The Saturday Evening Post - June 07, 1919
GEORGE’S idea was to get home quick. There was no possible chance of a second meeting with Maud that night. They had met and had been whirled asunder. No use to struggle with fate. Best to give in and hope that another time fate would be kinder. What George wanted now was to be away from all the gay glitter and the fairylike tout ensemble and the galaxy of fair women and brave men, safe in his own easy-chair, where nothing could happen to him. A nice sense of duty would no doubt have taken him back to his post in order fully to earn the sovereign which had been paid to him for his services as temporary waiter; but the voice of duty called to him in vain. If the British aristocracy desired refreshments, let them get them for themselves—and like it! He was through.
But if George had for the time being done with the British aristocracy, the British aristocracy had not done with him. Hardly had he reached the hall when he encountered the one member of the order whom he would most gladly have avoided.
Lord Belpher was not in genial mood. Late hours always made his head ache, and he was not a dancing man; so that he was by now fully as weary of the fairylike tout ensemble as was George. But, being the center and cause of the night’s proceedings, he was compelled to be present to the finish. He was in the position of captains who must be the last to leave their ships and of boys who stand on burning decks whence all but them had fled. He had spent several hours shaking hands with total strangers and receiving with a frozen smile their felicitations on the attainment of his majority; and he could not have been called upon to meet a larger horde of relations than had surged round him that night if he had been a rabbit. The Belpher connection was wide, straggling over most of England; and first cousins, second cousins, and even third and fourth cousins had debouched from practically every county on the map and marched upon the home of their ancestors. The effort of having to be civil to all of these had told upon Percy. Like the heroine of his sister Maud’s favorite poem he was “aweary, aweary,” and he wanted a drink. He regarded George’s appearance as exceedingly opportune.
“Get me a small bottle of champagne and bring it to the library.”
The two words sound innocent enough, but, wishing as he did to efface himself and avoid publicity, they were the most unfortunate which George could have chosen. If he had merely bowed acquiescence and departed, it is probable that Lord Belpher would not have taken a second look at him. Percy was in no condition to subject everyone he met to a minute scrutiny. But when you have been addressed for an entire lifetime as “your lordship,” it startles you when a waiter calls you “sir.” Lord Belpher gave George a glance in which reproof and pain were nicely mingled, emotions quickly supplanted by amazement. A gurgle escaped him.
“Stop!” he cried, as George turned away.
Percy was rattled. The crisis found him in two minds. On the one hand, he would have been prepared to take oath that this man before him was the man who had knocked off his hat in Piccadilly. The likeness had struck him like a blow the moment he had taken a good look at the fellow. On the other hand, there is nothing which is more likely to lead one astray than a resemblance. He had never forgotten the horror and humiliation of the occasion, which had happened in his fourteenth year, when a motherly woman at Paddington Station had called him “dearie” and publicly embraced him, on the erroneous supposition that he was her nephew Philip. He must proceed cautiously. A brawl with an innocent waiter, coming on the heels of that infernal episode with the policeman, would give people the impression that assailing the lower orders had become a hobby of his.
“Sir?” said George politely.
His brazen front shook Lord Belpher’s confidence.
“I haven’t seen you here before, have I?” was all he could find to say.
“No, sir,” replied George smoothly. “I am only temporarily attached to the castle staff.”
“Where do you come from?”
Lord Belpher started.
“Yes, sir. I am in England on a vacation. My cousin Albert is page boy at the castle, and he told me there were a few vacancies for extra help to-night, so I applied and was given the job.”
Lord Belpher frowned perplexedly. It all sounded entirely plausible. And, what was satisfactory, the statement could be checked by application to Keggs, the butler. And yet there was a lingering doubt. However, there seemed nothing to be gained by continuing the conversation.
“I see,” he said at last. “Well, bring that champagne to the library as quick as you can.”
“Very good, sir.”
Lord Belpher remained where he stood, brooding. Reason told him he ought to be satisfied, but he was not satisfied. It would have been different had he not known that this fellow with whom Maud had become entangled was in the neighborhood. And if that scoundrel had had the audacity to come and take a cottage at the castle gates, why not the audacity to invade the castle itself?
The appearance of one of the footmen, on his way through the hall with a tray, gave him the opportunity for further investigation.
“Send Keggs to me!”
“Very good, your lordship.”
An interval and the butler arrived. Unlike Lord Belpher late hours were no hardship to Keggs. He was essentially a night-blooming flower. His brow was as free from wrinkles as his shirt front. He bore himself with the conscious dignity of one who, while he would have freely admitted he did not actually own the castle, was nevertheless aware that he was one of its most conspicuous ornaments.
“You wished to see me, your lordship?”
“Yes. Keggs, there are a number of outside men helping you to-night, aren’t there?”
“Indubitably, your lordship. The unprecedented scale of the entertainment necessitated the engagement of a certain number of supernumeraries,” replied Keggs, with an easy fluency which Reggie Byng, now cooling his head on the lower terrace, would have bitterly envied. “In the circumstances, such an arrangement was inevitable.”
“You engaged all these men yourself?”
“In a manner of speaking, your lordship, and for all practical purposes, yes. Mrs. Digby, the ’ousekeeper, conducted the actual negotiations in many cases, but the arrangement was in no instance considered final till I had passed upon each applicant.”
“Do you know anything of an American who says he is the cousin of the page boy?”
“The boy Albert did introduce a nominee whom he stated to be ’is cousin ’ome from New York on a visit and anxious to oblige. I trust ’e ’as given no dissatisfaction, your lordship? He seemed a respectable young man.”
“No, no, not at all. I merely wished to know if you knew him. One can’t be too careful.”
“No, indeed, your lordship.”
“That’s all then.”
“Thank you, your lordship.”
Lord Belpher was satisfied. He was also relieved. He felt that prudence and a steady head had kept him from making himself ridiculous. When George presently returned with the life-saving fluid, he thanked him and turned his thoughts to other things.
But if the young master was satisfied, Keggs was not. Upon Keggs a bright light had shone. There were few men, he flattered himself, who could more readily put two and two together and bring the sum to a correct answer. Keggs knew of the strange American gentleman who had taken up his abode at the cottage down by Platt’s farm. His looks, his habits, and his motives for coming there had formed food for discussion throughout one whole meal in the servants’ hall; a stranger whose abstention from brush and palette showed him to be no artist being an object of interest. And while the solution put forward by a romantic lady’s maid, a great reader of novelettes, that the young man had come there to cure himself of some unhappy passion by communing with Nature, had been scoffed at by the company, Keggs had not been so sure that there might not be something in it. Later events had deepened his suspicion, which now, after this interview with Lord Belpher, had become certainty.
