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

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

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

“Well, it’s worth trying,” said Reggie. “I’ll give it a whirl. Toodleoo!”

“Good-bye.”

“Pip-pip!”

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

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

“‘Ullo!” said the youth.

“Hullo, Alphonso!” said George.

“My name’s not Alphonso.”

“Well, you be very careful or it soon may be.”

“Got a note for yer. From Lidy Mord.”

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

“Not ‘arf!” said the stripling.

CHAPTER 11.

George opened the letter with trembling and reverent fingers.

“DEAR MR. BEVAN,

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

“Hey, mister!”

George looked up testily. The boy Albert had reappeared.

“What’s the matter? Can’t you find the cake?”

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

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

“Look for it, child, look for it! Sniff after it! Bay on its trail! It’s somewhere about.”

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

“Well, go and bathe in it.”

“Wri’!”

George returned to his letter.

“DEAR MR. BEVAN,

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

“Hey, mister!”

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

“I’ve found the ginger-ile right enough, but I can’t find the thing.”

“The thing? What thing?”

“The thing. The thing wot you open ginger-ile with.”

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

“Wri'”.

George gave an overwrought sigh and began the letter again.

“DEAR MR. BEVAN,

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

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

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

“Hey, mister!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Swank!”

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

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I’ve a good mind to–“

Albert waved a deprecating hand.

“It’s all right, mister. I’m yer friend.”

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

“I’m yer friend, I tell you. I can help yer. I want to help yer!”

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

“That’s very good of you,” he said, twisting his reluctant features into a fairly benevolent smile.

“I can ‘elp!” persisted Albert. “Got a cigaroot?”

“Do you smoke, child?”

“When I get ‘old of a cigaroot I do.”

“I’m sorry I can’t oblige you. I don’t smoke cigarettes.”

“Then I’ll ‘ave to ‘ave one of my own,” said Albert moodily.

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

“I can help yer. I know the ropes.”

“And smoke them,” said George, wincing.

“Pardon?”

“Nothing.”

Albert took an enjoyable whiff.

“I know all about yer.”

“You do?”

“You and Lidy Mord.”

“Oh, you do, do you?”

“I was listening at the key-‘ole while the row was goin’ on.”

“There was a row, was there?”

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

“And you drank it in, eh?”

“Pardon?”

“I say, you listened?”

“Not ‘arf I listened. Seeing I’d just drawn you in the sweepstike, of course, I listened–not ‘arf!”

George did not follow him here.

“The sweepstike? What’s a sweepstike?”

“Why, a thing you puts names in ‘ats and draw ’em and the one that gets the winning name wins the money.”

“Oh, you mean a sweepstake!”

“That’s wot I said–a sweepstike.”

George was still puzzled.

“But I don’t understand. How do you mean you drew me in a sweepstike–I mean a sweepstake? What sweepstake?”

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

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

“Do you mean to tell me that you–you worms–made Lady Maud the–the prize of a sweepstake!”

Albert was hurt.

“Who’re yer calling worms?”

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

“I was referring to the butler–what’s his name–Keggs.”

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

Albert chuckled.

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

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

“Oh, he drew Mr. Byng, did he?”

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

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

“Have some more cake, Albert,” he said ingratiatingly.

The boy shook his head.

“Do,” urged George. “Just a little slice.”

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

“Fine! What is it?”

Albert knitted his brows.

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

George hastened to reassure him.

“That is exactly it. What’s the answer?”

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

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

Albert snorted contempt.

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

George reached forward and patted Albert on the head.

“Don’t mess my ‘air, now,” warned that youth coldly.

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

“Mac Who?”

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

“Now what?”

“How am I to get engaged? How do I get the job?”

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

“I’ll hand it over to you.”

“Just,” said Albert approvingly, “wot I was goin’ to suggest myself.”

“Then I’ll leave all the arrangements to you.”

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

“That’s an awful thing to ask anyone to say.”

“Pardon?”

“Nothing!” said George.

CHAPTER 12.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good God!”

Reggie loosened his collar, and pulled himself together.

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

He brightened up a little.

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

“I say!” he continued, after a pause.

“Sir?”

“You haven’t ever seen me before by any chance, if you know what I mean, have you?”

“No, sir.”

“You haven’t a brother, or anything of that shape or order, have you, no?”

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

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

“What’s that?”

“Sir?”

“What did you say?”

“I said, ‘No, sir, I have no brother’.”

“Didn’t you say something else?”

“No, sir.”

“What?”

“No, sir.”

Reggie’s worst suspicions were confirmed.

“Good God!” he muttered. “Then I am!”

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

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

“I was asking him if he had a brother.”

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

“A brother? What made you ask him that?”

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

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

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

George approached deferentially.

“Sir?”

“Where’s that lemonade?”

“Lemonade, sir?”

“Didn’t I ask you to bring this lady a glass of lemonade?”

“I did not understand you to do so, sir.”

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

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

Alice placed a hand gently on Reggie’s arm.

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

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

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

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

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

He perceived Albert hastening towards him.

CHAPTER 13.

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

“Quick!” he said.

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

“Tell ‘er you’ll be back in five minutes,” said Albert, jerking a thumb.

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

“Then come on.”

“Where?”

“I’ll show you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Psst!”

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

“Psst! Hey, mister!”

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

From above came Albert’s hoarse whisper.

“Look alive!”

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

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

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

“Psst!” said Albert.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These massive minds require their moments of relaxation.

CHAPTER 14.

