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A Damsel in Distress by Pelham Grenville Wodehouse

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George gave himself up to glowing thoughts. For the first time in
his life he seemed to be vividly aware of his own existence. It
was as if he were some newly-created thing. Everything around him
and everything he did had taken on a strange and novel interest. He
seemed to notice the ticking of the clock for the first time. When
he raised his glass the action had a curious air of newness. All
his senses were oddly alert. He could even--

"How would it be," enquired Reggie, appearing in the doorway like
part of a conjuring trick, "if I gave her a flower or two every now
and then? Just thought of it as I was starting the car. She's fond
of flowers."

"Fine!" said George heartily. He had not heard a word. The
alertness of sense which had come to him was accompanied by a
strange inability to attend to other people's speech. This would no
doubt pass, but meanwhile it made him a poor listener.

"Well, it's worth trying," said Reggie. "I'll give it a whirl.
Toodleoo!"

"Good-bye."

"Pip-pip!"

Reggie withdrew, and presently came the noise of the car starting.
George returned to his thoughts.

Time, as we understand it, ceases to exist for a man in such
circumstances. Whether it was a minute later or several hours,
George did not know; but presently he was aware of a small boy
standing beside him--a golden-haired boy with blue eyes, who wore
the uniform of a page. He came out of his trance. This, he
recognized, was the boy to whom he had given the note for Maud. He
was different from any other intruder. He meant something in
George's scheme of things.

"'Ullo!" said the youth.

"Hullo, Alphonso!" said George.

"My name's not Alphonso."

"Well, you be very careful or it soon may be."

"Got a note for yer. From Lidy Mord."

"You'll find some cake and ginger-ale in the kitchen," said the
grateful George. "Give it a trial."

"Not 'arf!" said the stripling.

CHAPTER 11.

George opened the letter with trembling and reverent fingers.

"DEAR MR. BEVAN,

"Thank you ever so much for your note, which Albert gave
to me. How very, very kind. . ."

"Hey, mister!"

George looked up testily. The boy Albert had reappeared.

"What's the matter? Can't you find the cake?"

"I've found the kike," rejoined Albert, adducing proof of the
statement in the shape of a massive slice, from which he took a
substantial bite to assist thought. "But I can't find the ginger
ile."

George waved him away. This interruption at such a moment was
annoying.

"Look for it, child, look for it! Sniff after it! Bay on its trail!
It's somewhere about."

"Wri'!" mumbled Albert through the cake. He flicked a crumb off his
cheek with a tongue which would have excited the friendly interest
of an ant-eater. "I like ginger-ile."

"Well, go and bathe in it."

"Wri'!"

George returned to his letter.

"DEAR MR. BEVAN,

"Thank you ever so much for your note, which Albert gave
to me. How very, very kind of you to come here like this and
to say . . .

"Hey, mister!"

"Good Heavens!" George glared. "What's the matter now? Haven't you
found that ginger-ale yet?"

"I've found the ginger-ile right enough, but I can't find the
thing."

"The thing? What thing?"

"The thing. The thing wot you open ginger-ile with."

"Oh, you mean the thing? It's in the middle drawer of the dresser.
Use your eyes, my boy!"

"Wri'".

George gave an overwrought sigh and began the letter again.

"DEAR MR. BEVAN,

"Thank you ever so much for your note which Albert gave
to me. How very, very kind of you to come here like this and
to say that you would help me. And how clever of you to
find me after I was so secretive that day in the cab! You
really can help me, if you are willing. It's too long to
explain in a note, but I am in great trouble, and there is
nobody except you to help me. I will explain everything
when I see you. The difficulty will be to slip away from
home. They are watching me every moment, I'm afraid. But I
will try my hardest to see you very soon.
Yours sincerely,
"MAUD MARSH."

Just for a moment it must be confessed, the tone of the letter
damped George. He could not have said just what he had expected,
but certainly Reggie's revelations had prepared him for something
rather warmer, something more in the style in which a girl would
write to the man she loved. The next moment, however, he saw how
foolish any such expectation had been. How on earth could any
reasonable man expect a girl to let herself go at this stage of the
proceedings? It was for him to make the first move. Naturally she
wasn't going to reveal her feelings until he had revealed his.

George raised the letter to his lips and kissed it vigorously.

"Hey, mister!"

George started guiltily. The blush of shame overspread his cheeks.
The room seemed to echo with the sound of that fatuous kiss.

"Kitty, Kitty, Kitty!" he called, snapping his fingers, and
repeating the incriminating noise. "I was just calling my cat," he
explained with dignity. "You didn't see her in there, did you?"

Albert's blue eyes met his in a derisive stare. The lid of the left
one fluttered. It was but too plain that Albert was not convinced.

"A little black cat with white shirt-front," babbled George
perseveringly. "She's usually either here or there, or--or
somewhere. Kitty, Kitty, Kitty!"

