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A Damsel in Distress by Pelham Grenville Wodehouse

Part 4 out of 6

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"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?"

"I am."

"Good Lord!"

"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 daresay you have noticed it
yourself."

"My hobby is gardening."

Light broke upon George. "Then was it really you--?"

"It was!"

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."

"I'm forty-eight."

"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
without my pouch."

"Just at your elbow. Pretty good stuff. I bought it in the village."

"The same I smoke myself."

"Quite a coincidence."

"Distinctly."

"Match?"

"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 neighbourly 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 War of the Roses."

"There were Bevans in Brooklyn before the B.R.T."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I was only pointing out that I can trace my ancestry a long way.
You have to trace things a long way in Brooklyn, if you want to
find them."

"I have never heard of Brooklyn."

"You've heard of New York?"

"Certainly."

"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 be nothing 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 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."

"Long enough."

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."

"Eh?"

"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."

"Very well."

"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."

"I understand,"

"Very well."

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 send 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 towards
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
clue 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 what seemed to him
an insinuation stoutly.

"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."

"Eh?"

"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."

"Oh!"

"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 out 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?"

"Billie."

"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 Theatre."

"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?"

"Yes. Why?"

"Oh--ah--nothing, nothing. Something just happened to come to my
mind."

What happened to come into Lord Marshmoreton's mind was a fleeting
vision of Billie 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 day-dream 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."

"Delightful!"

"And as straight as a string. No one ever said a word against
Billie."

"No?"

"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.

"Yes."

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 afterwards, I was a great
theatre-goer. Never used to miss a first night at the Gaiety. Those
were the days of Nellie Farren and Kate Vaughan. Florence St.
John, too. How excellent she was in Faust Up To Date! But we missed
Nellie 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 Yeoman 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-bye, Mr. Bevan. I am glad to
have had the opportunity of this little talk. The Regal Theatre, 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 the 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! Good God! 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. "Young idiot!"

"We agree there all right."

Lord Marshmoreton hesitated. Then with a rush he unbosomed himself,
and made his own position on 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."

"But . . ."

"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 like this. I'll admit freely that, since I
have made your acquaintance, I have altered the unfavourable
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
that 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
thoughtfully. 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
a 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 out with
me sometimes when I take a country walk? It really isn't safe
for me to be alone!"

CHAPTER 17.

The gift of hiding private emotion and keeping up appearances
before strangers is not, as many suppose, entirely a product of our
modern civilization. Centuries before we were born or thought of
there was a widely press-agented boy in Sparta who even went so far
as to let a fox gnaw his tender young stomach without permitting
the discomfort inseparable from such a proceeding to interfere with
either his facial expression or his flow of small talk. Historians
have handed it down that, even in the later stages of the meal, the
polite lad continued to be the life and soul of the party. But,
while this feat may be said to have established a record never
subsequently lowered, there is no doubt that almost every day in
modern times men and women are performing similar and scarcely less
impressive miracles of self-restraint. Of all the qualities which
belong exclusively to Man and are not shared by the lower animals,
this surely is the one which marks him off most sharply from the
beasts of the field. Animals care nothing about keeping up
appearances. Observe Bertram the Bull when things are not going just
as he could wish. He stamps. He snorts. He paws the ground. He
throws back his head and bellows. He is upset, and he doesn't care
who knows it. Instances could be readily multiplied. Deposit a
charge of shot in some outlying section of Thomas the Tiger, and
note the effect. Irritate Wilfred the Wasp, or stand behind Maud
the Mule and prod her with a pin. There is not an animal on the
list who has even a rudimentary sense of the social amenities; and
it is this more than anything else which should make us proud that
we are human beings on a loftier plane of development.

In the days which followed Lord Marshmoreton's visit to George at
the cottage, not a few of the occupants of Belpher Castle had their
mettle sternly tested in this respect; and it is a pleasure to be
able to record that not one of them failed to come through the
ordeal with success. The general public, as represented by the
uncles, cousins, and aunts who had descended on the place to help
Lord Belpher celebrate his coming-of-age, had not a notion that
turmoil lurked behind the smooth fronts of at least half a dozen of
those whom they met in the course of the daily round.

Lord Belpher, for example, though he limped rather painfully,
showed nothing of the baffled fury which was reducing his weight at
the rate of ounces a day. His uncle Francis, the Bishop, when he
tackled him in the garden on the subject of Intemperance--for Uncle
Francis, like thousands of others, had taken it for granted, on
reading the report of the encounter with the policeman and Percy's
subsequent arrest, that the affair had been the result of a drunken
outburst--had no inkling of the volcanic emotions that seethed in
his nephew's bosom. He came away from the interview, indeed,
feeling that the boy had listened attentively and with a becoming
regret, and that there was hope for him after all, provided that he
fought the impulse. He little knew that, but for the conventions
(which frown on the practice of murdering bishops), Percy would
gladly have strangled him with his bare hands and jumped upon the
remains.

Lord Belpher's case, inasmuch as he took himself extremely
seriously and was not one of those who can extract humour even from
their own misfortunes, was perhaps the hardest which comes under
our notice; but his sister Maud was also experiencing mental
disquietude of no mean order. Everything had gone wrong with Maud.
Barely a mile separated her from George, that essential link in her
chain of communication with Geoffrey Raymond; but so thickly did it
bristle with obstacles and dangers that it might have been a mile
of No Man's Land. Twice, since the occasion when the discovery of
Lord Marshmoreton at the cottage had caused her to abandon her
purpose of going in and explaining everything to George, had she
attempted to make the journey; and each time some trifling,
maddening accident had brought about failure. Once, just as she was
starting, her aunt Augusta had insisted on joining her for what she
described as "a nice long walk"; and the second time, when she was
within a bare hundred yards of her objective, some sort of a cousin
popped out from nowhere and forced his loathsome company on her.

Foiled in this fashion, she had fallen back in desperation on her
second line of attack. She had written a note to George, explaining
the whole situation in good, clear phrases and begging him as a man
of proved chivalry to help her. It had taken up much of one
afternoon, this note, for it was not easy to write; and it had
resulted in nothing. She had given it to Albert to deliver and
Albert had returned empty-handed.

"The gentleman said there was no answer, m'lady!"

"No answer! But there must be an answer!"

"No answer, m'lady. Those was his very words," stoutly maintained
the black-souled boy, who had destroyed the letter within two
minutes after it had been handed to him. He had not even bothered
to read it. A deep, dangerous, dastardly stripling this, who fought
to win and only to win. The ticket marked "R. Byng" was in his
pocket, and in his ruthless heart a firm resolve that R. Byng and
no other should have the benefit of his assistance.

Maud could not understand it. That is to say, she resolutely kept
herself from accepting the only explanation of the episode that
seemed possible. In black and white she had asked George to go to
London and see Geoffrey and arrange for the passage--through
himself as a sort of clearing-house--of letters between Geoffrey
and herself. She had felt from the first that such a request should
be made by her in person and not through the medium of writing, but
surely it was incredible that a man like George, who had been
through so much for her and whose only reason for being in the
neighbourhood was to help her, could have coldly refused without
even a word. And yet what else was she to think? Now, more than
ever, she felt alone in a hostile world.