The extreme fishiness of Albert’s sudden production of a cousin from America was so manifest that only his preoccupation at the moment when he met the young man could have prevented him seeing it before. His knowledge of Albert told him that, if one so versed as that youth in the art of swank had really possessed a cousin in America, he would long ago have been boring the servants’ hall with fictions about the man’s wealth and importance. For Albert not to lie about a thing practically proved that thing nonexistent. Such was the simple creed of Keggs.
He accosted a passing fellow servitor.
“Seen young blighted Albert anywhere, Freddy?”
It was in this shameful manner that that master-mind was habitually referred to belowstairs.
“Seen ’im going into the scullery not ’arf a minute ago,” replied Freddy.
“So long!” said Freddy.
“Be good!” returned Keggs, whose mode of speech among those of his own world differed substantially from that which he considered it became him to employ when conversing with the titled.
The fall of great men is but too often due to the failure of their miserable bodies to give the necessary support to their great brains. There are some, for example, who say that Napoleon would have won the battle of Waterloo if he had not had dyspepsia. Not otherwise was it with Albert on that present occasion. The arrival of Keggs found him at a disadvantage. He had been imprudent enough, on leaving George, to endeavor to smoke a cigar, purloined from the box which stood hospitably open on a table in the hall. But for this, who knows with what cunning counterattacks he might have foiled the butler’s onslaught? As it was, the battle was a walk-over for the enemy.
“I’ve been looking for you, young blighted Albert!” said Keggs coldly.
Albert turned a green but defiant face to the foe.
“Go and boil yer ’ead!” he advised.
“Never mind about my ’ead. If I was to do my duty by you, I’d give you a clip side of your ’ead, that’s what I’d do.”
“And then bury it out in the woods,” added Albert, wincing as the consequences of his rash act swept through his small form like some nauseous tidal wave. He shut his eyes. It upset him to see Keggs shimmering like that. A shimmering butler is an awful sight.
Keggs laughed a hard laugh.
“You and your cousins from America!”
“What about my cousins from America?”
“Yes, what about them? That’s just what Lord Belpher and me have been asking ourselves.”
“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”
“You soon will, young blighted Albert! Who sneaked that American fellow into the ’ouse to meet Lady Maud?”
“Think I didn’t see through your little game? Why, I knew from the first.”
“Yes, you did! Then why did you let him into the place?”
Keggs snorted triumphantly.
“There! You admit it! It was that feller!”
Too late Albert saw his false move, a move which, in a normal state of health, he would have scorned to make. Just as Napoleon, minus a stomachache, would have scorned the blunder that sent his cuirassiers plunging to destruction in the sunken road.
“I don’t know what you’re torkin’ about,” he said weakly.
“Well,” said Keggs, “I ’aven’t time to stand ’ere chatting with you. I must be going back to ’is lordship, to tell ’im of the ’orrid trick you played on him.”
A second spasm shook Albert to the core of his being. The double assault was too much for him. Betrayed by the body, the spirit yielded.
“You wouldn’t do that, Mr. Keggs!”
There was a white flag in every syllable.
“I would, if I did my duty.”
“But you don’t care about that,” urged Albert ingratiatingly.
“I’ll ’ave to think it over,” mused Keggs. “I don’t want to be ’ard on a young boy.” He struggled silently with himself. “Ruinin’ ’is prospecks!” An inspiration seemed to come to him. “All right, young blighted Albert,” he said briskly. “I’ll go against my better nature this once and chance it.
“And now, young feller me lad, you just ’and over that ticket of yours! You know what I’m alloodin’ to! That ticket you ’ad at the sweep, the one with ‘Mr. X’ on it.”
Albert’s indomitable spirit triumphed for a moment over his stricken body.
“That’s likely, ain’t it!”
Keggs sighed—the sigh of a good man who has done his best to help a fellow being and has been baffled by the other’s perversity.
“Just as you please,” he said sorrowfully. “But I did ’ope I shouldn’t ’ave to go to ’is lordship and tell ’im ’ow you’ve deceived him.”
“ ’Ere you are!” A piece of paper changed hands. “It’s men like you wot lead to ’arf the crime in the country!”
“Much obliged, me lad.”
“You’d walk a mile in the snow, you would,” continued Albert, pursuing his train of thought, “to rob a starving beggar of a ’alfpenny!”
“Who’s robbing anyone? Don’t you talk so quick, young man. I’m going to do the right thing by you. You can ’ave my ticket marked ‘Reggie Byng.’ It’s a fair exchange, and no one the worse.”
“Fat lot of good that is!”
“That’s as it may be. Anyhow, there it is.” Keggs prepared to withdraw. “You’re too young to ’ave all that money, Albert. You wouldn’t know what to do with it. It wouldn’t make you ’appy. There’s other things in the world besides winning sweepstakes. And, properly speaking, you ought never to have been allowed to draw at all, being so young.”
Albert groaned hollowly.
“When you’ve finished torkin’ I wish you’d kindly ’ave the goodness to leave me alone. I’m not myself.”
“That,” said Keggs cordially, “is a bit of luck for you, my boy. Accept my ’eartiest felicitations!”
Defeat is the test of the great man. Your true general is not he who rides to triumph on the tide of an easy victory, but the one who, when crushed to earth, can bend himself to the task of planning methods of rising again. Such a one was Albert, the page boy. Observe Albert in his attic bedroom scarcely more than an hour later. His body has practically ceased to trouble him, and his soaring spirit has come into its own again. With the exception of a now very occasional spasm, his physical anguish has passed, and he is thinking, thinking hard. On the chest of drawers is a grubby envelope, addressed in an ill-formed hand to
R. Byng, Esq.
On a sheet of paper, soon to be placed in the envelope, are written in the same hand these words:
Do not dispare! Remember! Fante hart never won fair lady. I shall watch your futur progres with considurable interest.
The last sentence is not original. Albert’s Sunday-school teacher said it to Albert on the occasion of his taking up his duties at the castle, and it stuck in his memory—fortunately, for it expressed exactly what Albert wished to say. From now on Reggie Byng’s progress with Lady Maud Marsh was to be the thing nearest to Albert’s heart.
And George meanwhile? Little knowing how fate has changed in a flash an ally into an opponent, he is standing at the edge of the shrubbery near the castle gate. The night is very beautiful; the barked spots on his hands and knees are hurting much less now, and he is full of long sweet thoughts. He has just discovered the extraordinary resemblance, which had not struck him as he was climbing up the knotted sheet, between his own position and that of the hero of Tennyson’s Maud, a poem to which he has always been peculiarly addicted, and never more so than during the days since he learned the name of the only possible girl. When he has not been playing golf, Tennyson’s Maud has been his constant companion.