The cupid's bow of Albert's mouth parted. He uttered one word.

"Swank!"

There was a tense silence. What Albert was thinking one cannot say.
The thoughts of Youth are long, long thoughts. What George was
thinking was that the late King Herod had been unjustly blamed for
a policy which had been both statesmanlike and in the interests of
the public. He was blaming the mawkish sentimentality of the modern
legal system which ranks the evisceration and secret burial of
small boys as a crime.

"What do you mean?"

"You know what I mean."

"I've a good mind to--"

Albert waved a deprecating hand.

"It's all right, mister. I'm yer friend."

"You are, are you? Well, don't let it about. I've got a reputation
to keep up."

"I'm yer friend, I tell you. I can help yer. I want to help yer!"

George's views on infanticide underwent a slight modification.
After all, he felt, much must be excused to Youth. Youth thinks it
funny to see a man kissing a letter. It is not funny, of course; it
is beautiful; but it's no good arguing the point. Let Youth have
its snigger, provided, after it has finished sniggering, it intends
to buckle to and be of practical assistance. Albert, as an ally,
was not to be despised. George did not know what Albert's duties as
a page-boy were, but they seemed to be of a nature that gave him
plenty of leisure and freedom; and a friendly resident of the
castle with leisure and freedom was just what he needed.

"That's very good of you," he said, twisting his reluctant
features into a fairly benevolent smile.

"I can 'elp!" persisted Albert. "Got a cigaroot?"

"Do you smoke, child?"

"When I get 'old of a cigaroot I do."

"I'm sorry I can't oblige you. I don't smoke cigarettes."

"Then I'll 'ave to 'ave one of my own," said Albert moodily.

He reached into the mysteries of his pocket and produced a piece of
string, a knife, the wishbone of a fowl, two marbles, a crushed
cigarette, and a match. Replacing the string, the knife, the
wishbone and the marbles, he ignited the match against the tightest
part of his person and lit the cigarette.

"I can help yer. I know the ropes."

"And smoke them," said George, wincing.

"Pardon?"

"Nothing."

Albert took an enjoyable whiff.

"I know all about yer."

"You do?"

"You and Lidy Mord."

"Oh, you do, do you?"

"I was listening at the key-'ole while the row was goin' on."

"There was a row, was there?"

A faint smile of retrospective enjoyment lit up Albert's face. "An
orful row! Shoutin' and yellin' and cussin' all over the shop.
About you and Lidy Maud."

"And you drank it in, eh?"

"Pardon?"

"I say, you listened?"

"Not 'arf I listened. Seeing I'd just drawn you in the sweepstike,
of course, I listened--not 'arf!"

George did not follow him here.

"The sweepstike? What's a sweepstike?"

"Why, a thing you puts names in 'ats and draw 'em and the
one that gets the winning name wins the money."

"Oh, you mean a sweepstake!"

"That's wot I said--a sweepstike."

George was still puzzled.

"But I don't understand. How do you mean you drew me in a
sweepstike--I mean a sweepstake? What sweepstake?"

"Down in the servants' 'all. Keggs, the butler, started it. I
'eard 'im say he always 'ad one every place 'e was in as a butler--
leastways, whenever there was any dorters of the 'ouse. There's
always a chance, when there's a 'ouse-party, of one of the dorters
of the 'ouse gettin' married to one of the gents in the party, so
Keggs 'e puts all of the gents' names in an 'at, and you pay five
shillings for a chance, and the one that draws the winning name
gets the money. And if the dorter of the 'ouse don't get married
that time, the money's put away and added to the pool for the next
'ouse-party."

George gasped. This revelation of life below stairs in the stately
homes of England took his breath away. Then astonishment gave way to
indignation.

"Do you mean to tell me that you--you worms--made Lady Maud
the--the prize of a sweepstake!"

Albert was hurt.

"Who're yer calling worms?"

George perceived the need of diplomacy. After all much depended on
this child's goodwill.

"I was referring to the butler--what's his name--Keggs."

"'E ain't a worm. 'E's a serpint." Albert drew at his cigarette.
His brow darkened. "'E does the drawing, Keggs does, and I'd like
to know 'ow it is 'e always manages to cop the fav'rit!"

Albert chuckled.

"But this time I done him proper. 'E didn't want me in the thing at
all. Said I was too young. Tried to do the drawin' without me.
'Clip that boy one side of the 'ead!' 'e says, 'and turn 'im out!'
'e says. I says, 'Yus, you will!' I says. 'And wot price me goin'
to 'is lordship and blowing the gaff?' I says. 'E says, 'Oh, orl
right!' 'e says. 'Ave it yer own way!' 'e says.

