The Strand Magazine, May 1925
DUDLEY FINCH heaved a plaintive sigh. With the glazing eye of a starving man he looked once more at his watch. Five minutes past two was the time it registered, and Roberta Wickham had promised to meet him for lunch in the lobby of Claridge’s at one-thirty sharp. A faint sense of grievance began to steal over Dudley. Impious though it was to feel that that angelic girl had any faults, there was no denying that this tendency of hers to keep a fellow waiting for his grub amounted to something very like a flaw in an otherwise perfect nature. He rose from his chair and, having dragged his emaciated form to the door, tottered out into Brook Street and stood gazing up and down it like a male Lady of Shalott.
He made a singularly impressive picture in the weak sunlight. He was—sartorially—so absolutely right in every respect. From his brilliantined hair to his gleaming shoes, from his fawn-coloured spats to his Old Etonian tie, he left no loophole to the sternest critic. You felt as you saw him that if this was the sort of chap who lunched at Claridge’s, old man Claridge was in luck.
It was not admiration, however, that caused the earnest-looking young man in the soft hat to stop as he hurried by. It was surprise. He stared wide-eyed at Dudley.
“Good heavens!” he exclaimed. “I thought you were on your way to Australia.”
“No,” said Dudley Finch, “not on my way to Australia.” His smooth forehead wrinkled in a frown. “Rolie, old thing,” he said, with gentle reproach, “you oughtn’t to go about London in a hat like that.” Roland Attwater was his cousin, and a man does not like to see his relatives careering all over the Metropolis looking like tramp cyclists. “And your tie doesn’t match your socks.”
He shook his head sorrowfully. Roland was a literary man, and, worse, had been educated at an inferior school—Harrow, or some such name, Dudley understood that it was called; but even so he ought to have more proper feeling about the vital things of life.
“Never mind my hat,” said Roland. “Why aren’t you on your way to Australia?”
“Oh, that’s all right. Broadhurst had a cable, and isn’t sailing till the fifteenth.”
ROLAND ATTWATER looked relieved. Like all the more serious-minded members of the family, he was deeply concerned about his cousin’s future. With regard to this there had been for some time past a little friction, a little difficulty in reconciling two sharply conflicting points of view. The family had wanted Dudley to go into his Uncle John’s business in the City; whereas what Dudley desired was that some broad-minded sportsman should slip him a few hundred quid and enable him to start a new dance-club. A compromise had been effected when his godfather, Mr. Sampson Broadhurst, arriving suddenly from Australia, had offered to take the young man back with him and teach him sheep-farming. It fortunately happening that he was a great reader of the type of novel in which everyone who goes to Australia automatically amasses a large fortune and leaves it to the hero, Dudley had formally announced at a family council that—taking it by and large—Australia seemed to him a pretty good egg, and that he had no objection to having a pop at it.
“Thank goodness,” said Roland. “I thought you might have backed out of going at the last moment.”
“Funny you should have said that, old man. A coincidence, I mean. Because that’s just exactly what I’ve half made up my mind to do.”
“Absolutely. The fact is, Rolie,” said Dudley, confidentially, “I’ve just met the most topping girl. And sometimes, when I think of buzzing off on the fifteenth and being separated from her by all those leagues of water, I could howl like a dog. I’ve a jolly good mind to let the old man sail by himself, and stick here on my native heath.”
“This is appalling! You mustn’t dream——”
“She’s the most wonderful girl. Knows you, too. Roberta Wickham’s her name. She lets me call her Bobbie. She——”
He broke off abruptly. His eyes, gazing past Roland, were shining with a holy light of devotion. His lips had parted in a brilliant smile.
“Yo-ho!” he cried.
Roland turned. A girl was crossing the road; a slim, boyish-looking girl, with shingled hair of a glorious red. She came tripping along with all the gay abandon of a woman who is forty minutes late for lunch and doesn’t give a hoot.
“Yo-ho!” yowled young Mr. Finch. “Yo frightfully ho!”
The girl came up, smiling and debonair.
“I’m not late, am I?” she said.
“Rather not,” cooed the love-sick Dudley. “Not a bit. Only just got here myself.”
“That’s good,” said Miss Wickham. “How are you, Roland?”
“Very well, thanks,” replied Roland Attwater, stiffly.
“I must congratulate you, mustn’t I?”
“What on?” asked Dudley, puzzled.
“His engagement, of course.”
“Oh, that!” said Dudley. He knew that his cousin had recently become engaged to Lucy Moresby, and he had frequently marvelled at the lack of soul which could have led one acquainted with the divine Roberta to go and tack himself on to any inferior female. He put it down to Roland having been at Harrow.
“I hope you will be very happy.”
“Thank you,” said Roland, sedately. “Well, I must be going. Good-bye. Glad to have seen you.”
He stalked off towards Grosvenor Square. It seemed to Dudley that his manner was peculiar.
“Not a very cordial bird, old Rolie,” he said, returning to the point at the luncheon-table. “Biffed off a trifle abruptly, didn’t it strike you?”
Miss Wickham sighed.
“I’m afraid Roland doesn’t like me.”
“Not like you!” Dudley swallowed a potato which, in a calmer moment, he would have realized was some eighty degrees Fahrenheit too warm for mastication. “Not like you!” he repeated, with watering eyes. “The man must be an ass.”
