"I've got a suggestion," he said. "Will you come and lunch with me first, and we'll stroll about, and then we can go to the garden-party, and if you don't like it I'll take you away again?"
"Done!" she said. "Now don't you try to get out of it, because my husband is a witness. Georgie, give me a cigarette."
In a moment Riseholme-Georgie had his cigarette-case open.
"Do take one of mine," he said, "I'm Georgie too."
"You don't say so! Let's send it to the Psychical Research, or whoever those people are who collect coincidences and say it's spooks. And a match please, one of you Georgies. Oh, how I should like never to see the inside of an Opera House again. Why mayn't I grow on the walls of a garden like this, or better still, why shouldn't I have a house and garden of my own here, and sing on the village-green, and ask for halfpennies? Tell me what happens here! I've always lived in town since the time a hook-nosed Hebrew, rather like Lady Ambermere, took me out of the gutter."
"My dear!" said Mr Shuttleworth.
"Well, out of an orphan-school at Brixton and I would much prefer the gutter. That's all about my early life just now, because I am keeping it for my memoirs which I shall write when my voice becomes a little more like a steam-whistle. But don't tell Lady Ambermere, for she would have a fit, but say you happen to know that I belong to the Surrey Bracelys. So I do; Brixton is on the Surrey side. Oh, my dear, look at the sun. It's behaving like the best sort of Claude! Heile Sonne!"
"I heard you do that last May," said Georgie.
"Then you heard a most second-rate performance," said she. "But really being unlaced by that Thing, that great fat profligate beery Prussian was almost too much for me. And the duet! But it was very polite of you to come, and I will do better next time. Siegfried! Brunnhilde! Siegfried! Miaou! Miaou! Bring on the next lot of cats! Darling Georgie, wasn't it awful? And you had proposed to me only the day before."
"I was absolutely enchanted," said Riseholme-Georgie.
"Yes, but then you didn't have that Thing breathing beer into your innocent face." Georgie rose; the first call on a stranger in Riseholme was never supposed to last more than half an hour, however much you were enjoying it, and never less, however bored you might be, and he felt sure he had already exceeded this.
"I must be off," he said. "Too delightful to think that you and Mr Shuttleworth will come to lunch with me tomorrow. Half past one, shall we say?"
"Excellent; but where do you live?"
"Just across the green. Shall I call for you?" he asked.
"Certainly not. Why should you have that bother?" she said. "Ah, let me come with you to the inn-door, and perhaps you will shew me from there."
She passed through the hall with him, and they stood together in the sight of all Riseholme, which was strolling about the green at this as at most other hours. Instantly all faces turned round in their direction, like so many sunflowers following the sun, while Georgie pointed out his particular mulberry tree. When everybody had had a good look, he raised his hat.
"A domani then," she said. "So many thanks."
And quite distinctly she kissed her hand to him as he turned away....
"So she talks Italian too," thought Georgie, as he dropped little crumbs of information to his friends on his way to his house. "Domani, that means tomorrow. Oh yes; she was meaning lunch."
It is hardly necessary to add that on the table in his hall there was one of Lucia's commoner kinds of note, merely a half sheet folded together in her own manner. Georgie felt that it was scarcely more necessary to read it, for he felt quite sure that it contained some excuse for not coming to his house at six in order to call on Mr and Mrs Bracely. But he gave a glance at it before he rolled it up in a ball for Tipsipoozie to play with, and found its contents to be precisely what he expected, the excuse being that she had not done her practising. But the post-script was interesting, for it told him that she had asked Foljambe to give her his copy of Siegfried....
Georgie strolled down past The Hurst before dinner. Mozart was silent now, but there came out of the open windows the most amazing hash of sound, which he could just recognise as being the piano arrangement of the duet between Brunnhilde and Siegfried at the end. He would have been dull indeed if he had not instantly guessed what that signified.
A fresh thrill went through an atmosphere already super-saturated with excitement, when next morning all Lucia's friends who had been bidden to the garden-party (Tightum) were rung up on the telephone and informed that the party was Hightum. That caused a good deal of extra work, because the Tightum robes had to be put away again, and the Hightums aired and brushed and valetted. But it was well worth it, for Riseholme had not the slightest difficulty in conjecturing that Olga Bracely was to be among the guests. For a cultured and artistic centre the presence of a star that blazed so regally in the very zenith of the firmament of art absolutely demanded the Hightum which the presence of poor Lady Ambermere (though she would not have liked that) had been powerless to bring out of their cupboards. And these delightful anticipations concentrated themselves into one rose-coloured point of joy, when no less than two independent observers, without collusion, saw the piano-tuner either entering or leaving The Hurst, while a third, an ear-witness, unmistakably heard the tuning of the piano actually going on. It was thus clear to all penetrating minds that Olga Bracely was going to sing. It was further known that something was going on between her and Georgie, for she had been heard by one Miss Antrobus to ask for Georgie's number at the telephone in the Ambermere Arms. Etiquette forbade her actually to listen to what passed, but she could not help hearing Olga laugh at something (presumably) that Georgie said. He himself took no part in the green-parliament that morning, but had been seen to dash into the fruiterer's and out again, before he went in a great hurry to The Hurst, shortly after twelve-thirty. Classes on Eastern philosophy under the tuition of Mrs Quantock's Indian, were already beginning to be hinted at, but today in the breathless excitement about the prima-donna nobody cared about that; they might all have been taking lessons in cannibalism, and nobody would have been interested. Finally about one o'clock one of the motors in which the party had arrived yesterday drew up at the door of the Ambermere Arms, and presently Mr Bracely,—no, dear, Mr Shuttleworth got in and drove off alone. That was very odd conduct in a lately-married bridegroom, and it was hoped that there had been no quarrel.
Olga had, of course, been given no directions as to Hightum or Tightum, and when she walked across to Georgie's house shortly after half-past one only Mrs Weston who was going back home to lunch at top speed was aware that she was dressed in a very simple dark blue morning frock, that would almost have passed for Scrub. It is true that it was exceedingly well cut, and had not the look of having been rolled up in a ball and hastily ironed out again that usually distinguished Scrub, and she also wore a string of particularly fine pearls round her neck, the sort of ornament that in Riseholme would only be seen in an evening Hightum, even if anybody in Riseholme had owned such things. Lucia, not long ago had expressed the opinion that jewels were vulgar except at night, and for her part she wore none at all, preferring one Greek cameo of uncertain authenticity.
Georgie received Olga alone, for Hermy and Ursy were not yet back from their golf.
"It is good of you to let me come without my husband," she said. "His excuse is toothache and he has driven into Brinton—"
"I'm very sorry," said Georgie.
"You needn't be, for now I'll tell you his real reason. He thought that if he lunched with you he would have to come on to the garden party, and that he was absolutely determined not to do. You were the thin edge of the wedge, in fact. My dear, what a delicious house. All panelled, with that lovely garden behind. And croquet—may we play croquet after lunch? I always try to cheat, and if I'm found out I lose my temper. Georgie won't play with me, so I play with my maid."
"This Georgie will," said he.
"How nice of him! And do you know what we did this morning, before the toothache didn't begin? We went all over that house three doors away, which is being done up. It belongs to the proprietor of the Ambermere Arms. And—oh, I wonder if you can keep a secret?"
"Yes," said Georgie. He probably had never kept one yet, but there was no reason why he shouldn't begin now.
"Well, I'm absolutely determined to buy it, only I daren't tell my husband until I've done it. He has an odd nature. When a thing is done, settled, and there's no help for it, he finds it adorable, but he also finds fatal objections to doing it at all, if he is consulted about it before it is done. So not a word! I shall buy it, make the garden, furnish it, down to the minutest detail, and engage the servants, and then he'll give it me for a birthday present. I had to tell somebody or I should burst."
Georgie nearly swooned with fervour and admiration.
"But what a perfect plan!" he said. "You really like our little Riseholme?"
"It's not a question of liking; it's a mere detail of not being able to do without it. I don't like breathing, but I should die if I didn't. I want some delicious, hole-in-the-corner, lazy backwater sort of place, where nothing ever happens, and nobody ever does anything. I've been observing all the morning, and your habits are adorable. Nothing ever happens here, and that will precisely suit me, when I get away from my work."
Georgie was nearer swooning than ever at this. He could hardly believe his ears when she talked of Riseholme being a lazy backwater, and almost thought she must have been speaking of London, where, as Lucia had acutely observed, people sat in the Park all morning and talked of each other's affairs, and spent the afternoon at picture-galleries, and danced all night. There was a flippant, lazy existence.
But she was far too much absorbed in her project to notice his stupefaction.
"But if you breathe a word," she said, "everything will be spoilt. It has to burst on Georgie. Oh, and there's another mulberry-tree in your garden as well as the one in front. It's too much."
Her eyes followed Foljambe out of the door.
"And I know your parlour-maid is called Paravicini or Grosvenor," she said.
"No, she is Foljambe," said Georgie.
"I knew I was right," she said. "It's practically the same thing. Oh, and last night! I never had such an awful evening. Why didn't you warn me, and my husband should have had toothache then instead of this morning."
"What happened?" asked he.
