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A Damsel in Distress by Pelham Grenville Wodehouse

Part 5 out of 6

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"I feel young," he admitted.

"I wish some of the juveniles in the shows I've been in," said
Billie, "were as young as you. It's getting so nowadays that one's
thankful if a juvenile has teeth." She glanced across the room.
"Your pals are walking out on you, George. The people you were
lunching with," she explained. "They're leaving."

"That's all right. I said good-bye to them." He looked at Lord
Marshmoreton. It seemed a suitable opportunity to break the news.
"I was lunching with Mr. and Mrs. Byng," he said.

Nothing appeared to stir beneath Lord Marshmoreton's tanned
forehead.

"Reggie Byng and his wife, Lord Marshmoreton," added George.

This time he secured the earl's interest. Lord Marshmoreton
started.

"What!"

"They are just off to Paris," said George.

"Reggie Byng is not married!"

"Married this morning. I was best man."

"Busy little creature!" interjected Billie.

"But--but--!"

"You know his wife," said George casually. "She was a Miss Faraday.
I think she was your secretary."

It would have been impossible to deny that Lord Marshmoreton showed
emotion. His mouth opened, and he clutched the tablecloth. But
just what the emotion was George was unable to say till, with a
sigh that seemed to come from his innermost being, the other
exclaimed "Thank Heaven!"

George was surprised.

"You're glad?"

"Of course I'm glad!"

"It's a pity they didn't know how you were going to feel. It would
have saved them a lot of anxiety. I rather gathered they supposed
that the shock was apt to darken your whole life."

"That girl," said Lord Marshmoreton vehemently, "was driving me
crazy. Always bothering me to come and work on that damned family
history. Never gave me a moment's peace . . ."

"I liked her," said George.

"Nice enough girl," admitted his lordship grudgingly. "But a damned
nuisance about the house; always at me to go on with the family
history. As if there weren't better things to do with one's time
than writing all day about my infernal fools of ancestors!"

"Isn't dadda fractious today?" said Billie reprovingly, giving the
Earl's hand a pat. "Quit knocking your ancestors! You're very lucky
to have ancestors. I wish I had. The Dore family seems to go back
about as far as the presidency of Willard Filmore, and then it kind
of gets discouraged and quite cold. Gee! I'd like to feel that my
great-great-great-grandmother had helped Queen Elizabeth with the
rent. I'm strong for the fine old stately families of England."

"Stately old fiddlesticks!" snapped the earl.

"Did you see his eyes flash then, George? That's what they call
aristocratic rage. It's the fine old spirit of the Marshmoretons
boiling over."

"I noticed it," said George. "Just like lightning."

"It's no use trying to fool us, dadda," said Billie. "You know just
as well as I do that it makes you feel good to think that, every
time you cut yourself with your safety-razor, you bleed blue!"

"A lot of silly nonsense!" grumbled the earl.

"What is?"

"This foolery of titles and aristocracy. Silly fetish-worship!
One man's as good as another. . . ."

"This is the spirit of '76!" said George approvingly.

"Regular I.W.W. stuff," agreed Billie. "Shake hands the President
of the Bolsheviki!"

Lord Marshmoreton ignored the interruption. There was a strange
look in his eyes. It was evident to George, watching him with close
interest, that here was a revelation of the man's soul; that
thoughts, locked away for years in the other's bosom were crying
for utterance.

"Damned silly nonsense! When I was a boy, I wanted to be
an engine-driver. When I was a young man, I was a Socialist
and hadn't any idea except to work for my living and make a
name for myself. I was going to the colonies. Canada. The
fruit farm was actually bought. Bought and paid for!" He
brooded a moment on that long-lost fruit farm. "My father was
a younger son. And then my uncle must go and break his neck
hunting, and the baby, poor little chap, got croup or something
. . . And there I was, saddled with the title, and all my plans
gone up in smoke . . . Silly nonsense! Silly nonsense!"

He bit the end of a cigar. "And you can't stand up against it," he
went on ruefully. "It saps you. It's like some damned drug. I
fought against it as long as I could, but it was no use. I'm as big
a snob as any of them now. I'm afraid to do what I want to do.
Always thinking of the family dignity. I haven't taken a free step
for twenty-five years."

George and Billie exchanged glances. Each had the uncomfortable
feeling that they were eavesdropping and hearing things not meant
to be heard. George rose.

"I must be getting along now," he said. "I've one or two
things to do. Glad to have seen you again, Billie. Is the show
going all right?"

"Fine. Making money for you right along."

"Good-bye, Lord Marshmoreton."

The earl nodded without speaking. It was not often now that he
rebelled even in thoughts against the lot which fate had thrust
upon him, and never in his life before had he done so in words. He
was still in the grip of the strange discontent which had come upon
him so abruptly.

There was a silence after George had gone.

"I'm glad we met George," said Billie. "He's a good boy." She spoke
soberly. She was conscious of a curious feeling of affection for
the sturdy, weather-tanned little man opposite her. The glimpse
she had been given of his inner self had somehow made him come
alive for her.

"He wants to marry my daughter," said Lord Marshmoreton. A few
moments before, Billie would undoubtedly have replied to such a
statement with some jocular remark expressing disbelief that the
earl could have a daughter old enough to be married. But now she
felt oddly serious and unlike her usual flippant self.

"Oh?" was all she could find to say.

"She wants to marry him."

Not for years had Billie Dore felt embarrassed, but she felt so
now. She judged herself unworthy to be the recipient of these very
private confidences.

"Oh?" she said again.

"He's a good fellow. I like him. I liked him the moment we met. He
knew it, too. And I knew he liked me."

A group of men and girls from a neighbouring table passed on their
way to the door. One of the girls nodded to Billie. She returned
the nod absently. The party moved on. Billie frowned down at the
tablecloth and drew a pattern on it with a fork.

"Why don't you let George marry your daughter, Lord Marshmoreton?"

The earl drew at his cigar in silence.

"I know it's not my business," said Billie apologetically,
interpreting the silence as a rebuff.

"Because I'm the Earl of Marshmoreton."

"I see."

"No you don't," snapped the earl. "You think I mean by that that I
think your friend isn't good enough to marry my daughter. You think
that I'm an incurable snob. And I've no doubt he thinks so, too,
though I took the trouble to explain my attitude to him when we
last met. You're wrong. It isn't that at all. When I say 'I'm the
Earl of Marshmoreton', I mean that I'm a poor spineless fool who's
afraid to do the right thing because he daren't go in the teeth of
the family."

"I don't understand. What have your family got to do with it?"

"They'd worry the life out of me. I wish you could meet my sister
Caroline! That's what they've got to do with it. Girls in my
daughter's unfortunate position have got to marry position or
money."

"Well, I don't know about position, but when it comes to
money--why, George is the fellow that made the dollar-bill famous.
He and Rockefeller have got all there is, except the little bit
they have let Andy Carnegie have for car-fare."

"What do you mean? He told me he worked for a living." Billie was
becoming herself again. Embarrassment had fled.

"If you call it work. He's a composer."

"I know. Writes tunes and things."

Billie regarded him compassionately.

"And I suppose, living out in the woods the way that you do that
you haven't a notion that they pay him for it."

"Pay him? Yes, but how much? Composers were not rich men in my day."

"I wish you wouldn't talk of 'your day' as if you telling the boys
down at the corner store about the good times they all had before
the Flood. You're one of the Younger Set and don't let me have to
tell you again. Say, listen! You know that show you saw last night.
The one where I was supported by a few underlings. Well, George
wrote the music for that."

"I know. He told me so."

"Well, did he tell you that he draws three per cent of the gross
receipts? You saw the house we had last night. It was a fair
average house. We are playing to over fourteen thousand dollars a
week. George's little bit of that is--I can't do it in my head, but
it's a round four hundred dollars. That's eighty pounds of your
money. And did he tell you that this same show ran over a year in
New York to big business all the time, and that there are three
companies on the road now? And did he mention that this is the
ninth show he's done, and that seven of the others were just as big
hits as this one? And did he remark in passing that he gets
royalties on every copy of his music that's sold, and that at least
ten of his things have sold over half a million? No, he didn't,
because he isn't the sort of fellow who stands around blowing about
his income. But you know it now."

"Why, he's a rich man!"

"I don't know what you call rich, but, keeping on the safe side, I
should say that George pulls down in a good year, during the
season--around five thousand dollars a week."

Lord Marshmoreton was frankly staggered.

"A thousand pounds a week! I had no idea!"

"I thought you hadn't. And, while I'm boosting George, let me tell
you another thing. He's one of the whitest men that ever happened.
I know him. You can take it from me, if there's anything rotten in
a fellow, the show-business will bring it out, and it hasn't come
out in George yet, so I guess it isn't there. George is all
right!"

"He has at least an excellent advocate."

"Oh, I'm strong for George. I wish there were more like him . . .
Well, if you think I've butted in on your private affairs
sufficiently, I suppose I ought to be moving. We've a rehearsal
this afternoon."

"Let it go!" said Lord Marshmoreton boyishly.

"Yes, and how quick do you think they would let me go, if I did?
I'm an honest working-girl, and I can't afford to lose jobs."

