later, as we lived on different floors of the same house.”
“It was a coincidence that you took that room.”
Ashe felt damped. Logically, no doubt, she was right; but surely she might have helped him out a little in this difficult situation. Surely her woman’s intuition should have told her that a man who has been speaking in a loud and cheerful voice does not lower it to a husky whisper without some reason. The hopelessness of his task began to weigh on him.
Ever since that evening at Market Blandings Station, when he realized that he loved her, he had been trying to find an opportunity to tell her so; and every time they had met the talk had seemed to be drawn irresistibly into practical and unsentimental channels. And now, when he was doing his best to reason it out that they were twin souls who had been brought together by a destiny it would be foolish to struggle against; when he was trying to convey the impression that fate had designed them for each other—she said, “Why?” It was hard.
He was about to go deeper into the matter when, from the direction of the castle, he perceived the Honorable Freddie’s valet—Mr. Judson—approaching. That it was this repellent young man’s object to break in on them and rob him of his one small chance of inducing Joan to appreciate, as he did, the mysterious workings of Providence as they affected herself and him was obvious. There was no mistaking the valet’s desire for conversation. He had the air of one brimming over with speech. His wonted indolence was cast aside; and as he drew nearer he positively ran. He was talking before he reached them.
“Miss Simpson, Mr. Marson, it’s true—what I said that night. It’s a fact!”
Ashe regarded the intruder with a malevolent eye. Never fond of Mr. Judson, he looked on him now with positive loathing. It had not been easy for him to work himself up to the point where he could discuss with Joan the mysterious ways of Providence, for there was that about her which made it hard to achieve sentiment. That indefinable something in Joan Valentine which made for nocturnal raids on other people’s museums also rendered her a somewhat difficult person to talk to about twin souls and destiny. The qualities that Ashe loved in her—her strength, her capability, her valiant self-sufficingness—were the very qualities which seemed to check him when he tried to tell her that he loved them.
Mr. Judson was still babbling.
“It’s true. There ain’t a doubt of it now. It’s been and happened just as I said that night.”
“What did you say, which night?” inquired Ashe.
“That night at dinner—the first night you two came here. Don’t you remember me talking about Freddie and the girl he used to write letters to in London—the girl I said was so like you, Miss Simpson? What was her name again? Joan Valentine. That was it. The girl at the theater that Freddie used to send me with letters to pretty nearly every evening. Well, she’s been and done it, same as I told you all that night she was jolly likely to go and do. She’s sticking young Freddie up for his letters, just as he ought to have known she would do if he hadn’t been a young fathead. They’re all alike, these girls—every one of them.”
Mr. Judson paused, subjected the surrounding scenery to a cautious scrutiny and resumed.
“I took a suit of Freddie’s clothes away to brush just now; and happening”—Mr. Judson paused and gave a little cough—“happening to glance at the contents of his pockets I come across a letter. I took a sort of look at it before setting it aside, and it was from a fellow named Jones; and it said that this girl Valentine was sticking onto young Freddie’s letters what he’d written her, and would see him blowed if she parted with them under another thousand. And, as I made it out, Freddie had already given her five hundred.
“Where he got it is more than I can understand; but that’s what the letter said. This fellow Jones said he had passed it to her with his own hands; but she wasn’t satisfied, and if she didn’t get the other thousand she was going to bring an action for breach. And now Freddie has given me a note to take to this Jones, who is stopping in Market Blandings.”
Joan had listened to this remarkable speech with a stunned amazement. At this point she made her first comment:
“But that can’t be true.”
“Saw the letter with my own eyes, Miss Simpson.”
She looked at Ashe helplessly. Their eyes met—hers wide with perplexity, his bright with the light of comprehension.
“It shows,” said Ashe slowly, “that he was in immediate and urgent need of money.”
“You bet it does,” said Mr. Judson with relish. “It looks to me as though young Freddie had about reached the end of his tether this time. My word! There won’t half be trouble if she does sue him for breach! I’m off to tell Mr. Beach and the rest. They’ll jump out of their skins.” His face fell. “Oh, Lord, I was forgetting this note. He told me to take it at once.”
“I’ll take it for you,” said Ashe. “I’m not doing anything.”