"But the woman's insane, that Ambermere parrot, I mean. Georgie and I were ten minutes late, and she had a jet tiara on, and why did she ask us to dine at a quarter to eight, if she meant a quarter to eight, instead of saying half-past-seven? They were actually going into dinner when we came, a mournful procession of three moth-eaten men and three whiskered women. Upon which the procession broke up, as if we had been the riot act, and was arranged again, as a funeral procession, and Georgie with Lady Ambermere was the hearse. We dined in the family vault and talked about Lady Ambermere's pug. She talked about you, too, and said you were of county family, and that Mrs Lucas was a very decent sort of woman, and that she herself was going to look in on her garden-party today. Then she looked at my pearls, and asked if they were genuine. So I looked at her teeth, and there was no need to ask about them."
"Don't miss out a moment," said Georgie greedily.
"Whenever Lady Ambermere spoke, everybody else was silent. I didn't grasp that at first, for no one had explained the rules. So she stopped in the middle of a sentence and waited till I had finished. Then she went on again, precisely where she had left off. Then when we came into the drawing room, the whiskered ladies and I, there a little woman like a mouse sitting there, and nobody introduced her. So naturally I went to talk to her, before which the great parrot said, 'Will you kindly fetch my wool-work, Miss Lyall?' and Miss Lyall took a sack out of the corner, and inside was the sacred carpet. And then I waited for some coffee and cigarettes, and I waited, and I waited, and I am waiting still. The Parrot said that coffee always kept her awake, and that was why. And then Georgie came in with the others, and I could see by his face that he hadn't had a cigarette either. It was then half-past nine. And then each man sat down between two women, and Pug sat in the middle and looked for fleas. Then Lady Ambermere got up, and came across the charmed circle to me. She said: 'I hope you have brought your music, Mrs Shuttleworth. Kindly open the piano, Miss Lyall. It was always considered a remarkably line instrument.'"
Olga waved the fork on which was impaled a piece of the pineapple which Georgie had purchased that morning at the fruiterer's.
"The stupendous cheek!" she said. "I thought it must be a joke, and laughed with the greatest politeness. But it wasn't! You'll hardly believe it, but it wasn't! One of the whiskered ones said, That will be a great treat,' and another put on the face that everyone wears at concerts. And I was so stunned that I sang, and Lady Ambermere beat time, and Pug barked."
She pointed a finger at Georgie.
"Never till the day of judgment," she said, "when Lady Ambermere gnashes her beautiful teeth for ever and ever, will I set foot in that house again. Nor she in my house. I will set fire to it sooner. There! My dear, what a good lunch you have given me. May we play croquet at once?"
Lucia's garden-parties were scheduled from four to seven and half-an-hour before the earliest guest might be expected, she was casting an eagle eye over the preparations which today were on a very sumptuous scale. The bowls were laid out in the bowling alley, not because anybody in Hightums dresses was the least likely to risk the stooping down and the strong movements that the game entailed, but because bowls were Elizabethan. Between the alley and the lawn nearer to the house was a large marquee, where the commoner crowd—though no crowd could be really common in Riseholme—would refresh itself. But even where none are common there may still be degrees in rarity, and by the side of this general refreshment room was a smaller tent carpeted with Oriental rugs, and having inside it some half-dozen chairs, and two seats which can only be described as thrones, for Lady Ambermere or Olga Bracely, while Lucia's Guru, though throneworthy, would very kindly sit in one of his most interesting attitudes on the floor. This tent was designed only for high converse, and common guests (if they were good) would be led into it and introduced to the great presences, while for the refreshment of the presences, in intervals of audience, a more elaborate meal, with peaches and four sorts of sandwiches was laid in the smoking-parlour. Thus those guests for whom audiences were not provided, could have the felicity of seeing the great ones pass across the lawn on their excursions for food, and possibly trip over the croquet hoops, which had been left up to give an air of naturalness to the lawn. In the smoking-parlour an Elzevir or two were left negligently open, as if Mr and Mrs Lucas had been reading the works of Persius and Juvenal when the first guests arrived. In the music-room, finally, which was not usually open on these occasions, there were fresh flowers: the piano, too, was open, and if you had not seen the Elzevirs in the smoking-parlour, it would have been reasonable for the early guests, if they penetrated here, to imagine that Mrs Lucas had been running over the last act of Siegfried a minute before.
In this visit of final inspection Lucia was accompanied by her Guru, for he was part of the domestic dramatis personae, and she wanted him to be "discovered" in the special tent. She pointed out the site of his proposed "discovery" to him.
"Probably the first person I shall bring in here," she said, "will be Lady Ambermere, for she is noted for her punctuality. She is so anxious to see you, and would it not be exciting if you found you had met before? Her husband was Governor of Madras, and she spent many years in India."
"Madras, gracious lady?" asked the Guru. "I, too, know Madras: there are many dark spirits in Madras. And she was at English Residency?"
"Yes. She says Mr Kipling knows nothing about India. You and she will have much to talk about. I wish I could sit on the floor, too, and listen to what you say to each other."
"It will be great treat," said the Guru thoughtfully, "I love all who love my wonderful country."
Suddenly he stopped, and put his hands up to his head, palms outward.
"There are wonderful vibrations today," he said. "All day I feel that some word is on way from the Guides, some great message of light."
"Oh, wouldn't it be wonderful if it came to you in the middle of my garden party?" said Lucia enthusiastically.
"Ah, gracious lady, the great word comes not so. It comes always in solitude and quiet. Gracious lady knows that as well as Guru."
Pure Guruism and social pre-eminence struggled together in Lucia. Guruism told her that she ought to be ecstatic at the idea of a great message coming and should instantly smile on his desire for solitude and quiet, while social pre-eminence whispered to her that she had already dangled the presence of a high-caste mystic from Benares before the eyes of Lady Ambermere, who only came from Madras. On the other hand Olga Bracely was to be an even more resplendent guest than either Lady Ambermere or the Guru; surely Olga Bracely was enough to set this particular garden-party on the giddiest of pinnacles. And an awful consequence lurked as a possibility if she attempted to force her Guru not to immune himself in solitude and quiet, which was that conceivably he might choose to go back to the pit whence he was digged, namely the house of poor Daisy Quantock. The thought was intolerable, for with him in her house, she had seen herself as dispenser of Eastern Mysteries, and Mistress of Omism to Riseholme. In fact the Guru was her August stunt; it would never do to lose him before the end of July, and rage to see all Riseholme making pilgrimages to Daisy. There was a thin-lipped firmness, too, about him at this moment: she felt that under provocation he might easily defy or desert her. She felt she had to yield, and so decided to do so in the most complete manner.
"Ah, yes," she said. "I know how true that is. Dear Guru, go up to Hamlet: no one will disturb you there. But if the message comes through before Lady Ambermere goes away, promise me you will come back."
He went back to the house, where the front door was already open to admit Lady Ambermere, who was telling "her people" when to come back for her, and fled with the heels of his slippers tapping on the oak stairs up to Hamlet. Softly he shut out the dark spirits from Madras, and made himself even more secure by turning the key in his door. It would never do to appear as a high caste Brahmin from Benares before anyone who knew India with such fatal intimacy, for he might not entirely correspond with her preconceived notions of such a person.
Lady Ambermere's arrival was soon followed by that of other guests, and instead of going into the special tent reserved for the lions, she took up a commanding position in the middle of the lawn, where she could examine everybody through her tortoiseshell handled lorgnette. She kept Peppino by her, who darted forward to shake hands with his wife's guests, and then darted back again to her. Poor Miss Lyall stood behind her chair, and from time to time as ordered, gave her a cape, or put up her parasol, or adjusted her footstool for her, or took up Pug or put him down as her patroness required. Most of the time Lady Ambermere kept up a majestic monologue.
"You have a pretty little garden here, Mr Lucas," she said, "though perhaps inconveniently small. Your croquet lawn does not look to me the full size, and then there is no tennis-court. But I think you have a little strip of grass somewhere, which you use for bowls, have you not? Presently I will walk around with you and see your domain. Put Pug down again, please, Miss Lyall, and let him run about. See, he wants to play with one of those croquet balls. Put it in motion for him, and he will run with it. Bless me, who is that coming up the path at such a tremendous speed in a bath-chair? Oh, I see, it is Mrs Weston. She should not go as fast as that. If Pug was to stray on to the path he would be run over. Better pick up Pug again, Miss Lyall, till she has gone by. And here is Colonel Boucher. If he had brought his bull-dogs, I should have asked him to take them away again. I should like a cup of tea, Miss Lyall, with plenty of milk in it, and not too strong. You know how I like my tea. And a biscuit or something for Pug, with a little cream in a saucer or anything that's handy."
"Won't you come into the smoking-parlour, and have tea there, Lady Ambermere?" asked Peppino.
"The smoking-parlour?" asked she. "How very strange to lay tea in a smoking-room."
Peppino explained that nobody had in all probability used the smoking-parlour to smoke in for five or six years.
"Oh, if that is so, I will come," said she. "Better bring Pug along, too, Miss Lyall. There is a croquet-hoop. I am glad I saw it or I should have stumbled over it perhaps. Oh, this is the smoking-parlour, is it? Why do you have rushes on the floor? Put Pug in a chair, Miss Lyall, or he may prick his paws. Books, too, I see. That one lying open is an old one. It is Latin poetry. The library at The Hall is very famous for its classical literature. The first Viscount collected it, and it numbers many thousands of volumes."
"Indeed, it is the most wonderful library," said Peppino. "I can never tear myself away from it, when I am at The Hall."