“We were great friends at one time,” said Roberta, sadly. “But ever since that snake business——”
“Roland had a snake, and I took it with me when he came down to Hertfordshire for the week-end. And I put it in a man’s bed, and the mater got the impression that Roland had done it, and he had to sneak away on a milk-train. He’s never quite forgiven me, I’m afraid.”
“But what else could you have done?” demanded Dudley, warmly. “I mean to say, if a fellow’s got a snake, naturally you put it in some other fellow’s bed.”
“That’s just what I felt.”
“Only once in a blue moon, I mean, you get hold of a snake. When you do, you can’t be expected to waste it.”
“Exactly. Roland couldn’t see that, though. Nor, for the matter of that,” continued Miss Wickham, dreamily, “could mother.”
“I say,” said Dudley, “that reminds me. I’d like to meet your mother.”
“Well, I’m going down there this evening. Why don’t you come, too?”
“No, I say, really? May I?”
“Rather short notice, though, isn’t it?”
“Oh, that’s all right. I’ll send the mater a wire. She’ll be awfully glad to see you.”
“Oh, rather! Awfully glad.”
“Well, that’s fine. Thanks ever so much.”
“I’ll motor you down.”
Dudley hesitated. Something of the brightness died out of his fair young face. He had had experience of Miss Wickham as a chauffeuse and had died half-a-dozen deaths in the extremely brief space of time which it had taken her to thread her way through half a mile of traffic.
“If it’s all the same,” he said, nervously, “I think I’ll pop down by train.”
“Just as you like. The best one’s the six-fifteen. Gets you there in time for dinner.”
“Six-fifteen? Right. Liverpool Street, of course? Just bring a suit-case, I suppose? Fine! I say, you’re really sure your mother won’t think I’m butting in?”
“Of course not. She’ll be awfully glad to see you.”
“Splendid! “said Dudley.
THE six-fifteen train was just about to draw out of Liverpool Street Station when Dudley flung himself and suit-case into it that evening. He had rather imprudently stepped in at the Drones Club on his way and, while having a brief refresher at the bar, had got into an interesting argument with a couple of the lads. There had only just been time for him to race to the cloak-room, retrieve his suit-case, and make a dash for the train. Fortunately, he had chanced upon an excellent taxi, and here he was, a little out of breath from the final sprint down the platform, but in every other respect absolutely all-righto. He leaned back against the cushions and gave himself up to thought.
From thinking of Bobbie he drifted shortly into meditation on her mother. If all went well, he felt this up-to-the-present-unmet mater was destined to be an important figure in his life. It was to her that he would have to go after Bobbie, hiding her face shyly on his waistcoat, had whispered that she had loved him from the moment they had met.
“Lady Wickham,” he would say. “No, not Lady Wickham—mother!”
Yes, that was undoubtedly the way to start. After that it would be easy. Providing, of course, that the mater turned out to be one of the better class of maters and took to him from the beginning. He tried to picture Lady Wickham, and had evolved a mental portrait of a gentle, sweet-faced woman of latish middle-age when the train pulled up at a station, and a lucky glimpse of a name on one of the lamps told Dudley that this was where he alighted.
Some twenty minutes later he was being relieved of his suit-case and shown into a room that looked like a study of sorts.
“The gentleman, m’lady,” boomed the butler, and withdrew.
It was rather a rummy way of announcing the handsome guest, felt Dudley, but he was not able to give much thought to the matter, for from a chair in front of the desk at which she had been writing there now rose a most formidable person, at the sight of whom his heart missed a beat. So vivid had been that image of sweet-faced womanhood which he had fashioned that his hostess in the flesh had the effect of being a changeling.
In those amiable, gossipy Memoirs of the late Bingley Fox, Esq. (“Sixty Years of Society,” Cook and Butterfield, 18s.), you will find it recorded that the widow of the eminent politician and Master of Hounds, Sir Apsley Wickham, was “one of three beautiful Miss Debenhams.” But beauty, as it has been well said, is largely in the eye of the beholder, and it may be stated at once that Lady Wickham’s particular type did not appeal to Dudley. He preferred the female eye to be a good deal less like a combination of gimlet and X-ray, and his taste in chins was something a little softer and not quite so reminiscent of a battleship going into action. Bobbie’s mater might, as Bobbie had predicted, be awfully glad to see him, but she did not look it. And suddenly there came over him like a wave the realization that the check suit which he had selected so carefully was much too bright. At the tailor’s, and subsequently at the Drones Club, it had had a pleasing and cheery effect, but here in this grim study he felt that it made him look like an absconding bookmaker.
“You are very late,” said Lady Wickham.
“Late?” quavered Dudley. The train had seemed to him to be making more or less good going.
“I supposed you would be here early in the afternoon. But perhaps you have brought a flashlight apparatus?”
“Have you not brought a flashlight apparatus?”
Dudley shook his head. He prided himself on being something of an authority on what the young visitor should take with him on country-house visits, but this was a new one.
“No,” he said, “no flashlight apparatus.”
“Then how,” demanded Lady Wickham, with some heat, “do you imagine that you can take photographs at this time of night?”
“Ah!” said Dudley, vaguely. “See what you mean, of course. Take a bit of doing, what?”