George’s idea was to get home. Quick. There was no possible chance of a second meeting with Maud that night. They had met and had been whirled asunder. No use to struggle with Fate. Best to give in and hope that another time Fate would be kinder. What George wanted now was to be away from all the gay glitter and the fairylike tout ensemble and the galaxy of fair women and brave men, safe in his own easy-chair, where nothing could happen to him. A nice sense of duty would no doubt have taken him back to his post in order fully to earn the sovereign which had been paid to him for his services as temporary waiter; but the voice of Duty called to him in vain. If the British aristocracy desired refreshments let them get them for themselves–and like it! He was through.

But if George had for the time being done with the British aristocracy, the British aristocracy had not done with him. Hardly had he reached the hall when he encountered the one member of the order whom he would most gladly have avoided.

Lord Belpher was not in genial mood. Late hours always made his head ache, and he was not a dancing man; so that he was by now fully as weary of the fairylike tout ensemble as was George. But, being the centre and cause of the night’s proceedings, he was compelled to be present to the finish. He was in the position of captains who must be last to leave their ships, and of boys who stand on burning decks whence all but they had fled. He had spent several hours shaking hands with total strangers and receiving with a frozen smile their felicitations on the attainment of his majority, and he could not have been called upon to meet a larger horde of relations than had surged round him that night if he had been a rabbit. The Belpher connection was wide, straggling over most of England; and first cousins, second cousins and even third and fourth cousins had debouched from practically every county on the map and marched upon the home of their ancestors. The effort of having to be civil to all of these had told upon Percy. Like the heroine of his sister Maud’s favourite poem he was “aweary, aweary,” and he wanted a drink. He regarded George’s appearance as exceedingly opportune.

“Get me a small bottle of champagne, and bring it to the library.”

“Yes, sir.”

The two words sound innocent enough, but, wishing as he did to efface himself and avoid publicity, they were the most unfortunate which George could have chosen. If he had merely bowed acquiescence and departed, it is probable that Lord Belpher would not have taken a second look at him. Percy was in no condition to subject everyone he met to a minute scrutiny. But, when you have been addressed for an entire lifetime as “your lordship”, it startles you when a waiter calls you “Sir”. Lord Belpher gave George a glance in which reproof and pain were nicely mingled emotions quickly supplanted by amazement. A gurgle escaped him.

“Stop!” he cried as George turned away.

Percy was rattled. The crisis found him in two minds. On the one hand, he would have been prepared to take oath that this man before him was the man who had knocked off his hat in Piccadilly. The likeness had struck him like a blow the moment he had taken a good look at the fellow. On the other hand, there is nothing which is more likely to lead one astray than a resemblance. He had never forgotten the horror and humiliation of the occasion, which had happened in his fourteenth year, when a motherly woman at Paddington Station had called him “dearie” and publicly embraced him, on the erroneous supposition that he was her nephew, Philip. He must proceed cautiously. A brawl with an innocent waiter, coming on the heels of that infernal episode with the policeman, would give people the impression that assailing the lower orders had become a hobby of his.

“Sir?” said George politely.

His brazen front shook Lord Belpher’s confidence.

“I haven’t seen you before here, have I?” was all he could find to say.

“No, sir,” replied George smoothly. “I am only temporarily attached to the castle staff.”

“Where do you come from?”

“America, sir.”

Lord Belpher started. “America!”

“Yes, sir. I am in England on a vacation. My cousin, Albert, is page boy at the castle, and he told me there were a few vacancies for extra help tonight, so I applied and was given the job.”

Lord Belpher frowned perplexedly. It all sounded entirely plausible. And, what was satisfactory, the statement could be checked by application to Keggs, the butler. And yet there was a lingering doubt. However, there seemed nothing to be gained by continuing the conversation.

“I see,” he said at last. “Well, bring that champagne to the library as quick as you can.”

“Very good, sir.”

Lord Belpher remained where he stood, brooding. Reason told him he ought to be satisfied, but he was not satisfied. It would have been different had he not known that this fellow with whom Maud had become entangled was in the neighbourhood. And if that scoundrel had had the audacity to come and take a cottage at the castle gates, why not the audacity to invade the castle itself?

The appearance of one of the footmen, on his way through the hall with a tray, gave him the opportunity for further investigation.

“Send Keggs to me!”

“Very good, your lordship.”

An interval and the butler arrived. Unlike Lord Belpher late hours were no hardship to Keggs. He was essentially a night-blooming flower. His brow was as free from wrinkles as his shirt-front. He bore himself with the conscious dignity of one who, while he would have freely admitted he did not actually own the castle, was nevertheless aware that he was one of its most conspicuous ornaments.

“You wished to see me, your lordship?”

“Yes. Keggs, there are a number of outside men helping here tonight, aren’t there?”

“Indubitably, your lordship. The unprecedented scale of the entertainment necessitated the engagement of a certain number of supernumeraries,” replied Keggs with an easy fluency which Reggie Byng, now cooling his head on the lower terrace, would have bitterly envied. “In the circumstances, such an arrangement was inevitable.”

“You engaged all these men yourself?”

“In a manner of speaking, your lordship, and for all practical purposes, yes. Mrs. Digby, the ‘ouse-keeper conducted the actual negotiations in many cases, but the arrangement was in no instance considered complete until I had passed each applicant.”

“Do you know anything of an American who says he is the cousin of the page-boy?”

“The boy Albert did introduce a nominee whom he stated to be ‘is cousin ‘ome from New York on a visit and anxious to oblige. I trust he ‘as given no dissatisfaction, your lordship? He seemed a respectable young man.”

“No, no, not at all. I merely wished to know if you knew him. One can’t be too careful.”

“No, indeed, your lordship.”

“That’s all, then.”

“Thank you, your lordship.”