"'Where's yer five shillings?' 'e says. "Ere yer are!' I says.
'Oh, very well,' 'e says. 'But you'll 'ave to draw last,' 'e says,
'bein' the youngest.' Well, they started drawing the names,
and of course Keggs 'as to draw Mr. Byng."

"Oh, he drew Mr. Byng, did he?"

"Yus. And everyone knew Reggie was the fav'rit. Smiled all over his
fat face, the old serpint did! And when it come to my turn, 'e says
to me, 'Sorry, Elbert!' 'e says, 'but there ain't no more names.
They've give out!' 'Oh, they 'ave, 'ave they?' I says, 'Well, wot's
the matter with giving a fellow a sporting chance?' I says. 'Ow do
you mean?' 'e says. 'Why, write me out a ticket marked "Mr. X.",' I
says. 'Then, if 'er lidyship marries anyone not in the 'ouse-party,
I cop!' 'Orl right,' 'e says, 'but you know the conditions of this
'ere sweep. Nothin' don't count only wot tikes plice during the two
weeks of the 'ouse-party,' 'e says. 'Orl right,' I says. 'Write me
ticket. It's a fair sportin' venture.' So 'e writes me out me
ticket, with 'Mr. X.' on it, and I says to them all, I says, 'I'd
like to 'ave witnesses', I says, 'to this 'ere thing. Do all you
gents agree that if anyone not in the 'ouse-party and 'oo's name
ain't on one of the other tickets marries 'er lidyship, I get the
pool?' I says. They all says that's right, and then I says to 'em
all straight out, I says, 'I 'appen to know', I says, 'that 'er
lidyship is in love with a gent that's not in the party at all. An
American gent,' I says. They wouldn't believe it at first, but,
when Keggs 'ad put two and two together, and thought of one or two
things that 'ad 'appened, 'e turned as white as a sheet and said it
was a swindle and wanted the drawin' done over again, but the
others says 'No', they says, 'it's quite fair,' they says, and one
of 'em offered me ten bob slap out for my ticket. But I stuck to
it, I did. And that," concluded Albert throwing the cigarette into
the fire-place just in time to prevent a scorched finger, "that's
why I'm going to 'elp yer!"

There is probably no attitude of mind harder for the average man to
maintain than that of aloof disapproval. George was an average man,
and during the degrading recital just concluded he had found
himself slipping. At first he had been revolted, then, in spite of
himself, amused, and now, when all the facts were before him, he
could induce his mind to think of nothing else than his good
fortune in securing as an ally one who appeared to combine a
precocious intelligence with a helpful lack of scruple. War is war,
and love is love, and in each the practical man inclines to demand
from his fellow-workers the punch rather than a lofty soul. A page
boy replete with the finer feelings would have been useless in this
crisis. Albert, who seemed, on the evidence of a short but
sufficient acquaintance, to be a lad who would not recognize the
finer feelings if they were handed to him on a plate with
watercress round them, promised to be invaluable. Something in his
manner told George that the child was bursting with schemes for his
benefit.

"Have some more cake, Albert," he said ingratiatingly.

The boy shook his head.

"Do," urged George. "Just a little slice."

"There ain't no little slice," replied Albert with regret.
"I've ate it all." He sighed and resumed. "I gotta scheme!"

"Fine! What is it?"

Albert knitted his brows.

"It's like this. You want to see 'er lidyship, but you can't come
to the castle, and she can't come to you--not with 'er fat brother
dogging of 'er footsteps. That's it, ain't it? Or am I a liar?"

George hastened to reassure him.

"That is exactly it. What's the answer?"

"I'll tell yer wot you can do. There's the big ball tonight 'cos of
its bein' 'Is Nibs' comin'-of-age tomorrow. All the county'll be
'ere."

"You think I could slip in and be taken for a guest?"

Albert snorted contempt.

"No, I don't think nothin' of the kind, not bein' a fat-head."
George apologized. "But wot you could do's this. I 'eard Keggs
torkin to the 'ouse-keeper about 'avin' to get in a lot of temp'y
waiters to 'elp out for the night--"

George reached forward and patted Albert on the head.

"Don't mess my 'air, now," warned that youth coldly.

"Albert, you're one of the great thinkers of the age. I could get
into the castle as a waiter, and you could tell Lady Maud I was
there, and we could arrange a meeting. Machiavelli couldn't have
thought of anything smoother."

"Mac Who?"

"One of your ancestors. Great schemer in his day. But, one moment."

"Now what?"

"How am I to get engaged? How do I get the job?"

"That's orl right. I'll tell the 'ousekeeper you're my cousin--
been a waiter in America at the best restaurongs--'ome for a
'oliday, but'll come in for one night to oblige. They'll pay yer a
quid."

"I'll hand it over to you."

"Just," said Albert approvingly, "wot I was goin' to suggest
myself."

"Then I'll leave all the arrangements to you."

