The Little Nugget
by P.G. Wodehouse
In which the Little Nugget is introduced to the reader, and plans
are made for his future by several interested parties. In which, also,
the future Mr Peter Burns is touched upon. The whole concluding with a
THE LITTLE NUGGET
If the management of the Hotel Guelph, that London landmark, could
have been present at three o'clock one afternoon in early January in
the sitting-room of the suite which they had assigned to Mrs Elmer
Ford, late of New York, they might well have felt a little aggrieved.
Philosophers among them would possibly have meditated on the
limitations of human effort; for they had done their best for Mrs Ford.
They had housed her well. They had fed her well. They had caused
inspired servants to anticipate her every need. Yet here she was, in
the midst of all these aids to a contented mind, exhibiting a
restlessness and impatience of her surroundings that would have been
noticeable in a caged tigress or a prisoner of the Bastille. She paced
the room. She sat down, picked up a novel, dropped it, and, rising,
resumed her patrol. The clock striking, she compared it with her watch,
which she had consulted two minutes before. She opened the locket that
hung by a gold chain from her neck, looked at its contents, and sighed.
Finally, going quickly into the bedroom, she took from a suit-case a
framed oil-painting, and returning with it to the sitting-room, placed
it on a chair, and stepped back, gazing at it hungrily. Her large brown
eyes, normally hard and imperious, were strangely softened. Her mouth
'Ogden!' she whispered.
The picture which had inspired this exhibition of feeling would
probably not have affected the casual spectator to quite the same
degree. He would have seen merely a very faulty and amateurish portrait
of a singularly repellent little boy of about eleven, who stared out
from the canvas with an expression half stolid, half querulous; a
bulgy, overfed little boy; a little boy who looked exactly what he was,
the spoiled child of parents who had far more money than was good for
As Mrs Ford gazed at the picture, and the picture stared back at
her, the telephone bell rang. She ran to it eagerly. It was the office
of the hotel, announcing a caller.
'Yes? Yes? Who?' Her voice fell, as if the name was not the one she
had expected. 'Oh, yes,' she said. 'Yes, ask Lord Mountry to come to me
She returned to the portrait. The look of impatience, which had left
her face as the bell sounded, was back now. She suppressed it with an
effort as her visitor entered.
Lord Mountry was a blond, pink-faced, fair-moustached young man of
about twenty-eight—a thick-set, solemn young man. He winced as he
caught sight of the picture, which fixed him with a stony eye
immediately on his entry, and quickly looked away.
'I say, it's all right, Mrs Ford.' He was of the type which wastes
no time on preliminary greetings. 'I've got him.'
Mrs Ford's voice was startled.
'Stanborough, you know.'
'Oh! I—I was thinking of something else. Won't you sit down?'
Lord Mountry sat down.
'The artist, you know. You remember you said at lunch the other day
you wanted your little boy's portrait painted, as you only had one of
him, aged eleven—'
'This is Ogden, Lord Mountry. I painted this myself.'
His lordship, who had selected a chair that enabled him to present a
shoulder to the painting, and was wearing a slightly dogged look
suggestive of one who 'turns no more his head, because he knows a
frightful fiend doth close behind him tread', forced himself round, and
met his gaze with as much nonchalance as he could summon up.
'Er, yes,' he said.
'Fine manly little fellow—what?' he continued.
'Yes, isn't he?'
His lordship stealthily resumed his former position.
'I recommended this fellow, Stanborough, if you remember. He's a
great pal of mine, and I'd like to give him a leg up if I could. They
tell me he's a topping artist. Don't know much about it myself. You
told me to bring him round here this afternoon, you remember, to talk
things over. He's waiting downstairs.'
'Oh yes, yes. Of course, I've not forgotten. Thank you so much, Lord
'Rather a good scheme occurred to me, that is, if you haven't
thought over the idea of that trip on my yacht and decided it would
bore you to death. You still feel like making one of the party—what?'
Mrs Ford shot a swift glance at the clock.
'I'm looking forward to it,' she said.
'Well, then, why shouldn't we kill two birds with one stone? Combine
the voyage and the portrait, don't you know. You could bring your
little boy along—he'd love the trip—and I'd bring Stanborough—what?'
This offer was not the outcome of a sudden spasm of warm-heartedness
on his lordship's part. He had pondered the matter deeply, and had come
to the conclusion that, though it had flaws, it was the best plan. He
was alive to the fact that a small boy was not an absolute essential to
the success of a yachting trip, and, since seeing Ogden's portrait, he
had realized still more clearly that the scheme had draw-backs. But he
badly wanted Stanborough to make one of the party. Whatever Ogden might
be, there was no doubt that Billy Stanborough, that fellow of infinite
jest, was the ideal companion for a voyage. It would make just all the
difference having him. The trouble was that Stanborough flatly refused
to take an indefinite holiday, on the plea that he could not afford the
time. Upon which his lordship, seldom blessed with great ideas, had
surprised himself by producing the scheme he had just sketched out to
He looked at her expectantly, as he finished speaking, and was
surprised to see a swift cloud of distress pass over her face. He
rapidly reviewed his last speech. No, nothing to upset anyone in that.
He was puzzled.
She looked past him at the portrait. There was pain in her eyes.
'I'm afraid you don't quite understand the position of affairs,' she
said. Her voice was harsh and strained.
'You see—I have not—' She stopped. 'My little boy is not—Ogden is
not living with me just now.'
'At school, eh?'
'No, not at school. Let me tell you the whole position. Mr Ford and
I did not get on very well together, and a year ago we were divorced in
Washington, on the ground of incompatibility, and—and—'
She choked. His lordship, a young man with a shrinking horror of the
deeper emotions, whether exhibited in woman or man, writhed silently.
That was the worst of these Americans! Always getting divorced and
causing unpleasantness. How was a fellow to know? Why hadn't whoever it
was who first introduced them—he couldn't remember who the dickens it
was—told him about this? He had supposed she was just the ordinary
American woman doing Europe with an affectionate dollar-dispensing
husband in the background somewhere.
'Er—' he said. It was all he could find to say.
'And—and the court,' said Mrs Ford, between her teeth, 'gave him
the custody of Ogden.'
Lord Mountry, pink with embarrassment, gurgled sympathetically.
'Since then I have not seen Ogden. That was why I was interested
when you mentioned your friend Mr Stanborough. It struck me that Mr
Ford could hardly object to my having a portrait of my son painted at
my own expense. Nor do I suppose that he will, when—if the matter is
put to him. But, well, you see it would be premature to make any
arrangements at present for having the picture painted on our yacht
'I'm afraid it knocks that scheme on the head,' said Lord Mountry
'I don't want to make plans yet, but—it is possible that Ogden may
be with us after all. Something may be—arranged.'
'You think you may be able to bring him along on the yacht after
'I am hoping so.'
Lord Mountry, however willing to emit sympathetic gurgles, was too
plain and straightforward a young man to approve of wilful blindness to
'I don't see how you are going to override the decision of the
court. It holds good in England, I suppose?'
'I am hoping something may be—arranged.'
'Oh, same here, same here. Certainly.' Having done his duty by not
allowing plain facts to be ignored, his lordship was ready to become
sympathetic again. 'By the way, where is Ogden?'
'He is down at Mr Ford's house in the country. But—'
She was interrupted by the ringing of the telephone bell. She was
out of her seat and across the room at the receiver with what appeared
to Lord Mountry's startled gaze one bound. As she put the instrument to
her ear a wave of joy swept over her face. She gave a little cry of
delight and excitement.
'Send them right up at once,' she said, and turned to Lord Mountry
'Lord Mountry,' she said quickly, 'please don't think me impossibly
rude if I turn you out. Some—some people are coming to see me. I
His lordship rose hurriedly.
'Of course. Of course. Certainly. Where did I put my—ah, here.' He
seized his hat, and by way of economizing effort, knocked his stick on
to the floor with the same movement. Mrs Ford watched his bendings and
gropings with growing impatience, till finally he rose, a little
flushed but with a full hand—stick, gloves, and hat, all present and
'Good-bye, then, Mrs Ford, for the present. You'll let me know if
your little boy will be able to make one of our party on the yacht?'
'Yes, yes. Thank you ever so much. Good-bye.'
He reached the door and opened it.
'By Jove,' he said, springing round—'Stanborough! What about
Stanborough? Shall I tell him to wait? He's down below, you know!'
'Yes, yes. Tell Mr Stanborough I'm dreadfully sorry to have to keep
him waiting, and ask him if he won't stay for a few minutes in the Palm
Inspiration came to Lord Mountry.
'I'll give him a drink,' he said.
'Yes, yes, anything. Lord Mountry, you really must go. I know I'm
rude. I don't know what I'm saying. But—my boy is returning to me.'
The accumulated chivalry of generations of chivalrous ancestors
acted like a spur on his lordship. He understood but dimly, yet enough
to enable him to realize that a scene was about to take place in which
he was most emphatically not 'on'. A mother's meeting with her
long-lost child, this is a sacred thing. This was quite clear to him,
so, turning like a flash, he bounded through the doorway, and, as
somebody happened to be coming in at the same time, there was a
collision, which left him breathing apologies in his familiar attitude
of stooping to pick up his hat.
The new-comers were a tall, strikingly handsome girl, with a rather
hard and cynical cast of countenance. She was leading by the hand a
small, fat boy of about fourteen years of age, whose likeness to the
portrait on the chair proclaimed his identity. He had escaped the
collision, but seemed offended by it; for, eyeing the bending peer with
cold distaste, he summed up his opinion of him in the one word 'Chump!'
Lord Mountry rose.
'I beg your pardon,' he said for perhaps the seventh time. He was
thoroughly unstrung. Always excessively shy, he was embarrassed now by
quite a variety of causes. The world was full of eyes—Mrs Ford's
saying 'Go!' Ogden's saying 'Fool!' the portrait saying 'Idiot!' and,
finally, the eyes of this wonderfully handsome girl, large, grey, cool,
amused, and contemptuous saying—so it seemed to him in that feverish
moment—'Who is this curious pink person who cumbers the ground before
'I—I beg your pardon.' he repeated.
'Ought to look where you're going,' said Ogden severely.
'Not at all,' said the girl. 'Won't you introduce me, Nesta?'
'Lord Mountry—Miss Drassilis,' said Mrs Ford.
'I'm afraid we're driving Lord Mountry away,' said the girl. Her
eyes seemed to his lordship larger, greyer, cooler, more amused, and
more contemptuous than ever. He floundered in them like an unskilful
swimmer in deep waters.
'No, no,' he stammered. 'Give you my word. Just going. Good-bye. You
won't forget to let me know about the yacht, Mrs Ford—what? It'll be
an awfully jolly party. Good-bye, good-bye, Miss Drassilis.'
He looked at Ogden for an instant, as if undecided whether to take
the liberty of addressing him too, and then, his heart apparently
failing him, turned and bolted. From down the corridor came the clatter
of a dropped stick.
Cynthia Drassilis closed the door and smiled.
'A nervous young person!' she said. 'What was he saying about a
Mrs Ford roused herself from her fascinated contemplation of Ogden.
'Oh, nothing. Some of us are going to the south of France in his
yacht next week.'
'What a delightful idea!'
There was a certain pensive note in Cynthia's voice.
'A splendid idea!' she murmured.
Mrs Ford swooped. She descended on Ogden in a swirl and rustle of
expensive millinery, and clasped him to her.
It is not given to everybody to glide neatly into a scene of tense
emotion. Ogden failed to do so. He wriggled roughly from the embrace.
'Got a cigarette?' he said.
He was an extraordinarily unpleasant little boy. Physically the
portrait standing on the chair did him more than justice. Painted by a
mother's loving hand, it flattered him. It was bulgy. He was more
bulgy. It was sullen. He scowled. And, art having its limitations,
particularly amateur art, the portrait gave no hint of his very
repellent manner. He was an intensely sophisticated child. He had the
air of one who has seen all life has to offer, and is now permanently
bored. His speech and bearing were those of a young man, and a
distinctly unlovable young man.
Even Mrs Ford was momentarily chilled. She laughed shakily.
'How very matter-of-fact you are, darling!' she said.
Cynthia was regarding the heir to the Ford millions with her usual
steady, half-contemptuous gaze.
'He has been that all day,' she said. 'You have no notion what a
help it was to me.'
Mrs Ford turned to her effusively.
'Oh, Cynthia, dear, I haven't thanked you.'
'No,' interpolated the girl dryly.
'You're a wonder, darling. You really are. I've been repeating that
ever since I got your telegram from Eastnor.' She broke off. 'Ogden,
come near me, my little son.'
He lurched towards her sullenly.
'Don't muss a fellow now,' he stipulated, before allowing himself to
be enfolded in the outstretched arms.
'Tell me, Cynthia,' resumed Mrs Ford, 'how did you do it? I was
telling Lord Mountry that I hoped I might see my Ogden again
soon, but I never really hoped. It seemed too impossible that you
'This Lord Mountry of yours,' said Cynthia. 'How did you get to know
him? Why have I not seen him before?'
'I met him in Paris in the fall. He has been out of London for a
long time, looking after his father, who was ill.'
'He has been most kind, making arrangements about getting Ogden's
portrait painted. But, bother Lord Mountry. How did we get sidetracked
on to him? Tell me how you got Ogden away.'
'It was extraordinarily easy, as it turned out, you see.'
'Ogden, darling,' observed Mrs Ford, 'don't go away. I want you near
'Oh, all right.'
'Then stay by me, angel-face.'
'Oh, slush!' muttered angel-face beneath his breath. 'Say, I'm
darned hungry,' he added.
It was if an electric shock had been applied to Mrs Ford. She sprang
to her feet.
'My poor child! Of course you must have some lunch. Ring the bell,
Cynthia. I'll have them send up some here.'
'I'll have mine here,' said Cynthia.
'Oh, you've had no lunch either! I was forgetting that.'
'I thought you were.'
'You must both lunch here.'
'Really,' said Cynthia, 'I think it would be better if Ogden had his
downstairs in the restaurant.'
'Want to talk scandal, eh?'
'Ogden, dearest!' said Mrs Ford. 'Very well, Cynthia. Go,
Ogden. You will order yourself something substantial, marvel-child?'
'Bet your life,' said the son and heir tersely.
There was a brief silence as the door closed. Cynthia gazed at her
friend with a peculiar expression.
'Well, I did it, dear,' she said.
'Yes. It's splendid. You're a wonder, darling.'
'Yes,' said Cynthia.
There was another silence.
'By the way,' said Mrs Ford, 'didn't you say there was a little
thing, a small bill, that was worrying you?'
'Did I mention it? Yes, there is. It's rather pressing. In fact,
it's taking up most of the horizon at present. Here it is.'
'Is it a large sum?' Mrs Ford took the slip of paper and gave a
slight gasp. Then, coming to the bureau, she took out her cheque-book.
'It's very kind of you, Nesta,' said Cynthia. 'They were beginning
to show quite a vindictive spirit about it.'
She folded the cheque calmly and put it in her purse.
'And now tell me how you did it,' said Mrs Ford.
She dropped into a chair and leaned back, her hands behind her head.
For the first time, she seemed to enjoy perfect peace of mind. Her eyes
half closed, as if she had been making ready to listen to some
'Tell me from the very beginning,' she said softly.
Cynthia checked a yawn.
'Very well, dear,' she said. 'I caught the 10.20 to Eastnor, which
isn't a bad train, if you ever want to go down there. I arrived at a
quarter past twelve, and went straight up to the house—you've never
seen the house, of course? It's quite charming—and told the butler
that I wanted to see Mr Ford on business. I had taken the precaution to
find out that he was not there. He is at Droitwich.'
'Rheumatism,' murmured Mrs Ford. 'He has it sometimes.'
'The man told me he was away, and then he seemed to think that I
ought to go. I stuck like a limpet. I sent him to fetch Ogden's tutor.
His name is Broster—Reggie Broster. He is a very nice young man. Big,
broad shoulders, and such a kind face.'
'Yes, dear, yes?'
'I told him I was doing a series of drawings for a magazine of the
interiors of well-known country houses.'
'He believed you?'
'He believed everything. He's that kind of man. He believed me when
I told him that my editor particularly wanted me to sketch the
staircase. They had told me about the staircase at the inn. I forget
what it is exactly, but it's something rather special in staircases.'
'So you got in?'
'So I got in.'
'And saw Ogden?'
'Only for a moment—then Reggie—'
'Mr Broster. I always think of him as Reggie. He's one of Nature's
Reggies. Such a kind, honest face. Well, as I was saying, Reggie
discovered that it was time for lessons, and sent Ogden upstairs.'
'By himself! Reggie and I chatted for a while.'
Mrs Ford's eyes opened, brown and bright and hard.
'Mr Broster is not a proper tutor for my boy,' she said coldly.
'I suppose it was wrong of Reggie,' said Cynthia. 'But—I was
wearing this hat.'
'Well, after a time, I said I must be starting my work. He wanted me
to start with the room we were in. I said no, I was going out into the
grounds to sketch the house from the EAST. I chose the EAST because it
happens to be nearest the railway station. I added that I supposed he
sometimes took Ogden for a little walk in the grounds. He said yes, he
did, and it was just about due. He said possibly he might come round my
way. He said Ogden would be interested in my sketch. He seemed to think
a lot of Ogden's fondness for art.'
'Mr Broster is not a proper tutor for my boy.'
'Well, he isn't your boy's tutor now, is he, dear?'
'What happened then?'
'I strolled off with my sketching things. After a while Reggie and
Ogden came up. I said I hadn't been able to work because I had been
frightened by a bull.'
'Did he believe that?'
'Certainly he believed it. He was most kind and sympathetic.
We had a nice chat. He told me all about himself. He used to be very
good at football. He doesn't play now, but he often thinks of the
'But he must have seen that you couldn't sketch. Then what became of
your magazine commission story?'
'Well, somehow the sketch seemed to get shelved. I didn't even have
to start it. We were having our chat, you see. Reggie was telling me
how good he had been at football when he was at Oxford, and he wanted
me to see a newspaper clipping of a Varsity match he had played in. I
said I'd love to see it. He said it was in his suit-case in the house.
So I promised to look after Ogden while he fetched it. I sent him off
to get it just in time for us to catch the train. Off he went, and here
we are. And now, won't you order that lunch you mentioned? I'm
Mrs Ford rose. Half-way to the telephone she stopped suddenly.
'My dear child! It has only just struck me! We must leave here at
once. He will have followed you. He will guess that Ogden has been
'Believe me, it takes Reggie quite a long time to guess anything.
Besides, there are no trains for hours. We are quite safe.'
'Are you sure?'
'Absolutely. I made certain of that before I left.'
Mrs Ford kissed her impulsively.
'Oh, Cynthia, you really are wonderful!'
She started back with a cry as the bell rang sharply.
'For goodness' sake, Nesta,' said Cynthia, with irritation, 'do keep
control of yourself. There's nothing to be frightened about. I tell you
Mr Broster can't possibly have got here in the time, even if he knew
where to go to, which I don't see how he could. It's probably Ogden.'
The colour came back into Mrs Ford's cheeks.
'Why, of course.'
Cynthia opened the door.
'Come in, darling,' said Mrs Ford fondly. And a wiry little man with
grey hair and spectacles entered.
'Good afternoon, Mrs Ford,' he said. 'I have come to take Ogden
There are some situations in life so unexpected, so trying, that, as
far as concerns our opinion of those subjected to them, we agree, as it
were, not to count them; we refuse to allow the victim's behaviour in
circumstances so exacting to weigh with us in our estimate of his or
her character. We permit the great general, confronted suddenly with a
mad bull, to turn and run, without forfeiting his reputation for
courage. The bishop who, stepping on a concealed slide in winter,
entertains passers-by with momentary rag-time steps, loses none of his
dignity once the performance is concluded.
In the same way we must condone the behaviour of Cynthia Drassilis
on opening the door of Mrs Ford's sitting-room and admitting, not
Ogden, but this total stranger, who accompanied his entry with the
remarkable speech recorded at the close of the last section.
She was a girl who prided herself on her carefully blase' and
supercilious attitude towards life; but this changeling was too much
for her. She released the handle, tottered back, and, having uttered a
discordant squeak of amazement, stood staring, eyes and mouth wide
On Mrs Ford the apparition had a different effect. The rather
foolish smile of welcome vanished from her face as if wiped away with a
sponge. Her eyes, fixed and frightened like those of a trapped animal,
glared at the intruder. She took a step forward, choking.
'What—what do you mean by daring to enter my room?' she cried.
The man held his ground, unmoved. His bearing was a curious blend of
diffidence and aggressiveness. He was determined, but apologetic. A
hired assassin of the Middle Ages, resolved to do his job loyally, yet
conscious of causing inconvenience to his victim, might have looked the
'I am sorry,' he said, 'but I must ask you to let me have the boy,
Cynthia was herself again now. She raked the intruder with the cool
stare which had so disconcerted Lord Mountry.
'Who is this gentleman?' she asked languidly.
The intruder was made of tougher stuff than his lordship. He met her
eye with quiet firmness.
'My name is Mennick,' he said. 'I am Mr Elmer Ford's private
'What do you want?' said Mrs Ford.
'I have already explained what I want, Mrs Ford. I want Ogden.'
Cynthia raised her eyebrows.
'What does he mean, Nesta? Ogden is not here.'
Mr Mennick produced from his breast-pocket a telegraph form, and in
his quiet, business-like way proceeded to straighten it out.
'I have here,' he said, 'a telegram from Mr Broster, Ogden's tutor.
It was one of the conditions of his engagement that if ever he was not
certain of Ogden's whereabouts he should let me know at once. He tells
me that early this afternoon he left Ogden in the company of a strange
young lady'—Mr Mennick's spectacles flashed for a moment at
Cynthia—'and that, when he returned, both of them had disappeared. He
made inquiries and discovered that this young lady caught the 1.15
express to London, Ogden with her. On receipt of this information I at
once wired to Mr Ford for instructions. I have his reply'—he fished
for and produced a second telegram—'here.'
'I still fail to see what brings you here,' said Mrs Ford. 'Owing to
the gross carelessness of his father's employees, my son appears to
have been kidnapped. That is no reason—'
'I will read Mr Ford's telegram,' proceeded Mr Mennick unmoved. 'It
is rather long. I think Mr Ford is somewhat annoyed. “The boy has
obviously been stolen by some hireling of his mother's.” I am reading
Mr Ford's actual words,' he said, addressing Cynthia with that touch of
diffidence which had marked his manner since his entrance.
'Don't apologize,' said Cynthia, with a short laugh. 'You're not
responsible for Mr Ford's rudeness.'
Mr Mennick bowed.
'He continued: “Remove him from her illegal restraint. If necessary
call in police and employ force.”'
'Charming!' said Mrs Ford.
'Practical,' said Mr Mennick. 'There is more. “Before doing anything
else sack that fool of a tutor, then go to Agency and have them
recommend good private school for boy. On no account engage another
tutor. They make me tired. Fix all this today. Send Ogden back to
Eastnor with Mrs Sheridan. She will stay there with him till further
notice.” That is Mr Ford's message.'
Mr Mennick folded both documents carefully and replaced them in his
Mrs Ford looked at the clock.
'And now, would you mind going, Mr Mennick?'
'I am sorry to appear discourteous, Mrs Ford, but I cannot go
'I shall telephone to the office to send up a porter to remove you.'
'I shall take advantage of his presence to ask him to fetch a
In the excitement of combat the veneer of apologetic diffidence was
beginning to wear off Mr Mennick. He spoke irritably. Cynthia appealed
to his reason with the air of a bored princess descending to argument
with a groom.
'Can't you see for yourself that he's not here?' she said. 'Do you
think we are hiding him?'
'Perhaps you would like to search my bedroom?' said Mrs Ford,
flinging the door open.
Mr Mennick remained uncrushed.
'Quite unnecessary, Mrs Ford. I take it, from the fact that he does
not appear to be in this suite, that he is downstairs making a late
luncheon in the restaurant.'
'I shall telephone—'
'And tell them to send him up. Believe me, Mrs Ford, it is the only
thing to do. You have my deepest sympathy, but I am employed by Mr Ford
and must act solely in his interests. The law is on my side. I am here
to fetch Ogden away, and I am going to have him.'
'I may add that, when I came up here, I left Mrs Sheridan—she is a
fellow-secretary of mine. You may remember Mr Ford mentioning her in
his telegram—I left her to search the restaurant and grill-room, with
instructions to bring Ogden, if found, to me in this room.'
The door-bell rang. He went to the door and opened it.
'Come in, Mrs Sheridan. Ah!'
A girl in a plain, neat blue dress entered the room. She was a
small, graceful girl of about twenty-five, pretty and brisk, with the
air of one accustomed to look after herself in a difficult world. Her
eyes were clear and steady, her mouth sensitive but firm, her chin the
chin of one who has met trouble and faced it bravely. A little soldier.
She was shepherding Ogden before her, a gorged but still sullen
Ogden. He sighted Mr Mennick and stopped.
'Hello!' he said. 'What have you blown in for?'
'He was just in the middle of his lunch,' said the girl. 'I thought
you wouldn't mind if I let him finish.'
'Say, what's it all about, anyway?' demanded Ogden crossly. 'Can't a
fellow have a bit of grub in peace? You give me a pain.'
Mr Mennick explained.
'Your father wishes you to return to Eastnor, Ogden.'
'Oh, all right. I guess I'd better go, then. Good-bye, ma.'
Mrs Ford choked.
'Kiss me, Ogden.'
Ogden submitted to the embrace in sulky silence. The others
comported themselves each after his or her own fashion. Mr Mennick
fingered his chin uncomfortably. Cynthia turned to the table and picked
up an illustrated paper. Mrs Sheridan's eyes filled with tears. She
took a half-step towards Mrs Ford, as if about to speak, then drew
'Come, Ogden,' said Mr Mennick gruffly. Necessary, this Hired
Assassin work, but painful—devilish painful. He breathed a sigh of
relief as he passed into the corridor with his prize.
At the door Mrs Sheridan hesitated, stopped, and turned.
'I'm sorry,' she said impulsively.
Mrs Ford turned away without speaking, and went into the bedroom.
Cynthia laid down her paper.
'One moment, Mrs Sheridan.'
The girl had turned to go. She stopped.
'Can you give me a minute? Come in and shut the door. Won't you sit
down? Very well. You seemed sorry for Mrs Ford just now.'
'I am very sorry for Mrs Ford. Very sorry. I hate to see her
suffering. I wish Mr Mennick had not brought me into this.'
'Nesta's mad about that boy,' said Cynthia. 'Heaven knows why. I
never saw such a repulsive child in my life. However, there it is. I am
sorry for you. I gathered from what Mr Mennick said that you were to
have a good deal of Ogden's society for some time to come. How do you
feel about it?'
Mrs Sheridan moved towards the door.
'I must be going,' she said. 'Mr Mennick will be waiting for me.'
'One moment. Tell me, don't you think, after what you saw just now,
that Mrs Ford is the proper person to have charge of Ogden? You see how
devoted she is to him?'
'May I be quite frank with you?'
'Well, then, I think that Mrs Ford's influence is the worst possible
for Ogden. I am sorry for her, but that does not alter my opinion. It
is entirely owing to Mrs Ford that Ogden is what he is. She spoiled
him, indulged him in every way, never checked him—till he has
become—well, what you yourself called him, repulsive.'
'Oh well,' she said, 'I only talked that mother's love stuff because
you looked the sort of girl who would like it. We can drop all that
now, and come down to business.'
'I don't understand you.'
'You will. I don't know if you think that I kidnapped Ogden from
sheer affection for Mrs Ford. I like Nesta, but not as much as that.
No. I'm one of the Get-Rich-Quick-Wallingfords, and I'm looking out for
myself all the time. There's no one else to do it for me. I've a
beastly home. My father's dead. My mother's a cat. So—'
'Please stop,' said Mrs Sheridan. I don't know why you are telling
me all this.'
'Yes, you do. I don't know what salary Mr Ford pays you, but I don't
suppose it's anything princely. Why don't you come over to us? Mrs Ford
would give you the earth if you smuggled Ogden back to her.'
'You seem to be trying to bribe me,' said Mrs Sheridan.
'In this case,' said Cynthia, 'appearances aren't deceptive. I am.'
'Don't be a little fool.'
The door slammed.
'Come back!' cried Cynthia. She took a step as if to follow, but
gave up the idea with a laugh. She sat down and began to read her
illustrated paper again. Presently the bedroom door opened. Mrs Ford
came in. She touched her eyes with a handkerchief as she entered.
Cynthia looked up.
'I'm very sorry, Nesta,' she said.
Mrs Ford went to the window and looked out.
'I'm not going to break down, if that's what you mean,' she said. 'I
don't care. And, anyhow, it shows that it can be done.'
Cynthia turned a page of her paper.
'I've just been trying my hand at bribery and corruption.'
'What do you mean?'
'Oh, I promised and vowed many things in your name to that secretary
person, the female one—not Mennick—if she would help us. Nothing
doing. I told her to let us have Ogden as soon as possible, C.O.D., and
she withered me with a glance and went.'
Mrs Ford shrugged her shoulders impatiently.
'Oh, let her go. I'm sick of amateurs.'
'Thank you, dear,' said Cynthia.
'Oh, I know you did your best. For an amateur you did wonderfully
well. But amateurs never really succeed. There were a dozen little easy
precautions which we neglected to take. What we want is a professional;
a man whose business is kidnapping; the sort of man who kidnaps as a
matter of course; someone like Smooth Sam Fisher.'
'My dear Nesta! Who? I don't think I know the gentleman.'
'He tried to kidnap Ogden in 1906, when we were in New York. At
least, the police put it down to him, though they could prove nothing.
Then there was a horrible man, the police said he was called Buck
MacGinnis. He tried in 1907. That was in Chicago.'
'Good gracious! Kidnapping Ogden seems to be as popular as football.
And I thought I was a pioneer!'
Something approaching pride came into Mrs Ford's voice.
'I don't suppose there's a child in America,' she said, 'who has had
to be so carefully guarded. Why, the kidnappers had a special name for
him—they called him “The Little Nugget”. For years we never allowed
him out of our sight without a detective to watch him.'
'Well, Mr Ford seems to have changed all that now. I saw no
detectives. I suppose he thinks they aren't necessary in England. Or
perhaps he relied on Mr Broster. Poor Reggie!'
'It was criminally careless of him. This will be a lesson to him. He
will be more careful in future how he leaves Ogden at the mercy of
anybody who cares to come along and snap him up.'
'Which, incidentally, does not make your chance of getting him away
'Oh, I've given up hope now,' said Mrs Ford resignedly.
'I haven't,' said Cynthia.
There was something in her voice which made her companion turn
sharply and look at her. Mrs Ford might affect to be resigned, but she
was a woman of determination, and if the recent reverse had left her
bruised, it had by no means crushed her.
'Cynthia! What do you mean? What are you hinting?'
'You despise amateurs, Nesta, but, for all that, it seems that your
professionals who kidnap as a matter of course and all the rest of it
have not been a bit more successful. It was not my want of experience
that made me fail. It was my sex. This is man's work. If I had been a
man, I should at least have had brute force to fall back upon when Mr
Mrs Ford nodded.
'And,' continued Cynthia, 'as all these Smooth Sam Fishers of yours
have failed too, it is obvious that the only way to kidnap Ogden is
from within. We must have some man working for us in the enemy's camp.'
'Which is impossible,' said Mrs Ford dejectedly.
'Not at all.'
'You know a man?'
'I know the man.'
'Cynthia! What do you mean? Who is he?'
'His name is Peter Burns.'
Mrs Ford shook her head.
'I don't know him.'
'I'll introduce you. You'll like him.'
'But, Cynthia, how do you know he would be willing to help us?'
'He would do it for me,' Cynthia paused. 'You see,' she went on, 'we
are engaged to be married.'
'My dear Cynthia! Why did you not tell me? When did it happen?'
'Last night at the Fletchers' dance.'
Mrs Ford's eyes opened.
'Last night! Were you at a dance last night? And two railway
journeys today! You must be tired to death.'
'Oh, I'm all right, thanks. I suppose I shall be a wreck and not fit
to be seen tomorrow, but just at present I feel as if nothing could
tire me. It's the effect of being engaged, perhaps.'
'Tell me about him.'
'Well, he's rich, and good-looking, and amiable'—Cynthia ticked off
these qualities on her fingers—'and I think he's brave, and he's
certainly not so stupid as Mr Broster.'
'And you're very much in love with him?'
'I like him. There's no harm in Peter.'
'You certainly aren't wildly enthusiastic!'
'Oh, we shall hit it off quite well together. I needn't pose to
you, Nesta, thank goodness! That's one reason why I'm fond of you.
You know how I am situated. I've got to marry some one rich, and
Peter's quite the nicest rich man I've ever met. He's really
wonderfully unselfish. I can't understand it. With his money, you would
expect him to be a perfect horror.'
A thought seemed to strike Mrs Ford.
'But, if he's so rich—' she began. 'I forget what I was going to
say,' she broke off.
'Dear Nesta, I know what you were going to say. If he's so rich, why
should he be marrying me, when he could take his pick of half London?
Well, I'll tell you. He's marrying me for one reason, because he's
sorry for me: for another, because I had the sense to make him. He
didn't think he was going to marry anyone. A few years ago he had a
disappointment. A girl jilted him. She must have been a fool. He
thought he was going to live the rest of his life alone with his broken
heart. I didn't mean to allow that. It's taken a long time—over two
years, from start to finish—but I've done it. He's a sentimentalist. I
worked on his sympathy, and last night I made him propose to me at the
Mrs Ford had not listened to these confidences unmoved. Several
times she had tried to interrupt, but had been brushed aside. Now she
'You know I was not going to say anything of the kind. And I don't
think you should speak in this horrible, cynical way of—of—'
She stopped, flushing. There were moments when she hated Cynthia.
These occurred for the most part when the latter, as now, stirred her
to an exhibition of honest feeling which she looked on as rather
unbecoming. Mrs Ford had spent twenty years trying to forget that her
husband had married her from behind the counter of a general store in
an Illinois village, and these lapses into the uncultivated genuineness
of her girlhood made her uncomfortable.
'I wasn't going to say anything of the kind,' she repeated.
Cynthia was all smiling good-humour.
'I know. I was only teasing you. “Stringing", they call it in your
country, don't they?'
Mrs Ford was mollified.
'I'm sorry, Cynthia. I didn't mean to snap at you. All the same ...'
She hesitated. What she wanted to ask smacked so dreadfully of
Mechanicsville, Illinois. Yet she put the question bravely, for she was
somehow feeling quite troubled about this unknown Mr Burns. 'Aren't you
really fond of him at all, Cynthia?'
'Of course I am! He's a dear. Nothing would make me give him up. I'm
devoted to old Peter. I only told you all that about him because it
shows you how kind-hearted he is. He'll do anything for me. Well, shall
I sound him about Ogden?'
The magic word took Mrs Ford's mind off the matrimonial future of Mr
Burns, and brought him into prominence in his capacity of
knight-errant. She laughed happily. The contemplation of Mr Burns as
knight-errant healed the sting of defeat. The affair of Mr Mennick
began to appear in the light of a mere skirmish.
'You take my breath away!' she said. 'How do you propose that Mr
Burns shall help us?'
'It's perfectly simple. You heard Mr Mennick read that telegram.
Ogden is to be sent to a private school. Peter shall go there too.'
'But how? I don't understand. We don't know which school Mr Mennick
'We can very soon find out.'
'But how can Mr Burns go there?'
'Nothing easier. He will be a young man who has been left a little
money and wants to start a school of his own. He goes to Ogden's man
and suggests that he pay a small premium to come to him for a term as
an extra-assistant-master, to learn the business. Mr Man will jump at
him. He will be getting the bargain of his life. Peter didn't get much
of a degree at Oxford, but I believe he was wonderful at games. From a
private-school point of view he's a treasure.'
'But—would he do it?'
'I think I can persuade him.'
Mrs Ford kissed her with an enthusiasm which hitherto she had
reserved for Ogden.
'My darling girl,' she cried, 'if you knew how happy you have made
'I do,' said Cynthia definitely. 'And now you can do the same for
'Anything, anything! You must have some more hats.'
'I don't want any more hats. I want to go with you on Lord Mountry's
yacht to the Riviera.'
'Of course,' said Mrs Ford after a slight pause, 'it isn't my party,
you know, dear.'
'No. But you can work me in, darling.'
'It's quite a small party. Very quiet.'
'Crowds bore me. I enjoy quiet.'
Mrs Ford capitulated.
'I fancy you are doing me a very good turn,' she said. 'You must
certainly come on the yacht.'
'I'll tell Peter to come straight round here now,' said Cynthia
simply. She went to the telephone.
In which other interested parties, notably one Buck MacGinnis and a
trade rival, Smooth Sam Fisher, make other plans for the Nugget's
future. Of stirring times at a private school for young gentlemen. Of
stratagems, spoils, and alarms by night. Of journeys ending in lovers'
meetings. The whole related by Mr Peter Burns, gentleman of leisure,
who forfeits that leisure in a good cause.
Peter Burns's Narrative
I am strongly of the opinion that, after the age of twenty-one, a
man ought not to be out of bed and awake at four in the morning. The
hour breeds thought. At twenty-one, life being all future, it may be
examined with impunity. But, at thirty, having become an uncomfortable
mixture of future and past, it is a thing to be looked at only when the
sun is high and the world full of warmth and optimism.
This thought came to me as I returned to my rooms after the
Fletchers' ball. The dawn was breaking as I let myself in. The air was
heavy with the peculiar desolation of a London winter morning. The
houses looked dead and untenanted. A cart rumbled past, and across the
grey street a dingy black cat, moving furtively along the pavement,
gave an additional touch of forlornness to the scene.
I shivered. I was tired and hungry, and the reaction after the
emotions of the night had left me dispirited.
I was engaged to be married. An hour back I had proposed to Cynthia
Drassilis. And I can honestly say that it had come as a great surprise
Why had I done it? Did I love her? It was so difficult to analyse
love: and perhaps the mere fact that I was attempting the task was an
answer to the question. Certainly I had never tried to do so five years
ago when I had loved Audrey Blake. I had let myself be carried on from
day to day in a sort of trance, content to be utterly happy, without
dissecting my happiness. But I was five years younger then, and Audrey
I must explain Audrey, for she in her turn explains Cynthia.
I have no illusions regarding my character when I first met Audrey
Blake. Nature had given me the soul of a pig, and circumstances had
conspired to carry on Nature's work. I loved comfort, and I could
afford to have it. From the moment I came of age and relieved my
trustees of the care of my money, I wrapped myself in comfort as in a
garment. I wallowed in egoism. In fact, if, between my twenty-first and
my twenty-fifth birthdays, I had one unselfish thought, or did one
genuinely unselfish action, my memory is a blank on the point.
It was at the height of this period that I became engaged to Audrey.
Now that I can understand her better and see myself, impartially, as I
was in those days, I can realize how indescribably offensive I must
have been. My love was real, but that did not prevent its patronizing
complacency being an insult. I was King Cophetua. If I did not actually
say in so many words, 'This beggar-maid shall be my queen', I said it
plainly and often in my manner. She was the daughter of a dissolute,
evil-tempered artist whom I had met at a Bohemian club. He made a
living by painting an occasional picture, illustrating an occasional
magazine-story, but mainly by doing advertisement work. A proprietor of
a patent Infants' Food, not satisfied with the bare statement that Baby
Cried For It, would feel it necessary to push the fact home to the
public through the medium of Art, and Mr Blake would be commissioned to
draw the picture. A good many specimens of his work in this vein were
to be found in the back pages of the magazines.
A man may make a living by these means, but it is one that inclines
him to jump at a wealthy son-in-law. Mr Blake jumped at me. It was one
of his last acts on this earth. A week after he had—as I now
suspect—bullied Audrey into accepting me, he died of pneumonia.
His death had several results. It postponed the wedding: it stirred
me to a very crescendo of patronage, for with the removal of the
bread-winner the only flaw in my Cophetua pose had vanished: and it
gave Audrey a great deal more scope than she had hitherto been granted
for the exercise of free will in the choice of a husband.
This last aspect of the matter was speedily brought to my notice,
which till then it had escaped, by a letter from her, handed to me one
night at the club, where I was sipping coffee and musing on the
excellence of life in this best of all possible worlds.
It was brief and to the point. She had been married that morning.
To say that that moment was a turning point in my life would be to
use a ridiculously inadequate phrase. It dynamited my life. In a sense
it killed me. The man I had been died that night, regretted, I imagine,
by few. Whatever I am today, I am certainly not the complacent
spectator of life that I had been before that night.
I crushed the letter in my hand, and sat staring at it, my pigsty in
ruins about my ears, face to face with the fact that, even in a best of
all possible worlds, money will not buy everything.