"I do not wonder. I am a great student myself and often spend a morning there, do I not, Miss Lyall? You should have some new glass put in those windows, Mr Lucas. On a dark day it must be very difficult to see here. By the way, your good wife told me that there would probably be a very remarkable Indian at her party, a Brahmin from Benares, she said. I should like to have a talk with him while I am having my tea. Kindly prepare a peach for me, Miss Lyall."
Peppino had heard about the retirement of the Guru, in consequence of a message from the Guides being expected, and proceeded to explain this to Lady Ambermere, who did not take the slightest notice, as she was looking at the peaches through her lorgnette.
"That one nearest me looks eatable," she said. "And then I do not see Miss Olga Bracely, though I distinctly told her I should be here this afternoon, and she said Mrs Lucas had asked her. She sang to us yesterday evening at The Hall, and very creditably indeed. Her husband, Mr Shuttleworth, is a cousin of the late lord's."
Lucia had come into the smoking-parlour during this speech, and heard these fatal words. At the moment she would gladly have recalled her invitation to Olga Bracely altogether, sooner than have alluded therein to Mr Bracely. But that was one of the irremediable things of life, and since it was no use wasting regret on that, she was only the more eager for Olga to come, whatever her husband's name was. She braced herself up to the situation.
"Peppino, are you looking after Lady Ambermere?" she said. "Dear Lady Ambermere, I hope they are all taking care of you."
"A very decent peach," said Lady Ambermere. "The south wall of my garden is covered with them, and they are always of a peculiarly delicious flavour. The Hall is famed for its peaches. I understood that Miss Bracely was going to be here, Mrs Lucas. I cannot imagine what makes her so late. I was always famed for my punctuality myself. I have finished my tea."
The lawn outside was now growing thick with people all in their Hightums, and Lady Ambermere as she emerged from the smoking-parlour again viewed the scene with marked disfavour. The two Miss Antrobuses had just arrived, and skipped up to their hostess with pretty cries.
"We are dreadfully late," said the eldest, "but it was all Piggy's fault."
"No, Goosie, it was yours," said the other. "How can you be so naughty as to say it was mine? Dear Mrs Lucas, what a lovely party it's being, and may we go and play bowls?"
Lady Ambermere regarded their retreating backs, as they raced off with arms intertwined to the bowling green.
"And who are those young ladies?" she asked. "And why Piggy and Goosie? Miss Lyall, do not let Pug go to the bowls. They are very heavy."
Elsewhere Mrs Antrobus was slowly advancing from group to group, with her trumpet violently engaged in receiving refreshment. But conversation was not quite so varied as usual, for there was an attitude of intense expectation about with regard to the appearance of Miss Bracely, that made talk rather jerky and unconnective. Then also it had gone about that the mysterious Indian, who had been seen now and then during the last week, was actually staying with Mrs Lucas, and why was he not here? More unconjecturable yet, though not so thrillingly interesting, was the absence of Mr Georgie. What could have happened to him, that he was not flitting about on his hostess's errands, and being the life and soul of the party? It was in vain that Mrs Antrobus plodded on her methodical course, seeking answers to all these riddles, and that Mrs Weston in her swifter progression dashed about in her bath-chair from group to group, wherever people seemed to be talking in an animated manner. She could learn nothing, and Mrs Antrobus could learn nothing, in fact the only information to be had on the subject was what Mrs Weston herself supplied. She had a very high-coloured handsome face, and an extremely impressive manner, as if she was imparting information of the very highest importance. She naturally spoke in a loud, clear voice, so that she had not got to raise it much even when she addressed Mrs Antrobus. Her wealth of discursive detail was absolutely unrivalled, and she was quite the best observer in Riseholme.
"The last I saw of Miss Bracely," she said exactly as if she had been told to describe something on oath in the witness-box, "was a little after half-past one today. It must have been after half-past because when I got home it was close on a quarter to two, and I wasn't a hundred yards from my house when I saw her. As soon as I saw her I said to my gardener boy, Henry Luton, who was pushing me—he's the son of old Mrs Luton who kept the fish shop, and when she died last year, I began to get my fish from Brinton, for I didn't fancy the look of the new person who took on the business, and Henry went to live with his aunt. That was his father's sister, not his mother's, for Mrs Luton never had a sister, and no brothers either. Well, I said to Henry, 'You can go a bit slower, Henry, as we're late, we're late, and a minute or two more doesn't make any difference.' 'No, ma'am,' said Henry touching his cap, so we went slower. Miss Bracely was just opposite the ducking-pond then, and presently she came out between the elms. She had just an ordinary morning frock on; it was dark-blue, about the same shade as your cape, Mrs Antrobus, or perhaps a little darker, for the sunshine brightened it up. Quite simple it was, nothing grand. And she looked at the watch on her wrist, and she seemed to me to walk a little quicker after that, as if she was a bit late, just as I was. But slower than I was going, I could not go, for I was crawling along, and before she got off the grass, I had come to the corner of Church Lane, and though I turned my head round sharp, like that, at the very last moment, so as to catch the last of her, she hadn't more than stepped off the grass onto the road before the laurestinus at the corner of Colonel Boucher's garden—no, of the Vicar's garden—hid her from me. And if you ask me——"
Mrs Weston stopped for a moment, nodding her head up and down, to emphasize the importance of what she had said, and to raise the expectations of Mrs Antrobus to the highest pitch, as to what was coming.
"And if you ask me where I think she was going and what she was going to do," she said, "I believe she was going out to lunch and that she was going to one of those houses there, just across the road, for she made a bee-line across the green towards them. Well, there are three houses there: there's Mrs Quantock's, and it couldn't have been that, or else Mrs Quantock would have had some news of her, or Colonel Boucher's, and it wouldn't have been that, for the Colonel would have had news of her, and we all know whose the third house just there is."
Mrs Antrobus had not completely followed this powerful reasoning.
"But Colonel Boucher and Mrs Quantock are both here, eh?" said she.
Mrs Weston raised her voice a little.
"That's what I'm saying," she announced, "but who isn't here whom we should expect to see, and where's his house?"
It was generally felt that Mrs Weston had hit the nail on the head. What that nail precisely was no one knew, because she had not explained why both Olga Bracely and Georgie were absentees. But now came the climax, bang on the top of the nail, a shrewd straight stroke.
"So there she was having her lunch with Mr Georgie," said Mrs Weston, now introducing this name for the first time, with the highest dramatic art, "and they would be seeing round his house afterwards. And then when it was time to come here, Mr Georgie would have remembered that the party was Hightum not Tightum, and there was Miss Bracely not in Hightum at all, nor even Tightum, in my opinion, but Scrub. No doubt she said to him, 'Is it a very grand sort of party, Mr Pillson?' and he couldn't do other than reply, for we all received notice that it was Hightum—mine came about twelve—he couldn't do other than reply, 'Yes, Miss Bracely, it is.' 'Good gracious me,' she would say, 'and I've only got this old rag on. I must go back to the Ambermere Arms, and tell my maid—for she brought a maid in that second motor—and tell my maid to put me out something tidy.' 'But that will be a great bother for you,' he would say, or something of that sort, for I don't pretend to know what he actually did say, and she would reply, 'Oh Mr Pillson, but I must put on something tidy, and it would be so kind of you, if you would wait for me, while I do that, and let us go together.' That's what she said."
Mrs Weston made a sign to her gardener to proceed, wishing to leave the stage at the moment of climax.
"And that's why they're both late," she said, and was whirled away in the direction of the bowling-green.
The minutes went on, and still nobody appeared who could possibly have accounted for the three-lined whip of Hightums, but by degrees Lucia, who had utterly failed to decoy Lady Ambermere into the place of thrones, began to notice a certain thinning on her lawns. Her guests, it would seem, were not in process of dispersal, for it was a long way off seven o'clock yet, and also none would be so ill-mannered as to leave without shaking hands and saying what a delicious afternoon they had spent. But certainly the lawns grew emptier, and she was utterly unable to explain this extraordinary phenomenon, until she happened to go close to the windows of her music-room. Then, looking in, she saw that not only was every chair there occupied, but people were standing about in expectant groups. For a moment, her heart beat high.... Could Olga have arrived and by some mistake have gone straight in there? It was a dreamlike possibility, but it burst like a ray of sunshine on the party that was rapidly becoming a nightmare to her,—for everyone, not Lady Ambermere alone, was audibly wondering when the Guru was coming, and when Miss Bracely was going to sing.
At the moment as she paused, a window in the music-room was opened, and Piggy's odious head looked out.
"Oh, Mrs Lucas," she said. "Goosie and I have got beautiful seats, and Mamma is quite close to the piano where she will hear excellently. Has she promised to sing Siegfried? Is Mr Georgie going to play for her? It's the most delicious surprise; how could you be so sly and clever as not to tell anybody?"
Lucia cloaked her rage under the most playful manner, as she ran into the music-room through the hall.
"You naughty things!" she said. "Do all come into the garden! It's a garden party, and I couldn't guess where you had all gone. What's all this about singing and playing? I know nothing of it."
She herded the incredulous crowd out into the garden again, all in their Hightums, every one of them, only to meet Lady Ambermere with Pug and Miss Lyall coming in.
"Better be going, Miss Lyall," she said. "Kindly run out and find my people. Oh, here's Mrs Lucas. Been very pleasant indeed, thank you, good-bye. Your charming garden. Yes."
"Oh, but it's very early," said Lucia. "It's hardly six yet."