Mr. Judson’s gratitude was effusive.
“You’re a good fellow, Marson,” he said. “I’ll do as much for you another time. I couldn’t hardly bear not to tell a bit of news like this right away. I should burst or something.”
And Mr. Judson, with shining face, hurried off to the housekeeper’s room.
“I simply can’t understand it,” said Joan at length. “My head is going round.”
“Can’t understand it? Why, it’s perfectly clear. This is the coincidence for which, in my capacity of Gridley Quayle, I was waiting. I can now resume inductive reasoning. Weighing the evidence, what do we find? That bright lad, Freddie, is the man. He has the scarab.”
“But it’s all such a muddle. I’m not holding his letters.”
“For Jones’ purposes you are. Let’s get this Jones element in the affair straightened out. What do you know of him?”
“He was an enormously fat man who came to see me one night and said he had been sent to get back some letters. I told him I had destroyed them ages ago and he went away.”
“Well, that part of it is clear, then. He is working a simple but ingenious game on Freddie. It wouldn’t succeed with everybody, I suppose; but from what I have seen and heard of him Freddie isn’t strong on intellect. He seems to have accepted the story without a murmur. What does he do? He has to raise a thousand pounds immediately, and the raising of the first five hundred has exhausted his credit. He gets the idea of stealing the scarab!”
“But why? Why should he have thought of the scarab at all? That is what I can’t understand. He couldn’t have meant to give it to Mr. Peters and claim the reward. He couldn’t have known that Mr. Peters was offering a reward. He couldn’t have known that Lord Emsworth had not got the scarab quite properly. He couldn’t have known—he couldn’t have known anything!”
Ashe’s enthusiasm was a trifle damped.
“There’s something in that. But—— I have it! Jones must have known about the scarab and told him.”
“But how could he have known?”
“Yes; there’s something in that too. How could Jones have known?”
“He couldn’t. He had gone by the time Aline came that night.”
“I don’t quite understand. Which night?”
“It was the night after I first met you. I was wondering for a moment whether he could by any chance have overheard Aline telling me about the scarab and the reward Mr. Peters was offering for it.”
“Overheard! That word is like a bugle blast to me. Nine out of ten of Gridley Quayle’s triumphs were due to his having overheard something. I think we are now on the right track.”
“I don’t. How could he have overheard us? The door was closed and he was in the street by that time.”
“How do you know he was in the street? Did you see him out?”
“No; but he went.”
“He might have waited on the stairs—you remember how dark they are at Number Seven—and listened.”
“Why? Why? What a beast of a word that is—the detective’s bugbear. I thought I had it until you said—— Great Scott! I’ll tell you why. I see it all. I have him with the goods. His object in coming to see you about the letters was because Freddie wanted them back owing to his approaching marriage with Miss Peters—wasn’t it?”
“You tell him you have destroyed the letters. He goes off. Am I right?”
“Before he is out of the house Miss Peters is giving her name at the front door. Put yourself in Jones’ place. What does he think? He is suspicious. He thinks there is some game on. He skips upstairs again, waits until Miss Peters has gone into your room, then stands outside and listens. How about that for a theory?”
“I do believe you are right. He might quite easily have done that.”
“He did do exactly that. I know it as though I had been there; in fact, it is highly probable I was there. You say all this happened on the night after we first met? I remember coming downstairs that night—I was going out to a vaudeville show—and hearing voices in your room. I remember it distinctly. In all probability I nearly ran into Jones.”
“It does all seem to fit in, doesn’t it?”
“It’s a clear case. There isn’t a flaw in it. The only question is, can I, on the evidence, go to young Freddie and choke the scarab out of him? On the whole, I think I had better take this note to Jones, as I promised Judson, and see whether I can’t work something through him. Yes; that’s the best plan. I’ll be starting at once.”
Perhaps the greatest hardship in being an invalid is the fact that people come and see you and keep your spirits up. The Honorable Freddie Threepwood suffered extremely from this. His was not a gregarious nature and it fatigued his limited brain powers to have to find conversation for his numerous visitors. All he wanted was to be left alone to read the adventures of Gridley Quayle, and when tired of doing that to lie on his back and look at the ceiling and think of nothing.
