With this end in view he went down to Little Deeping. His conviction that the Twins were responsible for the disappearance of the princess became certitude when he learned from Mrs. Dangerfield that they were encamped on Deeping Knoll, and had been there since the day before that disappearance. But he kept that certitude to himself, since it was his habit to do things in the pleasantest way possible.
He forthwith set out across the fields and walked through the home wood and park to Muttle Deeping Grange. He gave his card to the butler and told him to take it straight to Miss Lambart, with whom he was on terms of friendship rather than of acquaintance; and in less than three minutes she came to him in the drawing-room.
She was looking anxious and worried; and as they shook hands he said: "Is this business worrying you?"
"It is rather. You see, though the Baroness Von Aschersleben was in charge of the princess, I am partly responsible. Besides, since I'm English, they keep coming to me to have all the steps that are being taken explained; and they want the same explanation over and over again. Since the archduke came it has been very trying. I think that he is more of an imbecile than any royalty I ever met."
"I'm sorry to hear that they've been worrying you like this. If I'd known, I'd have come down and stopped it earlier," said Sir Maurice in a tone of lively self-reproach.
"Stop it? Why, what can you do?" cried Miss Lambart, opening her eyes wide in her surprise.
"Well, I have a strong belief that I could lead you to your missing princess. But it's only a belief, mind. So don't be too hopeful."
Miss Lambart's pretty face flushed with sudden hope:
"Oh, if you could!" she cried.
"Put on your strongest pair of shoes, for I think that it will be rough going part of the way, and order a motor-car, or carriage; if you can, for the easier part; and we'll put my belief to the test," said Sir Maurice briskly.
Miss Lambart frowned, and said in a doubtful tone: "I shan't be able to get a carriage or car without a tiresome fuss. They're very unpleasant people, you know. Could we take the baroness with us? She'll have to be carried in something."
"Is she very fat?"
"Then she'd never get to the place I have in mind," said Sir Maurice.
"Is it very far? Couldn't we walk to it?"
"It's about three miles," said Sir Maurice.
"Oh, that's nothing—at least not for me. But you?" said Miss Lambart, who had an utterly erroneous belief that Sir Maurice was something of a weakling.
"I can manage it. Your companionship will stimulate my flagging limbs," said Sir Maurice. "Indeed, a real country walk on a warm and pleasant afternoon will be an experience I haven't enjoyed for years."
Miss Lambart was not long getting ready; and they set out across the park toward the knoll which rose, a rounded green lump, above the surface of the distant wood. Sir Maurice had once walked to it with the Twins; and he thought that his memory of the walk helped by a few inquiries of people they met would take him to it on a fairly straight course. It was certainly very pleasant to be walking with such a charming companion through such a charming country.
As soon as they were free of the gardens Miss Lambart said eagerly: "Where are we going to? Where do you think the princess is?"
"You've been here a month. Haven't you heard of the Dangerfield twins?" said Sir Maurice.
"Oh, yes; we were trying to find children to play with the princess; and Doctor Arbuthnot mentioned them. But he said that they were not the kind of children for her, though they were the only high and well-born ones the baroness was clamoring for, in the neighborhood. He seemed to think that they would make her rebellious."
"Then the princess didn't know them?" said Sir Maurice quickly.
"I wonder," said Sir Maurice skeptically.
"We found a little boy called Rupert Carrington to play with her—a very nice little boy," said Miss Lambart.
"Wiggins! The Twins' greatest friend! Well, I'll be shot!" cried Sir Maurice; and he laughed.
"But do you mean to say that you think that these children have something to do with the princess' disappearance? How old are they?" said Miss Lambart in an incredulous tone, for fixed very firmly in her mind was the belief that the princess had been carried off by the Socialists and foreigners.
"I never know whether they are thirteen or fourteen. But I do know that nothing out of the common happens in the Deepings without their having a hand in it. I have the honor to be their uncle," said Sir Maurice.
"But they'd never be able to persuade her to run away with them. She's a timid child; and she has been coddled and cosseted all her life till she is delicate to fragility," Miss Lambart protested.
"If it came to a matter of persuasion, my nephew would persuade the hind-leg, or perhaps even the fore-leg, off a horse," said Sir Maurice in a tone of deep conviction. "But it would not necessarily be a matter of persuasion."
"But what else could it be—children of thirteen or fourteen!" cried Miss Lambart.