Yet, to her guests she was bright and entertaining. Not one of them
had a suspicion that her life was not one of pure sunshine.

Albert, I am happy to say, was thoroughly miserable. The little
brute was suffering torments. He was showering anonymous Advice to
the Lovelorn on Reggie Byng--excellent stuff, culled from the pages
of weekly papers, of which there was a pile in the housekeeper's
room, the property of a sentimental lady's maid--and nothing seemed
to come of it. Every day, sometimes twice and thrice a day, he
would leave on Reggie's dressing-table significant notes similar in
tone to the one which he had placed there on the night of the ball;
but, for all the effect they appeared to exercise on their
recipient, they might have been blank pages.

The choicest quotations from the works of such established writers
as "Aunt Charlotte" of Forget-Me-Not and "Doctor Cupid", the
heart-expert of Home Chat, expended themselves fruitlessly on
Reggie. As far as Albert could ascertain--and he was one of those
boys who ascertain practically everything within a radius of
miles--Reggie positively avoided Maud's society.

And this after reading "Doctor Cupid's" invaluable tip about
"Seeking her company on all occasions" and the dictum of "Aunt
Charlotte" to the effect that "Many a wooer has won his lady by
being persistent"--Albert spelled it "persistuent" but the effect
is the same--"and rendering himself indispensable by constant
little attentions". So far from rendering himself indispensable to
Maud by constant little attentions, Reggie, to the disgust of his
backer and supporter, seemed to spend most of his time with Alice
Faraday. On three separate occasions had Albert been revolted by
the sight of his protege in close association with the Faraday
girl--once in a boat on the lake and twice in his grey car. It was
enough to break a boy's heart; and it completely spoiled Albert's
appetite--a phenomenon attributed, I am glad to say, in the
Servants' Hall to reaction from recent excesses. The moment when
Keggs, the butler, called him a greedy little pig and hoped it
would be a lesson to him not to stuff himself at all hours with
stolen cakes was a bitter moment for Albert.

It is a relief to turn from the contemplation of these tortured
souls to the pleasanter picture presented by Lord Marshmoreton.
Here, undeniably, we have a man without a secret sorrow, a man at
peace with this best of all possible worlds. Since his visit to
George a second youth seems to have come upon Lord Marshmoreton. He
works in his rose-garden with a new vim, whistling or even singing
to himself stray gay snatches of melodies popular in the 'eighties.

Hear him now as he toils. He has a long garden-implement in his
hand, and he is sending up the death-rate in slug circles with a
devastating rapidity.

"Ta-ra-ra boom-de-ay
Ta-ra-ra BOOM--"

And the boom is a death-knell. As it rings softly out on the
pleasant spring air, another stout slug has made the Great Change.

It is peculiar, this gaiety. It gives one to think. Others have
noticed it, his lordship's valet amongst them.

"I give you my honest word, Mr. Keggs," says the valet, awed, "this
very morning I 'eard the old devil a-singing in 'is barth!
Chirruping away like a blooming linnet!"

"Lor!" says Keggs, properly impressed.

"And only last night 'e gave me 'arf a box of cigars and said I was
a good, faithful feller! I tell you, there's somethin' happened to
the old buster--you mark my words!"

CHAPTER 18.

Over this complex situation the mind of Keggs, the butler, played
like a searchlight. Keggs was a man of discernment and sagacity. He
had instinct and reasoning power. Instinct told him that Maud, all
unsuspecting the change that had taken place in Albert's attitude
toward her romance, would have continued to use the boy as a link
between herself and George: and reason, added to an intimate
knowledge of Albert, enabled him to see that the latter must
inevitably have betrayed her trust. He was prepared to bet a
hundred pounds that Albert had been given letters to deliver and
had destroyed them. So much was clear to Keggs. It only remained to
settle on some plan of action which would re-establish the broken
connection. Keggs did not conceal a tender heart beneath a rugged
exterior: he did not mourn over the picture of two loving fellow
human beings separated by a misunderstanding; but he did want to
win that sweepstake.

His position, of course, was delicate. He could not got to Maud and
beg her to confide in him. Maud would not understand his motives,
and might leap to the not unjustifiable conclusion that he had been
at the sherry. No! Men were easier to handle than women. As soon as
his duties would permit--and in the present crowded condition of
the house they were arduous--he set out for George's cottage.

"I trust I do not disturb or interrupt you, sir," he said, beaming
in the doorway like a benevolent high priest. He had doffed his
professional manner of austere disapproval, as was his custom in
moments of leisure.

"Not at all," replied George, puzzled. "Was there anything . . .?"

"There was, sir."

"Come along in and sit down."

"I would not take the liberty, if it is all the same to you, sir. I
would prefer to remain standing."

There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. Uncomfortable, that is
to say, on the part of George, who was wondering if the butler
remembered having engaged him as a waiter only a few nights back.
Keggs himself was at his ease. Few things ruffled this man.

"Fine day," said George.

"Extremely, sir, but for the rain."

"Oh, is it raining?"

"Sharp downpour, sir."

"Good for the crops," said George.

"So one would be disposed to imagine, sir."

Silence fell again. The rain dripped from the eaves.

"If I might speak freely, sir . . .?" said Keggs.

"Sure. Shoot!"

"I beg your pardon, sir?"

"I mean, yes. Go ahead!"

The butler cleared his throat.

"Might I begin by remarking that your little affair of the 'eart,
if I may use the expression, is no secret in the Servants' 'All? I
'ave no wish to seem to be taking a liberty or presuming, but I
should like to intimate that the Servants' 'All is aware of the
facts."

"You don't have to tell me that," said George coldly. "I know all
about the sweepstake."

A flicker of embarrassment passed over the butler's large, smooth
face--passed, and was gone.

"I did not know that you 'ad been apprised of that little matter,
sir. But you will doubtless understand and appreciate our point of
view. A little sporting flutter--nothing more--designed to
halleviate the monotony of life in the country."

"Oh, don't apologize," said George, and was reminded of a point
which had exercised him a little from time to time since his vigil
on the balcony. "By the way, if it isn't giving away secrets, who
drew Plummer?"

"Sir?"

"Which of you drew a man named Plummer in the sweep?"

"I rather fancy, sir," Keggs' brow wrinkled in thought, "I rather
fancy it was one of the visiting gentlemen's gentlemen. I gave the
point but slight attention at the time. I did not fancy Mr.
Plummer's chances. It seemed to me that Mr. Plummer was a
negligible quantity."

"Your knowledge of form was sound. Plummer's out!"

"Indeed, sir! An amiable young gentleman, but lacking in many of
the essential qualities. Perhaps he struck you that way, sir?"

"I never met him. Nearly, but not quite!"

"It entered my mind that you might possibly have encountered Mr.
Plummer on the night of the ball, sir."

"Ah, I was wondering if you remembered me!"