I remember, as I sat there, a man, a club acquaintance, a bore from
whom I had fled many a time, came and settled down beside me and began
to talk. He was a small man, but he possessed a voice to which one had
to listen. He talked and talked and talked. How I loathed him, as I sat
trying to think through his stream of words. I see now that he saved
me. He forced me out of myself. But at the time he oppressed me. I was
raw and bleeding. I was struggling to grasp the incredible. I had taken
Audrey's unalterable affection for granted. She was the natural
complement to my scheme of comfort. I wanted her; I had chosen and was
satisfied with her, therefore all was well. And now I had to adjust my
mind to the impossible fact that I had lost her.
Her letter was a mirror in which I saw myself. She said little, but
I understood, and my self-satisfaction was in ribbons—and something
deeper than self-satisfaction. I saw now that I loved her as I had not
dreamed myself capable of loving.
And all the while this man talked and talked.
I have a theory that speech, persevered in, is more efficacious in
times of trouble than silent sympathy. Up to a certain point it maddens
almost beyond endurance; but, that point past, it soothes. At least, it
was so in my case. Gradually I found myself hating him less. Soon I
began to listen, then to answer. Before I left the club that night, the
first mad frenzy, in which I could have been capable of anything, had
gone from me, and I walked home, feeling curiously weak and helpless,
but calm, to begin the new life.
Three years passed before I met Cynthia. I spent those years
wandering in many countries. At last, as one is apt to do, I drifted
back to London, and settled down again to a life which, superficially,
was much the same as the one I had led in the days before I knew
Audrey. My old circle in London had been wide, and I found it easy to
pick up dropped threads. I made new friends, among them Cynthia
I liked Cynthia, and I was sorry for her. I think that, about that
time I met her, I was sorry for most people. The shock of Audrey's
departure had had that effect upon me. It is always the bad nigger who
gets religion most strongly at the camp-meeting, and in my case
'getting religion' had taken the form of suppression of self. I never
have been able to do things by halves, or even with a decent
moderation. As an egoist I had been thorough in my egoism; and now,
fate having bludgeoned that vice out of me, I found myself possessed of
an almost morbid sympathy with the troubles of other people.
I was extremely sorry for Cynthia Drassilis. Meeting her mother
frequently, I could hardly fail to be. Mrs Drassilis was a
representative of a type I disliked. She was a widow, who had been left
with what she considered insufficient means, and her outlook on life
was a compound of greed and querulousness. Sloane Square and South
Kensington are full of women in her situation. Their position resembles
that of the Ancient Mariner. 'Water, water everywhere, and not a drop
to drink.' For 'water' in their case substitute 'money'. Mrs Drassilis
was connected with money on all sides, but could only obtain it in rare
and minute quantities. Any one of a dozen relations-in-law could, if
they had wished, have trebled her annual income without feeling it. But
they did not so wish. They disapproved of Mrs Drassilis. In their
opinion the Hon. Hugo Drassilis had married beneath him—not so far
beneath him as to make the thing a horror to be avoided in conversation
and thought, but far enough to render them coldly polite to his wife
during his lifetime and almost icy to his widow after his death. Hugo's
eldest brother, the Earl of Westbourne, had never liked the obviously
beautiful, but equally obviously second-rate, daughter of a provincial
solicitor whom Hugo had suddenly presented to the family one memorable
summer as his bride. He considered that, by doubling the income derived
from Hugo's life-insurance and inviting Cynthia to the family seat once
a year during her childhood, he had done all that could be expected of
him in the matter.
He had not. Mrs Drassilis expected a great deal more of him, the
non-receipt of which had spoiled her temper, her looks, and the peace
of mind of all who had anything much to do with her.
It used to irritate me when I overheard people, as I occasionally
have done, speak of Cynthia as hard. I never found her so myself,
though heaven knows she had enough to make her so, to me she was always
a sympathetic, charming friend.
Ours was a friendship almost untouched by sex. Our minds fitted so
smoothly into one another that I had no inclination to fall in love. I
knew her too well. I had no discoveries to make about her. Her honest,
simple soul had always been open to me to read. There was none of that
curiosity, that sense of something beyond that makes for love. We had
reached a point of comradeship beyond which neither of us desired to
Yet at the Fletchers' ball I asked Cynthia to marry me, and she
* * * * *
Looking back, I can see that, though the determining cause was Mr
Tankerville Gifford, it was Audrey who was responsible. She had made me
human, capable of sympathy, and it was sympathy, primarily, that led me
to say what I said that night.
But the immediate cause was certainly young Mr Gifford.
I arrived at Marlow Square, where I was to pick up Cynthia and her
mother, a little late, and found Mrs Drassilis, florid and overdressed,
in the drawing-room with a sleek-haired, pale young man known to me as
Tankerville Gifford—to his intimates, of whom I was not one, and in
the personal paragraphs of the coloured sporting weeklies, as 'Tanky'.
I had seen him frequently at restaurants. Once, at the Empire, somebody
had introduced me to him; but, as he had not been sober at the moment,
he had missed any intellectual pleasure my acquaintanceship might have
afforded him. Like everybody else who moves about in London, I knew all
bout him. To sum him up, he was a most unspeakable little cad, and, if
the drawing-room had not been Mrs Drassilis's, I should have wondered
at finding him in it.
Mrs Drassilis introduced us.
'I think we have already met,' I said.
He stared glassily.
I was not surprised.
At this moment Cynthia came in. Out of the corner of my eye I
observed a look of fuddled displeasure come into Tanky's face at her
frank pleasure at seeing me.
I had never seen her looking better. She is a tall girl, who carries
herself magnificently. The simplicity of her dress gained an added
dignity from comparison with the rank glitter of her mother's. She wore
unrelieved black, a colour which set off to wonderful advantage the
clear white of her skin and her pale-gold hair.
'You're late, Peter,' she said, looking at the clock.
'I know. I'm sorry.'
'Better be pushing, what?' suggested Tanky.
'My cab's waiting.'
'Will you ring the bell, Mr Gifford?' said Mrs Drassilis. 'I will
tell Parker to whistle for another.'
'Take me in yours,' I heard a voice whisper in my ear.
I looked at Cynthia. Her expression had not changed. Then I looked
at Tanky Gifford, and I understood. I had seen that stuffed-fish look
on his face before—on the occasion when I had been introduced to him
at the Empire.
'If you and Mr Gifford will take my cab,' I said to Mrs Drassilis,
'we will follow.'
Mrs Drassilis blocked the motion. I imagine that the sharp note in
her voice was lost on Tanky, but it rang out like a clarion to me.
'I am in no hurry,' she said. 'Mr Gifford, will you take Cynthia? I
will follow with Mr Burns. You will meet Parker on the stairs. Tell him
to call another cab.'
As the door closed behind them, she turned on me like a
'How can you be so extraordinarily tactless, Peter?' she cried.
'You're a perfect fool. Have you no eyes?'
'I'm sorry,' I said.
'He's devoted to her.'
'What do you mean?'
'Sorry for her.'
She seemed to draw herself together inside her dress. Her eyes
glittered. My mouth felt very dry, and my heart was beginning to thump.
We were both furiously angry. It was a moment that had been coming for
years, and we both knew it. For my part I was glad that it had come. On
subjects on which one feels deeply it is a relief to speak one's mind.
'Oh!' she said at last. Her voice quivered. She was clutching at her
self-control as it slipped from her. 'Oh! And what is my daughter to
you, Mr Burns!'
'A great friend.'
'And I suppose you think it friendly to try to spoil her chances?'
'If Mr Gifford is a sample of them—yes.'
'What do you mean?'
'I see. I understand. I am going to put a stop to this once and for
all. Do you hear? I have noticed it for a long time. Because I have
given you the run of the house, and allowed you to come in and out as
you pleased, like a tame cat, you presume—'
'Presume—' I prompted.
'You come here and stand in Cynthia's way. You trade on the fact
that you have known us all this time to monopolize her attention. You
spoil her chances. You—'
The invaluable Parker entered to say that the cab was at the door.
We drove to the Fletchers' house in silence. The spell had been
broken. Neither of us could recapture that first, fine, careless
rapture which had carried us through the opening stages of the
conflict, and discussion of the subject on a less exalted plane was
impossible. It was that blessed period of calm, the rest between
rounds, and we observed it to the full.
When I reached the ballroom a waltz was just finishing. Cynthia, a
statue in black, was dancing with Tanky Gifford. They were opposite me
when the music stopped, and she caught sight of me over his shoulder.
She disengaged herself and moved quickly towards me.
'Take me away,' she said under her breath. 'Anywhere. Quick.'
It was no time to consider the etiquette of the ballroom. Tanky,
startled at his sudden loneliness, seemed by his expression to be
endeavouring to bring his mind to bear on the matter. A couple making
for the door cut us off from him, and following them, we passed out.
Neither of us spoke till we had reached the little room where I had
She sat down. She was looking pale and tired.
'Oh, dear!' she said.
I understood. I seemed to see that journey in the cab, those dances,
those terrible between-dances ...
It was very sudden.
I took her hand. She turned to me with a tired smile. There were
tears in her eyes ...
I heard myself speaking ...
She was looking at me, her eyes shining. All the weariness seemed to
have gone out of them.
I looked at her.
There was something missing. I had felt it when I was speaking. To
me my voice had had no ring of conviction. And then I saw what it was.
There was no mystery. We knew each other too well. Friendship kills
She put my thought into words.
'We have always been brother and sister,' she said doubtfully.
'You have changed tonight? You really want me?'
Did I? I tried to put the question to myself and answer it honestly.
Yes, in a sense, I had changed tonight. There was an added appreciation
of her fineness, a quickening of that blend of admiration and pity
which I had always felt for her. I wanted with all my heart to help
her, to take her away from her dreadful surroundings, to make her
happy. But did I want her in the sense in which she had used the word?
Did I want her as I had wanted Audrey Blake? I winced away from the
question. Audrey belonged to the dead past, but it hurt to think of
Was it merely because I was five years older now than when I had
wanted Audrey that the fire had gone out of me?
I shut my mind against my doubts.
'I have changed tonight,' I said.
And I bent down and kissed her.
I was conscious of being defiant against somebody. And then I knew
that the somebody was myself.
I poured myself out a cup of hot coffee from the flask which Smith,
my man, had filled against my return. It put life into me. The
And yet there remained something that made for uneasiness, a sort of
foreboding at the back of my mind.
I had taken a step in the dark, and I was afraid for Cynthia. I had
undertaken to give her happiness. Was I certain that I could succeed?
The glow of chivalry had left me, and I began to doubt.
Audrey had taken from me something that I could not recover—poetry
was as near as I could get to a definition of it. Yes, poetry. With
Cynthia my feet would always be on the solid earth. To the end of the
chapter we should be friends and nothing more.
I found myself pitying Cynthia intensely. I saw her future a series
of years of intolerable dullness. She was too good to be tied for life
to a battered hulk like myself.
I drank more coffee and my mood changed. Even in the grey of a
winter morning a man of thirty, in excellent health, cannot pose to
himself for long as a piece of human junk, especially if he comforts
himself with hot coffee.
My mind resumed its balance. I laughed at myself as a sentimental
fraud. Of course I could make her happy. No man and woman had ever been
more admirably suited to each other. As for that first disaster, which
I had been magnifying into a life-tragedy, what of it? An incident of
my boyhood. A ridiculous episode which—I rose with the intention of
doing so at once—I should now proceed to eliminate from my life.
I went quickly to my desk, unlocked it, and took out a photograph.
And then—undoubtedly four o'clock in the morning is no time for a
man to try to be single-minded and decisive—I wavered. I had intended
to tear the thing in pieces without a glance, and fling it into the
wastepaper-basket. But I took the glance and I hesitated.
The girl in the photograph was small and slight, and she looked
straight out of the picture with large eyes that met and challenged
mine. How well I remembered them, those Irish-blue eyes under their
expressive, rather heavy brows. How exactly the photographer had caught
that half-wistful, half-impudent look, the chin tilted, the mouth
curving into a smile.
In a wave all my doubts had surged back upon me. Was this mere
sentimentalism, a four-in-the-morning tribute to the pathos of the
flying years, or did she really fill my soul and stand guard over it so
that no successor could enter in and usurp her place?
I had no answer, unless the fact that I replaced the photograph in
its drawer was one. I felt that this thing could not be decided now. It
was more difficult than I had thought.
All my gloom had returned by the time I was in bed. Hours seemed to
pass while I tossed restlessly aching for sleep.
When I woke my last coherent thought was still clear in my mind. It
was a passionate vow that, come what might, if those Irish eyes were to
haunt me till my death, I would play the game loyally with Cynthia.
The telephone bell rang just as I was getting ready to call at
Marlow Square and inform Mrs Drassilis of the position of affairs.
Cynthia, I imagined, would have broken the news already, which would
mitigate the embarrassment of the interview to some extent; but the
recollection of my last night's encounter with Mrs Drassilis prevented
me from looking forward with any joy to the prospect of meeting her
Cynthia's voice greeted me as I unhooked the receiver.
'Hullo, Peter! Is that you? I want you to come round here at once.'
'I was just starting,' I said.
'I don't mean Marlow Square. I'm not there. I'm at the Guelph. Ask
for Mrs Ford's suite. It's very important. I'll tell you all about it
when you get here. Come as soon as you can.'
My rooms were conveniently situated for visits to the Hotel Guelph.
A walk of a couple of minutes took me there. Mrs Ford's suite was on
the third floor. I rang the bell and Cynthia opened the door to me.
'Come in,' she said. 'You're a dear to be so quick.'
'My rooms are only just round the corner.' She shut the door, and
for the first time we looked at one another. I could not say that I was
nervous, but there was certainly, to me, a something strange in the
atmosphere. Last night seemed a long way off and somehow a little
unreal. I suppose I must have shown this in my manner, for she suddenly
broke what had amounted to a distinct pause by giving a little laugh.
'Peter,' she said, 'you're embarrassed.' I denied the charge warmly,
but without real conviction. I was embarrassed. 'Then you ought to be,'
she said. 'Last night, when I was looking my very best in a lovely
dress, you asked me to marry you. Now you see me again in cold blood,
and you're wondering how you can back out of it without hurting my
I smiled. She did not. I ceased to smile. She was looking at me in a
very peculiar manner.
'Peter,' she said, 'are you sure?'
'My dear old Cynthia,' I said, 'what's the matter with you?'
'You are sure?' she persisted.
'Absolutely, entirely sure.' I had a vision of two large eyes
looking at me out of a photograph. It came and went in a flash.
I kissed Cynthia.
'What quantities of hair you have,' I said. 'It's a shame to cover
it up.' She was not responsive. 'You're in a very queer mood today,
Cynthia,' I went on. 'What's the matter?'
'I've been thinking.'
'Out with it. Something has gone wrong.' An idea flashed upon me.
'Er—has your mother—is your mother very angry about—'
'Mother's delighted. She always liked you, Peter.'
I had the self-restraint to check a grin.
'Then what is it?' I said. 'Tired after the dance?'
'Nothing as simple as that.'
'It's so difficult to put it into words.'
She was playing with the papers on the table, her face turned away.
For a moment she did not speak.
'I've been worrying myself, Peter,' she said at last. 'You are so
chivalrous and unselfish. You're quixotic. It's that that is troubling
me. Are you marrying me just because you're sorry for me? Don't speak.
I can tell you now if you will just let me say straight out what's in
my mind. We have known each other for two years now. You know all about
me. You know how—how unhappy I am at home. Are you marrying me just
because you pity me and want to take me out of all that?'
'My dear girl!'
'You haven't answered my question.'
'I answered it two minutes ago when you asked me if—'
'You do love me?'
All this time she had been keeping her face averted, but now she
turned and looked into my eyes with an abrupt intensity which, I
confess, startled me. Her words startled me more.
'Peter, do you love me as much as you loved Audrey Blake?'
In the instant which divided her words from my reply my mind flew
hither and thither, trying to recall an occasion when I could have
mentioned Audrey to her. I was convinced that I had not done so. I
never mentioned Audrey to anyone.
There is a grain of superstition in the most level-headed man. I am
not particularly level-headed, and I have more than a grain in me. I
was shaken. Ever since I had asked Cynthia to marry me, it seemed as if
the ghost of Audrey had come back into my life.
'Good Lord!' I cried. 'What do you know of Audrey Blake?'
She turned her face away again.
'Her name seems to affect you very strongly,' she said quietly.
I recovered myself.
'If you ask an old soldier,' I said, 'he will tell you that a wound,
long after it has healed, is apt to give you an occasional twinge.'
'Not if it has really healed.'
'Yes, when it has really healed—when you can hardly remember how
you were fool enough to get it.'
She said nothing.
'How did you hear about—it?' I asked.
'When I first met you, or soon after, a friend of yours—we happened
to be talking about you—told me that you had been engaged to be
married to a girl named Audrey Blake. He was to have been your best
man, he said, but one day you wrote and told him there would be no
wedding, and then you disappeared; and nobody saw you again for three
'Yes,' I said: 'that is all quite true.'
'It seems to have been a serious affair, Peter. I mean—the sort of
thing a man would find it hard to forget.'
I tried to smile, but I knew that I was not doing it well. It was
hurting me extraordinarily, this discussion of Audrey.
'A man would find it almost impossible,' I said, 'unless he had a
remarkably poor memory.'
'I didn't mean that. You know what I mean by forget.'
'Yes,' I said, 'I do.'
She came quickly to me and took me by the shoulders, looking into my
'Peter, can you honestly say you have forgotten her—in the sense I
'Yes,' I said.
Again that feeling swept over me—that curious sensation of being
defiant against myself.
'She does not stand between us?'
'No,' I said.
I could feel the effort behind the word. It was as if some
subconscious part of me were working to keep it back.
There was a soft smile on her face; as she raised it to mine I put
my arms around her.
She drew away with a little laugh. Her whole manner had changed. She
was a different being from the girl who had looked so gravely into my
eyes a moment before.
'Oh, my dear boy, how terribly muscular you are! You've crushed me.
I expect you used to be splendid at football, like Mr Broster.'
I did not reply at once. I cannot wrap up the deeper emotions and
put them back on their shelf directly I have no further immediate use
for them. I slowly adjusted myself to the new key of the conversation.
'Who's Broster?' I asked at length.
'He used to be tutor to'—she turned me round and pointed—'to
I had seen a picture standing on one of the chairs when I entered
the room but had taken no particular notice of it. I now gave it a
closer glance. It was a portrait, very crudely done, of a singularly
repulsive child of about ten or eleven years old.
Was he, poor chap! Well, we all have our troubles, don't we!
Who is this young thug! Not a friend of yours, I hope?'
'That is Ogden, Mrs Ford's son. It's a tragedy—'
'Perhaps it doesn't do him justice. Does he really squint like that,
or is it just the artist's imagination?'
'Don't make fun of it. It's the loss of that boy that is breaking
I was shocked.
'Is he dead? I'm awfully sorry. I wouldn't for the world—'
'No, no. He is alive and well. But he is dead to her. The court gave
him into the custody of his father.'
'Mrs Ford was the wife of Elmer Ford, the American millionaire. They
were divorced a year ago.'
Cynthia was gazing at the portrait.
'This boy is quite a celebrity in his way,' she said. 'They call him
“The Little Nugget” in America.'
'Oh! Why is that?'
'It's a nickname the kidnappers have for him. Ever so many attempts
have been made to steal him.'
She stopped and looked at me oddly.
'I made one today, Peter,' she said. I went down to the country,
where the boy was, and kidnapped him.'
'Cynthia! What on earth do you mean?'
'Don't you understand? I did it for Nesta's sake. She was breaking
her heart about not being able to see him, so I slipped down and stole
him away, and brought him back here.'
I do not know if I was looking as amazed as I felt. I hope not, for
I felt as if my brain were giving way. The perfect calmness with which
she spoke of this extraordinary freak added to my confusion.
'No; I stole him.'
'But, good heavens! The law! It's a penal offence, you know!'
'Well, I did it. Men like Elmer Ford aren't fit to have charge of a
child. You don't know him, but he's just an unscrupulous financier,
without a thought above money. To think of a boy growing up in that
tainted atmosphere—at his most impressionable age. It means death to
any good there is in him.'
My mind was still grappling feebly with the legal aspect of the
'But, Cynthia, kidnapping's kidnapping, you know! The law doesn't
take any notice of motives. If you're caught—'
She cut through my babble.
'Would you have been afraid to do it, Peter?'
'Well—' I began. I had not considered the point before.
'I don't believe you would. If I asked you to do it for my sake—'
'But, Cynthia, kidnapping, you know! It's such an infernally
'I played it. Do you despise me?'
I perspired. I could think of no other reply.
'Peter,' she said, 'I understand your scruples. I know exactly how
you feel. But can't you see that this is quite different from the sort
of kidnapping you naturally look on as horrible? It's just taking a boy
away from surroundings that must harm him, back to his mother, who
worships him. It's not wrong. It's splendid.'
'You will do it for me, Peter?' she said.
'I don't understand,' I said feebly. 'It's done. You've kidnapped
'They tracked him and took him back. And now I want you to
try.' She came closer to me. 'Peter, don't you see what it will mean to
me if you agree to try? I'm only human, I can't help, at the bottom of
my heart, still being a little jealous of this Audrey Blake. No, don't
say anything. Words can't cure me; but if you do this thing for me, I
shall be satisfied. I shall know.'
She was close beside me, holding my arm and looking into my face.
That sense of the unreality of things which had haunted me since that
moment at the dance came over me with renewed intensity. Life had
ceased to be a rather grey, orderly business in which day succeeded day
calmly and without event. Its steady stream had broken up into rapids,
and I was being whirled away on them.
'Will you do it, Peter? Say you will.'
A voice, presumably mine, answered 'Yes'.
'My dear old boy!'
She pushed me into a chair, and, sitting on the arm of it, laid her
hand on mine and became of a sudden wondrously business-like.
'Listen,' she said, 'I'll tell you what we have arranged.'
It was borne in upon me, as she began to do so, that she appeared
from the very beginning to have been extremely confident that that
essential part of her plans, my consent to the scheme, could be relied
upon as something of a certainty. Women have these intuitions.
Looking back, I think I can fix the point at which this insane
venture I had undertaken ceased to be a distorted dream, from which I
vaguely hoped that I might shortly waken, and took shape as a reality
of the immediate future. That moment came when I met Mr Arnold Abney by
appointment at his club.
Till then the whole enterprise had been visionary. I gathered from
Cynthia that the boy Ogden was shortly to be sent to a preparatory
school, and that I was to insinuate myself into this school and,
watching my opportunity, to remove him; but it seemed to me that the
obstacles to this comparatively lucid scheme were insuperable. In the
first place, how were we to discover which of England's million
preparatory schools Mr Ford, or Mr Mennick for him, would choose?
Secondly, the plot which was to carry me triumphantly into this school
when—or if—found, struck me as extremely thin. I was to pose, Cynthia
told me, as a young man of private means, anxious to learn the
business, with a view to setting up a school of his own. The objection
to that was, I held, that I obviously did not want to do anything of
the sort. I had not the appearance of a man with such an ambition. I
had none of the conversation of such a man.
I put it to Cynthia.
'They would find me out in a day,' I assured her. 'A man who wants
to set up a school has got to be a pretty brainy sort of fellow. I
don't know anything.'
'You got your degree.'
'A degree. At any rate, I've forgotten all I knew.'
'That doesn't matter. You have the money. Anybody with money can
start a school, even if he doesn't know a thing. Nobody would think it
It struck me as a monstrous slur on our educational system, but
reflection told me it was true. The proprietor of a preparatory school,
if he is a man of wealth, need not be able to teach, any more than an
impresario need be able to write plays.
'Well, we'll pass that for the moment,' I said. 'Here's the real
difficulty. How are you going to find out the school Mr Ford has
'I have found it out already—or Nesta has. She set a detective to
work. It was perfectly easy. Ogden's going to Mr Abney's. Sanstead
House is the name of the place. It's in Hampshire somewhere. Quite a
small school, but full of little dukes and earls and things. Lord
Mountry's younger brother, Augustus Beckford, is there.'
I had known Lord Mountry and his family well some years ago. I
remembered Augustus dimly.
'Mountry? Do you know him? He was up at Oxford with me.'
She seemed interested.
'What kind of a man is he?' she asked.
'Oh, quite a good sort. Rather an ass. I haven't seen him for
'He's a friend of Nesta's. I've only met him once. He is going to be
'You will need a reference. At least, I suppose you will. And,
anyhow, if you say you know Lord Mountry it will make it simpler for
you with Mr Abney, the brother being at the school.'
'Does Mountry know about this business? Have you told him why I want
to go to Abney's?'
'Nesta told him. He thought it was very sporting of you. He will
tell Mr Abney anything we like. By the way, Peter, you will have to pay
a premium or something, I suppose. But Nesta will look after all
expenses, of course.'
On this point I made my only stand of the afternoon.
'No,' I said; 'it's very kind of her, but this is going to be
entirely an amateur performance. I'm doing this for you, and I'll stand
the racket. Good heavens! Fancy taking money for a job of this kind!'
She looked at me rather oddly.
'That is very sweet of you, Peter,' she said, after a slight pause.
'Now let's get to work.'
And together we composed the letter which led to my sitting, two
days later, in stately conference at his club with Mr Arnold Abney,
M.A., of Sanstead House, Hampshire.
Mr Abney proved to be a long, suave, benevolent man with an Oxford
manner, a high forehead, thin white hands, a cooing intonation, and a
general air of hushed importance, as of one in constant communication
with the Great. There was in his bearing something of the family
solicitor in whom dukes confide, and something of the private chaplain
at the Castle.
He gave me the key-note to his character in the first minute of our
acquaintanceship. We had seated ourselves at a table in the
smoking-room when an elderly gentleman shuffled past, giving a nod in
transit. My companion sprang to his feet almost convulsively, returned
the salutation, and subsided slowly into his chair again.
'The Duke of Devizes,' he said in an undertone. 'A most able man.
Most able. His nephew, Lord Ronald Stokeshaye, was one of my pupils. A
I gathered that the old feudal spirit still glowed to some extent in
Mr Abney's bosom.
We came to business.
'So you wish to be one of us, Mr Burns, to enter the scholastic
I tried to look as if I did.
'Well, in certain circumstances, the circumstances in which
I—ah—myself, I may say, am situated, there is no more delightful
occupation. The work is interesting. There is the constant fascination
of seeing these fresh young lives develop—and of helping them to
develop—under one's eyes; in any case, I may say, there is the
exceptional interest of being in a position to mould the growing minds
of lads who will some day take their place among the country's
hereditary legislators, that little knot of devoted men who, despite
the vulgar attacks of loudmouthed demagogues, still do their share, and
more, in the guidance of England's fortunes. Yes.'
He paused. I said I thought so, too.
'You are an Oxford man, Mr Burns, I think you told me? Ah, I have
your letter here. Just so. You were at—ah, yes. A fine college. The
Dean is a lifelong friend of mine. Perhaps you knew my late pupil, Lord
Rollo?—no, he would have been since your time. A delightful boy. Quite
delightful ... And you took your degree? Exactly. And
represented the university at both cricket and Rugby football?
Excellent. Mens sana in—ah—corpore, in fact, sano, yes!'
He folded the letter carefully and replaced it in his pocket.
'Your primary object in coming to me, Mr Burns, is, I gather, to
learn the—ah—the ropes, the business? You have had little or no
previous experience of school-mastering?'
'Then your best plan would undoubtedly be to consider yourself and
work for a time simply as an ordinary assistant-master. You would thus
get a sound knowledge of the intricacies of the profession which would
stand you in good stead when you decide to set up your own school.
School-mastering is a profession, which cannot be taught adequately
except in practice. “Only those who—ah—brave its dangers comprehend
its mystery.” Yes, I would certainly recommend you to begin at the foot
of the ladder and go, at least for a time, through the mill.'
'Certainly,' I said. 'Of course.'
My ready acquiescence pleased him. I could see that he was relieved.
I think he had expected me to jib at the prospect of actual work.
'As it happens,' he said, 'my classical master left me at the end of
last term. I was about to go to the Agency for a successor when your
letter arrived. Would you consider—'
I had to think this over. Feeling kindly disposed towards Mr Arnold
Abney, I wished to do him as little harm as possible. I was going to
rob him of a boy, who, while no moulding of his growing mind could make
him into a hereditary legislator, did undoubtedly represent a portion
of Mr Abney's annual income; and I did not want to increase my offence
by being a useless assistant-master. Then I reflected that, if I was no
Jowett, at least I knew enough Latin and Greek to teach the rudiments
of those languages to small boys. My conscience was satisfied.
'I should be delighted,' I said.
'Excellent. Then let us consider that as—ah—settled,' said Mr
There was a pause. My companion began to fiddle a little
uncomfortably with an ash-tray. I wondered what was the matter, and
then it came to me. We were about to become sordid. The discussion of
terms was upon us.
And as I realized this, I saw simultaneously how I could throw one
more sop to my exigent conscience. After all, the whole thing was
really a question of hard cash. By kidnapping Ogden I should be taking
money from Mr Abney. By paying my premium I should be giving it back to
I considered the circumstances. Ogden was now about thirteen years
old. The preparatory-school age limit may be estimated roughly at
fourteen. That is to say, in any event Sanstead House could only
harbour him for one year. Mr Abney's fees I had to guess at. To be on
the safe side, I fixed my premium at an outside figure, and, getting to
the point at once, I named it.
It was entirely satisfactory. My mental arithmetic had done me
credit. Mr Abney beamed upon me. Over tea and muffins we became very
friendly. In half an hour I heard more of the theory of
school-mastering than I had dreamed existed.
We said good-bye at the club front door. He smiled down at me
benevolently from the top of the steps.
'Good-bye, Mr Burns, good-bye,' he said. 'We shall meet
When I reached my rooms, I rang for Smith.
'Smith,' I said, 'I want you to get some books for me first thing
tomorrow. You had better take a note of them.'
He moistened his pencil.
'A Latin Grammar.'
'A Greek Grammar.'
'Brodley Arnold's Easy Prose Sentences.'
'And Caesar's Gallic Wars'
'What name, sir?'
'Thank you, sir. Anything else, sir?'
'No, that will be all.'
'Very good, sir.'
He shimmered from the room.
Thank goodness, Smith always has thought me mad, and is consequently
never surprised at anything I ask him to do.
Sanstead House was an imposing building in the Georgian style. It
stood, foursquare, in the midst of about nine acres of land. For the
greater part of its existence, I learned later, it had been the private
home of a family of the name of Boone, and in its early days the estate
had been considerable. But the progress of the years had brought
changes to the Boones. Money losses had necessitated the sale of land.
New roads had come into being, cutting off portions of the estate from
their centre. New facilities for travel had drawn members of the family
away from home. The old fixed life of the country had changed, and in
the end the latest Boone had come to the conclusion that to keep up so
large and expensive a house was not worth his while.
That the place should have become a school was the natural process
of evolution. It was too large for the ordinary purchaser, and the
estate had been so whittled down in the course of time that it was
inadequate for the wealthy. Colonel Boone had been glad to let it to Mr
Abney, and the school had started its career.
It had all the necessary qualifications for a school. It was
isolated. The village was two miles from its gates. It was near the
sea. There were fields for cricket and football, and inside the house a
number of rooms of every size, suitable for classrooms and dormitories.
The household, when I arrived, consisted, besides Mr Abney, myself,
another master named Glossop, and the matron, of twenty-four boys, the
butler, the cook, the odd-job-man, two housemaids, a scullery-maid, and
a parlour-maid. It was a little colony, cut off from the outer world.
With the exception of Mr Abney and Glossop, a dismal man of nerves
and mannerisms, the only person with whom I exchanged speech on my
first evening was White, the butler. There are some men one likes at
sight. White was one of them. Even for a butler he was a man of
remarkably smooth manners, but he lacked that quality of austere
aloofness which I have noticed in other butlers.
He helped me unpack my box, and we chatted during the process. He
was a man of medium height, square and muscular, with something, some
quality of springiness, as it were, that seemed unusual in a butler.
From one or two things he said, I gathered that he had travelled a good
deal. Altogether he interested me. He had humour, and the half-hour
which I had spent with Glossop made me set a premium on humour. I found
that he, like myself, was a new-comer. His predecessor had left at
short notice during the holidays, and he had secured the vacancy at
about the same time that I was securing mine. We agreed that it was a
pretty place. White, I gathered, regarded its isolation as a merit. He
was not fond of village society.
On the following morning, at eight o'clock, my work began.
My first day had the effect of entirely revolutionizing what ideas I
possessed of the lot of the private-school assistant-master.
My view, till then, had been that the assistant-master had an easy
time. I had only studied him from the outside. My opinion was based on
observations made as a boy at my own private school, when masters were
an enviable race who went to bed when they liked, had no preparation to
do, and couldn't be caned. It seemed to me then that those three facts,
especially the last, formed a pretty good basis on which to build up
the Perfect Life.
I had not been at Sanstead House two days before doubts began to
creep in on this point. What the boy, observing the assistant-master
standing about in apparently magnificent idleness, does not realize is
that the unfortunate is really putting in a spell of exceedingly hard
work. He is 'taking duty'. And 'taking duty' is a thing to be
remembered, especially by a man who, like myself, has lived a life of
fatted ease, protected from all the minor annoyances of life by a
Sanstead House educated me. It startled me. It showed me a hundred
ways in which I had allowed myself to become soft and inefficient,
without being aware of it. There may be other professions which call
for a fiercer display of energy, but for the man with a private income
who has loitered through life at his own pace, a little
school-mastering is brisk enough to be a wonderful tonic.
I needed it, and I got it.
It was almost as if Mr Abney had realized intuitively how excellent
the discipline of work was for my soul, for the kindly man allowed me
to do not only my own, but most of his as well. I have talked with
assistant-masters since, and I have gathered from them that headmasters
of private schools are divided into two classes: the workers and the
runners-up-to-London. Mr Abney belonged to the latter class. Indeed, I
doubt if a finer representative of the class could have been found in
the length and breadth of southern England. London drew him like a
After breakfast he would take me aside. The formula was always the
Myself (apprehensively, scenting disaster, 'like some wild creature
caught within a trap, who sees the trapper coming through the wood').
'I am afraid I shall be obliged to run up to London today. I have
received an important letter from—' And then he would name some parent
or some prospective parent. (By 'prospective' I mean one who was
thinking of sending his son to Sanstead House. You may have twenty
children, but unless you send them to his school, a schoolmaster will
refuse to dignify you with the name of parent.)
Then, 'He wishes—ah—to see me,' or, in the case of titled parents,
'He wishes—ah—to talk things over with me.' The distinction is
subtle, but he always made it.
And presently the cab would roll away down the long drive, and my
work would begin, and with it that soul-discipline to which I have
'Taking duty' makes certain definite calls upon a man. He has to
answer questions; break up fights; stop big boys bullying small boys;
prevent small boys bullying smaller boys; check stone-throwing,
going-on-the-wet-grass, worrying-the-cook, teasing-the-dog,
making-too-much-noise, and, in particular, discourage all forms of
hara-kiri such as tree-climbing, water-spout-scaling,
pencil-swallowing, and ink-drinking-because-somebody-dared-me-to.
At intervals throughout the day there are further feats to perform.
Carving the joint, helping the pudding, playing football, reading
prayers, teaching, herding stragglers in for meals, and going round the
dormitories to see that the lights are out, are a few of them.
I wanted to oblige Cynthia, if I could, but there were moments
during the first day or so when I wondered how on earth I was going to
snatch the necessary time to combine kidnapping with my other duties.
Of all the learned professions it seemed to me that that of the
kidnapper most urgently demanded certain intervals for leisured
thought, in which schemes and plots might be matured.
Schools vary. Sanstead House belonged to the more difficult class.
Mr Abney's constant flittings did much to add to the burdens of his
assistants, and his peculiar reverence for the aristocracy did even
more. His endeavour to make Sanstead House a place where the delicately
nurtured scions of the governing class might feel as little as possible
the temporary loss of titled mothers led him into a benevolent
tolerance which would have unsettled angels.
Success or failure for an assistant-master is, I consider, very much
a matter of luck. My colleague, Glossop, had most of the qualities that
make for success, but no luck. Properly backed up by Mr Abney, he might
have kept order. As it was, his class-room was a bear-garden, and, when
he took duty, chaos reigned.
I, on the other hand, had luck. For some reason the boys agreed to
accept me. Quite early in my sojourn I enjoyed that sweetest triumph of
the assistant-master's life, the spectacle of one boy smacking another
boy's head because the latter persisted in making a noise after I had
told him to stop. I doubt if a man can experience so keenly in any
other way that thrill which comes from the knowledge that the populace
is his friend. Political orators must have the same sort of feeling
when their audience clamours for the ejection of a heckler, but it
cannot be so keen. One is so helpless with boys, unless they decide
that they like one.
It was a week from the beginning of the term before I made the
acquaintance of the Little Nugget.
I had kept my eyes open for him from the beginning, and when I
discovered that he was not at school, I had felt alarmed. Had Cynthia
sent me down here, to work as I had never worked before, on a
Then, one morning, Mr Abney drew me aside after breakfast.
It was the first time that I had heard those soon-to-be-familiar
'I fear I shall be compelled to run up to London today. I have an
important appointment with the father of a boy who is coming to the
school. He wishes—ah—to see me.'
This might be the Little Nugget at last.
I was right. During the interval before school, Augustus Beckford
approached me. Lord Mountry's brother was a stolid boy with freckles.
He had two claims to popular fame. He could hold his breath longer than
any other boy in the school, and he always got hold of any piece of
'There's a new kid coming tonight, sir,' he said—'an American kid.
I heard him talking about it to the matron. The kid's name's Ford, I
believe the kid's father's awfully rich. Would you like to be rich,
sir? I wish I was rich. If I was rich, I'd buy all sorts of things. I
believe I'm going to be rich when I grow up. I heard father talking to
a lawyer about it. There's a new parlour-maid coming soon, sir. I heard
cook telling Emily. I'm blowed if I'd like to be a parlour-maid, would
you, sir? I'd much rather be a cook.'
He pondered the point for a moment. When he spoke again, it was to
touch on a still more profound problem.
'If you wanted a halfpenny to make up twopence to buy a lizard, what
would you do, sir?'
He got it.
Ogden Ford, the El Dorado of the kidnapping industry, entered
Sanstead House at a quarter past nine that evening. He was preceded by
a Worried Look, Mr Arnold Abney, a cabman bearing a large box, and the
odd-job man carrying two suitcases. I have given precedence to the
Worried Look because it was a thing by itself. To say that Mr Abney
wore it would be to create a wrong impression. Mr Abney simply followed
in its wake. He was concealed behind it much as Macbeth's army was
concealed behind the woods of Dunsinane.
I only caught a glimpse of Ogden as Mr Abney showed him into his
study. He seemed a self-possessed boy, very like but, if anything,
uglier than the portrait of him which I had seen at the Hotel Guelph.
A moment later the door opened, and my employer came out. He
appeared relieved at seeing me.
'Ah, Mr Burns, I was about to go in search of you. Can you spare me
a moment? Let us go into the dining-room.'
'That is a boy called Ford, Mr Burns,' he said, when he had closed
the door. 'A rather—er—remarkable boy. He is an American, the son of
a Mr Elmer Ford. As he will be to a great extent in your charge, I
should like to prepare you for his—ah—peculiarities.'
'Is he peculiar?'
A faint spasm disturbed Mr Abney's face. He applied a silk
handkerchief to his forehead before he replied.
'In many ways, judged by the standard of the lads who have passed
through my hands—boys, of course, who, it is only fair to add, have
enjoyed the advantages of a singularly refined home-life—he may be
said to be—ah—somewhat peculiar. While I have no doubt that au
fond ... au fond he is a charming boy, quite charming, at present
he is—shall I say?—peculiar. I am disposed to imagine that he has
been, from childhood up, systematically indulged. There has been in his
life, I suspect, little or no discipline. The result has been to make
him curiously unboylike. There is a complete absence of that
diffidence, that childish capacity for surprise, which I for one find
so charming in our English boys. Little Ford appears to be completely
blase'. He has tastes and ideas which are precocious, and—unusual in a
boy of his age.... He expresses himself in a curious manner
sometimes.... He seems to have little or no reverence
He paused while he passed his handkerchief once more over his
'Mr Ford, the boy's father, who struck me as a man of great ability,
a typical American merchant prince, was singularly frank with me about
his domestic affairs as they concerned his son. I cannot recall his
exact words, but the gist of what he said was that, until now, Mrs Ford
had had sole charge of the boy's upbringing, and—Mr Ford was
singularly outspoken—was too indulgent, in fact—ah—spoilt him.