"I assure you that it might quite easily have been force," said Sir Maurice seriously. "My nephew and niece are encamped on Deeping Knoll. It is honeycombed with dry sand-stone caves for the most part communicating with one another. I can conceive of nothing more likely than that the idea of being brigands occurred to one or other of them; and they proceeded to kidnap the princess to hold her for ransom. They might lure her to some distance from the Grange before they had recourse to force."
"It sounds incredible—children," said Miss Lambart.
"Well, we shall see," said Sir Maurice cheerfully. Then he added in a more doubtful tone; "If only we can take them by surprise, which won't be so easy as it sounds."
Miss Lambart feared that they were on a wild goose chase. But it was a very pleasant wild goose chase; she was very well content to be walking with him through this pleasant sunny land. When presently he turned the talk to matters more personal to her, she liked it better still. He was very sympathetic: he sympathized with her in her annoyance at having had to waste so much of the summer on this tiresome corvee of acting as lady-in-waiting on the little princess; for, thanks to the domineering jealousy of the baroness, it had been a tiresome corvee indeed, instead of the pleasant occupation it might have been. He sympathized with her in her vexation that she had been prevented by that jealousy from improving the health or spirits of the princess.
He was warmly indignant when she told him of the behavior of the baroness and the archduke during the last few days. The baroness had tried to lay the blame of the disappearance of the princess on her; and the archduke, a vast, sun-shaped, billowy mass of fat, infuriated at having been torn from the summer ease of his Schloss to dash to England, had been very rude indeed. She was much pleased by the warmth of Sir Maurice's indignation; but she protested against his making any attempt to punish them, for she did not see how he could do it, without harming himself. But she agreed with him that neither the grand duke, nor the baroness deserved any consideration at her hands.
Their unfailing flow of talk shortened the way; and they soon were in the broad aisle of the wood from which the narrow, thorn-blocked path led to the knoll. Sir Maurice recognized the path; but he did not take it. He knew that the Twins were far too capable not to have it guarded, if the princess were indeed with them. He led the way into the wood on the right of it, and slowly, clearing the way for her carefully, seeing to it that she did not get scratched, or her frock get torn, he brought her in a circuit round to the very back of the knoll.
They made the passage in silence, careful not to tread on a twig, Sir Maurice walking a few feet in front, and all the while peering earnestly ahead through the branches. Now and again a loud yell came from the knoll; and once a chorus of yells. Finding that her coldness (the Terror frankly called it sulking) had no effect whatever on her insensible brother or the insensible princess, Erebus had put it aside; and the strenuous life was once more in full swing.
Once after an uncommonly shrill and piercing yell Miss Lambart said in an astonished whisper:
"That was awfully like the princess' voice."
"I thought you said she was delicate," said Sir Maurice.
"So she was," said Miss Lambart firmly.
Thanks to the careful noiselessness of their approach, they came unseen and unheard to the screen of a clump of hazels at the foot of the knoll, from which they could see the entrance of five caves in its face. They waited, watching it.
It was silent; there was no sign of life; and Sir Maurice was beginning to wonder whether they had, after all, been espied by his keen-eyed kin, when a little girl, with a great plait of very fair hair hanging down her back, came swiftly out of one of the bottom caves and slipped into a clump of bushes to the right of it.
"The princess!" said Miss Lambart; and she was for stepping forward, but Sir Maurice caught her wrist and checked her.
Almost on the instant an amazingly disheveled Wiggins appeared stealing in a crouching attitude toward the entrance to the cave.
"That nice little boy, Rupert Carrington," said Sir Maurice.
Wiggins had almost gained the entrance to the cave when, with an ear-piercing yell, the princess sprang upon him and locked her arms round his neck; they swayed, yelling in anything but unison, and came to the ground.
"Delicate to fragility," muttered Sir Maurice.
"Whatever has she been doing to herself?" said Miss Lambart faintly, gazing at her battling yelling charge with amazed eyes.
"You don't know the Twins," said Sir Maurice.
On his words Erebus came flying down the face of the knoll at a breakneck pace, yelling as she came, and flung herself upon the battling pair. As far as the spectators could judge she and the princess were rending Wiggins limb from limb; and they all three yelled their shrillest. Then with a yell the Terror leaped upon them from the cave and they were all four rolling on the ground while the aching welkin rang.