"I remember you perfectly, sir, and it was the fact that we had
already met in what one might almost term a social way that
emboldened me to come 'ere today and offer you my services as a
hintermediary, should you feel disposed to avail yourself of them."

George was puzzled.

"Your services?"

"Precisely, sir. I fancy I am in a position to lend you what might
be termed an 'elping 'and."

"But that's remarkably altruistic of you, isn't it?"

"Sir?"

"I say that is very generous of you. Aren't you forgetting that you
drew Mr. Byng?"

The butler smiled indulgently.

"You are not quite abreast of the progress of events, sir. Since
the original drawing of names, there 'as been a trifling
hadjustment. The boy Albert now 'as Mr. Byng and I 'ave you, sir. A
little amicable arrangement informally conducted in the scullery on
the night of the ball."

"Amicable?"

"On my part, entirely so."

George began to understand certain things that had been perplexing
to him.

"Then all this while. . .?"

"Precisely, sir. All this while 'er ladyship, under the impression
that the boy Albert was devoted to 'er cause, has no doubt been
placing a misguided confidence in 'im . . . The little blighter!"
said Keggs, abandoning for a moment his company manners and
permitting vehemence to take the place of polish. "I beg your
pardon for the expression, sir," he added gracefully. "It escaped
me inadvertently."

"You think that Lady Maud gave Albert a letter to give to me, and
that he destroyed it?"

"Such, I should imagine, must undoubtedly have been the case. The
boy 'as no scruples, no scruples whatsoever."

"Good Lord!"

"I appreciate your consternation, sir."

"That must be exactly what has happened."

"To my way of thinking there is no doubt of it. It was for that
reason that I ventured to come 'ere. In the 'ope that I might be
hinstrumental in arranging a meeting."

The strong distaste which George had had for plotting with this
overfed menial began to wane. It might be undignified, he told
himself but it was undeniably practical. And, after all, a man who
has plotted with page-boys has little dignity to lose by plotting
with butlers. He brightened up. If it meant seeing Maud again he
was prepared to waive the decencies.

"What do you suggest?" he said.

"It being a rainy evening and everyone indoors playing games and
what not,"--Keggs was amiably tolerant of the recreations of the
aristocracy--"you would experience little chance of a hinterruption,
were you to proceed to the lane outside the heast entrance of the
castle grounds and wait there. You will find in the field at the
roadside a small disused barn only a short way from the gates, where
you would be sheltered from the rain. In the meantime, I would
hinform 'er ladyship of your movements, and no doubt it would be
possible for 'er to slip off."

"It sounds all right."

"It is all right, sir. The chances of a hinterruption may be said
to be reduced to a minimum. Shall we say in one hour's time?"

"Very well."

"Then I will wish you good evening, sir. Thank you, sir. I am glad
to 'ave been of assistance."

He withdrew as he had come, with a large impressiveness. The room
seemed very empty without him. George, with trembling fingers,
began to put on a pair of thick boots.

For some minutes after he had set foot outside the door of the
cottage, George was inclined to revile the weather for having
played him false. On this evening of all evenings, he felt, the
elements should, so to speak, have rallied round and done their
bit. The air should have been soft and clear and scented: there
should have been an afterglow of sunset in the sky to light him on
his way. Instead, the air was full of that peculiar smell of
hopeless dampness which comes at the end of a wet English day. The
sky was leaden. The rain hissed down in a steady flow, whispering
of mud and desolation, making a dreary morass of the lane through
which he tramped. A curious sense of foreboding came upon George.
It was as if some voice of the night had murmured maliciously in
his ear a hint of troubles to come. He felt oddly nervous, as he
entered the barn.

The barn was both dark and dismal. In one of the dark corners an
intermittent dripping betrayed the presence of a gap in its ancient
roof. A rat scurried across the floor. The dripping stopped and
began again. George struck a match and looked at his watch. He was
early. Another ten minutes must elapse before he could hope for her
arrival. He sat down on a broken wagon which lay on its side
against one of the walls.

Depression returned. It was impossible to fight against it in this
beast of a barn. The place was like a sepulchre. No one but a fool
of a butler would have suggested it as a trysting-place. He
wondered irritably why places like this were allowed to get into
this condition. If people wanted a barn earnestly enough to take
the trouble of building one, why was it not worth while to keep the
thing in proper repair? Waste and futility! That was what it was.
That was what everything was, if you came down to it. Sitting here,
for instance, was a futile waste of time. She wouldn't come. There
were a dozen reasons why she should not come. So what was the use
of his courting rheumatism by waiting in this morgue of dead
agricultural ambitions? None whatever--George went on waiting.

And what an awful place to expect her to come to, if by some miracle
she did come--where she would be stifled by the smell of mouldy hay,
damped by raindrops and--reflected George gloomily as there was
another scurry and scutter along the unseen floor--gnawed by rats.
You could not expect a delicately-nurtured girl, accustomed to all
the comforts of a home, to be bright and sunny with a platoon of
rats crawling all over her. . . .

The grey oblong that was the doorway suddenly darkened.

"Mr. Bevan!"

George sprang up. At the sound of her voice every nerve in his body
danced in mad exhilaration. He was another man. Depression fell
from him like a garment. He perceived that he had misjudged all
sorts of things. The evening, for instance, was a splendid
evening--not one of those awful dry, baking evenings which make you
feel you can't breathe, but pleasantly moist and full of a
delightfully musical patter of rain. And the barn! He had been all
wrong about the barn. It was a great little place, comfortable,
airy, and cheerful. What could be more invigorating than that smell
of hay? Even the rats, he felt, must be pretty decent rats, when
you came to know them.

"I'm here!"

Maud advanced quickly. His eyes had grown accustomed to the murk,
and he could see her dimly. The smell of her damp raincoat came to
him like a breath of ozone. He could even see her eyes shining in
the darkness, so close was she to him.

"I hope you've not been waiting long?"

George's heart was thundering against his ribs. He could scarcely
speak. He contrived to emit a No.

"I didn't think at first I could get away. I had to . . ." She
broke off with a cry. The rat, fond of exercise like all rats, had
made another of its excitable sprints across the floor.

A hand clutched nervously at George's arm, found it and held it.
And at the touch the last small fragment of George's self-control
fled from him. The world became vague and unreal. There remained
of it but one solid fact--the fact that Maud was in his arms and
that he was saying a number of things very rapidly in a voice that
seemed to belong to somebody he had never met before.

CHAPTER 19.

With a shock of dismay so abrupt and overwhelming that it was like
a physical injury, George became aware that something was wrong.
Even as he gripped her, Maud had stiffened with a sharp cry; and
now she was struggling, trying to wrench herself free. She broke
away from him. He could hear her breathing hard.

"You--you----" She gulped.

"Maud!"

"How dare you!"

There was a pause that seemed to George to stretch on and on
endlessly. The rain pattered on the leaky roof. Somewhere in the
distance a dog howled dismally. The darkness pressed down like a
blanket, stifling thought.

"Good night, Mr. Bevan." Her voice was ice. "I didn't think you
were--that kind of man."