It is your dynamic person, your energetic world’s worker, who chafes at being laid up with a sprained ankle. The Honorable Freddie enjoyed it. From boyhood up he had loved lying in bed; and now that Fate had allowed him to do this without incurring rebuke he objected to having his reveries broken up by officious relations.
He spent his rare intervals of solitude in trying to decide in his mind which of his cousins, uncles and aunts was, all things considered, the greatest nuisance. Sometimes he would give the palm to Colonel Horace Mant, who struck the soldierly note—”I recollect in a hill campaign in the winter of the year ’93 giving my ankle the deuce of a twist.” Anon the more spiritual attitude of the Bishop of Godalming seemed to annoy him more keenly.
Sometimes he would head the list with the name of his Cousin Percy—Lord Stockheath—who refused to talk of anything except his recent breach-of-promise case and the effect the verdict had had on his old governor. Freddie was in no mood just now to be sympathetic with others on their breach-of-promise cases.
As he lay in bed reading on Monday morning the only flaw in his enjoyment of this unaccustomed solitude was the thought that presently the door was bound to open and some kind inquirer would insinuate himself into the room.
His apprehensions proved well founded. Scarcely had he got well into the details of an ingenious plot on the part of a secret society to eliminate Gridley Quayle by bribing his cook—a bad lot—to sprinkle chopped-up horsehair in his chicken fricassee, before the door-knob turned and Ashe Marson came in.
Freddie was not the only person who had found the influx of visitors into the sick room a source of irritation. The fact that the invalid seemed unable to get a moment to himself had annoyed Ashe considerably. For some little time he had hung about the passage in which Freddie’s room was situated, full of enterprise but unable to make a forward move owing to the throng of sympathizers. What he had to say to the sufferer could not be said in the presence of a third party.
Freddie’s sensation, on perceiving him, was one of relief. He had been half afraid it was the bishop. He recognized Ashe as the valet chappie who had helped him to bed on the occasion of his accident. It might be that he had come in a respectful way to make inquiries, but he was not likely to stop long. He nodded and went on reading. And then, glancing up, he perceived Ashe standing beside the bed, fixing him with a piercing stare.
The Honorable Freddie hated piercing stares. One of the reasons why he objected to being left alone with his future father-in-law, Mr. J. Preston Peters, was that Nature had given the millionaire a penetrating pair of eyes, and the stress of business life in New York had developed in him a habit of boring holes in people with them. A young man had to have a stronger nerve than the Honorable Freddie to enjoy a tête-à-tête with Mr. Peters.
Though he accepted Aline’s father as a necessary evil and recognized that his position entitled him to look at people as sharply as he liked, whatever their feelings, he would be hanged if he was going to extend this privilege to Mr. Peters’ valet. This man standing beside him was giving him a look that seemed to his sensitive imagination to have been fired red-hot from a gun; and this annoyed and exasperated Freddie.
“What do you want?” he said querulously. “What are you staring at me like that for?”
Ashe sat down, leaned his elbows on the bed, and applied the look again from a lower elevation.
“Ah!” he said.
Whatever may have been Ashe’s defects, so far as the handling of the inductive-reasoning side of Gridley Quayle’s character was concerned, there was one scene in each of his stories in which he never failed. That was the scene in the last chapter, where Quayle, confronting his quarry, unmasked him. Quayle might have floundered in the earlier part of the story, but in his big scene he was exactly right. He was curt, crisp and mercilessly compelling.
Ashe, rehearsing this interview in the passage before his entry, had decided that he could hardly do better than model himself on the detective. So he began to be curt, crisp and mercilessly compelling to Freddie; and after the first few sentences he had that youth gasping for air.
“I will tell you,” he said. “If you can spare me a few moments of your valuable time I will put the facts before you. Yes; press that bell if you wish—and I will put them before witnesses. Lord Emsworth will no doubt be pleased to learn that his son, whom he trusted, is—a thief!”
Freddie’s hand fell limply. The bell remained untouched. His mouth opened to its fullest extent. In the midst of his panic he had a curious feeling that he had heard or read that last sentence somewhere before. Then he remembered. Those very words occurred in Gridley Quayle, Investigator—The Adventure of the Blue Ruby.