Lord Marshmoreton fiddled with his cigar-butt.

"I could offer you an alternative position, if you cared to accept
it."

Billie looked at him keenly. Other men in similar circumstances had
made much the same remark to her. She was conscious of feeling a
little disappointed in her new friend.

"Well?" she said dryly. "Shoot."

"You gathered, no doubt, from Mr. Bevan's conversation, that my
secretary has left me and run away and got married? Would you like
to take her place?"

It was not easy to disconcert Billie Dore, but she was taken aback.
She had been expecting something different.

"You're a shriek, dadda!"

"I'm perfectly serious."

"Can you see me at a castle?"

"I can see you perfectly." Lord Marshmoreton's rather formal manner
left him. "Do please accept, my dear child. I've got to finish this
damned family history some time or other. The family expect me to.
Only yesterday my sister Caroline got me in a corner and bored me
for half an hour about it. I simply can't face the prospect of
getting another Alice Faraday from an agency. Charming girl,
charming girl, of course, but . . . but . . . well, I'll be damned
if I do it, and that's the long and short of it!"

Billie bubbled over with laughter.

"Of all the impulsive kids!" she gurgled. "I never met anyone like
you, dadda! You don't even know that I can use a typewriter."

"I do. Mr. Bevan told me you were an excellent stenographer."

"So George has been boosting me, too, has he?" She mused. "I must
say, I'd love to come. That old place got me when I saw it that day."

"That's settled, then," said Lord Marshmoreton masterfully. "Go to
the theatre and tell them--tell whatever is usual in these cases.
And then go home and pack, and meet me at Waterloo at six o'clock.
The train leaves at six-fifteen."

"Return of the wanderer, accompanied by dizzy blonde! You've
certainly got it all fixed, haven't you! Do you think the family
will stand for me?"

"Damn the family!" said Lord Marshmoreton, stoutly.

"There's one thing," said Billie complacently, eyeing her
reflection in the mirror of her vanity-case, "I may glitter in the
fighting-top, but it is genuine. When I was a kid, I was a regular
little tow-head."

"I never supposed for a moment that it was anything but
genuine."

"Then you've got a fine, unsuspicious nature, dadda, and I admire
you for it."

"Six o'clock at Waterloo," said the earl. "I will be waiting for
you."

Billie regarded him with affectionate admiration.

"Boys will be boys," she said. "All right. I'll be there."

CHAPTER 22.

"Young blighted Albert," said Keggs the butler, shifting his weight
so that it distributed itself more comfortably over the creaking
chair in which he reclined, "let this be a lesson to you, young
feller me lad."

The day was a week after Lord Marshmoreton's visit to London, the
hour six o'clock. The housekeeper's room, in which the upper
servants took their meals, had emptied. Of the gay company which
had just finished dinner only Keggs remained, placidly digesting.
Albert, whose duty it was to wait on the upper servants, was moving
to and fro, morosely collecting the plates and glasses. The boy was
in no happy frame of mind. Throughout dinner the conversation at
table had dealt almost exclusively with the now celebrated
elopement of Reggie Byng and his bride, and few subjects could have
made more painful listening to Albert.

"What's been the result and what I might call the upshot," said
Keggs, continuing his homily, "of all your making yourself so busy
and thrusting of yourself forward and meddling in the affairs of
your elders and betters? The upshot and issue of it 'as been that
you are out five shillings and nothing to show for it. Five
shillings what you might have spent on some good book and improved
your mind! And goodness knows it wants all the improving it can
get, for of all the worthless, idle little messers it's ever been
my misfortune to have dealings with, you are the champion. Be
careful of them plates, young man, and don't breathe so hard. You
'aven't got hasthma or something, 'ave you?"

"I can't breathe now!" complained the stricken child.

"Not like a grampus you can't, and don't you forget it." Keggs
wagged his head reprovingly. "Well, so your Reggie Byng's gone and
eloped, has he! That ought to teach you to be more careful another
time 'ow you go gambling and plunging into sweepstakes. The idea of
a child of your age 'aving the audacity to thrust 'isself forward
like that!"

"Don't call him my Reggie Byng! I didn't draw 'im!"

"There's no need to go into all that again, young feller. You
accepted 'im freely and without prejudice when the fair exchange
was suggested, so for all practical intents and purposes he is your
Reggie Byng. I 'ope you're going to send him a wedding-present."

"Well, you ain't any better off than me, with all your 'ighway
robbery!"

"My what!"

"You 'eard what I said."

"Well, don't let me 'ear it again. The idea! If you 'ad any
objections to parting with that ticket, you should have stated them
clearly at the time. And what do you mean by saying I ain't any
better off than you are?"

"I 'ave my reasons."

"You think you 'ave, which is a very different thing. I suppose you
imagine that you've put a stopper on a certain little affair by
surreptitiously destroying letters entrusted to you."

"I never!" exclaimed Albert with a convulsive start that nearly
sent eleven plates dashing to destruction.

"'Ow many times have I got to tell you to be careful of them
plates?" said Keggs sternly. "Who do you think you are--a juggler
on the 'Alls, 'urling them about like that? Yes, I know all about
that letter. You thought you was very clever, I've no doubt. But
let me tell you, young blighted Albert, that only the other evening
'er ladyship and Mr. Bevan 'ad a long and extended interview in
spite of all your hefforts. I saw through your little game, and I
proceeded and went and arranged the meeting."

In spite of himself Albert was awed. He was oppressed by the sense
of struggling with a superior intellect.

"Yes, you did!" he managed to say with the proper note of
incredulity, but in his heart he was not incredulous. Dimly, Albert
had begun to perceive that years must elapse before he could become
capable of matching himself in battles of wits with this
master-strategist.

"Yes, I certainly did!" said Keggs. "I don't know what 'appened at
the interview--not being present in person. But I've no doubt that
everything proceeded satisfactorily."

"And a fat lot of good that's going to do you, when 'e ain't
allowed to come inside the 'ouse!"

A bland smile irradiated the butler's moon-like face.

"If by 'e you're alloodin' to Mr. Bevan, young blighted Albert, let
me tell you that it won't be long before 'e becomes a regular duly
invited guest at the castle!"

"A lot of chance!"

"Would you care to 'ave another five shillings even money on it?"

Albert recoiled. He had had enough of speculation where the butler
was concerned. Where that schemer was allowed to get within reach
of it, hard cash melted away.

"What are you going to do?"

"Never you mind what I'm going to do. I 'ave my methods. All I
'ave to say to you is that tomorrow or the day after Mr. Bevan
will be seated in our dining-'all with 'is feet under our table,
replying according to his personal taste and preference, when I ask
'im if 'e'll 'ave 'ock or sherry. Brush all them crumbs carefully
off the tablecloth, young blighted Albert--don't shuffle your
feet--breathe softly through your nose--and close the door be'ind
you when you've finished!"

"Oh, go and eat cake!" said Albert bitterly. But he said
it to his immortal soul, not aloud. The lad's spirit was broken.

Keggs, the processes of digestion completed, presented himself
before Lord Belpher in the billiard-room. Percy was alone. The
house-party, so numerous on the night of the ball and on his
birthday, had melted down now to reasonable proportions. The
second and third cousins had retired, flushed and gratified, to
obscure dens from which they had emerged, and the castle housed
only the more prominent members of the family, always harder to
dislodge than the small fry. The Bishop still remained, and the
Colonel. Besides these, there were perhaps half a dozen more of the
closer relations: to Lord Belpher's way of thinking, half a dozen
too many. He was not fond of his family.

"Might I have a word with your lordship?"

"What is it, Keggs?"

Keggs was a self-possessed man, but he found it a little hard to
begin. Then he remembered that once in the misty past he had seen
Lord Belpher spanked for stealing jam, he himself having acted on
that occasion as prosecuting attorney; and the memory nerved him.

"I earnestly 'ope that your lordship will not think that I am
taking a liberty. I 'ave been in his lordship your father's service
many years now, and the family honour is, if I may be pardoned for
saying so, extremely near my 'eart. I 'ave known your lordship
since you were a mere boy, and . . ."

Lord Belpher had listened with growing impatience to this preamble.
His temper was seldom at its best these days, and the rolling
periods annoyed him.

"Yes, yes, of course," he said. "What is it?"

Keggs was himself now. In his opening remarks he had simply been,
as it were, winding up. He was now prepared to begin.

"Your lordship will recall inquiring of me on the night of the ball
as to the bona fides of one of the temporary waiters? The one that
stated that 'e was the cousin of young bli--of the boy Albert, the
page? I have been making inquiries, your lordship, and I regret to
say I find that the man was a impostor. He informed me that 'e was
Albert's cousin, but Albert now informs me that 'e 'as no cousin in
America. I am extremely sorry this should have occurred, your
lordship, and I 'ope you will attribute it to the bustle and haste
inseparable from duties as mine on such a occasion."

"I know the fellow was an impostor. He was probably after the
spoons!"

Keggs coughed.

"If I might be allowed to take a further liberty, your lordship,
might I suggest that I am aware of the man's identity and of his
motive for visiting the castle."