"You'd better, if you don't want to mike a mess of everything. All
you've got to do is to come to the servants' entrance at eight
sharp tonight and say you're my cousin."

"That's an awful thing to ask anyone to say."

"Pardon?"

"Nothing!" said George.

CHAPTER 12.

The great ball in honour of Lord Belpher's coming-of-age was at its
height. The reporter of the Belpher Intelligencer and Farmers'
Guide, who was present in his official capacity, and had been
allowed by butler Keggs to take a peep at the scene through a
side-door, justly observed in his account of the proceedings next
day that the 'tout ensemble was fairylike', and described the
company as 'a galaxy of fair women and brave men'. The floor was
crowded with all that was best and noblest in the county; so that a
half-brick, hurled at any given moment, must infallibly have spilt
blue blood. Peers stepped on the toes of knights; honorables bumped
into the spines of baronets. Probably the only titled person in the
whole of the surrounding country who was not playing his part in
the glittering scene was Lord Marshmoreton; who, on discovering
that his private study had been converted into a cloakroom, had
retired to bed with a pipe and a copy of Roses Red and Roses White,
by Emily Ann Mackintosh (Popgood, Crooly & Co.), which he was to
discover--after he was between the sheets, and it was too late to
repair the error--was not, as he had supposed, a treatise on his
favourite hobby, but a novel of stearine sentimentality dealing
with the adventures of a pure young English girl and an artist
named Claude.

George, from the shaded seclusion of a gallery, looked down upon
the brilliant throng with impatience. It seemed to him that he had
been doing this all his life. The novelty of the experience had
long since ceased to divert him. It was all just like the second
act of an old-fashioned musical comedy (Act Two: The Ballroom,
Grantchester Towers: One Week Later)--a resemblance which was
heightened for him by the fact that the band had more than once
played dead and buried melodies of his own composition, of which he
had wearied a full eighteen months back.

A complete absence of obstacles had attended his intrusion into the
castle. A brief interview with a motherly old lady, whom even
Albert seemed to treat with respect, and who, it appeared was Mrs.
Digby, the house-keeper; followed by an even briefer encounter with
Keggs (fussy and irritable with responsibility, and, even while
talking to George carrying on two other conversations on topics of
the moment), and he was past the censors and free for one night
only to add his presence to the chosen inside the walls of Belpher.
His duties were to stand in this gallery, and with the assistance
of one of the maids to minister to the comfort of such of the
dancers as should use it as a sitting-out place. None had so far
made their appearance, the superior attractions of the main floor
having exercised a great appeal; and for the past hour George had
been alone with the maid and his thoughts. The maid, having asked
George if he knew her cousin Frank, who had been in America nearly
a year, and having received a reply in the negative, seemed to be
disappointed in him, and to lose interest, and had not spoken for
twenty minutes.

George scanned the approaches to the balcony for a sight of Albert
as the shipwrecked mariner scans the horizon for the passing sail.
It was inevitable, he supposed, this waiting. It would be difficult
for Maud to slip away even for a moment on such a night.

"I say, laddie, would you mind getting me a lemonade?"

George was gazing over the balcony when the voice spoke behind him,
and the muscles of his back stiffened as he recognized its genial
note. This was one of the things he had prepared himself for, but,
now that it had happened, he felt a wave of stage-fright such as he
had only once experienced before in his life--on the occasion when
he had been young enough and inexperienced enough to take a
curtain-call on a first night. Reggie Byng was friendly, and would
not wilfully betray him; but Reggie was also a babbler, who could
not be trusted to keep things to himself. It was necessary, he
perceived, to take a strong line from the start, and convince
Reggie that any likeness which the latter might suppose that he
detected between his companion of that afternoon and the waiter of
tonight existed only in his heated imagination.

As George turned, Reggie's pleasant face, pink with healthful
exercise and Lord Marshmoreton's finest Bollinger, lost most of its
colour. His eyes and mouth opened wider. The fact is Reggie was
shaken. All through the earlier part of the evening he had been
sedulously priming himself with stimulants with a view to amassing
enough nerve to propose to Alice Faraday: and, now that he had
drawn her away from the throng to this secluded nook and was about
to put his fortune to the test, a horrible fear swept over him that
he had overdone it. He was having optical illusions.

"Good God!"

Reggie loosened his collar, and pulled himself together.

"Would you mind taking a glass of lemonade to the lady in blue
sitting on the settee over there by the statue," he said carefully.

He brightened up a little.

"Pretty good that! Not absolutely a test sentence, perhaps, like
'Truly rural' or 'The intricacies of the British Constitution'.
But nevertheless no mean feat."

"I say!" he continued, after a pause.

"Sir?"

"You haven't ever seen me before by any chance, if you know what I
mean, have you?"

"No, sir."

"You haven't a brother, or anything of that shape or order, have
you, no?"