Queen rose of the rosebud garden of girls,
Come hither, the dances are done,
In gloss of satin and glimmer of pearls,
Queen lily and rose in one;
Shine out, little head, sunning over with curls,
To the flowers, and be their sun.
The music from the ballroom flows out to him through the motionless air. The smell of sweet earth and growing things is everywhere.
Come into the garden, Maud,
For the black bat, night, has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud,
I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,
And the musk of the rose is blown.
He draws a deep breath, misled young man! The night is very beautiful. It is near to the dawn now and in the bushes live things are beginning to stir and whimper.
Surely she can hear him?
The silver stars looked down dispassionately. This sort of thing has no novelty for them.
LORD BELPHER’S twenty-first birthday dawned brightly, heralded in by much twittering of sparrows in the ivy outside his bedroom. These Percy did not hear, for he was a sound sleeper and had had a late night. The first sound that was able to penetrate his heavy slumber and rouse him to a realization that his birthday had arrived was the piercing cry of Reggie Byng on his way to the bathroom across the corridor. It was Reggie’s disturbing custom to urge himself on to a cold bath with encouraging yells; and the noise of this performance, followed by violent splashing and a series of sharp howls as the sponge played upon the Byng spine, made sleep an impossibility within a radius of many yards. Percy sat up in bed and cursed Reggie silently. He discovered that he had a headache.
Presently the door flew open, and the vocalist entered in person, clad in a pink bathrobe and very tousled and rosy from his tub.
“Many happy returns of the day, Boots old thing!”
Reggie burst rollickingly into song. He was not saddest when he sang. Others were.
I’m twenty-one to-day!
I’ve got the key of the door!
Never been twenty-one before!
And father says I can do what I like!
So shout Hip-hip-hooray!
I’m a jolly good fellow,
Lord Belpher scowled morosely.
“I wish you wouldn’t make that infernal noise!”
“What infernal noise?”
“This man has wounded me!” said Reggie.
“I’ve a headache.”
“I thought you would have, laddie, when I saw you getting away with the liquid last night. An X-ray photograph of your liver would show something like a crumpled oak-leaf studded with hobnails. You ought to take more exercise, dear heart. Except for sloshing that policeman, you haven’t done anything athletic for years.”
“I wish you wouldn’t harp on that affair!”
Reggie sat down on the bed.
“Between ourselves, old man,” he said confidentially, “I also, I myself, Reginald Byng, in person, was perhaps a shade polluted during the evening. I give you my honest word that just after dinner I saw three versions of your uncle, the bishop, standing in a row side by side. I tell you, laddie, that for a moment I thought I had strayed into a Bishop’s Beano at Exeter Hall, or the Athenæum, or wherever it is those chappies collect in gangs. Then the three bishops sort of congealed into one bishop, a trifle blurred about the outlines, and I felt relieved. But what convinced me that I had emptied a flagon or so too many was a rather rummy thing that occurred later on. Have you ever happened, during one of these feasts of reason and flows of soul, when you were bubbling over with joie de vivre—have you ever happened to see things? What I mean to say is, I had a deuced odd experience last night. I could have sworn that one of the waiter-chappies was that fellow who knocked off your hat in Piccadilly.”
Lord Belpher, who had sunk back onto the pillows at Reggie’s entrance and had been listening to his talk with only intermittent attention, shot up in bed.
“Absolutely! My mistake, of course, but there it was. The fellow might have been his double.”
“But you’ve never seen the man!”
“Oh, yes, I have. I forgot to tell you. I met him on the links yesterday. I’d gone out there alone, rather expecting to have a round with the pro., but finding this lad there, I suggested that we might go round together. We did eighteen holes, and he licked the boots off me. Very hot stuff he was. And after the game he took me off to his cottage and gave me a drink. He lives at the cottage next door to Platt’s farm, so, you observe, it was the identical chappie. We got extremely matey. Like brothers! Absolutely! So you can understand what a shock it gave me when I found what I took to be the same man serving bracers to the multitude the same evening. One of those nasty jars that cause a fellow’s head to swim a bit, don’t you know, and make him lose confidence in himself.”
Lord Belpher did not reply. His brain was whirling. So he had been right after all!
“You know,” pursued Reggie seriously, “I think you are making the bloomer of a lifetime over this hat-swatting chappie. You’ve misjudged him. He’s a first-rate sort, take it from me! Nobody could have got out of the bunker at the fifteenth hole better than he did. If you’ll take my advice you’ll conciliate the feller. A really first-class golfer is what you need in the family. Besides, even leaving out of the question the fact that he can do things with a niblick that I didn’t think anybody except a pro. could do, he’s a corking good sort. A stout fellow in every respect. I took to the chappie. He’s all right! Grab him, Boots, before he gets away, that’s my tip to you. You’ll never regret it! From first to last this lad didn’t foozle a single drive, and his approach-putting has to be seen to be believed. Well, got to dress, I suppose. Mustn’t waste life’s springtime sitting here talking to you. Toodle-oo, laddie! We shall meet anon!”
Lord Belpher leaped from his bed. He was feeling worse than ever now, and a glance into the mirror told him that he looked rather worse than he felt. Late nights and insufficient sleep, added to the need of a shave, always made him look like something that should have been swept up and taken away to the ashbin. And as for his physical condition, talking to Reggie Byng never tended to make you feel better when you had a headache. Reggie’s manner was not soothing, and on this particular morning his choice of a topic had been unusually irritating. Lord Belpher told himself that he could not understand Reggie. He had never been able to make his mind quite clear as to the exact relations between the latter and his sister Maud, but he had always been under the impression that, if they were not actually engaged, they were on the verge of becoming so, and it was maddening to have to listen to Reggie advocating the claims of a rival as if he had no personal interest in the affair at all. Percy felt for his complaisant friend something of the annoyance which a householder feels for the watchdog whom he finds fraternizing with the burglar. Why, Reggie, more than anyone else, ought to be foaming with rage at the insolence of this American fellow in coming down to Belpher and planting himself at the castle gates. Instead of which, on his own showing, he appeared to have adopted an attitude toward him which would have excited remark if adopted by David toward Jonathan. He seemed to spend all his spare time frolicking with the man on the golf links and hobnobbing with him in his house.
Lord Belpher was thoroughly upset. It was impossible to prove it or to do anything about it now, but he was convinced that the fellow had wormed his way into the castle in the guise of a waiter. He had probably met Maud and plotted further meetings with her.
One thing was certain, the family honor was in his hands. Anything that was to be done to keep Maud away from the intruder must be done by himself. Reggie was hopeless; he was capable, as far as Percy could see, of escorting Maud to the fellow’s door in his own car and leaving her on the threshold with his blessing. As for Lord Marshmoreton, roses and the family history took up so much of his time that he could not be counted on for anything but moral support. He, Percy, must do the active work.