He waited a little apprehensively. This was the crucial point in
the interview. If Lord Belpher did not now freeze him with a glance
and order him from the room, the danger would be past, and he could
speak freely. His light blue eyes were expressionless as they met
Percy's, but inwardly he was feeling much the same sensation as he
was wont to experience when the family was in town and he had
managed to slip off to Kempton Park or some other race-course and
put some of his savings on a horse. As he felt when the racing
steeds thundered down the straight, so did he feel now.

Astonishment showed in Lord Belpher's round face. Just as it was
about to be succeeded by indignation, the butler spoke again.

"I am aware, your lordship, that it is not my place to offer
suggestions as to the private and intimate affairs of the family I
'ave the honour to serve, but, if your lordship would consent to
overlook the liberty, I think I could be of 'elp and assistance in
a matter which is causing annoyance and unpleasantness to all."

He invigorated himself with another dip into the waters of memory.
Yes. The young man before him might be Lord Belpher, son of his
employer and heir to all these great estates, but once he had seen
him spanked.

Perhaps Percy also remembered this. Perhaps he merely felt that
Keggs was a faithful old servant and, as such, entitled to thrust
himself into the family affairs. Whatever his reasons, he now
definitely lowered the barrier.

"Well," he said, with a glance at the door to make sure that there
were no witnesses to an act of which the aristocrat in him
disapproved, "go on!"

Keggs breathed freely. The danger-point was past.

"'Aving a natural interest, your lordship," he said, "we of the
Servants' 'All generally manage to become respectfully aware of
whatever 'appens to be transpirin' above stairs. May I say that I
became acquainted at an early stage with the trouble which your
lordship is unfortunately 'aving with a certain party?"

Lord Belpher, although his whole being revolted against what
practically amounted to hobnobbing with a butler, perceived that he
had committed himself to the discussion. It revolted him to think
that these delicate family secrets were the subject of conversation
in menial circles, but it was too late to do anything now. And
such was the whole-heartedness with which he had declared war upon
George Bevan that, at this stage in the proceedings, his chief
emotion was a hope that Keggs might have something sensible to
suggest.

"I think, begging your lordship's pardon for making the remark,
that you are acting injudicious. I 'ave been in service a great
number of years, startin' as steward's room boy and rising to my
present position, and I may say I 'ave 'ad experience during those
years of several cases where the daughter or son of the 'ouse
contemplated a misalliance, and all but one of the cases ended
disastrously, your lordship, on account of the family trying
opposition. It is my experience that opposition in matters of the
'eart is useless, feedin', as it, so to speak, does the flame.
Young people, your lordship, if I may be pardoned for employing the
expression in the present case, are naturally romantic and if you
keep 'em away from a thing they sit and pity themselves and want it
all the more. And in the end you may be sure they get it. There's
no way of stoppin' them. I was not on sufficiently easy terms with
the late Lord Worlingham to give 'im the benefit of my experience
on the occasion when the Honourable Aubrey Pershore fell in love
with the young person at the Gaiety Theatre. Otherwise I could
'ave told 'im he was not acting judicious. His lordship opposed
the match in every way, and the young couple ran off and got
married at a registrar's. It was the same when a young man who was
tutor to 'er ladyship's brother attracted Lady Evelyn Walls, the
only daughter of the Earl of Ackleton. In fact, your lordship, the
only entanglement of the kind that came to a satisfactory
conclusion in the whole of my personal experience was the affair of
Lady Catherine Duseby, Lord Bridgefield's daughter, who
injudiciously became infatuated with a roller-skating instructor."

Lord Belpher had ceased to feel distantly superior to his companion.
The butler's powerful personality hypnotized him. Long ere the
harangue was ended, he was as a little child drinking in the
utterances of a master. He bent forward eagerly. Keggs had broken
off his remarks at the most interesting point.

"What happened?" inquired Percy.

"The young man," proceeded Keggs, "was a young man of considerable
personal attractions, 'aving large brown eyes and a athletic
lissome figure, brought about by roller-skating. It was no wonder,
in the opinion of the Servants' 'All, that 'er ladyship should have
found 'erself fascinated by him, particularly as I myself 'ad 'eard
her observe at a full luncheon-table that roller-skating was in
her opinion the only thing except her toy Pomeranian that made life
worth living. But when she announced that she had become engaged to
this young man, there was the greatest consternation. I was not, of
course, privileged to be a participant at the many councils and
discussions that ensued and took place, but I was aware that such
transpired with great frequency. Eventually 'is lordship took the
shrewd step of assuming acquiescence and inviting the young man to
visit us in Scotland. And within ten days of his arrival, your
lordship, the match was broken off. He went back to 'is
roller-skating, and 'er ladyship took up visiting the poor and
eventually contracted an altogether suitable alliance by marrying
Lord Ronald Spofforth, the second son of his Grace the Duke of
Gorbals and Strathbungo."

"How did it happen?"

"Seein' the young man in the surroundings of 'er own 'ome, 'er
ladyship soon began to see that she had taken too romantic a view
of 'im previous, your lordship. 'E was one of the lower middle
class, what is sometimes termed the bourjoisy, and 'is 'abits were
not the 'abits of the class to which 'er ladyship belonged. 'E 'ad
nothing in common with the rest of the 'ouse-party, and was
injudicious in 'is choice of forks. The very first night at dinner
'e took a steel knife to the ontray, and I see 'er ladyship look at
him very sharp, as much as to say that scales had fallen from 'er
eyes. It didn't take 'er long after that to become convinced that
'er 'eart 'ad led 'er astray."

"Then you think--?"

"It is not for me to presume to offer anything but the most
respectful advice, your lordship, but I should most certainly
advocate a similar procedure in the present instance."

Lord Belpher reflected. Recent events had brought home to him the
magnitude of the task he had assumed when he had appointed himself
the watcher of his sister's movements. The affair of the curate and
the village blacksmith had shaken him both physically and
spiritually. His feet were still sore, and his confidence in
himself had waned considerably. The thought of having to continue
his espionage indefinitely was not a pleasant one. How much simpler
and more effective it would be to adopt the suggestion which had
been offered to him.

"--I'm not sure you aren't right, Keggs."

"Thank you, your lordship. I feel convinced of it."

"I will speak to my father tonight."

"Very good, your lordship. I am glad to have been of service."

"Young blighted Albert," said Keggs crisply, shortly after
breakfast on the following morning, "you're to take this note to
Mr. Bevan at the cottage down by Platt's farm, and you're to
deliver it without playing any of your monkey-tricks, and you're to
wait for an answer, and you're to bring that answer back to me,
too, and to Lord Marshmoreton. And I may tell you, to save you the
trouble of opening it with steam from the kitchen kettle, that I
'ave already done so. It's an invitation to dine with us tonight.
So now you know. Look slippy!"

Albert capitulated. For the first time in his life he felt humble.
He perceived how misguided he had been ever to suppose that he
could pit his pigmy wits against this smooth-faced worker of
wonders.

"Crikey!" he ejaculated.

It was all that he could say.

"And there's one more thing, young feller me lad," added Keggs
earnestly, "don't you ever grow up to be such a fat'ead as our
friend Percy. Don't forget I warned you."

CHAPTER 23.

Life is like some crazy machine that is always going either too
slow or too fast. From the cradle to the grave we alternate between
the Sargasso Sea and the rapids--forever either becalmed or
storm-tossed. It seemed to Maud, as she looked across the
dinner-table in order to make sure for the twentieth time that it
really was George Bevan who sat opposite her, that, after months in
which nothing whatever had happened, she was now living through a
period when everything was happening at once. Life, from being a
broken-down machine, had suddenly begun to race.

To the orderly routine that stretched back to the time when she had
been hurried home in disgrace from Wales there had succeeded a mad
whirl of events, to which the miracle of tonight had come as a
fitting climax. She had not begun to dress for dinner till somewhat
late, and had consequently entered the drawing-room just as Keggs
was announcing that the meal was ready. She had received her first
shock when the love-sick Plummer, emerging from a mixed crowd of
relatives and friends, had informed her that he was to take her in.
She had not expected Plummer to be there, though he lived in the
neighbourhood. Plummer, at their last meeting, had stated his
intention of going abroad for a bit to mend his bruised heart: and
it was a little disconcerting to a sensitive girl to find her
victim popping up again like this. She did not know that, as far as
Plummer was concerned, the whole affair was to be considered opened
again. To Plummer, analysing the girl's motives in refusing him,
there had come the idea that there was Another, and that this other
must be Reggie Byng. From the first he had always looked upon
Reggie as his worst rival. And now Reggie had bolted with the
Faraday girl, leaving Maud in excellent condition, so it seemed to
Plummer, to console herself with a worthier man. Plummer knew all
about the Rebound and the part it plays in the affairs of the
heart. His own breach-of-promise case two years earlier had been
entirely due to the fact that the refusal of the youngest Devenish
girl to marry him had caused him to rebound into the dangerous
society of the second girl from the O.P. end of the first row in
the "Summertime is Kissing-time" number in the Alhambra revue. He
had come to the castle tonight gloomy, but not without hope.