“What—what do you mean?” he stammered.
“I will tell you what I mean. On Saturday night a valuable scarab was stolen from Lord Emsworth’s private museum. The case was put into my hands——”
“Great Scott! Are you a detective?”
“Ah!” said Ashe.
Life, as many a worthy writer has pointed out, is full of ironies. It seemed to Freddie that here was a supreme example of this fact. All these years he had wanted to meet a detective; and now that his wish had been gratified the detective was detecting him!
“The case,” continued Ashe severely, “was placed in my hands. I investigated it. I discovered that you were in urgent and immediate need of money.”
“How on earth did you do that?”
“Ah!” said Ashe. “I further discovered that you were in communication with an individual named Jones.”
“Good Lord! How?”
Ashe smiled quietly.
“Yesterday I had a talk with this man Jones, who is staying in Market Blandings. Why is he staying in Market Blandings? Because he had a reason for keeping in touch with you; because you were about to transfer to his care something you could get possession of, but which only he could dispose of—the scarab.”
The Honorable Freddie was beyond speech. He made no comment on this statement. Ashe continued:
“I interviewed this man Jones. I said to him: ‘I am in the Honorable Frederick Threepwood’s confidence. I know everything. Have you any instructions for me?’ He replied: ‘What do you know?’ I answered: ‘I know that the Honorable Frederick Threepwood has something he wishes to hand to you, but which he has been unable to hand to you owing to having had an accident and being confined to his room.’ He then told me to tell you to let him have the scarab by messenger.”
Freddie pulled himself together with an effort. He was in sore straits, but he saw one last chance. His researches in detective fiction had given him the knowledge that detectives occasionally relaxed their austerity when dealing with a deserving case. Even Gridley Quayle could sometimes be softened by a hard-luck story. Freddie could recall half a dozen times when a detected criminal had been spared by him because he had done it all from the best motives. He determined to throw himself on Ashe’s mercy.
“I say, you know,” he said ingratiatingly, “I think it’s bally marvelous the way you’ve deduced everything, and so on.”
“But I believe you would chuck it if you heard my side of the case.”
“I know your side of the case. You think you are being blackmailed by a Miss Valentine for some letters you once wrote her. You are not. Miss Valentine has destroyed the letters. She told the man Jones so when he went to see her in London. He kept your five hundred pounds and is trying to get another thousand out of you under false pretenses.”
“What? You can’t be right.”
“I am always right.”
“You must be mistaken.”
“I am never mistaken.”
“But how do you know?”
“I have my sources of information.”
“She isn’t going to sue me for breach of promise?”
“She never had any intention of doing so.”
The Honorable Freddie sank back on the pillows.
“Good egg!” he said with fervor. He beamed happily. “This,” he observed, “is a bit of all right.”
“Never mind that,” said Ashe. “Give me the scarab. Where is it?”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“Restore it to its rightful owner.”
“Are you going to give me away to the governor?”
“I am not.”
“It strikes me,” said Freddie gratefully, “that you are a dashed good sort. You seem to me to have the making of an absolute topper! It’s under the mattress. I had it on me when I fell downstairs and I had to shove it in there.”
Ashe drew it out. He stood looking at it, absorbed. He could hardly believe his quest was at an end and that a small fortune lay in the palm of his hand. Freddie was eying him admiringly.
“You know,” he said, “I’ve always wanted to meet a detective. What beats me is how you chappies find out things.”
“We have our methods.”
“I believe you. You’re a blooming marvel! What first put you on my track?”
“That,” said Ashe, “would take too long to explain. Of course I had to do some tense inductive reasoning; but I cannot trace every link in the chain for you. It would be tedious.”
“Not to me.”
“Some other time.”
“I say, I wonder whether you’ve ever read any of these things—these Gridley Quayle stories? I know them by heart.”
With the scarab safely in his pocket, Ashe could contemplate the brightly colored volume the other extended toward him. Already he was beginning to feel a sort of sentiment for the depressing Quayle, as something that had once formed part of his life.
“Do you read these things?”
“I should say I do. I write them.”
There are certain supreme moments that cannot be adequately described. Freddie’s appreciation of the fact that such a moment had occurred in his life expressed itself in a startled cry and a convulsive movement of all his limbs. He shot up from the pillows and gaped at Ashe.