He had just come to this decision when, approaching the window and gazing down into the grounds, he perceived his sister Maud walking rapidly, and—so it seemed to him—with a furtive air, down the east drive. And it was to the east that Platt’s farm and the cottage next door to it lay.
At the moment of this discovery Percy was in a costume ill adapted for the taking of country walks. Reggie’s remarks about his liver had struck home, and it had been his intention, by way of a corrective to his headache and a general feeling of swollen ill-health, to do a little work before his bath with a pair of Indian clubs. He had arrayed himself for this purpose in an old sweater, a pair of gray-flannel trousers and patent-leather evening shoes. It was not the garb he would have chosen himself for a ramble, but time was flying. Even to put on a pair of boots is a matter of minutes; and in another moment or two Maud would be out of sight. Percy ran downstairs, snatched up a soft shooting hat, which proved too late to belong to some person with a head two sizes smaller than his own, and raced out into the grounds. He was just in time to see Maud disappearing round the corner of the drive.
Lord Belpher had never belonged to that virile class of the community which considers running a pleasure and a pastime. At Oxford, on those occasions when the members of his college had turned out on raw afternoons to trot along the river bank encouraging the college eight with yelling and the swinging of police rattles, Percy had always stayed prudently in his rooms with tea and buttered toast, thereby avoiding who knows what colds and coughs. When he ran, he ran reluctantly and with a definite object in view, such as the catching of a train. He was consequently not in the best of condition, and the sharp sprint, which was imperative at this juncture if he was to keep his sister in view, left him spent and panting. But he had the reward of reaching the gates of the drive not many seconds after Maud, and of seeing her walking, more slowly now, down the road that led to Platt’s. This confirmation of his suspicions enabled him momentarily to forget the blister which was forming on the heel of his left foot. He set out after her at a good pace.
The road, after the habit of country roads, wound and twisted. The quarry was frequently out of sight, and Percy’s anxiety was such that, every time Maud vanished, he broke into a gallop. Another hundred yards, and the blister no longer consented to be ignored. It cried for attention like a little child, and was rapidly insinuating itself into a position in the scheme of things where it threatened to become the center of the world. By the time the third bend in the road was reached, it seemed to Percy that this blister had become the one great fact in an unreal and nightmarelike universe. He hobbled painfully; and when he stopped suddenly and darted back into the shelter of the hedge his foot seemed aflame. The only reason why the blister on his left heel did not at this juncture attract his entire attention was that he had become aware that there was another of equal proportions forming on his right heel.
Percy had stopped and sought cover in the hedge, because, as he rounded the bend in the road, he perceived, before he had time to check his gallop, that Maud also had stopped. She was standing in the middle of the road, looking over her shoulder, not ten yards away. Had she seen him? It was a point that time alone could solve. No! She walked on again. She had not seen him. Lord Belpher, by means of a notable triumph of mind over matter, forgot the blisters and hurried after her.
They had now reached that point in the road where three choices offer themselves to the wayfarer. By going straight on he may win through to the village of Moresby-in-the-Vale, a charming little place with a Norman church; by turning to the left he may visit the equally seductive hamlet of Little Weeting; by turning to the right off the main road and going down a leafy lane he may find himself at the door of Platt’s farm. When Maud, reaching the crossroads, suddenly swung down the one to the left, Lord Belpher was for the moment completely baffled. Reason reasserted its sway the next minute, telling him that this was but a ruse. Whether or not she had caught sight of him, there was no doubt that Maud intended to shake off any possible pursuit by taking this speciously innocent turning and making a detour. She could have no possible motive in going to Little Weeting. He had never been to Little Weeting in his life, and there was no reason to suppose that Maud had either.
The signpost informed him—a statement strenuously denied by the twin blisters—that the distance to Little Weeting was one and a half miles. Lord Belpher’s view of it was that it was nearer fifty. He dragged himself wearily along. It was simpler now to keep Maud in sight, for the road ran straight; but, there being a catch to everything in this world, the process was also messier. In order to avoid being seen, it was necessary for Percy to leave the road and tramp along in the deep ditch which ran parallel to it. There is nothing halfhearted about these ditches which accompany English country roads. They know they are intended to be ditches, not mere furrows, and they behave as such. The one that sheltered Lord Belpher was so deep that only his head and neck protruded above the level of the road, and so dirty that a bare twenty yards of travel was sufficient to coat him with mud. Rain, once fallen, is reluctant to leave the English ditch. It nestles inside it for weeks, forming a rich, oatmeallike substance which has to be stirred to be believed. Percy stirred it. He churned it. He plowed and sloshed through it. The mud stuck to him like a brother.
Nevertheless, being a determined young man, he did not give in. Once he lost a shoe, but a little searching recovered that. On another occasion a passing dog, seeing things going on in the ditch which in his opinion should not have been going on—he was a high-strung dog, unused to coming upon heads moving along the road without bodies attached—accompanied Percy for over a quarter of a mile, causing him exquisite discomfort by making sudden runs at his face. A well-aimed stone settled this little misunderstanding, and Percy proceeded on his journey alone. He had Maud well in view when, to his surprise, she left the road and turned into the gate of a house which stood not far from the church.
Lord Belpher regained the road and remained there, a puzzled man. A dreadful thought came to him, that he might have had all his trouble and anguish for no reason. This house bore the unmistakable stamp of a vicarage. Maud could have no reason that was not innocent for going there. Had he gone through all this merely to see his sister paying a visit to a clergyman? Too late it occurred to him that she might quite easily be on visiting terms with the clergy of Little Weeting. He had forgotten that he had been away at Oxford for many weeks, a period of time in which Maud, finding life in the country weigh upon her, might easily have interested herself charitably in the life of this village. He paused irresolutely. He was baffled.
Maud, meanwhile, had rung the bell. Ever since, looking over her shoulder, she had perceived her brother Percy dodging about in the background, her active young mind had been busying itself with schemes for throwing him off the trail. She must see George that morning. She could not wait another day before establishing communication between herself and Geoffrey. But it was not till she reached Little Weeting that there occurred to her any plan that promised success.
A trim maid opened the door.
“Is the vicar in?”
“No, miss. He went out half an hour back.”
Maud was as baffled for the moment as her brother Percy, now leaning against the vicarage wall in a state of advanced exhaustion.
“Oh, dear!” she said.
The maid was sympathetic.
“Mr. Ferguson, the curate, miss, he’s here, if he would do.”
“He would do splendidly. Will you ask him if I can see him for a moment.”
“Very well, miss. What name please?”