"Indeed!" said Lady Ambermere. "Been so charming," and she marched out after Miss Lyall out into Shakespeare's garden.
It was soon terribly evident that other people were sharing Lady Ambermere's conclusion about the delights of the afternoon, and the necessity of getting home. Colonel Boucher had to take his bull-dogs for a run and walk off the excitement of the party; Piggy and Goosie explained to their mother that nobody was going to sing, and by silvery laughter tried to drown her just indignation, and presently Lucia had the agony of seeing Mrs Quantock seated on one of the thrones, that had been designed for much worthier ends, and Peppino sitting in the other, while a few guests drifted about the lawn with all the purposelessness of autumn leaves. What with the Guru, presumably meditating upstairs still, and with Olga Bracely most conspicuously absent, she had hardly nervous energy left to wonder what could have become of Georgie. Never in all the years of his ministry had he failed to be at her elbow through the entire duration of her garden-parties, flying about on her errands like a tripping Hermes, herding her flocks if she wanted them in one part of the garden rather than another, like a sagacious sheep-dog, and coming back to heel again ready for further tasks. But today Georgie was mysteriously away, for he had neither applied for leave nor given any explanation, however improbable, of his absence. He at least would have prevented Lady Ambermere, the only cornerstone of the party, from going away in what must be called a huff, and have continued to tell Lucia how marvellous she was, and what a beautiful party they were having. With the prospect of two other much more magnificent cornerstones, Lucia had not provided any further entertainment for her guests: there was not the conjurer from Brinton, nor the three young ladies who played banjo-trios, nor even the mild performing doves which cooed so prettily, and walked up their mistress's outstretched fingers according to order, if they felt disposed. There was nothing to justify Hightums, there was scarcely even sufficient to warrant Tightums. Scrub was written all over "the desert's dusty face."
It was about half-past six when the miracles began, and without warning the Guru walked out into the garden. Probably he had watched the departure of the great motor with its chauffeur and footman, and Miss Lyall and Lady Ambermere and Pug, and with his intuitive sagacity had conjectured that the danger from Madras was over. He wore his new red slippers, a wonderful turban and an ecstatic smile. Lucia and Daisy met him with cries of joy, and the remaining guests, those drifting autumn leaves, were swept up, as it were, by some compelling broom and clustered in a heap in front of him. There had been a Great Message, a Word of Might, full of Love and Peace. Never had there been such a Word....
And then, even before they had all felt the full thrill of that, once more the door from the house opened, and out came Olga Bracely and Georgie. It is true that she had still her blue morning frock, which Mrs Weston had designated as Scrub, but it was a perfectly new Scrub, and if it had been completely covered with Paris labels, they would not have made its provenance one whit clearer. "Dear Mrs Lucas," she said, "Mr Georgie and I are terribly late, and it was quite my fault. There was a game of croquet that wouldn't come to an end, and my life has been guided by only one principle, and that is to finish a game of croquet whatever happens. I missed six trains once by finishing a game of croquet. And Mr Georgie was so unkind: he wouldn't give me a cup of tea, or let me change my frock, but dragged me off to see you. And I won!"
The autumn leaves turned green and vigorous again, while Georgie went to get refreshment for his conqueror, and they were all introduced. She allowed herself to be taken with the utmost docility—how unlike Somebody—into the tent with the thrones: she confessed to having stood on tiptoe and looked into Mrs Quantock's garden and wanted to see it so much from the other side of the wall. And this garden, too—might she go and wander all over this garden when she had finished the most delicious peach that the world held? She was so glad she had not had tea with Mr Georgie: he would never have given her such a good peach....
Now the departing guests in their Hightums, lingering on the village green a little, and being rather sarcastic about the utter failure of Lucia's party, could hardly help seeing Georgie and Olga emerge from his house and proceed swiftly in the direction of The Hurst, and Mrs Antrobus who retained marvellous eyesight as compensation for her defective hearing, saw them go in, and simultaneously thought that she had left her parasol at The Hurst. Next moment she was walking thoughtfully away in that direction. Mrs Weston had been the next to realize what had happened, and though she had to go round by the road in her bath-chair, she passed Mrs Antrobus a hundred yards from the house, her pretext for going back being that Lucia had promised to lend her the book by Antonio Caporelli (or was it Caporelto?).
So once more the door into the garden opened, and out shot Mrs Weston. Olga by this time had made her tour of the garden, and might she see the house? She might. There was a pretty music-room. At this stage, just as Mrs Weston was poured out in the garden, as with the floodgates being unopened, the crowd that followed her came surging into Shakespeare's garden, and never had the mermaid's tail behind which was secreted the electric bell, experienced such feverish usage. Pressure after pressure invoked its aid, and the pretexts for re-admission were soon not made at all, or simply disregarded by the parlour-maid. Colonel Boucher might have left a bull-dog, and Mrs Antrobus an ear trumpet, or Miss Antrobus (Piggy) a shoe lace, and the other Miss Antrobus (Goosie) a shoe-horn: but in brisk succession the guests who had been so sarcastic about the party on the village-green, jostled each other in order to revisit the scenes of their irony. Miss Olga Bracely had been known to enter the portals, and as many of them who entered after her, found a Guru as well.
Olga was in the music-room when the crowd had congested the hall. People were introduced to her, and sank down into the nearest chairs. Mrs Antrobus took up her old place by the keyboard of the piano. Everybody seemed to be expecting something, and by degrees the import of their longing was borne in upon Olga. They waited, and waited and waited, much as she had waited for a cigarette the evening before. She looked at the piano, and there was a comfortable murmur from her audience. She looked at Lucia, who gave a great gasp, and said nothing at all. She was the only person present who was standing now except her hostess, and Mrs Weston's gardener, who had wheeled his mistress's chair into an admirable position for hearing. She was not too well pleased, but after all....
"Would you like me to sing?" she asked Lucia. "Yes? Ah, there's a copy of Siegfried. Do you play?"
Lucia could not smile any more than she was smiling already.
"Is it very diffy?" she asked. "Could I read it, Georgie? Shall I try?"
She slid onto the music-stool.
"Me to begin?" she asked, finding that Olga had opened the book at the salutation of Brunnhilde, which Lucia had practised so diligently all the morning.
She got no answer. Olga standing by her, had assumed a perfectly different aspect. For her gaiety, her lightness was substituted some air of intense concentrated seriousness which Lucia did not understand at all. She was looking straight in front of her, gathering herself in, and paying not the smallest attention to Lucia or anybody else.
"One, two," said Lucia. "Three. Now," and she plunged wildly into a sea of demi-semi-quavers. Olga had just opened her mouth, but shut it again.
"No," she said. "Once more," and she whistled the motif.
"Oh! it's so diffy!" said Lucia beginning again. "Georgie! Turn over!"
Georgie turned over, and Lucia counting audibly to herself made an incomparable mess all over the piano.
Olga turned to her accompanist.
"Shall I try?" she said.
She sat down at the piano, and made some sort of sketch of the accompaniment, simplifying, and yet retaining the essence. And then she sang.
Throughout August, Guruism reigned supreme over the cultured life of Riseholme, and the priestess and dispenser of its mysteries was Lucia. Never before had she ruled from so elate a pinnacle, nor wielded so secure a supremacy. None had access to the Guru but through her: all his classes were held in the smoking-parlour and he meditated only in Hamlet or in the sequestered arbour at the end of the laburnum walk. Once he had meditated on the village green, but Lucia did not approve of that and had led him, still rapt, home by the hand.
The classes had swelled prodigiously, for practically all Riseholmites now were at some stage of instruction, with the exception of Hermy and Ursy, who pronounced the whole thing "piffle," and, as gentle chaff for Georgie, sometimes stood on one leg in the middle of the lawn and held their breath. Then Hermy would say One, Two, Three, and they shouted "Om" at the tops of their discordant voices. Now that the Guru was practically interned in The Hurst, they had actually never set eyes on him, for they had not chosen to come to the Hightum garden-party, preferring to have a second round of golf, and meeting Lucia next day had been distinctly irreverent on the subject of Eastern philosophy. Since then she had not been aware of their existence.
Lucia now received special instruction from the Guru in a class all by herself so prodigious was her advance in Yoga, for she could hold her breath much longer than anybody else, and had mastered six postures, while the next class which she attended also consisted of the other original members, namely Daisy Quantock, Georgie and Peppino. They had got on very well, too, but Lucia had quite shot away from them, and now if the Guru had other urgent spiritual claims on him, she gave instruction to a less advanced class herself. For this purpose she habited herself in a peculiarly becoming dress of white linen, which reached to her feet and had full flowing sleeves like a surplice. It was girdled with a silver cord with long tassels, and had mother-of-pearl buttons and a hood at the back lined with white satin which came over her head. Below its hem as she sat and taught in a really rather advanced posture showed the toes of her white morocco slippers, and she called it her "Teacher's Robe." The class which she taught consisted of Colonel Boucher, Piggy Antrobus and Mrs Weston: sometimes the Colonel brought his bull-dogs with him, who lay and snorted precisely as if they were doing breathing exercises, too. A general air of joyful mystery and spiritual endeavour blew balmily round them all, and without any doubt the exercises and the deep breathing were extremely good for them.