Lord Belpher was satisfied. He was also relieved. He felt that prudence and a steady head had kept him from making himself ridiculous. When George presently returned with the life-saving fluid, he thanked him and turned his thoughts to other things.

But, if the young master was satisfied, Keggs was not. Upon Keggs a bright light had shone. There were few men, he flattered himself, who could more readily put two and two together and bring the sum to a correct answer. Keggs knew of the strange American gentleman who had taken up his abode at the cottage down by Platt’s farm. His looks, his habits, and his motives for coming there had formed food for discussion throughout one meal in the servant’s hall; a stranger whose abstention from brush and palette showed him to be no artist being an object of interest. And while the solution put forward by a romantic lady’s-maid, a great reader of novelettes, that the young man had come there to cure himself of some unhappy passion by communing with nature, had been scoffed at by the company, Keggs had not been so sure that there might not be something in it. Later events had deepened his suspicion, which now, after this interview with Lord Belpher, had become certainty.

The extreme fishiness of Albert’s sudden production of a cousin from America was so manifest that only his preoccupation at the moment when he met the young man could have prevented him seeing it before. His knowledge of Albert told him that, if one so versed as that youth in the art of Swank had really possessed a cousin in America, he would long ago have been boring the servants’ hall with fictions about the man’s wealth and importance. For Albert not to lie about a thing, practically proved that thing non-existent. Such was the simple creed of Keggs.

He accosted a passing fellow-servitor.

“Seen young blighted Albert anywhere, Freddy?”

It was in this shameful manner that that mastermind was habitually referred to below stairs.

“Seen ‘im going into the scullery not ‘arf a minute ago,” replied Freddy.

“Thanks.”

“So long,” said Freddy.

“Be good!” returned Keggs, whose mode of speech among those of his own world differed substantially from that which he considered it became him to employ when conversing with the titled.

The fall of great men is but too often due to the failure of their miserable bodies to give the necessary support to their great brains. There are some, for example, who say that Napoleon would have won the battle of Waterloo if he had not had dyspepsia. Not otherwise was it with Albert on that present occasion. The arrival of Keggs found him at a disadvantage. He had been imprudent enough, on leaving George, to endeavour to smoke a cigar, purloined from the box which stood hospitably open on a table in the hall. But for this, who knows with what cunning counter-attacks he might have foiled the butler’s onslaught? As it was, the battle was a walk-over for the enemy.

“I’ve been looking for you, young blighted Albert!” said Keggs coldly.

Albert turned a green but defiant face to the foe.

“Go and boil yer ‘ead!” he advised.

“Never mind about my ‘ead. If I was to do my duty to you, I’d give you a clip side of your ‘ead, that’s what I’d do.”

“And then bury it in the woods,” added Albert, wincing as the consequences of his rash act swept through his small form like some nauseous tidal wave. He shut his eyes. It upset him to see Keggs shimmering like that. A shimmering butler is an awful sight.

Keggs laughed a hard laugh. “You and your cousins from America!”

“What about my cousins from America?”

“Yes, what about them? That’s just what Lord Belpher and me have been asking ourselves.”

“I don’t know wot you’re talking about.”

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

“I never!”

“Think I didn’t see through your little game? Why, I knew from the first.”

“Yes, you did! Then why did you let him into the place?”

Keggs snorted triumphantly. “There! You admit it! It was that feller!”

Too late Albert saw his false move–a move which in a normal state of health, he would have scorned to make. Just as Napoleon, minus a stomach-ache, would have scorned the blunder that sent his Cuirassiers plunging to destruction in the sunken road.

“I don’t know what you’re torkin’ about,” he said weakly.

“Well,” said Keggs, “I haven’t time to stand ‘ere chatting with you. I must be going back to ‘is lordship, to tell ‘im of the ‘orrid trick you played on him.”

A second spasm shook Albert to the core of his being. The double assault was too much for him. Betrayed by the body, the spirit yielded.

“You wouldn’t do that, Mr. Keggs!”

There was a white flag in every syllable.

“I would if I did my duty.”

“But you don’t care about that,” urged Albert ingratiatingly.

“I’ll have to think it over,” mused Keggs. “I don’t want to be ‘and on a young boy.” He struggled silently with himself. “Ruinin’ ‘is prospecks!”

An inspiration seemed to come to him.

“All right, young blighted Albert,” he said briskly. “I’ll go against my better nature this once and chance it. And now, young feller me lad, you just ‘and over that ticket of yours! You know what I’m alloodin’ to! That ticket you ‘ad at the sweep, the one with ‘Mr. X’ on it.”

Albert’s indomitable spirit triumphed for a moment over his stricken body.

“That’s likely, ain’t it!”

Keggs sighed–the sigh of a good man who has done his best to help a fellow-being and has been baffled by the other’s perversity.

“Just as you please,” he said sorrowfully. “But I did ‘ope I shouldn’t ‘ave to go to ‘is lordship and tell ‘im ‘ow you’ve deceived him.”

Albert capitulated. “‘Ere yer are!” A piece of paper changed hands. “It’s men like you wot lead to ‘arf the crime in the country!”

“Much obliged, me lad.”

“You’d walk a mile in the snow, you would,” continued Albert pursuing his train of thought, “to rob a starving beggar of a ha’penny.”

“Who’s robbing anyone? Don’t you talk so quick, young man. I’m doing the right thing by you. You can ‘ave my ticket, marked ‘Reggie Byng’. It’s a fair exchange, and no one the worse!”

“Fat lot of good that is!”