Suddenly the tangle of whirling limbs was dissolved as Erebus and Wiggins tore themselves free, gained their feet and fled. The princess and the Terror sat up, panting, flushed and disheveled. The princess wriggled close to the Terror, snuggled against him, and put an arm round his neck.
"It was splendid!" she cried, and kissed him.
Unaware of the watching eyes, he submitted to the embrace with a very good grace.
"Well, I never!" said Miss Lambart.
"These delicate children," said Sir Maurice. "But it's certainly a delightful place for lovers. I'm so glad we've found it."
He was looking earnestly at Miss Lambart; and she felt that she was flushing.
"Come along!" she said quickly.
They came out of their clump, about fifteen yards from their quarry.
The quick-eyed Terror saw them first. He did not stir; but a curious, short, sharp cry came from his throat. It seemed to loose a spring in the princess. She shot to her feet and stood prepared to fly, frowning. The Terror rose more slowly.
"Good afternoon, Highness. I've come to take you back to the Grange," said Miss Lambart.
"I'm not going," said the princess firmly.
"I'm afraid you must. Your father is there; and he wants you," said Miss Lambart.
"No," said the princess yet more firmly; and she took a step sidewise toward the mouth of the cave.
The Terror nodded amiably to his uncle and put his hands in his pockets; he wore the detached air of a spectator.
"But if you don't come of yourself, we shall have to carry you," said Miss Lambart sternly.
The Terror intervened; he said in his most agreeable tone: "I don't see how you can. You can't touch a princess you know. It would be lese-majeste. She's told me all about it."
The perplexity spread from the face of Miss Lambart to the face of Sir Maurice Falconer; he smiled appreciatively. But he said: "Oh, come; this won't do, Terror, don't you know! Her highness will have to come."
"I don't see how you're going to get her. The only person who could use force is the prince himself, and I don't think he could be got up to the knoll. He's too heavy. I've seen him. And if you did get him up, I don't really think he'd ever find her in these caves," said the Terror in the dispassionate tone of one discussing an entirely impersonal matter.
"Anyhow, I'm not going," said the princess with even greater firmness.
Miss Lambart and Sir Maurice gazed at each other in an equal perplexity.
"You see, there isn't any real reason why she shouldn't stay here," said the Terror. "She came to England to improve her health; and she's improving it ever so much faster here than she did at the Grange. You can see how improved it is. She eats nearly as much as Erebus."
"She has certainly changed," said Miss Lambart in a tart tone which showed exactly how little she found it a change for the better.
"The Twins have a transforming effect on the young," said Sir Maurice in a tone of resignation.
"I am much better," said the princess. "I'm getting quite strong, and I can run ever so fast."
She stretched out a tanning leg and surveyed it with an air of satisfaction.
"But it's nonsense!" said Miss Lambart.
"But what can you do?" said the Terror gently.
"I'll chance the lese-majeste!" cried Miss Lambart; and she sprang swiftly forward.
The princess bolted into the cave and up it. Miss Lambart followed swiftly. The cave ended in a dim passage, ten feet down, the passage forked into three dimmer passages. Miss Lambart stopped short and tried to hear from which of them came the sound of the footfalls of the retiring princess. It came from none of the three; the floor of the eaves was covered with sound-deadening sand. Miss Lambart walked back to the entrance of the cave.
"She has escaped," she said in a tone of resignation.
"Well, I really don't see any reason for you to put yourself about for the sake of that disagreeable crew at the Grange. You have done more than you were called on to do in finding her. You can leave the catching of her to them. There's nothing to worry about: it's quite clear that this camping-out is doing her a world of good," said Sir Maurice in a comforting tone.
"Yes; there is that," said Miss Lambart.
"Let me introduce my nephew. Hyacinth Dangerfield—better, much better, known as the Terror—to you," Said Sir Maurice.
The Terror shook hands with her, and said: "How do you do? I've been wanting to know you: the princess—I mean Lady Rowington—likes you ever so much."
Miss Lambart was appeased.
"Perhaps you could give us some tea? We want it badly," said Sir Maurice.
"Yes, I can. We only drink milk and cocoa, of course. But we have some tea, for Mum walked up to have tea with us yesterday," said the Terror.
"I take it that she saw nothing of the princess," said Sir Maurice.