“You write them? You don’t mean, write them!”
He would have gone on, doubtless, to say more; but at this moment voices made themselves heard outside the door. There was a movement of feet. Then the door opened and a small procession entered.
It was headed by the Earl of Emsworth. Following him came Mr. Peters. And in the wake of the millionaire were Colonel Horace Mant and the Efficient Baxter. They filed into the room and stood by the bedside. Ashe seized the opportunity to slip out.
Freddie glanced at the deputation without interest. His mind was occupied with other matters. He supposed they had come to inquire after his ankle and he was mildly thankful that they had come in a body instead of one by one. The deputation grouped itself about the bed and shuffled its feet. There was an atmosphere of awkwardness.
“Er—Frederick!” said Lord Emsworth. “Freddie, my boy!”
Mr. Peters fiddled dumbly with the coverlet. Colonel Mant cleared his throat. The Efficient Baxter scowled.
“Er—Freddie, my dear boy, I fear we have a painful—er—duty to perform.”
The words struck straight home at the Honorable Freddie’s guilty conscience. Had they, too, tracked him down? And was he now accused of having stolen that infernal scarab? A wave of relief swept over him as he realized that he had got rid of the thing. A decent chappie like that detective would not give him away. All he had to do was to keep his head and stick to stout denial. That was the game—stout denial.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said defensively.
“Of course you don’t—dash it!” said Colonel Mant. “We’re coming to that. And I should like to begin by saying that, though in a sense it was my fault, I fail to see how I could have acted——”
“Oh, very well! I was only trying to explain.”
Lord Emsworth adjusted his pince-nez and sought inspiration from the wall paper.
“Freddie, my boy,” he began, “we have a somewhat unpleasant—a somewhat—er—disturbing—— We are compelled to break it to you. We are all most pained and astounded; and——”
The Efficient Baxter spoke. It was plain he was in a bad temper.
“Miss Peters,” he snapped, “has eloped with your friend Emerson.”
Lord Emsworth breathed a sigh of relief.
“Exactly, Baxter. Precisely! You have put the thing in a nutshell. Really, my dear fellow, you are invaluable.”
All eyes searched Freddie’s face for signs of uncontrollable emotion. The deputation waited anxiously for his first grief-stricken cry.
“Eh? What?” said Freddie.
“It is quite true, Freddie, my dear boy. She went to London with him on the ten-fifty.”
“And if I had not been forcibly restrained,” said Baxter acidly, casting a vindictive look at Colonel Mant, “I could have prevented it.”
Colonel Mant cleared his throat again and put a hand to his mustache.
“I’m afraid that is true, Freddie. It was a most unfortunate misunderstanding. I’ll tell you how it happened: I chanced to be at the station bookstall when the train came in. Mr. Baxter was also in the station. The train pulled up and this young fellow Emerson got in—said good-by to us, don’t you know, and got in. Just as the train was about to start, Miss Peters—exclaiming, ‘George, dear, I’m going with you’—dash it! or some such speech—proceeded to sprint to the door of young Emerson’s compartment. On which——”
“On which,” interrupted Baxter, “I made a spring to try and catch her. Apart from any other consideration, the train was already moving and Miss Peters ran considerable risk of injury. I had hardly moved when I felt a violent jerk at my ankle and fell to the ground. After I had recovered from the shock, which was not immediately, I found——”
“The fact is, Freddie, my boy,” the colonel went on, “I acted under a misapprehension. Nobody can be sorrier for the mistake than I; but recent events in this house had left me with the impression that Mr. Baxter here was not quite responsible for his actions—overwork or something, I imagined. I have seen it happen so often in India, don’t you know, where fellows run amuck and kick up the deuce’s own delight. I am bound to admit that I have been watching Mr. Baxter rather closely lately in the expectation that something of this very kind might happen.
“Of course I now realize my mistake; and I have apologized—apologized humbly—dash it! But at the moment I was firmly under the impression that our friend here had an attack of some kind and was about to inflict injuries on Miss Peters. If I’ve seen it happen once in India, I’ve seen it happen a dozen times.