She was moving toward the door; and, as she reached it, George's
stupor left him. He came back to life with a jerk, shaking from
head to foot. All his varied emotions had become one emotion--a
cold fury.

"Stop!"

Maud stopped. Her chin was tilted, and she was wasting a baleful
glare on the darkness.

"Well, what is it?"

Her tone increased George's wrath. The injustice of it made him
dizzy. At that moment he hated her. He was the injured party. It
was he, not she, that had been deceived and made a fool of.

"I want to say something before you go."

"I think we had better say no more about it!"

By the exercise of supreme self-control George kept himself from
speaking until he could choose milder words than those that rushed
to his lips.

"I think we will!" he said between his teeth.

Maud's anger became tinged with surprise. Now that the first shock
of the wretched episode was over, the calmer half of her mind was
endeavouring to soothe the infuriated half by urging that George's
behaviour had been but a momentary lapse, and that a man may lose
his head for one wild instant, and yet remain fundamentally a
gentleman and a friend. She had begun to remind herself that this
man had helped her once in trouble, and only a day or two before
had actually risked his life to save her from embarrassment. When
she heard him call to her to stop, she supposed that his better
feelings had reasserted themselves; and she had prepared herself to
receive with dignity a broken, stammered apology. But the voice
that had just spoken with a crisp, biting intensity was not the
voice of remorse. It was a very angry man, not a penitent one, who
was commanding--not begging--her to stop and listen to him.

"Well?" she said again, more coldly this time. She was quite unable
to understand this attitude of his. She was the injured party. It
was she, not he who had trusted and been betrayed.

"I should like to explain."

"Please do not apologize."

George ground his teeth in the gloom.

"I haven't the slightest intention of apologizing. I said I would
like to explain. When I have finished explaining, you can go."

"I shall go when I please," flared Maud.

This man was intolerable.

"There is nothing to be afraid of. There will be no repetition of
the--incident."

Maud was outraged by this monstrous misinterpretation of her words.

"I am not afraid!"

"Then, perhaps, you will be kind enough to listen. I won't detain
you long. My explanation is quite simple. I have been made a fool
of. I seem to be in the position of the tinker in the play whom
everybody conspired to delude into the belief that he was a king.
First a friend of yours, Mr. Byng, came to me and told me that you
had confided to him that you loved me."

Maud gasped. Either this man was mad, or Reggie Byng was. She
choose the politer solution.

"Reggie Byng must have lost his senses."

"So I supposed. At least, I imagined that he must be mistaken. But a
man in love is an optimistic fool, of course, and I had loved you
ever since you got into my cab that morning . . ."

"What!"

"So after a while," proceeded George, ignoring the interruption, "I
almost persuaded myself that miracles could still happen, and that
what Byng said was true. And when your father called on me and told
me the very same thing I was convinced. It seemed incredible, but I
had to believe it. Now it seems that, for some inscrutable reason,
both Byng and your father were making a fool of me. That's all.
Good night."

Maud's reply was the last which George or any man would have
expected. There was a moment's silence, and then she burst into a
peal of laughter. It was the laughter of over-strained nerves, but
to George's ears it had the ring of genuine amusement.

"I'm glad you find my story entertaining," he said dryly. He was
convinced now that he loathed this girl, and that all he desired
was to see her go out of his life for ever. "Later, no doubt, the
funny side of it will hit me. Just at present my sense of humour is
rather dormant."

Maud gave a little cry.

"I'm sorry! I'm so sorry, Mr. Bevan. It wasn't that. It wasn't that
at all. Oh, I am so sorry. I don't know why I laughed. It certainly
wasn't because I thought it funny. It's tragic. There's been a
dreadful mistake!"

"I noticed that," said George bitterly. The darkness began to
afflict his nerves. "I wish to God we had some light."

The glare of a pocket-torch smote upon him.

"I brought it to see my way back with," said Maud in a curious,
small voice. "It's very dark across the fields. I didn't light it
before, because I was afraid somebody might see."

She came towards him, holding the torch over her head. The beam
showed her face, troubled and sympathetic, and at the sight all
George's resentment left him. There were mysteries here beyond his
unravelling, but of one thing he was certain: this girl was not to
blame. She was a thoroughbred, as straight as a wand. She was pure
gold.

"I came here to tell you everything," she said. She placed the
torch on the wagon-wheel so that its ray fell in a pool of light on
the ground between them. "I'll do it now. Only--only it isn't so
easy now. Mr. Bevan, there's a man--there's a man that father and
Reggie Byng mistook--they thought . . . You see, they knew it was
you that I was with that day in the cab, and so they naturally
thought, when you came down here, that you were the man I had gone
to meet that day--the man I--I--"

"The man you love."

"Yes," said Maud in a small voice; and there was silence again.

George could feel nothing but sympathy. It mastered other emotion
in him, even the grey despair that had come her words. He could
feel all that she was feeling.

"Tell me all about it," he said.

"I met him in Wales last year." Maud's voice was a whisper. "The
family found out, and I was hurried back here, and have been here
ever since. That day when I met you I had managed to slip away from
home. I had found out that he was in London, and I was going to
meet him. Then I saw Percy, and got into your cab. It's all been a
horrible mistake. I'm sorry."

"I see," said George thoughtfully. "I see."

His heart ached like a living wound. She had told so little, and
he could guess so much. This unknown man who had triumphed seemed
to sneer scornfully at him from the shadows.

"I'm sorry," said Maud again.

"You mustn't feel like that. How can I help you? That's the point.
What is it you want me to do?"

"But I can't ask you now."

"Of course you can. Why not?"

"Why--oh, I couldn't!"

George managed to laugh. It was a laugh that did not sound
convincing even to himself, but it served.

"That's morbid," he said. "Be sensible. You need help, and I may be
able to give it. Surely a man isn't barred for ever from doing you
a service just because he happens to love you? Suppose you were
drowning and Mr. Plummer was the only swimmer within call, wouldn't
you let him rescue you?"

"Mr. Plummer? What do you mean?"

"You've not forgotten that I was a reluctant ear-witness to his
recent proposal of marriage?"

Maud uttered an exclamation.

"I never asked! How terrible of me. Were you much hurt?"

"Hurt?" George could not follow her.

"That night. When you were on the balcony, and--"

"Oh!" George understood. "Oh, no, hardly at all. A few scratches. I
scraped my hands a little."

"It was a wonderful thing to do," said Maud, her admiration glowing
for a man who could treat such a leap so lightly. She had always
had a private theory that Lord Leonard, after performing the same
feat, had bragged about it for the rest of his life.

"No, no, nothing," said George, who had since wondered why he had
ever made such a to-do about climbing up a perfectly stout sheet.

"It was splendid!"

George blushed.

"We are wandering from the main theme," he said. "I want to help
you. I came here at enormous expense to help you. How can I do
it?"

Maud hesitated.

"I think you may be offended at my asking such a thing."

"You needn't."

"You see, the whole trouble is that I can't get in touch with
Geoffrey. He's in London, and I'm here. And any chance I might have
of getting to London vanished that day I met you, when Percy saw me
in Piccadilly."

"How did your people find out it was you?"