"Oh, no; she didn't see Lady Rowington. You must remember that she's Lady Rowington here, and not the princess at all," said the Terror.
"Oh? I see now how it was that when you were asked at home, you knew nothing about the princess," said Sir Maurice quickly.
"Yes; that was how," said the Terror blandly.
They had not long to wait for their tea, for the Twins had had their kettle on the fire for some time. Sir Maurice and Miss Lambart enjoyed the picnic greatly. On his suggestion an armistice was proclaimed. Miss Lambart agreed to make no further attempt to capture the princess; and she came out of hiding and took her tea with them.
Miss Lambart was, indeed, pleased with, at any rate, the physical change in the princess, induced by her short stay at the knoll: she was a browner, brighter, stronger child. Plainly, too, she was a more determined child; and while, for her own part, Miss Lambart approved of that change also, she was quite sure that it would not be approved by the princess' kinsfolk and train. But she was somewhat distressed that the legs of the princess should be marred by so many and such deep scratches. She had none of the experienced Twins' quickness to see and dodge thorns. She took Miss Lambart's sympathy lightly enough; indeed she seemed to regard those scratches as scars gained in honorable warfare.
Miss Lambart saw plainly that the billowy archduke would have no little difficulty in recovering her from this fastness; and since she was assured that this green wood life was the very thing the princess needed, she was resolved to give him no help herself. She was pleased to learn that she was in no way responsible for the princess' acquaintance with the Twins; that she had made their acquaintance and cultivated their society while the careless baroness slept in the peach-garden.
At half past five Sir Maurice and Miss Lambart took their leave of their entertainers and set out through the wood. They had not gone a hundred yards before a splendid yelling informed them that the strenuous life had again begun.
Miss Lambart had supposed that they would return straight to Muttle Deeping Grange with the news of their great discovery. But she found that Sir Maurice had formed other plans. They were both agreed that no consideration was owing to the billowy archduke. His manners deprived him of any right to it. Accordingly, he took her to Little Deeping post-office, and with many appeals to her for suggestions and help wrote two long telegrams. The first was to the editor of the Morning Post, the second was to the prime minister. In both he set forth his discovery of the princess happily encamped with young friends in a wood, and her reasons for running away to them. The postmistress despatched them as he wrote them, that they might reach London and ease the international situation at once. Since both the editor and the prime minister were on friendly and familiar terms with him, there was no fear that the telegrams would fail of their effect.
Then he took Miss Lambart to Colet House, to make the acquaintance of Mrs. Dangerfield, and to inform her how nearly the Twins had plunged Europe into Armageddon. Mrs. Dangerfield received the news with unruffled calm. She showed no surprise at all; she only said that she had found it very strange that a princess should vanish at Muttle Deeping and the Twins have no hand in it. She perceived at once that the princess had quite prevented any disclosure by assuming the name of Lady Rowington.
Miss Lambart found her very charming and attractive, and was in no haste to leave such pleasant companionship for the dull and unpleasant atmosphere of Muttle Deeping Grange. It was past seven therefore when the Little Deeping fly brought her to it; and she went to the archduke with her news.
She found him in the condition of nervous excitement into which he always fell before meals, too excited, indeed, to listen to her with sufficient attention to understand her at the first telling of her news. He was some time understanding it, and longer believing it. It annoyed him greatly. He was taking considerable pleasure in standing on a pedestal before the eyes of Europe as the bereaved Hohenzollern sire. His first, and accurate, feeling was that Europe would laugh consumedly when it learned the truth of the matter. His second feeling was that his noble kinsman, who had been saying wonderful, stirring things about the Terror's manifesto and the stolen princess, would be furiously angry with him.
He began to rave himself, fortunately in his own tongue of which Miss Lambart was ignorant. Then when he grew cooler and paler his oft-repeated phrase was: "Eet must be 'ushed!"
Miss Lambart did not tell him that Sir Maurice had taken every care that the affair should not be hushed up. She did not wish every blow to strike him at once. Then the dinner-bell rang; and in heavy haste he rolled off to the dining-room.
Miss Lambart was betaking herself to her bedroom to dress, when the archduke's equerry, the young mustached Count Zerbst came running up the stairs, bidding her in the name of his master come to dinner at once, as she was. She took no heed of the command, dressed at her ease, and came down just as the archduke, perspiring freely after his struggle with the hors-d'oeuvres, soup and fish, was plunging upon his first entree.