Maud's second shock eclipsed the first entirely. No notification
had been given to her either by her father or by Percy of the
proposed extension of the hand of hospitality to George, and the
sight of him standing there talking to her aunt Caroline made her
momentarily dizzy. Life, which for several days had had all the
properties now of a dream, now of a nightmare, became more unreal
than ever. She could conceive no explanation of George's presence.
He could not be there--that was all there was to it; yet there
undoubtedly he was. Her manner, as she accompanied Plummer down the
stairs, took on such a dazed sweetness that her escort felt that in
coming there that night he had done the wisest act of a lifetime
studded but sparsely with wise acts. It seemed to Plummer that this
girl had softened towards him. Certainly something had changed her.
He could not know that she was merely wondering if she was awake.

George, meanwhile, across the table, was also having a little
difficulty in adjusting his faculties to the progress of events. He
had given up trying to imagine why he had been invited to this
dinner, and was now endeavouring to find some theory which would
square with the fact of Billie Dore being at the castle. At
precisely this hour Billie, by rights, should have been putting the
finishing touches on her make-up in a second-floor dressing-room at
the Regal. Yet there she sat, very much at her ease in this
aristocratic company, so quietly and unobtrusively dressed in some
black stuff that at first he had scarcely recognized her. She was
talking to the Bishop. . .

The voice of Keggs at his elbow broke in on his reverie.

"Sherry or 'ock, sir?"

George could not have explained why this reminder of the butler's
presence should have made him feel better, but it did. There was
something solid and tranquilizing about Keggs. He had noticed it
before. For the first time the sensation of having been smitten
over the head with some blunt instrument began to abate. It was as
if Keggs by the mere intonation of his voice had said, "All this
no doubt seems very strange and unusual to you, but feel no alarm!
I am here!"

George began to sit up and take notice. A cloud seemed to have
cleared from his brain. He found himself looking on his
fellow-diners as individuals rather than as a confused mass. The
prophet Daniel, after the initial embarrassment of finding himself
in the society of the lions had passed away, must have experienced
a somewhat similar sensation.

He began to sort these people out and label them. There had been
introductions in the drawing-room, but they had left him with a
bewildered sense of having heard somebody recite a page from
Burke's peerage. Not since that day in the free library in London,
when he had dived into that fascinating volume in order to discover
Maud's identity, had he undergone such a rain of titles. He now
took stock, to ascertain how many of these people he could
identify.

The stock-taking was an absolute failure. Of all those present the
only individuals he could swear to were his own personal little
playmates with whom he had sported in other surroundings. There was
Lord Belpher, for instance, eyeing him with a hostility that could
hardly be called veiled. There was Lord Marshmoreton at the head of
the table, listening glumly to the conversation of a stout woman
with a pearl necklace, but who was that woman? Was it Lady Jane
Allenby or Lady Edith Wade-Beverly or Lady Patricia Fowles? And
who, above all, was the pie-faced fellow with the moustache talking
to Maud?

He sought assistance from the girl he had taken in to dinner. She
appeared, as far as he could ascertain from a short acquaintance,
to be an amiable little thing. She was small and young and fluffy,
and he had caught enough of her name at the moment of introduction
to gather that she was plain "Miss" Something--a fact which seemed
to him to draw them together.

"I wish you would tell me who some of these people are," he said,
as she turned from talking to the man on her other-side. "Who is
the man over there?"

"Which man?"

"The one talking to Lady Maud. The fellow whose face ought to be
shuffled and dealt again."

"That's my brother."

That held George during the soup.

"I'm sorry about your brother," he said rallying with the fish.

"That's very sweet of you."

"It was the light that deceived me. Now that I look again, I see
that his face has great charm."

The girl giggled. George began to feel better.

"Who are some of the others? I didn't get your name, for instance.
They shot it at me so quick that it had whizzed by before I could
catch it."

"My name is Plummer."

George was electrified. He looked across the table with more vivid
interest. The amorous Plummer had been just a Voice to him till
now. It was exciting to see him in the flesh.

"And who are the rest of them?"

"They are all members of the family. I thought you knew them."

"I know Lord Marshmoreton. And Lady Maud. And, of course, Lord
Belpher." He caught Percy's eye as it surveyed him coldly from the
other side of the table, and nodded cheerfully. "Great pal of
mine, Lord Belpher."

The fluffy Miss Plummer twisted her pretty face into a grimace of
disapproval.

"I don't like Percy."

"No!"

"I think he's conceited."

"Surely not? 'What could he have to be conceited about?"

"He's stiff."

"Yes, of course, that's how he strikes people at first. The first
time I met him, I thought he was an awful stiff. But you should see
him in his moments of relaxation. He's one of those fellows you
have to get to know. He grows on you."

"Yes, but look at that affair with the policeman in London.
Everybody in the county is talking about it."

"Young blood!" sighed George. "Young blood! Of course, Percy is
wild."

"He must have been intoxicated."

"Oh, undoubtedly," said George.

Miss Plummer glanced across the table.

"Do look at Edwin!"

"Which is Edwin?"

"My brother, I mean. Look at the way he keeps staring at Maud.
Edwin's awfully in love with Maud," she rattled on with engaging
frankness. "At least, he thinks he is. He's been in love with a
different girl every season since I came out. And now that Reggie
Byng has gone and married Alice Faraday, he thinks he has a chance.
You heard about that, I suppose?"

"Yes, I did hear something about it."

"Of course, Edwin's wasting his time, really. I happen to
know"--Miss Plummer sank her voice to a whisper--"I happen to know
that Maud's awfully in love with some man she met in Wales last
year, but the family won't hear of it."

"Families are like that," agreed George.

"Nobody knows who he is, but everybody in the county knows all about
it. Those things get about, you know. Of course, it's out of the
question. Maud will have to marry somebody awfully rich or with a
title. Her family's one of the oldest in England, you know."

"So I understand."

"It isn't as if she were the daughter of Lord Peebles, somebody
like that."

"Why Lord Peebles?"

"Well, what I mean to say is," said Miss Plummer, with a silvery
echo of Reggie Byng, "he made his money in whisky."

"That's better than spending it that way," argued George.

Miss Plummer looked puzzled. "I see what you mean," she said a
little vaguely. "Lord Marshmoreton is so different."

"Haughty nobleman stuff, eh?"

"Yes."

"So you think this mysterious man in Wales hasn't a chance?"

"Not unless he and Maud elope like Reggie Byng and Alice. Wasn't
that exciting? Who would ever have suspected Reggie had the dash to
do a thing like that? Lord Marshmoreton's new secretary is very
pretty, don't you think?"

"Which is she?"

"The girl in black with the golden hair."

"Is she Lord Marshmoreton's secretary?"

"Yes. She's an American girl. I think she's much nicer than Alice
Faraday. I was talking to her before dinner. Her name is Dore. Her
father was a captain in the American army, who died without leaving
her a penny. He was the younger son of a very distinguished family,
but his family disowned him because he married against their
wishes."

"Something ought to be done to stop these families," said George.
"They're always up to something."

"So Miss Dore had to go out and earn her own living. It must have
been awful for her, mustn't it, having to give up society."

"Did she give up society?"

"Oh, yes. She used to go everywhere in New York before her father
died. I think American girls are wonderful. They have so much
enterprise."

George at the moment was thinking that it was in imagination that
they excelled.

"I wish I could go out and earn my living," said Miss Plummer.
"But the family won't dream of it."

"The family again!" said George sympathetically. "They're a perfect
curse."

"I want to go on the stage. Are you fond of the theatre?"

"Fairly."

"I love it. Have you seen Hubert Broadleigh in ''Twas Once in
Spring'?"

"I'm afraid I haven't."

"He's wonderful. Have you see Cynthia Dane in 'A Woman's No'?"

"I missed that one too."

"Perhaps you prefer musical pieces? I saw an awfully good musical
comedy before I left town. It's called 'Follow the Girl'. It's at
the Regal Theatre. Have you see it?"

"I wrote it."

"You--what!"

"That is to say, I wrote the music."

"But the music's lovely," gasped little Miss Plummer, as if the
fact made his claim ridiculous. "I've been humming it ever since."

"I can't help that. I still stick to it that I wrote it."

"You aren't George Bevan!"

"I am!"

"But--" Miss Plummer's voice almost failed here--"But I've been
dancing to your music for years! I've got about fifty of your
records on the Victrola at home."

George blushed. However successful a man may be he can never get
used to Fame at close range.

"Why, that tricky thing--you know, in the second act--is the
darlingest thing I ever heard. I'm mad about it."

"Do you mean the one that goes lumty-lumty-tum, tumty-tumty-tum?"

"No the one that goes ta-rumty-tum-tum, ta-rumty-tum.
You know! The one about Granny dancing the shimmy."

"I'm not responsible for the words, you know," urged George
hastily. "Those are wished on me by the lyrist."

"I think the words are splendid. Although poor popper thinks its
improper, Granny's always doing it and nobody can stop her! I loved
it." Miss Plummer leaned forward excitedly. She was an impulsive
girl. "Lady Caroline."

Conversation stopped. Lady Caroline turned.

"Yes, Millie?"

"Did you know that Mr. Bevan was THE Mr. Bevan?"