One evening, towards the end of the month, Georgie was sitting in his garden, for the half hour before dressing-time, thinking how busy he was, and yet how extraordinarily young and fresh he felt. Usually this month when Hermy and Ursy were with him was very fatiguing, and in ordinary years he would have driven away with Foljambe and Dicky on the day after their departure, and had a quiet week by the seaside. But now, though his sisters were going away tomorrow morning, he had no intention of taking a well-earned rest, in spite of the fact that not only had he been their host all this time, but had done an amazing quantity of other things as well. There had been the daily classes to begin with, which entailed much work in the way of meditation and exercises, as well as the actual learning, and also he had had another job which might easily have taxed his energies to the utmost any other year. For Olga Bracely had definitely bought that house without which she had felt that life was not worth living, and Georgie all this month had at her request been exercising a semi-independent supervision over its decoration and furnishing. She had ordered the general scheme herself and had sent down from London the greater part of the furniture, but Georgie was commissioned to report on any likely pieces of old stuff that he could find, and if expedition was necessary to act on his own responsibility and buy them. But above all secrecy was still necessary till the house was so complete that her Georgie might be told, and by the end of the month Riseholme generally was in a state of prostration following on the violent and feverish curiosity as to who had taken the house. Georgie had gone so far as to confess that he knew, but the most pathetic appeals as to the owner's identity had fallen on obdurate, if not deaf, ears. Not the smallest hint would he give on the subject, and though those incessant visits to the house, those searchings for furniture, the bestowal of it in suitable places, the superintendence of the making of the garden, the interviewings of paperhangers, plumbers, upholsterers, painters, carpenters and so forth occupied a great deal of time, the delicious mystery about it all, and the fact that he was doing it for so adorable a creature, rendered his exertions a positive refreshment. Another thing which, in conjunction with this and his youth-giving studies, made him feel younger than ever was the discreet arrival and perfect success of his toupet. No longer was there any need to fear the dislocation of his espaliered locks. He felt so secure and undetectable in that regard that he had taken to wearing no hat, and was soon about to say that his hair was growing more thickly than ever in consequence. But it was not quite time for that yet: it would be inartistic to suggest that just a couple of weeks of hatlessness had produced so desirable a result.
As he sat at ease after the labours of the day he wondered how the coming of Olga Bracely to Riseholme would affect the economy of the place. It was impossible to think of her with her beauty, her charm, her fame, her personality as taking any second place in its life. Unless she was really meaning to use Riseholme as a retreat, to take no part in its life at all, it was hard to see what part she would take except the first part. One who by her arrival at Lucia's ever-memorable party had converted it in a moment from the most dire of Scrubs (in a psychical sense) to the Hightumest gathering ever known could not lay aside her distinction and pre-eminence. Never had Lucia "scored" so amazingly as over Olga's late appearance, which had the effect of bringing back all her departed guests with the compulsion of a magnet over iron-filings, and sending up the whole party like a rocket into the zenith of social success. All Riseholme knew that Olga had come (after playing croquet with Georgie the entire afternoon) and had given them free gratis and for nothing, such a treat as only the wealthiest could obtain with the most staggering fees. Lady Ambermere alone, driving back to The Hall with Pug and poor Miss Lyall, was the only person who had not shared in that, and she knew all about it next day, for Georgie had driven out on purpose to tell her, and met Lucia coming away. How, then, would the advent of Olga affect Riseholme's social working generally, and how would it affect Lucia in particular? And what would Lucia say when she knew on whose behalf Georgie was so busy with plumbers and painters, and with buying so many of the desirable treasures in the Ambermere Arms?
Frankly he could not answer these conundrums: they presupposed inconceivable situations, which yet, though inconceivable, were shortly coming to pass, for Olga's advent might be expected before October, that season of tea-parties that ushered in the multifarious gaieties of the winter. Would Olga form part of the moonlit circle to whom Lucia played the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata, and give a long sigh at the end like the rest of them? And would Lucia when they had all recovered a little from the invariable emotion go to her and say, "Olga mia, just a little bit out of the Valkyrie? It would be so pleasant." Somehow Georgie, with all his imagination, could not picture such a scene. And would Olga take the part of second citizenness or something of the sort when Lucia played Portia? Would Olga join the elementary class of Yoga, and be instructed by Lucia in her Teacher's Robe? Would she sing treble in the Christmas Carols, while Lucia beat time, and said in syllables dictated by the rhythm, "Trebles a little flat! My poor ears!"? Georgie could not imagine any of these things, and yet, unless Olga took no part in the social life of Riseholme at all (and that was equally inconceivable) what was the alternative? True, she had said that she was coming here because it was so ideally lazy a backwater, but Georgie did not take that seriously. She would soon see what Riseholme was when its life poured down in spate, whirling her punt along with it.
And finally, what would happen to him, when Olga was set as a shining star in this firmament? Already he revolved about her, he was aware, like some eager delighted little moon, drawn away from the orbit where it had encircled so contentedly by the more potent planet. And the measure of his detachment from that old orbit might be judged precisely by the fact that the process of detachment which was already taking place was marked by no sense of the pull of opposing forces at all. The great new star sailing into the heavens had just picked him up by force of its superior power of attraction, even as by its momentary conjunction with Lucia at the garden-party it had raised her to a magnitude she had never possessed before. That magnitude was still Lucia's, and no doubt would be until the great star appeared again. Then without effort its shining must surely eclipse every other illumination, just as without effort it must surely attract all the little moons to itself. Or would Lucia manage somehow or other, either by sheer force of will, by desperate and hostile endeavour, or, on the other hand, by some supreme tact and cleverness to harness the great star to her own chariot? He thought the desperate and hostile endeavour was more in keeping with Lucia's methods, and this quiet evening hour represented itself to him as the lull before the storm.
The actual quiet of the moment was suddenly broken into. His front-door banged, and the house was filled with running footsteps and screams of laughter. But it was not uncommon for Hermy and Ursy to make this sort of entrance, and at the moment Georgie had not the slightest idea of how much further-reaching was the disturbance of the tranquillity. He but drew a couple of long breaths, said "Om" once or twice, and was quite prepared to find his deeper calm unshattered.
Hermy and Ursy ran down the steps into the garden where he sat still yelling with laughter, and still Georgie's imagination went no further than to suppose that one of them had laid a stymie for the other at their golf, or driven a ball out of bounds or done some other of these things that appeared to make the game so diverting to them.
"Georgie, you'll never guess!" cried Hermy.
"The Guru: the Om, of high caste and extraordinary sanctity," cried Ursy.
"The Brahmin from Benares," shrieked Hermy.
"The great Teacher! Who do you think he is?" said Ursy. "We never seen him before—"
"But we recognised him at once—"
"He recognised us, too, and didn't he run?—"
"Into The Hurst and shut the door—"
Georgie's deeper calm suddenly quivered like a jelly.
"My dears, you needn't howl so, or talk quite so loud," he said. "All Riseholme will hear you. Tell me without shouting who it was you thought you recognised."
"There's no think about it," said Hermy. "It was one of the cooks from the Calcutta Restaurant in Bedford Street—"
"Where we often have lunch," said Ursy. "He makes the most delicious curries."
"Especially when he's a little tipsy," said Hermy.
"And is about as much a Brahmin as I am."
"And always said he came from Madras."
"We always tip him to make the curry himself, so he isn't quite ignorant about money."
"O Lord!" said Hermy, wiping her eyes. "If it isn't the limit!"
"And to think of Mrs Lucas and Colonel Boucher and you and Mrs Quantock, and Piggy and all the rest of them sitting round a cook," said Ursy, "and drinking in his wisdom. Mr Quantock was on the right track after all when he wanted to engage him."
Georgie with a fallen heart had first to satisfy himself that this was not one of his sisters' jokes, and then tried to raise his fallen heart by remembering that the Guru had often spoken of the dignity of simple manual work, but somehow it was a blow, if Hermy and Ursy were right, to know that this was a tipsy contriver of curry. There was nothing in the simple manual office of curry-making that could possibly tarnish sanctity, but the amazing tissue of falsehoods with which the Guru had modestly masked his innocent calling was not so markedly in the spirit of the Guides, as retailed by him. It was of the first importance, however, to be assured that his sisters had not at present communicated their upsetting discovery to anybody but himself, and after that to get their promise that they would not do so.
This was not quite so easy, for Hermy and Ursy had projected a round of visits after dinner to every member of the classes with the exception of Lucia, who should wake up next morning to find herself the only illusioned person in the place.
"She wouldn't like that, you know," said Hermy with brisk malice. "We thought it would serve her out for never asking us to her house again after her foolish old garden-party."
"My dear, you never wanted to go," said Georgie.
"I know we didn't, but we rather wanted to tell her we didn't want to go. She wasn't nice. Oh, I don't think we can give up telling everybody. It has made such sillies of you all. I think he's a real sport."
"So do I," said Ursy. "We shall soon have him back at his curry-oven again. What a laugh we shall have with him."
They subsided for just as long as it took Foljambe to come out of the house, inform them that it was a quarter of an hour to dinner-time, and return again. They all rose obediently.
"Well, we'll talk about it at dinner-time," said Georgie diplomatically. "And I'll just go down to the cellar first to see if I can find something you like."
"Good old Georgie," said Hermy. "But if you're going to bribe us, you must bribe us well."
"We'll see," said he.