“I recollect, in the hot weather of the year ’92—or was it ’93—I think ’93—one of my native bearers—— However, I sprang forward and caught the crook of my walking stick on Mr. Baxter’s ankle and brought him down. And by the time explanations were made it was too late. The train had gone, with Miss Peters in it.”
“And a telegram has just arrived,” said Lord Emsworth, “to say that they are being married this afternoon at a registrar’s. The whole occurrence is most disturbing.”
“Bear it like a man, my boy!” urged Colonel Mant.
To all appearances Freddie was bearing it magnificently. Not a single exclamation, either of wrath or pain, had escaped his lips. One would have said the shock had stunned him or that he had not heard, for his face expressed no emotion whatever.
The fact was, the story had made very little impression of any sort on the Honorable Freddie. His relief at Ashe’s news about Joan Valentine; the stunning joy of having met in the flesh the author of the adventures of Gridley Quayle; the general feeling that all was now right with the world—these things deprived him of the ability to be greatly distressed.
And there was a distinct feeling of relief—actual relief—that now it would not be necessary for him to get married. He had liked Aline; but whenever he had really thought of it the prospect of getting married rather appalled him. A chappie looked such an ass getting married!
It appeared, however, that some verbal comment on the state of affairs was required of him. He searched his mind for something adequate.
“You mean to say Aline has bolted with Emerson?”
The deputation nodded pained nods. Freddie searched in his mind again. The deputation held its breath.
“Well, I’m blowed!” said Freddie. “Fancy that!”
Mr. Peters walked heavily into his room. Ashe Marson was waiting for him there. He eyed Ashe dully.
“Pack!” he said.
“Pack! We’re getting out of here by the afternoon train.”
“Has anything happened?”
“My daughter has eloped with Emerson.”
“Don’t stand there saying what! Pack.”
Ashe put his hand in his pocket.
“Where shall I put this?” he asked.
For a moment Mr. Peters looked without comprehension at what Ashe was holding out; then his whole demeanor altered. His eyes lit up. He uttered a howl of pure rapture:
“You got it!”
“I got it.”
“Where was it? Who took it? How did you choke it out of them? How did you find it? Who had it?”
“I don’t know whether I ought to say. I don’t want to start anything. You won’t tell anyone?”
“Tell anyone! What do you take me for? Do you think I am going about advertising this? If I can sneak out without that fellow Baxter’s jumping on my back I shall be satisfied. You can take it from me that there won’t be any sensational exposures if I can help it. Who had it?”
“Threepwood? Why did he want it?”
“He needed money and he was going to raise it on this.”
Mr. Peters exploded.
“And I have been kicking because Aline can’t marry him and has gone off with a regular fellow like young Emerson! He’s a good boy—young Emerson. I knew his folks. He’ll make a name for himself one of these days. He’s got get-up in him. And I have been waiting to shoot him because he has taken Aline away from that goggle-eyed chump up in bed there!
“Why, if she had married Threepwood I should have had grandchildren who would have sneaked my watch while I was dancing them on my knee! There is a taint of some sort in the whole family. Father sneaks my Cheops and sonny sneaks it from father. What a gang! And the best blood in England! If that’s England’s idea of good blood give me Hoboken! This settles it. I was a chump ever to come to a country like this. Property isn’t safe here. I’m going back to America on the next boat.
“Where’s my check book? I’m going to write you out that check right away. You’ve earned it. Listen, young man: I don’t know what your ideas are, but if you aren’t chained to this country I’ll make it worth your while to stay on with me. They say no one’s indispensable, but you come mighty near it. If I had you at my elbow for a few years I’d get right back into shape. I’m feeling better now than I have felt in years—and you’ve only just started in on me.
“How about it? You can call yourself what you like—secretary or trainer, or whatever suits you best. What you will be is the fellow who makes me take exercise and stop smoking cigars, and generally looks after me. How do you feel about it?”
It was a proposition that appealed both to Ashe’s commercial and to his missionary instincts. His only regret had been that, the scarab recovered, he and Mr. Peters would now, he supposed, part company. He had not liked the idea of sending the millionaire back to the world a half-cured man. Already he had begun to look on him in the light of a piece of creative work to which he had just set his hand.
But the thought of Joan gave him pause. If this meant separation from Joan it was not to be considered.