He ate it with great emphasis; and as he ate it he questioned her about the place where his daughter was encamped and the friends she was encamped with. Miss Lambart described the knoll and its position as clearly as she could, and of the Twins she said as little as possible. Then he asked her with considerable acerbity why she had not exercised her authority and brought the princess back with her.
Miss Lambart said that she had no authority over the princess; and that if she had had it, the princess would have disregarded it wholly, and that it was impossible to haul a recalcitrant Hohenzollern through miles of wood by force, since the persons of Hohenzollerns were sacrosanct.
The archduke said that the only thing to do was to go himself and summon home his truant child. Miss Lambart objected that it would mean hewing expensively a path through the wood wide enough to permit his passage, and it was improbable that the owner of the wood would allow it. Thereupon the baroness volunteered to go. Miss Lambart with infinite pleasure explained that for her too an expensive path must be hewn, and went on to declare that if they reached the knoll, there was not the slightest chance of their finding the princess in its caves.
The archduke frowned and grunted fiercely in his perplexity. Then he struck the table and cried:
"Count Zerbst shall do eet! To-morrow morning! You shall 'eem lead to ze wood. 'E shall breeng 'er."
Miss Lambart protested that to wander in the Deeping woods with a German count would hardly be proper.
"Brobare? What ees 'brobare'?" said the archduke.
"Convenable," said Miss Lambart.
The archduke protested that such considerations must not be allowed to militate against his being set free to return to Cassel-Nassau at the earliest possible moment. Miss Lambart said that they must. In the end it was decided that a motor-car should be procured from Rowington and that Miss Lambart should guide the archduke and the count to the entrance of the path to the knoll, the count should convey to the princess her father's command to return to the Grange, and if she should refuse to obey, he should haul her by force to the car.
Miss Lambart made no secret of her strong conviction that he would never set eyes, much less hands, on the princess. Count Zerbst's smooth pink face flushed rose-pink all round his fierce little mustache, which in some inexplicable, but unfortunate, fashion accentuated the extraordinary insignificance of his nose; his small eyes sparkled; and he muttered fiercely something about "sdradegy." He looked at Miss Lambart very unamiably. He felt that she was not impressed by him as were the maidens of Cassel-Nassau; and he resented it. He resolved to capture the princess at any cost.
The archduke fumed furiously to find, next morning in the Morning Post the true story of his daughter's disappearance; and he was fuming still when the car came from Rowington. It was a powerful car and a weight-carrier; Miss Lambart, who had telephoned for it, had been careful to demand a weight-carrier. With immense fuss the archduke disposed himself in the back of the tonneau which he filled with billowy curves. The moment he was settled in it Miss Lambart sprang to the seat beside the driver, and insisted on keeping it that she might the more easily direct his course.
They were not long reaching the wood; and the chauffeur raised no objection to taking the car up the broad turfed aisle from which ran the path to the knoll. At the entrance of it the count stepped out of the car; and the archduke gave him his final instructions with the air of a Roman father; he was to bring the princess in any fashion, but he was to bring her at once.
In a last generous outburst he cried: "Pooll 'er by the ear! Bud breeng 'er."
The count said that he would, and entered the path with a resolute and martial air. Miss Lambart was not impressed by it. She thought that in his tight-fitting clothes of military cut and his apparently tighter-fitting patent leather boots he looked uncommonly out of place under the green wood trees. She remembered how lightly the Twins and the princess went; and she had the poorest expectation of his getting near any of them. Also, as they had come up the aisle of the woods she had been assailed by a late but serious doubt, whether a weight-carrying motor-car was quite the right kind of vehicle in which to approach the lair of the Twins with hostile intent. Its powerful, loud-throbbing engine had seemed to her to advertise their advent with all the competence of a trumpet.
Her doubt was well-grounded. The quick ears of Erebus were the first to catch its throbbing note, and that while it was still two hundred yards from the entrance of the path to the knoll. Ever since the departure of Miss Lambart and Sir Maurice the Twins had been making ready against invasion, conveying their provisions and belongings to the secret caves.