“That’s as it may be. Anyhow, there it is.” Keggs prepared to withdraw. “You’re too young to ‘ave all that money, Albert. You wouldn’t know what to do with it. It wouldn’t make you ‘appy. There’s other things in the world besides winning sweepstakes. And, properly speaking, you ought never to have been allowed to draw at all, being so young.”

Albert groaned hollowly. “When you’ve finished torkin’, I wish you’d kindly have the goodness to leave me alone. I’m not meself.”

“That,” said Keggs cordially, “is a bit of luck for you, my boy. Accept my ‘eartiest felicitations!”

Defeat is the test of the great man. Your true general is not he who rides to triumph on the tide of an easy victory, but the one who, when crushed to earth, can bend himself to the task of planning methods of rising again. Such a one was Albert, the page-boy. Observe Albert in his attic bedroom scarcely more than an hour later. His body has practically ceased to trouble him, and his soaring spirit has come into its own again. With the exception of a now very occasional spasm, his physical anguish has passed, and he is thinking, thinking hard. On the chest of drawers is a grubby envelope, addressed in an ill-formed hand to:

R. Byng, Esq.

On a sheet of paper, soon to be placed in the envelope, are written in the same hand these words:

“Do not dispare! Remember! Fante hart never won fair lady. I shall watch your futur progres with considurable interest.
Your Well-Wisher.”

The last sentence is not original. Albert’s Sunday-school teacher said it to Albert on the occasion of his taking up his duties at the castle, and it stuck in his memory. Fortunately, for it expressed exactly what Albert wished to say. From now on Reggie Byng’s progress with Lady Maud Marsh was to be the thing nearest to Albert’s heart.

And George meanwhile? Little knowing how Fate has changed in a flash an ally into an opponent he is standing at the edge of the shrubbery near the castle gate. The night is very beautiful; the barked spots on his hands and knees are hurting much less now; and he is full of long, sweet thoughts. He has just discovered the extraordinary resemblance, which had not struck him as he was climbing up the knotted sheet, between his own position and that of the hero of Tennyson’s Maud, a poem to which he has always been particularly addicted–and never more so than during the days since he learned the name of the only possible girl. When he has not been playing golf, Tennyson’s Maud has been his constant companion.

“Queen rose of the rosebud garden of girls Come hither, the dances are done,
In glass of satin and glimmer of pearls. Queen lily and rose in one;
Shine out, little head, sunning over with curls To the flowers, and be their sun.”

The music from the ballroom flows out to him through the motionless air. The smell of sweet earth and growing things is everywhere.

“Come into the garden, Maud,
For the black bat, night, hath flown, Come into the garden, Maud,
I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad, And the musk of the rose is blown.”

He draws a deep breath, misled young man. The night is very beautiful. It is near to the dawn now and in the bushes live things are beginning to stir and whisper.

“Maud!”

Surely she can hear him?

“Maud!”

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

CHAPTER 15.

Lord Belpher’s twenty-first birthday dawned brightly, heralded in by much twittering of sparrows in the ivy outside his bedroom. These Percy did not hear, for he was sound asleep and had had a late night. The first sound that was able to penetrate his heavy slumber and rouse him to a realization that his birthday had arrived was the piercing cry of Reggie Byng on his way to the bath-room across the corridor. It was Reggie’s disturbing custom to urge himself on to a cold bath with encouraging yells; and the noise of this performance, followed by violent splashing and a series of sharp howls as the sponge played upon the Byng spine, made sleep an impossibility within a radius of many yards. Percy sat up in bed, and cursed Reggie silently. He discovered that he had a headache.

Presently the door flew open, and the vocalist entered in person, clad in a pink bathrobe and very tousled and rosy from the tub.

“Many happy returns of the day, Boots, old thing!”

Reggie burst rollickingly into song.

“I’m twenty-one today!
Twenty-one today!
I’ve got the key of the door!
Never been twenty-one before!
And father says I can do what I like! So shout Hip-hip-hooray!
I’m a jolly good fellow,
Twenty-one today.”

Lord Belpher scowled morosely.

“I wish you wouldn’t make that infernal noise!”

“What infernal noise?”

“That singing!”

“My God! This man has wounded me!” said Reggie.

“I’ve a headache.”

“I thought you would have, laddie, when I saw you getting away with the liquid last night. An X-ray photograph of your liver would show something that looked like a crumpled oak-leaf studded with hob-nails. You ought to take more exercise, dear heart. Except for sloshing that policeman, you haven’t done anything athletic for years.”

“I wish you wouldn’t harp on that affair!”

Reggie sat down on the bed.

“Between ourselves, old man,” he said confidentially, “I also–I myself–Reginald Byng, in person–was perhaps a shade polluted during the evening. I give you my honest word that just after dinner I saw three versions of your uncle, the bishop, standing in a row side by side. I tell you, laddie, that for a moment I thought I had strayed into a Bishop’s Beano at Exeter Hall or the Athenaeum or wherever it is those chappies collect in gangs. Then the three bishops sort of congealed into one bishop, a trifle blurred about the outlines, and I felt relieved. But what convinced me that I had emptied a flagon or so too many was a rather rummy thing that occurred later on. Have you ever happened, during one of these feasts of reason and flows of soul, when you were bubbling over with joie-de-vivre–have you ever happened to see things? What I mean to say is, I had a deuced odd experience last night. I could have sworn that one of the waiter-chappies was that fellow who knocked off your hat in Piccadilly.”

Lord Belpher, who had sunk back on to the pillows at Reggie’s entrance and had been listening to his talk with only intermittent attention, shot up in bed.

“What!”

“Absolutely! My mistake, of course, but there it was. The fellow might have been his double.”