Georgie was quite right to be careful over his Veuve Clicquot, especially since it was a bottle of that admirable beverage that Hermy and Ursy had looted from his cellar on the night of their burglarious entry. He remembered that well, though he had—chiefly from the desire to keep things pleasant about his hair—joined in "the fun," and had even produced another half-bottle. But tonight, even more than then, there was need for the abolition of all petty economies, for the situation would be absolutely intolerable if Hermy and Ursy spread about Riseholme the fact that the introducers and innermost circle of Yoga philosophers had sat at the feet of no Gamaliel at all, but at those of a curry-cook from some low restaurant. Indeed he brought up a second bottle tonight with a view if Hermy and Ursy were not softened by the first to administer that also. They would then hardly be in a condition to be taken seriously if they still insisted on making a house-to-house visit in Riseholme, and tearing the veil from off the features of the Guru. Georgie was far too upright of purpose to dream of making his sisters drunk, but he was willing to make great sacrifices in order to render them kind. What the inner circle would do about this cook he had no idea; he must talk to Lucia about it, before the advanced class tomorrow morning. But anything was better than letting Hermy and Ursy loose in Riseholme with their rude laughs and discreditable exposures. This evening safely over, he could discuss with Lucia what was to be done, for Hermy and Ursy would have vanished at cock-crow as they were going in for some golf-competition at a safe distance. Lucia might recommend doing nothing at all, and wish to continue enlightening studies as if nothing had happened. But Georgie felt that the romance would have evaporated from the classes as regards himself. Or again they might have to get rid of the Guru somehow. He only felt quite sure that Lucia would agree with him that Daisy Quantock must not be told. She with her thwarted ambitions of being the prime dispenser of Guruism to Riseholme might easily "turn nasty" and let it be widely known that she and Robert had seen through that fraud long ago, and had considered whether they should not offer the Guru the situation of cook in their household, for which he was so much better qualified. She might even add that his leanings towards her pretty housemaid had alone dissuaded her.
The evening went off with a success more brilliant than Georgie had anticipated, and it was quite unnecessary to open the second bottle of champagne. Hermy and Ursy, perhaps under the influence of the first, perhaps from innate good-nature, perhaps because they were starting so very early next morning, and wanted to be driven into Brinton, instead of taking a slower and earlier train at this station, readily gave up their project of informing the whole of Riseholme of their discovery, and went to bed as soon as they had rooked their brother of eleven shillings at cut-throat bridge. They continued to say, "I'll play the Guru," whenever they had to play a knave, but Georgie found it quite easy to laugh at that, so long as the humour of it did not spread. He even himself said, "I'll Guru you, then," when he took a trick with the Knave of Trumps.
The agitation and uncertainty caused him not to sleep very well, and in addition there was a good deal of disturbance in the house, for his sisters had still all their packing in front of them when they went to bed and the doze that preceded sleep was often broken by the sound of the banging of luggage, the clash of golf-clubs and steps on the stairs as they made ready for their departure.
But after a while these disturbances ceased, and it was out of a deep sleep that he awoke with the sense that some noise had awakened him. Apparently they had not finished yet, for there was surely some faint stir of movement somewhere. Anyhow they respected his legitimate desire for quiet, for the noise, whatever it was, was extremely stealthy and subdued. He thought of his absurd lark about burglars on the night of their arrival, and smiled at the notion. His toupet was in a drawer close to his bed, but he had no substantial impulse to put it on, and make sure that the noise was not anything other than his sisters' preparations for their early start. For himself, he would have had everything packed and corded long before dinner, if he was to start next day, except just a suit case that would hold the apparatus of immediate necessities, but then dear Hermy and Ursy were so ramshackle in their ways. Some time he would have bells put on all the shutters as he had determined to do a month ago, and then no sort of noise would disturb him any more....
The Yoga-class next morning was (unusually) to assemble at ten, since Peppino, who would not miss it for anything, was going to have a day's fishing in the happy stream that flowed into the Avon, and he wanted to be off by eleven. Peppino had made great progress lately and had certain curious dizzy symptoms when he meditated which were highly satisfactory.
Georgie breakfasted with his sisters at eight (they had enticed the motor out of him to convey them to Brinton) and when they were gone, Foljambe informed him that the housemaid had a sore throat, and had not "done" the drawing-room. Foljambe herself would "do" it, when she had cleaned the "young ladies'" rooms (there was a hint of scorn in this) upstairs, and so Georgie sat on the window seat of the dining-room, and thought how pleasant peace and quietness were. But just when it was time to start for The Hurst in order to talk over the disclosures of the night before with Lucia before the class, and perhaps to frame some secretive policy which would obviate further exposure, he remembered that he had left his cigarette-case (the pretty straw one with the turquoise in the corner) in the drawing-room and went to find it. The window was open, and apparently Foljambe had just come in to let fresh air into the atmosphere which Hermy and Ursy had so uninterruptedly contaminated last night with their "fags" as they called them, but his cigarette-case was not on the table where he thought he had left it. He looked round, and then stood rooted to the spot.
His glass-case of treasures was not only open but empty. Gone was the Louis XVI snuff-box, gone was the miniature of Karl Huth, gone the piece of Bow China, and gone the Faberge cigarette case. Only the Queen Anne toy-porringer was there, and in the absence of the others, it looked to him, as no doubt it had looked to the burglar, indescribably insignificant.
Georgie gave a little low wailing cry, but did not tear his hair for obvious reasons. Then he rang the bell three times in swift succession, which was the signal to Foljambe that even if she was in her bath, she must come at once. In she came with one of Hermy's horrid woolen jerseys that had been left behind, in her hand.
"Yes, sir, what is it?" she asked, in an agitated manner, for never could she remember Georgie having rung the bell three times except once when a fish-bone had stuck in his throat, and once again when a note had announced to him that Piggy was going to call and hoped to find him alone. For answer Georgie pointed to the rifled treasure-case. "Gone! Burgled!" he said. "Oh, my God!"
At that supreme moment the telephone bell sounded.
"See what it is," he said to Foljambe, and put the Queen Anne toy-porringer in his pocket.
She came hurrying back.
"Mrs Lucas wants you to come around at once," she said.
"I can't," said Georgie. "I must stop here and send for the police. Nothing must be moved," and he hastily replaced the toy-porringer on the exact circle of pressed velvet where it had stood before.
"Yes, sir," said Foljambe, but in another moment she returned.
"She would be very much obliged if you would come at once," she said. "There's been a robbery in the house."
"Well, tell her there's been one in mine," said Georgie irritably. Then good-nature mixed with furious curiosity came to his aid.
"Wait here, then, Foljambe, on this very spot," he said, "and see that nobody touches anything. I shall probably ring up the police from The Hurst. Admit them."
In his agitation he put on his hat, instead of going bareheaded and was received by Lucia, who had clearly been looking out of the music-room window, at the door. She wore her Teacher's Robe.
"Georgie," she said, quite forgetting to speak Italian in her greeting, "someone broke into Philip's safe last night, and took a hundred pounds in bank-notes. He had put them there only yesterday in order to pay in cash for that cob. And my Roman pearls."
Georgie felt a certain pride of achievement.
"I've been burgled, too," he said. "My Louis XVI snuff-box is worth more than that, and there's the piece of Bow china, and the cigarette-case, and the Karl Huth as well."
"My dear! Come inside," said she. "It's a gang. And I was feeling so peaceful and exalted. It will make a terrible atmosphere in the house. My Guru will be profoundly affected. An atmosphere where thieves have been will stifle him. He has often told me how he cannot stop in a house where there have been wicked emotions at play. I must keep it from him. I cannot lose him."
Lucia had sunk down on a spacious Elizabethan settle in the hall. The humorous spider mocked them from the window, the humorous stone fruit from the plate beside the pot-pourri bowl. Even as she repeated, "I cannot lose him," again, a tremendous rap came on the front door, and Georgie, at a sign from his queen, admitted Mrs Quantock.
"Robert and I have been burgled," she said. "Four silver spoons—thank God, most of our things are plate—eight silver forks and a Georgian tankard. I could have spared all but the last."
A faint sign of relief escaped Lucia. If the foul atmosphere of thieves permeated Daisy's house, too, there was no great danger that her Guru would go back there. She instantly became sublime.
"Peace!" she said. "Let us have our class first, for it is ten already, and not let any thought of revenge or evil spoil that for us. If I sent for the police now I could not concentrate. I will not tell my Guru what has happened to any of us, but for poor Peppino's sake I will ask him to give us rather a short lesson. I feel completely calm. Om."
Vague nightmare images began to take shape in Georgie's mind, unworthy suspicions based on his sisters' information the evening before. But with Foljambe keeping guard over the Queen Anne porringer, there was nothing more to fear, and he followed Lucia, her silver cord with tassels gently swinging as she moved, to the smoking-parlour, where Peppino was already sitting on the floor, and breathing in a rather more agitated manner than was usual with the advanced class. There were fresh flowers on the table, and the scented morning breeze blew in from the garden. According to custom they all sat down and waited, getting calmer and more peaceful every moment. Soon there would be the tapping of slippered heels on the walk of broken paving-stones outside, and for the time they would forget all these disturbances. But they were all rather glad that Lucia was to ask the Guru to give them a shorter lesson than usual.
They waited. Presently the hands of the Cromwellian timepiece which was the nearest approach to an Elizabethan clock that Lucia had been able at present to obtain, pointed to a quarter past ten.
"My Guru is a little late," said she.
Two minutes afterwards, Peppino sneezed. Two minutes after that Daisy spoke, using irony.
"Would it not be well to see what has happened to your Guru, dear?" she asked. "Have you seen your Guru this morning?"