“He won’t know my name. Will you please tell him that a lady wishes to see him.”
“Yes, miss. Won’t you step in?”
The front door closed behind Maud. She followed the maid into the drawing-room. Presently a young, small curate entered. He had a willing, benevolent face. He looked alert and helpful.
“You wished to see me?”
“I am so sorry to trouble you,” said Maud, rocking the young man in his tracks with a smile of dazzling brilliancy, “but there is a man following me!”
The curate clicked his tongue indignantly.
“A rough sort of a tramp kind of man. He has been following me for miles and I’m frightened.”
“I think he’s outside now. I can’t think what he wants. Would you—would you mind being kind enough to go and send him away?”
The eyes that had settled George’s fate for all eternity flashed upon the curate, who blinked. He squared his shoulders and drew himself up. He was perfectly willing to die for her.
“If you will wait here,” he said, “I will go and send him about his business. It is disgraceful that the public highways should be rendered unsafe in this manner.”
“Thank you ever so much,” said Maud gratefully. “I can’t help thinking the poor fellow may be a little crazy. It seems so odd of him to follow me all that way, walking in the ditch too!”
“Walking in the ditch!”
“Yes. He walked most of the way in the ditch at the side of the road. He seemed to prefer it, I can’t think why.”
Lord Belpher, leaning against the wall and trying to decide whether his right or his left foot hurt him the more excruciatingly, became aware that a curate was standing before him, regarding him through a pair of gold-rimmed pince-nez with a disapproving and hostile expression. Lord Belpher returned his gaze. Neither was favorably impressed by the other. Percy thought he had seen nicer-looking curates, and the curate thought he had seen more prepossessing tramps.
“Come, come!” said the curate. “This won’t do, my man!”
A few hours earlier Lord Belpher had been startled when addressed by George as “sir.” To be called “my man” took his breath away completely.
The gift of seeing ourselves as others see us is, as the poet indicates, vouchsafed to few men. Lord Belpher, not being one of these fortunates, had not the slightest conception how intensely revolting his personal appearance was at that moment. The red-rimmed eyes, the growth of stubble on the cheeks, and the thick coating of mud which had resulted from his rambles in the ditch, combined to render him a horrifying object.
“How dare you follow that young lady? I’ve a good mind to give you in charge!”
Percy was outraged.
“I’m her brother!” He was about to substantiate the statement by giving his name, but stopped himself. He had had enough of letting his name come out on occasions like the present. When the policeman had arrested him in the Haymarket, his first act had been to thunder his identity at the man; and the policeman, without saying in so many words that he disbelieved him, had hinted skepticism by replying that he himself was the King of Brixton. “I’m her brother!” he repeated thickly.
The curate’s disapproval deepened. In a sense, we are all brothers; but that did not prevent him from considering that this mud-stained derelict had made an impudent and abominable misstatement of fact. Not unnaturally he came to the conclusion that he had to do with a victim of the demon rum.
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” he said severely. “Sad piece of human wreckage as you are, you speak like an educated man. Have you no self-respect? Do you never search your heart and shudder at the horrible degradation which you have brought on yourself by sheer weakness of will?”
He raised his voice. The subject of temperance was one very near to this curate’s heart. The vicar himself had complimented him only yesterday on the good his sermons against the drink evil were doing in the village, and the landlord of the Three Pigeons down the road had on several occasions spoken bitter things about blighters who came taking the living away from honest folks.
“It is easy enough to stop if you will but use a little resolution. You say to yourself, ‘Just one won’t hurt me!’ Perhaps not. But can you be content with just one? Ah! No, my man, there is no middle way for such as you. It must be all or nothing. Stop it now, now while you still retain some semblance of humanity. Soon it will be too late. Kill that craving! Stifle it! Strangle it! Make up your mind now—now—that not another drop of the accursed stuff shall pass your lips!”
The curate paused. He perceived that enthusiasm was leading him away from the main issue.
“A little perseverance,” he concluded rapidly, “and you will soon find that cocoa gives you exactly the same pleasure. And now will you please be getting along. You have frightened the young lady, and she cannot continue her walk unless I assure her that you have gone away.”
Fatigue, pain, and the annoyance of having to listen to this man’s well-meant but ill-judged utterances had combined to induce in Percy a condition bordering on hysteria. He stamped his foot, and uttered a howl as the blister warned him with a sharp twinge that this sort of behavior could not be permitted.
“Stop talking!” he bellowed. “Stop talking like an idiot! I’m going to stay here till that girl comes out if I have to wait all day!”
The curate regarded Percy thoughtfully.
Percy was no Hercules; but, then, neither was the curate. And in any case, though no Hercules, Percy was undeniably an ugly-looking brute. Strategy rather than force seemed to the curate to be indicated. He paused a while, as one who weighs pros and cons, then spoke briskly, with the air of the man who has decided to yield a point with a good grace.
“Dear, dear!” he said. “That won’t do! You say you are this lady’s brother?”
“Yes, I do!”
“Then perhaps you had better come with me into the house and we will speak to her.”
Percy followed him. Down the trim gravel walk they passed and up the neat stone steps. Maud, peeping through the curtains, thought herself the victim of a monstrous betrayal or equally monstrous blunder. But she did not know the Rev. Cyril Ferguson. No general, adroitly leading the enemy on by strategic retreat, ever had a situation more thoroughly in hand. Passing with his companion through the open door, he crossed the hall to another door, discreetly closed.
“Wait in here,” he said. Lord Belpher moved unsuspectingly forward. A hand pressed sharply against the small of his back. Behind him a door slammed and a key clicked—he was trapped. Groping in Egyptian darkness, his hands met a coat, then a hat, then an umbrella. Then he stumbled over a golf club and fell against the wall. It was too dark to see anything, but his sense of touch told him all he needed to know. He had been added to the vicar’s collection of odds and ends in the closet reserved for such things.
He groped his way to the door and kicked it. He did not repeat the performance. His feet were in no shape for kicking things.
Percy’s gallant soul abandoned the struggle. With a feeble oath he sat down on a box containing croquet implements and gave himself up to thought.
“You will be quite safe now,” the curate was saying in the adjoining room, not without a touch of complacent self-approval such as becomes the victor in a battle of wits. “I have locked him in the cupboard. He will be quite happy there.” An incorrect statement, this. “You may now continue your walk in perfect safety.”
“Thank you ever so much,” said Maud. “But I do hope he won’t be violent when you let him out.”
“I shall not let him out,” replied the curate, who, though brave, was not rash. “I shall depute the task to a worthy fellow named Willis, in whom I have every confidence. He—he is, in fact, our local blacksmith!”