"They asked me--straight out."

"And you owned up?"

"I had to. I couldn't tell them a direct lie."

George thrilled. This was the girl he had had doubts of.

"So then it was worse then ever," continued Maud. "I daren't risk
writing to Geoffrey and having the letter intercepted. I was
wondering--I had the idea almost as soon as I found that you had
come here--"

"You want me to take a letter from you and see that it reaches him.
And then he can write back to my address, and I can smuggle the
letter to you?"

"That's exactly what I do want. But I almost didn't like to ask."

"Why not? I'll be delighted to do it."

"I'm so grateful."

"Why, it's nothing. I thought you were going to ask me to look in
on your brother and smash another of his hats."

Maud laughed delightedly. The whole tension of the situation had
been eased for her. More and more she found herself liking George.
Yet, deep down in her, she realized with a pang that for him there
had been no easing of the situation. She was sad for George. The
Plummers of this world she had consigned to what they declared
would be perpetual sorrow with scarcely a twinge of regret. But
George was different.

"Poor Percy!" she said. "I don't suppose he'll ever get over it. He
will have other hats, but it won't be the same." She came back to
the subject nearest her heart. "Mr. Bevan, I wonder if you would do
just a little more for me?"

"If it isn't criminal. Or, for that matter, if it is."

"Could you go to Geoffrey, and see him, and tell him all about me
and--and come back and tell me how he looks, and what he said
and--and so on?"

"Certainly. What is his name, and where do I find him?"

"I never told you. How stupid of me. His name is Geoffrey Raymond,
and he lives with his uncle, Mr. Wilbur Raymond, at 11a, Belgrave
Square."

"I'll go to him tomorrow."

"Thank you ever so much."

George got up. The movement seemed to put him in touch with the
outer world. He noticed that the rain had stopped, and that stars
had climbed into the oblong of the doorway. He had an impression
that he had been in the barn a very long time; and confirmed this
with a glance at his watch, though the watch, he felt, understated
the facts by the length of several centuries. He was abstaining
from too close an examination of his emotions from a prudent
feeling that he was going to suffer soon enough without assistance
from himself.

"I think you had better be going back," he said. "It's rather late.
They may be missing you."

Maud laughed happily.

"I don't mind now what they do. But I suppose dinners must be
dressed for, whatever happens." They moved together to the door.
"What a lovely night after all! I never thought the rain would stop
in this world. It's like when you're unhappy and think it's going
on for ever."

"Yes," said George.

Maud held out her hand.

"Good night, Mr. Bevan."

"Good night."

He wondered if there would be any allusion to the earlier passages
of their interview. There was none. Maud was of the class whose
education consists mainly of a training in the delicate ignoring of
delicate situations.

"Then you will go and see Geoffrey?"

"Tomorrow."

"Thank you ever so much."

"Not at all."

George admired her. The little touch of formality which she had
contrived to impart to the conversation struck just the right note,
created just the atmosphere which would enable them to part without
weighing too heavily on the deeper aspect of that parting.

"You're a real friend, Mr. Bevan."

"Watch me prove it."

"Well, I must rush, I suppose. Good night!"

"Good night!"

She moved off quickly across the field. Darkness covered her. The
dog in the distance had begun to howl again. He had his troubles,
too.

CHAPTER 20.

Trouble sharpens the vision. In our moments of distress we can see
clearly that what is wrong with this world of ours is the fact that
Misery loves company and seldom gets it. Toothache is an unpleasant
ailment; but, if toothache were a natural condition of life, if all
mankind were afflicted with toothache at birth, we should not
notice it. It is the freedom from aching teeth of all those with
whom we come in contact that emphasizes the agony. And, as with
toothache, so with trouble. Until our private affairs go wrong, we
never realize how bubbling over with happiness the bulk of mankind
seems to be. Our aching heart is apparently nothing but a desert
island in an ocean of joy.

George, waking next morning with a heavy heart, made this discovery
before the day was an hour old. The sun was shining, and birds sang
merrily, but this did not disturb him. Nature is ever callous to
human woes, laughing while we weep; and we grow to take her
callousness for granted. What jarred upon George was the infernal
cheerfulness of his fellow men. They seemed to be doing it on
purpose--triumphing over him--glorying in the fact that, however
Fate might have shattered him, they were all right.

People were happy who had never been happy before. Mrs. Platt, for
instance. A grey, depressed woman of middle age, she had seemed
hitherto to have few pleasures beyond breaking dishes and relating
the symptoms of sick neighbours who were not expected to live
through the week. She now sang. George could hear her as she
prepared his breakfast in the kitchen. At first he had had a hope
that she was moaning with pain; but this was dispelled when he had
finished his toilet and proceeded downstairs. The sounds she
emitted suggested anguish, but the words, when he was able to
distinguish them, told another story. Incredible as it might seem,
on this particular morning Mrs. Platt had elected to be
light-hearted. What she was singing sounded like a dirge, but
actually it was "Stop your tickling, Jock!" And. later, when she
brought George his coffee and eggs, she spent a full ten minutes
prattling as he tried to read his paper, pointing out to him a
number of merry murders and sprightly suicides which otherwise he
might have missed. The woman went out of her way to show him that
for her, if not for less fortunate people, God this morning was in
His heaven and all was right in the world.

Two tramps of supernatural exuberance called at the cottage shortly
after breakfast to ask George, whom they had never even consulted
about their marriages, to help support their wives and children.
Nothing could have been more care-free and _debonnaire_ than the
demeanour of these men.

And then Reggie Byng arrived in his grey racing car, more cheerful
than any of them.

Fate could not have mocked George more subtly. A sorrow's crown of
sorrow is remembering happier things, and the sight of Reggie in
that room reminded him that on the last occasion when they had
talked together across this same table it was he who had been in a
Fool's Paradise and Reggie who had borne a weight of care. Reggie
this morning was brighter than the shining sun and gayer than the
carolling birds.

"Hullo-ullo-ullo-ullo-ullo-ullo-ul-Lo! Topping morning, isn't it!"
observed Reggie. "The sunshine! The birds! The absolute
what-do-you-call-it of everything and so forth, and all that sort
of thing, if you know what I mean! I feel like a two-year-old!"

George, who felt older than this by some ninety-eight years,
groaned in spirit. This was more than man was meant to bear.

"I say," continued Reggie, absently reaching out for a slice of
bread and smearing it with marmalade, "this business of marriage,
now, and all that species of rot! What I mean to say is, what about
it? Not a bad scheme, taking it big and large? Or don't you think
so?"

George writhed. The knife twisted in the wound. Surely it was bad
enough to see a happy man eating bread and marmalade without having
to listen to him talking about marriage.

"Well, anyhow, be that as it may," said Reggie, biting jovially and
speaking in a thick but joyous voice. "I'm getting married today,
and chance it. This morning, this very morning, I leap off the
dock!"

George was startled out of his despondency.

"What!"

"Absolutely, laddie!"

George remembered the conventions.

"I congratulate you."

"Thanks, old man. And not without reason. I'm the luckiest fellow
alive. I hardly knew I was alive till now."