Lady Wickham seemed to become moderately resigned.
“Oh, well, I suppose they can send someone down to-morrow.”
“That’s right,” said Dudley, brightening.
“In the meantime—this is where I work.”
“No, really?” said Dudley.
“Yes. All my books have been written at this desk.”
“Fancy that!” said Dudley. He remembered having heard Bobbie mention that Lady Wickham wrote novels.
“I get my inspirations, however, in the garden for the most part. Generally the rose-garden. I like to sit there in the mornings and think.”
“And what,” agreed Dudley, cordially, “could be sweeter?”
His hostess regarded him curiously. A sense of something wrong seemed to come upon her.
“You are from Milady’s Boudoir?” she asked, suddenly.
“From what was that, once again?” asked Dudley.
“Are you the man the editor of Milady’s Boudoir was sending down to interview me?”
Dudley could answer this one.
“No,” he said.
“No?” echoed Lady Wickham.
“Most absolutely not-o,” said Dudley, firmly.
“Then who,” demanded Lady Wickham, “are you?”
“My name’s Dudley Finch.”
“And to what,” asked his hostess in a manner so extraordinarily like that of his late grandmother that Dudley’s toes curled in their shoes, “am I to attribute the honour of this visit?”
“Why, I thought you knew all about it.”
“I know nothing whatever about it.”
“Didn’t Bobbie send you a wire?”
“He did not. Nor do I know who Bobbie may be.”
“Miss Wickham, I mean. Your daughter Roberta. She told me to buzz down here for the night, and said she would send you a wire paving the way, so to speak. Oh, I say, this is a bit thick. Fancy her forgetting!”
For the second time that day a disagreeable feeling that his idol was after all not entirely perfect stole upon Dudley. A girl, he meant, oughtn’t to lure a bloke down to her mater’s house and then forget to send a wire tipping the old girl off. No, he meant to say! Pretty dashed casual, he meant.
“Oh,” said Lady Wickham, “you are a friend of my daughter?”
“I see. And where is Roberta?”
“She’s tooling down in the car.”
Lady Wickham clicked her tongue.
“Roberta is becoming too erratic for endurance,” she said.
“I say, you know,” said Dudley, awkwardly, “if I’m in the way, you know, just speak the word and I’ll race off to the local pub. I mean to say, don’t want to butt in, I mean.”
“Not at all, Mr.——”
“Not at all, Mr. Finch. I am only too delighted,” said Lady Wickham, looking at him as if he were a particularly loathsome slug which had interrupted some beautiful reverie of hers in the rose-garden, “that you were able to come.” She touched the bell. “Oh, Simmons,” she said, as the butler appeared, “in which room did you put Mr. Finch’s luggage?”
“In the Blue Room, m’lady.”
“Then perhaps you will show him the way there. He will wish to dress. Dinner,” she added to Dudley, “will be at eight o’clock.”
“Righto!” said Dudley. He was feeling a little happier now. Formidable old bird as this old bird undoubtedly was, he was pretty confident that she would melt a bit when once he had got the good old dress-clothes draped about his person. He was prepared to stand or fall by his dress-clothes. There are a number of tailors in London who can hack up a bit of broadcloth and sew it together in some sort of shape, but there is only one who can construct a dress-suit so that it blends with the figure and seems as beautiful as a summer’s dawn. It was this tailor who enjoyed the benefit of Dudley’s patronage. Yes, Dudley felt as he entered the Blue Room, in about twenty minutes old Madame Lafarge was due to get her eye knocked out.
In the brief instant before he turned on the light he could dimly see that perfect suit laid out on the bed, and it was with something of the feeling of a wanderer returning home that he pressed the switch.
LIGHT flooded the room, and Dudley stood there blinking.
But, no matter how much he blinked, the awful sight which had met his eyes refused to change itself in the slightest detail. What was laid out on the bed was not his dress-clothes, but the most ghastly collection of raiment he had ever beheld. He blinked once again as a forlorn hope, and then tottered forward.
He stood looking down at the foul things, his heart ice within him. Reading from left to right, the objects on the bed were as follows: A pair of short white woollen socks; a crimson made-up bow-tie of enormous size; a sort of middy-blouse arrangement; a pair of blue velvet knickerbockers; and finally—and it was this that seemed to Dudley to make it all so sad and hopeless—a very small sailor-hat with a broad blue ribbon, across which in large white letters ran the legend “H.M.S. Indefatigable.”
On the floor were a pair of brown shoes with strap-and-buckle attachment. They seemed to be roomy number twelves.
Dudley sprang to the bell. A footman presented himself.
“Sir?” said the footman.
“What,” demanded Dudley, wildly, “what is all this?”
“I found them in your suit-case, sir.”
“But where are my dress-clothes?”
“No dress-clothes in the suit-case, sir.”
A bright light shone upon Dudley. That argument with those two birds at the Drones had, he now recalled, been on the subject of fancy-dress. Both birds were dashing off to a fancy-dress ball that night, and one bird had appealed to Dudley to support him against the other bird in his contention that at these affairs the prudent man played for safety and went as a Pierrot. The second bird had said that he would sooner be dead in a ditch than don any such unimaginative costume. He was going as a small boy, he said, and with a pang Dudley remembered having laughed mockingly and prophesied that he would look the most priceless ass. And then he had sprinted off and collared the man’s bag in mistake for his own.