Everybody was listening now. George huddled pinkly in his chair. He
had not foreseen this bally-hooing. Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego
combined had never felt a tithe of the warmth that consumed him. He
was essentially a modest young man.

"THE Mr. Bevan?" echoed Lady Caroline coldly. It was painful to her
to have to recognize George's existence on the same planet as
herself. To admire him, as Miss Plummer apparently expected her to
do, was a loathsome task. She cast one glance, fresh from the
refrigerator, at the shrinking George, and elevated her
aristocratic eyebrows.

Miss Plummer was not damped. She was at the hero-worshipping age,
and George shared with the Messrs. Fairbanks, Francis X. Bushman,
and one or two tennis champions an imposing pedestal in her Hall of
Fame.

"You know! George Bevan, who wrote the music of 'Follow the Girl'."

Lady Caroline showed no signs of thawing. She had not heard of
'Follow the Girl'. Her attitude suggested that, while she admitted
the possibility of George having disgraced himself in the manner
indicated, it was nothing to her.

"And all those other things," pursued Miss Plummer indefatigably.
"You must have heard his music on the Victrola."

"Why, of course!"

It was not Lady Caroline who spoke, but a man further down the
table. He spoke with enthusiasm.

"Of course, by Jove!" he said. "The Schenectady Shimmy, by Jove,
and all that! Ripping!"

Everybody seemed pleased and interested. Everybody, that is to say,
except Lady Caroline and Lord Belpher. Percy was feeling that he
had been tricked. He cursed the imbecility of Keggs in suggesting
that this man should be invited to dinner. Everything had gone
wrong. George was an undoubted success. The majority of the
company were solid for him. As far as exposing his unworthiness in
the eyes of Maud was concerned, the dinner had been a ghastly
failure. Much better to have left him to lurk in his infernal
cottage. Lord Belpher drained his glass moodily. He was seriously
upset.

But his discomfort at that moment was as nothing to the agony which
rent his tortured soul a moment later. Lord Marshmoreton, who had
been listening with growing excitement to the chorus of approval,
rose from his seat. He cleared his throat. It was plain that Lord
Marshmoreton had something on his mind.

"Er. . . ." he said.

The clatter of conversation ceased once more--stunned, as it always
is at dinner parties when one of the gathering is seen to have
assumed an upright position. Lord Marshmoreton cleared his throat
again. His tanned face had taken on a deeper hue, and there was a
look in his eyes which seemed to suggest that he was defying
something or somebody. It was the look which Ajax had in his eyes
when he defied the lightning, the look which nervous husbands have
when they announce their intention of going round the corner to bowl
a few games with the boys. One could not say definitely that Lord
Marshmoreton looked pop-eyed. On the other hand, one could not
assert truthfully that he did not. At any rate, he was manifestly
embarrassed. He had made up his mind to a certain course of action
on the spur of the moment, taking advantage, as others have done,
of the trend of popular enthusiasm: and his state of mind was
nervous but resolute, like that of a soldier going over the top.
He cleared his throat for the third time, took one swift glance at
his sister Caroline, then gazed glassily into the emptiness above
her head.

"Take this opportunity," he said rapidly, clutching at the
table-cloth for support, "take this opportunity of announcing the
engagement of my daughter Maud to Mr. Bevan. And," he concluded
with a rush, pouring back into his chair, "I should like you all to
drink their health!"

There was a silence that hurt. It was broken by two sounds,
occurring simultaneously in different parts of the room. One was a
gasp from Lady Caroline. The other was a crash of glass.

For the first time in a long unblemished career Keggs the butler
had dropped a tray.

CHAPTER 24.

Out on the terrace the night was very still. From a steel-blue sky
the stars looked down as calmly as they had looked on the night of
the ball, when George had waited by the shrubbery listening to the
wailing of the music and thinking long thoughts. From the dark
meadows by the brook came the cry of a corncrake, its harsh note
softened by distance.

"What shall we do?" said Maud. She was sitting on the stone seat
where Reggie Byng had sat and meditated on his love for Alice
Faraday and his unfortunate habit of slicing his approach-shots. To
George, as he stood beside her, she was a white blur in the
darkness. He could not see her face.

"I don't know!" he said frankly.

Nor did he. Like Lady Caroline and Lord Belpher and Keggs, the
butler, he had been completely overwhelmed by Lord Marshmoreton's
dramatic announcement. The situation had come upon him unheralded
by any warning, and had found him unequal to it.

A choking sound suddenly proceeded from the whiteness that was
Maud. In the stillness it sounded like some loud noise. It jarred
on George's disturbed nerves.

"Please!"

"I c-can't help it!"

"There's nothing to cry about, really! If we think long enough, we
shall find some way out all right. Please don't cry."

"I'm not crying!" The choking sound became an unmistakable ripple of
mirth. "It's so absurd! Poor father getting up like that in front
of everyone! Did you see Aunt Caroline's face?"

"It haunts me still," said George. "I shall never forget it. Your
brother didn't seem any too pleased, either."

Maud stopped laughing.

"It's an awful position," she said soberly. "The announcement will
be in the Morning Post the day after tomorrow. And then the letters
of congratulation will begin to pour in. And after that the
presents. And I simply can't see how we can convince them all that
there has been a mistake." Another aspect of the matter struck her.
"It's so hard on you, too."

"Don't think about me," urged George. "Heaven knows I'd give the
whole world if we could just let the thing go on, but there's no
use discussing impossibilities." He lowered his voice. "There's no
use, either, in my pretending that I'm not going to have a pretty
bad time. But we won't discuss that. It was my own fault. I came
butting in on your life of my own free will, and, whatever happens,
it's been worth it to have known you and tried to be of service to
you."

"You're the best friend I've ever had."

"I'm glad you think that."

"The best and kindest friend any girl ever had. I wish . . ."
She broke off. "Oh, well. . ."

There was a silence. In the castle somebody had begun to play the
piano. Then a man's voice began to sing.

"That's Edwin Plummer," said Maud. "How badly he sings."

George laughed. Somehow the intrusion of Plummer had removed the
tension. Plummer, whether designedly and as a sombre commentary on
the situation or because he was the sort of man who does sing that
particular song, was chanting Tosti's "Good-bye". He was giving to
its never very cheery notes a wailing melancholy all his own. A dog
in the stables began to howl in sympathy, and with the sound came a
curious soothing of George's nerves. He might feel broken-hearted
later, but for the moment, with this double accompaniment, it was
impossible for a man with humour in his soul to dwell on the deeper
emotions. Plummer and his canine duettist had brought him to
earth. He felt calm and practical.

"We'd better talk the whole thing over quietly," he said. "There's
certain to be some solution. At the worst you can always go to Lord
Marshmoreton and tell him that he spoke without a sufficient grasp
of his subject."

"I could," said Maud, "but, just at present, I feel as if I'd
rather do anything else in the world. You don't realize what it
must have cost father to defy Aunt Caroline openly like that. Ever
since I was old enough to notice anything, I've seen how she
dominated him. It was Aunt Caroline who really caused all this
trouble. If it had only been father, I could have coaxed him to let
me marry anyone I pleased. I wish, if you possibly can, you would
think of some other solution."

"I haven't had an opportunity of telling you," said George, "that I
called at Belgrave Square, as you asked me to do. I went there
directly I had seen Reggie Byng safely married."

"Did you see him married?"

"I was best man."

"Dear old Reggie! I hope he will be happy."

"He will. Don't worry about that. Well, as I was saying, I called
at Belgrave Square, and found the house shut up. I couldn't get any
answer to the bell, though I kept my thumb on it for minutes at a
time. I think they must have gone abroad again."

"No, it wasn't that. I had a letter from Geoffrey this morning. His
uncle died of apoplexy, while they were in Manchester on a business
trip." She paused. "He left Geoffrey all his money," she went on.
"Every penny."

The silence seemed to stretch out interminably. The music from the
castle had ceased. The quiet of the summer night was unbroken. To
George the stillness had a touch of the sinister. It was the
ghastly silence of the end of the world. With a shock he realized
that even now he had been permitting himself to hope, futile as he
recognized the hope to be. Maud had told him she loved another man.
That should have been final. And yet somehow his indomitable
sub-conscious self had refused to accept it as final. But this news
ended everything. The only obstacle that had held Maud and this man
apart was removed. There was nothing to prevent them marrying.
George was conscious of a vast depression. The last strand of the
rope had parted, and he was drifting alone out into the ocean of
desolation.

"Oh!" he said, and was surprised that his voice sounded very much
the same as usual. Speech was so difficult that it seemed strange
that it should show no signs of effort. "That alters everything,
doesn't it."

"He said in his letter that he wanted me to meet him in London
and--talk things over, I suppose."

"There's nothing now to prevent your going. I mean, now that your
father has made this announcement, you are free to go where you
please."

"Yes, I suppose I am."

There was another silence.

"Everything's so difficult," said Maud.

"In what way?"

"Oh, I don't know."