And so it came about that when, after a vigil that seemed to last for a lifetime, Percy heard the key turn in the lock and burst forth seeking whom he might devour, he experienced an almost instant quieting of his excited nervous system. Confronting him was a vast man whose muscles, like those of that other and more celebrated village blacksmith, were plainly as strong as iron bands.
This man eyed Percy with a chilly eye.
“Well?” he said. “What’s troublin’ you?”
Percy gulped. The man’s mere appearance was a sedative.
“Er—nothing!” he replied. “Nothing!”
“There better hadn’t be!” said the man darkly. “Mr. Ferguson give me this to give to you. Take it!”
Percy took it. It was a shilling.
The second gift was a small paper pamphlet. It was entitled Now’s the Time! and seemed to be a story of some kind. At any rate, Percy’s eyes, before they began to swim in a manner that prevented steady reading, caught the words “Job Roberts had always been a hard-drinking man, but one day, as he was coming out of the bar parlor . . . ” He was about to hurl it from him when he met the other’s eye and desisted. Rarely had Lord Belpher encountered a man with a more speaking eye.
“And now you get along,” said the man. “You pop off. And I’m going to watch you do it too. And if I find you sneakin’ off to the Three Pigeons ——”
His pause was more eloquent than his speech and nearly as eloquent as his eye. Lord Belpher tucked the tract into his sweater, pocketed the shilling and left the house. For nearly a mile down the well-remembered highway he was aware of a presence in his rear, but he continued on his way without a glance behind.
Like one that on a lonely road
Doth walk in fear and dread;
And, having once looked back, walks on
And turns no more his head:
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread!
Maud made her way across the fields to the cottage down by Platt’s. Her heart was as light as the breeze that ruffled the green hedges. Gayly she tripped toward the cottage door. Her hand was just raised to knock, when from within came the sound of a well-known voice.
She had reached her goal, but her father had anticipated her. Lord Marshmoreton had selected the same moment as herself for paying a call upon George Bevan.
Maud tiptoed away and hurried back to the castle. Never before had she so clearly realized what a handicap an adhesive family can be to a young girl.
AT THE moment of Lord Marshmoreton’s arrival George was reading a letter from Billie Dore, which had come by that morning’s post. It dealt mainly with the vicissitudes experienced by Miss Dore’s friend, Miss Sinclair, in her relations with the man Spenser Gray. Spenser Gray, it seemed, had been behaving oddly. Ardent toward Miss Sinclair to almost an embarrassing point in the earlier stages of their acquaintance, he had suddenly cooled; at a recent lunch had behaved with a strange aloofness; and now, at this writing, had vanished altogether, leaving nothing behind him but an abrupt note to the effect that he had been compelled to go abroad, and that, much as it was to be regretted, he and she would probably never meet again.
“And if,” wrote Miss Dore, justifiably annoyed, “after saying all those things to the poor kid and telling her she was the only thing in sight, he thinks he can just slide off with a ‘Good-by! Good luck! and God bless you!’ he’s got another guess coming. And that’s not all. He hasn’t gone abroad! I saw him in Piccadilly this afternoon. He saw me, too; and what do you think he did? Ducked down a side street, if you please! He must have run like a rabbit at that, because when I got there he was nowhere to be seen. I tell you, George, there’s something funny about all this.”
Having been made once or twice before the confidant of the tempestuous romances of Billie’s friends, which always seemed to go wrong somewhere in the middle and to die a natural death before arriving at any definite point, George was not particularly interested, except in so far as the letter afforded rather comforting evidence that he was not the only person in the world who was having trouble of the kind. He skimmed through the rest of it, and had just finished when there was a sharp rap at the front door.
“Come in!” called George.
There entered a sturdy little man of middle age whom at first sight George could not place, and yet he had the impression that he had seen him before. Then he recognized him as the gardener to whom he had given the note for Maud that day at the castle. The alteration in the man’s costume was what had momentarily baffled George. When they had met in the rose garden the other had been arrayed in untidy gardening clothes. Now, presumably in his Sunday suit, it was amusing to observe how almost dapper he had become. Really you might have passed him in the lane and taken him for some neighboring squire.
George’s heart raced. Your lover is ever optimistic, and he could conceive of no errand that could have brought this man to his cottage unless he was charged with the delivery of a note from Maud. He spared a moment from his happiness to congratulate himself on having picked such an admirable go-between. Here evidently was one of those trusty old retainers you read about, faithful, willing, discreet, ready to do anything for “the little missy—bless her little heart!” Probably he had danced Maud on his knee in her infancy, and with a doglike affection had watched her at her childish sports. George beamed at the honest fellow, and felt in his pocket to make sure that a suitable tip lay safely therein.
“Good morning,” he said.
“Good morning,” replied the man.
A purist might have said that he spoke gruffly and without geniality; but that is the beauty of these old retainers. They make a point of deliberately trying to deceive strangers as to the goldenness of their hearts by adopting a forbidding manner. And “Good morning!” Not “Good morning, sir!” Sturdy independence, you observe, as befits a free man.
George closed the door carefully. He glanced into the kitchen. Mrs. Platt was not there. All was well.
“You have brought a note from Lady Maud?”
The honest fellow’s rather dour expression seemed to grow a shade bleaker.
“If you are alluding to Lady Maud Marsh, my daughter,” he replied frostily, “I have not!”
For the past few days George had been no stranger to shocks, and had indeed come almost to regard them as part of the normal everyday life; but this latest one had a stunning effect.
“I beg your pardon?” he said.
“So you ought to!” replied the earl.
George swallowed once or twice to relieve a curious dryness of the mouth.
“Are you Lord Marshmoreton?”
“You seem surprised.”
“It’s nothing!” muttered George. “At least, you—I mean to say—it’s only that there’s a curious resemblance between you and one of your gardeners at the castle. I—I dare say you have noticed it yourself.”
“My hobby is gardening.”
Light broke upon George. “Then was it really you ——”
George sat down. “This opens up a new line of thought!” he said.
Lord Marshmoreton remained standing. He shook his head sternly.
“It won’t do, Mr. —— I have never heard your name.”
“Bevan,” replied George, rather relieved at being able to remember it in the midst of his mental turmoil.
“It won’t do, Mr. Bevan. It must stop. I allude to this absurd entanglement between yourself and my daughter. It must stop at once.”
It seemed to George that such an entanglement could hardly be said to have begun, but he did not say so.
Lord Marshmoreton resumed his remarks. Lady Caroline had sent him to the cottage to be stern, and his firm resolve to be stern lent his style of speech something of the measured solemnity and careful phrasing of his occasional orations in the House of Lords.
“I have no wish to be unduly hard upon the indiscretions of youth. Youth is the period of romance, when the heart rules the head. I myself was once a young man.”