“Look here,” he said, “I can’t possibly come down to dinner in those!”
“No, sir?” said the footman, respectfully, but with a really inhuman lack of interest and sympathy.
“You’d better leg it to the old girl’s room—— I mean,” said Dudley, recollecting himself, “you had better go to Lady Wickham and inform her that Mr. Finch presents his compliments and I’m awfully sorry but he has mislaid his dress-clothes, so he will have to come down to dinner in what I’ve got on at present.”
“Very good, sir.”
“I say!” A horrid thought struck Dudley. “I say, we shall be alone, what? I mean to say, nobody else is coming to dinner?”
“Yes, sir,” said the footman, brightly. “A number of guests are expected, sir.”
It was a sagging and demoralized Dudley who crawled into the dining-room a quarter of an hour later. In spite of what moralists say, a good conscience is not enough in itself to enable a man to bear himself jauntily in every crisis of life. Dudley had had a good upbringing, and the fact that he was dining at a strange house in a bright check suit gave him a consciousness of sin which he strove vainly to overcome.
The irony of it was that in a normal frame of mind he would have sneered loftily at the inferior garments which clothed the other male members of the party. On the left sleeve of the man opposite him was a disgraceful wrinkle. The fellow next to the girl in pink might have a good heart, but the waistcoat which covered it did not fit by a mile. And as for the tie of that other bloke down by Lady Wickham, it was not a tie at all in the deeper meaning of the word; it was just a deplorable occurrence. Yet, situated as he was, his heart ached with envy of all these tramps.
He ate but little. As a rule his appetite was of the heartiest, and many a novel had he condemned as untrue to life on the ground that its hero was stated to have pushed his food away untasted. Until to-night he had never supposed that such a feat was possible. But as course succeeded course he found himself taking almost no practical interest in the meal. All he asked was to get it over, so that he could edge away and be alone with his grief. There would doubtless be some sort of binge in the drawing-room after dinner, but it would not have the support of Dudley Finch. For Dudley Finch the quiet seclusion of the Blue Room.
IT was as he was sitting there some two hours later that there drifted into his mind something Roberta had said about Roland Attwater leaving on the milk-train. At the time he had paid little attention to the remark, but now it began to be borne in upon him more and more strongly that this milk-train was going to be of great strategic importance in his life. This ghastly house was just the sort of house that fellows did naturally go away from on milk-trains, and it behoved him to be prepared.
He rang the bell once more.
“Sir?” said the footman.
“I say,” said Dudley, “what time does the milk-train leave?”
“Yes. Train that takes the milk, you know.”
“Do you wish for milk, sir?”
“No!” Dudley fought down a desire to stun this man with one of the number twelve shoes. “I just want to know what time the milk-train goes in the morning—in case—in—er—case I am called away unexpectedly, I mean to say.”
“I will inquire, sir.”
The footman made his way to the servants’ hall, the bearer of great news.
“Guess what,” said the footman.
“Well, Thomas?” asked Simmons the butler, indulgently.
“That bloke—the Great What-is-it,” said Thomas—for it was by this affectionate sobriquet that Dudley was now known below stairs—“is planning to go off on the milk-train!”
“What?” Simmons heaved his stout form out of his chair. His face did not reflect the gay mirth of his subordinate. “I must inform her ladyship. I must inform her ladyship at once.”
The last guest had taken his departure, and Lady Wickham was preparing to go to a well-earned bed when there entered to her Simmons, grave and concerned.
“Might I speak to your ladyship?”
“Might I first take the liberty of inquiring, m’lady, if the—er—the young gentleman in the tweed suit is a personal friend of your ladyship’s?”
Lady Wickham was surprised. It was not like Simmons to stroll in and start chatting about her guests, and for a moment she was inclined to say as much; then something told her that by doing so she would miss information of interest.
“He says he is a friend of Miss Roberta, Simmons,” she said, graciously.
“Says!” said the butler, and there was no eluding the sinister meaning in his voice.
“What do you mean, Simmons?”
“Begging your pardon, m’lady, I am convinced that this person is here with some criminal intention. Thomas reports that his suit-case contained a complete disguise.”
“Disguise! What sort of disguise?”
“Thomas did not convey that very clearly, your ladyship, but I understand that it was of a juvenile nature. And just now, m’lady, the man has been making inquiries as to the time of departure of the milk-train.”
“Thomas also states, m’lady, that the man was visibly took aback when he learned that there were guests expected here tonight. If you ask me, your ladyship, it was the man’s intention to make what I might term a quick clean-up immediately after dinner and escape on the nine-fifty-seven. Foiled in that by the presence of the guests, he is going to endeavour to collect the swag in the small hours and get away on the milk-train.”
“That is my opinion, your ladyship.”
“Good gracious! He told me that Miss Roberta had said to him that she was coming down here to-night. She has not come!”
“A ruse, m’lady. To inspire confidence.”
“Simmons,” said Lady Wickham, rising to the crisis like the strong woman she was, “you must sit up to-night!”
“With a gun, m’lady,” cried the butler, with a sportsman’s enthusiasm.
“Yes, with a gun. And if you hear him prowling about you must come and wake me instantly.”
“Very good, your ladyship.”