"Isn't this rather sudden?"

Reggie looked a trifle furtive. His manner became that of a
conspirator.

"I should jolly well say it is sudden! It's got to be sudden.
Dashed sudden and deuced secret! If the mater were to hear of it,
there's no doubt whatever she would form a flying wedge and bust up
the proceedings with no uncertain voice. You see, laddie, it's Miss
Faraday I'm marrying, and the mater--dear old soul--has other ideas
for Reginald. Life's a rummy thing, isn't it! What I mean to say
is, it's rummy, don't you know, and all that."

"Very," agreed George.

"Who'd have thought, a week ago, that I'd be sitting in this jolly
old chair asking you to be my best man? Why, a week ago I didn't
know you, and, if anybody had told me Alice Faraday was going to
marry me, I'd have given one of those hollow, mirthless laughs."

"Do you want me to be your best man?"

"Absolutely, if you don't mind. You see," said Reggie
confidentially, "it's like this. I've got lots of pals, of course,
buzzing about all over London and its outskirts, who'd be glad
enough to rally round and join the execution-squad; but you know
how it is. Their maters are all pals of my mater, and I don't want
to get them into trouble for aiding and abetting my little show, if
you understand what I mean. Now, you're different. You don't know
the mater, so it doesn't matter to you if she rolls around and puts
the Curse of the Byngs on you, and all that sort of thing. Besides,
I don't know." Reggie mused. "Of course, this is the happiest day
of my life," he proceeded, "and I'm not saying it isn't, but you
know how it is--there's absolutely no doubt that a chappie does not
show at his best when he's being married. What I mean to say is,
he's more or less bound to look a fearful ass. And I'm perfectly
certain it would put me right off my stroke if I felt that some
chump like Jack Ferris or Ronnie Fitzgerald was trying not to
giggle in the background. So, if you will be a sportsman and come
and hold my hand till the thing's over, I shall be eternally
grateful."

"Where are you going to be married?"

"In London. Alice sneaked off there last night. It was easy, as it
happened, because by a bit of luck old Marshmoreton had gone to
town yesterday morning--nobody knows why: he doesn't go up to
London more than a couple of times a year. She's going to meet me
at the Savoy, and then the scheme was to toddle round to the
nearest registrar and request the lad to unleash the marriage
service. I'm whizzing up in the car, and I'm hoping to be able to
persuade you to come with me. Say the word, laddie!"

George reflected. He liked Reggie, and there was no particular
reason in the world why he should not give him aid and comfort in
this crisis. True, in his present frame of mind, it would be
torture to witness a wedding ceremony; but he ought not to let that
stand in the way of helping a friend.

"All right," he said.

"Stout fellow! I don't know how to thank you. It isn't putting you
out or upsetting your plans, I hope, or anything on those lines?"

"Not at all. I had to go up to London today, anyway."

"Well, you can't get there quicker than in my car. She's a hummer.
By the way, I forgot to ask. How is your little affair coming
along? Everything going all right?"

"In a way," said George. He was not equal to confiding his troubles
to Reggie.

"Of course, your trouble isn't like mine was. What I mean is, Maud
loves you, and all that, and all you've got to think out is a
scheme for laying the jolly old family a stymie. It's a
pity--almost--that yours isn't a case of having to win the girl,
like me; because by Jove, laddie," said Reggie with solemn
emphasis, "I could help you there. I've got the thing down fine.
I've got the infallible dope."

George smiled bleakly.

"You have? You're a useful fellow to have around. I wish you would
tell me what it is."

"But you don't need it."

"No, of course not. I was forgetting."

Reggie looked at his watch.

"We ought to be shifting in a quarter of an hour or so. I don't
want to be late. It appears that there's a catch of some sort in
this business of getting married. As far as I can make out, if you
roll in after a certain hour, the Johnnie in charge of the
proceedings gives you the miss-in-baulk, and you have to turn up
again next day. However, we shall be all right unless we have a
breakdown, and there's not much chance of that. I've been tuning up
the old car since seven this morning, and she's sound in wind and
limb, absolutely. Oil--petrol--water--air--nuts--bolts--sprockets--
carburetter--all present and correct. I've been looking after them
like a lot of baby sisters. Well, as I was saying, I've got the
dope. A week ago I was just one of the mugs--didn't know a thing
about it--but now! Gaze on me, laddie! You see before you old
Colonel Romeo, the Man who Knows! It all started on the night of
the ball. There was the dickens of a big ball, you know, to
celebrate old Boots' coming-of-age--to which, poor devil, he
contributed nothing but the sunshine of his smile, never having
learned to dance. On that occasion a most rummy and extraordinary
thing happened. I got pickled to the eyebrows!" He laughed happily.
"I don't mean that that was a unique occurrence and so forth,
because, when I was a bachelor, it was rather a habit of mine to
get a trifle submerged every now and again on occasions of decent
mirth and festivity. But the rummy thing that night was that I
showed it. Up till then, I've been told by experts, I was a
chappie in whom it was absolutely impossible to detect the
symptoms. You might get a bit suspicious if you found I couldn't
move, but you could never be certain. On the night of the ball,
however, I suppose I had been filling the radiator a trifle too
enthusiastically. You see, I had deliberately tried to shove
myself more or less below the surface in order to get enough nerve
to propose to Alice. I don't know what your experience has been,
but mine is that proposing's a thing that simply isn't within the
scope of a man who isn't moderately woozled. I've often wondered
how marriages ever occur in the dry States of America. Well, as I
was saying, on the night of the ball a most rummy thing happened.
I thought one of the waiters was you!"

He paused impressively to allow this startling statement to sink
in.

"And was he?" said George.

"Absolutely not! That was the rummy part of it. He looked as like
you as your twin brother."

"I haven't a twin brother."

"No, I know what you mean, but what I mean to say is he looked just
like your twin brother would have looked if you had had a twin
brother. Well, I had a word or two with this chappie, and after a
brief conversation it was borne in upon me that I was up to the
gills. Alice was with me at the time, and noticed it too. Now you'd
have thought that that would have put a girl off a fellow, and all
that. But no. Nobody could have been more sympathetic. And she has
confided to me since that it was seeing me in my oiled condition
that really turned the scale. What I mean is, she made up her mind
to save me from myself. You know how some girls are. Angels
absolutely! Always on the look out to pluck brands from the
burning, and what not. You may take it from me that the good seed
was definitely sown that night."

"Is that your recipe, then? You would advise the would-be
bridegroom to buy a case of champagne and a wedding licence and get
to work? After that it would be all over except sending out the
invitations?"

Reggie shook his head.

"Not at all. You need a lot more than that. That's only the start.
You've got to follow up the good work, you see. That's where a
number of chappies would slip up, and I'm pretty certain I should
have slipped up myself, but for another singularly rummy
occurrence. Have you ever had a what-do-you-call it? What's the
word I want? One of those things fellows get sometimes."

"Headaches?" hazarded George.

"No, no. Nothing like that. I don't mean anything you get--I mean
something you get, if you know what I mean."

"Measles?"