"If you are thinking of me," said George, "please don't. I know
exactly what you mean. You are hating the thought of hurting my
feelings. I wish you would look on me as having no feelings. All I
want is to see you happy. As I said just now, it's enough for me to
know that I've helped you. Do be reasonable about it. The fact that
our engagement has been officially announced makes no difference in
our relations to each other. As far as we two are concerned, we
are exactly where we were the last time we met. It's no worse for
me now than it was then to know that I'm not the man you love, and
that there's somebody else you loved before you ever knew of my
existence. For goodness' sake, a girl like you must be used to
having men tell her that they love her and having to tell them that
she can't love them in return."

"But you're so different."

"Not a bit of it. I'm just one of the crowd."

"I've never known anybody quite like you."

"Well, you've never known anybody quite like Plummer, I should
imagine. But the thought of his sufferings didn't break your
heart."

"I've known a million men exactly like Edwin Plummer," said Maud
emphatically. "All the men I ever have known have been like
him--quite nice and pleasant and negative. It never seemed to
matter refusing them. One knew that they would be just a little bit
piqued for a week or two and then wander off and fall in love with
somebody else. But you're different. You . . . matter."

"That is where we disagree. My argument is that, where your
happiness is concerned, I don't matter."

Maud rested her chin on her hand, and stared out into the velvet
darkness.

"You ought to have been my brother instead of Percy," she said at
last. "What chums we should have been! And how simple that would
have made everything!"

"The best thing for you to do is to regard me as an honorary
brother. That will make everything simple."

"It's easy to talk like that . . . No, it isn't. It's horribly
hard. I know exactly how difficult it is for you to talk as you
have been doing--to try to make me feel better by pretending the
whole trouble is just a trifle . . . It's strange . . . We have
only met really for a few minutes at a time, and three weeks ago I
didn't know there was such a person as you, but somehow I seem to
know everything you're thinking. I've never felt like that before
with any man . . . Even Geoffrey. . . He always puzzled me. . . ."

She broke off. The corncrake began to call again out in the
distance.

"I wish I knew what to do," she said with a catch in her voice.

"I'll tell you in two words what to do. The whole thing is absurdly
simple. You love this man and he loves you, and all that kept you
apart before was the fact that he could not afford to marry you.
Now that he is rich, there is no obstacle at all. I simply won't
let you look on me and my feelings as an obstacle. Rule me out
altogether. Your father's mistake has made the situation a little
more complicated than it need have been, but that can easily be
remedied. Imitate the excellent example of Reggie Byng. He was in a
position where it would have been embarrassing to announce what he
intended to do, so he very sensibly went quietly off and did it and
left everybody to find out after it was done. I'm bound to say I
never looked on Reggie as a master mind, but, when it came to find
a way out of embarrassing situations, one has to admit he had the
right idea. Do what he did!"

Maud started. She half rose from the stone seat. George could hear
the quick intake of her breath.

"You mean--run away?"

"Exactly. Run away!"

An automobile swung round the corner of the castle from the
direction of the garage, and drew up, purring, at the steps. There
was a flood of light and the sound of voices, as the great door
opened. Maud rose.

"People are leaving," she said. "I didn't know it was so late." She
stood irresolutely. "I suppose I ought to go in and say good-bye.
But I don't think I can."

"Stay where you are. Nobody will see you."

More automobiles arrived. The quiet of the night was shattered by
the noise of their engines. Maud sat down again.

"I suppose they will think it very odd of me not being there."

"Never mind what people think. Reggie Byng didn't."

Maud's foot traced circles on the dry turf.

"What a lovely night," she said. "There's no dew at all."

The automobiles snorted, tooted, back-fired, and passed away.
Their clamour died in the distance, leaving the night a thing of
peace and magic once more. The door of the castle closed with a
bang.

"I suppose I ought to be going in now," said Maud.

"I suppose so. And I ought to be there, too, politely making my
farewells. But something seems to tell me that Lady Caroline and
your brother will be quite ready to dispense with the formalities.
I shall go home."

They faced each other in the darkness.

"Would you really do that?" asked Maud. "Run away, I
mean, and get married in London."

"It's the only thing to do."

"But . . . can one get married as quickly as that?"

"At a registrar's? Nothing simpler. You should have seen
Reggie Byng's wedding. It was over before one realized it had
started. A snuffy little man in a black coat with a cold in his
head asked a few questions, wrote a few words, and the thing was
done."

"That sounds rather . . . dreadful."

"Reggie didn't seem to think so."

"Unromantic, I mean. . . . Prosaic."

"You would supply the romance."

"Of course, one ought to be sensible. It is just the same as a
regular wedding."

"In effects, absolutely."

They moved up the terrace together. On the gravel drive by the
steps they paused.

"I'll do it!" said Maud.

George had to make an effort before he could reply. For all his
sane and convincing arguments, he could not check a pang at this
definite acceptance of them. He had begun to appreciate now the
strain under which he had been speaking.

"You must," he said. "Well . . . good-bye."

There was light on the drive. He could see her face. Her eyes were
troubled.

"What will you do?" she asked.

"Do?"

"I mean, are you going to stay on in your cottage?"

"No, I hardly think I could do that. I shall go back to London
tomorrow, and stay at the Carlton for a few days. Then I shall sail
for America. There are a couple of pieces I've got to do for the
Fall. I ought to be starting on them."

Maud looked away.

"You've got your work," she said almost inaudibly.

George understood her.

"Yes, I've got my work."

"I'm glad."

She held out her hand.

"You've been very wonderful... Right from the beginning . . .
You've been . . . oh, what's the use of me saying anything?"

"I've had my reward. I've known you. We're friends, aren't we?"

"My best friend."

"Pals?"

"Pals!"

They shook hands.

CHAPTER 25.

"I was never so upset in my life!" said Lady Caroline.

She had been saying the same thing and many other things for the
past five minutes. Until the departure of the last guest she had
kept an icy command of herself and shown an unruffled front to the
world. She had even contrived to smile. But now, with the final
automobile whirring homewards, she had thrown off the mask. The
very furniture of Lord Marshmoreton's study seemed to shrink, seared
by the flame of her wrath. As for Lord Marshmoreton himself, he
looked quite shrivelled.

It had not been an easy matter to bring her erring brother to bay.
The hunt had been in progress full ten minutes before she and Lord
Belpher finally cornered the poor wretch. His plea, through the
keyhole of the locked door, that he was working on the family
history and could not be disturbed, was ignored; and now he was
face to face with the avengers.

"I cannot understand it," continued Lady Caroline. "You know that
for months we have all been straining every nerve to break off this
horrible entanglement, and, just as we had begun to hope that
something might be done, you announce the engagement in the most
public manner. I think you must be out of your mind. I can hardly
believe even now that this appalling thing has happened. I am
hoping that I shall wake up and find it is all a nightmare. How you
can have done such a thing, I cannot understand."

"Quite!" said Lord Belpher.

If Lady Caroline was upset, there are no words in the language that
will adequately describe the emotions of Percy.

From the very start of this lamentable episode in high life, Percy
had been in the forefront of the battle. It was Percy who had had
his best hat smitten from his head in the full view of all
Piccadilly. It was Percy who had suffered arrest and imprisonment
in the cause. It was Percy who had been crippled for days owing to
his zeal in tracking Maud across country. And now all his
sufferings were in vain. He had been betrayed by his own father.

There was, so the historians of the Middle West tell us, a man of
Chicago named Young, who once, when his nerves were unstrung, put
his mother (unseen) in the chopping-machine, and canned her and
labelled her "Tongue". It is enough to say that the glance of
disapproval which Percy cast upon his father at this juncture would
have been unduly severe if cast by the Young offspring upon their
parent at the moment of confession.

Lord Marshmoreton had rallied from his initial panic. The spirit of
revolt began to burn again in his bosom. Once the die is cast for
revolution, there can be no looking back. One must defy, not
apologize. Perhaps the inherited tendencies of a line of ancestors
who, whatever their shortcomings, had at least known how to treat
their women folk, came to his aid. Possibly there stood by his side
in this crisis ghosts of dead and buried Marshmoretons, whispering
spectral encouragement in his ear--the ghosts, let us suppose, of
that earl who, in the days of the seventh Henry, had stabbed his
wife with a dagger to cure her tendency to lecture him at night; or
of that other earl who, at a previous date in the annals of the
family, had caused two aunts and a sister to be poisoned apparently
from a mere whim. At any rate, Lord Marshmoreton produced from
some source sufficient courage to talk back.

"Silly nonsense!" he grunted. "Don't see what you're making all
this fuss about. Maud loves the fellow. I like the fellow.
Perfectly decent fellow. Nothing to make a fuss about. Why
shouldn't I announce the engagement?"

"You must be mad!" cried Lady Caroline. "Your only daughter and a
man nobody knows anything about!"

"Quite!" said Percy.

Lord Marshmoreton seized his advantage with the skill of an adroit
debater.

"That's where you're wrong. I know all about him. He's a very rich
man. You heard the way all those people at dinner behaved when they
heard his name. Very celebrated man! Makes thousands of pounds a
year. Perfectly suitable match in every way."

"It is not a suitable match," said Lady Caroline vehemently. "I
don't care whether this Mr. Bevan makes thousands of pounds a year
or twopence-ha'penny. The match is not suitable. Money is not
everything."

She broke off. A knock had come on the door. The door opened, and
Billie Dore came in. A kind-hearted girl, she had foreseen that
Lord Marshmoreton might be glad of a change of subject at about
this time.