The secret caves had not been secret before the coming of the Twins to the knoll. They were high up on the outer face of it, airy and well lighted by two inaccessible holes under an overhanging ledge. But the entrance to them was by a narrow shaft which rose sharply from a cave in the heart of the knoll. On this shaft the Twins had spent their best pains for two and a half wet days the year before; and they had reduced some seven or eight feet of it to a passage fifteen inches high and eighteen inches broad. The opening into this passage could, naturally, be closed very easily; and then, in the dim light, it was hard indeed to distinguish it from the wall of the cave. It had been a somewhat difficult task to get their blankets and provisions through so narrow a passage; but it had been finished soon after breakfast.
They were on the alert for invaders; and as soon as they were quite sure that the keen ears of Erebus had made no mistake and that a car was coming up the board aisle, the princess and the Terror squirmed their way up to the secret caves; and Erebus closed the passage behind them, and with small chunks filled in the interstices between the larger pieces of stone so that it looked more than ever a part of the wall of the cave. Then she betook herself to a point of vantage among the bushes on the face of the knoll, from which she could watch the entrance of the path and the coming of the invaders.
The archduke, lying back at his ease in the car, and smoking an excellent cigar, spoke with assurance of catching the one-fifteen train from Rowington to London and the night boat from Dover to Calais. Miss Lambart wasted no breath encouraging him in an expectation based on the efforts of Count Zerbst on the knoll. She stepped out of the car and strolled up and down on the pleasant turf. Presently she saw a figure coming down the aisle from the direction of Little Deeping; when it came nearer, with considerable pleasure she recognized Sir Maurice.
When he came to them she presented him to the archduke as the discoverer of his daughter's hiding-place. The archduke, mindful of the fact that Sir Maurice had given the true story of the disappearance to the world, received him ungraciously. Miss Lambart at once told Sir Maurice of the errand of Count Zerbst and of her very small expectation that anything would come of it. Sir Maurice agreed with her; and the fuming archduke assured them that the count was the most promising soldier in the army of Cassel-Nassau. Then Sir Maurice suggested that they should go to the knoll and help the count. Miss Lambart assented readily; and they set out at once. They skirted the barriers of thorns in the path and came to the knoll. It was quiet and seemed utterly deserted.
They called loudly to the count several times; but he did not answer. Miss Lambart suggested that he was searching the caves and that they should find him and help him search them; they plunged into the caves and began to hunt for him. They did not find the count; neither did they find the princess nor the Twins. They shouted to him many times as they traversed the caves; but they had no answer.
This was not unnatural, seeing that he left the knoll just before they reached it. He had mounted the side of it, calling loudly to the princess. He had gone through half a dozen caves, calling loudly to the princess. No answer had come to his calling. He had kept coming out of the labyrinth on to the side of the knoll. At one of these exits, to his great joy, he had seen the figure of a little girl, dressed in the short serge skirt and blue jersey he had been told the princess was wearing, slipping through the bushes at the foot of the knoll. With a loud shout he had dashed down it in pursuit and plunged after her into the wood. Her sunbonnet was still in sight ahead among the bushes, and by great good fortune he succeeded in keeping it in sight. Once, indeed, when he thought that he had lost it for good and all, it suddenly reappeared ahead of him; and he was able to take up the chase again. But he did not catch her. Indeed he did not lessen the distance between them to an extent appreciable by the naked eye. For a delicate princess she was running with uncommon speed and endurance. Considering his dress and boots and the roughness of the going, he, too, was running with uncommon speed and endurance. It was true that his face was a very bright red and that his so lately stiff, tall, white collar lay limply gray round his neck. But he was not near enough to his quarry to be mortified by seeing that she was but faintly flushed by her efforts and hardly perspiring at all. All the while he was buoyed up by the assurance that he would catch her in the course of the next hundred yards.
Then his quarry left the wood, by an exceedingly small gap, and ran down a field path toward the village of Little Deeping. By the time the count was through the gap she had a lead of a hundred yards. To his joy, in the open country, on the smoother path, he made up the lost ground quickly. When they reached the common, he was a bare forty yards behind her. He was not surprised when in despair she left the path and bolted into the refuge of an old house that stood beside it.
Mopping his hot wet brow he walked up the garden path with a victorious air, and knocked firmly on the door. Sarah opened it; and he demanded the instant surrender of the princess. Sarah heard him with an exasperating air of blank bewilderment. He repeated his demand more firmly and loudly.
Sarah called to Mrs. Dangerfield: "Please, mum: 'ere's a furrin gentleman asking for a princess. I expect as it's that there missing one."