"No, dear," said Lucia, not opening her eyes, for she was "concentrating," "he always meditates before a class."
"So do I," said Daisy, "but I have meditated long enough."
"Hush!" said Lucia. "He is coming."
That proved to be a false alarm, for it was nothing but Lucia's Persian cat, who had a quarrel with some dead laurel leaves. Lucia rose.
"I don't like to interrupt him," she said, "but time is getting on."
She left the smoking-parlour with the slow supple walk that she adopted when she wore her Teacher's Robes. Before many seconds had passed, she came back more quickly and with no suppleness.
"His door is locked", she said; "and yet there's no key in it."
"Did you look through the keyhole, Lucia mia?" asked Mrs Quantock, with irrepressible irony.
Naturally Lucia disregarded this.
"I knocked," she said, "and there was no reply. I said, 'Master, we are waiting,' and he didn't answer."
Suddenly Georgie spoke, as with the report of a cork flying out of a bottle.
"My sisters told me last night that he was the curry-cook at the Calcutta restaurant," he said. "They recognised him, and they thought he recognised them. He comes from Madras, and is no more a Brahmin than Foljambe."
Peppino bounded to his feet.
"What?" he said. "Let's get a poker and break in the door! I believe he's gone and I believe he's the burglar. Ring for the police."
"Curry-cook, is he?" said Daisy. "Robert and I were right after all. We knew what your Guru was best fitted for, dear Lucia, but then of course you always know best, and you and he have been fooling us finely. But you didn't fool me. I knew when you took him away from me, what sort of a bargain you had made. Guru, indeed! He's the same class as Mrs Eddy, and I saw through her fast enough. And now what are we to do? For my part, I shall just get home, and ring up for the police, and say that the Indian who has been living with you all these weeks has stolen my spoons and forks and my Georgian tankard. Guru, indeed! Burglaroo, I call him! There!"
Her passion, like Hyperion's, had lifted her upon her feet, and she stood there defying the whole of the advanced class, short and stout and wholly ridiculous, but with some revolutionary menace about her. She was not exactly "terrible as an army with banners," but she was terrible as an elderly lady with a long-standing grievance that had been accentuated by the loss of a Georgian tankard, and that was terrible enough to make Lucia adopt a conciliatory attitude. Bitterly she repented having stolen Daisy's Guru at all, if the suspicions now thickening in the air proved to be true, but after all they were not proved yet. The Guru might still walk in from the arbor on the laburnum alley which they had not yet searched, or he might be levitating with the door key in his pocket. It was not probable but it was possible, and at this crisis possibilities were things that must be clung to, for otherwise you would simply have to submerge, like those U-boats.
They searched all the garden, but found no trace of the curry-cook: they made guarded enquiries of the servants as to whether he had been seen, but nothing whatever could be learned about him. So when Peppino took a ponderous hammer and a stout chisel from his tool chest and led the way upstairs, they all knew that the decisive moment had come. Perhaps he might be meditating (for indeed it was likely that he had a good deal to meditate about), but perhaps—Peppino called to him in his most sonorous tones, and said that he would be obliged to break his lock if no answer came, and presently the house resounded with knockings as terrible as those in Macbeth, and much louder. Then suddenly the lock gave, and the door was open.
The room was empty, and as they had all conjectured by now, the bed was unslept in. They opened the drawers of the wardrobe and they were as empty as the room. Finally, Peppino unlocked the door of a large cupboard that stood in the corner, and with a clinking and crashing of glass there poured out a cataract of empty brandy bottles. Emptiness: that was the key-note of the whole scene, and blank consternation its effect.
"My brandy!" said Mrs Quantock in a strangled voice. "There are fourteen or fifteen bottles. That accounts for the glazed look in his eyes which you, dear Lucia, thought was concentration. I call it distillation."
"Did he take it from your cellar?" asked Lucia, too shattered to feel resentment, but still capable of intense curiosity.
"No: he had a standing order from me to order any little things he might want from my tradesmen. I wish I had my bills sent in every week."
"Yes, dear," said Lucia.
Georgie's eyes sought hers.
"I saw him buy the first bottle," he said. "I remember telling you about it. It was at Rush's"
Peppino gathered up his hammer and chisel.
"Well, it's no use sitting here and thinking of old times," he observed. "I shall ring up the police-station and put the whole matter into their hands, as far as I am concerned. They'll soon lay hands on him, and he can do his postures in prison for the next few years."
"But we don't know that it was he who committed all these burglaries yet," said Lucia.
No one felt it was worth answering this, for the others had all tried and convicted him already.
"I shall do the same," said Georgie.
"My tankard," said Mrs Quantock. Lucia got up.
"Peppino mio," she said, "and you, Georgie, and you, Daisy, I want you before you do anything at all to listen to me for five minutes. Just consider this. What sort of figure shall we all cut if we put the matter into the hands of the police? They will probably catch him, and it will all come out that we have been the dupes of a curry-cook. Think what we have all been doing for this last month, think of our classes, our exercises, our—everything. We have been made fools of, but for my part, I simply couldn't bear that everybody should know I had been made a fool of. Anything but that. What's a hundred pounds compared to that, or a tankard—"
"My Louis XVI snuff-box was worth at least that without the other things," said Georgie, still with a secret satisfaction in being the greatest sufferer.
"And it was my hundred pounds, not yours, carissima," said Peppino. But it was clear that Lucia's words were working within him like leaven.
"I'll go halves with you," she said. I'll give you a cheque for fifty pounds."
"And who would like to go halves in my tankard?" said Daisy with bitter irony. "I want my tankard."
Georgie said nothing, but his mind was extremely busy. There was Olga soon coming to Riseholme, and it would be awful if she found it ringing with the tale of the Guru, and glancing across to Peppino, he saw a thoughtful and sympathetic look in his eyes, that seemed to indicate that his mind was working on parallel lines. Certainly Lucia had given them all something to meditate upon. He tried to imagine the whole story being shouted into Mrs Antrobus's ear-trumpet on the village-green, and could not endure the idea. He tried to imagine Mrs Weston ever ceasing to talk about it, and could not picture her silence. No doubt they had all been taken in, too, but here in this empty bedroom were the original dupes, who encouraged the rest.
After Mrs Quantock's enquiry a dead silence fell.
"What do you propose, then?" asked Peppino, showing signs of surrender.
Lucia exerted her utmost wiles.
"Caro!" she said. "I want 'oo to propose. Daisy and me, we silly women, we want 'oo and Georgie to tell us what to do. But if Lucia must speak, I fink—"
She paused a moment, and observing strong disgust at her playfulness on Mrs Quantock's face, reverted to ordinary English again.
"I should do something of this sort," she said. "I should say that dear Daisy's Guru had left us quite suddenly, and that he has had a call somewhere else. His work here was done; he had established our classes, and set all our feet upon the Way. He always said that something of the sort might happen to him——"
"I believe he had planned it all along," said Georgie. "He knew the thing couldn't last for ever, and when my sisters recognised him, he concluded it was time to bolt."
"With all the available property he could lay hands on," said Mrs Quantock.
Lucia fingered her tassel.
"Now about the burglaries," she said. "It won't do to let it be known that three burglaries were committed in one night, and that simultaneously Daisy's Guru was called away—"
"My Guru, indeed!" said Mrs Quantock, fizzing with indignation at the repetition of this insult.
"That might give rise to suspicion," continued Lucia calmly, disregarding the interruption, "and we must stop the news from spreading. Now with regard to our burglary ... let me think a moment."
She had got such complete control of them all now that no one spoke.
"I have it," she said. "Only Boaler knows, for Peppino told her not to say a word till the police had been sent for. You must tell her, carissimo, that you have found the hundred pounds. That settles that. Now you, Georgie."
"Foljambe knows," said Georgie.
"Then tell her not to say a word about it. Put some more things out in your lovely treasure-case, no one will notice. And you, Daisy."
"Robert is away," said she, quite meekly, for she had been thinking things over. "My maid knows."
"And when he comes back, will he notice the loss of the tankard? Did you often use it?"
"About once in ten years."
"Chance it, then," said Lucia. "Just tell your maid to say nothing about it."
She became deliciously modest again.
"There!" she said. "That's just a little rough idea of mine and now Peppino and Georgie will put their wise heads together, and tell us what to do."
That was easily done: they repeated what she had said, and she corrected them if they went wrong. Then once again she stood fingering the tassels of her Teacher's Robe.
"About our studies," she said. "I for one should be very sorry to drop them altogether, because they made such a wonderful difference to me, and I think you all felt the same. Look at Georgie now: he looks ten years younger than he did a month ago, and as for Daisy, I wish I could trip about as she does. And it wouldn't do, would it, to drop everything just because Daisy's Guru—I mean our Guru—had been called away. It would look as if we weren't really interested in what he taught us, as if it was only the novelty of having a—a Brahmin among us that had attracted us."
Lucia smiled benignly at them all.
"Perhaps we shall find, bye and bye, that we can't progress much all by ourselves," she said, "and it will all drop quietly. But don't let us drop it with a bang. I shall certainly take my elementary class as usual this afternoon."
"In my Robe, just as usual," she said.
The fish for which Mrs Weston sent to Brinton every week since she did not like the look of the successor to Tommy Luton's mother lay disregarded on the dish, while with fork and fish-slice in her hand, as aids to gesticulation, she was recounting to Colonel Boucher the complete steps that had led up to her remarkable discovery.