“Let me think it over,” he said.
“Well, think quick!” said Mr. Peters.
It has been said by those who have been through fires, earthquakes and shipwrecks that in such times of stress the social barriers are temporarily broken down, and the spectacle may be seen of persons of the highest social standing speaking quite freely to persons who are not in society at all; and of quite nice people addressing others to whom they have never been introduced. The news of Aline Peters’ elopement with George Emerson, carried beyond the green-baize door by Slingsby, the chauffeur, produced very much the same state of affairs in the servants’ quarters at Blandings Castle.
It was not only that Slingsby was permitted to penetrate into the housekeeper’s room and tell his story to his social superiors there, though that was an absolutely unprecedented occurrence; what was really extraordinary was that mere menials discussed the affair with the personal ladies and gentlemen of the castle guests, and were allowed to do so uncrushed. James, the footman—that pushing individual—actually shoved his way into the Room, and was heard by witnesses to remark to no less a person than Mr. Beach that it was a bit thick.
And it is on record that his fellow footman, Alfred, meeting the groom of the chambers in the passage outside, positively prodded him in the lower ribs, winked, and said: “What a day we’re having!” One has to go back to the worst excesses of the French Revolution to parallel these outrages. It was held by Mr. Beach and Mrs. Twemlow afterward that the social fabric of the castle never fully recovered from this upheaval. It may be they took an extreme view of the matter, but it cannot be denied that it wrought changes. The rise of Slingsby is a case in point. Until this affair took place the chauffeur’s standing had never been satisfactorily settled. Mr. Beach and Mrs. Twemlow led the party which considered that he was merely a species of coachman; but there was a smaller group which, dazzled by Slingsby’s personality, openly declared it was not right that he should take his meals in the servants’ hall with such admitted plebeians as the odd man and the steward’s-room footman.
The Aline-George elopement settled the point once and for all. Slingsby had carried George’s bag to the train. Slingsby had been standing a few yards from the spot where Aline began her dash for the carriage door. Slingsby was able to exhibit the actual half sovereign with which George had tipped him only five minutes before the great event. To send such a public man back to the servants’ hall was impossible. By unspoken consent the chauffeur dined that night in the steward’s room, from which he was never dislodged.
Mr. Judson alone stood apart from the throng that clustered about the chauffeur. He was suffering the bitterness of the supplanted. A brief while before and he had been the central figure, with his story of the letter he had found in the Honorable Freddie’s coat pocket. Now the importance of his story had been engulfed in that of this later and greater sensation, and Mr. Judson was learning, for the first time, on what unstable foundations popularity stands.
Joan was nowhere to be seen. In none of the spots where she might have been expected to be at such a time was she to be found. Ashe had almost given up the search when, going to the back door and looking out as a last chance, he perceived her walking slowly on the gravel drive.
She greeted Ashe with a smile, but something was plainly troubling her. She did not speak for a moment and they walked side by side.
“What is it?” said Ashe at length. “What is the matter?”
She looked at him gravely.
“Gloom,” she said. “Despondency, Mr. Marson. A sort of flat feeling. Don’t you hate things’ happening?”
“I don’t quite understand.”
“Well, this affair of Aline, for instance. It’s so big. It makes one feel as though the whole world had altered. I should like nothing to happen ever, and life just to jog peacefully along. That’s not the gospel I preached to you in Arundel Street, is it! I thought I was an advanced apostle of action; but I seem to have changed. I’m afraid I shall never be able to make clear what I do mean. I only know I feel as though I have suddenly grown old. These things are such milestones. Already I am beginning to look on the time before Aline behaved so sensationally as terribly remote. To-morrow it will be worse, and the day after that worse still. I can see that you don’t in the least understand what I mean.”
“Yes; I do—or I think I do. What it comes to, in a few words, is that somebody you were fond of has gone out of your life. Is that it?”
“Yes—at least, that is partly it. I didn’t really know Aline particularly well, beyond having been at school with her, but you’re right. It’s not so much what has happened as what it represents that matters. This elopement has marked the end of a phase of my life. I think I have it now. My life has been such a series of jerks. I dash along—then something happens which stops that bit of my life with a jerk; and then I have to start over again—a new bit. I think I’m getting tired of jerks. I want something stodgy and continuous.