“Well, you’re practically that now,” said George.
“Eh?” cried Lord Marshmoreton, forgetting the thread of his discourse in the shock of pleased surprise.
“You don’t look a day over forty!”
“Oh, come, come, my boy—I mean, Mr. Bevan!”
“You don’t, honestly!”
“The prime of life!”
“And you don’t think I look it?”
“You certainly don’t.”
“Well, well, well! By the way, have you tobacco, my boy? I came out without my pouch.”
“Just at your elbow. Pretty good stuff. I bought it in the village.”
“The same I smoke myself!”
“Quite a coincidence.”
“Thank you, I have one.”
George filled his own pipe. The thing was becoming a love feast.
“What was I saying?” said Lord Marshmoreton, blowing a comfortable cloud. “Oh, yes!” He removed his pipe from his mouth with a touch of embarrassment. “Yes, yes, to be sure!”
There was an awkward silence.
“You must see for yourself,” said the earl, “how impossible it is.”
George shook his head.
“I may be slow at grasping a thing, but I’m bound to say I can’t see that.”
Lord Marshmoreton recalled some of the things his sister had told him to say.
“For one thing, what do we know of you? You are a perfect stranger.”
“Well, we’re all getting acquainted pretty quick, don’t you think? I met your son in Piccadilly and had a long talk with him, and now you are paying me a neighborly visit.”
“This was not intended to be a social call.”
“But it has become one.”
“And then—that is one point I wish to make, you know—ours is an old family. I would like to remind you that there were Marshmoretons in Belpher before the Wars of the Roses.”
“There were Bevans in Brooklyn before the B. R. T.”
“I never heard of Brooklyn.”
“You’ve heard of New York?”
“New York’s one of the outlying suburbs.”
Lord Marshmoreton relit his pipe. He had a feeling that they were wandering from the point.
“It is quite impossible!”
“I can’t see it.”
“Maud is so young.”
“Your daughter could not be anything else.”
“Too young to know her own mind,” pursued Lord Marshmoreton, resolutely crushing down a flutter of pleasure. There was no doubt that this singularly agreeable young man was making things very difficult for him. It was disarming to discover that he was really capital company, the best, indeed, that the earl could remember to have discovered in the more recent period of his rather lonely life.
“At present, of course, she fancies that she is very much in love with you. It is absurd!”
“You needn’t tell me that,” said George. Really, it was only the fact that people seemed to go out of their way to call at his cottage and tell him that Maud loved him that kept him from feeling his cause perfectly hopeless. “It’s incredible! It’s a miracle!”
“You are a romantic young man, and you no doubt for the moment suppose that you are in love with her.”
“No!” George was not going to allow a remark like that to pass unchallenged. “You are wrong there. As far as I am concerned, there is no question of its being momentary or supposititious or anything of that kind. I am in love with your daughter. I was from the first moment I saw her. I always shall be. She is the only girl in the world!”
“Stuff and nonsense!”
“Not at all! Absolute cold fact!”
“You have known her so little time.”
Lord Marshmoreton sighed.
“You are upsetting things terribly.”
“Things are upsetting me terribly.”
“You are causing a great deal of trouble and annoyance.”
“So did Romeo.”
“I said, so did Romeo.”
“I don’t know anything about Romeo.”
“As far as love is concerned, I begin where he left off.”
“I wish I could persuade you to be sensible.”
“That’s just what I think I am.”
“I wish I could get you to see my point of view.”
“I do see your point of view—but dimly. You see, my own takes up such a lot of the foreground.”
There was a pause.
“Then I am afraid,” said Lord Marshmoreton, “that we must leave matters as they stand.”
“Until they can be altered for the better.”
“We will say no more about it now.”
“But I must ask you to understand clearly that I shall have to do everything in my power to stop what I look on as an unfortunate entanglement.”
Lord Marshmoreton coughed. George looked at him with some surprise. He had supposed the interview to be at an end, but the other made no move to go. There seemed to be something on the earl’s mind.
“There is—ah—just one other thing,” said Lord Marshmoreton. He coughed again. He felt embarrassed. “Just—just one other thing,” he repeated.
The reason for Lord Marshmoreton’s visit to George had been twofold. In the first place, Lady Caroline had told him to go. That would have been reason enough. But what made the visit imperative was an unfortunate accident of which he had only that morning been made aware.
It will be remembered that Billie Dore had told George that the gardener with whom she had become so friendly had taken her name and address with a view later on to sending her some of his roses. The scrap of paper on which this information had been written was now lost. Lord Marshmoreton had been hunting for it since breakfast without avail.
Billie Dore had made a decided impression upon Lord Marshmoreton. She belonged to a type which he had never before encountered, and it was one which he had found more than agreeable. Her knowledge of roses and the proper feeling which she manifested toward rose growing as a life work consolidated the earl’s liking for her. Never in his memory had he come across so sensible and charming a girl; and he had looked forward with a singular intensity to meeting her again. And now some too zealous housemaid, tidying up after the irritating manner of her species, had destroyed the only clew to her identity.
It was not for some time after this discovery that hope dawned again for Lord Marshmoreton. Only after he had given up the search for the missing paper as fruitless did he recall that it was in George’s company that Billie had first come into his life. Between her, then, and himself George was the only link.
It was primarily for the purpose of getting Billie’s name and address from George that he had come to the cottage. And now that the moment had arrived for touching upon the subject, he felt a little embarrassed.
“When you visited the castle,” he said—“when you visited the castle ——”
“Last Thursday,” said George helpfully.
“Exactly. When you visited the castle last Thursday, there was a young lady with you.”
Not realizing that the subject had been changed, George was under the impression that the other had shifted his front and was about to attack him from another angle. He countered stoutly what seemed to him an insinuation:
“We merely happened to meet at the castle. She came there quite independently of me.”
Lord Marshmoreton looked alarmed.
“You didn’t know her?” he said anxiously.
“Certainly I knew her. She is an old friend of mine. But if you are hinting ——”
“Not at all,” rejoined the earl, profoundly relieved. “Not at all. I ask merely because this young lady, with whom I had some conversation, was good enough to give me her name and address. She, too, happened to mistake me for a gardener.”
“It’s those corduroy trousers,” murmured George in extenuation.
“I have unfortunately lost them.”
“You can always get another pair.”
“I say you can always get another pair of corduroy trousers.”
“I have not lost my trousers, I have lost the young lady’s name and address.”
“I promised to send her some roses. She will be expecting them.”
“That’s odd; I was just reading a letter from her when you came in. That must be what she’s referring to when she says: ‘If you see dadda, the old dear, tell him not to forget my roses.’ I read it three times and couldn’t make any sense of it. Are you Dadda?”