Indeed—you will, of course, respect my confidence—that was the real
reason for the divorce which—ah—has unhappily come about. Mr Ford
regards this school as in a measure—shall I say?—an antidote. He
wishes there to be no lack of wholesome discipline. So that I shall
expect you, Mr Burns, to check firmly, though, of course, kindly, such
habits of his as—ah—cigarette-smoking. On our journey down he smoked
incessantly. I found it impossible—without physical violence—to
induce him to stop. But, of course, now that he is actually at the
school, and subject to the discipline of the school ...'
'Exactly,' I said.
'That was all I wished to say. Perhaps it would be as well if you
saw him now, Mr Burns. You will find him in the study.'
He drifted away, and I went to the study to introduce myself.
A cloud of tobacco-smoke rising above the back of an easy-chair
greeted me as I opened the door. Moving into the room, I perceived a
pair of boots resting on the grate. I stepped to the light, and the
remainder of the Little Nugget came into view.
He was lying almost at full length in the chair, his eyes fixed in
dreamy abstraction upon the ceiling. As I came towards him, he drew at
the cigarette between his fingers, glanced at me, looked away again,
and expelled another mouthful of smoke. He was not interested in me.
Perhaps this indifference piqued me, and I saw him with prejudiced
eyes. At any rate, he seemed to me a singularly unprepossessing youth.
That portrait had flattered him. He had a stout body and a round,
unwholesome face. His eyes were dull, and his mouth dropped
discontentedly. He had the air of one who is surfeited with life.
I am disposed to imagine, as Mr Abney would have said, that my
manner in addressing him was brisker and more incisive than Mr Abney's
own. I was irritated by his supercilious detachment.
'Throw away that cigarette,' I said.
To my amazement, he did, promptly. I was beginning to wonder whether
I had not been too abrupt—he gave me a curious sensation of being a
man of my own age—when he produced a silver case from his pocket and
opened it. I saw that the cigarette in the fender was a stump.
I took the case from his hand and threw it on to a table. For the
first time he seemed really to notice my existence.
'You've got a hell of a nerve,' he said.
He was certainly exhibiting his various gifts in rapid order, This,
I took it, was what Mr Abney had called 'expressing himself in a
'And don't swear,' I said.
We eyed each other narrowly for the space of some seconds.
'Who are you?' he demanded.
I introduced myself.
'What do you want to come butting in for?'
'I am paid to butt in. It's the main duty of an assistant-master.'
'Oh, you're the assistant-master, are you?'
'One of them. And, in passing—it's a small technical point—you're
supposed to call me “sir” during these invigorating little chats of
'Call you what? Up an alley!'
'I beg your pardon?'
'Fade away. Take a walk.'
I gathered that he was meaning to convey that he had considered my
proposition, but regretted his inability to entertain it.
'Didn't you call your tutor “sir” when you were at home?'
'Me? Don't make me laugh. I've got a cracked lip.'
'I gather you haven't an overwhelming respect for those set in
authority over you.'
'If you mean my tutors, I should say nix.'
'You use the plural. Had you a tutor before Mr Broster?'
'Had I? Only about ten million.'
'Poor devils!' I said.
'Who's swearing now?'
The point was well taken. I corrected myself.
'Poor brutes! What happened to them? Did they commit suicide?'
'Oh, they quit. And I don't blame them. I'm a pretty tough
proposition, and you don't want to forget it.'
He reached out for the cigarette-case. I pocketed it.
'You make me tired,' he said.
'The sensation's mutual.'
'Do you think you can swell around, stopping me doing things?'
'You've defined my job exactly.'
'Guess again. I know all about this joint. The hot-air merchant was
telling me about it on the train.'
I took the allusion to be to Mr Arnold Abney, and thought it rather
a happy one.
'He's the boss, and nobody but him is allowed to hit the fellows. If
you tried it, you'd lose your job. And he ain't going to, because the
Dad's paying double fees, and he's scared stiff he'll lose me if
there's any trouble.'
'You seem to have a grasp of the position.'
'Bet your life I have.'
I looked at him as he sprawled in the chair.
'You're a funny kid,' I said.
He stiffened, outraged. His little eyes gleamed.
'Say, it looks to me as if you wanted making a head shorter. You're
a darned sight too fresh. Who do you think you are, anyway?'
'I'm your guardian angel,' I replied. 'I'm the fellow who's going to
take you in hand and make you a little ray of sunshine about the home.
I know your type backwards. I've been in America and studied it on its
native asphalt. You superfatted millionaire kids are all the same. If
Dad doesn't jerk you into the office before you're out of
knickerbockers, you just run to seed. You get to think you're the only
thing on earth, and you go on thinking it till one day somebody comes
along and shows you you're not, and then you get what's coming to
you—good and hard.'
He began to speak, but I was on my favourite theme, one I had
studied and brooded upon since the evening when I had received a
certain letter at my club.
'I knew a man,' I said, 'who started out just like you. He always
had all the money he wanted: never worked: grew to think himself a sort
of young prince. What happened?'
'I'm afraid I'm boring you,' I said.
'Go on. Enjoy yourself,' said the Little Nugget.
'Well, it's a long story, so I'll spare you it. But the moral of it
was that a boy who is going to have money needs to be taken in hand and
taught sense while he's young.'
He stretched himself.
'You talk a lot. What do you reckon you're going to do?'
I eyed him thoughtfully.
'Well, everything's got to have a beginning,' I said. 'What you seem
to me to want most is exercise. I'll take you for a run every day. You
won't know yourself at the end of a week.'
'Say, if you think you're going to get me to run—'
'When I grab your little hand, and start running, you'll find you'll
soon be running too. And, years hence, when you win the Marathon at the
Olympic Games, you'll come to me with tears in your eyes, and you'll
'I shouldn't wonder.' I looked at my watch. 'Meanwhile, you had
better go to bed. It's past your proper time.'
He stared at me in open-eyed amazement.
He seemed more amused than annoyed.
'Say, what time do you think I usually go to bed?'
'I know what time you go here. Nine o'clock.'
As if to support my words, the door opened, and Mrs Attwell, the
'I think it's time he came to bed, Mr Burns.'
'Just what I was saying, Mrs Attwell.'
'You're crazy,' observed the Little Nugget. 'Bed nothing!'
Mrs Attwell looked at me despairingly.
'I never saw such a boy!'
The whole machinery of the school was being held up by this legal
infant. Any vacillation now, and Authority would suffer a set-back from
which it would be hard put to it to recover. It seemed to me a
situation that called for action.
I bent down, scooped the Little Nugget out of his chair like an
oyster, and made for the door. Outside he screamed incessantly. He
kicked me in the stomach and then on the knee. He continued to scream.
He screamed all the way upstairs. He was screaming when we reached his
* * * * *
Half an hour later I sat in the study, smoking thoughtfully. Reports
from the seat of war told of a sullen and probably only temporary
acquiescence with Fate on the part of the enemy. He was in bed, and
seemed to have made up his mind to submit to the position. An air of
restrained jubilation prevailed among the elder members of the
establishment. Mr Abney was friendly and Mrs Attwell openly
congratulatory. I was something like the hero of the hour.
But was I jubilant? No, I was inclined to moodiness. Unforeseen
difficulties had arisen in my path. Till now, I had regarded this
kidnapping as something abstract. Personality had not entered into the
matter. If I had had any picture in my mind's eye, it was of myself
stealing away softly into the night with a docile child, his little
hand laid trustfully in mine. From what I had seen and heard of Ogden
Ford in moments of emotion, it seemed to me that whoever wanted to
kidnap him with any approach to stealth would need to use chloroform.
Things were getting very complex.
I have never kept a diary, and I have found it, in consequence,
somewhat difficult, in telling this narrative, to arrange the minor
incidents of my story in their proper sequence. I am writing by the
light of an imperfect memory; and the work is complicated by the fact
that the early days of my sojourn at Sanstead House are a blur, a
confused welter like a Futurist picture, from which emerge haphazard
the figures of boys—boys working, boys eating, boys playing football,
boys whispering, shouting, asking questions, banging doors, jumping on
beds, and clattering upstairs and along passages, the whole picture
faintly scented with a composite aroma consisting of roast beef, ink,
chalk, and that curious classroom smell which is like nothing else on
I cannot arrange the incidents. I can see Mr Abney, furrowed as to
the brow and drooping at the jaw, trying to separate Ogden Ford from a
half-smoked cigar-stump. I can hear Glossop, feverishly angry,
bellowing at an amused class. A dozen other pictures come back to me,
but I cannot place them in their order; and perhaps, after all, their
sequence is unimportant. This story deals with affairs which were
outside the ordinary school life.
With the war between the Little Nugget and Authority, for instance,
the narrative has little to do. It is a subject for an epic, but it
lies apart from the main channel of the story, and must be avoided. To
tell of his gradual taming, of the chaos his advent caused until we
became able to cope with him, would be to turn this story into a
treatise on education. It is enough to say that the process of moulding
his character and exorcising the devil which seemed to possess him was
It was Ogden who introduced tobacco-chewing into the school, with
fearful effects one Saturday night on the aristocratic interiors of
Lords Gartridge and Windhall and Honourables Edwin Bellamy and
Hildebrand Kyne. It was the ingenious gambling-game imported by Ogden
which was rapidly undermining the moral sense of twenty-four innocent
English boys when it was pounced upon by Glossop. It was Ogden who, on
the one occasion when Mr Abney reluctantly resorted to the cane, and
administered four mild taps with it, relieved his feelings by going
upstairs and breaking all the windows in all the bedrooms.
We had some difficult young charges at Sanstead House. Abney's
policy of benevolent toleration ensured that. But Ogden Ford stood
* * * * *
I have said that it is difficult for me to place the lesser events
of my narrative in their proper order. I except three, however which I
will call the Affair of the Strange American, the Adventure of the
Sprinting Butler, and the Episode of the Genial Visitor.
I will describe them singly, as they happened.
It was the custom at Sanstead House for each of the assistant
masters to take half of one day in every week as a holiday. The
allowance was not liberal, and in most schools, I believe, it is
increased; but Mr Abney was a man with peculiar views on other people's
holidays, and Glossop and I were accordingly restricted.
My day was Wednesday; and on the Wednesday of which I write I
strolled towards the village. I had in my mind a game of billiards at
the local inn. Sanstead House and its neighbourhood were lacking in the
fiercer metropolitan excitements, and billiards at the 'Feathers'
constituted for the pleasure-seeker the beginning and end of the Gay
There was a local etiquette governing the game of billiards at the
'Feathers'. You played the marker a hundred up, then you took him into
the bar-parlour and bought him refreshment. He raised his glass, said,
'To you, sir', and drained it at a gulp. After that you could, if you
wished, play another game, or go home, as your fancy dictated.
There was only one other occupant of the bar-parlour when we
adjourned thither, and a glance at him told me that he was not
ostentatiously sober. He was lying back in a chair, with his feet on
the side-table, and crooning slowly, in a melancholy voice, the
'I don't care—if he wears—a crown,
He—can't—keep kicking my—dawg aroun'.'
He was a tough, clean-shaven man, with a broken nose, over which was
tilted a soft felt hat. His wiry limbs were clad in what I put down as
a mail-order suit. I could have placed him by his appearance, if I had
not already done so by his voice, as an East-side New Yorker. And what
an East-side New Yorker could be doing in Sanstead it was beyond me to
We had hardly seated ourselves when he rose and lurched out. I saw
him pass the window, and his assertion that no crowned head should
molest his dog came faintly to my ears as he went down the street.
'American!' said Miss Benjafield, the stately barmaid, with strong
disapproval. 'They're all alike.'
I never contradict Miss Benjafield—one would as soon contradict the
Statue of Liberty—so I merely breathed sympathetically.
'What's he here for I'd like to know?'
It occurred to me that I also should like to know. In another thirty
hours I was to find out.
I shall lay myself open to a charge of denseness such as even Doctor
Watson would have scorned when I say that, though I thought of the
matter a good deal on my way back to the school, I did not arrive at
the obvious solution. Much teaching and taking of duty had dulled my
wits, and the presence at Sanstead House of the Little Nugget did not
even occur to me as a reason why strange Americans should be prowling
in the village.
We now come to the remarkable activity of White, the butler.
It happened that same evening.
It was not late when I started on my way back to the house, but the
short January day was over, and it was very dark as I turned in at the
big gate of the school and made my way up the drive. The drive at
Sanstead House was a fine curving stretch of gravel, about two hundred
yards in length, flanked on either side by fir trees and rhododendrons.
I stepped out briskly, for it had begun to freeze. Just as I caught
sight through the trees of the lights of the windows, there came to me
the sound of running feet.
I stopped. The noise grew louder. There seemed to be two runners,
one moving with short, quick steps, the other, the one in front, taking
a longer stride.
I drew aside instinctively. In another moment, making a great
clatter on the frozen gravel, the first of the pair passed me; and as
he did so, there was a sharp crack, and something sang through the
darkness like a large mosquito.
The effect of the sound on the man who had been running was
immediate. He stopped in his stride and dived into the bushes. His
footsteps thudded faintly on the turf.
The whole incident had lasted only a few seconds, and I was still
standing there when I was aware of the other man approaching. He had
apparently given up the pursuit, for he was walking quite slowly. He
stopped within a few feet of me and I heard him swearing softly to
'Who's that?' I cried sharply. The crack of the pistol had given a
flick to my nerves. Mine had been a sheltered life, into which hitherto
revolver-shots had not entered, and I was resenting this abrupt
introduction of them. I felt jumpy and irritated.
It gave me a malicious pleasure to see that I had startled the
unknown dispenser of shocks quite as much as he had startled me. The
movement he made as he faced towards my direction was almost a leap;
and it suddenly flashed upon me that I had better at once establish my
identity as a non-combatant. I appeared to have wandered inadvertently
into the midst of a private quarrel, one party to which—the one
standing a couple of yards from me with a loaded revolver in his
hand—was evidently a man of impulse, the sort of man who would shoot
first and inquire afterwards.
'I'm Mr Burns,' I said. 'I'm one of the assistant-masters. Who are
Surely that rich voice was familiar.
'White?' I said.
'What on earth do you think you're doing? Have you gone mad? Who was
'I wish I could tell you, sir. A very doubtful character. I found
him prowling at the back of the house very suspiciously. He took to his
heels and I followed him.'
'But'—I spoke querulously, my orderly nature was shocked—'you
can't go shooting at people like that just because you find them at the
back of the house. He might have been a tradesman.'
'I think not, sir.'
'Well, so do I, if it comes to that. He didn't behave like one. But
all the same—'
'I take your point, sir. But I was merely intending to frighten
'You succeeded all right. He went through those bushes like a
I heard him chuckle.
'I think I may have scared him a little, sir.'
'We must phone to the police-station. Could you describe the man?'
'I think not, sir. It was very dark. And, if I may make the
suggestion, it would be better not to inform the police. I have a very
poor opinion of these country constables.'
'But we can't have men prowling—'
'If you will permit me, sir. I say—let them prowl. It's the only
way to catch them.'
'If you think this sort of thing is likely to happen again I must
tell Mr Abney.'
'Pardon me, sir, I think it would be better not. He impresses me as
a somewhat nervous gentleman, and it would only disturb him.'
At this moment it suddenly struck me that, in my interest in the
mysterious fugitive, I had omitted to notice what was really the most
remarkable point in the whole affair. How did White happen to have a
revolver at all? I have met many butlers who behaved unexpectedly in
their spare time. One I knew played the fiddle; another preached
Socialism in Hyde Park. But I had never yet come across a butler who
'What were you doing with a revolver?' I asked.
'May I ask you to keep it to yourself, sir, if I tell you
something?' he said at last.
'What do you mean?'
'I'm a detective.'
'A Pinkerton's man, Mr Burns.'
I felt like one who sees the 'danger' board over thin ice. But for
this information, who knew what rash move I might not have made, under
the assumption that the Little Nugget was unguarded? At the same time,
I could not help reflecting that, if things had been complex before,
they had become far more so in the light of this discovery. To spirit
Ogden away had never struck me, since his arrival at the school, as an
easy task. It seemed more difficult now than ever.
I had the sense to affect astonishment. I made my imitation of an
innocent assistant-master astounded by the news that the butler is a
detective in disguise as realistic as I was able. It appeared to be
satisfactory, for he began to explain.
'I am employed by Mr Elmer Ford to guard his son. There are several
parties after that boy, Mr Burns. Naturally he is a considerable prize.
Mr Ford would pay a large sum to get back his only son if he were
kidnapped. So it stands to reason he takes precautions.'
'Does Mr Abney know what you are?'
'No, sir. Mr Abney thinks I am an ordinary butler. You are the only
person who knows, and I have only told you because you have happened to
catch me in a rather queer position for a butler to be in. You will
keep it to yourself, sir? It doesn't do for it to get about. These
things have to be done quietly. It would be bad for the school if my
presence here were advertised. The other parents wouldn't like it. They
would think that their sons were in danger, you see. It would be
disturbing for them. So if you will just forget what I've been telling
you, Mr Burns—'
I assured him that I would. But I was very far from meaning it. If
there was one thing which I intended to bear in mind, it was the fact
that watchful eyes besides mine were upon that Little Nugget.
The third and last of this chain of occurrences, the Episode of the
Genial Visitor, took place on the following day, and may be passed over
briefly. All that happened was that a well-dressed man, who gave his
name as Arthur Gordon, of Philadelphia, dropped in unexpectedly to
inspect the school. He apologized for not having written to make an
appointment, but explained that he was leaving England almost
immediately. He was looking for a school for his sister's son, and,
happening to meet his business acquaintance, Mr Elmer Ford, in London,
he had been recommended to Mr Abney. He made himself exceedingly
pleasant. He was a breezy, genial man, who joked with Mr Abney, chaffed
the boys, prodded the Little Nugget in the ribs, to that overfed
youth's discomfort, made a rollicking tour of the house, in the course
of which he inspected Ogden's bedroom—in order, he told Mr Abney, to
be able to report conscientiously to his friend Ford that the son and
heir was not being pampered too much, and departed in a whirl of
good-humour, leaving every one enthusiastic over his charming
personality. His last words were that everything was thoroughly
satisfactory, and that he had learned all he wanted to know.
Which, as was proved that same night, was the simple truth.
I owed it to my colleague Glossop that I was in the centre of the
surprising things that occurred that night. By sheer weight of boredom,
Glossop drove me from the house, so that it came about that, at half
past nine, the time at which the affair began, I was patrolling the
gravel in front of the porch.
It was the practice of the staff of Sanstead House School to
assemble after dinner in Mr Abney's study for coffee. The room was
called the study, but it was really more of a master's common room. Mr
Abney had a smaller sanctum of his own, reserved exclusively for
On this particular night he went there early, leaving me alone with
Glossop. It is one of the drawbacks of the desert-island atmosphere of
a private school that everybody is always meeting everybody else. To
avoid a man for long is impossible. I had been avoiding Glossop as long
as I could, for I knew that he wanted to corner me with a view to a
heart-to-heart talk on Life Insurance.
These amateur Life Insurance agents are a curious band. The world is
full of them. I have met them at country-houses, at seaside hotels, on
ships, everywhere; and it has always amazed me that they should find
the game worth the candle. What they add to their incomes I do not
know, but it cannot be very much, and the trouble they have to take is
colossal. Nobody loves them, and they must see it; yet they persevere.
Glossop, for instance, had been trying to buttonhole me every time
there was a five minutes' break in the day's work.
He had his chance now, and he did not mean to waste it. Mr Abney had
scarcely left the room when he began to exude pamphlets and booklets at
I eyed him sourly, as he droned on about 'reactionable endowment',
'surrender-value', and 'interest accumulating on the tontine policy',
and tried, as I did so, to analyse the loathing I felt for him. I came
to the conclusion that it was partly due to his pose of doing the whole
thing from purely altruistic motives, entirely for my good, and partly
because he forced me to face the fact that I was not always going to be
young. In an abstract fashion I had already realized that I should in
time cease to be thirty, but the way in which Glossop spoke of my
sixty-fifth birthday made me feel as if it was due tomorrow. He was a
man with a manner suggestive of a funeral mute suffering from
suppressed jaundice, and I had never before been so weighed down with a
sense of the inevitability of decay and the remorseless passage of
time. I could feel my hair whitening.
A need for solitude became imperative; and, murmuring something
about thinking it over, I escaped from the room.
Except for my bedroom, whither he was quite capable of following me,
I had no refuge but the grounds. I unbolted the front door and went
It was still freezing, and, though the stars shone, the trees grew
so closely about the house that it was too dark for me to see more than
a few feet in front of me.
I began to stroll up and down. The night was wonderfully still. I
could hear somebody walking up the drive—one of the maids, I supposed,
returning from her evening out. I could even hear a bird rustling in
the ivy on the walls of the stables.
I fell into a train of thought. I think my mind must still have been
under Glossop's gloom-breeding spell, for I was filled with a sense of
the infinite pathos of Life. What was the good of it all? Why was a man
given chances of happiness without the sense to realize and use them?
If Nature had made me so self-satisfied that I had lost Audrey because
of my self-satisfaction why had she not made me so self-satisfied that
I could lose her without a pang? Audrey! It annoyed me that, whenever I
was free for a moment from active work, my thoughts should keep turning
to her. It frightened me, too. Engaged to Cynthia, I had no right to
have such thoughts.
Perhaps it was the mystery which hung about her that kept her in my
mind. I did not know where she was. I did not know how she fared. I did
not know what sort of a man it was whom she had preferred to me. That,
it struck me, was the crux of the matter. She had vanished absolutely
with another man whom I had never seen and whose very name I did not
know. I had been beaten by an unseen foe.
I was deep in a very slough of despond when suddenly things began to
happen. I might have known that Sanstead House would never permit
solitary brooding on Life for long. It was a place of incident, not of
I had reached the end of my 'beat', and had stopped to relight my
pipe, when drama broke loose with the swift unexpectedness which was
characteristic of the place. The stillness of the night was split by a
sound which I could have heard in a gale and recognized among a hundred
conflicting noises. It was a scream, a shrill, piercing squeal that did
not rise to a crescendo, but started at its maximum and held the note;
a squeal which could only proceed from one throat: the deafening
war-cry of the Little Nugget.
I had grown accustomed, since my arrival at Sanstead House, to a
certain quickening of the pace of life, but tonight events succeeded
one another with a rapidity which surprised me. A whole
cinematograph-drama was enacted during the space of time it takes for a
wooden match to burn.
At the moment when the Little Nugget gave tongue, I had just struck
one, and I stood, startled into rigidity, holding it in the air as if I
had decided to constitute myself a sort of limelight man to the
It cannot have been more than a few seconds later before some person
unknown nearly destroyed me.
I was standing, holding my match and listening to the sounds of
confusion indoors, when this person, rounding the angle of the house in
a desperate hurry, emerged from the bushes and rammed me squarely.
He was a short man, or he must have crouched as he ran, for his
shoulder—a hard, bony shoulder—was precisely the same distance from
the ground as my solar plexus. In the brief impact which ensued between
the two, the shoulder had the advantage of being in motion, while the
solar plexus was stationary, and there was no room for any shadow of
doubt as to which had the worst of it.
That the mysterious unknown was not unshaken by the encounter was
made clear by a sharp yelp of surprise and pain. He staggered. What
happened to him after that was not a matter of interest to me. I gather
that he escaped into the night. But I was too occupied with my own
affairs to follow his movements.
Of all cures for melancholy introspection a violent blow in the
solar plexus is the most immediate. If Mr Corbett had any abstract
worries that day at Carson City, I fancy they ceased to occupy his mind
from the moment when Mr Fitzsimmons administered that historic left
jab. In my case the cure was instantaneous. I can remember reeling
across the gravel and falling in a heap and trying to breathe and
knowing that I should never again be able to, and then for some minutes
all interest in the affairs of this world left me.
How long it was before my breath returned, hesitatingly, like some
timid Prodigal Son trying to muster up courage to enter the old home, I
do not know; but it cannot have been many minutes, for the house was
only just beginning to disgorge its occupants as I sat up. Disconnected
cries and questions filled the air. Dim forms moved about in the
I had started to struggle to my feet, feeling very sick and
boneless, when it was borne in upon me that the sensations of this
remarkable night were not yet over. As I reached a sitting position,
and paused before adventuring further, to allow a wave of nausea to
pass, a hand was placed on my shoulder and a voice behind me said,
I was not in a condition to argue. Beyond a fleeting feeling that a
liberty was being taken with me and that I was being treated unjustly,
I do not remember resenting the command. I had no notion who the
speaker might be, and no curiosity. Breathing just then had all the
glamour of a difficult feat cleverly performed. I concentrated my whole
attention upon it. I was pleased, and surprised, to find myself getting
on so well. I remember having much the same sensation when I first
learned to ride a bicycle—a kind of dazed feeling that I seemed to be
doing it, but Heaven alone knew how.
A minute or so later, when I had leisure to observe outside matters,
I perceived that among the other actors in the drama confusion still
reigned. There was much scuttering about and much meaningless shouting.
Mr Abney's reedy tenor voice was issuing directions, each of which
reached a dizzier height of futility than the last. Glossop was
repeating over and over again the words, 'Shall I telephone for the
police?' to which nobody appeared to pay the least attention. One or
two boys were darting about like rabbits and squealing unintelligibly.
A female voice—I think Mrs Attwell's—was saying, 'Can you see him?'
Up to this point, my match, long since extinguished, had been the
only illumination the affair had received; but now somebody, who proved
to be White, the butler, came from the direction of the stable-yard
with a carriage-lamp. Every one seemed calmer and happier for it. The
boys stopped squealing, Mrs Attwell and Glossop subsided, and Mr Abney
said 'Ah!' in a self-satisfied voice, as if he had directed this move
and was congratulating himself on the success with which it had been
The whole strength of the company gathered round the light.
'Thank you, White,' said Mr Abney. 'Excellent. I fear the scoundrel
'I suspect so, sir.'
'This is a very remarkable occurrence, White.'
'The man was actually in Master Ford's bedroom.'
A shrill voice spoke. I recognized it as that of Augustus Beckford,
always to be counted upon to be in the centre of things gathering
'Sir, please, sir, what was up? Who was it, sir? Sir, was it a
burglar, sir? Have you ever met a burglar, sir? My father took me to
see Raffles in the holidays, sir. Do you think this chap was like
Raffles, sir? Sir—'
'It was undoubtedly—' Mr Abney was beginning, when the identity of
the questioner dawned upon him, and for the first time he realized that
the drive was full of boys actively engaged in catching their deaths of
cold. His all-friends-here-let-us-discuss-this-interesting-episode-fully manner changed. He became the
outraged schoolmaster. Never before had I heard him speak so sharply to
boys, many of whom, though breaking rules, were still titled.
'What are you boys doing out of bed? Go back to bed instantly. I
shall punish you most severely. I—'
'Shall I telephone for the police?' asked Glossop. Disregarded.
'I will not have this conduct. You will catch cold. This is
disgraceful. Ten bad marks! I shall punish you most severely if you do
A calm voice interrupted him.
The Little Nugget strolled easily into the circle of light. He was
wearing a dressing-gown, and in his hand was a smouldering cigarette,
from which he proceeded, before continuing his remarks, to blow a cloud
'Say, I guess you're wrong. That wasn't any ordinary porch-climber.'
The spectacle of his bete noire wreathed in smoke, coming on
top of the emotions of the night, was almost too much for Mr Abney. He
gesticulated for a moment in impassioned silence, his arms throwing
grotesque shadows on the gravel.
'How dare you smoke, boy! How dare you smoke that
'It's the only one I've got,' responded the Little Nugget amiably.
'I have spoken to you—I have warned you—Ten bad marks!—I will not
have—Fifteen bad marks!'
The Little Nugget ignored the painful scene. He was smiling quietly.
'If you ask me,' he said, 'that guy was after something
better than plated spoons. Yes, sir! If you want my opinion, it was
Buck MacGinnis, or Chicago Ed., or one of those guys, and what he was
trailing was me. They're always at it. Buck had a try for me in the
fall of '07, and Ed.—'
'Do you hear me? Will you return instantly—'
'If you don't believe me I can show you the piece there was about it
in the papers. I've got a press-clipping album in my box. Whenever
there's a piece about me in the papers, I cut it out and paste it into
my album. If you'll come right along, I'll show you the story about
Buck now. It happened in Chicago, and he'd have got away with me if it
'Twenty bad marks!'
It was the person standing behind me who spoke. Till now he or she
had remained a silent spectator, waiting, I suppose, for a lull in the
They jumped, all together, like a well-trained chorus.
'Who is that?' cried Mr Abney. I could tell by the sound of his
voice that his nerves were on wires. 'Who was that who spoke?'
'Shall I telephone for the police?' asked Glossop. Ignored.
'I am Mrs Sheridan, Mr Abney. You were expecting me to-night.'
'Mrs Sheridan? Mrs Sher—I expected you in a cab. I expected you
in—ah—in fact, a cab.'
I had a curious sensation of having heard the voice before. When she
had told me not to move, she had spoken in a whisper—or, to me, in my
dazed state, it had sounded like a whisper—but now she was raising her
voice, and there was a note in it that seemed familiar. It stirred some
chord in my memory, and I waited to hear it again.
When it came it brought the same sensation, but nothing more
definite. It left me groping for the clue.
'Here is one of the men, Mr Abney.'
There was a profound sensation. Boys who had ceased to squeal,
squealed with fresh vigour. Glossop made his suggestion about the
telephone with a new ring of hope in his voice. Mrs Attwell shrieked.
They made for us in a body, boys and all, White leading with the
lantern. I was almost sorry for being compelled to provide an
Augustus Beckford was the first to recognize me, and I expect he was
about to ask me if I liked sitting on the gravel on a frosty night, or
what gravel was made of, when Mr Abney spoke.
'Mr Burns! What—dear me!—what are you doing there?'
'Perhaps Mr Burns can give us some information as to where the man
went, sir,' suggested White.
'On everything except that,' I said, 'I'm a mine of information. I
haven't the least idea where he went. All I know about him is that he
has a shoulder like the ram of a battleship, and that he charged me
As I was speaking, I thought I heard a little gasp behind me. I
turned. I wanted to see this woman who stirred my memory with her
voice. But the rays of the lantern did not fall on her, and she was a
shapeless blur in the darkness. Somehow I felt that she was looking
intently at me.
I resumed my narrative.
'I was lighting my pipe when I heard a scream—' A chuckle came from
the group behind the lantern.
'I screamed,' said the Little Nugget. 'You bet I screamed! What
would you do if you woke up in the dark and found a strong-armed
roughneck prising you out of bed as if you were a clam? He tried to get
his hand over my mouth, but he only connected with my forehead, and I'd
got going before he could switch. I guess I threw a scare into that
He chuckled again, reminiscently, and drew at his cigarette.
'How dare you smoke! Throw away that cigarette!' cried Mr Abney,
roused afresh by the red glow.
'Forget it!' advised the Little Nugget tersely.
'And then,' I said, 'somebody whizzed out from nowhere and hit me.
And after that I didn't seem to care much about him or anything else.'
I spoke in the direction of my captor. She was still standing outside
the circle of light. 'I expect you can tell us what happened, Mrs
I did not think that her information was likely to be of any
practical use, but I wanted to make her speak again.
Her first words were enough. I wondered how I could ever have been
in doubt. I knew the voice now. It was one which I had not heard for
five years, but one which I could never forget if I lived for ever.
'Somebody ran past me.' I hardly heard her. My heart was pounding,
and a curious dizziness had come over me. I was grappling with the
incredible. 'I think he went into the bushes.'
I heard Glossop speak, and gathered from Mr Abney's reply; that he
had made his suggestion about the telephone once more.
'I think that will be—ah—unnecessary, Mr Glossop. The man has
undoubtedly—ah—made good his escape. I think we had all better return
to the house.' He turned to the dim figure beside me. 'Ah, Mrs
Sheridan, you must be tired after your journey and the—ah unusual
excitement. Mrs Attwell will show you where you—in fact, your room.'
In the general movement White must have raised the lamp or stepped
forward, for the rays shifted. The figure beside me was no longer dim,
but stood out sharp and clear in the yellow light.
I was aware of two large eyes looking into mine as, in the grey
London morning two weeks before, they had looked from a faded
Of all the emotions which kept me awake that night, a vague
discomfort and a feeling of resentment against Fate more than against
any individual, were the two that remained with me next morning.
Astonishment does not last. The fact of Audrey and myself being under
the same roof after all these years had ceased to amaze me. It was a
minor point, and my mind shelved it in order to deal with the one thing
that really mattered, the fact that she had come back into my life just
when I had definitely, as I thought, put her out of it.
My resentment deepened. Fate had played me a wanton trick. Cynthia
trusted me. If I were weak, I should not be the only one to suffer. And
something told me that I should be weak. How could I hope to be strong,
tortured by the thousand memories which the sight of her would bring
back to me?
But I would fight, I told myself. I would not yield easily. I
promised that to my self-respect, and was rewarded with a certain glow
of excitement. I felt defiant. I wanted to test myself at once.
My opportunity came after breakfast. She was standing on the gravel
in front of the house, almost, in fact, on the spot where we had met
the night before. She looked up as she heard my step, and I saw that
her chin had that determined tilt which, in the days of our engagement,
I had noticed often without attaching any particular significance to
it. Heavens, what a ghastly lump of complacency I must have been in
those days! A child, I thought, if he were not wrapped up in the
contemplation of his own magnificence, could read its meaning.
It meant war, and I was glad of it. I wanted war.
'Good morning,' I said.
There was a pause. I took the opportunity to collect my thoughts.
I looked at her curiously. Five years had left their mark on her,
but entirely for the good. She had an air of quiet strength which I had
never noticed in her before. It may have been there in the old days,
but I did not think so. It was, I felt certain, a later development.
She gave the impression of having been through much and of being sure
In appearance she had changed amazingly little. She looked as small
and slight and trim as ever she had done. She was a little paler, I
thought, and the Irish eyes were older and a shade harder; but that was
I awoke with a start to the fact that I was staring at her. A slight
flush had crept into her pale cheeks.
'Don't!' she said suddenly, with a little gesture of irritation.
The word and the gesture killed, as if they had been a blow, a kind
of sentimental tenderness which had been stealing over me.
'What are you doing here?' I asked.
She was silent.
'Please don't think I want to pry into your affairs,' I said
viciously. 'I was only interested in the coincidence that we should
meet here like this.'
She turned to me impulsively. Her face had lost its hard look.
'Oh, Peter,' she said, 'I'm sorry. I am sorry.'
It was my chance, and I snatched at it with a lack of chivalry which
I regretted almost immediately. But I was feeling bitter, and
bitterness makes a man do cheap things.
'Sorry?' I said, politely puzzled. 'Why?'
She looked taken aback, as I hoped she would.
'For—for what happened.'
'My dear Audrey! Anybody would have made the same mistake. I don't
wonder you took me for a burglar.'
'I didn't mean that. I meant—five years ago.'
I laughed. I was not feeling like laughter at the moment, but I did
my best, and had the satisfaction of seeing that it jarred upon her.
'Surely you're not worrying yourself about that?' I said. I laughed
again. Very jovial and debonair I was that winter morning.
The brief moment in which we might have softened towards each other
was over. There was a glitter in her blue eyes which told me that it
was once more war between us.
'I thought you would get over it,' she said.
'Well,' I said, 'I was only twenty-five. One's heart doesn't break
'I don't think yours would ever be likely to break, Peter.'
'Is that a compliment, or otherwise?'
'You would probably think it a compliment. I meant that you were not
human enough to be heart-broken.'
'So that's your idea of a compliment!'
'I said I thought it was probably yours.'
'I must have been a curious sort of man five years ago, if I gave
you that impression.'
She spoke in a meditative voice, as if, across the years, she were
idly inspecting some strange species of insect. The attitude annoyed
me. I could look, myself, with a detached eye at the man I had once
been, but I still retained a sort of affection for him, and I felt
'I suppose you looked on me as a kind of ogre in those days?' I
'I suppose I did.'
There was a pause.
'I didn't mean to hurt your feelings,' she said. And that was the
most galling part of it. Mine was an attitude of studied offensiveness.
I did want to hurt her feelings. But hers, it seemed to me, was no
pose. She really had had—and, I suppose, still retained—a genuine
horror of me. The struggle was unequal.
'You were very kind,' she went on, 'sometimes—when you happened to
think of it.'
Considered as the best she could find to say of me, it was not an
'Well,' I said, 'we needn't discuss what I was or did five years
ago. Whatever I was or did, you escaped. Let's think of the present.
What are we going to do about this?'
'You think the situation's embarrassing?'
'One of us ought to go, I suppose,' she said doubtfully.
'Well, I can't go.'
'Nor can I.'
'I have business here.'
'Obviously, so have I.'
'It's absolutely necessary that I should be here.'
'And that I should.'
She considered me for a moment.
'Mrs Attwell told me that you were one of the assistant-masters at
'I am acting as assistant-master. I am supposed to be learning the
'Why?' she said.
'But—but—you used to be very well off.'
'I'm better off now. I'm working.'
She was silent for a moment.
'Of course it's impossible for you to leave. You couldn't, could
'I can't either.'
'Then I suppose we must face the embarrassment.'
'But why must it be embarrassing? You said yourself you had—got
'Absolutely. I am engaged to be married.'
She gave a little start. She drew a pattern on the gravel with her
foot before she spoke.
'I congratulate you,' she said at last.
'I hope you will be very happy.'
'I'm sure I shall.'
She relapsed into silence. It occurred to me that, having posted her
thoroughly in my affairs, I was entitled to ask about hers.
'How in the world did you come to be here?' I said.
'It's rather a long story. After my husband died—'
'Oh!' I exclaimed, startled.
'Yes; he died three years ago.'
She spoke in a level voice, with a ring of hardness in it, for which
I was to learn the true reason later. At the time it seemed to me due
to resentment at having to speak of the man she had loved to me, whom
she disliked, and my bitterness increased.
'I have been looking after myself for a long time.'
'In America. We went to New York directly we—directly I had written
to you. I have been in America ever since. I only returned to England a
few weeks ago.'
'But what brought you to Sanstead?'
'Some years ago I got to know Mr Ford, the father of the little boy
who is at the school. He recommended me to Mr Abney, who wanted
somebody to help with the school.'
'And you are dependent on your work? I mean—forgive me if I am
personal—Mr Sheridan did not—'
'He left no money at all.'
'Who was he?' I burst out. I felt that the subject of the dead man
was one which it was painful for her to talk about, at any rate to me;
but the Sheridan mystery had vexed me for five years, and I thirsted to
know something of this man who had dynamited my life without ever
appearing in it.
'He was an artist, a friend of my father.'
I wanted to hear more. I wanted to know what he looked like, how he
spoke, how he compared with me in a thousand ways; but it was plain
that she would not willingly be communicative about him; and, with a
feeling of resentment, I gave her her way and suppressed my curiosity.
'So your work here is all you have?' I said.
'Absolutely all. And, if it's the same with you, well, here we are!'
'Here we are!' I echoed. 'Exactly.'
'We must try and make it as easy for each other as we can,' she
She looked at me in that curious, wide-eyed way of hers.
'You have got thinner, Peter,' she said.
'Have I?' I said. 'Suffering, I suppose, or exercise.'
Her eyes left my face. I saw her bite her lip.
'You hate me,' she said abruptly. 'You've been hating me all these
years. Well, I don't wonder.'
She turned and began to walk slowly away, and as she did so a sense
of the littleness of the part I was playing came over me. Ever since
our talk had begun I had been trying to hurt her, trying to take a
petty revenge on her—for what? All that had happened five years ago
had been my fault. I could not let her go like this. I felt unutterably
'Audrey!' I called.
She stopped. I went to her.
'Audrey!' I said, 'you're wrong. If there's anybody I hate, it's
myself. I just want to tell you I understand.'
Her lips parted, but she did not speak.
'I understand just what made you do it,' I went on. 'I can see now
the sort of man I was in those days.'
'You're saying that to—to help me,' she said in a low voice.
'No. I have felt like that about it for years.'
'I treated you shamefully.'
'Nothing of the kind. There's a certain sort of man who badly needs
a—jolt, and he has to get it sooner or later. It happened that you
gave me mine, but that wasn't your fault. I was bound to get
it—somehow.' I laughed. 'Fate was waiting for me round the corner.
Fate wanted something to hit me with. You happened to be the nearest
'I'm sorry, Peter.'
'Nonsense. You knocked some sense into me. That's all you did. Every
man needs education. Most men get theirs in small doses, so that they
hardly know they are getting it at all. My money kept me from getting
mine that way. By the time I met you there was a great heap of back
education due to me, and I got it in a lump. That's all.'
'Nothing of the kind. It's only that I see things clearer than I
did. I was a pig in those days.'
'I was. Well, we won't quarrel about it.'
Inside the house the bell rang for breakfast. We turned. As I drew
back to let her go in, she stopped.
'Peter,' she said.
She began to speak quickly.