“But you’ve never seen the man.”

“Oh yes, I have. I forgot to tell you. I met him on the links yesterday. I’d gone out there alone, rather expecting to have a round with the pro., but, finding this lad there, I suggested that we might go round together. We did eighteen holes, and he licked the boots off me. Very hot stuff he was. And after the game he took me off to his cottage and gave me a drink. He lives at the cottage next door to Platt’s farm, so, you see, it was the identical chappie. We got extremely matey. Like brothers. Absolutely! So you can understand what a shock it gave me when I found what I took to be the same man serving bracers to the multitude the same evening. One of those nasty jars that cause a fellow’s head to swim a bit, don’t you know, and make him lose confidence in himself.”

Lord Belpher did not reply. His brain was whirling. So he had been right after all!

“You know,” pursued Reggie seriously, “I think you are making the bloomer of a lifetime over this hat-swatting chappie. You’ve misjudged him. He’s a first-rate sort. Take it from me! Nobody could have got out of the bunker at the fifteenth hole better than he did. If you’ll take my advice, you’ll conciliate the feller. A really first-class golfer is what you need in the family. Besides, even leaving out of the question the fact that he can do things with a niblick that I didn’t think anybody except the pro. could do, he’s a corking good sort. A stout fellow in every respect. I took to the chappie. He’s all right. Grab him, Boots, before he gets away. That’s my tip to you. You’ll never regret it! From first to last this lad didn’t foozle a single drive, and his approach-putting has to be seen to be believed. Well, got to dress, I suppose. Mustn’t waste life’s springtime sitting here talking to you. Toodle-oo, laddie! We shall meet anon!”

Lord Belpher leaped from his bed. He was feeling worse than ever now, and a glance into the mirror told him that he looked rather worse than he felt. Late nights and insufficient sleep, added to the need of a shave, always made him look like something that should have been swept up and taken away to the ash-bin. And as for his physical condition, talking to Reggie Byng never tended to make you feel better when you had a headache. Reggie’s manner was not soothing, and on this particular morning his choice of a topic had been unusually irritating. Lord Belpher told himself that he could not understand Reggie. He had never been able to make his mind quite clear as to the exact relations between the latter and his sister Maud, but he had always been under the impression that, if they were not actually engaged, they were on the verge of becoming so; and it was maddening to have to listen to Reggie advocating the claims of a rival as if he had no personal interest in the affair at all. Percy felt for his complaisant friend something of the annoyance which a householder feels for the watchdog whom he finds fraternizing with the burglar. Why, Reggie, more than anyone else, ought to be foaming with rage at the insolence of this American fellow in coming down to Belpher and planting himself at the castle gates. Instead of which, on his own showing, he appeared to have adopted an attitude towards him which would have excited remark if adopted by David towards Jonathan. He seemed to spend all his spare time frolicking with the man on the golf-links and hobnobbing with him in his house.

Lord Belpber was thoroughly upset. It was impossible to prove it or to do anything about it now, but he was convinced that the fellow had wormed his way into the castle in the guise of a waiter. He had probably met Maud and plotted further meetings with her. This thing was becoming unendurable.

One thing was certain. The family honour was in his hands. Anything that was to be done to keep Maud away from the intruder must be done by himself. Reggie was hopeless: he was capable, as far as Percy could see, of escorting Maud to the fellow’s door in his own car and leaving her on the threshold with his blessing. As for Lord Marshmoreton, roses and the family history took up so much of his time that he could not be counted on for anything but moral support. He, Percy, must do the active work.

He had just come to this decision, when, approaching the window and gazing down into the grounds, he perceived his sister Maud walking rapidly–and, so it seemed to him, with a furtive air–down the east drive. And it was to the east that Platt’s farm and the cottage next door to it lay.

At the moment of this discovery, Percy was in a costume ill adapted for the taking of country walks. Reggie’s remarks about his liver had struck home, and it had been his intention, by way of a corrective to his headache and a general feeling of swollen ill-health, to do a little work before his bath with a pair of Indian clubs. He had arrayed himself for this purpose in an old sweater, a pair of grey flannel trousers, and patent leather evening shoes. It was not the garb he would have chosen himself for a ramble, but time was flying: even to put on a pair of boots is a matter of minutes: and in another moment or two Maud would be out of sight. Percy ran downstairs, snatched up a soft shooting-hat, which proved, too late, to belong to a person with a head two sizes smaller than his own; and raced out into the grounds. He was just in time to see Maud disappearing round the corner of the drive.

Lord Belpher had never belonged to that virile class of the community which considers running a pleasure and a pastime. At Oxford, on those occasions when the members of his college had turned out on raw afternoons to trot along the river-bank encouraging the college eight with yelling and the swinging of police-rattles, Percy had always stayed prudently in his rooms with tea and buttered toast, thereby avoiding who knows what colds and coughs. When he ran, he ran reluctantly and with a definite object in view, such as the catching of a train. He was consequently not in the best of condition, and the sharp sprint which was imperative at this juncture if he was to keep his sister in view left him spent and panting. But he had the reward of reaching the gates of the drive not many seconds after Maud, and of seeing her walking–more slowly now–down the road that led to Platt’s. This confirmation of his suspicions enabled him momentarily to forget the blister which was forming on the heel of his left foot. He set out after her at a good pace.