"Anonymous letter. That's what I was trying to say. It's a most
extraordinary thing, and I can't understand even now where the
deuce they came from, but just about then I started to get a whole
bunch of anonymous letters from some chappie unknown who didn't
sign his name."

"What you mean is that the letters were anonymous," said George.

"Absolutely. I used to get two or three a day sometimes. Whenever
I went up to my room, I'd find another waiting for me on the
dressing-table."

"Offensive?"

"Eh?"

"Were the letters offensive? Anonymous letters usually are."

"These weren't. Not at all, and quite the reverse. They
contained a series of perfectly topping tips on how a fellow should
proceed who wants to get hold of a girl."

"It sounds as though somebody had been teaching you ju-jitsu by
post."

"They were great! Real red-hot stuff straight from the stable.
Priceless tips like 'Make yourself indispensable to her in little
ways', 'Study her tastes', and so on and so forth. I tell you,
laddie, I pretty soon stopped worrying about who was sending them
to me, and concentrated the old bean on acting on them. They
worked like magic. The last one came yesterday morning, and it was
a topper! It was all about how a chappie who was nervous should
proceed. Technical stuff, you know, about holding her hand and
telling her you're lonely and being sincere and straightforward and
letting your heart dictate the rest. Have you ever asked for one
card when you wanted to fill a royal flush and happened to pick out
the necessary ace? I did once, when I was up at Oxford, and, by
Jove, this letter gave me just the same thrill. I didn't hesitate.
I just sailed in. I was cold sober, but I didn't worry about that.
Something told me I couldn't lose. It was like having to hole out a
three-inch putt. And--well, there you are, don't you know." Reggie
became thoughtful. "Dash it all! I'd like to know who the fellow
was who sent me those letters. I'd like to send him a
wedding-present or a bit of the cake or something. Though I suppose
there won't be any cake, seeing the thing's taking place at a
registrar's."

"You could buy a bun," suggested George.

"Well, I shall never know, I suppose. And now how about trickling
forth? I say, laddie, you don't object if I sing slightly from time
to time during the journey? I'm so dashed happy, you know."

"Not at all, if it's not against the traffic regulations."

Reggie wandered aimlessly about the room in an ecstasy.

"It's a rummy thing," he said meditatively, "I've just remembered
that, when I was at school, I used to sing a thing called the
what's-it's-name's wedding song. At house-suppers, don't you know,
and what not. Jolly little thing. I daresay you know it. It starts
'Ding dong! Ding dong!' or words to that effect, 'Hurry along! For
it is my wedding-morning!' I remember you had to stretch out the
'mor' a bit. Deuced awkward, if you hadn't laid in enough breath.
'The Yeoman's Wedding-Song.' That was it. I knew it was some
chappie or other's. And it went on 'And the bride in something or
other is doing something I can't recollect.' Well, what I mean is,
now it's my wedding-morning! Rummy, when you come to think of it,
what? Well, as it's getting tolerable late, what about it? Shift
ho?"

"I'm ready. Would you like me to bring some rice?"

"Thank you, laddie, no. Dashed dangerous stuff, rice! Worse than
shrapnel. Got your hat? All set?"

"I'm waiting."

"Then let the revels commence," said Reggie. "Ding dong! Ding
Dong! Hurry along! For it is my wedding-morning! And the bride--
Dash it, I wish I could remember what the bride was doing!"

"Probably writing you a note to say that she's changed her mind,
and it's all off."

"Oh, my God!" exclaimed Reggie. "Come on!"

CHAPTER 21.

Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Byng, seated at a table in the corner of the
Regent Grill-Room, gazed fondly into each other's eyes. George,
seated at the same table, but feeling many miles away, watched them
moodily, fighting to hold off a depression which, cured for a while
by the exhilaration of the ride in Reggie's racing-car (it had
beaten its previous record for the trip to London by nearly twenty
minutes), now threatened to return. The gay scene, the ecstasy of
Reggie, the more restrained but equally manifest happiness of his
bride--these things induced melancholy in George. He had not wished
to attend the wedding-lunch, but the happy pair seemed to be
revolted at the idea that he should stroll off and get a bite to
eat somewhere else.

"Stick by us, laddie," Reggie had said pleadingly, "for there is
much to discuss, and we need the counsel of a man of the world. We
are married all right--"

"Though it didn't seem legal in that little registrar's office,"
put in Alice.

"--But that, as the blighters say in books, is but a beginning, not
an end. We have now to think out the most tactful way of letting
the news seep through, as it were, to the mater."

"And Lord Marshmoreton," said Alice. "Don't forget he has lost his
secretary."

"And Lord Marshmoreton," amended Reggie. "And about a million other
people who'll be most frightfully peeved at my doing the Wedding
Glide without consulting them. Stick by us, old top. Join our
simple meal. And over the old coronas we will discuss many things."

The arrival of a waiter with dishes broke up the silent communion
between husband and wife, and lowered Reggie to a more earthly
plane. He refilled the glasses from the stout bottle that nestled
in the ice-bucket--(" Only this one, dear!" murmured the bride in
a warning undertone, and "All right darling!" replied the dutiful
groom)--and raised his own to his lips.

"Cheerio! Here's to us all! Maddest, merriest day of all the glad
New year and so forth. And now," he continued, becoming sternly
practical, "about the good old sequel and aftermath, so to speak,
of this little binge of ours. What's to be done. You're a brainy
sort of feller, Bevan, old man, and we look to you for suggestions.
How would you set about breaking the news to mother?"

"Write her a letter," said George.

Reggie was profoundly impressed.

"Didn't I tell you he would have some devilish shrewd scheme?" he
said enthusiastically to Alice. "Write her a letter! What could be
better? Poetry, by Gad!" His face clouded. "But what would you say
in it? That's a pretty knotty point."

"Not at all. Be perfectly frank and straightforward. Say you are
sorry to go against her wishes--"

"Wishes," murmured Reggie, scribbling industrially on the back of
the marriage licence.

"--But you know that all she wants is your happiness--"

Reggie looked doubtful.

"I'm not sure about that last bit, old thing. You don't know the
mater!"

"Never mind, Reggie," put in Alice. "Say it, anyhow. Mr. Bevan is
perfectly right."

"Right ho, darling! All right, laddie--'happiness'. And then?"

"Point out in a few well-chosen sentences how charming Mrs. Byng
is . . ."

"Mrs. Byng!" Reggie smiled fatuously. "I don't think I ever heard
anything that sounded so indescribably ripping. That part'll be
easy enough. Besides, the mater knows Alice."

"Lady Caroline has seen me at the castle," said his bride
doubtfully, "but I shouldn't say she knows me. She has hardly
spoken a dozen words to me."

"There," said Reggie, earnestly, "you're in luck, dear heart! The
mater's a great speaker, especially in moments of excitement. I'm
not looking forward to the time when she starts on me. Between
ourselves, laddie, and meaning no disrespect to the dear soul, when
the mater is moved and begins to talk, she uses up most of the
language."

"Outspoken, is she?"

"I should hate to meet the person who could out-speak her," said
Reggie.