'Peter, let's be sensible. Why should we let this embarrass us, this
being together here? Can't we just pretend that we're two old friends
who parted through a misunderstanding, and have come together again,
with all the misunderstanding cleared away—friends again? Shall we?'
She held out her hand. She was smiling, but her eyes were grave.
'Old friends, Peter?'
I took her hand.
'Old friends,' I said.
And we went in to breakfast. On the table, beside my plate, was
lying a letter from Cynthia.
I give the letter in full. It was written from the s.y. Mermaid, lying in Monaco Harbour.
MY DEAR PETER, Where is Ogden? We have been expecting him every day.
Mrs Ford is worrying herself to death. She keeps asking me if I have
any news, and it is very tiresome to have to keep telling her that I
have not heard from you. Surely, with the opportunities you must get
every day, you can manage to kidnap him. Do be quick. We are relying on
I read this brief and business-like communication several times
during the day; and after dinner that night, in order to meditate upon
it in solitude, I left the house and wandered off in the direction of
I was midway between house and village when I became aware that I
was being followed. The night was dark, and the wind moving in the
tree-tops emphasized the loneliness of the country road. Both time and
place were such as made it peculiarly unpleasant to hear stealthy
footsteps on the road behind me.
Uncertainty in such cases is the unnerving thing. I turned sharply,
and began to walk back on tiptoe in the direction from which I had
I had not been mistaken. A moment later a dark figure loomed up out
of the darkness, and the exclamation which greeted me, as I made my
presence known, showed that I had taken him by surprise.
There was a momentary pause. I expected the man, whoever he might
be, to run, but he held his ground. Indeed, he edged forward.
'Get back!' I said, and allowed my stick to rasp suggestively on the
road before raising it in readiness for any sudden development. It was
as well that he should know it was there.
The hint seemed to wound rather than frighten him.
'Aw, cut out the rough stuff, bo,' he said reproachfully in a
cautious, husky undertone. 'I ain't goin' to start anything.'
I had an impression that I had heard the voice before, but I could
not place it.
'What are you following me for?' I demanded. 'Who are you?'
'Say, I want a talk wit youse. I took a slant at youse under de
lamp-post back dere, an' I seen it was you, so I tagged along. Say, I'm
wise to your game, sport.'
I had identified him by this time. Unless there were two men in the
neighbourhood of Sanstead who hailed from the Bowery, this must be the
man I had seen at the 'Feathers' who had incurred the disapproval of
'I haven't the faintest idea what you mean,' I said. 'What is my
His voice became reproachful again.
'Ah chee!' he protested. 'Quit yer kiddin'! What was youse rubberin'
around de house for last night if you wasn't trailin' de kid?'
'Was it you who ran into me last night?' I asked.
'Gee! I fought it was a tree. I came near takin' de count.'
'I did take it. You seemed in a great hurry.'
'Hell!' said the man simply, and expectorated.
'Say,' he resumed, having delivered this criticism on that stirring
episode, dat's a great kid, dat Nugget. I fought it was a Black Hand
soup explosion when he cut loose. But, say, let's don't waste time. We
gotta get together about dat kid.'
'Certainly, if you wish it. What do you happen to mean?'
'Aw, quit yer kiddin'!' He expectorated again. He seemed to be a man
who could express the whole gamut of emotions by this simple means. 'I
'Then you have the advantage of me, though I believe I remember
seeing you before. Weren't you at the “Feathers” one Wednesday evening,
singing something about a dog?'
'Sure. Dat was me.'
'What do you mean by saying that you know me?'
'Aw, quit yer kiddin', Sam!'
There was, it seemed to me, a reluctantly admiring note in his
'Tell me, who do you think I am?' I asked patiently.
'Ahr ghee! You can't string me, sport. Smooth Sam Fisher, is who you
are, bo. I know you.'
I was too surprised to speak. Verily, some have greatness thrust
'I hain't never seen youse, Sam,' he continued, 'but I know it's
you. And I'll tell youse how I doped it out. To begin with, there ain't
but you and your bunch and me and my bunch dat knows de Little Nugget's
on dis side at all. Dey sneaked him out of New York mighty slick. And I
heard that you had come here after him. So when I runs into a guy dat's
trailin' de kid down here, well, who's it going to be if it ain't
youse? And when dat guy talks like a dude, like they all say you do,
well, who's it going to be if it ain't youse? So quit yer kiddin', Sam,
and let's get down to business.'
'Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr Buck MacGinnis?' I said. I
felt convinced that this could be no other than that celebrity.
'Dat's right. Dere's no need to keep up anyt'ing wit me, Sam. We're
bote on de same trail, so let's get down to it.'
'One moment,' I said. 'Would it surprise you to hear that my name is
Burns, and that I am a master at the school?'
He expectorated admirably.
'Hell, no!' he said. 'Gee, it's just what you would be, Sam. I
always heard youse had been one of dese rah-rah boys oncest. Say, it's
mighty smart of youse to be a perfessor. You're right in on de ground
His voice became appealing.
'Say, Sam, don't be a hawg. Let's go fifty-fifty in dis deal. My
bunch and me has come a hell of a number of miles on dis proposition,
and dere ain't no need for us to fall scrappin' over it. Dere's plenty
for all of us. Old man Ford'll cough up enough for every one, and dere
won't be any fuss. Let's sit in togedder on dis nuggett'ing. It ain't
like as if it was an ornery two-by-four deal. I wouldn't ask youse if
it wasn't big enough fir de whole bunch of us.'
As I said nothing, he proceeded.
'It ain't square, Sam, to take advantage of your having education.
If it was a square fight, and us bote wit de same chance, I wouldn't
say; but you bein' a dude perfessor and gettin' right into de place
like dat ain't right. Say, don't be a hawg, Sam. Don't swipe it all.
Fifty-fifty! Does dat go?'
'I don't know,' I said. 'You had better ask the real Sam. Good
I walked past him and made for the school gates at my best pace. He
trotted after me, pleading.
'Sam, give us a quarter, then.'
I walked on.
'Sam, don't be a hawg!'
He broke into a run.
'Sam!' His voice lost its pleading tone and rasped menacingly.
'Gee, if I had me canister, youse wouldn't be so flip! Listen here,
you big cheese! You t'ink youse is de only t'ing in sight, huh? Well,
we ain't done yet. You'll see yet. We'll fix you! Youse had best watch
I stopped and turned on him. 'Look here, you fool,' I cried. 'I tell
you I am not Sam Fisher. Can't you understand that you have got hold of
the wrong man? My name is Burns—Burns.'
He expectorated—scornfully this time. He was a man slow by nature
to receive ideas, but slower to rid himself of one that had contrived
to force its way into what he probably called his brain. He had decided
on the evidence that I was Smooth Sam Fisher, and no denials on my part
were going to shake his belief. He looked on them merely as so many
unsportsmanlike quibbles prompted by greed.
'Tell it to Sweeney!' was the form in which he crystallized his
'May be you'll say youse ain't trailin' de Nugget, huh?'
It was a home-thrust. If truth-telling has become a habit, one gets
slowly off the mark when the moment arrives for the prudent lie. Quite
against my will, I hesitated. Observant Mr MacGinnis perceived my
hesitation and expectorated triumphantly.
'Ah ghee!' he remarked. And then with a sudden return to ferocity,
'All right, you Sam, you wait! We'll fix you, and fix you good! See?
Dat goes. You t'ink youse kin put it across us, huh? All right, you'll
get yours. You wait!'
And with these words he slid off into the night. From somewhere in
the murky middle distance came a scornful 'Hawg!' and he was gone,
leaving me with a settled conviction that, while I had frequently had
occasion, since my expedition to Sanstead began, to describe affairs as
complex, their complexity had now reached its height. With a watchful
Pinkerton's man within, and a vengeful gang of rivals without, Sanstead
House seemed likely to become an unrestful place for a young kidnapper
with no previous experience.
The need for swift action had become imperative.
White, the butler, looking singularly unlike a detective—which, I
suppose, is how a detective wants to look—was taking the air on the
football field when I left the house next morning for a
before-breakfast stroll. The sight of him filled me with a desire for
first-hand information on the subject of the man Mr MacGinnis supposed
me to be and also of Mr MacGinnis himself. I wanted to be assured that
my friend Buck, despite appearances, was a placid person whose bark was
worse than his bite.
White's manner, at our first conversational exchanges, was entirely
that of the butler. From what I came to know of him later, I think he
took an artistic pride in throwing himself into whatever role he had to
At the mention of Smooth Sam Fisher, however, his manner peeled off
him like a skin, and he began to talk as himself, a racy and vigorous
self vastly different from the episcopal person he thought it necessary
to be when on duty.
'White,' I said, 'do you know anything of Smooth Sam Fisher?'
He stared at me. I suppose the question, led up to by no previous
remark, was unusual.
'I met a gentleman of the name of Buck MacGinnis—he was our visitor
that night, by the way—and he was full of Sam. Do you know him?'
'Either of them.'
'Well, I've never seen Buck, but I know all about him. There's
pepper to Buck.'
'So I should imagine. And Sam?'
'You may take it from me that there's more pepper to Sam's little
finger than there is to Buck's whole body. Sam could make Buck look
like the last run of shad, if it came to a showdown. Buck's just a
common roughneck. Sam's an educated man. He's got brains.'
'So I gathered. Well, I'm glad to hear you speak so well of him,
because that's who I'm supposed to be.'
'Buck MacGinnis insists that I am Smooth Sam Fisher. Nothing I can
say will shift him.'
White stared. He had very bright humorous brown eyes. Then he began
'Well, what do you know about that?' he exclaimed. 'Wouldn't that
'It would. I may say it did. He called me a hog for wanting to keep
the Little Nugget to myself, and left threatening to “fix me”. What
would you say the verb “to fix” signified in Mr MacGinnis's
White was still chuckling quietly to himself.
'He's a wonder!' he observed. 'Can you beat it? Taking you for
'He said he had never seen Smooth Sam. Have you?'
'Does he look like me?'
'Not a bit.'
'Do you think he's over here in England?'
'Sam? I know he is.'
'Then Buck MacGinnis was right?'
'Dead right, as far as Sam being on the trail goes. Sam's after the
Nugget to get him this time. He's tried often enough before, but we've
been too smart for him. This time he allows he's going to bring it
'Then why haven't we seen anything of him? Buck MacGinnis seems to
be monopolizing the kidnapping industry in these parts.'
'Oh, Sam'll show up when he feels good and ready. You can take it
from me that Sam knows what he is doing. Sam's a special pet of mine. I
don't give a flip for Buck MacGinnis.'
'I wish I had your cheery disposition! To me Buck MacGinnis seems a
pretty important citizen. I wonder what he meant by “fix”?'
White, however, declined to leave the subject of Buck's more gifted
'Sam's a college man, you know. That gives him a pull. He has
brains, and can use them.'
'That was one of the points on which Buck MacGinnis reproached me.
He said it was not fair to use my superior education.'
'Buck's got no sense. That's why you find him carrying on like a
porch-climber. It's his only notion of how to behave when he wants to
do a job. And that's why there's only one man to keep your eye on in
this thing of the Little Nugget, and that's Sam. I wish you could get
to know Sam. You'd like him.'
'You seem to look on him as a personal friend. I certainly don't
'Oh, Buck!' said White scornfully.
We turned towards the house as the sound of the bell came to us
across the field.
'Then you think we may count on Sam's arrival, sooner or later, as a
certainty?' I said.
'Surest thing you know.'
'You will have a busy time.'
'All in the day's work.'
'I suppose I ought to look at it in that way. But I do wish I knew
exactly what Buck meant by “fix”.'
White at last condescended to give his mind to the trivial point.
'I guess he'll try to put one over on you with a sand-bag,' he said
carelessly. He seemed to face the prospect with calm.
'A sand-bag, eh?' I said. 'It sounds exciting.'
'And feels it. I know. I've had some.'
I parted from him at the door. As a comforter he had failed to
qualify. He had not eased my mind to the slightest extent.
Looking at it now I can see that the days which followed Audrey's
arrival at Sanstead marked the true beginning of our acquaintanceship.
Before, during our engagement, we had been strangers, artificially tied
together, and she had struggled against the chain. But now, for the
first time, we were beginning to know each other, and were discovering
that, after all, we had much in common.
It did not alarm me, this growing feeling of comradeship. Keenly on
the alert as I was for the least sign that would show that I was in
danger of weakening in my loyalty to Cynthia, I did not detect one in
my friendliness for Audrey. On the contrary, I was hugely relieved, for
it seemed to me that the danger was past. I had not imagined it
possible that I could ever experience towards her such a tranquil
emotion as this easy friendliness. For the last five years my
imagination had been playing round her memory, until I suppose I had
built up in my mind some almost superhuman image, some goddess. What I
was passing through now, of course, though I was unaware of it, was the
natural reaction from that state of mind. Instead of the goddess, I had
found a companionable human being, and I imagined that I had effected
the change myself, and by sheer force of will brought Audrey into a
reasonable relation to the scheme of things.
I suppose a not too intelligent moth has much the same views with
regard to the lamp. His last thought, as he enters the flame, is
probably one of self-congratulation that he has arranged his dealings
with it on such a satisfactory commonsense basis.
And then, when I was feeling particularly safe and complacent,
The day was Wednesday, and my 'afternoon off', but the rain was
driving against the windows, and the attractions of billiards with the
marker at the 'Feathers' had not proved sufficient to make me face the
two-mile walk in the storm. I had settled myself in the study. There
was a noble fire burning in the grate, and the darkness lit by the glow
of the coals, the dripping of the rain, the good behaviour of my pipe,
and the reflection that, as I sat there, Glossop was engaged downstairs
in wrestling with my class, combined to steep me in a meditative peace.
Audrey was playing the piano in the drawing-room. The sound came to me
faintly through the closed doors. I recognized what she was playing. I
wondered if the melody had the same associations for her that it had
The music stopped. I heard the drawing-room door open. She came into
'I didn't know there was anyone here,' she said. 'I'm frozen. The
drawing-room fire's out.'
'Come and sit down,' I said. 'You don't mind the smoke?'
I drew a chair up to the fire for her, feeling, as I did so, a
certain pride. Here I was, alone with her in the firelight, and my
pulse was regular and my brain cool. I had a momentary vision of myself
as the Strong Man, the strong, quiet man with the iron grip on his
emotions. I was pleased with myself.
She sat for some minutes, gazing into the fire. Little spurts of
flame whistled comfortably in the heart of the black-red coals. Outside
the storm shrieked faintly, and flurries of rain dashed themselves
against the window.
'It's very nice in here,' she said at last.
I filled my pipe and re-lit it. Her eyes, seen for an instant in the
light of the match, looked dreamy.
'I've been sitting here listening to you,' I said. 'I liked that
last thing you played.'
'You always did.'
'You remember that? Do you remember one evening—no, you wouldn't.'
'Oh, you wouldn't remember. It's only one particular evening when
you played that thing. It sticks in my mind. It was at your father's
She looked up quickly.
'We went out afterwards and sat in the park.'
I sat up thrilled.
'A man came by with a dog,' I said.
'Two. A bull-dog and a fox-terrier.'
'I remember the bull-dog, but—by Jove, you're right. A fox-terrier
with a black patch over his left eye.'
'Right eye. They came up to us, and you—'
'Gave them chocolates.'
I sank back slowly in my chair.
'You've got a wonderful memory,' I said.
She bent over the fire without speaking. The rain rattled on the
'So you still like my playing, Peter?'
'I like it better than ever; there's something in it now that I
don't believe there used to be. I can't describe it—something—'
'I think it's knowledge, Peter,' she said quietly. 'Experience. I'm
five years older than I was when I used to play to you before, and I've
seen a good deal in those five years. It may not be altogether pleasant
seeing life, but—well, it makes you play the piano better. Experience
goes in at the heart and comes out at the finger-tips.'
It seemed to me that she spoke a little bitterly.
'Have you had a bad time, Audrey, these last years?' I said.
'I'm not—altogether. I've learned a lot.'
She was silent again, her eyes fixed on the fire.
'What are you thinking about?' I said.
'Oh, a great many things.'
'Mixed. The last thing I thought about was pleasant. That was, that
I am very lucky to be doing the work I am doing now. Compared with some
of the things I have done—'
'I wish you would tell me about those years, Audrey,' I said. 'What
were some of the things you did?'
She leaned back in her chair and shaded her face from the fire with
a newspaper. Her eyes were in the shadow.
'Well, let me see. I was a nurse for some time at the Lafayette
Hospital in New York.'
'That's hard work?'
'Horribly hard. I had to give it up after a while. But—it teaches
you.... You learn.... You learn—all sorts of things. Realities. How
much of your own trouble is imagination. You get real trouble in a
hospital. You get it thrown at you.'
I said nothing. I was feeling—I don't know why—a little
uncomfortable, a little at a disadvantage, as one feels in the presence
of some one bigger than oneself.
'Then I was a waitress.'
'I tell you I did everything. I was a waitress, and a very bad one.
I broke plates. I muddled orders. Finally I was very rude to a customer
and I went on to try something else. I forget what came next. I think
it was the stage. I travelled for a year with a touring company. That
was hard work, too, but I liked it. After that came dressmaking, which
was harder and which I hated. And then I had my first stroke of real
'What was that?'
'I met Mr Ford.'
'How did that happen?'
'You wouldn't remember a Miss Vanderley, an American girl who was
over in London five or six years ago? My father taught her painting.
She was very rich, but she was wild at that time to be Bohemian. I
think that's why she chose Father as a teacher. Well, she was always at
the studio, and we became great friends, and one day, after all these
things I have been telling you of, I thought I would write to her, and
see if she could not find me something to do. She was a dear.'
Her voice trembled, and she lowered the newspaper till her whole face
was hidden. 'She wanted me to come to their home and live on her for
ever, but I couldn't have that. I told her I must work. So she sent me
to Mr Ford, whom the Vanderleys knew very well, and I became Ogden's
'Great Scott!' I cried. 'What!'
She laughed rather shakily.
'I don't think I was a very good governess. I knew next to nothing.
I ought to have been having a governess myself. But I managed somehow.'
'But Ogden?' I said. 'That little fiend, didn't he worry the life
out of you?'
'Oh, I had luck there again. He happened to take a mild liking to
me, and he was as good as gold—for him; that's to say, if I didn't
interfere with him too much, and I didn't. I was horribly weak; he let
me alone. It was the happiest time I had had for ages.'
'And when he came here, you came too, as a sort of ex-governess, to
continue exerting your moral influence over him?'
'More or less that.'
We sat in silence for a while, and then she put into words the
thought which was in both our minds.
'How odd it seems, you and I sitting together chatting like this,
Peter, after all—all these years.'
'Like a dream!'
'Just like a dream ... I'm so glad.... You don't know how I've hated
myself sometimes for—for—'
'Audrey! You mustn't talk like that. Don't let's think of it.
Besides, it was my fault.'
She shook her head.
'Well, put it that we didn't understand one another.'
She nodded slowly.
'No, we didn't understand one another.'
'But we do now,' I said. 'We're friends, Audrey.'
She did not answer. For a long time we sat in silence. And then the
newspaper must have moved—a gleam from the fire fell upon her face,
lighting up her eyes; and at the sight something in me began to throb,
like a drum warning a city against danger. The next moment the shadow
had covered them again.
I sat there, tense, gripping the arms of my chair. I was tingling.
Something was happening to me. I had a curious sensation of being on
the threshold of something wonderful and perilous.
From downstairs there came the sound of boys' voices. Work was over,
and with it this talk by the firelight. In a few minutes somebody,
Glossop, or Mr Abney, would be breaking in on our retreat.
We both rose, and then—it happened. She must have tripped in the
darkness. She stumbled forward, her hand caught at my coat, and she was
in my arms.
It was a thing of an instant. She recovered herself, moved to the
door, and was gone.
But I stood where I was, motionless, aghast at the revelation which
had come to me in that brief moment. It was the physical contact, the
feel of her, warm and alive, that had shattered for ever that flimsy
structure of friendship which I had fancied so strong. I had said to
Love, 'Thus far, and no farther', and Love had swept over me, the more
powerful for being checked. The time of self-deception was over. I knew
That Buck MacGinnis was not the man to let the grass grow under his
feet in a situation like the present one, I would have gathered from
White's remarks if I had not already done so from personal observation.
The world is divided into dreamers and men of action. From what little
I had seen of him I placed Buck MacGinnis in the latter class. Every
day I expected him to act, and was agreeably surprised as each
twenty-four hours passed and left me still unfixed. But I knew the hour
would come, and it did.
I looked for frontal attack from Buck, not subtlety; but, when the
attack came, it was so excessively frontal that my chief emotion was a
sort of paralysed amazement. It seemed incredible that such peculiarly
Wild Western events could happen in peaceful England, even in so
isolated a spot as Sanstead House.
It had been one of those interminable days which occur only at
schools. A school, more than any other institution, is dependent on the
weather. Every small boy rises from his bed of a morning charged with a
definite quantity of devilry; and this, if he is to sleep the sound
sleep of health, he has got to work off somehow before bedtime. That is
why the summer term is the one a master longs for, when the intervals
between classes can be spent in the open. There is no pleasanter sight
for an assistant-master at a private school than that of a number of
boys expending their venom harmlessly in the sunshine.
On this particular day, snow had begun to fall early in the morning,
and, while his pupils would have been only too delighted to go out and
roll in it by the hour, they were prevented from doing so by Mr Abney's
strict orders. No schoolmaster enjoys seeing his pupils running risks
of catching cold, and just then Mr Abney was especially definite on the
subject. The Saturnalia which had followed Mr MacGinnis' nocturnal
visit to the school had had the effect of giving violent colds to three
lords, a baronet, and the younger son of an honourable. And, in
addition to that, Mr Abney himself, his penetrating tenor changed to a
guttural croak, was in his bed looking on the world with watering eyes.
His views, therefore, on playing in the snow as an occupation for boys
were naturally prejudiced.
The result was that Glossop and I had to try and keep order among a
mob of small boys, none of whom had had any chance of working off his
superfluous energy. How Glossop fared I can only imagine. Judging by
the fact that I, who usually kept fair order without excessive effort,
was almost overwhelmed, I should fancy he fared badly. His classroom
was on the opposite side of the hall from mine, and at frequent
intervals his voice would penetrate my door, raised to a frenzied
Little by little, however, we had won through the day, and the boys
had subsided into comparative quiet over their evening preparation,
when from outside the front door there sounded the purring of the
engine of a large automobile. The bell rang.
I did not, I remember, pay much attention to this at the moment. I
supposed that somebody from one of the big houses in the neighbourhood
had called, or, taking the lateness of the hour into consideration,
that a motoring party had come, as they did sometimes—Sanstead House
standing some miles from anywhere in the middle of an intricate system
of by-roads—to inquire the way to Portsmouth or London. If my class
had allowed me, I would have ignored the sound. But for them it
supplied just that break in the monotony of things which they had
needed. They welcomed it vociferously.
A voice: 'Sir, please, sir, there's a motor outside.'
Myself (austerely): T know there's a motor outside. Get on with your
Various voices: 'Sir, have you ever ridden in a motor?'
'Sir, my father let me help drive our motor last Easter, sir.'
'Sir, who do you think it is?'
An isolated genius (imitating the engine): 'Pr-prr! Pr-prr! Pr-prr!'
I was on the point of distributing bad marks (the schoolmaster's
stand-by) broadcast, when a curious sound checked me. It followed
directly upon the opening of the front door. I heard White's footsteps
crossing the hall, then the click of the latch, and then—a sound that
I could not define. The closed door of the classroom deadened it, but
for all that it was audible. It resembled the thud of a falling body,
but I knew it could not be that, for in peaceful England butlers
opening front doors did not fall with thuds.
My class, eager listeners, found fresh material in the sound for
'Sir, what was that, sir?'
'Did you hear that, sir?'
'What do you think's happened, sir?'
'Be quiet,' I shouted. 'Will you be—'
There was a quick footstep outside, the door flew open, and on the
threshold stood a short, sturdy man in a motoring coat and cap. The
upper part of his face was covered by a strip of white linen, with
holes for the eyes, and there was a Browning pistol in his hand.
It is my belief that, if assistant-masters were allowed to wear
white masks and carry automatic pistols, keeping order in a school
would become child's play. A silence such as no threat of bad marks had
ever been able to produce fell instantaneously upon the classroom. Out
of the corner of my eye, as I turned to face our visitor, I could see
small boys goggling rapturously at this miraculous realization of all
the dreams induced by juvenile adventure fiction. As far as I could
ascertain, on subsequent inquiry, not one of them felt a tremor of
fear. It was all too tremendously exciting for that. For their
exclusive benefit an illustration from a weekly paper for boys had come
to life, and they had no time to waste in being frightened.
As for me, I was dazed. Motor bandits may terrorize France, and
desperadoes hold up trains in America, but this was peaceful England.
The fact that Buck MacGinnis was at large in the neighbourhood did not
make the thing any the less incredible. I had looked on my affair with
Buck as a thing of the open air and the darkness. I had figured him
lying in wait in lonely roads, possibly, even, lurking about the
grounds; but in my most apprehensive moments I had not imagined him
calling at the front door and holding me up with a revolver in my own
And yet it was the simple, even the obvious, thing for him to do.
Given an automobile, success was certain. Sanstead House stood
absolutely alone. There was not even a cottage within half a mile. A
train broken down in the middle of the Bad Lands was not more cut off.
Consider, too, the peculiar helplessness of a school in such a case.
A school lives on the confidence of parents, a nebulous foundation
which the slightest breath can destroy. Everything connected with it
must be done with exaggerated discretion. I do not suppose Mr MacGinnis
had thought the thing out in all its bearings, but he could not have
made a sounder move if he had been a Napoleon. Where the owner of an
ordinary country-house raided by masked men can raise the countryside
in pursuit, a schoolmaster must do precisely the opposite. From his
point of view, the fewer people that know of the affair the better.
Parents are a jumpy race. A man may be the ideal schoolmaster, yet will
a connection with melodrama damn him in the eyes of parents. They do
not inquire. They are too panic-stricken for that. Golden-haired Willie
may be receiving the finest education conceivable, yet if men with
Browning pistols are familiar objects at his shrine of learning they
will remove him. Fortunately for schoolmasters it is seldom that such
visitors call upon them. Indeed, I imagine Mr MacGinnis's effort to
have been the first of its kind.
I do not, as I say, suppose that Buck, whose forte was action rather
than brain-work, had thought all this out. He had trusted to luck, and
luck had stood by him. There would be no raising of the countryside in
his case. On the contrary, I could see Mr Abney becoming one of the
busiest persons on record in his endeavour to hush the thing up and
prevent it getting into the papers. The man with the pistol spoke. He
sighted me—I was standing with my back to the mantelpiece, parallel
with the door—made a sharp turn, and raised his weapon.
'Put 'em up, sport,' he said.
It was not the voice of Buck MacGinnis. I put my hands up.
'Say, which of dese is de Nugget?'
He half turned his head to the class.
'Which of youse kids is Ogden Ford?'
The class was beyond speech. The silence continued.
'Ogden Ford is not here,' I said.
Our visitor had not that simple faith which is so much better than
Norman blood. He did not believe me. Without moving his head he gave a
long whistle. Steps sounded outside. Another, short, sturdy form,
entered the room.
'He ain't in de odder room,' observed the newcomer. 'I been
This was friend Buck beyond question. I could have recognized his
'Well dis guy,' said the man with the pistol, indicating me, 'says
he ain't here. What's de answer?'
'Why, it's Sam!' said Buck. 'Howdy, Sam? Pleased to see us, huh?
We're in on de ground floor, too, dis time, all right, all right.'
His words had a marked effect on his colleague.
'Is dat Sam? Hell! Let me blow de head off'n him!' he said, with
simple fervour; and, advancing a step nearer, he waved his disengaged
fist truculently. In my role of Sam I had plainly made myself very
unpopular. I have never heard so much emotion packed into a few words.
Buck, to my relief, opposed the motion. I thought this decent of
'Cheese it,' he said curtly.
The other cheesed it. The operation took the form of lowering the
fist. The pistol he kept in position.
Mr MacGinnis resumed the conduct of affairs.
'Now den, Sam,' he said, 'come across! Where's de Nugget?'
'My name is not Sam,' I said. 'May I put my hands down?'
'Yep, if you want the top of your damn head blown off.'
Such was not my desire. I kept them up.
'Now den, you Sam,' said Mr MacGinnis again, 'we ain't got time to
burn. Out with it. Where's dat Nugget?'
Some reply was obviously required. It was useless to keep protesting
that I was not Sam.
'At this time in the evening he is generally working with Mr
'Who's Glossop? Dat dough-faced dub in de room over dere?'
'Exactly. You have described him perfectly.'
'Well, he ain't dere. I bin rubberin.' Aw, quit yer foolin', Sam,
where is he?'
'I couldn't tell you just where he is at the present moment,' I said
'Ahr chee! Let me swot him one!' begged the man with the pistol; a
most unlovable person. I could never have made a friend of him.
'Cheese it, you!' said Mr MacGinnis.
The other cheesed it once more, regretfully.
'You got him hidden away somewheres, Sam,' said Mr MacGinnis. 'You
can't fool me. I'm com' t'roo dis joint wit a fine-tooth comb till I
'By all means,' I said. 'Don't let me stop you.'
'You? You're coming wit me.'
'If you wish it. I shall be delighted.'
'An' cut out dat dam' sissy way of talking, you rummy,' bellowed
Buck, with a sudden lapse into ferocity. 'Spiel like a regular guy!
Standin' dere, pullin' dat dude stuff on me! Cut it out!'
'Say, why mayn't I hand him one?' demanded the pistol-bearer
pathetically. 'What's your kick against pushin' his face in?'
I thought the question in poor taste. Buck ignored it.
'Gimme dat canister,' he said, taking the Browning pistol from him.
'Now den, Sam, are youse goin' to be good, and come across, or ain't
'I'd be delighted to do anything you wished, Mr MacGinnis,' I said,
'Aw, hire a hall!' said Buck disgustedly. 'Step lively, den, an'
we'll go t'roo de joint. I t'ought youse 'ud have had more sense, Sam,
dan to play dis fool game when you know you're beat. You—'
Shooting pains in my shoulders caused me to interrupt him.
'One moment,' I said. 'I'm going to put my hands down. I'm getting
'I'll blow a hole in you if you do!'
'Just as you please. But I'm not armed.'
'Lefty,' he said to the other man, 'feel around to see if he's
Lefty advanced and began to tap me scientifically in the
neighbourhood of my pockets. He grunted morosely the while. I suppose,
at this close range, the temptation to 'hand me one' was almost more
than he could bear.
'He ain't got no gun,' he announced gloomily.
'Den youse can put 'em down,' said Mr MacGinnis.
'Thanks,' I said.
'Lefty, youse stay here and look after dese kids. Get a move on,
We left the room, a little procession of two, myself leading, Buck
in my immediate rear administering occasional cautionary prods with the
The first thing that met my eyes as we entered the hall was the body
of a man lying by the front door. The light of the lamp fell on his
face and I saw that it was White. His hands and feet were tied. As I
looked at him, he moved, as if straining against his bonds, and I was
conscious of a feeling of relief. That sound that had reached me in the
classroom, that thud of a falling body, had become, in the light of
what had happened later, very sinister. It was good to know that he was
still alive. I gathered—correctly, as I discovered subsequently—that
in his case the sand-bag had been utilized. He had been struck down and
stunned the instant he opened the door.
There was a masked man leaning against the wall by Glossop's
classroom. He was short and sturdy. The Buck MacGinnis gang seemed to
have been turned out on a pattern. Externally, they might all have been
twins. This man, to give him a semblance of individuality, had a ragged
red moustache. He was smoking a cigar with the air of the warrior
taking his rest.
'Hello!' he said, as we appeared. He jerked a thumb towards the
classroom. 'I've locked dem in. What's doin', Buck?' he asked,
indicating me with a languid nod.
'We're going t'roo de joint,' explained Mr MacGinnis. 'De kid ain't
in dere. Hump yourself, Sam!'
His colleague's languor disappeared with magic swiftness.
'Sam! Is dat Sam? Here, let me beat de block off'n him!'
Few points in this episode struck me as more remarkable than the
similarity of taste which prevailed, as concerned myself, among the
members of Mr MacGinnis's gang. Men, doubtless of varying opinions on
other subjects, on this one point they were unanimous. They all wanted
to assault me.
Buck, however, had other uses for me. For the present, I was
necessary as a guide, and my value as such would be impaired were the
block to be beaten off me. Though feeling no friendlier towards me than
did his assistants, he declined to allow sentiment to interfere with
business. He concentrated his attention on the upward journey with all
the earnestness of the young gentleman who carried the banner with the
strange device in the poem.
Briefly requesting his ally to cheese it—which he did—he urged me
on with the nozzle of the pistol. The red-moustached man sank back
against the wall again with an air of dejection, sucking his cigar now
like one who has had disappointments in life, while we passed on up the
stairs and began to draw the rooms on the first floor.
These consisted of Mr Abney's study and two dormitories. The study
was empty, and the only occupants of the dormitories were the three
boys who had been stricken down with colds on the occasion of Mr
MacGinnis's last visit. They squeaked with surprise at the sight of the
assistant-master in such questionable company.
Buck eyed them disappointedly. I waited with something of the
feelings of a drummer taking a buyer round the sample room.
'Get on,' said Buck.
'Won't one of those do?'
'Hump yourself, Sam.'
'Call me Sammy,' I urged. 'We're old friends now.'
'Don't get fresh,' he said austerely. And we moved on.
The top floor was even more deserted than the first. There was no
one in the dormitories. The only other room was Mr Abney's; and, as we
came opposite it, a sneeze from within told of the sufferings of its
The sound stirred Buck to his depths. He 'pointed' at the door like
'Who's in dere?' he demanded.
'Only Mr Abney. Better not disturb him. He has a bad cold.'
He placed a wrong construction on my solicitude for my employer. His
manner became excited.
'Open dat door, you,' he cried.
'It'll give him a nasty shock.'
'G'wan! Open it!'
No one who is digging a Browning pistol into the small of my back
will ever find me disobliging. I opened the door—knocking first, as a
mild concession to the conventions—and the procession passed in.
My stricken employer was lying on his back, staring at the ceiling,
and our entrance did not at first cause him to change this position.
'Yes?' he said thickly, and disappeared beneath a huge
pocket-handkerchief. Muffled sounds, as of distant explosions of
dynamite, together with earthquake shudderings of the bedclothes, told
of another sneezing-fit.
'I'm sorry to disturb you,' I began, when Buck, ever the man of
action, with a scorn of palaver, strode past me, and, having prodded
with the pistol that part of the bedclothes beneath which a rough
calculation suggested that Mr Abney's lower ribs were concealed,
uttered the one word, 'Sa-a-ay!'
Mr Abney sat up like a Jack-in-the-box. One might almost say that he
shot up. And then he saw Buck.
I cannot even faintly imagine what were Mr Abney's emotions at that
moment. He was a man who, from boyhood up, had led a quiet and regular
life. Things like Buck had appeared to him hitherto, if they appeared
at all, only in dreams after injudicious suppers. Even in the ordinary
costume of the Bowery gentleman, without such adventitious extras as
masks and pistols, Buck was no beauty. With that hideous strip of dingy
white linen on his face, he was a walking nightmare.
Mr Abney's eyebrows had risen and his jaw had fallen to their
uttermost limits. His hair, disturbed by contact with the pillow, gave
the impression of standing on end. His eyes seemed to bulge like a
snail's. He stared at Buck, fascinated.
'Say, you, quit rubberin'. Youse ain't in a dime museum. Where's dat
Ford kid, huh?'
I have set down all Mr MacGinnis's remarks as if they had been
uttered in a bell-like voice with a clear and crisp enunciation; but,
in doing so, I have flattered him. In reality, his mode of speech
suggested that he had something large and unwieldy permanently stuck in
his mouth; and it was not easy for a stranger to follow him. Mr Abney
signally failed to do so. He continued to gape helplessly till the
tension was broken by a sneeze.
One cannot interrogate a sneezing man with any satisfaction to
oneself. Buck stood by the bedside in moody silence, waiting for the
paroxysm to spend itself.
I, meanwhile, had remained where I stood, close to the door. And, as
I waited for Mr Abney to finish sneezing, for the first time since
Buck's colleague Lefty had entered the classroom the idea of action
occurred to me. Until this moment, I suppose, the strangeness and
unexpectedness of these happenings had numbed my brain. To precede Buck
meekly upstairs and to wait with equal meekness while he interviewed Mr
Abney had seemed the only course open to me. To one whose life has lain
apart from such things, the hypnotic influence of a Browning pistol is
But now, freed temporarily from this influence, I began to think;
and, my mind making up for its previous inaction by working with
unwonted swiftness, I formed a plan of action at once.
It was simple, but I had an idea that it would be effective. My
strength lay in my acquaintance with the geography of Sanstead House
and Buck's ignorance of it. Let me but get an adequate start, and he
might find pursuit vain. It was this start which I saw my way to
To Buck it had not yet occurred that it was a tactical error to
leave me between the door and himself. I supposed he relied too
implicitly on the mesmeric pistol. He was not even looking at me.
The next moment my fingers were on the switch of the electric light,
and the room was in darkness.
There was a chair by the door. I seized it and swung it into the
space between us. Then, springing back, I banged the door and ran.
I did not run without a goal in view. My objective was the study.
This, as I have explained, was on the first floor. Its window looked
out on to a strip of lawn at the side of the house ending in a
shrubbery. The drop would not be pleasant, but I seemed to remember a
waterspout that ran up the wall close to the window, and, in any case,
I was not in a position to be deterred by the prospect of a bruise or
two. I had not failed to realize that my position was one of extreme
peril. When Buck, concluding the tour of the house, found that the
Little Nugget was not there—as I had reason to know that he
would—there was no room for doubt that he would withdraw the
protection which he had extended to me up to the present in my capacity
of guide. On me the disappointed fury of the raiders would fall. No
prudent consideration for their own safety would restrain them. If ever
the future was revealed to man, I saw mine. My only chance was to get
out into the grounds, where the darkness would make pursuit an
It was an affair which must be settled one way or the other in a few
seconds, and I calculated that it would take Buck just those few
seconds to win his way past the chair and find the door-handle.
I was right. Just as I reached the study, the door of the bedroom
flew open, and the house rang with shouts and the noise of feet on the
uncarpeted landing. From the hall below came answering shouts, but with
an interrogatory note in them. The assistants were willing, but
puzzled. They did not like to leave their posts without specific
instructions, and Buck, shouting as he clattered over the bare boards,
I was in the study, the door locked behind me, before they could
arrive at an understanding. I sprang to the window.
The handle rattled. Voices shouted. A panel splintered beneath a
kick, and the door shook on its hinges.
And then, for the first time, I think, in my life, panic gripped me,
the sheer, blind fear which destroys the reason. It swept over me in a
wave, that numbing terror which comes to one in dreams. Indeed, the
thing had become dream-like. I seemed to be standing outside myself,
looking on at myself, watching myself heave and strain with bruised
fingers at a window that would not open.
The arm-chair critic, reviewing a situation calmly and at his ease,
is apt to make too small allowances for the effect of hurry and
excitement on the human mind. He is cool and detached. He sees exactly
what ought to have been done, and by what simple means catastrophe
might have been averted.
He would have made short work of my present difficulty, I feel
certain. It was ridiculously simple. But I had lost my head, and had
ceased for the moment to be a reasoning creature. In the end, indeed,
it was no presence of mind but pure good luck which saved me. Just as
the door, which had held out gallantly, gave way beneath the attack
from outside, my fingers, slipping, struck against the catch of the
window, and I understood why I had failed to raise it.
I snapped the catch back, and flung up the sash. An icy wind swept
into the room, bearing particles of snow. I scrambled on to the
window-sill, and a crash from behind me told of the falling of the
The packed snow on the sill was drenching my knees as I worked my
way out and prepared to drop. There was a deafening explosion inside
the room, and simultaneously something seared my shoulder like a hot
iron. I cried out with the pain of it, and, losing my balance, fell
from the sill.
There was, fortunately for me, a laurel bush immediately below the
window, or I should have been undone. I fell into it, all arms and
legs, in a way which would have meant broken bones if I had struck the
hard turf. I was on my feet in an instant, shaken and scratched and,
incidentally, in a worse temper than ever in my life before. The idea
of flight, which had obsessed me a moment before, to the exclusion of
all other mundane affairs, had vanished absolutely. I was full of
fight, I might say overflowing with it. I remember standing there, with
the snow trickling in chilly rivulets down my face and neck, and
shaking my fist at the window. Two of my pursuers were leaning out of
it, while a third dodged behind them, like a small man on the outskirts
of a crowd. So far from being thankful for my escape, I was conscious
only of a feeling of regret that there was no immediate way of getting
They made no move towards travelling the quick but trying route
which had commended itself to me. They seemed to be waiting for
something to happen. It was not long before I was made aware of what
this something was. From the direction of the front door came the sound
of one running. A sudden diminution of the noise of his feet told me
that he had left the gravel and was on the turf. I drew back a pace or
two and waited.