“You must be very quiet, of course.”
“Like a mouse, your ladyship,” said Simmons.
DUDLEY, meanwhile, in his refuge in the Blue Room, had for some time past been regretting—every moment more keenly—that preoccupation with his troubles had led him to deal so sparingly with his food down there in the dining-room. The peace of the Blue Room had soothed his nervous system, and with calm had come the realization that he was most confoundedly hungry. There was something uncanny in the way Fate had worked to do him out of his proper supply of proteins and carbohydrates to-day. Hungry as he had been when waiting at Claridge’s for Bobbie, the moment she appeared love had taken his mind off the menu, and he had made a singularly light lunch. Since then he had had nothing but the few scattered mouthfuls which he had forced himself to swallow at the dinner-table.
He consulted his watch. It was later than he had supposed. Much too late to ring the bell and ask for sandwiches—even supposing that his standing in this poisonous house had been such as to justify the demand.
He flung himself back on the bed and tried to doze off. That footman fellow had said that the milk-train left at three-fifteen, and he was firmly resolved to catch it. The sooner he was out of this place, the better. Meanwhile, he craved food. Any sort of food. His entire interior organism was up on its feet, shouting wildly for sustenance.
A few minutes later, Lady Wickham, waiting tensely in her room, was informed by a knock on the door that the hour had arrived.
“Yes?” she whispered, turning the handle noiselessly and putting her head out.
“The man, m’lady,” breathed the voice of Simmons in the darkness.
Dudley Finch’s unwilling hostess was a woman of character and decision. From girlhood up she had been accustomed to hunting and the other hardy sports of the aristocracy of the countryside. And though the pursuit of burglars had formed up to the present no part of her experience, she approached it without a qualm. Motioning the butler to follow, she wrapped her dressing-gown more closely about her and strode down the corridor.
There was plenty of noise to guide her to her goal. Dudley’s progress from his bedroom to the dining-room, the fruit and biscuits on the sideboard of which formed his objective, had been far from quiet. Once he had tripped over a chair, and now, as his hostess and her attendant began to descend the stairs, he collided with and upset a large screen. He was endeavouring to remove the foot which he had inadvertently put through this when a quiet voice spoke from above.
“Can you see him, Simmons?”
“Yes, m’lady. Dimly but adequately.”
“Then shoot if he moves a step.”
“Very good, m’lady.”
Dudley wrenched his foot free and peered upwards, appalled.
“I say!” he quavered. “It’s only me, you know!”
Light flooded the hall.
“Only me!” repeated Dudley, feverishly. The sight of the enormous gun in the butler’s hands had raised his temperature to a painful degree.
“What,” demanded Lady Wickham, coldly, “are you doing here, Mr. Finch?”
An increased sense of the delicacy of his position flooded over Dudley. He was a young man with the nicest respect for the conventions, and he perceived that the situation required careful handling. It is not tactful, he realized, for a guest for whose benefit a hostess has only a few hours earlier provided a lavish banquet to announce to the said hostess that he has been compelled by hunger to rove the house in search of food. For a moment he stood there, licking his lips; then something like an inspiration came to him.
“The fact is,” he said, “I couldn’t sleep, you know.”
“Possibly,” said Lady Wickham, “you would have a better chance of doing so if you were to go to bed. Is it your intention to walk about the house all night?”
“No, no, absolutely not. I couldn’t sleep, so I—er—I thought I would pop down and see if I could find something to read, don’t you know.”
“Oh, you want a book?”
“That’s right. That’s absolutely it. A book. You’ve put it in a nutshell.”
“I will show you to the library.”
In spite of her stern disapproval of this scoundrel, who wormed his way into people’s houses in quest of loot, a slight diminution of austerity came to Lady Wickham as the result of this introduction of the literary note. She was an indefatigable novelist, and it pleased her to place her works in the hands of even the vilest. Ushering Dudley into the library, she switched on the light and made her way without hesitation to the third shelf from the top nearest the fireplace. Selecting one from a row of brightly covered volumes, she offered it to him.
“Perhaps this will interest you,” she said.
Dudley eyed it dubiously.
“Oh, I say,” he protested, “I don’t know, you know. This is one of that chap, George Masterman’s.”
“Well?” said Lady Wickham, frostily.
“He writes the most frightful bilge, I mean. Don’t you think so?”
“I cannot say that I do. I am possibly biased, however, by the fact that George Masterman is the name I write under.”
“Oh, do you?” he babbled. “Do you? You do, eh? Well, I mean——” An imperative desire to be elsewhere swept over him. “This’ll do me,” he said, grabbing wildly at the nearest shelf. “This will do me fine. Thanks awfully. Good night. I mean, thanks, thanks. I mean good night. Good night.”
Two pairs of eyes followed him as he shot up the stairs. Lady Wickham’s were cold and hard; the expression in those of Simmons was wistful. It was seldom that the butler’s professional duties allowed him the opportunity of indulging the passion for sport which had been his since boyhood. A very occasional pop at a rabbit was about all the shooting he got nowadays, and the receding Dudley made his mouth water. He fought the craving down with a sigh.
“A nasty fellow, m’lady,” he said.
“Quick-witted,” Lady Wickham was forced to concede.
“Full of low cunning, m’lady,” emended the butler. “All that about wanting a book. A ruse.”