The earl smirked.
“She did address me in the course of our conversation as ‘dadda.’ ”
“Then the message is for you.”
“A very quaint and charming girl. What is her name? And where can I find her?”
“Her name’s Billie Dore.”
“Billie!” said Lord Marshmoreton softly. “I had better write it down. And her address?”
“I don’t know her private address. But you could always reach her at the Regal Theater.”
“Ah! She is on the stage?”
“Yes, she’s in my piece, Follow the Girl.”
“Indeed! Are you a playwright, Mr. Bevan?”
“Good Lord, no!” said George, shocked. “I’m a composer.”
“Very interesting. And you met Miss Dore through her being in this play of yours?”
“Oh, no, I knew her before she went on the stage. She was a stenographer in a music publisher’s office when we first met.”
“Good gracious! Was she really a stenographer?”
“Oh—ah—nothing, nothing. Something just happened to come into my mind.”
What had happened to come into Lord Marshmoreton’s mind was a fleeting vision of Billie Dore installed in Miss Alice Faraday’s place as his secretary. With such a helper it would be a pleasure to work on that infernal family history which was now such a bitter toil. But the daydream passed. He knew perfectly well that he had not the courage to dismiss Alice. In the hands of that calm-eyed girl he was as putty. She exercised over him the hypnotic spell a lion tamer exercises over his little playmates.
“We have been pals for years,” said George. “Billie is one of the best fellows in the world.”
“A charming girl.”
“She would give her last nickel to anyone that asked for it.”
“And as straight as a string! No one ever said a word against Billie.”
“She may go out to lunch and supper and all that kind of thing, but there’s nothing to that.”
“Nothing!” agreed the earl warmly. “Girls must eat!”
“They do. You ought to see them!”
“A little harmless relaxation after the fatigue of the day!”
“Exactly. Nothing more.”
Lord Marshmoreton felt more drawn than ever to this sensible young man, sensible, at least, on all points but one. It was a pity they could not see eye to eye on what was and what was not suitable in the matter of the love affairs of the aristocracy.
“So you are a composer, Mr. Bevan?” he said affably.
Lord Marshmoreton gave a little sigh.
“It’s a long time since I went to see a musical performance—more than twenty years. When I was up at Oxford, and for some years afterward, I was a great theatergoer. Never used to miss a first night at the Gaiety. Those were the days of Nelly Farren and Kate Vaughan. Florence St. John too. How excellent she was in Faust Up to Date! But we missed Nelly Farren. Meyer Lutz was the Gaiety composer then. But a good deal of water has flowed under the bridge since those days. I don’t suppose you have ever heard of Meyer Lutz?”
“I don’t think I have.”
“Johnnie Toole was playing a piece called Partners—not a good play. And the Yeomen of the Guard had just been produced at the Savoy. That makes it seem a long time ago, doesn’t it? Well, I mustn’t take up all your time. Good-by, Mr. Bevan. I am glad to have had the opportunity of this little talk. The Regal Theater I think you said is where your piece is playing? I shall probably be going to London shortly. I hope to see it.” Lord Marshmoreton rose. “As regards that other matter, there is no hope of inducing you to see the matter in the right light?”
“We seem to disagree as to which is the right light.”
“Then there is nothing more to be said. I will be perfectly frank with you, Mr. Bevan. I like you.”
“The feeling is quite mutual.”
“But I don’t want you as a son-in-law. And, dammit!” exploded Lord Marshmoreton, “I won’t have you as a son-in-law! Do you think that you can harry and assault my son Percy in the heart of Piccadilly, and generally make yourself a damned nuisance, and then settle down here, without an invitation, at my very gates and expect to be welcomed into the bosom of the family? If I were a young man ——”
“I thought we had agreed that you were a young man.”
“Don’t interrupt me!”
“I only said ——”
“I heard what you said. Flattery!”
“Nothing of the kind. Truth.”
Lord Marshmoreton melted. He smiled.
“We agree there all right.”
Lord Marshmoreton hesitated. Then with a rush he unbosomed himself, and made his own position in the matter clear.
“I know what you’ll be saying to yourself the moment my back is turned. You’ll be calling me a stage heavy father and an old snob and a number of other things. Don’t interrupt me, dammit! You will, I tell you! And you’ll be wrong. I don’t think the Marshmoretons are fenced off from the rest of the world by some sort of divinity. My sister does. Percy does. But Percy’s an ass! If ever you find yourself thinking differently from my son Percy on any subject, congratulate yourself. You’ll be right!”
“I know what you’re going to say. Let me finish. If I were the only person concerned I wouldn’t stand in Maud’s way, whoever she wanted to marry, provided he was a good fellow and likely to make her happy. But I’m not. There’s my sister Caroline. There’s a whole crowd of silly, cackling fools—my sisters, my sons-in-law, all the whole pack of them! If I didn’t oppose Maud in this damned infatuation she’s got for you—if I stood by and let her marry you—what do you think would happen to me? I’d never have a moment’s peace! The whole gabbling pack of them would be at me, saying I was to blame. There would be arguments, discussions, family councils! I hate arguments! I loathe discussions! Family councils make me sick! I’m a peaceable man and I like a quiet life! And, damme, I’m going to have it! So there’s the thing for you in letters of one syllable. I don’t object to you personally, but I’m not going to have you bothering me. I’ll admit freely that since I have made your acquaintance I have altered the unfavorable opinion I had formed of you from—from hearsay ——”
“Exactly the same with me,” said George. “You ought never to believe what people tell you. Everyone told me your middle name was Nero, and that ——”
“Don’t interrupt me!”
“I wasn’t. I was just pointing out ——”
“Be quiet! I say I have changed my opinion of you to a great extent. I mention this unofficially, as a matter that has no bearing on the main issue; for as regards any idea you may have of inducing me to agree to your marrying my daughter, let me tell you I am unalterably opposed to any such thing!”
“Don’t say that.”
“What the devil do you mean—don’t say that! I do say that! It is out of the question. Do you understand? Very well then. Good morning.”
The door closed. Lord Marshmoreton walked away feeling that he had been commendably stern. George filled his pipe and sat smoking. He wondered what Maud was doing at that moment.
Maud at that moment was greeting her brother with a bright smile as he limped downstairs after a belated shave and change of costume.
“Oh, Percy dear,” she was saying, “I had quite an adventure this morning. An awful tramp followed me for miles—such a horrible-looking brute! I was so frightened that I had to ask the curate in the next village to drive him away. I did wish I had had you there to protect me! Why don’t you come with me sometimes when I take a country walk? It really isn’t safe for me to be alone!”
(to be continued)
Note: Thanks to Neil Midkiff for providing the transcription and images for this story.