It was pitch dark, and I had no fear that I should be seen. I was
standing well outside the light from the window.
The man stopped just in front of me. A short parley followed.
'Can'tja see him?'
The voice was not Buck's. It was Buck who answered. And when I
realized that this man in front of me, within easy reach, on whose back
I was shortly about to spring, and whose neck I proposed, under
Providence, to twist into the shape of a corkscrew, was no mere
underling, but Mr MacGinnis himself, I was filled with a joy which I
found it hard to contain in silence.
Looking back, I am a little sorry for Mr MacGinnis. He was not a
good man. His mode of speech was not pleasant, and his manners were
worse than his speech. But, though he undoubtedly deserved all that was
coming to him, it was nevertheless bad luck for him to be standing just
there at just that moment. The reactions after my panic, added to the
pain of my shoulder, the scratches on my face, and the general misery
of being wet and cold, had given me a reckless fury and a determination
to do somebody, whoever happened to come along, grievous bodily hurt,
such as seldom invades the bosoms of the normally peaceful. To put it
crisply, I was fighting mad, and I looked on Buck as something sent by
He had got as far, in his reply, as 'Naw, I can't—' when I sprang.
I have read of the spring of the jaguar, and I have seen some very
creditable flying-tackles made on the football field. My leap combined
the outstanding qualities of both. I connected with Mr MacGinnis in the
region of the waist, and the howl he gave as we crashed to the ground
was music to my ears.
But how true is the old Roman saying, 'Surgit amari aliquid'. Our
pleasures are never perfect. There is always something. In the
programme which I had hastily mapped out, the upsetting of Mr MacGinnis
was but a small item, a mere preliminary. There were a number of things
which I had wished to do to him, once upset. But it was not to be. Even
as I reached for his throat I perceived that the light of the window
was undergoing an eclipse. A compact form had wriggled out on to the
sill, as I had done, and I heard the grating of his shoes on the wall
as he lowered himself for the drop.
There is a moment when the pleasantest functions must come to an
end. I was loath to part from Mr MacGinnis just when I was beginning,
as it were, to do myself justice; but it was unavoidable. In another
moment his ally would descend upon us, like some Homeric god swooping
from a cloud, and I was not prepared to continue the battle against
I disengaged myself—Mr MacGinnis strangely quiescent during the
process—and was on my feet in the safety of the darkness just as the
reinforcement touched earth. This time I did not wait. My hunger for
fight had been appeased to some extent by my brush with Buck, and I was
satisfied to have achieved safety with honour.
Making a wide detour I crossed the drive and worked my way through
the bushes to within a few yards of where the automobile stood, filling
the night with the soft purring of its engines. I was interested to see
what would be the enemy's next move. It was improbable that they would
attempt to draw the grounds in search of me. I imagined that they would
recognize failure and retire whence they had come.
I was right. I had not been watching long, before a little group
advanced into the light of the automobile's lamps. There were four of
them. Three were walking, the fourth, cursing with the vigour and
breadth that marks the expert, lying on their arms, of which they had
made something resembling a stretcher.
The driver of the car, who had been sitting woodenly in his seat,
turned at the sound.
'Ja get him?' he inquired.
'Get nothing!' replied one of the three moodily. 'De Nugget ain't
dere, an' we was chasin' Sam to fix him, an' he laid for us, an' what
he did to Buck was plenty.'
They placed their valuable burden in the tonneau, where he lay
repeating himself, and two of them climbed in after him. The third
seated himself beside the driver.
'Buck's leg's broke,' he announced.
'Hell!' said the chauffeur.
No young actor, receiving his first round of applause, could have
felt a keener thrill of gratification than I did at those words. Life
may have nobler triumphs than the breaking of a kidnapper's leg, but I
did not think so then. It was with an effort that I stopped myself from
'Let her go,' said the man in the front seat.
The purring rose to a roar. The car turned and began to move with
increasing speed down the drive. Its drone grew fainter, and ceased. I
brushed the snow from my coat and walked to the front door.
My first act on entering the house, was to release White. He was
still lying where I had seen him last. He appeared to have made no
headway with the cords on his wrists and ankles. I came to his help
with a rather blunt pocket-knife, and he rose stiffly and began to
chafe the injured arms in silence.
'They've gone,' I said.
'Did they hit you with a sand-bag?'
He nodded again.
'I broke Buck's leg,' I said, with modest pride.
He looked up incredulously. I related my experiences as briefly as
possible, and when I came to the part where I made my flying tackle,
the gloom was swept from his face by a joyful smile. Buck's injury may
have given its recipient pain, but it was certainly the cause of
pleasure to others. White's manner was one of the utmost enthusiasm as
I described the scene.
'That'll hold Buck for a while,' was his comment. 'I guess we shan't
hear from him for a week or two. That's the best cure for the
headache I've ever struck.'
He rubbed the lump that just showed beneath his hair. I did not
wonder at his emotion. Whoever had wielded the sand-bag had done his
work well, in a manner to cause hard feelings on the part of the
I had been vaguely conscious during this conversation of an
intermittent noise like distant thunder. I now perceived that it came
from Glossop's classroom, and was caused by the beating of hands on the
door-panels. I remembered that the red-moustached man had locked
Glossop and his young charges in. It seemed to me that he had done
well. There would be plenty of confusion without their assistance.
I was turning towards my own classroom when I saw Audrey on the
stairs and went to meet her.
'It's all right,' I said. 'They've gone.'
'Who was it? What did they want?'
'It was a gentleman named MacGinnis and some friends. They came
after Ogden Ford, but they didn't get him.'
'Where is he? Where is Ogden?'
Before I could reply, babel broke loose. While we had been talking,
White had injudiciously turned the key of Glossop's classroom which now
disgorged its occupants, headed by my colleague, in a turbulent stream.
At the same moment my own classroom began to empty itself. The hall was
packed with boys, and the din became deafening. Every one had something
to say, and they all said it at once.
Glossop was at my side, semaphoring violently.
'We must telephone,' he bellowed in my ear, 'for the police.'
Somebody tugged at my arm. It was Audrey. She was saying something
which was drowned in the uproar. I drew her towards the stairs, and we
found comparative quiet on the first landing.
'What were you saying?' I asked.
'He isn't there.'
'Ogden Ford. Where is he? He is not in his room. They must have
Glossop came up at a gallop, springing from stair to stair like the
chamois of the Alps.
'We must telephone for the police!' he cried.
'I have telephoned,' said Audrey, 'ten minutes ago. They are sending
some men at once. Mr Glossop, was Ogden Ford in your classroom?'
'No, Mrs Sheridan. I thought he was with you, Burns.'
I shook my head.
'Those men came to kidnap him, Mr Glossop,' said Audrey.
'Undoubtedly the gang of scoundrels to which that man the other
night belonged! This is preposterous. My nerves will not stand these
repeated outrages. We must have police protection. The villains must be
brought to justice. I never heard of such a thing! In an English
Glossop's eyes gleamed agitatedly behind their spectacles. Macbeth's
deportment when confronted with Banquo's ghost was stolid by
comparison. There was no doubt that Buck's visit had upset the smooth
peace of our happy little community to quite a considerable extent.
The noise in the hall had increased rather than subsided. A belated
sense of professional duty returned to Glossop and myself. We descended
the stairs and began to do our best, in our respective styles, to
produce order. It was not an easy task. Small boys are always prone to
make a noise, even without provocation. When they get a genuine excuse
like the incursion of men in white masks, who prod assistant-masters in
the small of the back with Browning pistols, they tend to eclipse
themselves. I doubt whether we should ever have quieted them, had it
not been that the hour of Buck's visit had chanced to fall within a
short time of that set apart for the boys' tea, and that the kitchen
had lain outside the sphere of our visitors' operations. As in many
English country houses, the kitchen at Sanstead House was at the end of
a long corridor, shut off by doors through which even pistol-shots
penetrated but faintly. Our excellent cook had, moreover, the
misfortune to be somewhat deaf, with the result that, throughout all
the storm and stress in our part of the house, she, like the lady in
Goethe's poem, had gone on cutting bread and butter; till now, when it
seemed that nothing could quell the uproar, there rose above it the
ringing of the bell.
If there is anything exciting enough to keep the Englishman or the
English boy from his tea, it has yet to be discovered. The shouting
ceased on the instant. The general feeling seemed to be that inquiries
could be postponed till a more suitable occasion, but not tea. There
was a general movement in the direction of the dining-room.
Glossop had already gone with the crowd, and I was about to follow,
when there was another ring at the front-door bell.
I gathered that this must be the police, and waited. In the
impending inquiry I was by way of being a star witness. If any one had
been in the thick of things from the beginning it was myself.
White opened the door. I caught a glimpse of blue uniforms, and came
forward to do the honours.
There were two of them, no more. In response to our urgent appeal
for assistance against armed bandits, the Majesty of the Law had
materialized itself in the shape of a stout inspector and a long, lean
constable. I thought, as I came to meet them, that they were fortunate
to have arrived late. I could see Lefty and the red-moustached man,
thwarted in their designs on me, making dreadful havoc among the
official force, as here represented.
White, the simple butler once more, introduced us.
'This is Mr Burns, one of the masters at the school,' he said, and
removed himself from the scene. There never was a man like White for
knowing his place when he played the butler.
The inspector looked at me sharply. The constable gazed into space.
'H'm!' said the inspector.
Mentally I had named them Bones and Johnson. I do not know why,
except that they seemed to deserve it.
'You telephoned for us,' said Bones accusingly.
'What's the trouble? What—got your notebook?—has been happening?'
Johnson removed his gaze from the middle distance and produced a
'At about half past five—' I began.
Johnson moistened his pencil.
'At about half past five an automobile drove up to the front door.
In it were five masked men with revolvers.'
I interested them. There was no doubt of that. Bones's healthy
colour deepened, and his eyes grew round. Johnson's pencil raced over
the page, wobbling with emotion.
'Masked men?' echoed Bones.
'With revolvers,' I said. 'Now aren't you glad you didn't go to the
circus? They rang the front-door bell; when White opened it, they
stunned him with a sand-bag. Then—'
Bones held up a large hand.
'Who is White?'
'I will take his statement. Fetch the butler.'
Johnson trotted off obediently.
Left alone with me, Bones became friendlier and less official.
'This is as queer a start as ever I heard of, Mr Burns,' he said.
'Twenty years I've been in the force, and nothing like this has
transpired. It beats cock-fighting. What in the world do you suppose
men with masks and revolvers was after? First idea I had was that you
were making fun of me.'
I was shocked at the idea. I hastened to give further details.
'They were a gang of American crooks who had come over to kidnap Mr
Elmer Ford's son, who is a pupil at the school. You have heard of Mr
Ford? He is an American millionaire, and there have been several
attempts during the past few years to kidnap Ogden.'
At this point Johnson returned with White. White told his story
briefly, exhibited his bruise, showed the marks of the cords on his
wrists, and was dismissed. I suggested that further conversation had
better take place in the presence of Mr Abney, who, I imagined, would
have something to say on the subject of hushing the thing up.
We went upstairs. The broken door of the study delayed us a while
and led to a fresh spasm of activity on the part of Johnson's pencil.
Having disposed of this, we proceeded to Mr Abney's room.
Bones's authoritative rap upon the door produced an agitated 'Who's
that?' from the occupant. I explained the nature of the visitation
through the keyhole and there came from within the sound of moving
furniture. His one brief interview with Buck had evidently caused my
employer to ensure against a second by barricading himself in with
everything he could find suitable for the purpose. It was some moments
before the way was clear for our entrance.
'Cub id,' said a voice at last.
Mr Abney was sitting up in bed, the blankets wrapped tightly about
him. His appearance was still disordered. The furniture of the room was
in great confusion, and a poker on the floor by the dressing-table
showed that he had been prepared to sell his life dearly.
'I ab glad to see you, Idspector,' he said. 'Bister Burds, what is
the expladation of this extraordinary affair?'
It took some time to explain matters to Mr Abney, and more to
convince Bones and his colleague that, so far from wanting a hue and
cry raised over the countryside and columns about the affair in the
papers, publicity was the thing we were anxious to avoid. They were
visibly disappointed when they grasped the position of affairs. The
thing, properly advertised, would have been the biggest that had ever
happened to the neighbourhood, and their eager eyes could see glory
within easy reach. Mention of a cold snack and a drop of beer, however,
to be found in the kitchen, served to cast a gleam of brightness on
their gloom, and they vanished in search of it with something
approaching cheeriness, Johnson taking notes to the last.
They had hardly gone when Glossop whirled into the room in a state
of effervescing agitation.
'Mr Abney, Ogden Ford is nowhere to be found!'
Mr Abney greeted the information with a prodigious sneeze.
'What do you bead?' he demanded, when the paroxysm was over. He
turned to me. 'Bister Burds, I understood you to—ah—say that the
scou'drels took their departure without the boy Ford.'
'They certainly did. I watched them go.'
'I have searched the house thoroughly,' said Glossop, 'and there are
no signs of him. And not only that, the Boy Beckford cannot be found.'
Mr Abney clasped his head in his hands. Poor man, he was in no
condition to bear up with easy fortitude against this succession of
shocks. He was like one who, having survived an earthquake, is hit by
an automobile. He had partly adjusted his mind to the quiet
contemplation of Mr MacGinnis and friends when he was called upon to
face this fresh disaster. And he had a cold in the head, which unmans
the stoutest. Napoleon would have won Waterloo if Wellington had had a
cold in the head.
'Augustus Beckford caddot be fou'd?' he echoed feebly.
'They must have run away together,' said Glossop.
Mr Abney sat up, galvanized.
'Such a thing has never happened id the school before!' he cried.
'It has aldways beed my—ah—codstant endeavour to make my boys look
upod Sadstead House as a happy hobe. I have systebatically edcouraged a
spirit of cheerful codtedment. I caddot seriously credit the fact that
Augustus Beckford, one of the bost charbig boys it has ever beed by
good fortude to have id by charge, has deliberately rud away.'
'He must have been persuaded by that boy Ford,' said Glossop, 'who,'
he added morosely, 'I believe, is the devil in disguise.'
Mr Abney did not rebuke the strength of his language. Probably the
theory struck him as eminently sound. To me there certainly seemed
something in it.
'Subbthig bust be done at once!' Mr Abney exclaimed. 'It
is—ah—ibperative that we take ibbediate steps. They bust have gone to
Londod. Bister Burds, you bust go to Londod by the next traid. I caddot
go byself with this cold.'
It was the irony of fate that, on the one occasion when duty really
summoned that champion popper-up-to-London to the Metropolis, he should
be unable to answer the call.
'Very well,' I said. 'I'll go and look out a train.'
'Bister Glossop, you will be in charge of the school. Perhaps you
had better go back to the boys dow.'
White was in the hall when I got there.
'White,' I said, 'do you know anything about the trains to London?'
'Are you going to London?' he asked, in his more conversational
manner. I thought he looked at me curiously as he spoke.
'Yes. Ogden Ford and Lord Beckford cannot be found. Mr Abney thinks
they must have run away to London.'
'I shouldn't wonder,' said White dryly, it seemed to me. There was
something distinctly odd in his manner. 'And you're going after them.'
'Yes. I must look up a train.'
'There is a fast train in an hour. You will have plenty of time.'
'Will you tell Mr Abney that, while I go and pack my bag? And
telephone for a cab.'
'Sure,' said White, nodding.
I went up to my room and began to put a few things together in a
suit-case. I felt happy, for several reasons. A visit to London, after
my arduous weeks at Sanstead, was in the nature of an unexpected treat.
My tastes are metropolitan, and the vision of an hour at a
music-hall—I should be too late for the theatres—with supper to
follow in some restaurant where there was an orchestra, appealed to me.
When I returned to the hall, carrying my bag, I found Audrey there.
'I'm being sent to London,' I announced.
'I know. White told me. Peter, bring him back.'
'That's why I'm being sent.'
'It means everything to me.'
I looked at her in surprise. There was a strained, anxious
expression on her face, for which I could not account. I declined to
believe that anybody could care what happened to the Little Nugget
purely for that amiable youth's own sake. Besides, as he had gone to
London willingly, the assumption was that he was enjoying himself.
'I don't understand,' I said. 'What do you mean?'
'I'll tell you. Mr Ford sent me here to be near Ogden, to guard him.
He knew that there was always a danger of attempts being made to kidnap
him, even though he was brought over to England very quietly. That is
how I come to be here. I go wherever Ogden goes. I am responsible for
him. And I have failed. If Ogden is not brought back, Mr Ford will have
nothing more to do with me. He never forgives failures. It will mean
going back to the old work again—the dressmaking, or the waiting, or
whatever I can manage to find.' She gave a little shiver. 'Peter, I
can't. All the pluck has gone out of me. I'm afraid. I couldn't face
all that again. Bring him back. You must. You will. Say you will.'
I did not answer. I could find nothing to say; for it was I who was
responsible for all her trouble. I had planned everything. I had given
Ogden Ford the money that had taken him to London. And soon, unless I
could reach London before it happened, and prevent him, he, with my
valet Smith, would be in the Dover boat-train on his way to Monaco.
It was only after many hours of thought that it had flashed upon me
that the simplest and safest way of removing the Little Nugget was to
induce him to remove himself. Once the idea had come, the rest was
simple. The negotiations which had taken place that morning in the
stable-yard had been brief. I suppose a boy in Ogden's position, with
his record of narrow escapes from the kidnapper, comes to take things
as a matter of course which would startle the ordinary boy. He assumed,
I imagine, that I was the accredited agent of his mother, and that the
money which I gave him for travelling expenses came from her. Perhaps
he had been expecting something of the sort. At any rate, he grasped
the essential points of the scheme with amazing promptitude. His little
hand was extended to receive the cash almost before I had finished
The main outline of my plan was that he should slip away to London,
during the afternoon, go to my rooms, where he would find Smith, and
with Smith travel to his mother at Monaco. I had written to Smith,
bidding him be in readiness for the expedition. There was no flaw in
the scheme as I had mapped it out, and though Ogden had complicated it
a little by gratuitously luring away Augustus Beckford to bear him
company, he had not endangered its success.
But now an utterly unforeseen complication had arisen. My one desire
now was to undo everything for which I had been plotting.
I stood there, looking at her dumbly, hating myself for being the
cause of the anxiety in her eyes. If I had struck her, I could not have
felt more despicable. In my misery I cursed Cynthia for leading me into
I heard my name spoken, and turned to find White at my elbow.
'Mr Abney would like to see you, sir.'
I went upstairs, glad to escape. The tension of the situation had
begun to tear at my nerves.
'Cub id, Bister Burds,' said my employer, swallowing a lozenge. His
aspect was more dazed than ever. 'White has just bade
an—ah—extraordinary cobbudicatiod to me. It seebs he is in reality a
detective, an employee of Pidkertod's Agedcy, of which you have, of
So White had revealed himself. On the whole, I was not surprised.
Certainly his motive for concealment, the fear of making Mr Abney
nervous, was removed. An inrush of Red Indians with tomahawks could
hardly have added greatly to Mr Abney's nervousness at the present
'Sent here by Mr Ford, I suppose?' I said. I had to say something.
'Exactly. Ah—precisely.' He sneezed. 'Bister Ford, without
codsulting me—I do not cobbedt on the good taste or wisdob of his
actiod—dispatched White to apply for the post of butler at
this—ah—house, his predecessor having left at a bobedt's dotice,
bribed to do so, I strodgly suspect, by Bister Ford himself. I bay be
wrodging Bister Ford, but do dot thig so.'
I thought the reasoning sound.
'All thad, however,' resumed Mr Abney, removing his face from a jug
of menthol at which he had been sniffing with the tense concentration
of a dog at a rabbit-hole, 'is beside the poidt. I berely bedtiod it to
explaid why White will accompady you to London.'
The exclamation was forced from me by my dismay. This was appalling.
If this infernal detective was to accompany me, my chance of bringing
Ogden back was gone. It had been my intention to go straight to my
rooms, in the hope of finding him not yet departed. But how was I to
explain his presence there to White?
'I don't think it's necessary, Mr Abney,' I protested. 'I am sure I
can manage this affair by myself.'
'Two heads are better thad wud,' said the invalid sententiously,
burying his features in the jug once more.
'Too many cooks spoil the broth,' I replied. If the conversation was
to consist of copybook maxims, I could match him as long as he pleased.
He did not keep up the intellectual level of the discussion.
'Dodseds!' he snapped, with the irritation of a man whose proverb
has been capped by another. I had seldom heard him speak so sharply.
White's revelation had evidently impressed him. He had all the ordinary
peaceful man's reverence for the professional detective.
'White will accompany you, Bister Burds,' he said doggedly.
'Very well,' I said.
After all, it might be that I should get an opportunity of giving
him the slip. London is a large city.
A few minutes later the cab arrived, and White and I set forth on
We did not talk much in the cab. I was too busy with my thoughts to
volunteer remarks, and White, apparently, had meditations of his own to
It was when we had settled ourselves in an empty compartment and the
train had started that he found speech. I had provided myself with a
book as a barrier against conversation, and began at once to make a
pretence of reading, but he broke through my defences.
'Interesting book, Mr Burns?'
'Very,' I said.
'Life's more interesting than books.'
I made no comment on this profound observation. He was not
'Mr Burns,' he said, after the silence had lasted a few moments.
'Let's talk for a spell. These train-journeys are pretty slow.'
Again I seemed to detect that curious undercurrent of meaning in his
voice which I had noticed in the course of our brief exchange of
remarks in the hall. I glanced up and met his eye. He was looking at me
in a way that struck me as curious. There was something in those bright
brown eyes of his which had the effect of making me vaguely uneasy.
Something seemed to tell me that he had a definite motive in forcing
his conversation on me.
'I guess I can interest you a heap more than that book, even if it's
the darndest best seller that was ever hatched.'
He lit a cigarette.
'You didn't want me around on this trip, did you?'
'It seemed rather unnecessary for both of us to go,' I said
indifferently. 'Still, perhaps two heads are better than one, as Mr
Abney remarked. What do you propose to do when you get to London?'
He bent forward and tapped me on the knee.
'I propose to stick to you like a label on a bottle, sonny,' he
said. 'That's what I propose to do.'
'What do you mean?'
I was finding it difficult, such is the effect of a guilty
conscience, to meet his eye, and the fact irritated me.
'I want to find out that address you gave the Ford kid this morning
out in the stable-yard.'
It is strange how really literal figurative expressions are. I had
read stories in which some astonished character's heart leaped into his
mouth. For an instant I could have supposed that mine had actually done
so. The illusion of some solid object blocking up my throat was
extraordinarily vivid, and there certainly seemed to be a vacuum in the
spot where my heart should have been. Not for a substantial reward
could I have uttered a word at that moment. I could not even breathe.
The horrible unexpectedness of the blow had paralysed me.
White, however, was apparently prepared to continue the chat without
'I guess you didn't know I was around, or you wouldn't have talked
that way. Well, I was, and I heard every word you said. Here was the
money, you said, and he was to take it and break for London, and go to
the address on this card, and your pal Smith would look after him. I
guess there had been some talk before that, but I didn't arrive in time
to hear it. But I heard all I wanted, except that address. And that's
what I'm going to find out when we get to London.'
He gave out this appalling information in a rich and soothing voice,
as if it were some ordinary commonplace. To me it seemed to end
everything. I imagined I was already as good as under arrest. What a
fool I had been to discuss such a matter in a place like a stable yard,
however apparently empty. I might have known that at a school there are
no empty places.
'I must say it jarred me when I heard you pulling that stuff,'
continued White. 'I haven't what you might call a childlike faith in my
fellow-man as a rule, but it had never occurred to me for a moment that
you could be playing that game. It only shows,' he added
philosophically, 'that you've got to suspect everybody when it comes to
a gilt-edged proposition like the Little Nugget.'
The train rattled on. I tried to reduce my mind to working order, to
formulate some plan, but could not.
Beyond the realization that I was in the tightest corner of my life,
I seemed to have lost the power of thought.
White resumed his monologue.
'You had me guessing,' he admitted. 'I couldn't figure you out.
First thing, of course, I thought you must be working in with Buck
MacGinnis and his crowd. Then all that happened tonight, and I saw
that, whoever you might be working in with, it wasn't Buck. And now
I've placed you. You're not in with any one. You're just playing it by
yourself. I shouldn't mind betting this was your first job, and that
you saw your chance of making a pile by holding up old man Ford, and
thought it was better than schoolmastering, and grabbed it.'
He leaned forward and tapped me on the knee again. There was
something indescribably irritating in the action. As one who has had
experience, I can state that, while to be arrested at all is bad, to be
arrested by a detective with a fatherly manner is maddening.
'See here,' he said, 'we must get together over this business.'
I suppose it was the recollection of the same words in the mouth of
Buck MacGinnis that made me sit up with a jerk and stare at him.
'We'll make a great team,' he said, still in that same cosy voice.
'If ever there was a case of fifty-fifty, this is it. You've got the
kid, and I've got you. I can't get away with him without your help, and
you can't get away with him unless you square me. It's a stand-off. The
only thing is to sit in at the game together and share out. Does it
He beamed kindly on my bewilderment during the space of time it
takes to select a cigarette and light a match. Then, blowing a
contented puff of smoke, he crossed his legs and leaned back.
'When I told you I was a Pinkerton's man, sonny,' he said, 'I missed
the cold truth by about a mile. But you caught me shooting off guns in
the grounds, and it was up to me to say something.'
He blew a smoke-ring and watched it dreamily till it melted in the
draught from the ventilator.
'I'm Smooth Sam Fisher,' he said.
When two emotions clash, the weaker goes to the wall. Any surprise I
might have felt was swallowed up in my relief. If I had been at liberty
to be astonished, my companion's information would no doubt have
astonished me. But I was not. I was so relieved that he was not a
Pinkerton's man that I did not really care what else he might be.
'It's always been a habit of mine, in these little matters,' he went
on, 'to let other folks do the rough work, and chip in myself when
they've cleared the way. It saves trouble and expense. I don't travel
with a gang, like that bone-headed Buck. What's the use of a gang? They
only get tumbling over each other and spoiling everything. Look at
Buck! Where is he? Down and out. While I—'
He smiled complacently. His manner annoyed me. I objected to being
looked upon as a humble cat's paw by this bland scoundrel.
'While you—what?' I said.
He looked at me in mild surprise.
'Why, I come in with you, sonny, and take my share like a
'Well, don't I?'
He looked at me in the half-reproachful half-affectionate manner of
the kind old uncle who reasons with a headstrong nephew.
'Young man,' he said, 'you surely aren't thinking you can put one
over on me in this business? Tell me, you don't take me for that sort
of ivory-skulled boob? Do you imagine for one instant, sonny, that I'm
not next to every move in this game? Are you deluding yourself with the
idea that this thing isn't a perfect cinch for me? Let's hear what's
troubling you. You seem to have gotten some foolish ideas in your head.
Let's talk it over quietly.'
'If you have no objection,' I said, 'no. I don't want to talk to
you, Mr Fisher. I don't like you, and I don't like your way of earning
your living. Buck MacGinnis was bad enough, but at least he was a
straightforward tough. There's no excuse for you.'
'Surely we are unusually righteous this p.m., are we not?' said Sam
I did not answer.
'Is this not mere professional jealousy?'
This was too much for me.
'Do you imagine for a moment that I'm doing this for money?'
'I did have that impression. Was I wrong? Do you kidnap the sons of
millionaires for your health?'
'I promised that I would get this boy back to his mother. That is
why I gave him the money to go to London. And that is why my valet was
to have taken him to—to where Mrs Ford is.'
He did not reply in words, but if ever eyebrows spoke, his said, 'My
dear sir, really!' I could not remain silent under their patent
'That's the simple truth,' I said.
He shrugged his shoulders, as who would say, 'Have it your own way.
Let us change the subject.'
'You say “was to have taken”. Have you changed your plans?'
'Yes, I'm going to take the boy back to the school.'
He laughed—a rich, rolling laugh. His double chin shook
'It won't do,' he said, shaking his head with humorous reproach. 'It
'You don't believe me?'
'Frankly, I do not.'
'Very well,' I said, and began to read my book.
'If you want to give me the slip,' he chuckled, 'you must do better
than that. I can see you bringing the Nugget back to the school.'
'You will, if you wait,' I said.
'I wonder what that address was that you gave him,' he mused. 'Well,
I shall soon know.'
He lapsed into silence. The train rolled on. I looked at my watch.
London was not far off now.
'The present arrangement of equal division,' said Sam, breaking a
long silence, 'holds good, of course, only in the event of your
quitting this fool game and doing the square thing by me. Let me put it
plainly. We are either partners or competitors. It is for you to
decide. If you will be sensible and tell me that address, I will pledge
'Your word!' I said scornfully.
'Honour among thieves!' replied Sam, with unruffled geniality. 'I
wouldn't double-cross you for worlds. If, however, you think you can
manage without my assistance, it will then be my melancholy duty to
beat you to the kid, and collect him and the money entirely on my own
account. Am I to take it,' he said, as I was silent, 'that you prefer
war to an alliance?'
I turned a page of my book and went on reading.
'If Youth but knew!' he sighed. 'Young man, I am nearly twice your
age, and I have, at a modest estimate, about ten times as much sense.
Yet, in your overweening self-confidence, with your ungovernable gall,
you fancy you can hand me a lemon. Me! I should smile!'
'Do,' I said. 'Do, while you can.'
He shook his head reprovingly.
'You will not be so fresh, sonny, in a few hours. You will be biting
pieces out of yourself, I fear. And later on, when my automobile
splashes you with mud in Piccadilly, you will taste the full bitterness
of remorse. Well, Youth must buy its experience, I suppose!'
I looked across at him as he sat, plump and rosy and complacent,
puffing at his cigarette, and my heart warmed to the old ruffian. It
was impossible to maintain an attitude of righteous iciness with him. I
might loathe his mode of life, and hate him as a representative—and a
leading representative—of one of the most contemptible trades on
earth, but there was a sunny charm about the man himself which made it
hard to feel hostile to him as an individual.
I closed my book with a bang and burst out laughing.
'You're a wonder!' I said.
He beamed at what he took to be evidence that I was coming round to
the friendly and sensible view of the matter.
'Then you think, on consideration—' he said. 'Excellent! Now, my
dear young man, all joking aside, you will take me with you to that
address, will you not? You observe that I do not ask you to give it to
me. Let there be not so much as the faintest odour of the double-cross
about this business. All I ask is that you allow me to accompany you to
where the Nugget is hidden, and then rely on my wider experience of
this sort of game to get him safely away and open negotiations with the
'I suppose your experience has been wide?' I said.
'Quite tolerably—quite tolerably.'
'Doesn't it ever worry you the anxiety and misery you cause?'
'Purely temporary, both. And then, look at it in another way. Think
of the joy and relief of the bereaved parents when sonny comes toddling
home again! Surely it is worth some temporary distress to taste that
supreme happiness? In a sense, you might call me a human benefactor. I
teach parents to appreciate their children. You know what parents are.
Father gets caught short in steel rails one morning. When he reaches
home, what does he do? He eases his mind by snapping at little Willie.
Mrs Van First-Family forgets to invite mother to her freak-dinner. What
happens? Mother takes it out of William. They love him, maybe, but they
are too used to him. They do not realize all he is to them. And then,
one afternoon, he disappears. The agony! The remorse! “How could I ever
have told our lost angel to stop his darned noise!” moans father. “I
struck him!” sobs mother. “With this jewelled hand I spanked our
vanished darling!” “We were not worthy to have him,” they wail
together. “But oh, if we could but get him back!” Well they do. They
get him back as soon as ever they care to come across in unmarked
hundred-dollar bills. And after that they think twice before working
off their grouches on the poor kid. So I bring universal happiness into
the home. I don't say father doesn't get a twinge every now and then
when he catches sight of the hole in his bank balance, but, darn it,
what's money for if it's not to spend?'
He snorted with altruistic fervour.
'What makes you so set on kidnapping Ogden Ford?' I asked. 'I know
he is valuable, but you must have made your pile by this time. I gather
that you have been practising your particular brand of philanthropy for
a good many years. Why don't you retire?'
'It is the dream of my life to retire, young man. You may not
believe me, but my instincts are thoroughly domestic. When I have the
leisure to weave day-dreams, they centre around a cosy little home with
a nice porch and stationary washtubs.'
He regarded me closely, as if to decide whether I was worthy of
these confidences. There was something wistful in his brown eyes. I
suppose the inspection must have been favourable, or he was in a mood
when a man must unbosom himself to someone, for he proceeded to open
his heart to me. A man in his particular line of business, I imagine,
finds few confidants, and the strain probably becomes intolerable at
'Have you ever experienced the love of a good woman, sonny? It's a
wonderful thing.' He brooded sentimentally for a moment, then
continued, and—to my mind—somewhat spoiled the impressiveness of his
opening words. 'The love of a good woman,' he said, 'is about the
darnedest wonderful lay-out that ever came down the pike. I know. I've
A spark from his cigarette fell on his hand. He swore a startled
'We came from the same old town,' he resumed, having recovered from
this interlude. 'Used to be kids at the same school ... Walked to
school together ... me carrying her luncheon-basket and helping her
over the fences ... Ah! ... Just the same when we grew up. Still pals.
And that was twenty years ago ... The arrangement was that I should go
out and make the money to buy the home, and then come back and marry
'Then why the devil haven't you done it?' I said severely.
He shook his head.
'If you know anything about crooks, young man,' he said, 'you'll
know that outside of their own line they are the easiest marks that
ever happened. They fall for anything. At least, it's always been that
way with me. No sooner did I get together a sort of pile and start out
for the old town, when some smooth stranger would come along and steer
me up against some skin-game, and back I'd have to go to work. That
happened a few times, and when I did manage at last to get home with
the dough I found she had married another guy. It's hard on women, you
see,' he explained chivalrously. 'They get lonesome and Roving Rupert
doesn't show up, so they have to marry Stay-at-Home Henry just to keep
from getting the horrors.'
'So she's Mrs Stay-at-Home Henry now?' I said sympathetically.
'She was till a year ago. She's a widow now. Deceased had a
misunderstanding with a hydrophobia skunk, so I'm informed. I believe
he was a good man. Outside of licking him at school I didn't know him
well. I saw her just before I left to come here. She's as fond of me as
ever. It's all settled, if only I can connect with the mazuma. And she
don't want much, either. Just enough to keep the home together.'
'I wish you happiness,' I said.
'You can do better than that. You can take me with you to that
I avoided the subject.
'What does she say to your way of making money?' I asked.
'She doesn't know, and she ain't going to know. I don't see why a
man has got to tell his wife every little thing in his past. She thinks
I'm a drummer, travelling in England for a dry-goods firm. She wouldn't
stand for the other thing, not for a minute. She's very particular.
Always was. That's why I'm going to quit after I've won out over this
thing of the Little Nugget.' He looked at me hopefully. 'So you will
take me along, sonny, won't you?'
I shook my head.
'I'm sorry to spoil a romance, but I can't. You must look around for
some other home into which to bring happiness. The Fords' is barred.'
'You are very obstinate, young man,' he said, sadly, but without any
apparent ill-feeling. 'I can't persuade you?'
'Ah, well! So we are to be rivals, not allies. You will regret this,
sonny. I may say you will regret it very bitterly. When you see me in
'You mentioned your automobile before.'
'Ah! So I did.'
The train had stopped, as trains always do on English railways
before entering a terminus. Presently it began to move forward
hesitatingly, as if saying to itself, 'Now, am I really wanted here?
Shall I be welcome?' Eventually, after a second halt, it glided slowly
alongside the platform.
I sprang out and ran to the cab-rank. I was aboard a taxi, bowling
out of the station before the train had stopped.
Peeping out of the window at the back, I was unable to see Sam. My
adroit move, I took it, had baffled him. I had left him standing.
It was a quarter of an hour's drive to my rooms, but to me, in my
anxiety, it seemed more. This was going to be a close thing, and
success or failure a matter of minutes. If he followed my instructions
Smith would be starting for the Continental boat-train tonight with his
companion; and, working out the distances, I saw that, by the time I
could arrive, he might already have left my rooms. Sam's supervision at
Sanstead Station had made it impossible for me to send a telegram. I
had had to trust to chance. Fortunately my train, by a miracle, had
been up to time, and at my present rate of progress I ought to catch
Smith a few minutes before he left the building.
The cab pulled up. I ran up the stairs and opened the door of my
'Smith!' I called.
A chair scraped along the floor and a door opened at the end of the
passage. Smith came out.
'Thank goodness you have not started. I thought I should miss you.
Where is the boy?'
'The boy, sir?'
'The boy I wrote to you about.'
'He has not arrived, sir.'
I stared at him blankly.
'How long have you been here?'
'All day, sir.'
'You have not been out?'
'Not since the hour of two, sir.'
'I can't understand it,' I said.
'Perhaps the young gentleman changed his mind and never started,
'I know he started.'
Smith had no further suggestion to offer.
'Pending the young gentleman's arrival, sir, I remain in London?'
A fruity voice spoke at the door behind me.
'What! Hasn't he arrived?'
I turned. There, beaming and benevolent, stood Mr Fisher.
'It occurred to me to look your name out in the telephone
directory,' he explained. 'I might have thought of that before.'
'Come in here,' I said, opening the door of the sitting-room. I did
not want to discuss the thing with him before Smith.
He looked about the room admiringly.
'So these are your quarters,' he said. 'You do yourself pretty well,
young man. So I understand that the Nugget has gone wrong in transit.
He has altered his plans on the way?'
'I can't understand it.'
'I can! You gave him a certain amount of money?'
'Yes. Enough to get him to—where he was going.'
'Then, knowing the boy, I should say that he has found other uses
for it. He's whooping it up in London, and, I should fancy, having the
time of his young life.'
He got up.
'This of course,' he said, 'alters considerably any understanding we
may have come to, sonny. All idea of a partnership is now out of the
question. I wish you well, but I have no further use for you. Somewhere
in this great city the Little Nugget is hiding, and I mean to find
him—entirely on my own account. This is where our paths divide, Mr
Burns. Good night.'
When Sam had left, which he did rather in the manner of a heavy
father in melodrama, shaking the dust of an erring son's threshold off
his feet, I mixed myself a high-ball, and sat down to consider the
position of affairs. It did not take me long to see that the infernal
boy had double-crossed me with a smooth effectiveness which Mr Fisher
himself might have envied. Somewhere in this great city, as Sam had
observed, he was hiding. But where? London is a vague address.
I wondered what steps Sam was taking. Was there some underground
secret service bureau to which persons of his profession had access? I
doubted it. I imagined that he, as I proposed to do, was drawing the
city at a venture in the hope of flushing the quarry by accident. Yet
such was the impression he had made upon me as a man of resource and
sagacity, that I did not relish the idea of his getting a start on me,
even in a venture so uncertain as this. My imagination began to picture
him miraculously inspired in the search, and such was the vividness of
the vision that I jumped up from my chair, resolved to get on the trail
at once. It was hopelessly late, however, and I did not anticipate that
I should meet with any success.
Nor did I. For two hours and a half I tramped the streets, my
spirits sinking more and more under the influence of failure and a
blend of snow and sleet which had begun to fall; and then, tired out, I
went back to my rooms, and climbed sorrowfully into bed.
It was odd to wake up and realize that I was in London. Years seemed
to have passed since I had left it. Time is a thing of emotions, not of
hours and minutes, and I had certainly packed a considerable number of
emotional moments into my stay at Sanstead House. I lay in bed,
reviewing the past, while Smith, with a cheerful clatter of crockery,
prepared my breakfast in the next room.
A curious lethargy had succeeded the feverish energy of the previous
night. More than ever the impossibility of finding the needle in this
human bundle of hay oppressed me. No one is optimistic before
breakfast, and I regarded the future with dull resignation, turning my
thoughts from it after a while to the past. But the past meant Audrey,
and to think of Audrey hurt.
It seemed curious to me that in a life of thirty years I should have
been able to find, among the hundreds of women I had met, only one
capable of creating in me that disquieting welter of emotions which is
called love, and hard that that one should reciprocate my feeling only
to the extent of the mild liking which Audrey entertained for me.
I tried to analyse her qualifications for the place she held in my
heart. I had known women who had attracted me more physically, and
women who had attracted me more mentally. I had known wiser women,
handsomer women, more amiable women, but none of them had affected me
like Audrey. The problem was inexplicable. Any idea that we might be
affinities, soul-mates destined for each other from the beginning of
time, was disposed of by the fact that my attraction for her was
apparently in inverse ratio to hers for me. For possibly the millionth
time in the past five years I tried to picture in my mind the man
Sheridan, that shadowy wooer to whom she had yielded so readily. What
quality had he possessed that I did not? Wherein lay the magnetism that
had brought about his triumph?