"Would you like me to help you tonight?" she asked brightly. "I
thought I would ask if there was anything you wanted me to do."

Lady Caroline snatched hurriedly at her aristocratic calm. She
resented the interruption acutely, but her manner, when she spoke,
was bland.

"Lord Marshmoreton will not require your help tonight," she said.
"He will not be working."

"Good night," said Billie.

"Good night," said Lady Caroline.

Percy scowled a valediction.

"Money," resumed Lady Caroline, "is immaterial. Maud is in no
position to be obliged to marry a rich man. What makes the thing
impossible is that Mr. Bevan is nobody. He comes from nowhere. He
has no social standing whatsoever."

"Don't see it," said Lord Marshmoreton. "The fellow's a thoroughly
decent fellow. That's all that matters."

"How can you be so pig-headed! You are talking like an imbecile.
Your secretary, Miss Dore, is a nice girl. But how would you feel
if Percy were to come to you and say that he was engaged to be
married to her?"

"Exactly!" said Percy. "Quite!"

Lord Marshmoreton rose and moved to the door. He did it with a
certain dignity, but there was a strange hunted expression in his
eyes.

"That would be impossible," he said.

"Precisely," said his sister. "I am glad that you admit it."

Lord Marshmoreton had reached the door, and was standing holding
the handle. He seemed to gather strength from its support.

"I've been meaning to tell you about that," he said.

"About what?"

"About Miss Dore. I married her myself last Wednesday," said Lord
Marshmoreton, and disappeared like a diving duck.

CHAPTER 26.

At a quarter past four in the afternoon, two days after the
memorable dinner-party at which Lord Marshmoreton had behaved with
so notable a lack of judgment, Maud sat in Ye Cosy Nooke, waiting
for Geoffrey Raymond. He had said in his telegram that he would
meet her there at four-thirty: but eagerness had brought Maud to the
tryst a quarter of an hour ahead of time: and already the sadness
of her surroundings was causing her to regret this impulsiveness.
Depression had settled upon her spirit. She was aware of something
that resembled foreboding.

Ye Cosy Nooke, as its name will immediately suggest to those who
know their London, is a tea-shop in Bond Street, conducted by
distressed gentlewomen. In London, when a gentlewoman becomes
distressed--which she seems to do on the slightest provocation--she
collects about her two or three other distressed gentlewomen,
forming a quorum, and starts a tea-shop in the West-End, which she
calls Ye Oak Leaf, Ye Olde Willow-Pattern, Ye Linden-Tree, or Ye
Snug Harbour, according to personal taste. There, dressed in
Tyrolese, Japanese, Norwegian, or some other exotic costume, she
and her associates administer refreshments of an afternoon with a
proud languor calculated to knock the nonsense out of the cheeriest
customer. Here you will find none of the coarse bustle and
efficiency of the rival establishments of Lyons and Co., nor the
glitter and gaiety of Rumpelmayer's. These places have an
atmosphere of their own. They rely for their effect on an
insufficiency of light, an almost total lack of ventilation, a
property chocolate cake which you are not supposed to cut, and the
sad aloofness of their ministering angels. It is to be doubted
whether there is anything in the world more damping to the spirit
than a London tea-shop of this kind, unless it be another London
tea-shop of the same kind.

Maud sat and waited. Somewhere out of sight a kettle bubbled in an
undertone, like a whispering pessimist. Across the room two
distressed gentlewomen in fancy dress leaned against the wall.
They, too, were whispering. Their expressions suggested that they
looked on life as low and wished they were well out of it, like the
body upstairs. One assumed that there was a body upstairs. One
cannot help it at these places. One's first thought on entering is
that the lady assistant will approach one and ask in a hushed voice
"Tea or chocolate? And would you care to view the remains?"

Maud looked at her watch. It was twenty past four. She could
scarcely believe that she had only been there five minutes, but the
ticking of the watch assured her that it had not stopped. Her
depression deepened. Why had Geoffrey told her to meet him in a
cavern of gloom like this instead of at the Savoy? She would have
enjoyed the Savoy. But here she seemed to have lost beyond recovery
the first gay eagerness with which she had set out to meet the man
she loved.

Suddenly she began to feel frightened. Some evil spirit, possibly
the kettle, seemed to whisper to her that she had been foolish in
coming here, to cast doubts on what she had hitherto regarded as
the one rock-solid fact in the world, her love for Geoffrey. Could
she have changed since those days in Wales? Life had been so
confusing of late. In the vividness of recent happenings those days
in Wales seemed a long way off, and she herself different from the
girl of a year ago. She found herself thinking about George Bevan.

It was a curious fact that, the moment she began to think of George
Bevan, she felt better. It was as if she had lost her way in a
wilderness and had met a friend. There was something so capable, so
soothing about George. And how well he had behaved at that last
interview. George seemed somehow to be part of her life. She could
not imagine a life in which he had no share. And he was at this
moment, probably, packing to return to America, and she would never
see him again. Something stabbed at her heart. It was as if she
were realizing now for the first time that he was really going.

She tried to rid herself of the ache at her heart by thinking of
Wales. She closed her eyes, and found that that helped her to
remember. With her eyes shut, she could bring it all back--that
rainy day, the graceful, supple figure that had come to her out of
the mist, those walks over the hills . . . If only Geoffrey would
come! It was the sight of him that she needed.

"There you are!"

Maud opened her eyes with a start. The voice had sounded like
Geoffrey's. But it was a stranger who stood by the table. And not
a particularly prepossessing stranger. In the dim light of Ye Cosy
Nooke, to which her opening eyes had not yet grown accustomed, all
she could see of the man was that he was remarkably stout. She
stiffened defensively. This was what a girl who sat about in
tea-rooms alone had to expect.

"Hope I'm not late," said the stranger, sitting down and breathing
heavily. "I thought a little exercise would do me good, so I
walked."

Every nerve in Maud's body seemed to come to life simultaneously.
She tingled from head to foot. It was Geoffrey!

He was looking over his shoulder and endeavouring by snapping his
fingers to attract the attention of the nearest distressed
gentlewoman; and this gave Maud time to recover from the frightful
shock she had received. Her dizziness left her; and, leaving, was
succeeded by a panic dismay. This couldn't be Geoffrey! It was
outrageous that it should be Geoffrey! And yet it undeniably was
Geoffrey. For a year she had prayed that Geoffrey might be given
back to her, and the gods had heard her prayer. They had given her
back Geoffrey, and with a careless generosity they had given her
twice as much of him as she had expected. She had asked for the
slim Apollo whom she had loved in Wales, and this colossal
changeling had arrived in his stead.

We all of us have our prejudices. Maud had a prejudice against fat
men. It may have been the spectacle of her brother Percy, bulging
more and more every year she had known him, that had caused this
kink in her character. At any rate, it existed, and she gazed in
sickened silence at Geoffrey. He had turned again now, and she was
enabled to get a full and complete view of him. He was not merely
stout. He was gross. The slim figure which had haunted her for a
year had spread into a sea of waistcoat. The keen lines of his face
had disappeared altogether. His cheeks were pink jellies.

One of the distressed gentlewomen had approached with a
slow disdain, and was standing by the table, brooding on the
corpse upstairs. It seemed a shame to bother her.

"Tea or chocolate?" she inquired proudly.

"Tea, please," said Maud, finding her voice.

"One tea," sighed the mourner.

"Chocolate for me," said Geoffrey briskly, with the air of one
discoursing on a congenial topic. "I'd like plenty of whipped
cream. And please see that it's hot."

"One chocolate."

Geoffrey pondered. This was no light matter that occupied him.

"And bring some fancy cakes--I like the ones with icing on
them--and some tea-cake and buttered toast. Please see there's
plenty of butter on it."

Maud shivered. This man before her was a man in whose lexicon there
should have been no such word as butter, a man who should have
called for the police had some enemy endeavoured to thrust butter
upon him.

"Well," said Geoffrey leaning forward, as the haughty ministrant
drifted away, "you haven't changed a bit. To look at, I mean."

"No?" said Maud.

"You're just the same. I think I"--he squinted down at his
waistcoat--"have put on a little weight. I don't know if you notice
it?"

Maud shivered again. He thought he had put on a little weight, and
didn't know if she had noticed it! She was oppressed by the eternal
melancholy miracle of the fat man who does not realize that he has
become fat.

"It was living on the yacht that put me a little out of condition,"
said Geoffrey. "I was on the yacht nearly all the time since I saw
you last. The old boy had a Japanese cook and lived pretty high. It
was apoplexy that got him. We had a great time touring about. We
were on the Mediterranean all last winter, mostly at Nice."

"I should like to go to Nice," said Maud, for something to say. She
was feeling that it was not only externally that Geoffrey had
changed. Or had he in reality always been like this, commonplace
and prosaic, and was it merely in her imagination that he had been
wonderful?