“You had better continue watching, Simmons.”
“Most decidedly, your ladyship.”
Dudley sat on his bed, panting. Nothing like this had ever happened to him before, and for a while the desire for food left him, overcome by a more spiritual misery. If there was one thing in the world that gave him the pip, it was looking like a silly idiot; and every nerve in his body told him that during the recent interview he must have looked the most perfect silly idiot. Staring bleakly before him, he re-lived every moment of the blighted scene, and the more he examined his own share in it the worse it looked. He quivered in an agony of shame. He seemed to be bathed from head to foot in a sort of prickly heat.
AND then, faintly at first but growing stronger every moment, hunger began to clamour once again.
Dudley clenched his teeth. Something must be done to combat this. Mind must somehow be enabled to triumph over matter. He glanced at the book which he had snatched from the shelf, and for the first time that night began to feel that Fate was with him. Out of a library which was probably congested with the most awful tosh, he had stumbled first pop upon Mark Twain’s “Tramp Abroad,” a book which he had not read since he was a kid but had always been meaning to read again; just the sort of book, in fact, which would enable a fellow to forget the anguish of starvation until that milk-train went.
He opened it at random, and found with a shock that Fate had but been playing with him.
“It has now been many months, at the present writing” (read Dudley), “since I have had a nourishing meal, but I shall soon have one—a modest, private affair, all to myself. I have selected a few dishes, and made out a little bill of fare, which will go home in the steamer that precedes me and be hot when I arrive—as follows:—”
Dudley quailed. Memories of his boyhood came to him, of the time when he had first read what came after those last two words. The passage had stamped itself on his mind, for he had happened upon it at school, at a time when he was permanently obsessed by a wolfish hunger and too impecunious to purchase anything at the school shop to keep him going till the next meal. It had tortured him then, and it would, he knew, torture him even more keenly now.
Nothing, he resolved, should induce him to go on reading. So he immediately went on.
“Radishes. Baked apples, with cream.
“Fried oysters; stewed oysters. Frogs.
“American coffee, with real cream.
“Fried chicken, Southern style.
“Broiled chicken, American style.”
A feeble moan escaped Dudley. He endeavoured to close the book, but it would not close. He tried to remove his eyes from the page, but they wandered back like homing pigeons.
“Brook trout, from Sierra Nevadas.
“Lake trout, from Tahoe.
“Sheephead and croakers, from New Orleans.
“Black bass, from the Mississippi.
“American roast beef.
“Roast turkey, Thanksgiving style.
“Cranberry sauce. Celery.
“Roast wild turkey. Woodcock.
“Canvas-back duck, from Baltimore.
“Prairie hens, from Illinois.
“Missouri partridges, broiled.
“ ’Possum. Coon.
“Boston bacon and beans.
“Bacon and greens, Southern style.”
Dudley rose from the bed. He could endure no more. His previous experience as a prospector after food had not been such as to encourage further efforts in that direction, but there comes a time when a man recks not of possible discomfort. He removed his shoes and tip-toed out of the room. A familiar form advanced to meet him along the now brightly lit corridor.
“Well?” said Simmons, the butler, shifting his gun to the ready and massaging the trigger with a loving forefinger.
Dudley gazed upon him with a sinking heart.
“Oh, hullo!” he said.
“What do you want?”
“You get back into that room.”
“I say, listen, laddie,” said Dudley, in desperation flinging reticence to the winds. “I’m starving. Absolutely starving. I wish, like a good old bird, you would just scud down to your pantry or somewhere and get me a sandwich or two.”
“You get back into that room, you hound!” growled Simmons, with such intensity that sheer astonishment sent Dudley tottering back through the door. He had never heard a butler talk like that. He had not supposed that butlers could talk like that.
He put on his shoes again; and, lacing them up, brooded tensely on this matter. What, he asked himself, was the idea? What was the big thought that lay behind all this? That his hostess, alarmed by noises in the night, should have summoned the butler to bring firearms to her assistance was intelligible. But what was the blighter doing, camping outside his door? After all, they knew he was a friend of the daughter of the house.
HE was still wrestling with this problem when a curious, sharp, tapping noise attracted his attention. It came at irregular intervals and seemed to proceed from the direction of the window. He sat up, listening. It came again. He crept to the window and looked out. As he did so, something with hard edges smote him painfully in the face.
“Oh, sorry!” said a voice.
Dudley started violently. Looking in the direction from which the voice had proceeded, he perceived that there ran out from the wall immediately to the left of his window a small balcony. On this balcony, bathed in silver moonlight, Roberta Wickham was standing. She was hauling in the slack of a length of string, to the end of which was attached a button-hook.
“Awfully sorry.” she said. “I was trying to attract your attention.”
“You did,” said Dudley.
“I thought you might be asleep.”
“Asleep!” Dudley’s face contorted itself in a dreadful sneer. “Does anyone ever get any sleep in this house?” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I say, your bally butler has gone off his onion.”
“He’s doing sentinel duty outside my door with a whacking great cannon. And when I put my head out just now he simply barked at me.”
“I’m afraid,” said Bobbie, gathering in the button-hook, “he thinks you’re a burglar.”
“A burglar? But I told your mother distinctly that I was a friend of yours.”