These were unprofitable speculations. I laid them aside until the
next occasion when I should feel disposed for self-torture, and got out
of bed. A bath and breakfast braced me up, and I left the house in a
reasonably cheerful frame of mind.
To search at random for an individual unit among London's millions
lends an undeniable attraction to a day in town. In a desultory way I
pursued my investigations through the morning and afternoon, but
neither of Ogden nor of his young friend Lord Beckford was I vouchsafed
a glimpse. My consolation was that Smooth Sam was probably being
Towards the evening there arose the question of return to Sanstead.
I had not gathered whether Mr Abney had intended to set any time-limit
on my wanderings, or whether I was not supposed to come back except
with the deserters. I decided that I had better remain in London, at
any rate for another night, and went to the nearest post office to send
Mr Abney a telegram to that effect.
As I was writing it, the problem which had baffled me for
twenty-four hours, solved itself in under a minute. Whether my powers
of inductive reasoning had been under a cloud since I left Sanstead, or
whether they were normally beneath contempt, I do not know. But the
fact remains, that I had completely overlooked the obvious solution of
my difficulty. I think I must have been thinking so exclusively of the
Little Nugget that I had entirely forgotten the existence of Augustus
Beckford. It occurred to me now that, by making inquiries at the
latter's house, I should learn something to my advantage. A boy of the
Augustus type does not run away from school without a reason. Probably
some party was taking place tonight at the ancestral home, at which,
tempted by the lawless Nugget, he had decided that his presence was
I knew the house well. There had been a time, when Lord Mountry and
I were at Oxford, when I had spent frequent week-ends there. Since
then, owing to being abroad, I had seen little of the family. Now was
the moment to reintroduce myself. I hailed a cab.
Inductive reasoning had not played me false. There was a red carpet
outside the house, and from within came the sounds of music.
Lady Wroxham, the mother of Mountry and the vanishing Augustus, was
one of those women who take things as they come. She did not seem
surprised at seeing me.
'How nice of you to come and see us,' she said. 'Somebody told me
you were abroad. Ted is in the south of France in the yacht. Augustus
is here. Mr Abney, his schoolmaster, let him come up for the night.'
I perceived that Augustus had been playing a bold game. I saw the
coaching of Ogden behind these dashing falsehoods.
'You will hardly remember Sybil. She was quite a baby when you were
here last. She is having her birthday-party this evening.'
'May I go in and help?' I said.
'I wish you would. They would love it.'
I doubted it, but went in. A dance had just finished. Strolling
towards me in his tightest Eton suit, his face shining with honest joy,
was the errant Augustus, and close behind him, wearing the blase' air
of one for whom custom has staled the pleasures of life, was the Little
I think they both saw me at the same moment. The effect of my
appearance on them was illustrative of their respective characters.
Augustus turned a deep shade of purple and fixed me with a horrified
stare. The Nugget winked. Augustus halted and shuffled his feet. The
Nugget strolled up and accosted me like an old friend.
'Hello!' he said. 'How did you get here? Say, I was going to try and
get you on the phone some old time and explain things. I've been pretty
much on the jump since I hit London.'
'You little brute!'
My gleaming eye, travelling past him, met that of the Hon. Augustus
Beckford, causing that youth to jump guiltily. The Nugget looked over
'I guess we don't want him around if we're to talk business,' he
said. 'I'll go and tell him to beat it.'
'You'll do nothing of the kind. I don't propose to lose sight of
either of you.'
'Oh, he's all right. You don't have to worry about him. He was going
back to the school anyway tomorrow. He only ran away to go to this
party. Why not let him enjoy himself while he's here? I'll go and make
a date for you to meet at the end of the show.'
He approached his friend, and a short colloquy ensued, which ended
in the latter shuffling off in the direction of the other revellers.
Such is the buoyancy of youth that a moment later he was dancing a
two-step with every appearance of careless enjoyment. The future, with
its storms, seemed to have slipped from his mind.
'That's all right,' said the Nugget, returning to me. 'He's promised
he won't duck away. You'll find him somewhere around whenever you care
to look for him. Now we can talk.'
'I hardly like to trespass on your valuable time,' I said. The airy
way in which this demon boy handled what should have been—to him—an
embarrassing situation irritated me. For all the authority I seemed to
have over him I might have been the potted palm against which he was
'That's all right.' Everything appeared to be all right with him.
'This sort of thing does not appeal to me. Don't be afraid of spoiling
my evening. I only came because Becky was so set on it. Dancing bores
me pallid, so let's get somewhere where we can sit down and talk.'
I was beginning to feel that a children's party was the right place
for me. Sam Fisher had treated me as a child, and so did the Little
Nugget. That I was a responsible person, well on in my thirty-first
year, with a narrow escape from death and a hopeless love-affair on my
record, seemed to strike neither of them. I followed my companion to a
secluded recess with the utmost meekness.
He leaned back and crossed his legs.
'Got a cigarette?'
'I have not got a cigarette, and, if I had, I wouldn't give it to
He regarded me tolerantly.
'Got a grouch tonight, haven't you? You seem all flittered up about
something. What's the trouble? Sore about my not showing up at your
apartment? I'll explain that all right.'
'I shall be glad to listen.'
'It's like this. It suddenly occurred to me that a day or two one
way or the other wasn't going to affect our deal and that, while I was
about it, I might just as well see a bit of London before I left. I
suggested it to Becky, and the idea made the biggest kind of a hit with
him. I found he had only been in an automobile once in his life. Can
you beat it? I've had one of my own ever since I was a kid. Well,
naturally, it was up to me to blow him to a joy-ride, and that's where
the money went.'
'Where the money went?'
'Sure. I've got two dollars left, and that's all. It wasn't
altogether the automobiling. It was the meals that got away with my
roll. Say, that kid Beckford is one swell feeder. He's wrapping himself
around the eats all the time. I guess it's not smoking that does it. I
haven't the appetite I used to have. Well, that's how it was, you see.
But I'm through now. Cough up the fare and I'll make the trip tomorrow.
Mother'll be tickled to death to see me.'
'She won't see you. We're going back to the school tomorrow.'
He looked at me incredulously.
'What's that? Going back to school?'
'I've altered my plans.'
'I'm not going back to any old school. You daren't take me. Where'll
you be if I tell the hot-air merchant about our deal and you slipping
me the money and all that?'
'Tell him what you like. He won't believe it.'
He thought this over, and its truth came home to him. The complacent
expression left his face.
'What's the matter with you? Are you dippy, or what? You get me away
up to London, and the first thing that happens when I'm here is that
you want to take me back. You make me tired.'
It was borne in upon me that there was something in his point of
view. My sudden change of mind must have seemed inexplicable to him.
And, having by a miracle succeeded in finding him, I was in a mood to
be generous. I unbent.
'Ogden, old sport,' I said cordially, T think we've both had all we
want of this children's party. You're bored and if I stop on another
half hour I may be called on to entertain these infants with comic
songs. We men of the world are above this sort of thing. Get your hat
and coat and I'll take you to a show. We can discuss business later
over a bit of supper.'
The gloom of his countenance melted into a pleased smile.
'You said something that time!' he observed joyfully; and we slunk
away to get our hats, the best of friends. A note for Augustus
Beckford, requesting his presence at Waterloo Station at ten minutes
past twelve on the following morning, I left with the butler. There was
a certain informality about my methods which I doubt if Mr Abney would
have approved, but I felt that I could rely on Augustus.
Much may be done by kindness. By the time the curtain fell on the
musical comedy which we had attended all was peace between the Nugget
and myself. Supper cemented our friendship, and we drove back to my
rooms on excellent terms with one another. Half an hour later he was
snoring in the spare room, while I smoked contentedly before the fire
in the sitting-room.
I had not been there five minutes when the bell rang. Smith was in
bed, so I went to the door myself and found Mr Fisher on the mat.
My feeling of benevolence towards all created things, the result of
my successful handling of the Little Nugget, embraced Sam. I invited
'Well,' I said, when I had given him a cigar and filled his glass,
'and how have you been getting on, Mr Fisher? Any luck?'
He shook his head at me reproachfully.
'Young man, you're deep. I've got to hand it to you. I
underestimated you. You're very deep.'
'Approbation from Smooth Sam Fisher is praise indeed. But why these
'You took me in, young man. I don't mind owning it. When you told me
the Nugget had gone astray, I lapped it up like a babe. And all the
time you were putting one over on me. Well, well!'
'But he had gone astray, Mr Fisher.'
He knocked the ash off his cigar. He wore a pained look.
'You needn't keep it up, sonny. I happened to be standing within
three yards of you when you got into a cab with him in Shaftesbury
'Well, if that's the case, let there be no secrets between us. He's
asleep in the next room.'
Sam leaned forward earnestly and tapped me on the knee.
'Young man, this is a critical moment. This is where, if you aren't
careful, you may undo all the good work you have done by getting chesty
and thinking that, because you've won out so far, you're the whole
show. Believe me, the difficult part is to come, and it's right here
that you need an experienced man to work in with you. Let me in on this
and leave the negotiations with old man Ford to me. You would only make
a mess of them. I've handled this kind of thing a dozen times, and I
know just how to act. You won't regret taking me on as a partner. You
won't lose a cent by it. I can work him for just double what you would
get, even supposing you didn't make a mess of the deal and get
'It's very good of you, but there won't be any negotiations with Mr
Ford. I am taking the boy back to Sanstead, as I told you.' I caught
his pained eye. 'I'm afraid you don't believe me.'
He drew at his cigar without replying.
It is a human weakness to wish to convince those who doubt us, even
if their opinion is not intrinsically valuable. I remembered that I had
Cynthia's letter in my pocket. I produced it as exhibit A in my
evidence and read it to him.
Sam listened carefully.
'I see,' he said. 'Who wrote that?'
'Never mind. A friend of mine.'
I returned the letter to my pocket.
'I was going to have sent him over to Monaco, but I altered my
plans. Something interfered.'
'I might call it coincidence, if you know what that means.'
'And you are really going to take him back to the school?'
'We shall travel back together,' he said. 'I had hoped I had seen
the last of the place. The English countryside may be delightful in the
summer, but for winter give me London. However,' he sighed resignedly,
and rose from his chair, 'I will say good-bye till tomorrow. What train
do you catch?'
'Do you mean to say,' I demanded, 'that you have the nerve to come
back to Sanstead after what you have told me about yourself?'
'You entertain some idea of exposing me to Mr Abney? Forget it,
young man. We are both in glass houses. Don't let us throw stones.
Besides, would he believe it? What proof have you?'
I had thought this argument tolerably sound when I had used it on
the Nugget. Now that it was used on myself I realized its soundness
even more thoroughly. My hands were tied.
'Yes,' said Sam, 'tomorrow, after our little jaunt to London, we
shall all resume the quiet, rural life once more.'
He beamed expansively upon me from the doorway.
'However, even the quiet, rural life has its interest. I guess we
shan't be dull!' he said.
I believed him.
Considering the various handicaps under which he laboured notably a
cold in the head, a fear of the Little Nugget, and a reverence for the
aristocracy—Mr Abney's handling of the situation, when the runaways
returned to school, bordered on the masterly. Any sort of physical
punishment being out of the question—especially in the case of the
Nugget, who would certainly have retaliated with a bout of
window-breaking—he had to fall back on oratory, and he did this to
such effect that, when he had finished, Augustus wept openly and was so
subdued that he did not ask a single question for nearly three days.
One result of the adventure was that Ogden's bed was moved to a sort
of cubby-hole adjoining my room. In the house, as originally planned,
this had evidently been a dressing-room. Under Mr Abney's rule it had
come to be used as a general repository for lumber. My boxes were
there, and a portmanteau of Glossop's. It was an excellent place in
which to bestow a boy in quest of whom kidnappers might break in by
night. The window was too small to allow a man to pass through, and the
only means of entrance was by way of my room. By night, at any rate,
the Nugget's safety seemed to be assured.
The curiosity of the small boy, fortunately, is not lasting. His
active mind lives mainly in the present. It was not many days,
therefore, before the excitement caused by Buck's raid and the Nugget's
disappearance began to subside. Within a week both episodes had been
shelved as subjects of conversation, and the school had settled down to
its normal humdrum life.
To me, however, there had come a period of mental unrest more acute
than I had ever experienced. My life, for the past five years, had run
in so smooth a stream that, now that I found myself tossed about in the
rapids, I was bewildered. It was a peculiar aggravation of the
difficulty of my position that in my world, the little world of
Sanstead House, there should be but one woman, and she the very one
whom, if I wished to recover my peace of mind, it was necessary for me
My feelings towards Cynthia at this time defied my powers of
analysis. There were moments when I clung to the memory of her, when
she seemed the only thing solid and safe in a world of chaos, and
moments, again, when she was a burden crushing me. There were days when
I would give up the struggle and let myself drift, and days when I
would fight myself inch by inch. But every day found my position more
hopeless than the last.
At night sometimes, as I lay awake, I would tell myself that if only
I could see her or even hear from her the struggle would be easier. It
was her total disappearance from my life that made it so hard for me. I
had nothing to help me to fight.
And then, one morning, as if in answer to my thoughts her letter
The letter startled me. It was as if there had been some telepathic
communion between us.
It was very short, almost formal:
'MY DEAR PETER—I want to ask you a question. I can put it quite
shortly. It is this. Are your feelings towards me still the same? I
don't tell you why I ask this. I simply ask it. Whatever your answer
is, it cannot affect our friendship, so be quite candid. CYNTHIA.'
I sat down there and then to write my reply. The letter, coming when
it did and saying what it said, had affected me profoundly. It was like
an unexpected reinforcement in a losing battle. It filled me with a
glow of self-confidence. I felt strong again, able to fight and win. My
mood bore me away, and I poured out my whole heart to her. I told her
that my feelings had not altered, that I loved her and nobody but her.
It was a letter, I can see, looking back, born of fretted nerves; but
at the time I had no such criticism to make. It seemed to me a true
expression of my real feelings.
That the fight was not over because in my moment of exaltation I had
imagined that I had conquered myself was made uncomfortably plain to me
by the thrill that ran through me when, returning from posting my
letter, I met Audrey. The sight of her reminded me that a reinforcement
is only a reinforcement, a help towards victory, not victory itself.
For the first time I found myself feeling resentful towards her.
There was no reason in my resentment. It would not have borne
examination. But it was there, and its presence gave me support. I
found myself combating the thrill the sight of her had caused, and
looking at her with a critical and hostile eye. Who was she that she
should enslave a man against his will? Fascination exists only in the
imagination of the fascinated. If he have the strength to deny the
fascination and convince himself that it does not exist, he is saved.
It is purely a matter of willpower and calm reasonableness. There must
have been sturdy, level-headed Egyptian citizens who could not
understand what people saw to admire in Cleopatra.
Thus reasoning, I raised my hat, uttered a crisp 'Good morning', and
passed on, the very picture of the brisk man of affairs.
Even the brisk man of affairs must stop when spoken to. Otherwise,
apart from any question of politeness, it looks as if he were running
Her face was still wearing the faint look of surprise which my
manner had called forth.
'You're in a great hurry.'
I had no answer. She did not appear to expect one.
We moved towards the house in silence, to me oppressive silence. The
force of her personality was beginning to beat against my defences,
concerning the stability of which, under pressure, a certain uneasiness
troubled my mind.
'Are you worried about anything, Peter?' she said at last.
'No,' I said. 'Why?'
'I was afraid you might be.'
I felt angry with myself. I was mismanaging this thing in the most
idiotic way. Instead of this bovine silence, gay small-talk, the easy
eloquence, in fact, of the brisk man of affairs should have been my
policy. No wonder Smooth Sam Fisher treated me as a child. My whole
bearing was that of a sulky school-boy.
The silence became more oppressive.
We reached the house. In the hall we parted, she to upper regions, I
to my classroom. She did not look at me. Her face was cold and
One is curiously inconsistent. Having created what in the
circumstances was a most desirable coldness between Audrey and myself,
I ought to have been satisfied. Reason told me that this was the best
thing that could have happened. Yet joy was one of the few emotions
which I did not feel during the days which followed. My brief moment of
clear-headedness had passed, and with it the exhilaration that had
produced the letter to Cynthia and the resentment which had helped me
to reason calmly with myself on the intrinsic nature of fascination in
woman. Once more Audrey became the centre of my world. But our
friendship, that elusive thing which had contrived to exist side by
side with my love, had vanished. There was a breach between us which
widened daily. Soon we hardly spoke.
Nothing, in short, could have been more eminently satisfactory, and
the fact that I regretted it is only a proof of the essential weakness
of my character.
In those grey days there was one thought, of the many that occupied
my mind, which brought with it a certain measure of consolation. It was
the reflection that this state of affairs could not last for ever. The
school term was drawing to a close. Soon I should be free from the
propinquity which paralysed my efforts to fight. I was resolved that
the last day of term should end for ever my connection with Sanstead
House and all that was in it. Mrs Ford must find some other minion. If
her happiness depended on the recovery of the Little Nugget, she must
learn to do without happiness, like the rest of the inhabitants of this
Meanwhile, however, I held myself to be still on duty. By what
tortuous processes of thought I had arrived at the conclusion I do not
know, but I considered myself responsible to Audrey for the
safeguarding of the Little Nugget, and no altered relations between us
could affect my position. Perhaps mixed up with this attitude of mind,
was the less altruistic wish to foil Smooth Sam. His continued presence
at the school was a challenge to me.
Sam's behaviour puzzled me. I do not know exactly what I expected
him to do, but I certainly did not expect him to do nothing. Yet day
followed day, and still he made no move. He was the very model of a
butler. But our dealings with one another in London had left me
vigilant, and his inaction did not disarm me. It sprang from patience,
not from any weakening of purpose or despair of success. Sooner or
later I knew he would act, swiftly and suddenly, with a plan perfected
in every detail.
But when he made his attack it was the very simplicity of his
methods that tricked me, and only pure chance defeated him.
I have said that it was the custom of the staff of masters at
Sanstead House School—in other words, of every male adult in the house
except Mr Fisher himself—to assemble in Mr Abney's study after dinner
of an evening to drink coffee. It was a ceremony, like most of the
ceremonies at an establishment such as a school, where things are run
on a schedule, which knew of no variation. Sometimes Mr Abney would
leave us immediately after the ceremony, but he never omitted to take
his part in it first.
On this particular evening, for the first time since the beginning
of the term, I was seized with a prejudice against coffee. I had been
sleeping badly for several nights, and I decided that abstention from
coffee might remedy this.
I waited, for form's sake, till Glossop and Mr Abney had filled
their cups, then went to my room, where I lay down in the dark to
wrestle with a more than usually pronounced fit of depression which had
descended upon me. Solitude and darkness struck me as the suitable
setting for my thoughts.
At this moment Smooth Sam Fisher had no place in my meditations. My
mind was not occupied with him at all. When, therefore, the door, which
had been ajar, began to open slowly, I did not become instantly on the
alert. Perhaps it was some sound, barely audible, that aroused me from
my torpor and set my blood tingling with anticipation. Perhaps it was
the way the door was opening. An honest draught does not move a door
furtively, in jerks.
I sat up noiseless, tense, and alert. And then, very quietly,
somebody entered the room.
There was only one person in Sanstead House who would enter a room
like that. I was amused. The impudence of the thing tickled me. It
seemed so foreign to Mr Fisher's usual cautious methods. This strolling
in and helping oneself was certainly kidnapping de luxe. In the
small hours I could have understood it; but at nine o'clock at night,
with Glossop, Mr Abney and myself awake and liable to be met at any
moment on the stairs, it was absurd. I marvelled at Smooth Sam's
I lay still. I imagined that, being in, he would switch on the
electric light. He did, and I greeted him pleasantly.
'And what can I do for you, Mr Fisher?'
For a man who had learned to control himself in difficult situations
he took the shock badly. He uttered a startled exclamation and spun
I could not help admiring the quickness with which he recovered
himself. Almost immediately he was the suave, chatty Sam Fisher who had
unbosomed his theories and dreams to me in the train to London.
'I quit,' he said pleasantly. 'The episode is closed. I am a man of
peace, and I take it that you would not keep on lying quietly on that
bed while I went into the other room and abstracted our young friend?
Unless you have changed your mind again, would a fifty-fifty offer
'Not an inch.'
'Just so. I merely asked.'
'And how about Mr Abney, in any case? Suppose we met him on the
'We should not meet him on the stairs,' said Sam confidently. 'You
did not take coffee tonight, I gather?'
'I didn't—no. Why?'
He jerked his head resignedly.
'Can you beat it! I ask you, young man, could I have foreseen that,
after drinking coffee every night regularly for two months, you would
pass it up tonight of all nights? You certainly are my jinx, sonny. You
have hung the Indian sign on me all right.'
His words had brought light to me.
'Did you drug the coffee?'
'Did I! I fixed it so that one sip would have an insomnia patient in
dreamland before he had time to say “Good night”. That stuff Rip Van
Winkle drank had nothing on my coffee. And all wasted! Well, well!'
He turned towards the door.
'Shall I leave the light on, or would you prefer it off?'
'On please. I might fall asleep in the dark.'
'Not you! And, if you did, you would dream that I was there, and
wake up. There are moments, young man, when you bring me pretty near to
quitting and taking to honest work.'
'But not altogether. I have still a shot or two in my locker. We
shall see what we shall see. I am not dead yet. Wait!'
'I will, and some day, when I am walking along Piccadilly, a passing
automobile will splash me with mud. A heavily furred plutocrat will
stare haughtily at me from the tonneau, and with a start of surprise I
'Stranger things have happened. Be flip while you can, sonny. You
win so far, but this hoodoo of mine can't last for ever.'
He passed from the room with a certain sad dignity. A moment later
'A thought strikes me,' he said. 'The fifty-fifty proposition does
not impress you. Would it make things easier if I were to offer my
cooperation for a mere quarter of the profit?'
'Not in the least.'
'It's a handsome offer.'
'Wonderfully. I'm afraid I'm not dealing on any terms.'
He left the room, only to return once more. His head appeared,
staring at me round the door, in a disembodied way, like the Cheshire
'You won't say later on I didn't give you your chance?' he said
He vanished again, permanently this time. I heard his steps passing
down the stairs.
We had now arrived at the last week of term, at the last days of the
last week. The holiday spirit was abroad in the school. Among the boys
it took the form of increased disorderliness. Boys who had hitherto
only made Glossop bellow now made him perspire and tear his hair as
well. Boys who had merely spilt ink now broke windows. The Little
Nugget abandoned cigarettes in favour of an old clay pipe which he had
found in the stables.
As for me, I felt like a spent swimmer who sees the shore almost
within his reach. Audrey avoided me when she could, and was frigidly
polite when we met. But I suffered less now. A few more days, and I
should have done with this phase of my life for ever, and Audrey would
once more become a memory.
Complete quiescence marked the deportment of Mr Fisher during these
days. He did not attempt to repeat his last effort. The coffee came to
the study unmixed with alien drugs. Sam, like lightning, did not strike
twice in the same place. He had the artist's soul, and disliked
patching up bungled work. If he made another move, it would, I knew, be
on entirely fresh lines.
Ignoring the fact that I had had all the luck, I was inclined to be
self-satisfied when I thought of Sam. I had pitted my wits against his,
and I had won. It was a praiseworthy performance for a man who had done
hitherto nothing particular in his life.
If all the copybook maxims which had been drilled into me in my
childhood and my early disaster with Audrey had not been sufficient, I
ought to have been warned by Sam's advice not to take victory for
granted till the fight was over. As Sam had said, his luck would turn
sooner or later.
One realizes these truths in theory, but the practical application
of them seldom fails to come as a shock. I received mine on the last
morning but one of the term.
Shortly after breakfast a message was brought to me that Mr Abney
would like to see me in his study. I went without any sense of disaster
to come. Most of the business of the school was discussed in the study
after breakfast, and I imagined that the matter had to do with some
detail of the morrow's exodus.
I found Mr Abney pacing the room, a look of annoyance on his face.
At the desk, her back to me, Audrey was writing. It was part of her
work to take charge of the business correspondence of the
establishment. She did not look round when I came in, nor when Mr Abney
spoke my name, but went on writing as if I did not exist.
There was a touch of embarrassment in Mr Abney's manner, for which I
could not at first account. He was stately, but with the rather
defensive stateliness which marked his announcements that he was about
to pop up to London and leave me to do his work. He coughed once or
twice before proceeding to the business of the moment.
'Ah, Mr Burns,' he said at length, 'might I ask if your plans for
the holidays, the—ah—earlier part of the holidays are settled? No?
He produced a letter from the heap of papers on the desk.
'Ah—excellent. That simplifies matters considerably. I have no
right to ask what I am about to—ah—in fact ask. I have no claim on
your time in the holidays. But, in the circumstances, perhaps you may
see your way to doing me a considerable service. I have received a
letter from Mr Elmer Ford which puts me in a position of some
difficulty. It is not my wish—indeed, it is foreign to my policy—to
disoblige the parents of the boys who are entrusted to my—ah—care,
and I should like, if possible, to do what Mr Ford asks. It appears
that certain business matters call him to the north of England for a
few days, this rendering it impossible for him to receive little Ogden
tomorrow. It is not my custom to criticize parents who have paid me the
compliment of placing their sons at the most malleable and important
period of their lives, in my—ah—charge, but I must say that a little
longer notice would have been a—in fact, a convenience. But Mr Ford,
like so many of his countrymen, is what I believe is called a hustler.
He does it now, as the expression is. In short, he wishes to leave
little Ogden at the school for the first few days of the holidays, and
I should be extremely obliged, Mr Burns, if you should find it possible
to stay here and—ah—look after him.'
Audrey stopped writing and turned in her chair, the first intimation
she had given that she had heard Mr Abney's remarks.
'It really won't be necessary to trouble Mr Burns,' she said,
without looking at me. 'I can take care of Ogden very well by myself.'
'In the case of an—ah—ordinary boy, Mrs Sheridan, I should not
hesitate to leave you in sole charge as you have very kindly offered to
stay and help me in this matter. But we must recollect not only—I
speak frankly—not only the peculiar—ah—disposition of this
particular lad, but also the fact that those ruffians who visited the
house that night may possibly seize the opportunity to make a fresh
attack. I should not feel—ah—justified in thrusting so heavy a
responsibility upon you.'
There was reason in what he said. Audrey made no reply. I heard her
pen tapping on the desk and deduced her feelings. I, myself, felt like
a prisoner who, having filed through the bars of his cell, is removed
to another on the eve of escape. I had so braced myself up to endure
till the end of term and no longer that this postponement of the day of
release had a crushing effect.
Mr Abney coughed and lowered his voice confidentially.
'I would stay myself, but the fact is, I am called to London on very
urgent business, and shall be unable to return for a day or so. My late
pupil, the—ah—the Earl of Buxton, has been—I can rely on your
discretion, Mr Burns—has been in trouble with the authorities at Eton,
and his guardian, an old college friend of mine—the—in fact, the Duke
of Bessborough, who, rightly or wrongly, places—er—considerable
reliance on my advice, is anxious to consult me on the matter. I shall
return as soon as possible, but you will readily understand that, in
the circumstances, my time will not be my own. I must place myself
unreservedly at—ah—Bessborough's disposal.'
He pressed the bell.
'In the event of your observing any suspicious characters in the
neighbourhood, you have the telephone and can instantly communicate
with the police. And you will have the assistance of—'
The door opened and Smooth Sam Fisher entered.
'You rang, sir?'
'Ah! Come in, White, and close the door. I have something to say to
you. I have just been informing Mr Burns that Mr Ford has written
asking me to allow his son to stay on at the school for the first few
days of the vacation.'
He turned to Audrey.
'You will doubtless be surprised, Mrs Sheridan, and possibly—ah—
somewhat startled, to learn the peculiar nature of White's position at
Sanstead House. You have no objection to my informing Mrs Sheridan,
White, in consideration of the fact that you will be working together
in this matter? Just so. White is a detective in the employment of
Pinkerton's Agency. Mr Ford'—a slight frown appeared on his lofty
brow—'Mr Ford obtained his present situation for him in order that he
might protect his son in the event of—ah—in fact, any attempt to
I saw Audrey start. A quick flush came into her face. She uttered a
little exclamation of astonishment.
'Just so,' said Mr Abney, by way of comment on this. 'You are
naturally surprised. The whole arrangement is excessively unusual, and,
I may say—ah—disturbing. However, you have your duty to fulfil to
your employer, White, and you will, of course, remain here with the
I found myself looking into a bright brown eye that gleamed with
genial triumph. The other was closed. In the exuberance of the moment,
Smooth Sam had had the bad taste to wink at me.
'You will have Mr Burns to help you, White. He has kindly consented
to postpone his departure during the short period in which I shall be
compelled to be absent.'
I had no recollection of having given any kind consent, but I was
very willing to have it assumed, and I was glad to see that Mr Fisher,
though Mr Abney did not observe it, was visibly taken aback by this
piece of information. But he made one of his swift recoveries.
'It is very kind of Mr Burns,' he said in his fruitiest voice, 'but
I hardly think it will be necessary to put him to the inconvenience of
altering his plans. I am sure that Mr Ford would prefer the entire
charge of the affair to be in my hands.'
He had not chosen a happy moment for the introduction of the
millionaire's name. Mr Abney was a man of method, who hated any
dislocation of the fixed routine of life; and Mr Ford's letter had
upset him. The Ford family, father and son, were just then extremely
unpopular with him.
He crushed Sam.
'What Mr Ford would or would not prefer is, in this particular
matter, beside the point. The responsibility for the boy, while he
remains on the school premises, is—ah—mine, and I shall take such
precautions as seem fit and adequate to—him—myself, irrespective of
those which, in your opinion, might suggest themselves to Mr Ford. As I
cannot be here myself, owing to—ah—urgent business in London, I shall
certainly take advantage of Mr Burns's kind offer to remain as my
He paused and blew his nose, his invariable custom after these
occasional outbursts of his. Sam had not wilted beneath the storm. He
waited, unmoved, till all was over:
'I am afraid I shall have to be more explicit,' he said: 'I had
hoped to avoid scandal and unpleasantness, but I see it is impossible.'
Mr Abney's astonished face emerged slowly from behind his
'I quite agree with you, sir, that somebody should be here to help
me look after the boy, but not Mr Burns. I am sorry to have to say it,
but I do not trust Mr Burns.'
Mr Abney's look of astonishment deepened. I, too, was surprised. It
was so unlike Sam to fling away his chances on a blundering attack like
'What do you mean?' demanded Mr Abney.
'Mr Burns is after the boy himself. He came to kidnap him.'
Mr Abney, as he had every excuse for doing, grunted with amazement.
I achieved the ringing laugh of amused innocence. It was beyond me to
fathom Sam's mind. He could not suppose that any credence would be
given to his wild assertion. It seemed to me that disappointment had
caused him momentarily to lose his head.
'Are you mad, White?'
'No, sir. I can prove what I say. If I had not gone to London with
him that last time, he'd have got away with the boy then, for certain.'
For an instant an uneasy thought came to me that he might have
something in reserve, something unknown to me, which had encouraged him
to this direct attack. I dismissed the notion. There could be nothing.
Mr Abney had turned to me with a look of hopeless bewilderment. I
raised my eyebrows.
'Ridiculous,' I said.
That this was the only comment seemed to be Mr Abney's view. He
turned on Sam with the pettish anger of the mild man.
'What do you mean, White, by coming to me with such a
'I don't say Mr Burns wished to kidnap the boy in the ordinary way,'
said Sam imperturbably, 'like those men who came that night. He had a
special reason. Mr and Mrs Ford, as of course you know, sir, are
divorced. Mr Burns was trying to get the boy away and take him back to
I heard Audrey give a little gasp. Mr Abney's anger became modified
by a touch of doubt. I could see that these words, by lifting the
accusation from the wholly absurd to the somewhat plausible, had
impressed him. Once again I was gripped by the uneasy feeling that Sam
had an unsuspected card to play. This might be bluff, but it had a
'You might say,' went on Sam smoothly, 'that this was creditable to
Mr Burns's heart. But, from my employer's viewpoint and yours, too, it
was a chivalrous impulse that needed to be checked. Will you please
read this, sir?'
He handed a letter to Mr Abney, who adjusted his glasses and began
to read—at first in a detached, judicial way, then with startled
'I felt it necessary to search among Mr Burns's papers, sir, in the
hope of finding—'
And then I knew what he had found. From the first the blue-grey
notepaper had had a familiar look. I recognized it now. It was
Cynthia's letter, that damning document which I had been mad enough to
read to him in London. His prediction that the luck would change had
come amazingly true.
I caught Sam's eye. For the second time he was unfeeling enough to
wink. It was a rich, comprehensive wink, as expressive and joyous as a
Mr Abney had absorbed the letter and was struggling for speech. I
could appreciate his emotion. If he had not actually been nurturing a
viper in his bosom, he had come, from his point of view, very near it.
Of all men, a schoolmaster necessarily looks with the heartiest dislike
on the would-be kidnapper.
As for me, my mind was in a whirl. I was entirely without a plan,
without the very beginnings of a plan, to help me cope with this
appalling situation. I was crushed by a sense of the utter helplessness
of my position. To denounce Sam was impossible; to explain my
comparative innocence was equally out of the question. The suddenness
of the onslaught had deprived me of the power of coherent thought. I
Mr Abney was speaking.
'Is your name Peter, Mr Burns?'
I nodded. Speech was beyond me.
'This letter is written by—ah—by a lady. It asks you in set terms
to—ah—hasten to kidnap Ogden Ford. Do you wish me to read it to you?
Or do you confess to knowing its contents?'
He waited for a reply. I had none to make.
'You do not deny that you came to Sanstead House for the deliberate
purpose of kidnapping Ogden Ford?'
I had nothing to say. I caught a glimpse of Audrey's face, cold and
hard, and shifted my eyes quickly. Mr Abney gulped. His face wore the
reproachful expression of a cod-fish when jerked out of the water on
the end of a line. He stared at me with pained repulsion. That
scoundrelly old buccaneer Sam did the same. He looked like a shocked
'I—ah—trusted you implicitly,' said Mr Abney.
Sam wagged his head at me reproachfully. With a flicker of spirit I
glared at him. He only wagged the more.
It was, I think, the blackest moment of my life. A wild desire for
escape on any terms surged over me. That look on Audrey's face was
biting into my brain like an acid.
'I will go and pack,' I said.
'This is the end of all things,' I said to myself.
I had suspended my packing in order to sit on my bed and brood. I
was utterly depressed. There are crises in a man's life when Reason
fails to bring the slightest consolation. In vain I tried to tell
myself that what had happened was, in essence, precisely what,
twenty-four hours ago, I was so eager to bring about. It amounted to
this, that now, at last, Audrey had definitely gone out of my life.
From now on I could have no relations with her of any sort. Was not
this exactly what, twenty-four hours ago, I had wished? Twenty-four
hours ago had I not said to myself that I would go away and never see
her again? Undoubtedly. Nevertheless, I sat there and groaned in
It was the end of all things.
A mild voice interrupted my meditations.
'Can I help?'
Sam was standing in the doorway, beaming on me with invincible
'You are handling them wrong. Allow me. A moment more and you would
have ruined the crease.'
I became aware of a pair of trousers hanging limply in my grasp. He
took them from me, and, folding them neatly, placed them in my trunk.
'Don't get all worked up about it, sonny,' he said. 'It's the
fortune of war. Besides, what does it matter to you? Judging by that
very snug apartment in London, you have quite enough money for a young
man. Losing your job here won't break you. And, if you're worrying
about Mrs Ford and her feelings, don't! I guess she's probably
forgotten all about the Nugget by this time. So cheer up. You're
He stretched out a hand to pat me on the shoulder, then thought
better of it and drew it back.
'Think of my happiness, if you want something to make you
feel good. Believe me, young man, it's some. I could sing! Gee,
when I think that it's all plain sailing now and no more troubles, I
could dance! You don't know what it means to me, putting through this
deal. I wish you knew Mary! That's her name. You must come and visit
us, sonny, when we're fixed up in the home. There'll always be a knife
and fork for you. We'll make you one of the family! Lord! I can
see the place as plain as I can see you. Nice frame house with a good
porch.... Me in a rocker in my shirt-sleeves, smoking a cigar and
reading the baseball news; Mary in another rocker, mending my socks and
nursing the cat! We'll sure have a cat. Two cats. I like cats. And a
goat in the front garden. Say, it'll be great!'
And on the word, emotion overcoming prudence, he brought his fat
hand down with a resounding smack on my bowed shoulders.
There is a limit. I bounded to my feet.
'Get out!' I yelped. 'Get out of here!'
'Sure,' he replied agreeably. He rose without haste and regarded me
compassionately. 'Cheer up, son! Be a sport!'
There are moments when the best of men become melodramatic. I offer
this as excuse for my next observation.
Clenching my fists and glaring at him, I cried, 'I'll foil you yet,
Some people have no soul for the dramatic. He smiled tolerantly.
'Sure,' he said. 'Anything you like, Desperate Desmond. Enjoy
And he left me.
I evacuated Sanstead House unostentatiously, setting off on foot
down the long drive. My luggage, I gathered, was to follow me to the
station in a cart. I was thankful to Providence for the small mercy
that the boys were in their classrooms and consequently unable to ask
me questions. Augustus Beckford alone would have handled the subject of
my premature exit in a manner calculated to bleach my hair.
It was a wonderful morning. The sky was an unclouded blue, and a
fresh breeze was blowing in from the sea. I think that something of the
exhilaration of approaching spring must have stirred me, for quite
suddenly the dull depression with which I had started my walk left me,
and I found myself alert and full of schemes.
Why should I feebly withdraw from the struggle? Why should I give in
to Smooth Sam in this tame way? The memory of that wink came back to me
with a tonic effect. I would show him that I was still a factor in the
game. If the house was closed to me, was there not the 'Feathers'? I
could lie in hiding there, and observe his movements unseen.
I stopped on reaching the inn, and was on the point of entering and
taking up my position at once, when it occurred to me that this would
be a false move. It was possible that Sam would not take my departure
for granted so readily as I assumed. It was Sam's way to do a thing
thoroughly, and the probability was that, if he did not actually come
to see me off, he would at least make inquiries at the station to find
out if I had gone. I walked on.
He was not at the station. Nor did he arrive in the cart with my
trunk. But I was resolved to risk nothing. I bought a ticket for
London, and boarded the London train. It had been my intention to leave
it at Guildford and catch an afternoon train back to Stanstead; but it
seemed to me, on reflection, that this was unnecessary. There was no
likelihood of Sam making any move in the matter of the Nugget until the
following day. I could take my time about returning.
I spent the night in London, and arrived at Sanstead by an early
morning train with a suit-case containing, among other things, a
Browning pistol. I was a little ashamed of this purchase. To the Buck
MacGinnis type of man, I suppose, a pistol is as commonplace a
possession as a pair of shoes, but I blushed as I entered the gun-shop.
If it had been Buck with whom I was about to deal, I should have felt
less self-conscious. But there was something about Sam which made
My first act, after engaging a room at the inn and leaving my
suit-case, was to walk to the school. Before doing anything else, I
felt I must see Audrey and tell her the facts in the case of Smooth
Sam. If she were on her guard, my assistance might not be needed. But
her present state of trust in him was fatal.
A school, when the boys are away, is a lonely place. The deserted
air of the grounds, as I slipped cautiously through the trees, was
almost eerie. A stillness brooded over everything, as if the place had
been laid under a spell. Never before had I been so impressed with the
isolation of Sanstead House. Anything might happen in this lonely spot,
and the world would go on its way in ignorance. It was with quite
distinct relief that, as I drew nearer the house, I caught sight of the
wire of the telephone among the trees above my head. It had a
practical, comforting look.
A tradesman's cart rattled up the drive and disappeared round the
side of the house. This reminder, also, of the outside world was
pleasant. But I could not rid myself of the feeling that the atmosphere
of the place was sinister. I attributed it to the fact that I was a spy
in an enemy's country. I had to see without being seen. I did not
imagine that Johnson, grocer, who had just passed in his cart, found
anything wrong with the atmosphere. It was created for me by my own
Of Audrey and Ogden there were no signs. That they were out
somewhere in the grounds this mellow spring morning I took for granted;
but I could not make an extended search. Already I had come nearer to
the house than was prudent.
My eye caught the telephone wire again and an idea came to me. I
would call her up from the inn and ask her to meet me. There was the
risk that the call would be answered by Smooth Sam, but it was not
great. Sam, unless he had thrown off his role of butler
completely—which would be unlike the artist that he was—would be in
the housekeeper's room, and the ringing of the telephone, which was in
the study, would not penetrate to him.