"It was the day of Mrs Lucas's garden-party." she said, "when first I began to have my ideas, and you may be sure I kept them to myself, for I'm not one to speak before I'm pretty sure, but now if the King and Queen came to me on their bended knee and said it wasn't so, I shouldn't believe them. Well—as you may remember, we all went back to Mrs Lucas's party again about half-past six, and it was an umbrella that one had left behind, and a stick that another had forgotten, and what not, for me it was a book all about Venice, that I wanted to borrow, most interesting I am sure, but I haven't had time to glance at it yet, and there was Miss Bracely just come!"
Mrs Weston had to pause a moment for her maid, Elizabeth Luton (cousin of Tommy), jogged her elbow with the dishcover in a manner that could not fail to remind her that Colonel Boucher was still waiting for his piece of brill. As she carved it for him, he rapidly ran over in his mind what seemed to be the main points so far, for as yet there was no certain clue as to the purpose of this preliminary matter, he guessed either Guru or Miss Bracely. Then he received his piece of brill, and Mrs Weston laid down her carving implements again.
"You'd better help yourself, ma'am," said Elizabeth discreetly.
"So I had, and I'll give you a piece of advice too, Elizabeth, and that is to give the Colonel a glass of wine. Burgundy! I was only wondering this afternoon when it began to turn chilly, if there was a bottle or two of the old Burgundy left, which Mr Weston used to be so fond of, and there was. He bought it on the very spot where it was made, and he said there wasn't a headache in it, not if you drank it all night. He never did, for a couple of glasses and one more was all he ever took, so I don't know how he knew about drinking it all night, but he was a very fine judge of wine. So I said to Elizabeth, 'A bottle of the old Burgundy, Elizabeth,' Well, on that evening I stopped behind a bit, to have another look at the Guru, and get my book, and when I came up the street again, what should I see but Miss Bracely walking in to the little front garden at 'Old Place.' It was getting dark, I know, and my eyes aren't like Mrs Antrobus's, which I call gimlets, but I saw her plain enough. And if it wasn't the next day, it was the day after that, that they began mending the roof, and since then, there have been plumbers and painters and upholsterers and furniture vans at the door day and night."
"Haw, hum," said the Colonel, "then do you mean that it's Miss Bracely who has taken it?"
Mrs Weston nodded her head up and down.
"I shall ask you what you think when I've told you all," she said. "Well! There came a day, and if today's Friday it would be last Tuesday fortnight, and if today's Thursday, for I get mixed about it this morning, and then I never get it straight till next Sunday, but if today's Thursday, then it would be last Monday fortnight, when the Guru went away very suddenly, and I'm sure I wasn't very sorry, because those breathings made me feel very giddy and yet I didn't like to be out of it all. Mr Georgie's sisters went away the same day, and I've often wondered whether there was any connection between the two events, for it was odd their happening together like that, and I'm not sure we've heard the last of it yet."
Colonel Boucher began to wonder whether this was going to be about the Guru after all and helped himself to half a partridge. This had the effect of diverting Mrs Weston's attention.
"No," she said. "I insist on your taking the whole bird. They are quite small, and I was disappointed when I saw them plucked, and a bit of cold ham and a savoury is all the rest of your dinner. Mary asked me if I wouldn't have an apple tart as well, but I said 'No; the Colonel never touches sweets, but he'll have a partridge, a whole partridge,' I said, 'and he won't complain of his dinner.' Well! On the day that they all went away, whatever the explanation of that was, I was sitting in my chair opposite the Arms, when out came the landlord followed by two men carrying the settle that stood on the right of the fireplace in the hall. So I said, 'Well, landlord, who has ordered that handsome piece?' For handsome it was with it carved arms. And he said, 'Good morning, ma'am no, good afternoon ma'am, it would be—It's for Miss—and then he stopped dead and corrected himself, 'It's for Mr Pillson.'"
Mrs Weston rapidly took a great quantity of mouthfuls of partridge. As soon as possible she went on.
"So perhaps you can tell me where it is now, if it was for Mr Georgie," she said. "I was there only two days ago, and it wasn't in his hall, or in his dining room, or in his drawing room, for though there are changes there, that settle isn't one of them. It's his treasure case that's so altered. The snuff-box is gone, and the cigarette case and the piece of Bow china, and instead there's a rat-tail spoon which he used to have on his dinner-table, and made a great fuss with, and a bit of Worcester china that used to stand on the mantelpiece, and a different cigarette case, and a bead-bag. I don't know where that same from, but if he inherited it, he didn't inherit much that time, I priced it at five shillings. But there's no settle in the treasure-case or out of it, and if you want to know where that settle is, it's in Old Place, because I saw it there myself, when the door was open, as I passed. He bought it—Mr Georgie—on behalf of Miss Bracely, unless you suppose that Mr Georgie is going to live in Old Place one day and his own house the next. No; it's Miss Bracely who is going to live at 'Old Place' and that explains the landlord saying 'Miss' and then stopping. For some reason, and I daresay that won't puzzle me long, now I can give my mind to it, she's making a secret about it, and only Mr Georgie and the landlord of the Arms know. Of course he had to, for 'Old Place' is his, and I wish I had bought it myself now, for he got it for an old song."
"Well, by Jove, you have pieced it together finely," said Colonel Boucher.
"Wait a bit," said Mrs Weston, rising to her climax. "This very day, when Mary, that's my cook as you know, was coming back from Brinton with that bit of brill we've been eating, for they hadn't got an ounce of turbot, which I wanted, a luggage-train was standing at Riseholme station, and they had just taken out of it a case that could have held nothing but a grand piano. And if that's not enough for you, Colonel, there were two big dress-baskets as well, which I think must have contained linen, for they were corded, and it took two men to move each of them, so Mary said, and there's nothing so heavy as linen properly packed, unless it's plate, and there printed on them in black—no, it would be white, because the dress-baskets are black, were two initials, O.B. And if you can point to another O.B. in Riseholme I shall think I've lost my memory."
At this moment of supreme climax, the telephone-bell rang in the hall, shrill through the noise of cracking walnuts, and in came Elizabeth with the news that Mr Georgie wanted to know if he might come in for half-an-hour and chat. If it had been Olga Bracely herself, she could hardly have been more welcome; virtue (the virtue of observation and inference) was receiving its immediate reward.
"Delighted; say I'm delighted, Elizabeth," said Mrs Weston, "and now, Colonel, why should you sit all alone here, and I all alone in the drawing room? Bring your decanter and your glass with you, and you shall spare me half a glass for myself, and if you can't guess what one of the questions that I shall ask Mr Georgie is: well——"
Georgie made haste to avail himself of this hospitality for he was bursting with the most important news that had been his since the night of the burglaries. Today he had received permission to let it be known that Olga was coming to Old Place, for Mr Shuttleworth had been informed of the purchase and furnishing of the house, and had, as expected, presented his wife with it, a really magnificent gift. So now Riseholme might know, too, and Georgie, as eager as Hermes, if not quite so swift, tripped across to Mrs Weston's, on his delightful errand. It was, too, of the nature of just such a punitive expedition as Georgie thoroughly enjoyed, for Lucia all this week had been rather haughty and cold with him for his firm refusal to tell her who the purchaser of Old Place was. He had admitted that he knew, but had said that he was under promise not to reveal that, until permitted and Lucia had been haughty in consequence. She had, in fact, been so haughty that when Georgie rang her up just now, before ringing Mrs Weston up, to ask if he might spend an hour after dinner there, fully intending to tell her the great news, she had replied through her parlour-maid that she was very busy at the piano. Very well, if she preferred the second and third movements of the Moonlight Sonata, which she had seriously taken in hand, to Georgie's company, why, he would offer himself and his great news elsewhere. But he determined not to bring it out at once; that sort of thing must be kept till he said it was time to go away. Then he would bring it out, and depart in the blaze of Success.
He had brought a pretty piece of embroidery with him to occupy himself with, for his work had fallen into sad arrears during August, and he settled himself comfortably down close to the light, so that at the cost of very little eye-strain, he need not put on his spectacles.
"Any news?" he asked, according to the invariable formula. Mrs Weston caught the Colonel's eye. She was not proposing to bring out her tremendous interrogation just yet.
"Poor Mrs Antrobus. Toothache!" she said. "I was in the chemist's this morning and who should come in but Miss Piggy, and she wanted a drop of laudanum and had to say what it was for, and even then she had to sign a paper. Very unpleasant, I call it, to be obliged to let a chemist know that your mother has a toothache. But there it was, tell him she had to, or go away without any laudanum. I don't know whether Mr Doubleday wasn't asking more than he should, just out of inquisitiveness, for I don't see what business it is of his. I know what I should have said: 'Oh, Mr Doubleday, I want it to make laudanum tartlets, we are all so fond of laudanum tartlets.' Something sharp and sarcastic like that, to show him his place. But I expect it did Mrs Antrobus good, for there she was on the green in the afternoon, and her face wasn't swollen for I had a good look at her. Oh, and there was something I wanted to ask you, Mr Georgie, and I had it on the tip of my tongue a moment ago. We talked about it at dinner, the Colonel and I, while we were eating our bit of partridge, and I thought 'Mr Georgie will be sure to be able to tell us,' and if you didn't ring up on the telephone immediately afterwards! That seemed just Providential, but what's the use of that, if I can't remember what it was that I wanted to ask you."