"No, sir. I have often wished I had. I ought to have spoken to
father about it. Father could never deny me anything."

Reggie blinked. His misgiving returned. Either his ears, like his
eyes, were playing him tricks, or else this waiter-chappie was
talking pure drivel.

"What's that?"

"Sir?"

"What did you say?"

"I said, 'No, sir, I have no brother'."

"Didn't you say something else?"

"No, sir."

"What?"

"No, sir."

Reggie's worst suspicions were confirmed.

"Good God!" he muttered. "Then I am!"

Miss Faraday, when he joined her on the settee, wanted an
explanation.

"What were you talking to that man about, Mr. Byng? You seemed to
be having a very interesting conversation."

"I was asking him if he had a brother."

Miss Faraday glanced quickly at him. She had had a feeling for some
time during the evening that his manner had been strange.

"A brother? What made you ask him that?"

"He--I mean--that is to say--what I mean is, he looked the sort of
chap who might have a brother. Lots of those fellows have!"

Alice Faraday's face took on a motherly look. She was fonder of
Reggie than that love-sick youth supposed, and by sheer accident he
had stumbled on the right road to her consideration. Alice Faraday
was one of those girls whose dream it is to be a ministering angel
to some chosen man, to be a good influence to him and raise him to
an appreciation of nobler things. Hitherto, Reggie's personality
had seemed to her agreeable, but negative. A positive vice like
over-indulgence in alcohol altered him completely. It gave him a
significance.

"I told him to get you a lemonade," said Reggie. "He seems to be
taking his time about it. Hi!"

George approached deferentially.

"Sir?"

"Where's that lemonade?"

"Lemonade, sir?"

"Didn't I ask you to bring this lady a glass of lemonade?"

"I did not understand you to do so, sir."

"But, Great Scott! What were we chatting about, then?"

"You were telling me a diverting story about an Irishman who landed
in New York looking for work, sir. You would like a glass of
lemonade, sir? Very good, sir."

Alice placed a hand gently on Reggie's arm.

"Don't you think you had better lie down for a little and rest, Mr.
Byng? I'm sure it would do you good."

The solicitous note in her voice made Reggie quiver like a jelly.
He had never known her speak like that before. For a moment he was
inclined to lay bare his soul; but his nerve was broken. He did not
want her to mistake the outpouring of a strong man's heart for the
irresponsible ravings of a too hearty diner. It was one of Life's
ironies. Here he was for the first time all keyed up to go right
ahead, and he couldn't do it.

"It's the heat of the room," said Alice. "Shall we go and sit
outside on the terrace? Never mind about the lemonade. I'm not
really thirsty."

Reggie followed her like a lamb. The prospect of the cool night air
was grateful.

"That," murmured George, as he watched them depart, "ought to hold
you for a while!"

He perceived Albert hastening towards him.

CHAPTER 13.

Albert was in a hurry. He skimmed over the carpet like a
water-beetle.

"Quick!" he said.

He cast a glance at the maid, George's co-worker. She was reading a
novelette with her back turned.

"Tell 'er you'll be back in five minutes," said Albert, jerking a
thumb.

"Unnecessary. She won't notice my absence. Ever since she
discovered that I had never met her cousin Frank in America, I have
meant nothing in her life."

"Then come on."

"Where?"

"I'll show you."

That it was not the nearest and most direct route which they took
to the trysting-place George became aware after he had followed his
young guide through doors and up stairs and down stairs and had at
last come to a halt in a room to which the sound of the music
penetrated but faintly. He recognized the room. He had been in it
before. It was the same room where he and Billie Dore had listened
to Keggs telling the story of Lord Leonard and his leap. That
window there, he remembered now, opened on to the very balcony from
which the historic Leonard had done his spectacular dive. That it
should be the scene of this other secret meeting struck George as
appropriate. The coincidence appealed to him.

Albert vanished. George took a deep breath. Now that the moment had
arrived for which he had waited so long he was aware of a return of
that feeling of stage-fright which had come upon him when he heard
Reggie Byng's voice. This sort of thing, it must be remembered, was
not in George's usual line. His had been a quiet and uneventful
life, and the only exciting thing which, in his recollection, had
ever happened to him previous to the dramatic entry of Lady Maud
into his taxi-cab that day in Piccadilly, had occurred at college
nearly ten years before, when a festive room-mate--no doubt with the
best motives--had placed a Mexican horned toad in his bed on the
night of the Yale football game.

A light footstep sounded outside, and the room whirled round George
in a manner which, if it had happened to Reggie Byng, would have
caused that injudicious drinker to abandon the habits of a
lifetime. When the furniture had returned to its place and the rug
had ceased to spin, Maud was standing before him.