I chose a moment when dinner was likely to be over and Audrey might
be expected to be in the drawing-room.
I had deduced her movements correctly. It was her voice that
answered the call.
'This is Peter Burns speaking.'
There was a perceptible pause before she replied. When she did, her
voice was cold.
'I want to speak to you on a matter of urgent importance.'
'I can't do it through the telephone. Will you meet me in half an
hour's time at the gate?'
'Where are you speaking from?'
'The “Feathers”. I am staying there.'
'I thought you were in London.'
'I came back. Will you meet me?'
'Because I have something important to say to you—important to
There was another pause.
'In half an hour, then. Is Ogden Ford in bed?'
'Is his door locked?'
'Then lock it and bring the key with you.'
'I will tell you when we meet.'
'I will bring it.'
'Thank you. Good-bye.'
I hung up the receiver and set out at once for the school.
She was waiting in the road, a small, indistinct figure in the
'Is that you—Peter?'
Her voice had hesitated at the name, as if at some obstacle. It was
a trivial thing, but, in my present mood, it stung me.
'I'm afraid I'm late. I won't keep you long. Shall we walk down the
road? You may not have been followed, but it is as well to be on the
'Followed? I don't understand.'
We walked a few paces and halted.
'Who would follow me?'
'A very eminent person of the name of Smooth Sam Fisher.'
'Smooth Sam Fisher?'
'Better known to you as White.'
'I don't understand.'
'I should be surprised if you did. I asked you to meet me here so
that I could make you understand. The man who poses as a Pinkerton's
detective, and is staying in the house to help you take care of Ogden
Ford, is Smooth Sam Fisher, a professional kidnapper.'
'But what proof have I? Was that what you were going to say? None.
But I had the information from the man himself. He told me in the train
that night going to London.'
She spoke quickly. I knew from her tone that she thought she had
detected a flaw in my story.
'Why did he tell you?'
'Because he needed me as an accomplice. He wanted my help. It was I
who got Ogden away that day. Sam overheard me giving money and
directions to him, telling him how to get away from the school and
where to go, and he gathered—correctly—that I was in the same line of
business as himself. He suggested a partnership which I was unable to
'Our objects were different. My motive in kidnapping Ogden was not
to extract a ransom.'
She blazed out at me in an absolutely unexpected manner. Till now
she had listened so calmly and asked her questions with such a notable
absence of emotion that the outburst overwhelmed me.
'Oh, I know what your motive was. There is no need to explain that.
Isn't there any depth to which a man who thinks himself in love won't
stoop? I suppose you told yourself you were doing something noble and
chivalrous? A woman of her sort can trick a man into whatever meanness
she pleases, and, just because she asks him, he thinks himself a kind
of knight-errant. I suppose she told you that he had ill-treated her
and didn't appreciate her higher self, and all that sort of thing? She
looked at you with those big brown eyes of hers—I can see her—and
drooped, and cried, till you were ready to do anything she asked you.'
'Whom do you mean?'
'Mrs Ford, of course. The woman who sent you here to steal Ogden.
The woman who wrote you that letter.'
'She did not write that letter. But never mind that. The reason why
I wanted you to come here was to warn you against Sam Fisher. That was
all. If there is any way in which I can help you, send for me. If you
like, I will come and stay at the house till Mr Abney returns.'
Before the words were out of my mouth, I saw that I had made a
mistake. The balance of her mind was poised between suspicion and
belief, and my offer turned the scale.
'No, thank you,' she said curtly.
'You don't trust me?'
'Why should I? White may or may not be Sam Fisher. I shall be on my
guard, and I thank you for telling me. But why should I trust you? It
all hangs together. You told me you were engaged to be married. You
come here on an errand which no man would undertake except for a woman,
and a woman with whom he was very much in love. There is that letter,
imploring you to steal the boy. I know what a man will do for a woman
he is fond of. Why should I trust you?'
'There is this. You forget that I had the opportunity to steal Ogden
if I had wanted to. I had got him away to London. But I brought him
back. I did it because you had told me what it meant to you.'
She hesitated, but only for an instant. Suspicion was too strong for
'I don't believe you. You brought him back because this man whom you
call Fisher got to know of your plans. Why should you have done it
because of me? Why should you have put my interests before Mrs Ford's?
I am nothing to you.'
For a moment a mad impulse seized me to cast away all restraint, to
pour out the unspoken words that danced like imps in my brain, to make
her understand, whatever the cost, my feelings towards her. But the
thought of my letter to Cynthia checked me. That letter had been the
irrevocable step. If I was to preserve a shred of self-respect I must
'Very well,' I said, 'good night.' And I turned to go.
There was something in her voice which whirled me round, thrilling,
despite my resolution.
'Are you going?'
Weakness would now be my undoing. I steadied myself and answered
'I have said all I came to say. Good night.'
I turned once more and walked quickly off towards the village. I
came near to running. I was in the mood when flight alone can save a
man. She did not speak again, and soon I was out of danger, hurrying on
through the friendly darkness, beyond the reach of her voice.
The bright light from the doorway of the 'Feathers', was the only
illumination that relieved the blackness of the Market Square. As I
approached, a man came out and stopped in the entrance to light a
cigar. His back was turned towards me as he crouched to protect the
match from the breeze, but something in his appearance seemed familiar.
I had only a glimpse of him as he straightened himself and walked
out of the pool of light into the Square, but it was enough.
It was my much-enduring acquaintance, Mr Buck MacGinnis.
At the receipt of custom behind the bar sat Miss Benjafield, stately
as ever, relaxing her massive mind over a penny novelette.
'Who was the man who just left, Miss Benjafield?' I asked.
She marked the place with a shapely thumb and looked up.
'The man? Oh, him! He's—why, weren't you in here, Mr Burns,
one evening in January when—'
'That's him. What he's doing here I don't know. He disappeared quite
a while back, and I haven't seen him since. Nor want. Tonight up
he turns again like a bad ha'penny. I'd like to know what he's after.
No good, if you ask me.'
Miss Benjafield's prejudices did not easily dissolve. She prided
herself, as she frequently observed, on knowing her own mind.
'Is he staying here?'
'Not at the “Feathers”. We're particular who we have here.'
I thanked her for the implied compliment, ordered beer for the good
of the house, and, lighting a pipe, sat down to meditate on this new
The vultures were gathered together with a vengeance. Sam within,
Buck without, it was quite like old times, with the difference that
now, I, too, was on the wrong side of the school door.
It was not hard to account for Buck's reappearance. He would, of
course, have made it his business to get early information of Mr Ford's
movements. It would be easy for him to discover that the millionaire
had been called away to the north and that the Nugget was still an
inmate of Sanstead House. And here he was preparing for the grand
I had been premature in removing Buck's name from the list of active
combatants. Broken legs mend. I ought to have remembered that.
His presence on the scene made, I perceived, a vast difference to my
plan of campaign. It was at this point that my purchase of the Browning
pistol lost its absurdity and appeared in the light of an acute
strategic move. With Sam the only menace, I had been prepared to play a
purely waiting game, watching proceedings from afar, ready to give my
help if necessary. To check Buck, more strenuous methods were called
My mind was made up. With Buck, that stout disciple of the frontal
attack, in the field, there was only one place for me. I must get into
Sanstead House and stay there on guard.
Did he intend to make an offensive movement tonight? That was the
question which occupied my mind. From the point of view of an opponent,
there was this merit about Mr MacGinnis, that he was not subtle. He
could be counted on with fair certainty to do the direct thing. Sooner
or later he would make another of his vigorous frontal attacks upon the
stronghold. The only point to be decided was whether he would make it
that night. Would professional zeal cause him to omit his beauty sleep?
I did not relish the idea of spending the night patrolling the
grounds, but it was imperative that the house be protected. Then it
occurred to me that the man for the vigil was Smooth Sam. If the
arrival of Mr MacGinnis had complicated matters in one way, it had
simplified them in another, for there was no more need for the secrecy
which had been, till now, the basis of my plan of action. Buck's
arrival made it possible for me to come out and fight in the open,
instead of brooding over Sanstead House from afar like a Providence.
Tomorrow I proposed to turn Sam out. Tonight I would use him. The thing
had resolved itself into a triangular tournament, and Sam and Buck
should play the first game.
Once more I called up the house on the telephone. There was a long
delay before a reply came. It was Mr Fisher's voice that spoke. Audrey,
apparently, had not returned to the house immediately after leaving me.
'Hullo!' said Sam.
'Good evening, Mr Fisher.'
'Gee! Is that you, young fellow-me-lad? Are you speaking from
'No. I am at the “Feathers”.'
He chuckled richly.
'Can't tear yourself away? Hat still in the ring? Say, what's the
use? Why not turn it up, sonny? You're only wasting your time.'
'Do you sleep lightly, Mr Fisher?'
'I don't get you.'
'You had better do so tonight. Buck MacGinnis is back again.'
There was silence at the other end of the wire. Then I heard him
swear softly. The significance of the information had not been lost on
'Is that straight?'
'You're not stringing me?'
'You're sure it was Buck?'
'Is Buck's the sort of face one forgets?'
He swore again.
'You seem disturbed,' I said.
'Where did you see him?' asked Sam.
'Coming out of the “Feathers", looking very fierce and determined.
The Berserk blood of the MacGinnises is up. He's going to do or die.
I'm afraid this means an all-night sitting for you, Mr Fisher.'
'I thought you had put him out of business!'
There was a somewhat querulous note in his voice.
'Only temporarily. I did my best, but he wasn't even limping when I
He did not speak for a moment. I gathered that he was pondering over
the new development.
'Thanks for tipping me off, sonny. It's a thing worth knowing. Why
did you do it?'
'Because I love you, Samuel. Good night.'
I rose late and breakfasted at my leisure. The peace of the English
country inn enveloped me as I tilted back my chair and smoked the first
pipe of the morning. It was a day to hearten a man for great deeds, one
of those days of premature summer which comes sometimes to help us bear
the chill winds of early spring. The sun streamed in through the open
window. In the yard below fowls made their soothing music. The thought
of violence seemed very alien to such a morning.
I strolled out into the Square. I was in no hurry to end this
interlude of peace and embark on what, for all practical purposes,
would be a siege.
After lunch, I decided, would be time enough to begin active
The clock on the church tower was striking two as I set forth,
carrying my suit-case, on my way to the school. The light-heartedness
of the morning still lingered with me. I was amused at the thought of
the surprise I was about to give Mr Fisher. That wink still rankled.
As I made my way through the grounds I saw Audrey in the distance,
walking with the Nugget. I avoided them and went on into the house.
About the house there was the same air of enchanted quiet which
pervaded the grounds. Perhaps the stillness indoors was even more
insistent. I had grown so accustomed to the never-ending noise and
bustle of the boys' quarters that, as I crossed the silent hall, I had
an almost guilty sense of intrusion. I felt like a burglar.
Sam, the object of my visit, would, I imagined, if he were in the
house at all, be in the housekeeper's room, a cosy little apartment off
the passage leading to the kitchen. I decided to draw that first, and
was rewarded, on pushing open the half-closed door, by the sight of a
pair of black-trousered legs stretched out before me from the depths of
a wicker-work armchair. His portly middle section, rising beyond like a
small hill, heaved rhythmically. His face was covered with a silk
handkerchief, from beneath which came, in even succession, faint and
comfortable snores. It was a peaceful picture—the good man taking his
rest; and for me it had an added attractiveness in that it suggested
that Sam was doing by day what my information had prevented him from
doing in the night. It had been some small consolation to me, as I lay
trying to compose my anxious mind for sleep on the previous night, that
Mr Fisher also was keeping his vigil.
Pleasing as Sam was as a study in still life, pressure of business
compelled me to stir him into activity. I prodded him gently in the
centre of the rising territory beyond the black trousers. He grunted
discontentedly and sat up. The handkerchief fell from his face, and he
blinked at me, first with the dazed glassiness of the newly awakened,
then with a 'Soul's Awakening' expression, which spread over his face
until it melted into a friendly smile.
'Hello, young man!'
'Good afternoon. You seem tired.'
He yawned cavernously.
'Lord! What a night!'
'Did Buck drop in?'
'No, but I thought he had every time I heard a board creak. I didn't
dare close my eyes for a minute. Have you ever stayed awake all night,
waiting for the goblins that get you if you don't watch out? Well, take
it from me it's no picnic.'
His face split in another mammoth yawn. He threw his heart into it,
as if life held no other tasks for him. Only in alligators have I ever
seen its equal.
I waited till the seismic upheaval had spent itself. Then I came to
'I'm sorry you had a disturbed night, Mr Fisher. You must make up
for it this afternoon. You will find the beds very comfortable.'
'At the “Feathers”. I should go there, if I were you. The charges
are quite reasonable, and the food is good. You will like the
'I don't get you, sonny.'
'I was trying to break it gently to you that you are about to move
from this house. Now. At once. Take your last glimpse of the old home,
Sam, and out into the hard world.'
He looked at me inquiringly.
'You seem to be talking, young man; words appear to be fluttering
from you; but your meaning, if any, escapes me.'
'My meaning is that I am about to turn you out. I am coming back
here, and there is not room for both of us. So, if you do not see your
way to going quietly, I shall take you by the back of the neck and run
you out. Do I make myself fairly clear now?'
He permitted himself a rich chuckle.
'You have gall, young man. Well, I hate to seem unfriendly. I like
you, sonny. You amuse me—but there are moments when one wants to be
alone. I have a whole heap of arrears of sleep to make up. Trot along,
kiddo, and quit disturbing uncle. Tie a string to yourself and
The wicker-work creaked as he settled his stout body. He picked up
'Mr Fisher,' I said, 'I have no wish to propel your grey hairs at a
rapid run down the drive, so I will explain further. I am physically
stronger than you. I mean to turn you out. How can you prevent it? Mr
Abney is away. You can't appeal to him. The police are at the end of
the telephone, but you can't appeal to them. So what can you do,
except go? Do you get me now?'
He regarded the situation in thoughtful silence. He allowed no
emotion to find expression in his face, but I knew that the
significance of my remarks had sunk in. I could almost follow his mind
as he tested my position point by point and found it impregnable.
When he spoke it was to accept defeat jauntily.
'You are my jinx, young man. I said it all along. You're
really set on my going? Say no more. I'll go. After all, it's quiet at
the inn, and what more does a man want at my time of life?'
I went out into the garden to interview Audrey.
She was walking up and down on the tennis-lawn. The Nugget, lounging
in a deck-chair, appeared to be asleep.
She caught sight of me as I came out from the belt of trees, and
stopped. I had the trying experience of walking across open country
under hostile observation.
The routing of Sam had left me alert and self-confident. I felt no
embarrassment. I greeted her briskly.
'Good afternoon. I have been talking to Sam Fisher. If you wait, you
will see him passing away down the drive. He is leaving the house. I am
She spoke incredulously, or, rather, as if my words had conveyed no
meaning. It was so that Sam had spoken. Her mind, like his, took time
to adjust itself to the unexpected.
She seemed to awake to my meaning with a start.
'Coming back?' Her eyes widened. The flush deepened on her cheeks.
'But I told you—'
'I know what you told me. You said you did not trust me. It doesn't
matter. I am coming back whether you trust me or not. This house is
under martial law, and I am in command. The situation has changed since
I spoke to you last night. Last night I was ready to let you have your
way. I intended to keep an eye on things from the inn. But it's
different now. It is not a case of Sam Fisher any longer. You could
have managed Sam. It's Buck MacGinnis now, the man who came that night
in the automobile. I saw him in the village after I left you. He's
She looked away, past me, in the direction of the drive. I followed
her gaze. A stout figure, carrying a suit-case, was moving slowly down
I smiled. Her eyes met mine, and I saw the anger that had been lying
at the back of them flash out. Her chin went up with the old defiant
tilt. I was sorry I had smiled. It was my old fault, the complacency
that would not be hidden.
'I don't believe you!' she cried. 'I don't trust you!'
It is curious how one's motive for embarking on a course of conduct
changes or disappears altogether as the action develops. Once started
on an enterprise it is as if one proceeded with it automatically,
irrespective of one's original motives. I had begun what I might call
the second phase of this matter of the Little Nugget, the abandoning of
Cynthia's cause in favour of Audrey's, with a clear idea of why I was
doing it. I had set myself to resist the various forces which were
trying to take Ogden from Audrey, for one simple reason, because I
loved Audrey and wished to help her. That motive, if it still existed
at all, did so only in the form of abstract chivalry. My personal
feelings towards her seemed to have undergone a complete change, dating
from our parting in the road the night before. I found myself now
meeting hostility with hostility. I looked at her critically and told
myself that her spell was broken at last, that, if she disliked me, I
was at least indifferent to her.
And yet, despite my altered feelings, my determination to help her
never wavered. The guarding of Ogden might be—primarily—no business
of mine, but I had adopted it as my business.
'I don't ask you to trust me,' I said. 'We have settled all that.
There's no need to go over old ground. Think what you please about
this. I've made up my mind.'
'If you mean to stay, I suppose I can't prevent you.'
Sam appeared again in a gap in the trees, walking slowly and
pensively, as one retreating from his Moscow. Her eyes followed him
till he was out of sight.
'If you like,' I said bitterly, 'you may put what I am doing down to
professional rivalry. If I am in love with Mrs Ford and am here to
steal Ogden for her, it is natural for me to do all I can to prevent
Buck MacGinnis getting him. There is no need for you to look on me as
an ally because we are working together.'
'We are not working together.'
'We shall be in a very short time. Buck will not let another night
go by without doing something.'
'I don't believe that you saw him.'
'Just as you please,' I said, and walked away. What did it matter to
me what she believed?
The day dragged on. Towards evening the weather broke suddenly,
after the fashion of spring in England. Showers of rain drove me to the
It must have been nearly ten o'clock when the telephone rang.
It was Mr Fisher.
'Hello, is that you, sonny?'
'It is. Do you want anything?'
'I want a talk with you. Business. Can I come up?'
'If you wish it.'
'I'll start right away.'
It was some fifteen minutes later that I heard in the distance the
engines of an automobile. The headlights gleamed through the trees, and
presently the car swept round the bend of the drive and drew up at the
front door. A portly figure got down and rang the bell. I observed
these things from a window on the first floor, overlooking the front
steps; and it was from this window that I spoke.
'Is that you, Mr Fisher?'
He backed away from the door.
'Where are you?'
'Is that your car?'
'It belongs to a friend of mine.'
'I didn't know you meant to bring a party.'
'There's only three of us. Me, the chauffeur, and my
The possibility, indeed the probability, of Sam seeking out Buck and
forming an alliance had occurred to me, and I was prepared for it. I
shifted my grip on the automatic pistol in my hand.
'Ask your friend MacGinnis to be good enough to step into the light
of that lamp and drop his gun.'
There was a muttered conversation. I heard Buck's voice rumbling
like a train going under a bridge. The request did not appear to find
favour with him. Then came an interlude of soothing speech from Mr
Fisher. I could not distinguish the words, but I gathered that he was
pointing out to him that, on this occasion only, the visit being for
the purposes of parley and not of attack, pistols might be looked on as
non-essentials. Whatever his arguments, they were successful, for,
finally, humped as to the back and muttering, Buck moved into the
'Good evening, Mr MacGinnis,' I said. 'I'm glad to see your leg is
all right again. I won't detain you a moment. Just feel in your pockets
and shed a few of your guns, and then you can come in out of the rain.
To prevent any misunderstanding, I may say I have a gun of my own. It
is trained on you now.'
'I ain't got no gun.'
'Come along. This is no time for airy persiflage. Out with them.'
A moment's hesitation, and a small black pistol fell to the ground.
'Think I'm a regiment?'
'I don't know what you are. Well, I'll take your word for it. You
will come in one by one, with your hands up.'
I went down and opened the door, holding my pistol in readiness
against the unexpected.
Sam came first. His raised hands gave him a vaguely pontifical air
(Bishop Blessing Pilgrims), and the kindly smile he wore heightened the
illusion. Mr MacGinnis, who followed, suggested no such idea. He was
muttering moodily to himself, and he eyed me askance.
I showed them into the classroom and switched on the light. The air
was full of many odours. Disuse seems to bring out the inky-chalky,
appley-deal-boardy bouquet of a classroom as the night brings out the
scent of flowers. During the term I had never known this classroom
smell so exactly like a classroom. I made use of my free hand to secure
and light a cigarette.
Sam rose to a point of order.
'Young man,' he said. I should like to remind you that we are here,
as it were, under a flag of truce. To pull a gun on us and keep us
holding our hands up this way is raw work. I feel sure I speak for my
friend Mr MacGinnis.'
He cocked an eye at his friend Mr MacGinnis, who seconded the motion
by expectorating into the fireplace. I had observed at a previous
interview his peculiar gift for laying bare his soul by this means of
mode of expression. A man of silent habit, judged by the more
conventional standard of words, he was almost an orator in
'Mr MacGinnis agrees with me,' said Sam cheerfully. 'Do we take them
down? Have we your permission to assume Position Two of these Swedish
exercises? All we came for was a little friendly chat among gentlemen,
and we can talk just as well—speaking for myself, better—in a less
strained attitude. A little rest, Mr Burns! A little folding of the
hands? Thank you.'
He did not wait for permission, nor was it necessary. Sam and the
melodramatic atmosphere was as oil and water. It was impossible to
blend them. I laid the pistol on the table and sat down. Buck, after
one wistful glance at the weapon, did the same. Sam was already seated,
and was looking so cosy and at home that I almost felt it remiss of me
not to have provided sherry and cake for this pleasant gathering.
'Well,' I said, 'what can I do for you?'
'Let me explain,' said Sam. 'As you have, no doubt, gathered, Mr
MacGinnis and I have gone into partnership. The Little Nugget Combine!'
'I gathered that—well?'
'Judicious partnerships are the soul of business. Mr MacGinnis and I
have been rivals in the past, but we both saw that the moment had come
for the genial smile, the hearty handshake, in fact, for an alliance.
We form a strong team, sonny. My partner's speciality is action. I
supply the strategy. Say, can't you see you're up against it? Why be
'You think you're certain to win?'
'It's a cinch.'
'Then why trouble to come here and see me?'
I appeared to have put into words the smouldering thought which was
vexing Mr MacGinnis. He burst into speech.
'Ahr chee! Sure! What's de use? Didn't I tell youse? What's de use
of wastin' time? What are we spielin' away here for? Let's get busy.'
Sam waved a hand towards him with the air of a lecturer making a
'You see! The man of action! He likes trouble. He asks for it. He
eats it alive. Now I prefer peace. Why have a fuss when you can get
what you want quietly? That's my motto. That's why we've come. It's the
old proposition. We're here to buy you out. Yes, I know you have turned
the offer down before, but things have changed. Your stock has fallen.
In fact, instead of letting you in on sharing terms, we only feel
justified now in offering a commission. For the moment you may seem to
hold a strong position. You are in the house, and you've got the boy.
But there's nothing to it really. We could get him in five minutes if
we cared to risk having a fuss. But it seems to me there's no need of
any fuss. We should win dead easy all right, if it came to trouble;
but, on the other hand, you've a gun, and there's a chance some of us
might get hurt, so what's the good when we can settle it quietly? How
about it, sonny?'
Mr MacGinnis began to rumble, preparatory to making further remarks
on the situation, but Sam waved him down and turned his brown eyes
inquiringly on me.
'Fifteen per cent is our offer,' he said.
'And to think it was once fifty-fifty!'
'Business? It's sweating!'
'It's our limit. And it wasn't easy to make Buck here agree to that.
He kicked like a mule.'
Buck shuffled his feet and eyed me disagreeably. I suppose it is
hard to think kindly of a man who has broken your leg. It was plain
that, with Mr MacGinnis, bygones were by no means bygones.
'Well, I'm sorry you should have had the trouble of coming here for
nothing. Let me see you out. Single file, please.'
Sam looked aggrieved.
'You turn it down?'
'One moment. Let's have this thing clear. Do you realize what you're
up against? Don't think it's only Buck and me you've got to tackle. All
the boys are here, waiting round the corner, the same gang that came
the other night. Be sensible, sonny. You don't stand a dog's chance. I
shouldn't like to see you get hurt. And you never know what may not
happen. The boys are pretty sore at you because of what you did that
night. I shouldn't act like a bonehead, sonny—honest.'
There was a kindly ring in his voice which rather touched me.
Between him and me there had sprung up an odd sort of friendship. He
meant business; but he would, I knew, be genuinely sorry if I came to
harm. And I could see that he was quite sincere in his belief that I
was in a tight corner and that my chances against the Combine were
infinitesimal. I imagine that, with victory so apparently certain, he
had had difficulty in persuading his allies to allow him to make his
But he had overlooked one thing—the telephone. That he should have
made this mistake surprised me. If it had been Buck, I could have
understood it. Buck's was a mind which lent itself to such blunders.
From Sam I had expected better things, especially as the telephone had
been so much in evidence of late. He had used it himself only half an
I clung to the thought of the telephone. It gave me the quiet
satisfaction of the gambler who holds the unforeseen ace. The situation
was in my hands. The police, I knew, had been profoundly stirred by Mr
MacGinnis's previous raid. When I called them up, as I proposed to do
directly the door had closed on the ambassadors, there would be no lack
of response. It would not again be a case of Inspector Bones and
Constable Johnson to the rescue. A great cloud of willing helpers would
swoop to our help.
With these thoughts in my mind, I answered Sam pleasantly but
'I'm sorry I'm unpopular, but all the same—'
I indicated the door.
Emotion that could only be expressed in words and not through his
usual medium welled up in Mr MacGinnis. He sprang forward with a snarl,
falling back as my faithful automatic caught his eye.
'Say, you! Listen here! You'll—'
Sam, the peaceable, plucked at his elbow.
'Nothing doing, Buck. Step lively.'
Buck wavered, then allowed himself to be drawn away. We passed out
of the classroom in our order of entry.
An exclamation from the stairs made me look up. Audrey was leaning
over the banisters. Her face was in the shadow, but I gathered from her
voice that the sight of our little procession had startled her. I was
not surprised. Buck was a distinctly startling spectacle, and his habit
of growling to himself, as he walked, highly disturbing to strangers.
'Good evening, Mrs Sheridan,' said Sam suavely.
Audrey did not speak. She seemed fascinated by Buck.
I opened the front door and they passed out. The automobile was
still purring on the drive. Buck's pistol had disappeared. I supposed
the chauffeur had picked it up, a surmise which was proved correct a
few moments later, when, just as the car was moving off, there was a
sharp crack and a bullet struck the wall to the right of the door. It
was a random shot, and I did not return it. Its effect on me was to
send me into the hall with a leap that was almost a back-somersault.
Somehow, though I was keyed up for violence and the shooting of
pistols, I had not expected it at just that moment, and I was
disagreeably surprised at the shock it had given me. I slammed the door
and bolted it. I was intensely irritated to find that my fingers were
Audrey had left the stairs and was standing beside me.
'They shot at me,' I said.
By the light of the hall lamp I could see that she was very pale.
'It missed by a mile.' My nerves had not recovered and I spoke
abruptly. 'Don't be frightened.'
'I—I was not frightened,' she said, without conviction.
'I was,' I said, with conviction. 'It was too sudden for me. It's
the sort of thing one wants to get used to gradually. I shall be ready
for it another time.'
I made for the stairs.
'Where are you going?'
'I'm going to call up the police-station.'
'Was—was that man the one you spoke of?'
'Yes, that was Buck MacGinnis. He and Sam have gone into
'I'm sorry,' she said.
I was half-way up the stairs by this time. I stopped and looked over
'I didn't believe you this afternoon.'
'Oh, that's all right,' I said. I tried to make my voice
indifferent, for I was on guard against insidious friendliness. I had
bludgeoned my mind into an attitude of safe hostility towards her, and
I saw the old chaos ahead if I allowed myself to abandon it.
I went to the telephone and unhooked the receiver.
There is apt to be a certain leisureliness about the methods of
country telephone-operators, and the fact that a voice did not
immediately ask me what number I wanted did not at first disturb me.
Suspicion of the truth came to me, I think, after my third shout into
the receiver had remained unanswered. I had suffered from delay before,
but never such delay as this.
I must have remained there fully two minutes, shouting at intervals,
before I realized the truth. Then I dropped the receiver and leaned
limply against the wall. For the moment I was as stunned as if I had
received a blow. I could not even think. It was only by degrees that I
recovered sufficiently to understand that Audrey was speaking to me.
'What is it? Don't they answer?'
It is curious how the mind responds to the need for making an effort
for the sake of somebody else. If I had had only myself to think of, it
would, I believe, have been a considerable time before I could have
adjusted my thoughts to grapple with this disaster. But the necessity
of conveying the truth quietly to Audrey and of helping her to bear up
under it steadied me at once. I found myself thinking quite coolly how
best I might break to her what had happened.
'I'm afraid,' I said, 'I have something to tell you which may—'
She interrupted me quickly.
'What is it? Can't you make them answer?'
I shook my head. We looked at each other in silence.
Her mind leaped to the truth more quickly than mine had done.
'They have cut the wire!'
I took up the receiver again and gave another call. There was no
'I'm afraid so,' I said.
'What shall we do?' said Audrey.
She looked at me hopefully, as if I were a mine of ideas. Her voice
was level, without a suggestion of fear in it. Women have the gift of
being courageous at times when they might legitimately give way. It is
part of their unexpectedness.
This was certainly such an occasion. Daylight would bring us relief,
for I did not suppose that even Buck MacGinnis would care to conduct a
siege which might be interrupted by the arrival of tradesmen's carts;
but while the darkness lasted we were completely cut off from the
world. With the destruction of the telephone wire our only link with
civilization had been snapped. Even had the night been less stormy than
it was, there was no chance of the noise of our warfare reaching the
ears of anyone who might come to the rescue. It was as Sam had said,
Buck's energy united to his strategy formed a strong combination.
Broadly speaking, there are only two courses open to a beleaguered
garrison. It can stay where it is, or it can make a sortie. I
considered the second of these courses.
It was possible that Sam and his allies had departed in the
automobile to get reinforcements, leaving the coast temporarily clear;
in which case, by escaping from the house at once, we might be able to
slip unobserved through the grounds and reach the village in safety. To
support this theory there was the fact that the car, on its late visit,
had contained only the chauffeur and the two ambassadors, while Sam had
spoken of the remainder of Buck's gang as being in readiness to attack
in the event of my not coming to terms. That might mean that they were
waiting at Buck's headquarters, wherever those might be—at one of the
cottages down the road, I imagined; and, in the interval before the
attack began, it might be possible for us to make our sortie with
'Is Ogden in bed?' I asked.
'Will you go and get him up as quickly as you can?'
I strained my eyes at the window, but it was impossible to see
anything. The rain was still falling heavily. If the drive had been
full of men they would have been invisible to me.
Presently Audrey returned, followed by Ogden. The Little Nugget was
yawning the aggrieved yawns of one roused from his beauty sleep.
'What's all this?' he demanded.
'Listen,' I said. 'Buck MacGinnis and Smooth Sam Fisher have come
after you. They are outside now. Don't be frightened.'
He snorted derisively.
'Who's frightened? I guess they won't hurt me. How do you
know it's them?'
'They have just been here. The man who called himself White, the
butler, was really Sam Fisher. He has been waiting an opportunity to
get you all the term.'
'White! Was he Sam Fisher?' He chuckled admiringly. 'Say, he's a
'They have gone to fetch the rest of the gang.'
'Why don't you call the cops?'
'They have cut the wire.'
His only emotions at the news seemed to be amusement and a renewed
admiration for Smooth Sam. He smiled broadly, the little brute.
'He's a wonder!' he repeated. 'I guess he's smooth, all right. He's
the limit! He'll get me all right this trip. I bet you a nickel he wins
I found his attitude trying. That he, the cause of all the trouble,
should be so obviously regarding it as a sporting contest got up for
his entertainment, was hard to bear. And the fact that, whatever might
happen to myself, he was in no danger, comforted me not at all. If I
could have felt that we were in any way companions in peril, I might
have looked on the bulbous boy with quite a friendly eye. As it was, I
nearly kicked him.
'We had better waste no time,' suggested Audrey, 'if we are going.'
'I think we ought to try it,' I said.
'What's that?' asked the Nugget. 'Go where?'
'We are going to steal out through the back way and try to slip
through to the village.'
The Nugget's comment on the scheme was brief and to the point. He
did not embarrass me with fulsome praise of my strategic genius.
'Of all the fool games!' he said simply. 'In this rain? No, sir!'
This new complication was too much for me. In planning out my
manoeuvres I had taken his cooperation for granted. I had looked on him
as so much baggage—the impedimenta of the retreating army. And,
behold, a mutineer!
I took him by the scruff of the neck and shook him. It was a relief
to my feelings and a sound move. The argument was one which he
'Oh, all right,' he said. 'Anything you like. Come on. But it sounds
to me like darned foolishness!'
If nothing else had happened to spoil the success of that sortie,
the Nugget's depressing attitude would have done so. Of all things, it
seems to me, a forlorn hope should be undertaken with a certain
enthusiasm and optimism if it is to have a chance of being successful.
Ogden threw a gloom over the proceedings from the start. He was cross
and sleepy, and he condemned the expedition unequivocally. As we moved
towards the back door he kept up a running stream of abusive comment. I
silenced him before cautiously unbolting the door, but he had said
enough to damp my spirits. I do not know what effect it would have had
on Napoleon's tactics if his army—say, before Austerlitz—had spoken
of his manoeuvres as a 'fool game' and of himself as a 'big chump', but
I doubt if it would have stimulated him.
The back door of Sanstead House opened on to a narrow yard, paved
with flagstones and shut in on all sides but one by walls. To the left
was the outhouse where the coal was stored, a squat barnlike building:
to the right a wall that appeared to have been erected by the architect
in an outburst of pure whimsicality. It just stood there. It served no
purpose that I had ever been able to discover, except to act as a cats'
Tonight, however, I was thankful for this wall. It formed an
important piece of cover. By keeping in its shelter it was possible to
work round the angle of the coal-shed, enter the stable-yard, and, by
making a detour across the football field, avoid the drive altogether.
And it was the drive, in my opinion, that might be looked on as the
The Nugget's complaints, which I had momentarily succeeded in
checking, burst out afresh as the rain swept in at the open door and
lashed our faces. Certainly it was not an ideal night for a ramble. The
wind was blowing through the opening at the end of the yard with a
compressed violence due to the confined space. There was a suggestion
in our position of the Cave of the Winds under Niagara Falls, the
verisimilitude of which was increased by the stream of water that
poured down from the gutter above our heads. The Nugget found it
unpleasant, and said so shrilly.
I pushed him out into the storm, still protesting, and we began to
creep across the yard. Half-way to the first point of importance of our
journey, the corner of the coal-shed, I halted the expedition. There
was a sudden lull in the wind, and I took advantage of it to listen.
From somewhere beyond the wall, apparently near the house, sounded
the muffled note of the automobile. The siege-party had returned.
There was no time to be lost. Apparently the possibility of a sortie
had not yet occurred to Sam, or he would hardly have left the back door
unguarded; but a general of his astuteness was certain to remedy the
mistake soon, and our freedom of action might be a thing of moments. It
behoved us to reach the stable-yard as quickly as possible. Once there,
we should be practically through the enemy's lines.
Administering a kick to the Nugget, who showed a disposition to
linger and talk about the weather, I moved on, and we reached the
corner of the coal-shed in safety.
We had now arrived at the really perilous stage in our journey.
Having built his wall to a point level with the end of the coal-shed,
the architect had apparently wearied of the thing and given it up; for
it ceased abruptly, leaving us with a matter of half a dozen yards of
open ground to cross, with nothing to screen us from the watchers on
the drive. The flagstones, moreover, stopped at this point. On the open
space was loose gravel. Even if the darkness allowed us to make the
crossing unseen, there was the risk that we might be heard.
It was a moment for a flash of inspiration, and I was waiting for
one, when that happened which took the problem out of my hands. From
the interior of the shed on our left there came a sudden scrabbling of
feet over loose coal, and through the square opening in the wall,
designed for the peaceful purpose of taking in sacks, climbed two men.
A pistol cracked. From the drive came an answering shout. We had been
I had misjudged Sam. He had not overlooked the possibility of a
It is the accidents of life that turn the scale in a crisis. The
opening through which the men had leaped was scarcely a couple of yards
behind the spot where we were standing. If they had leaped fairly and
kept their feet, they would have been on us before we could have moved.
But Fortune ordered it that, zeal outrunning discretion, the first of
the two should catch his foot in the woodwork and fall on all fours,
while the second, unable to check his spring, alighted on top of him,
and, judging from the stifled yell which followed, must have kicked him
in the face.
In the moment of their downfall I was able to form a plan and
I shouted the words to Audrey in the act of snatching up the Nugget
and starting to run. She understood. She did not hesitate in the
direction of the house for even the instant which might have undone us,
but was with me at once; and we were across the open space and in the
stable-yard before the first of the men in the drive loomed up through
the darkness. Half of the wooden double-gate of the yard was open, and
the other half served us as a shield. They fired as they ran—at
random, I think, for it was too dark for them to have seen us
clearly—and two bullets slapped against the gate. A third struck the
wall above our heads and ricocheted off into the night. But before they
could fire again we were in the stables, the door slammed behind us,
and I had dumped the Nugget on the floor, and was shooting the heavy
bolts into their places. Footsteps clattered over the flagstones and
stopped outside. Some weighty body plunged against the door. Then there
was silence. The first round was over.
The stables, as is the case in most English country-houses, had
been, in its palmy days, the glory of Sanstead House. In whatever other
respect the British architect of that period may have fallen short, he
never scamped his work on the stables. He built them strong and solid,
with walls fitted to repel the assaults of the weather, and possibly
those of men as well, for the Boones in their day had been mighty
owners of race-horses at a time when men with money at stake did not
stick at trifles, and it was prudent to see to it that the spot where
the favourite was housed had something of the nature of a fortress. The
walls were thick, the door solid, the windows barred with iron. We
could scarcely have found a better haven of refuge.
Under Mr Abney's rule, the stables had lost their original
character. They had been divided into three compartments, each
separated by a stout wall. One compartment became a gymnasium, another
the carpenter's shop, the third, in which we were, remained a stable,
though in these degenerate days no horse ever set foot inside it, its
only use being to provide a place for the odd-job man to clean shoes.
The mangers which had once held fodder were given over now to brushes
and pots of polish. In term-time, bicycles were stored in the loose-box
which had once echoed to the tramping of Derby favourites.
I groped about among the pots and brushes, and found a candle-end,
which I lit. I was running a risk, but it was necessary to inspect our
ground. I had never troubled really to examine this stable before, and
I wished to put myself in touch with its geography.
I blew out the candle, well content with what I had seen. The only
two windows were small, high up, and excellently barred. Even if the
enemy fired through them there were half a dozen spots where we should
be perfectly safe. Best of all, in the event of the door being carried
by assault, we had a second line of defence in a loft. A ladder against
the back wall led to it, by way of a trap-door. Circumstances had
certainly been kind to us in driving us to this apparently impregnable
On concluding my inspection, I became aware that the Nugget was
still occupied with his grievances. I think the shots must have
stimulated his nerve centres, for he had abandoned the languid drawl
with which, in happier moments, he was wont to comment on life's
happenings, and was dealing with the situation with a staccato
'Of all the darned fool lay-outs I ever struck, this is the limit.
What do those idiots think they're doing, shooting us up that way? It
went within an inch of my head. It might have killed me. Gee, and I'm
all wet. I'm catching cold. It's all through your blamed foolishness,
bringing us out here. Why couldn't we stay in the house?'
'We could not have kept them out of the house for five minutes,' I
explained. 'We can hold this place.'
'Who wants to hold it? I don't. What does it matter if they do get
me? I don't care. I've a good mind to walk straight out through
that door and let them rope me in. It would serve Dad right. It would
teach him not to send me away from home to any darned school again.
What did he want to do it for? I was all right where I was. I—'
A loud hammering on the door cut off his eloquence. The intermission
was over, and the second round had begun.
It was pitch dark in the stable now that I had blown out the candle,
and there is something about a combination of noise and darkness which
tries the nerves. If mine had remained steady, I should have ignored
the hammering. From the sound, it appeared to be made by some wooden
instrument—a mallet from the carpenter's shop I discovered later—and
the door could be relied on to hold its own without my intervention.
For a novice to violence, however, to maintain a state of calm inaction
is the most difficult feat of all. I was irritated and worried by the
noise, and exaggerated its importance. It seemed to me that it must be
stopped at once.
A moment before, I had bruised my shins against an empty
packing-case, which had found its way with other lumber into the
stable. I groped for this, swung it noiselessly into position beneath
the window, and, standing on it, looked out. I found the catch of the
window, and opened it. There was nothing to be seen, but the sound of
the hammering became more distinct; and pushing an arm through the
bars, I emptied my pistol at a venture.