"If you ever go," said Geoffrey, earnestly, "don't fail to lunch at
the Hotel Cote d'Azur. They give you the most amazing selection of
hors d'oeuvres you ever saw. Crayfish as big as baby lobsters! And
there's a fish--I've forgotten it's name, it'll come back to
me--that's just like the Florida pompano. Be careful to have it
broiled, not fried. Otherwise you lose the flavour. Tell the
waiter you must have it broiled, with melted butter and a little
parsley and some plain boiled potatoes. It's really astonishing.
It's best to stick to fish on the Continent. People can say what
they like, but I maintain that the French don't really understand
steaks or any sort of red meat. The veal isn't bad, though I prefer
our way of serving it. Of course, what the French are real geniuses
at is the omelet. I remember, when we put in at Toulon for coal, I
went ashore for a stroll, and had the most delicious omelet with
chicken livers beautifully cooked, at quite a small, unpretentious
place near the harbour. I shall always remember it."

The mourner returned, bearing a laden tray, from which she removed
the funeral bakemeats and placed them limply on the table. Geoffrey
shook his head, annoyed.

"I particularly asked for plenty of butter on my toast!" he said.
"I hate buttered toast if there isn't lots of butter. It isn't
worth eating. Get me a couple of pats, will you, and I'll spread it
myself. Do hurry, please, before the toast gets cold. It's no good
if the toast gets cold. They don't understand tea as a meal at
these places," he said to Maud, as the mourner withdrew. "You have
to go to the country to appreciate the real thing. I remember we
lay off Lyme Regis down Devonshire way, for a few days, and I went
and had tea at a farmhouse there. It was quite amazing! Thick
Devonshire cream and home-made jam and cakes of every kind. This
sort of thing here is just a farce. I do wish that woman would
make haste with that butter. It'll be too late in a minute."

Maud sipped her tea in silence. Her heart was like lead within her.
The recurrence of the butter theme as a sort of leit motif in her
companion's conversation was fraying her nerves till she felt she
could endure little more. She cast her mind's eye back over the
horrid months and had a horrid vision of Geoffrey steadily
absorbing butter, day after day, week after week--ever becoming
more and more of a human keg. She shuddered.

Indignation at the injustice of Fate in causing her to give her
heart to a man and then changing him into another and quite
different man fought with a cold terror, which grew as she realized
more and more clearly the magnitude of the mistake she had made.
She felt that she must escape. And yet how could she escape? She
had definitely pledged herself to this man. ("Ah!" cried Geoffrey
gaily, as the pats of butter arrived. "That's more like it!" He
began to smear the toast. Maud averted her eyes.) She had told him
that she loved him, that he was the whole world to her, that there
never would be anyone else. He had come to claim her. How could she
refuse him just because he was about thirty pounds overweight?

Geoffrey finished his meal. He took out a cigarette. ("No smoking,
please!" said the distressed gentlewoman.) He put the cigarette
back in its case. There was a new expression in his eyes now, a
tender expression. For the first time since they had met Maud
seemed to catch a far-off glimpse of the man she had loved in
Wales. Butter appeared to have softened Geoffrey.

"So you couldn't wait!" he said with pathos.

Maud did not understand.

"I waited over a quarter of an hour. It was you who were late."

"I don't mean that. I am referring to your engagement. I saw the
announcement in the Morning Post. Well, I hope you will let me
offer you my best wishes. This Mr. George Bevan, whoever he is, is
lucky."

Maud had opened her mouth to explain, to say that it was all a
mistake. She closed it again without speaking.

"So you couldn't wait!" proceeded Geoffrey with gentle regret.
"Well, I suppose I ought not to blame you. You are at an age when
it is easy to forget. I had no right to hope that you would be
proof against a few months' separation. I expected too much. But it
is ironical, isn't it! There was I, thinking always of those days
last summer when we were everything to each other, while you had
forgotten me--Forgotten me!" sighed Geoffrey. He picked a fragment
of cake absently off the tablecloth and inserted it in his mouth.

The unfairness of the attack stung Maud to speech. She looked back
over the months, thought of all she had suffered, and ached with
self-pity.

"I hadn't," she cried.

"You hadn't? But you let this other man, this George Bevan, make
love to you."

"I didn't! That was all a mistake."

"A mistake?"

"Yes. It would take too long to explain, but . . ." She stopped. It
had come to her suddenly, in a flash of clear vision, that the
mistake was one which she had no desire to correct. She felt like
one who, lost in a jungle, comes out after long wandering into the
open air. For days she had been thinking confusedly, unable to
interpret her own emotions: and now everything had abruptly become
clarified. It was as if the sight of Geoffrey had been the key to a
cipher. She loved George Bevan, the man she had sent out of her
life for ever. She knew it now, and the shock of realization made
her feel faint and helpless. And, mingled with the shock of
realization, there came to her the mortification of knowing that
her aunt, Lady Caroline, and her brother, Percy, had been right
after all. What she had mistaken for the love of a lifetime had
been, as they had so often insisted, a mere infatuation, unable to
survive the spectacle of a Geoffrey who had been eating too much
butter and had put on flesh.

Geoffrey swallowed his piece of cake, and bent forward.

"Aren't you engaged to this man Bevan?"

Maud avoided his eye. She was aware that the crisis had arrived,
and that her whole future hung on her next words.

And then Fate came to her rescue. Before she could speak, there was
an interruption.

"Pardon me," said a voice. "One moment!"

So intent had Maud and her companion been on their own affairs that
neither of them observed the entrance of a third party. This was a
young man with mouse-coloured hair and a freckled, badly-shaven
face which seemed undecided whether to be furtive or impudent. He
had small eyes, and his costume was a blend of the flashy and the
shabby. He wore a bowler hat, tilted a little rakishly to one side,
and carried a small bag, which he rested on the table between them.

"Sorry to intrude, miss." He bowed gallantly to Maud, "but I want
to have a few words with Mr. Spenser Gray here."

Maud, looking across at Geoffrey, was surprised to see that his
florid face had lost much of its colour. His mouth was open, and
his eyes had taken a glassy expression.

"I think you have made a mistake," she said coldly. She disliked
the young man at sight. "This is Mr. Raymond."

Geoffrey found speech.

"Of course I'm Mr. Raymond!" he cried angrily. "What do you mean by
coming and annoying us like this?"

The young man was not discomposed. He appeared to be used to being
unpopular. He proceeded as though there had been no interruption.
He produced a dingy card.

"Glance at that," he said. "Messrs. Willoughby and Son, Solicitors.
I'm son. The guv'nor put this little matter into my hands. I've
been looking for you for days, Mr. Gray, to hand you this paper."
He opened the bag like a conjurer performing a trick, and brought
out a stiff document of legal aspect. "You're a witness, miss, that
I've served the papers. You know what this is, of course?" he said
to Geoffrey. "Action for breach of promise of marriage. Our client,
Miss Yvonne Sinclair, of the Regal Theatre, is suing you for ten
thousand pounds. And, if you ask me," said the young man with
genial candour, dropping the professional manner, "I don't mind
telling you, I think it's a walk-over! It's the best little action
for breach we've handled for years." He became professional again.
"Your lawyers will no doubt communicate with us in due course. And,
if you take my advice," he concluded, with another of his swift
changes of manner, "you'll get 'em to settle out of court, for,
between me and you and the lamp-post, you haven't an earthly!"

Geoffrey had started to his feet. He was puffing with outraged
innocence.

"What the devil do you mean by this?" he demanded. "Can't you see
you've made a mistake? My name is not Gray. This lady has told you
that I am Geoffrey Raymond!"

"Makes it all the worse for you," said the young man imperturbably,
"making advances to our client under an assumed name. We've got
letters and witnesses and the whole bag of tricks. And how about
this photo?" He dived into the bag again. "Do you recognize that,
miss?"

Maud looked at the photograph. It was unmistakably Geoffrey. And it
had evidently been taken recently, for it showed the later
Geoffrey, the man of substance. It was a full-length photograph and
across the stout legs was written in a flowing hand the legend, "To
Babe from her little Pootles". Maud gave a shudder and handed it
back to the young man, just as Geoffrey, reaching across the table,
made a grab for it.

"I recognize it," she said.

Mr. Willoughby junior packed the photograph away in his bag, and
turned to go.

"That's all for today, then, I think," he said, affably.

He bowed again in his courtly way, tilted the hat a little more to
the left, and, having greeted one of the distressed gentlewomen who
loitered limply in his path with a polite "If you please, Mabel!"
which drew upon him a freezing stare of which he seemed oblivious,
he passed out, leaving behind him strained silence.

Maud was the first to break it.

"I think I'll be going," she said.

The words seemed to rouse her companion from his stupor.

"Let me explain!"

"There's nothing to explain."

"It was just a . . . it was just a passing . . . It was nothing
. . . nothing."

"Pootles!" murmured Maud.

Geoffrey followed her as she moved to the door.

"Be reasonable!" pleaded Geoffrey. "Men aren't saints!
It was nothing! . . . Are you going to end . . . everything
. . . just because I lost my head?"

Maud looked at him with a smile. She was conscious of an
overwhelming relief. The dim interior of Ye Cosy Nooke no longer
seemed depressing. She could have kissed this unknown "Babe" whose
businesslike action had enabled her to close a regrettable chapter
in her life with a clear conscience.

"But you haven't only lost your head, Geoffrey," she said. "You've
lost your figure as well."

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