Nothing is harder to remember than a once-seen face. It had caused
George a good deal of distress and inconvenience that, try as he
might, he could not conjure up anything more than a vague vision of
what the only girl in the world really looked like. He had carried
away with him from their meeting in the cab only a confused
recollection of eyes that shone and a mouth that curved in a smile;
and the brief moment in which he was able to refresh his memory,
when he found her in the lane with Reggie Byng and the broken-down
car, had not been enough to add definiteness. The consequence was
that Maud came upon him now with the stunning effect of beauty seen
for the first time. He gasped. In that dazzling ball-dress, with
the flush of dancing on her cheeks and the light of dancing in her
eyes, she was so much more wonderful than any picture of her which
memory had been able to produce for his inspection that it was as
if he had never seen her before.

Even her brother, Percy, a stern critic where his nearest and
dearest were concerned, had admitted on meeting her in the
drawing-room before dinner that that particular dress suited Maud.
It was a shimmering dream-thing of rose-leaves and moon-beams. That,
at least, was how it struck George; a dressmaker would have found a
longer and less romantic description for it. But that does not
matter. Whoever wishes for a cold and technical catalogue of the
stuffs which went to make up the picture that deprived George of
speech may consult the files of the Belpher Intelligencer and
Farmers' Guide, and read the report of the editor's wife, who
"does" the dresses for the Intelligencer under the pen-name of
"Birdie Bright-Eye". As far as George was concerned, the thing was
made of rose-leaves and moon-beams.

George, as I say, was deprived of speech. That any girl could
possibly look so beautiful was enough to paralyse his faculties;
but that this ethereal being straight from Fairyland could have
stooped to love him--him--an earthy brute who wore sock-suspenders
and drank coffee for breakfast . . . that was what robbed George of
the power to articulate. He could do nothing but look at her.

From the Hills of Fairyland soft music came. Or, if we must be
exact, Maud spoke.

"I couldn't get away before!" Then she stopped short and darted to
the door listening. "Was that somebody coming? I had to cut a
dance with Mr. Plummer to get here, and I'm so afraid he may. . ."

He had. A moment later it was only too evident that this was
precisely what Mr. Plummer had done. There was a footstep on the
stairs, a heavy footstep this time, and from outside the voice of
the pursuer made itself heard.

"Oh, there you are, Lady Maud! I was looking for you. This is our
dance."

George did not know who Mr. Plummer was. He did not want to know.
His only thought regarding Mr. Plummer was a passionate realization
of the superfluity of his existence. It is the presence on the
globe of these Plummers that delays the coming of the Millennium.

His stunned mind leaped into sudden activity. He must not be found
here, that was certain. Waiters who ramble at large about a feudal
castle and are discovered in conversation with the daughter of the
house excite comment. And, conversely, daughters of the house who
talk in secluded rooms with waiters also find explanations
necessary. He must withdraw. He must withdraw quickly. And, as a
gesture from Maud indicated, the withdrawal must be effected
through the french window opening on the balcony. Estimating the
distance that separated him from the approaching Plummer at three
stairs--the voice had come from below--and a landing, the space of
time allotted to him by a hustling Fate for disappearing was some
four seconds. Inside two and half, the french window had opened
and closed, and George was out under the stars, with the cool winds
of the night playing on his heated forehead.

He had now time for meditation. There are few situations which
provide more scope for meditation than that of the man penned up on
a small balcony a considerable distance from the ground, with his
only avenue of retreat cut off behind him. So George meditated.
First, he mused on Plummer. He thought some hard thoughts about
Plummer. Then he brooded on the unkindness of a fortune which had
granted him the opportunity of this meeting with Maud, only to
snatch it away almost before it had begun. He wondered how long the
late Lord Leonard had been permitted to talk on that occasion
before he, too, had had to retire through these same windows. There
was no doubt about one thing. Lovers who chose that room for their
interviews seemed to have very little luck.

It had not occurred to George at first that there could be any
further disadvantage attached to his position other than the
obvious drawbacks which had already come to his notice. He was now
to perceive that he had been mistaken. A voice was speaking in the
room he had left, a plainly audible voice, deep and throaty; and
within a minute George had become aware that he was to suffer the
additional discomfort of being obliged to listen to a fellow
man--one could call Plummer that by stretching the facts a
little--proposing marriage. The gruesomeness of the situation became
intensified. Of all moments when a man--and justice compelled George
to admit that Plummer was technically human--of all moments when a
man may by all the laws of decency demand to be alone without an
audience of his own sex, the chiefest is the moment when he is
asking a girl to marry him. George's was a sensitive nature, and he
writhed at the thought of playing the eavesdropper at such a time.