As a practical move, the action had flaws. The shots cannot have
gone anywhere near their vague target. But as a demonstration, it was a
wonderful success. The yard became suddenly full of dancing bullets.
They struck the flagstones, bounded off, chipped the bricks of the far
wall, ricocheted from those, buzzed in all directions, and generally
behaved in a manner calculated to unman the stoutest hearted.
The siege-party did not stop to argue. They stampeded as one man. I
could hear them clattering across the flagstones to every point of the
compass. In a few seconds silence prevailed, broken only by the swish
of the rain. Round two had been brief, hardly worthy to be called a
round at all, and, like round one, it had ended wholly in our favour.
I jumped down from my packing-case, swelling with pride. I had had
no previous experience of this sort of thing, yet here I was handling
the affair like a veteran. I considered that I had a right to feel
triumphant. I lit the candle again, and beamed protectively upon the
The Nugget was sitting on the floor, gaping feebly, and awed for the
moment into silence. Audrey, in the far corner, looked pale but
composed. Her behaviour was perfect. There was nothing for her to do,
and she was doing it with a quiet self-control which won my admiration.
Her manner seemed to me exactly suited to the exigencies of the
situation. With a super-competent dare-devil like myself in charge of
affairs, all she had to do was to wait and not get in the way.
'I didn't hit anybody,' I announced, 'but they ran like rabbits.
They are all over Hampshire.'
I laughed indulgently. I could afford an attitude of tolerant
amusement towards the enemy.
'Will they come back?'
'Possibly. And in that case'—I felt in my left-hand coat-pocket—'I
had better be getting ready.' I felt in my right-hand coat-pocket.
'Ready,' I repeated blankly. A clammy coldness took possession of me.
My voice trailed off into nothingness. For in neither pocket was There
a single one of the shells with which I had fancied that I was
abundantly provided. In moments of excitement man is apt to make
mistakes. I had made mine when, starting out on the sortie, I had left
all my ammunition in the house.
I should like to think that it was an unselfish desire to spare my
companions anxiety that made me keep my discovery to myself. But I am
afraid that my reticence was due far more to the fact that I shrank
from letting the Nugget discover my imbecile carelessness. Even in
times of peril one retains one's human weaknesses; and I felt that I
could not face his comments. If he had permitted a certain note of
querulousness to creep into his conversation already, the imagination
recoiled from the thought of the caustic depths he would reach now
should I reveal the truth.
I tried to make things better with cheery optimism.
'They won't come back!' I said stoutly, and tried to believe
The Nugget as usual struck the jarring note.
'Well, then, let's beat it,' he said. 'I don't want to spend the
night in this darned icehouse. I tell you I'm catching cold. My chest's
weak. If you're so dead certain you've scared them away, let's quit.'
I was not prepared to go as far as this.
'They may be somewhere near, hiding.'
'Well, what if they are? I don't mind being kidnapped. Let's go.'
'I think we ought to wait,' said Audrey.
'Of course,' I said. 'It would be madness to go out now.'
'Oh, pshaw!' said the Little Nugget; and from this point onwards
punctuated the proceedings with a hacking cough.
I had never really believed that my demonstration had brought the
siege to a definite end. I anticipated that there would be some delay
before the renewal of hostilities, but I was too well acquainted with
Buck MacGinnis's tenacity to imagine that he would abandon his task
because a few random shots had spread momentary panic in his ranks. He
had all the night before him, and sooner or later he would return.
I had judged him correctly. Many minutes dragged wearily by without
a sign from the enemy, then, listening at the window, I heard footsteps
crossing the yard and voices talking in cautious undertones. The fight
was on once more.
A bright light streamed through the window, flooding the opening and
spreading in a wide circle on the ceiling. It was not difficult to
understand what had happened. They had gone to the automobile and come
back with one of the head-lamps, an astute move in which I seemed to
see the finger of Sam. The danger-spot thus rendered harmless, they
renewed their attack on the door with a reckless vigour. The mallet had
been superseded by some heavier instrument—of iron this time. I think
it must have been the jack from the automobile. It was a more
formidable weapon altogether than the mallet, and even our good oak
door quivered under it.
A splintering of wood decided me that the time had come to retreat
to our second line of entrenchments. How long the door would hold it
was impossible to say, but I doubted if it was more than a matter of
Relighting my candle, which I had extinguished from motives of
economy, I caught Audrey's eye and jerked my head towards the ladder.
'You go first,' I whispered.
The Nugget watched her disappear through the trap-door, then turned
to me with an air of resolution.
'If you think you're going to get me up there, you've another
guess coming. I'm going to wait here till they get in, and let them
take me. I'm about tired of this foolishness.'
It was no time for verbal argument. I collected him, a kicking
handful, bore him to the ladder, and pushed him through the opening. He
uttered one of his devastating squeals. The sound seemed to encourage
the workers outside like a trumpet-blast. The blows on the door
I climbed the ladder and shut the trap-door behind me.
The air of the loft was close and musty and smelt of mildewed hay.
It was not the sort of spot which one would have selected of one's own
free will to sit in for any length of time. There was a rustling noise,
and a rat scurried across the rickety floor, drawing a startled gasp
from Audrey and a disgusted 'Oh, piffle!' from the Nugget. Whatever
merits this final refuge might have as a stronghold, it was beyond
question a noisome place.
The beating on the stable-door was working up to a crescendo.
Presently there came a crash that shook the floor on which we sat and
sent our neighbours, the rats, scuttling to and fro in a perfect frenzy
of perturbation. The light of the automobile lamp poured in through the
numerous holes and chinks which the passage of time had made in the old
boards. There was one large hole near the centre which produced a sort
of searchlight effect, and allowed us for the first time to see what
manner of place it was in which we had entrenched ourselves. The loft
was high and spacious. The roof must have been some seven feet above
our heads. I could stand upright without difficulty.
In the proceedings beneath us there had come a lull. The mystery of
our disappearance had not baffled the enemy for long, for almost
immediately the rays of the lamp had shifted and begun to play on the
trap-door. I heard somebody climb the ladder, and the trap-door creaked
gently as a hand tested it. I had taken up a position beside it, ready,
if the bolt gave way, to do what I could with the butt of my pistol, my
only weapon. But the bolt, though rusty, was strong, and the man
dropped to the ground again. Since then, except for occasional snatches
of whispered conversation, I had heard nothing.
Suddenly Sam's voice spoke.
I saw no advantage in remaining silent.
'Haven't you had enough of this? You've given us a mighty good run
for our money, but you can see for yourself that you're through now.
I'd hate like anything for you to get hurt. Pass the kid down, and
we'll call it off.'
'Well?' he said. 'Why don't you answer?'
'Did you? I didn't hear you.'
'You mean to stick it out? Don't be foolish, sonny. The boys here
are mad enough at you already. What's the use of getting yourself in
bad for nothing? We've got you in a pocket. I know all about that gun
of yours, young fellow. I had a suspicion what had happened, and I've
been into the house and found the shells you forgot to take with you.
So, if you were thinking of making a bluff in that direction forget
The exposure had the effect I had anticipated.
'Of all the chumps!' exclaimed the Nugget caustically. 'You ought to
be in a home. Well, I guess you'll agree to end this foolishness now?
Let's go down and get it over and have some peace. I'm getting
'You're quite right, Mr Fisher,' I said. 'But don't forget I still
have the pistol, even if I haven't the shells. The first man who tries
to come up here will have a headache tomorrow.'
'I shouldn't bank on it, sonny. Come along, kiddo! You're done. Be
good, and own it. We can't wait much longer.'
'You'll have to try.'
Buck's voice broke in on the discussion, quite unintelligible except
that it was obviously wrathful.
'Oh well!' I heard Sam say resignedly, and then there was silence
I resumed my watch over the trap-door, encouraged. This parleying, I
thought, was an admission of failure on the part of the besiegers. I
did not credit Sam with a real concern for my welfare—thereby doing
him an injustice. I can see now that he spoke perfectly sincerely. The
position, though I was unaware of it, really was hopeless, for the
reason that, like most positions, it had a flank as well as a front. In
estimating the possibilities of attack, I had figured assaults as
coming only from below. I had omitted from my calculations the fact
that the loft had a roof.
It was a scraping on the tiles above my head that first brought the
new danger-point to my notice. There followed the sound of heavy
hammering, and with it came a sickening realization of the truth of
what Sam had said. We were beaten.
I was too paralysed by the unexpectedness of the attack to form any
plan; and, indeed, I do not think that there was anything that I could
have done. I was unarmed and helpless. I stood there, waiting for the
Affairs moved swiftly. Plaster rained down on to the wooden floor. I
was vaguely aware that the Nugget was speaking, but I did not listen to
A gap appeared in the roof and widened. I could hear the heavy
breathing of the man as he wrenched at the tiles.
And then the climax arrived, with anticlimax following so swiftly
upon it that the two were almost simultaneous. I saw the worker on the
roof cautiously poise himself in the opening, hunched up like some
strange ape. The next moment he had sprung.
As his feet touched the floor there came a rending, splintering
crash; the air was filled with a choking dust, and he was gone. The old
worn out boards had shaken under my tread. They had given way in
complete ruin beneath this sharp onslaught. The rays of the lamp, which
had filtered in like pencils of light through crevices, now shone in a
great lake in the centre of the floor.
In the stable below all was confusion. Everybody was speaking at
once. The hero of the late disaster was groaning horribly, for which he
certainly had good reason: I did not know the extent of his injuries,
but a man does not do that sort of thing with impunity. The next of the
strange happenings of the night now occurred.
I had not been giving the Nugget a great deal of my attention for
some time, other and more urgent matters occupying me.
His action at this juncture, consequently, came as a complete and
I was edging my way cautiously towards the jagged hole in the centre
of the floor, in the hope of seeing something of what was going on
below, when from close beside me his voice screamed. 'It's me, Ogden
Ford. I'm coming!' and, without further warning, he ran to the hole,
swung himself over, and dropped.
Manna falling from the skies in the wilderness never received a more
whole-hearted welcome. Howls and cheers and ear-splitting whoops filled
the air. The babel of talk broke out again. Some exuberant person found
expression of his joy in emptying his pistol at the ceiling, to my
acute discomfort, the spot he had selected as a target chancing to be
within a foot of where I stood. Then they moved off in a body, still
cheering. The fight was over.
I do not know how long it was before I spoke. It may have been some
minutes. I was dazed with the swiftness with which the final stages of
the drama had been played out. If I had given him more of my attention,
I might have divined that Ogden had been waiting his opportunity to
make some such move; but, as it was, the possibility had not even
occurred to me, and I was stunned.
In the distance I heard the automobile moving off down the drive.
The sound roused me.
'Well, we may as well go,' I said dully. I lit the candle and held
it up. Audrey was standing against the wall, her face white and set.
I raised the trap-door and followed her down the ladder.
The rain had ceased, and the stars were shining. After the closeness
of the loft, the clean wet air was delicious. For a moment we stopped,
held by the peace and stillness of the night.
Then, quite suddenly, she broke down.
It was the unexpectedness of it that first threw me off my balance.
In all the time I had known her, I had never before seen Audrey in
tears. Always, in the past, she had borne the blows of fate with a
stoical indifference which had alternately attracted and repelled me,
according as my mood led me to think it courage or insensibility. In
the old days, it had done much, this trait of hers, to rear a barrier
between us. It had made her seem aloof and unapproachable.
Subconsciously, I suppose, it had offended my egoism that she should be
able to support herself in times of trouble, and not feel it necessary
to lean on me.
And now the barrier had fallen. The old independence, the almost
aggressive self-reliance, had vanished. A new Audrey had revealed
She was sobbing helplessly, standing quite still, her arms hanging
and her eyes staring blankly before her. There was something in her
attitude so hopeless, so beaten, that the pathos of it seemed to cut me
like a knife.
The stars glittered in the little pools among the worn flagstones.
The night was very still. Only the steady drip of water from the trees
broke the silence.
A great wave of tenderness seemed to sweep from my mind everything
in the world but her. Everything broke abruptly that had been checking
me, stifling me, holding me gagged and bound since the night when our
lives had come together again after those five long years. I forgot
Cynthia, my promise, everything.
She was in my arms, clinging to me, murmuring my name. The darkness
was about us like a cloud.
And then she had slipped from me, and was gone.
In my recollections of that strange night there are wide gaps.
Trivial incidents come back to me with extraordinary vividness; while
there are hours of which I can remember nothing. What I did or where I
went I cannot recall. It seems to me, looking back, that I walked
without a pause till morning; yet, when day came, I was still in the
school grounds. Perhaps I walked, as a wounded animal runs, in circles.
I lost, I know, all count of time. I became aware of the dawn as
something that had happened suddenly, as if light had succeeded
darkness in a flash. It had been night; I looked about me, and it was
day—a steely, cheerless day, like a December evening. And I found that
I was very cold, very tired, and very miserable.
My mind was like the morning, grey and overcast. Conscience may be
expelled, but, like Nature, it will return. Mine, which I had cast from
me, had crept back with the daylight. I had had my hour of freedom, and
it was now for me to pay for it.
I paid in full. My thoughts tore me. I could see no way out. Through
the night the fever and exhilaration of that mad moment had sustained
me, but now the morning had come, when dreams must yield to facts, and
I had to face the future.
I sat on the stump of a tree, and buried my face in my hands. I must
have fallen asleep, for, when I raised my eyes again, the day was
brighter. Its cheerlessness had gone. The sky was blue, and birds were
It must have been about half an hour later that the first beginnings
of a plan of action came to me. I could not trust myself to reason out
my position clearly and honestly in this place where Audrey's spell was
over everything. The part of me that was struggling to be loyal to
Cynthia was overwhelmed here. London called to me. I could think there,
face my position quietly, and make up my mind.
I turned to walk to the station. I could not guess even remotely
what time it was. The sun was shining through the trees, but in the
road outside the grounds there were no signs of workers beginning the
It was half past five when I reached the station. A sleepy porter
informed me that there would be a train to London, a slow train, at
* * * * *
I remained in London two days, and on the third went down to
Sanstead to see Audrey for the last time. I had made my decision.
I found her on the drive, close by the gate. She turned at my
footstep on the gravel; and, as I saw her, I knew that the fight which
I had thought over was only beginning.
I was shocked at her appearance. Her face was very pale, and there
were tired lines about her eyes.
I could not speak. Something choked me. Once again, as on that night
in the stable-yard, the world and all that was in it seemed infinitely
It was she who broke the silence.
'Well, Peter,' she said listlessly.
We walked up the drive together.
'Have you been to London?'
'Yes. I came down this morning.' I paused. 'I went there to think,'
'I have been thinking, too.'
I stopped, and began to hollow out a groove in the wet gravel with
my heel. Words were not coming readily.
Suddenly she found speech. She spoke quickly, but her voice was dull
'Let us forget what has happened, Peter. We were neither of us
ourselves. I was tired and frightened and disappointed. You were sorry
for me just at the moment, and your nerves were strained, like mine. It
was all nothing. Let us forget it.'
I shook my head.
'No,' I said. 'It was not that. I can't let you even pretend you
think that was all. I love you. I always have loved you, though I did
not know how much till you had gone away. After a time, I thought I had
got over it. But when I met you again down here, I knew that I had not,
and never should. I came back to say good-bye, but I shall always love
you. It is my punishment for being the sort of man I was five years
'And mine for being the sort of woman I was five years ago.' She
laughed bitterly. 'Woman! I was just a little fool, a sulky child. My
punishment is going to be worse than yours, Peter. You will not be
always thinking that you had the happiness of two lives in your hands,
and threw it away because you had not the sense to hold it.'
'It is just that that I shall always be thinking. What happened five
years ago was my fault, Audrey, and nobody's but mine. I don't think
that, even when the loss of you hurt most, I ever blamed you for going
away. You had made me see myself as I was, and I knew that you had done
the right thing. I was selfish, patronizing—I was insufferable. It was
I who threw away our happiness. You put it in a sentence that first day
here, when you said that I had been kind—sometimes—when I happened to
think of it. That summed me up. You have nothing to reproach yourself
for. I think we have not had the best of luck; but all the blame is
A flush came into her pale face.
'I remember saying that. I said it because I was afraid of myself. I
was shaken by meeting you again. I thought you must be hating me—you
had every reason to hate me, and you spoke as if you did—and I did not
want to show you what you were to me. It wasn't true, Peter. Five years
ago I may have thought it, but not now. I have grown to understand the
realities by this time. I have been through too much to have any false
ideas left. I have had some chance to compare men, and I realize that
they are not all kind, Peter, even sometimes, when they happen to think
'Audrey,' I said—I had never found myself able to ask the question
before—'was—was—he—was Sheridan kind to you?'
She did not speak for a moment, and I thought she was resenting the
'No!' she said abruptly.
She shot out the monosyllable with a force that startled and
silenced me. There was a whole history of unhappiness in the word.
'No,' she said again, after a pause, more gently this time. I
understood. She was speaking of a dead man.
'I can't talk about him,' she went on hurriedly. 'I expect most of
it was my fault. I was unhappy because he was not you, and he saw that
I was unhappy and hated me for it. We had nothing in common. It was
just a piece of sheer madness, our marriage. He swept me off my feet. I
never had a great deal of sense, and I lost it all then. I was far
happier when he had left me.'
'He deserted me almost directly we reached America.' She laughed. 'I
told you I had grown to understand the realities. I began then.'
I was horrified. For the first time I realized vividly all that she
had gone through. When she had spoken to me before of her struggles
that evening over the study fire, I had supposed that they had begun
only after her husband's death, and that her life with him had in some
measure trained her for the fight. That she should have been pitched
into the arena, a mere child, with no experience of life, appalled me.
And, as she spoke, there came to me the knowledge that now I could
never do what I had come to do. I could not give her up. She needed me.
I tried not to think of Cynthia.
I took her hand.
'Audrey,' I said, 'I came here to say good-bye. I can't. I want you.
Nothing matters except you. I won't give you up.'
'It's too late,' she said, with a little catch in her voice. 'You
are engaged to Mrs Ford.'
'I am engaged, but not to Mrs Ford. I am engaged to someone you have
never met—Cynthia Drassilis.'
She pulled her hand away quickly, wide-eyed, and for some moments
'Do you love her?' she asked at last.
'Does she love you?'
Cynthia's letter rose before my eyes, that letter that could have
had no meaning, but one.
'I am afraid she does,' I said.
She looked at me steadily. Her face was very pale.
'You must marry her, Peter.'
I shook my head.
'You must. She believes in you.'
'I can't. I want you. And you need me. Can you deny that you need
She said it quite simply, without emotion. I moved towards her,
thrilling, but she stepped back.
'She needs you too,' she said.
A dull despair was creeping over me. I was weighed down by a
premonition of failure. I had fought my conscience, my sense of duty
and honour, and crushed them. She was raising them up against me once
more. My self-control broke down.
'Audrey,' I cried, 'for God's sake can't you see what you're doing?
We have been given a second chance. Our happiness is in your hands
again, and you are throwing it away. Why should we make ourselves
wretched for the whole of our lives? What does anything else matter
except that we love each other? Why should we let anything stand in our
way? I won't give you up.'
She did not answer. Her eyes were fixed on the ground. Hope began to
revive in me, telling me that I had persuaded her. But when she looked
up it was with the same steady gaze, and my heart sank again.
'Peter,' she said, 'I want to tell you something. It will make you
understand, I think. I haven't been honest, Peter. I have not fought
fairly. All these weeks, ever since we met, I have been trying to steal
you. It's the only word. I have tried every little miserable trick I
could think of to steal you from the girl you had promised to marry.
And she wasn't here to fight for herself. I didn't think of her. I was
wrapped up in my own selfishness. And then, after that night, when you
had gone away, I thought it all out. I had a sort of awakening. I saw
the part I had been playing. Even then I tried to persuade myself that
I had done something rather fine. I thought, you see, at that time that
you were infatuated with Mrs Ford—and I know Mrs Ford. If she is
capable of loving any man, she loves Mr Ford, though they are divorced.
I knew she would only make you unhappy. I told myself I was saving you.
Then you told me it was not Mrs Ford, but this girl. That altered
everything. Don't you see that I can't let you give her up now? You
would despise me. I shouldn't feel clean. I should feel as if I had
stabbed her in the back.'
I forced a laugh. It rang hollow against the barrier that separated
us. In my heart I knew that this barrier was not to be laughed away.
'Can't you see, Peter? You must see.'
'I certainly don't. I think you're overstrained, and that you have
let your imagination run away with you. I—'
She interrupted me.
'Do you remember that evening in the study?' she asked abruptly. 'We
had been talking. I had been telling you how I had lived during those
'Every word I spoke was spoken with an object—calculated.... Yes,
even the pauses. I tried to make them tell, too. I knew you, you
see, Peter. I knew you through and through, because I loved you, and I
knew the effect those tales would have on you. Oh, they were all true.
I was honest as far as that goes. But they had the mean motive at the
back of them. I was playing on your feelings. I knew how kind you were,
how you would pity me. I set myself to create an image which would stay
in your mind and kill the memory of the other girl; the image of a
poor, ill-treated little creature who should work through to your heart
by way of your compassion. I knew you, Peter, I knew you. And then I
did a meaner thing still. I pretended to stumble in the dark. I meant
you to catch me and hold me, and you did. And ...'
Her voice broke off.
'I'm glad I have told you,' she said. 'It makes it a little better.
You understand now how I feel, don't you?'
She held out her hand.
'I am not going to give you up,' I said doggedly.
'Good-bye,' she said again. Her voice was a whisper.
I took her hand and began to draw her towards me.
'It is not good-bye. There is no one else in the world but you, and
I am not going to give you up.'
'Peter!' she struggled feebly. 'Oh, let me go.'
I drew her nearer.
'I won't let you go,' I said.
But, as I spoke, there came the sound of automobile wheels on the
gravel. A large red car was coming up the drive. I dropped Audrey's
hand, and she stepped back and was lost in the shrubbery. The car
slowed down and stopped beside me. There were two women in the tonneau.
One, who was dark and handsome, I did not know. The other was Mrs
I was given no leisure for wondering how Cynthia's mother came to be
in the grounds of Sanstead House, for her companion, almost before the
car had stopped, jumped out and clutched me by the arm, at the same
time uttering this cryptic speech: 'Whatever he offers I'll double!'
She fixed me, as she spoke, with a commanding eye. She was a woman,
I gathered in that instant, born to command. There seemed, at any rate,
no doubt in her mind that she could command me. If I had been a black
beetle she could not have looked at me with a more scornful
superiority. Her eyes were very large and of a rich, fiery brown
colour, and it was these that gave me my first suspicion of her
identity. As to the meaning of her words, however, I had no clue.
'Bear that in mind,' she went on. 'I'll double it if it's a million
'I'm afraid I don't understand,' I said, finding speech.
She clicked her tongue impatiently.
'There's no need to be so cautious and mysterious. This lady is a
friend of mine. She knows all about it. I asked her to come. I'm Mrs
Elmer Ford. I came here directly I got your letter. I think you're the
lowest sort of scoundrel that ever managed to keep out of gaol, but
that needn't make any difference just now. We're here to talk business,
Mr Fisher, so we may as well begin.'
I was getting tired of being taken for Smooth Sam.
'I am not Smooth Sam Fisher.'
I turned to the automobile. 'Will you identify me, Mrs Drassilis?'
She was regarding me with wide-open eyes.
'What on earth are you doing down here? I have been trying
everywhere to find you, but nobody—'
Mrs Ford interrupted her. She gave me the impression of being a
woman who wanted a good deal of the conversation, and who did not care
how she got it. In a conversational sense she thugged Mrs Drassilis at
this point, or rather she swept over her like some tidal wave, blotting
'Oh,' she said fixing her brown eyes, less scornful now but still
imperious, on mine. 'I must apologize. I have made a mistake. I took
you for a low villain of the name of Sam Fisher. I hope you will
forgive me. I was to have met him at this exact spot just about this
time, by appointment, so, seeing you here, I mistook you for him.'
'If I might have a word with you alone?' I said.
Mrs Ford had a short way with people. In matters concerning her own
wishes, she took their acquiescence for granted.
'Drive on up to the house, Jarvis,' she said, and Mrs Drassilis was
whirled away round the curve of the drive before she knew what had
happened to her.
'My name is Burns,' I said.
'Now I understand,' she said. 'I know who you are now.' She paused,
and I was expecting her to fawn upon me for my gallant service in her
cause, when she resumed in quite a different strain.
'I can't think what you can have been about, Mr Burns, not to have
been able to do what Cynthia asked you. Surely in all these weeks and
months.... And then, after all, to have let this Fisher scoundrel steal
him away from under your nose...!'
She gave me a fleeting glance of unfathomable scorn. And when I
thought of all the sufferings I had gone through that term owing to her
repulsive son and, indirectly, for her sake, I felt that the time had
come to speak out.
'May I describe the way in which I allowed your son to be stolen
away from under my nose?' I said. And in well-chosen words, I sketched
the outline of what had happened. I did not omit to lay stress on the
fact that the Nugget's departure with the enemy was entirely voluntary.
She heard me out in silence.
'That was too bad of Oggie,' she said tolerantly, when I had ceased
dramatically on the climax of my tale.
As a comment it seemed to me inadequate.
'Oggie was always high-spirited,' she went on. 'No doubt you have
'He could be led, but never driven. With the best intentions, no
doubt, you refused to allow him to leave the stables that night and
return to the house, and he resented the check and took the matter into
his own hands.' She broke off and looked at her watch. 'Have you a
watch? What time is it? Only that? I thought it must be later. I
arrived too soon. I got a letter from this man Fisher, naming this spot
and this hour for a meeting, when we could discuss terms. He said that
he had written to Mr Ford, appointing the same time.' She frowned. 'I
have no doubt he will come,' she said coldly.
'Perhaps this is his car,' I said.
A second automobile was whirring up the drive. There was a shout as
it came within sight of us, and the chauffeur put on the brake. A man
sprang from the tonneau. He jerked a word to the chauffeur, and the car
went on up the drive.
He was a massively built man of middle age, with powerful shoulders,
and a face—when he had removed his motor-goggles very like any one of
half a dozen of those Roman emperors whose features have come down to
us on coins and statues, square-jawed, clean-shaven, and aggressive.
Like his late wife (who was now standing, drawn up to her full height,
staring haughtily at him) he had the air of one born to command. I
should imagine that the married life of these two must have been
something more of a battle even than most married lives. The clashing
of those wills must have smacked of a collision between the immovable
mass and the irresistible force.
He met Mrs Ford's stare with one equally militant, then turned to
'I'll give you double what she has offered you,' he said. He paused,
and eyed me with loathing. 'You damned scoundrel,' he added.
Custom ought to have rendered me immune to irritation, but it had
not. I spoke my mind.
'One of these days, Mr Ford,' I said, 'I am going to publish a
directory of the names and addresses of the people who have mistaken me
for Smooth Sam Fisher. I am not Sam Fisher. Can you grasp that? My name
is Peter Burns, and for the past term I have been a master at this
school. And I may say that, judging from what I know of the little
brute, any one who kidnapped your son as long as two days ago will be
so anxious by now to get rid of him that he will probably want to pay
you for taking him back.'
My words almost had the effect of bringing this divorced couple
together again. They made common cause against me. It was probably the
first time in years that they had formed even a temporary alliance.
'How dare you talk like that!' said Mrs Ford. 'Oggie is a sweet boy
in every respect.'
'You're perfectly right, Nesta,' said Mr Ford. 'He may want
intelligent handling, but he's a mighty fine boy. I shall make
inquiries, and if this man has been ill-treating Ogden, I shall
complain to Mr Abney. Where the devil is this man Fisher?' he broke off
'On the spot,' said an affable voice. The bushes behind me parted,
and Smooth Sam stepped out on to the gravel.
I had recognized him by his voice. I certainly should not have done
so by his appearance. He had taken the precaution of 'making up' for
this important meeting. A white wig of indescribable respectability
peeped out beneath his black hat. His eyes twinkled from under two
penthouses of white eyebrows. A white moustache covered his mouth. He
was venerable to a degree.
He nodded to me, and bared his white head gallantly to Mrs Ford.
'No worse for our little outing, Mr Burns, I am glad to see. Mrs
Ford, I must apologize for my apparent unpunctuality, but I was not
really behind time. I have been waiting in the bushes. I thought it
just possible that you might have brought unwelcome members of the
police force with you, and I have been scouting, as it were, before
making my advance. I see, however, that all is well, and we can come at
once to business. May I say, before we begin, that I overheard your
recent conversation, and that I entirely disagree with Mr Burns. Master
Ford is a charming boy. Already I feel like an elder brother to him. I
am loath to part with him.'
'How much?' snapped Mr Ford. 'You've got me. How much do you want?'
'I'll give you double what he offers,' cried Mrs Ford.
Sam held up his hand, his old pontifical manner intensified by the
'May I speak? Thank you. This is a little embarrassing. When I asked
you both to meet me here, it was not for the purpose of holding an
auction. I had a straight-forward business proposition to make to you.
It will necessitate a certain amount of plain and somewhat personal
speaking. May I proceed? Thank you. I will be as brief as possible.'
His eloquence appeared to have had a soothing effect on the two
Fords. They remained silent.
'You must understand,' said Sam, 'that I am speaking as an expert. I
have been in the kidnapping business many years, and I know what I am
talking about. And I tell you that the moment you two got your divorce,
you said good-bye to all peace and quiet. Bless you'—Sam's manner
became fatherly—'I've seen it a hundred times. Couple get divorced,
and, if there's a child, what happens? They start in playing
battledore-and-shuttlecock with him. Wife sneaks him from husband.
Husband sneaks him back from wife. After a while along comes a
gentleman in my line of business, a professional at the game, and he
puts one across on both the amateurs. He takes advantage of the
confusion, slips in, and gets away with the kid. That's what has
happened here, and I'm going to show you the way to stop it another
time. Now I'll make you a proposition. What you want to do'—I have
never heard anything so soothing, so suggestive of the old family
friend healing an unfortunate breach, as Sam's voice at this
juncture—'what you want to do is to get together again right quick.
Never mind the past. Let bygones be bygones. Kiss and be friends.'
A snort from Mr Ford checked him for a moment, but he resumed.
'I guess there were faults on both sides. Get together and talk it
over. And when you've agreed to call the fight off and start fair
again, that's where I come in. Mr Burns here will tell you, if you ask
him, that I'm anxious to quit this business and marry and settle down.
Well, see here. What you want to do is to give me a salary—we can talk
figures later on—to stay by you and watch over the kid. Don't
snort—I'm talking plain sense. You'd a sight better have me with you
than against you. Set a thief to catch a thief. What I don't know about
the fine points of the game isn't worth knowing. I'll guarantee, if you
put me in charge, to see that nobody comes within a hundred miles of
the kid unless he has an order-to-view. You'll find I earn every penny
of that salary ... Mr Burns and I will now take a turn up the drive
while you think it over.'
He linked his arm in mine and drew me away. As we turned the corner
of the drive I caught a glimpse over my shoulder of the Little Nugget's
parents. They were standing where we had left them, as if Sam's
eloquence had rooted them to the spot.
'Well, well, well, young man,' said Sam, eyeing me affectionately,
'it's pleasant to meet you again, under happier conditions than last
time. You certainly have all the luck, sonny, or you would have been
badly hurt that night. I was getting scared how the thing would end.
Buck's a plain roughneck, and his gang are as bad as he is, and they
had got mighty sore at you, mighty sore. If they had grabbed you,
there's no knowing what might not have happened. However, all's well
that ends well, and this little game has surely had the happy ending. I
shall get that job, sonny. Old man Ford isn't a fool, and it won't take
him long, when he gets to thinking it over, to see that I'm right.
He'll hire me.'
'Aren't you rather reckoning without your partner?' I said. 'Where
does Buck MacGinnis come in on the deal?'
Sam patted my shoulder paternally.
'He doesn't, sonny, he doesn't. It was a shame to do it—it was like
taking candy from a kid—but business is business, and I was
reluctantly compelled to double-cross poor old Buck. I sneaked the
Nugget away from him next day. It's not worth talking about; it was too
easy. Buck's all right in a rough-and-tumble, but when it comes to
brains he gets left, and so he'll go on through life, poor fellow. I
hate to think of it.'
He sighed. Buck's misfortunes seemed to move him deeply.
'I shouldn't be surprised if he gave up the profession after this.
He has had enough to discourage him. I told you about what happened to
him that night, didn't I? No? I thought I did. Why, Buck was the guy
who did the Steve Brodie through the roof; and, when we picked him up,
we found he'd broken his leg again! Isn't that enough to jar a man? I
guess he'll retire from the business after that. He isn't intended for
We were approaching the two automobiles now, and, looking back, I
saw Mr and Mrs Ford walking up the drive. Sam followed my gaze, and I
heard him chuckle.
'It's all right,' he said. 'They've fixed it up. Something in the
way they're walking tells me they've fixed it up.'
Mrs Drassilis was still sitting in the red automobile, looking
piqued but resigned. Mrs Ford addressed her.
'I shall have to leave you, Mrs Drassilis,' she said. 'Tell Jarvis
to drive you wherever you want to go. I am going with my husband to see
my boy Oggie.'
She stretched out a hand towards the millionaire. He caught it in
his, and they stood there, smiling foolishly at each other, while Sam,
almost purring, brooded over them like a stout fairy queen. The two
chauffeurs looked on woodenly.
Mr Ford released his wife's hand and turned to Sam.
'I've been considering your proposition. There's a string tied to
'Oh no, sir, I assure you!'
'There is. What guarantee have I that you won't double-cross me?'
Sam smiled, relieved.
'You forget that I told you I was about to be married, sir. My wife
won't let me!'
Mr Ford waved his hand towards the automobile.
'Jump in,' he said briefly, 'and tell him where to drive to. You're
'No manners!' said Mrs Drassilis. 'None whatever. I always said so.'
She spoke bitterly. She was following the automobile with an
offended eye as it moved down the drive.
The car rounded the corner. Sam turned and waved a farewell. Mr and
Mrs Ford, seated close together in the tonneau, did not even look
Mrs Drassilis sniffed disgustedly.
'She's a friend of Cynthia's. Cynthia asked me to come down here
with her to see you. I came, to oblige her. And now, without a word of
apology, she leaves me stranded. She has no manners whatever.'
I offered no defence of the absent one. The verdict more or less
squared with my own opinion.
'Is Cynthia back in England?' I asked, to change the subject.
'The yacht got back yesterday. Peter, I have something of the utmost
importance to speak to you about.' She glanced at Jarvis the chauffeur,
leaning back in his seat with the air, peculiar to chauffeurs in
repose, of being stuffed. 'Walk down the drive with me.'
I helped her out of the car, and we set off in silence. There was a
suppressed excitement in my companion's manner which interested me, and
something furtive which brought back all my old dislike of her. I could
not imagine what she could have to say to me that had brought her all
'How do you come to be down here?' she said. 'When Cynthia
told me you were here, I could hardly believe her. Why are you a master
at this school? I cannot understand it!'
'What did you want to see me about?' I asked.
She hesitated. It was always an effort for her to be direct. Now,
apparently, the effort was too great. The next moment she had rambled
off on some tortuous bypath of her own, which, though it presumably led
in the end to her destination, was evidently a long way round.
'I have known you for so many years now, Peter, and I don't know of
anybody whose character I admire more. You are so generous—quixotic in
fact. You are one of the few really unselfish men I have ever met. You
are always thinking of other people. Whatever it cost you, I know you
would not hesitate to give up anything if you felt that it was for
someone else's happiness. I do admire you so for it. One meets so few
young men nowadays who consider anybody except themselves.'
She paused, either for breath or for fresh ideas, and I took
advantage of the lull in the rain of bouquets to repeat my question.
'What did you want to see me about?' I asked patiently.
'About Cynthia. She asked me to see you.'
'You got a letter from her.'
'Last night, when she came home, she told me about it, and showed me
your answer. It was a beautiful letter, Peter. I'm sure I cried when I
read it. And Cynthia did, I feel certain. Of course, to a girl of her
character that letter was final. She is so loyal, dear child.'
'I don't understand.'
As Sam would have said, she seemed to be speaking; words appeared to
be fluttering from her; but her meaning was beyond me.
'Once she has given her promise, I am sure nothing would induce her
to break it, whatever her private feelings. She is so loyal. She has
'Would you mind being a little clearer?' I said sharply. 'I really
don't understand what it is you are trying to tell me. What do you mean
about loyalty and character? I don't understand.'
She was not to be hustled from her bypath. She had chosen her route,
and she meant to travel by it, ignoring short-cuts.
'To Cynthia, as I say, it was final. She simply could not see that
the matter was not irrevocably settled. I thought it so fine of her.
But I am her mother, and it was my duty not to give in and accept the
situation as inevitable while there was anything I could do for her
happiness. I knew your chivalrous, unselfish nature, Peter. I could
speak to you as Cynthia could not. I could appeal to your generosity in
a way impossible, of course, for her. I could put the whole facts of
the case clearly before you.'
I snatched at the words.
'I wish you would. What are they?'
She rambled off again.
'She has such a rigid sense of duty. There is no arguing with her. I
told her that, if you knew, you would not dream of standing in her way.
You are so generous, such a true friend, that your only thought would
be for her. If her happiness depended on your releasing her from her
promise, you would not think of yourself. So in the end I took matters
into my own hands and came to see you. I am truly sorry for you, dear
Peter, but to me Cynthia's happiness, of course, must come before
everything. You do understand, don't you?'
Gradually, as she was speaking, I had begun to grasp hesitatingly at
her meaning, hesitatingly, because the first hint of it had stirred me
to such a whirl of hope that I feared to risk the shock of finding
that, after all, I had been mistaken. If I were right—and surely she
could mean nothing else—I was free, free with honour. But I could not
live on hints. I must hear this thing in words.
'Has—has Cynthia—' I stopped, to steady my voice. 'Has Cynthia
found—' I stopped again. I was finding it absurdly difficult to frame
my sentence. 'Is there someone else?' I concluded with a rush.
Mrs Drassilis patted my arm sympathetically.
'Be brave, Peter!'
The trees, the drive, the turf, the sky, the birds, the house, the
automobile, and Jarvis, the stuffed chauffeur, leaped together for an
instant in one whirling, dancing mass of which I was the centre. And
then, out of the chaos, as it separated itself once more into its
component parts, I heard my voice saying, 'Tell me.'
The world was itself again, and I was listening quietly and with a
mild interest which, try as I would, I could not make any stronger. I
had exhausted my emotion on the essential fact: the details were an
'I liked him directly I saw him,' said Mrs Drassilis. 'And, of
course, as he was such a friend of yours, we naturally—'
'A friend of mine?'
'I am speaking of Lord Mountry.'
'Mountry? What about him?' Light flooded in on my numbed brain. 'You
don't mean—Is it Lord Mountry?'
My manner must have misled her. She stammered in her eagerness to
dispel what she took to be my misapprehension.
'Don't think that he acted in anything but the most honourable
manner. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He knew nothing of
Cynthia's engagement to you. She told him when he asked her to marry
him, and he—as a matter of fact, it was he who insisted on dear
Cynthia writing that letter to you.'
She stopped, apparently staggered by this excursion into honesty.
'In fact, he dictated it.'
'Unfortunately, it was quite the wrong sort of letter. It was the
very opposite of clear. It can have given you no inkling of the real
state of affairs.'
'It certainly did not.'
'He would not allow her to alter it in any way. He is very obstinate
at times, like so many shy men. And when your answer came, you see,
things were worse than before.'
'I suppose so.'
'I could see last night how unhappy they both were. And when Cynthia
suggested it, I agreed at once to come to you and tell you everything.'
She looked at me anxiously. From her point of view, this was the
climax, the supreme moment. She hesitated. I seemed to see her
marshalling her forces, the telling sentences, the persuasive
adjectives; rallying them together for the grand assault.
But through the trees I caught a glimpse of Audrey, walking on the
lawn; and the assault was never made.
'I will write to Cynthia tonight,' I said, 'wishing her happiness.'
'Oh, Peter!' said Mrs Drassilis.
'Don't mention it,' said I.
Doubts appeared to mar her perfect contentment.
'You are sure you can convince her?'
'And—er—Lord Mountry. He is so determined not to do anything—
er—what he would call unsportsmanlike.'
'Perhaps I had better tell her I am going to marry some one else,' I
'I think that would be an excellent idea,' she said, brightening
visibly. 'How clever of you to have thought of it.'
She permitted herself a truism.
'After all, dear Peter, there are plenty of nice girls in the world.
You have only to look for them.'
'You're perfectly right,' I said. 'I'll start at once.'
A gleam of white caught my eye through the trees by the lawn. I
moved towards it.