The road, after the habit of country roads, wound and twisted. The quarry was frequently out of sight. And Percy’s anxiety was such that, every time Maud vanished, he broke into a gallop. Another hundred yards, and the blister no longer consented to be ignored. It cried for attention like a little child, and was rapidly insinuating itself into a position in the scheme of things where it threatened to become the centre of the world. By the time the third bend in the road was reached, it seemed to Percy that this blister had become the one great Fact in an unreal nightmare-like universe. He hobbled painfully: and when he stopped suddenly and darted back into the shelter of the hedge his foot seemed aflame. The only reason why the blister on his left heel did not at this juncture attract his entire attention was that he had become aware that there was another of equal proportions forming on his right heel.

Percy had stopped and sought cover in the hedge because, as he rounded the bend in the road, he perceived, before he had time to check his gallop, that Maud had also stopped. She was standing in the middle of the road, looking over her shoulder, not ten yards away. Had she seen him? It was a point that time alone could solve. No! She walked on again. She had not seen him. Lord Belpher, by means of a notable triumph of mind over matter, forgot the blisters and hurried after her.

They had now reached that point in the road where three choices offer themselves to the wayfarer. By going straight on he may win through to the village of Moresby-in-the-Vale, a charming little place with a Norman church; by turning to the left he may visit the equally seductive hamlet of Little Weeting; by turning to the right off the main road and going down a leafy lane he may find himself at the door of Platt’s farm. When Maud, reaching the cross-roads, suddenly swung down the one to the left, Lord Belpher was for the moment completely baffled. Reason reasserted its way the next minute, telling him that this was but a ruse. Whether or no she had caught sight of him, there was no doubt that Maud intended to shake off any possible pursuit by taking this speciously innocent turning and making a detour. She could have no possible motive in going to Little Weeting. He had never been to Little Weeting in his life, and there was no reason to suppose that Maud had either.

The sign-post informed him–a statement strenuously denied by the twin-blisters–that the distance to Little Weeting was one and a half miles. Lord Belpher’s view of it was that it was nearer fifty. He dragged himself along wearily. It was simpler now to keep Maud in sight, for the road ran straight: but, there being a catch in everything in this world, the process was also messier. In order to avoid being seen, it was necessary for Percy to leave the road and tramp along in the deep ditch which ran parallel to it. There is nothing half-hearted about these ditches which accompany English country roads. They know they are intended to be ditches, not mere furrows, and they behave as such. The one that sheltered Lord Belpher was so deep that only his head and neck protruded above the level of the road, and so dirty that a bare twenty yards of travel was sufficient to coat him with mud. Rain, once fallen, is reluctant to leave the English ditch. It nestles inside it for weeks, forming a rich, oatmeal-like substance which has to be stirred to be believed. Percy stirred it. He churned it. He ploughed and sloshed through it. The mud stuck to him like a brother.

Nevertheless, being a determined young man, he did not give in. Once he lost a shoe, but a little searching recovered that. On another occasion, a passing dog, seeing things going on in the ditch which in his opinion should not have been going on–he was a high-strung dog, unused to coming upon heads moving along the road without bodies attached–accompanied Percy for over a quarter of a mile, causing him exquisite discomfort by making sudden runs at his face. A well-aimed stone settled this little misunderstanding, and Percy proceeded on his journey alone. He had Maud well in view when, to his surprise, she left the road and turned into the gate of a house which stood not far from the church.

Lord Belpher regained the road, and remained there, a puzzled man. A dreadful thought came to him that he might have had all this trouble and anguish for no reason. This house bore the unmistakable stamp of a vicarage. Maud could have no reason that was not innocent for going there. Had he gone through all this, merely to see his sister paying a visit to a clergyman? Too late it occurred to him that she might quite easily be on visiting terms with the clergy of Little Weeting. He had forgotten that he had been away at Oxford for many weeks, a period of time in which Maud, finding life in the country weigh upon her, might easily have interested herself charitably in the life of this village. He paused irresolutely. He was baffled.

Maud, meanwhile, had rung the bell. Ever since, looking over her shoulder, she had perceived her brother Percy dodging about in the background, her active young mind had been busying itself with schemes for throwing him off the trail. She must see George that morning. She could not wait another day before establishing communication between herself and Geoffrey. But it was not till she reached Little Weeting that there occurred to her any plan that promised success.

A trim maid opened the door.

“Is the vicar in?”

“No, miss. He went out half an hour back.”

Maud was as baffled for the moment as her brother Percy, now leaning against the vicarage wall in a state of advanced exhaustion.

“Oh, dear!” she said.

The maid was sympathetic.

“Mr. Ferguson, the curate, miss, he’s here, if he would do.”

Maud brightened.

“He would do splendidly. Will you ask him if I can see him for a moment?”

“Very well, miss. What name, please?”

“He won’t know my name. Will you please tell him that a lady wishes to see him?”

“Yes, miss. Won’t you step in?”

The front door closed behind Maud. She followed the maid into the drawing-room. Presently a young small curate entered. He had a willing, benevolent face. He looked alert and helpful.

“You wished to see me?”

“I am so sorry to trouble you,” said Maud, rocking the young man in his tracks with a smile of dazzling brilliancy–(“No trouble, I assure you,” said the curate dizzily)–“but there is a man following me!”

The curate clicked his tongue indignantly.

“A rough sort of a tramp kind of man. He has been following me for miles, and I’m frightened.”

“Brute!”

“I think he’s outside now. I can’t think what he wants. Would you–would you mind being kind enough to go and send him away?”

The eyes that had settled George’s fate for all eternity flashed upon the curate, who blinked. He squared his shoulders and drew himself up. He was perfectly willing to die for her.

“If you will wait here,” he said, “I will go and send him about his business. It is disgraceful that the public highways should be rendered unsafe in this manner.”

“Thank you ever so much,” said Maud gratefully. “I can’t help thinking the poor fellow may be a little crazy. It seems so odd of him to follow me all that way. Walking in the ditch too!”