Something akin to embarrassment seemed to come upon the not easily embarrassed Miss Wickham.
“Yes, I want to talk to you about that,” she said. “It was like this.”
“I say, when did you arrive, by the way?” asked Dudley, the question suddenly presenting itself to his disordered mind.
“About half an hour ago.”
“Yes. I sneaked in through the scullery window. And the first thing I met was mother in her dressing-gown.” Miss Wickham shivered a little as at some unpleasing memory. “You’ve never seen mother in her dressing-gown,” she said, in a small voice.
“Yes, I have,” retorted Dudley. “And while it may be an experience which every chappie ought to have, let me tell you that once is sufficient.”
“I had an accident coming down here,” proceeded Miss Wickham, absorbed in her own story and paying small attention to his. “An idiot of a man driving a dray let me run into him. My car was all smashed up. I couldn’t get away for hours, and then I had to come down on a train that stopped at every station.”
It is proof, if such were needed, of the strain to which Dudley Finch had been subjected that night that the information that this girl had been in a motor-smash did not cause him that anguished concern which he would undoubtedly have felt twenty-four hours earlier. It left him almost cold.
“Well, when you saw your mother,” he said, “didn’t you tell her that I was a friend of yours?”
Miss Wickham hesitated.
“That’s the part I want to explain,” she said. “You see, it was like this. First I had to break it as gently as I could to her that the car wasn’t insured. She wasn’t frightfully pleased. And then she told me about you and—— Dudley, old thing, whatever have you been doing since you got here? The mater seemed to think you had been behaving in the weirdest way.”
“I’ll admit that I brought the wrong bag and couldn’t dress for dinner, but apart from that I’m dashed if I can see what I did that was weird.”
“Well, she seems to have become frightfully suspicious of you almost from the start.”
“If you had sent that wire, telling her I was coming——” Miss Wickham clicked her tongue regretfully.
“I knew there was something I had forgotten. Oh, Dudley, I’m awfully sorry.”
“Don’t mention it,” said Dudley, bitterly. “It’s probably going to lead to my having my head blown off by a looney butler, but don’t give it another thought. You were saying——”
“Oh, yes, when I met mother. You do see, Dudley dear, how terribly difficult it was for me, don’t you? I mean, I had just broken it to her that the car was all smashed up and not insured, and then she suddenly asked me if it was true that I had invited you down here. I was just going to say I had, when she began to talk about you in such a bitter spirit that somehow the time didn’t seem ripe. So when she asked me if you were a friend of mine, I——”
“You said I was?”
“Well, not in so many words.”
“How do you mean?”
“I had to be awfully tactful, you see.”
“I told her I had never seen you in my life.”
Dudley uttered a sound like the breeze sighing in the tree-trops.
“But it’s all right,” went on Miss Wickham, reassuringly.
“Yes, isn’t it?” said Dudley. “I noticed that.”
“I’m going to go and have a talk with Simmons and tell him he must let you escape. Then everything will be splendid. There’s an excellent milk-train——”
“I know all about the milk-train, thanks.”
“I’ll go and see him now. So don’t you worry, old thing.”
“Worry?” said Dudley. “Me? What have I got to worry about?”
BOBBIE disappeared. Dudley turned away from the window. Faint whispering made itself heard from the passage. Somebody tapped softly on the door. Dudley opened it and found the ambassadress standing on the mat. Farther down the corridor, tactfully withdrawn into the background, Simmons the butler stood grounding arms.
“Dudley,” whispered Miss Wickham, “have you got any money on you?”
“Yes, a certain amount.”
“Five pounds? It’s for Simmons.”
Dudley felt the militant spirit of the Finches surging within him. His blood boiled.
“You don’t mean to say that after what has happened the blighter has the crust to expect me to tip him?”
He glared past her at the man behind the gun, who simpered respectfully. Evidently Bobbie’s explanations had convinced him that he had wronged Dudley, for the hostility which had been so marked a short while back had now gone out of his manner.
“Well, it’s like this, you see,” said Bobbie. “Poor Simmons is worried.”
“I’m glad,” said Dudley, vindictively. “I wish he would worry himself into a decline.”
“He’s afraid that mother may be angry with him when she finds that you have gone. He doesn’t want to lose his place.”
“A man who doesn’t want to get out of a place like this must be an ass.”
“And so, in case mother does cut up rough and dismiss him for not keeping a better watch over you, he wants to feel that he has something in hand. He started by asking for a tenner, but I got him down to five. So hand it over, Dudley dear, and then we can get action.”
Dudley produced a five-pound note and gazed at it with a long, lingering look of affection and regret.
“Here you are,” he said. “I hope the man spends it on drink, gets tight, trips over his feet, and breaks his neck!”
“Thanks,” said Bobbie. “There’s just one other trifling condition he made, but you needn’t worry about that.”
“What was it?”
“Oh, just something very trifling. Nothing that you have to do. No need for you to worry at all. You had better start now tying knots in the sheets.”
“Knots?” he said. “In the sheets?”
“To climb down by.”
It was Dudley’s guiding rule in life never, when once he had got it brushed and brilliantined and properly arranged in the fashionable back-sweep, to touch his hair; but on this fearful night all the rules of civilized life were going by the board. He clutched upwards, collected a handful, and churned it about. No lesser gesture could have expressed his consternation.