George sought information on a delicate point.

"And financially? Does she exercise any authority over you in that
way?"

"You mean has the mater the first call on the family doubloons?"
said Reggie. "Oh, absolutely not! You see, when I call her the
mater, it's using the word in a loose sense, so to speak. She's my
step-mother really. She has her own little collection of pieces of
eight, and I have mine. That part's simple enough."

"Then the whole thing is simple. I don't see what you've been
worrying about."

"Just what I keep telling him, Mr. Bevan," said Alice.

"You're a perfectly free agent. She has no hold on you of any
kind."

Reggie Byng blinked dizzily.

"Why, now you put it like that," he exclaimed, "I can see that I
jolly well am! It's an amazing thing, you know, habit and all that.
I've been so accustomed for years to jumping through hoops and
shamming dead when the mater lifted a little finger, that it
absolutely never occurred to me that I had a soul of my own. I give
you my honest word I never saw it till this moment."

"And now it's too late!"

"Eh?"

George indicated Alice with a gesture. The newly-made Mrs. Byng
smiled.

"Mr. Bevan means that now you've got to jump through hoops and sham
dead when I lift a little finger!"

Reggie raised her hand to his lips, and nibbled at it gently.

"Blessums 'ittle finger! It shall lift it and have 'ums Reggie
jumping through. . . ." He broke off and tendered George a manly
apology. "Sorry, old top! Forgot myself for the moment. Shan't
occur again! Have another chicken or an eclair or some soup or
something!"

Over the cigars Reggie became expansive.

"Now that you've lifted the frightful weight of the mater off my
mind, dear old lad," he said, puffing luxuriously, "I find myself
surveying the future in a calmer spirit. It seems to me that the
best thing to do, as regards the mater and everybody else, is
simply to prolong the merry wedding-trip till Time the Great Healer
has had a chance to cure the wound. Alice wants to put in a week or
so in Paris. . . ."

"Paris!" murmured the bride ecstatically.

"Then I would like to trickle southwards to the Riviera. . ."

"If you mean Monte Carlo, dear," said his wife with gentle
firmness, "no!"

"No, no, not Monte Carlo," said Reggie hastily, "though it's a
great place. Air--scenery--and what not! But Nice and Bordighera
and Mentone and other fairly ripe resorts. You'd enjoy them. And
after that . . . I had a scheme for buying back my yacht, the jolly
old Siren, and cruising about the Mediterranean for a month or so. I
sold her to a local sportsman when I was in America a couple of
years ago. But I saw in the paper yesterday that the poor old
buffer had died suddenly, so I suppose it would be difficult to get
hold of her for the time being." Reggie broke off with a sharp
exclamation.

"My sainted aunt!"

"What's the matter?"

Both his companions were looking past him, wide-eyed. George
occupied the chair that had its back to the door, and was unable to
see what it was that had caused their consternation; but he deduced
that someone known to both of them must have entered the
restaurant; and his first thought, perhaps naturally, was that it
must be Reggie's "mater". Reggie dived behind a menu, which he held
before him like a shield, and his bride, after one quick look, had
turned away so that her face was hidden. George swung around, but
the newcomer, whoever he or she was, was now seated and
indistinguishable from the rest of the lunchers.

"Who is it?"

Reggie laid down the menu with the air of one who after a momentary
panic rallies.

"Don't know what I'm making such a fuss about," he said stoutly. "I
keep forgetting that none of these blighters really matter in the
scheme of things. I've a good mind to go over and pass the time of
day."

"Don't!" pleaded his wife. "I feel so guilty."

"Who is it?" asked George again. "Your step-mother?"

"Great Scott, no!" said Reggie. "Nothing so bad as that. It's old
Marshmoreton."

"Lord Marshmoreton!"

"Absolutely! And looking positively festive."

"I feel so awful, Mr. Bevan," said Alice. "You know, I left the
castle without a word to anyone, and he doesn't know yet that there
won't be any secretary waiting for him when he gets back."

Reggie took another look over George's shoulder and chuckled.

"It's all right, darling. Don't worry. We can nip off secretly by
the other door. He's not going to stop us. He's got a girl with
him! The old boy has come to life--absolutely! He's gassing away
sixteen to the dozen to a frightfully pretty girl with gold hair.
If you slew the old bean round at an angle of about forty-five,
Bevan, old top, you can see her. Take a look. He won't see you.
He's got his back to us."

"Do you call her pretty?" asked Alice disparagingly.

"Now that I take a good look, precious," replied Reggie with
alacrity, "no! Absolutely not! Not my style at all!"

His wife crumbled bread.

"I think she must know you, Reggie dear," she said softly. "She's
waving to you."

"She's waving to ME," said George, bringing back the sunshine to
Reggie's life, and causing the latter's face to lose its hunted
look. "I know her very well. Her name's Dore. Billie Dore."

"Old man," said Reggie, "be a good fellow and slide over to their
table and cover our retreat. I know there's nothing to be afraid of
really, but I simply can't face the old boy."

"And break the news to him that I've gone, Mr. Bevan," added Alice.

"Very well, I'll say good-bye, then."

"Good-bye, Mr. Bevan, and thank you ever so much."

Reggie shook George's hand warmly.

"Good-bye, Bevan old thing, you're a ripper. I can't tell you how
bucked up I am at the sportsmanlike way you've rallied round. I'll
do the same for you one of these days. Just hold the old boy in
play for a minute or two while we leg it. And, if he wants us, tell
him our address till further notice is Paris. What ho! What ho!
What ho! Toodle-oo, laddie, toodle-oo!"

George threaded his way across the room. Billie Dore welcomed him
with a friendly smile. The earl, who had turned to observe his
progress, seemed less delighted to see him. His weather-beaten face
wore an almost furtive look. He reminded George of a schoolboy who
has been caught in some breach of the law.

"Fancy seeing you here, George!" said Billie. "We're always
meeting, aren't we? How did you come to separate yourself from the
pigs and chickens? I thought you were never going to leave them."

"I had to run up on business," explained George. "How are you, Lord
Marshmoreton?"

The earl nodded briefly.

"So you're on to him, too?" said Billie. "When did you get wise?"

"Lord Marshmoreton was kind enough to call on me the other morning
and drop the incognito."

"Isn't dadda the foxiest old thing!" said Billie delightedly.
"Imagine him standing there that day in the garden, kidding us
along like that! I tell you, when they brought me his card last
night after the first act and I went down to take a slant at this
Lord Marshmoreton and found dadda hanging round the stage door, you
could have knocked me over with a whisk-broom."

"I have not stood at the stage-door for twenty-five years," said
Lord Marshmoreton sadly.

"Now, it's no use your pulling that Henry W. Methuselah stuff,"
said Billie affectionately. "You can't get away with it. Anyone
can see you're just a kid. Can't they, George?" She indicated the
blushing earl with a wave of the hand. "Isn't dadda the youngest
thing that ever happened?"

"Exactly what I told him myself."

Lord Marshmoreton giggled. There is no other verb that describes
the sound that proceeded from him.

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