“Walking in the ditch!”

“Yes. He walked most of the way in the ditch at the side of the road. He seemed to prefer it. I can’t think why.”

Lord Belpher, leaning against the wall and trying to decide whether his right or left foot hurt him the more excruciatingly, became aware that a curate was standing before him, regarding him through a pair of gold-rimmed pince-nez with a disapproving and hostile expression. Lord Belpher returned his gaze. Neither was favourably impressed by the other. Percy thought he had seen nicer-looking curates, and the curate thought he had seen more prepossessing tramps.

“Come, come!” said the curate. “This won’t do, my man!” A few hours earlier Lord Belpher had been startled when addressed by George as “sir”. To be called “my man” took his breath away completely.

The gift of seeing ourselves as others see us is, as the poet indicates, vouchsafed to few men. Lord Belpher, not being one of these fortunates, had not the slightest conception how intensely revolting his personal appearance was at that moment. The red-rimmed eyes, the growth of stubble on the cheeks, and the thick coating of mud which had resulted from his rambles in the ditch combined to render him a horrifying object.

“How dare you follow that young lady? I’ve a good mind to give you in charge!”

Percy was outraged.

“I’m her brother!” He was about to substantiate the statement by giving his name, but stopped himself. He had had enough of letting his name come out on occasions like the present. When the policeman had arrested him in the Haymarket, his first act had been to thunder his identity at the man: and the policeman, without saying in so many words that he disbelieved him, had hinted scepticism by replying that he himself was the king of Brixton. “I’m her brother!” he repeated thickly.

The curate’s disapproval deepened. In a sense, we are all brothers; but that did not prevent him from considering that this mud-stained derelict had made an impudent and abominable mis-statement of fact. Not unnaturally he came to the conclusion that he had to do with a victim of the Demon Rum.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” he said severely. “Sad piece of human wreckage as you are, you speak like an educated man. Have you no self-respect? Do you never search your heart and shudder at the horrible degradation which you have brought on yourself by sheer weakness of will?”

He raise his voice. The subject of Temperance was one very near to the curate’s heart. The vicar himself had complimented him only yesterday on the good his sermons against the drink evil were doing in the village, and the landlord of the Three Pigeons down the road had on several occasions spoken bitter things about blighters who came taking the living away from honest folks.

“It is easy enough to stop if you will but use a little resolution. You say to yourself, ‘Just one won’t hurt me!’ Perhaps not. But can you be content with just one? Ah! No, my man, there is no middle way for such as you. It must be all or nothing. Stop it now–now, while you still retain some semblance of humanity. Soon it will be too late! Kill that craving! Stifle it! Strangle it! Make up your mind now–now, that not another drop of the accursed stuff shall pass your lips… .”

The curate paused. He perceived that enthusiasm was leading him away from the main issue. “A little perseverance,” he concluded rapidly, “and you will soon find that cocoa gives you exactly the same pleasure. And now will you please be getting along. You have frightened the young lady, and she cannot continue her walk unless I assure her that you have gone away.”

Fatigue, pain and the annoyance of having to listen to this man’s well-meant but ill-judged utterances had combined to induce in Percy a condition bordering on hysteria. He stamped his foot, and uttered a howl as the blister warned him with a sharp twinge that this sort of behaviour could not be permitted.

“Stop talking!” he bellowed. “Stop talking like an idiot! I’m going to stay here till that girl comes out, if have to wait all day!”

The curate regarded Percy thoughtfully. Percy was no Hercules: but then, neither was the curate. And in any case, though no Hercules, Percy was undeniably an ugly-looking brute. Strategy, rather than force, seemed to the curate to be indicated. He paused a while, as one who weighs pros and cons, then spoke briskly, with the air of the man who has decided to yield a point with a good grace.

“Dear, dear!” he said. “That won’t do! You say you are this young lady’s brother?”

“Yes, I do!”

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

“All right.”

“Follow me.”

Percy followed him. Down the trim gravel walk they passed, and up the neat stone steps. Maud, peeping through the curtains, thought herself the victim of a monstrous betrayal or equally monstrous blunder. But she did not know the Rev. Cyril Ferguson. No general, adroitly leading the enemy on by strategic retreat, ever had a situation more thoroughly in hand. Passing with his companion through the open door, he crossed the hall to another door, discreetly closed.

“Wait in here,” he said. Lord Belpher moved unsuspectingly forward. A hand pressed sharply against the small of his back. Behind him a door slammed and a key clicked. He was trapped. Groping in Egyptian darkness, his hands met a coat, then a hat, then an umbrella. Then he stumbled over a golf-club and fell against a wall. It was too dark to see anything, but his sense of touch told him all he needed to know. He had been added to the vicar’s collection of odds and ends in the closet reserved for that purpose.

He groped his way to the door and kicked it. He did not repeat the performance. His feet were in no shape for kicking things.

Percy’s gallant soul abandoned the struggle. With a feeble oath, he sat down on a box containing croquet implements, and gave himself up to thought.

“You’ll be quite safe now,” the curate was saying in the adjoining room, not without a touch of complacent self-approval such as becomes the victor in a battle of wits. “I have locked him in the cupboard. He will be quite happy there.” An incorrect statement this. “You may now continue your walk in perfect safety.”

“Thank you ever so much,” said Maud. “But I do hope he won’t be violent when you let him out.”

“I shall not let him out,” replied the curate, who, though brave, was not rash. “I shall depute the task to a worthy fellow named Willis, in whom I shall have every confidence. He–he is, in fact, our local blacksmith!”