He looked frantically about him for a means of escape. Plummer had
now reached the stage of saying at great length that he was not
worthy of Maud. He said it over and over, again in different ways.
George was in hearty agreement with him, but he did not want to
hear it. He wanted to get away. But how? Lord Leonard on a similar
occasion had leaped. Some might argue therefore on the principle
that what man has done, man can do, that George should have
imitated him. But men differ. There was a man attached to a circus
who used to dive off the roof of Madison Square Garden on to a
sloping board, strike it with his chest, turn a couple of
somersaults, reach the ground, bow six times and go off to lunch.
That sort of thing is a gift. Some of us have it, some have not.
George had not. Painful as it was to hear Plummer floundering
through his proposal of marriage, instinct told him that it would
be far more painful to hurl himself out into mid-air on the
sporting chance of having his downward progress arrested by the
branches of the big tree that had upheld Lord Leonard. No, there
seemed nothing for it but to remain where he was.

Inside the room Plummer was now saying how much the marriage would
please his mother.

"Psst!"

George looked about him. It seemed to him that he had heard a
voice. He listened. No. Except for the barking of a distant dog,
the faint wailing of a waltz, the rustle of a roosting bird, and
the sound of Plummer saying that if her refusal was due to anything
she might have heard about that breach-of-promise case of his a
couple of years ago he would like to state that he was more sinned
against than sinning and that the girl had absolutely misunderstood
him, all was still.

"Psst! Hey, mister!"

It was a voice. It came from above. Was it an angel's voice? Not
altogether. It was Albert's. The boy was leaning out of a window
some six feet higher up the castle wall. George, his eyes by now
grown used to the darkness, perceived that the stripling
gesticulated as one having some message to impart. Then, glancing
to one side, he saw what looked like some kind of a rope swayed
against the wall. He reached for it. The thing was not a rope: it
was a knotted sheet.

From above came Albert's hoarse whisper.

"Look alive!"

This was precisely what George wanted to do for at least another
fifty years or so; and it seemed to him as he stood there in the
starlight, gingerly fingering this flimsy linen thing, that if he
were to suspend his hundred and eighty pounds of bone and sinew at
the end of it over the black gulf outside the balcony he would look
alive for about five seconds, and after that goodness only knew how
he would look. He knew all about knotted sheets. He had read a
hundred stories in which heroes, heroines, low comedy friends and
even villains did all sorts of reckless things with their
assistance. There was not much comfort to be derived from that. It
was one thing to read about people doing silly things like that,
quite another to do them yourself. He gave Albert's sheet a
tentative shake. In all his experience he thought he had never come
across anything so supremely unstable. (One calls it Albert's sheet
for the sake of convenience. It was really Reggie Byng's sheet.
And when Reggie got to his room in the small hours of the morning
and found the thing a mass of knots he jumped to the conclusion--
being a simple-hearted young man--that his bosom friend Jack Ferris,
who had come up from London to see Lord Belpher through the trying
experience of a coming-of-age party, had done it as a practical
joke, and went and poured a jug of water over Jack's bed. That is
Life. Just one long succession of misunderstandings and rash acts
and what not. Absolutely!)

Albert was becoming impatient. He was in the position of a great
general who thinks out some wonderful piece of strategy and can't
get his army to carry it out. Many boys, seeing Plummer enter the
room below and listening at the keyhole and realizing that George
must have hidden somewhere and deducing that he must be out on the
balcony, would have been baffled as to how to proceed. Not so
Albert. To dash up to Reggie Byng's room and strip his sheet off
the bed and tie it to the bed-post and fashion a series of knots in
it and lower it out of the window took Albert about three minutes.
His part in the business had been performed without a hitch. And
now George, who had nothing in the world to do but the childish
task of climbing up the sheet, was jeopardizing the success of the
whole scheme by delay. Albert gave the sheet an irritable jerk.

It was the worst thing he could have done. George had almost made
up his mind to take a chance when the sheet was snatched from his
grasp as if it had been some live thing deliberately eluding his
clutch. The thought of what would have happened had this occurred
when he was in mid-air caused him to break out in a cold
perspiration. He retired a pace and perched himself on the rail of
the balcony.

"Psst!" said Albert.

"It's no good saying, 'Psst!'" rejoined George in an annoyed
undertone. "I could say "Psst!" Any fool could say 'Psst!'"

Albert, he considered, in leaning out of the window and saying
"Psst!" was merely touching the fringe of the subject.

It is probable that he would have remained seated on the balcony
rail regarding the sheet with cold aversion, indefinitely, had not
his hand been forced by the man Plummer. Plummer, during these last
minutes, had shot his bolt. He had said everything that a man could
say, much of it twice over; and now he was through. All was ended.
The verdict was in. No wedding-bells for Plummer.

"I think," said Plummer gloomily, and the words smote on George's
ear like a knell, "I think I'd like a little air."

George leaped from his rail like a hunted grasshopper. If Plummer
was looking for air, it meant that he was going to come out on the
balcony. There was only one thing to be done. It probably meant the
abrupt conclusion of a promising career, but he could hesitate no
longer.