“I’m like one of the old bus horses that could go on forever if people got off without making them stop. It’s the having to get the bus moving again that wears one out. This little section of my life since we came here is over, and it is finished for good. I’ve got to start the bus going again on a new road and with a new set of passengers. I wonder whether the old horses used to be sorry when they dropped one set of passengers and took on a lot of strangers?”
A sudden dryness invaded Ashe’s throat. He tried to speak, but found no words. Joan went on:
“Do you ever get moods when life seems absolutely meaningless? It’s like a badly-constructed story, with all sorts of characters moving in and out who have nothing to do with the plot. And when somebody comes along that you think really has something to do with the plot, he suddenly drops out. After a while you begin to wonder what the story is about, and you feel that it’s about nothing—just a jumble.”
“There is one thing,” said Ashe, “that knits it together.”
“What is that?”
“The love interest.”
Their eyes met and suddenly there descended on Ashe confidence. He felt cool and alert, sure of himself, as in the old days he had felt when he ran races and, the nerve-racking hours of waiting past, he listened for the starter’s gun. Subconsciously he was aware he had always been a little afraid of Joan, and that now he was no longer afraid.
“Joan, will you marry me?”
Her eyes wandered. He waited.
“I wonder!” she said softly. “You think that is the solution?”
“How can you tell?” she broke out. “We scarcely know each other. I shan’t always be in this mood. I may get restless again. I may find it is the jerks that I really like.”
“You’re very confident.”
“I am absolutely confident.”
“ ‘She travels the fastest who travels alone,’ ” misquoted Joan.
“What is the good,” said Ashe, “of traveling fast if you’re going round in a circle? I know how you feel. I’ve felt the same myself. You are an individualist. You think there is something tremendous just round the corner and that you can get it if you try hard enough. There isn’t—or if there is it isn’t worth getting. Life is nothing but a mutual-aid association. I am going to help old Peters—you are going to help me—I am going to help you.”
“Help me to do what?”
“Make life coherent instead of a jumble.”
“Don’t call me Mr. Marson.”
“Ashe, you don’t know what you are doing. You don’t know me. I’ve been knocking about the world for five years and I’m hard—hard right through. I should make you wretched.”
“You are not in the least hard—and you know it. Listen to me, Joan. Where’s your sense of fairness? You crash into my life, turn it upside down, dig me out of my quiet groove, revolutionize my whole existence; and now you propose to drop me and pay no further attention to me. Is it fair?”
“But I don’t. We shall always be the best of friends.”
“We shall—but we will get married first.”
“You are determined?”
Joan laughed happily.
“How perfectly splendid! I was terrified lest I might have made you change your mind. I had to say all I did to preserve my self-respect after proposing to you. Yes; I did. How strange it is that men never seem to understand a woman, however plainly she talks! You don’t think I was really worrying because I had lost Aline, do you? I thought I was going to lose you; and it made me miserable. You couldn’t expect me to say it in so many words; but I thought you guessed. I practically said it. Ashe! What are you doing?”
Ashe paused for a moment to reply.
“I am kissing you,” he said.
“But you mustn’t! There’s a scullery maid or somebody looking through the kitchen window. She will see us.”
Ashe drew her to him.
“Scullery maids have few pleasures,” he said. “Let her see us.”
THE Earl of Emsworth sat by the sick bed and regarded the Honorable Freddie almost tenderly.
“I fear, Freddie, my dear boy, this has been a great shock to you.”
“Eh? What? Yes—rather! Deuce of a shock, gov’nor.”
“I have been thinking it over, my boy, and perhaps I have been a little hard on you. When your ankle is better I have decided to renew your allowance; and you may return to London, as you do not seem happy in the country. Though how any reasonable being can prefer——”
The Honorable Freddie started, popeyed, to a sitting posture.
“My word! Not really?”
His father nodded.
“Yes. But, Freddie, my boy,” he added, not without pathos, “I do wish that this time you would endeavor, for my sake, not to make a fool out of yourself.”
He eyed his offspring wistfully.
“I’ll have a jolly good stab at it, gov’nor!” said the Honorable Freddie.