And so it came about that when, after a vigil that seemed to last for a lifetime, Percy heard the key turn in the lock and burst forth seeking whom he might devour, he experienced an almost instant quieting of his excited nervous system. Confronting him was a vast man whose muscles, like those of that other and more celebrated village blacksmith, were plainly as strong as iron bands.

This man eyed Percy with a chilly eye.

“Well,” he said. “What’s troublin’ you?”

Percy gulped. The man’s mere appearance was a sedative.

“Er–nothing!” he replied. “Nothing!”

“There better hadn’t be!” said the man darkly. “Mr. Ferguson give me this to give to you. Take it!”

Percy took it. It was a shilling.

“And this.”

The second gift was a small paper pamphlet. It was entitled “Now’s the Time!” and seemed to be a story of some kind. At any rate, Percy’s eyes, before they began to swim in a manner that prevented steady reading, caught the words “Job Roberts had always been a hard-drinking man, but one day, as he was coming out of the bar-parlour . . .” He was about to hurl it from him, when he met the other’s eye and desisted. Rarely had Lord Belpher encountered a man with a more speaking eye.

“And now you get along,” said the man. “You pop off. And I’m going to watch you do it, too. And, if I find you sneakin’ off to the Three Pigeons . . .”

His pause was more eloquent than his speech and nearly as eloquent as his eye. Lord Belpher tucked the tract into his sweater, pocketed the shilling, and left the house. For nearly a mile down the well-remembered highway he was aware of a Presence in his rear, but he continued on his way without a glance behind.

“Like one that on a lonely road
Doth walk in fear and dread;
And, having once looked back, walks on And turns no more his head!
Because he knows a frightful fiend Doth close behind him tread!”

Maud made her way across the fields to the cottage down by Platt’s. Her heart was as light as the breeze that ruffled the green hedges. Gaily she tripped towards the cottage door. Her hand was just raised to knock, when from within came the sound of a well-known voice.

She had reached her goal, but her father had anticipated her. Lord Marshmoreton had selected the same moment as herself for paying a call upon George Bevan.

Maud tiptoed away, and hurried back to the castle. Never before had she so clearly realized what a handicap an adhesive family can be to a young girl.

CHAPTER 16.

At the moment of Lord Marshmoreton’s arrival, George was reading a letter from Billie Dore, which had come by that morning’s post. It dealt mainly with the vicissitudes experienced by Miss Dore’s friend, Miss Sinclair, in her relations with the man Spenser Gray. Spenser Gray, it seemed, had been behaving oddly. Ardent towards Miss Sinclair almost to an embarrassing point in the early stages of their acquaintance, he had suddenly cooled; at a recent lunch had behaved with a strange aloofness; and now, at this writing, had vanished altogether, leaving nothing behind him but an abrupt note to the effect that he had been compelled to go abroad and that, much as it was to be regretted, he and she would probably never meet again.

“And if,” wrote Miss Dore, justifiably annoyed, “after saying all those things to the poor kid and telling her she was the only thing in sight, he thinks he can just slide off with a ‘Good-bye! Good luck! and God bless you!’ he’s got another guess coming. And that’s not all. He hasn’t gone abroad! I saw him in Piccadilly this afternoon. He saw me, too, and what do you think he did? Ducked down a side-street, if you please. He must have run like a rabbit, at that, because, when I got there, he was nowhere to be seen. I tell you, George, there’s something funny about all this.”

Having been made once or twice before the confidant of the tempestuous romances of Billie’s friends, which always seemed to go wrong somewhere in the middle and to die a natural death before arriving at any definite point, George was not particularly interested, except in so far as the letter afforded rather comforting evidence that he was not the only person in the world who was having trouble of the kind. He skimmed through the rest of it, and had just finished when there was a sharp rap at the front door.

“Come in!” called George.

There entered a sturdy little man of middle age whom at first sight George could not place. And yet he had the impression that he had seen him before. Then he recognized him as the gardener to whom he had given the note for Maud that day at the castle. The alteration in the man’s costume was what had momentarily baffled George. When they had met in the rose-garden, the other had been arrayed in untidy gardening clothes. Now, presumably in his Sunday suit, it was amusing to observe how almost dapper he had become. Really, you might have passed him in the lane and taken him for some neighbouring squire.

George’s heart raced. Your lover is ever optimistic, and he could conceive of no errand that could have brought this man to his cottage unless he was charged with the delivery of a note from Maud. He spared a moment from his happiness to congratulate himself on having picked such an admirable go-between. Here evidently, was one of those trusty old retainers you read about, faithful, willing, discreet, ready to do anything for “the little missy” (bless her heart!). Probably he had danced Maud on his knee in her infancy, and with a dog-like affection had watched her at her childish sports. George beamed at the honest fellow, and felt in his pocket to make sure that a suitable tip lay safely therein.

“Good morning,” he said.

“Good morning,” replied the man.

A purist might have said he spoke gruffly and without geniality. But that is the beauty of these old retainers. They make a point of deliberately trying to deceive strangers as to the goldenness of their hearts by adopting a forbidding manner. And “Good morning!” Not “Good morning, sir!” Sturdy independence, you observe, as befits a free man. George closed the door carefully. He glanced into the kitchen. Mrs. Platt was not there. All was well.

“You have brought a note from Lady Maud?”

The honest fellow’s rather dour expression seemed to grow a shade bleaker.

“If you are alluding to Lady Maud Marsh, my daughter,” he replied frostily, “I have not!”

For the past few days George had been no stranger to shocks, and had indeed come almost to regard them as part of the normal everyday life; but this latest one had a stumbling effect.