George grasped the sheet--it felt like a rope of cobwebs--and swung
himself out.

Maud looked out on to the balcony. Her heart, which had stood still
when the rejected one opened the window and stepped forth to commune
with the soothing stars, beat again. There was no one there, only
emptiness and Plummer.

"This," said Plummer sombrely, gazing over the rail into the
darkness, "is the place where that fellow what's-his-name jumped
off in the reign of thingummy, isn't it?"

Maud understood now, and a thrill of the purest admiration for
George's heroism swept over her. So rather than compromise her, he
had done Leonard's leap! How splendid of him! If George, now sitting
on Reggie Byng's bed taking a rueful census of the bits of skin
remaining on his hands and knees after his climb, could have read
her thoughts, he would have felt well rewarded for his abrasions.

"I've a jolly good mind," said Plummer, "to do it myself!" He
uttered a short, mirthless laugh. "Well, anyway," he said
recklessly, "I'll jolly well go downstairs and have a
brandy-and-soda!"

Albert finished untying the sheet from the bedpost, and stuffed it
under the pillow.

"And now," said Albert, "for a quiet smoke in the scullery."

These massive minds require their moments of relaxation.

CHAPTER 14.

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 centre 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 last to leave their ships, and of boys who
stand on burning decks whence all but they 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 favourite 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."

"Yes, sir."

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 before here, 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?"

"America, sir."

Lord Belpher started. "America!"

"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 tonight, 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 neighbourhood. 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 here
tonight, 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 'ouse-keeper conducted the actual
negotiations in many cases, but the arrangement was in no instance
considered complete until I had passed 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
he '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 meal in the servant's 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 non-existent. 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 mastermind was habitually
referred to below stairs.

"Seen 'im going into the scullery not 'arf a minute ago," replied
Freddy.

"Thanks."

"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 endeavour 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 counter-attacks 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 to you, I'd give
you a clip side of your 'ead, that's what I'd do."

"And then bury it 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 wot you're talking about."

"You soon will, young blighted Albert! Who sneaked that American
fellow into the 'ouse to meet Lady Maud?"

"I never!"

"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
stomach-ache, 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 haven'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 have to think it over," mused Keggs. "I don't want to be 'and
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."

Albert capitulated. "'Ere yer 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
ha'penny."

"Who's robbing anyone? Don't you talk so quick, young man. I'm
doing 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 have the goodness to leave me alone. I'm not meself."

"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.
Your Well-Wisher."

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
particularly 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 glass 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, hath 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 whisper.

"Maud!"

Surely she can hear him?

"Maud!"

The silver stars looked down dispassionately. This sort of thing
had no novelty for them.

CHAPTER 15.

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 sound asleep 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 bath-room 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 the tub.

"Many happy returns of the day, Boots, old thing!"

Reggie burst rollickingly into song.

"I'm twenty-one today!
Twenty-one today!
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,
Twenty-one today."

Lord Belpher scowled morosely.

"I wish you wouldn't make that infernal noise!"

"What infernal noise?"

"That singing!"

"My God! 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 that looked like a crumpled oak-leaf studded with
hob-nails. 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 Athenaeum
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 on to the pillows at Reggie's
entrance and had been listening to his talk with only intermittent
attention, shot up in bed.

"What!"

"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 see, 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 the 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 ash-bin. 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 towards him which would have excited remark
if adopted by David towards 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 Belpber 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. This thing
was becoming unendurable.

One thing was certain. The family honour 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 grey 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 a 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 centre 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 nightmare-like 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 had also 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 cross-roads,
suddenly swung down the one to the left, Lord Belpher was for the
moment completely baffled. Reason reasserted its way the next
minute, telling him that this was but a ruse. Whether or no 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 sign-post 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 along wearily. It was simpler now to keep Maud
in sight, for the road ran straight: but, there being a catch in
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 half-hearted 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, oatmeal-like substance which has to be
stirred to be believed. Percy stirred it. He churned it. He
ploughed 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 this
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."

Maud brightened.

"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--("No trouble, I
assure you," said the curate dizzily)--"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."

"Brute!"

"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 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 favourably
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
scepticism 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 mis-statement 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 raise his voice. The subject of Temperance was one very near to
the 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 behaviour 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 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 young
lady's brother?"

"Yes, I do!"

"Then perhaps you had better come with me into the house and we
will speak to her."

"All right."

"Follow me."

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 a
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 that
purpose.

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'll 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 shall 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.

"And this."

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-parlour . . ." 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.
Gaily she tripped towards 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.

CHAPTER 16.

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 towards
Miss Sinclair almost to an embarrassing point in the early 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-bye! 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
neighbouring 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 heart!). Probably he had danced Maud on his knee in her
infancy, and with a dog-like 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 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 stumbling effect.

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