“You aren’t seriously suggesting that I climb out of window and shin down a knotted sheet?” he gasped.
“You must, I’m afraid. Simmons insists on it.”
“I know why,” he said, bitterly. “He’s been going to the movies. It’s always the way. You give a butler an evening off and he sneaks out to a picture-house and comes back with a diseased mind, thinking he’s playing a star part in ‘The Clutching Hand’ or something. Knotted sheets, indeed!” Such was his emotion that Dudley very nearly said “Forsooth”! “The man is simply a drivelling imbecile. Will you kindly inform me why, in the name of everything infernal, the poor, silly, dashed fish can’t just let me out of the front door like an ordinary human being?”
“Why, don’t you see?” reasoned Miss Wickham, “How could he explain to mother? She must be made to think that you escaped in spite of his vigilance.”
Disordered though his faculties were, Dudley could dimly see that there was something in this. He made no further objections. Bobbie beckoned to the waiting Simmons. Money changed hands. The butler passed amiably into the room to lend assistance to the preparations.
“A little tighter, perhaps, sir,” he suggested, obsequiously, casting a critical eye upon Dudley’s knots. “It would never do for you to fall and kill yourself, sir, ha, ha!”
“Did you say ‘ha, ha’?” said Dudley, in a pale voice.
“I did venture——”
“Don’t do it again.”
“Very good, sir.” The butler ambled to the window and looked out. “I fear the sheets will not reach quite to the ground, sir. You will have a drop of a few feet.”
“But,” added Bobbie, hastily, “you’ve got the most lovely, soft, squashy flower-bed to fall into.”
It was not till some minutes later, when he had come to the end of the sheet and had at last nerved himself to let go and complete the journey after the fashion of a parachutist whose parachute has refused to open, that Dudley discovered that there was an error in Miss Wickham’s description of the terrain. The lovely soft flower-bed of which she had spoken with such pretty girlish enthusiasm was certainly there, but what she had omitted to mention was that along it at regular intervals were planted large bushes of a hard and spiky nature. It was in one of these that Dudley, descending like a shooting star, found himself entangled: and he had never supposed that anything that was not actually a cactus plant could possibly have so many and such sharp thorns.
He scrambled out and stood in the moonlight, soliloquizing softly. A head protruded from the window above.
“Are you all right, sir?” inquired the voice of Simmons.
Dudley did not reply. With as much dignity as a man punctured in several hundred places could muster, he strode off.
He had reached the drive and was limping up it towards the gate which led to the road which led to the station which led to the milk-train which led to London, when the quiet of the night was suddenly shattered by the roar of a gun. Something infinitely more painful than all the thorns which had recently pierced him smote the fleshy part of his left leg. It seemed to be red-hot, and its effect on Dudley was almost miraculous. A moment before he had been slouching slowly along, a beaten and jaded man. He now appeared to become electrified. With one sharp yell he lowered the amateur record for the standing broad jump, and then, starting smartly off the mark, proceeded to try to beat the best professional time for the hundred-yard dash.
THE telephone at the side of Dudley’s bed had been ringing for some time before its noise woke him. Returning to his rooms in Jermyn Street shortly before seven a.m., he had quelled his great hunger with breakfast and then slipped with a groan between the sheets. It was now, he saw from a glance at his watch, nearly five in the afternoon.
“Hullo?” he croaked.
It was a voice which twenty-four hours ago would have sent sharp thrills down the young man’s spine. Twenty-four hours ago, if he had heard this voice on his telephone, he would have squealed with rapture. Hearing it now, he merely frowned. The heart beneath that rose-pink pyjama jacket was dead.
“Yes?” he said, coldly.
“Oh, Dudley,” purred Miss Wickham, “are you all right?”
“As far,” replied Mr. Finch, frigidly, “as a bloke can be said to be all right whose hair has turned white to the roots and who has been starved and chucked out of windows into bushes with six-inch thorns, and chivvied and snootered and shot in the fleshy part of the leg——”
An exclamation of concern broke in upon his eloquence.
“Oh, Dudley, he didn’t hit you?”
“He did hit me.”
“But he promised that he wouldn’t aim at you.”
“Well, next time he goes shooting visitors, tell him to aim as carefully as he can. Then they may have a sporting chance.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Outside of bringing me the blighter’s head on a charger, nothing, thanks.”
“He insisted on letting off the gun. That was the condition I said he had made. You remember?”
“I remember. The trifling condition I wasn’t to worry about.”
“It was to make the thing seem all right to mother.”
“I hope your mother was pleased,” said Dudley, politely.
“Dudley, I do wish there was something I could do for you. I’d like to come up and nurse you. But I’m in disgrace about the car, and I’m not allowed to come to London just yet. I’m ’phoning from the Wickham Arms. I believe I shall be able to get up, though, by Saturday week. Shall I come then?”
“Do,” said Dudley, cordially.
“That’s splendid! It’s the seventeenth. All right, I’ll try to get to London latish in the morning. Where shall we meet?”
“We sha’n’t meet,” said Dudley. “At lunch-time on the seventeenth I shall be tooling off to Australia. Good-bye!”
He hung up the receiver and crawled back into bed, thinking imperially.
Annotations to the story can be found following the US magazine version of this story.