'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 curious manner'.
'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 ours.'
'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 say—'
'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 matron, entered.
'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 room.
* * * * *
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 earth.
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 slow.
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 alone.
* * * * *
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 Whirl.
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 following words:
'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 explain.
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 himself.
'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 you?'
Surely that rich voice was familiar.
'White?' I said.
'What on earth do you think you're doing? Have you gone mad? Who was that man?'
'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 him.'
'You succeeded all right. He went through those bushes like a cannon-ball.'
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 fired pistols.
'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 himself.
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 every pocket.
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 out.
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 abstract speculation.
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 performance.
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 darkness.
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, 'Don't move!'
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 carried out.
The whole strength of the company gathered round the light.
'Thank you, White,' said Mr Abney. 'Excellent. I fear the scoundrel has escaped.'
'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 information.
'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 not instantly—'
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 of smoke.
'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 cigarette!'
'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 hadn't been—'
'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 conversation.
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 anticlimax.
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 with it.'
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 gink!'
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 Sheridan?'
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 photograph.
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 of herself.
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 all.
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 at twenty-five.'
'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 piqued.
'I suppose you looked on me as a kind of ogre in those days?' I said.
'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 eulogy.
'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 the school.'
'I am acting as assistant-master. I am supposed to be learning the business.'
'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 you?'
'I can't either.'
'Then I suppose we must face the embarrassment.'
'But why must it be embarrassing? You said yourself you had—got over it.'
'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 said.
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 mean.
'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 thing handy.'
'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 you.—In haste, CYNTHIA.
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 the village.
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 come.
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 Miss Benjafield.
'I haven't the faintest idea what you mean,' I said. 'What is my game?'
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 know you!'
'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 voice.
'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 upon them.
'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 floor.'
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 night.'
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 out.'
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 scepticism.
'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 assume.
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 to laugh.
'Well, what do you know about that?' he exclaimed. 'Wouldn't that jar you!'
'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 vocabulary?'
White was still chuckling quietly to himself.
'He's a wonder!' he observed. 'Can you beat it? Taking you for Smooth Sam!'
'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 off.'
'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 rival.
'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 like Buck.'
'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, disaster came.
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 for me.
The music stopped. I heard the drawing-room door open. She came into the study.
'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 studio.'
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 window.
'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 luck.'
'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 governess.'
'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 myself.
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 fortissimo.
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 work.'
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 friendly conversation.
'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 classroom.
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 rubberin'!'
This was friend Buck beyond question. I could have recognized his voice anywhere!
'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 Buck.
'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 Glossop.'
'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 precisely.
'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 find him.'
'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 you—which?'
'I'd be delighted to do anything you wished, Mr MacGinnis,' I said, 'but—'
'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—'