"Do nod mock! She 'ees 'ere!" cried the count fiercely.
Then Mrs. Dangerfield came out of the dining-room where she had been arranging flowers, and came to the door.
"The princess is not here," she said gently.
"But I haf zeen 'er! She haf now ad once coom! She 'ides!" cried the count.
At that moment Erebus came down the hall airily swinging her sunbonnet by its strings. The eyes of the count opened wide; so did his mouth.
"I expect he means me. At least he's run after me all the way from the knoll here," said Erebus in a clear quiet voice.
The count's eyes returned to their sockets; and he had a sudden outburst of fluent German. He did not think that any of his hearers could understand that portion of his native tongue he was using; he hoped they could not; he could not help it if they did.
Mrs. Dangerfield looked from him to Erebus thoughtfully. She did not suppose for a moment that it was mere accident that had caused the count to take so much violent exercise on such a hot day. She was sorry for him. He looked so fierce and young and inexperienced to fall foul of the Twins.
Erebus caught her mother's thoughtful eye. At once she cried resentfully: "How could I possibly tell it was the sunbonnet which made him think I was the princess? He never asked me who I was. He just shouted once and ran after me. I was hurrying home to get some salad oil and get back to the knoll by lunch."
"Yes, you would run all the way," said Mrs. Dangerfield patiently.
"Well, you'd have run, too, Mum, with a foreigner running after you! Just look at that mustache! It would frighten anybody!" cried Erebus in the tone of one deeply aggrieved by unjust injurious suspicions.
"Yes, I see," said her mother with undiminished patience.
She invited the count to come in and rest and get cool; and she allayed his fine thirst with a long and very grateful whisky and soda. He explained to her at length, three times, how he had come to mistake Erebus for the flying princess, for he was exceedingly anxious not to appear foolish in the eyes of such a pretty woman. Erebus left them together; she made a point of taking a small bottle of salad oil to the knoll. They had no use for salad oil indeed; but it had been an after-thought, and she owed it to her conscience to take it. That would be the safe course.
In the meantime the archduke was sitting impatiently in the car, looking frequently at his watch. He had expected the count to return with the princess in, at the longest, a quarter of an hour. Then he had expected Miss Lambart and Sir Maurice to return with the count and the princess in, at the longest, a quarter of an hour. None of them returned. The princess was sitting on a heap of bracken in the highest of the secret caves, and the Terror was taking advantage of this enforced quiet retirement to brush out her hair. The count sat drinking whisky and soda and explained to Mrs. Dangerfield that he had not really been deceived by the sunbonnet and that he was very pleased that he had been deceived by it, since it had given him the pleasure of her acquaintance. Miss Lambart and Sir Maurice sat on a bank and talked seriously about everything and certain other things, but chiefly about themselves and each other.
So the world wagged as the archduke saw the golden minutes which lay between him and the one-fifteen slipping away while his daughter remained uncaught. He chafed and fumed. His vexation grew even more keen when he came to the end of his cigar and found that the thoughtless count had borne away the case. He appealed to the chauffeur for advice; but the chauffeur, a native of Rowington and ignorant of Beaumarchais, could give him none.
At half past twelve the archduke rose to his full height in the car, bellowed: "Zerbst! Zerbst! Zerbst!" and sank down again panting with the effort.
The chauffeur looked at him with compassionate eyes. The archduke's bellow, for all his huge round bulk, was but a thin and reedy cry. No answer came to it; no one came from the path to the knoll.
"P'raps if I was to give him a call, your Grace," said the chauffeur, somewhat complacent at displaying his knowledge of the right way to address an archduke.
"Yes, shout!" said the archduke quickly.
The chauffeur rose to his full height in the car and bellowed: "Zerbst! Zerbst! Zerbst!"
No answer came to the call; no one came from the path to the knoll.
In three minutes the archduke was grinding his teeth in a black fury.
Then with an air of inspiration he cried: "I shout—you shout—all ad vonce!"
"Every little 'elps," said the chauffeur politely.
With that they both rose to their full height in the car and together bellowed: "Zerbst! Zerbst! Zerbst!"
No answer came to it; no one came from the path to the knoll.
On his sunny bank on the side of the knoll Sir Maurice said carelessly: "He seems to be growing impatient."
"He isn't calling us. And it's no use our going back without either the princess or the count," said Miss Lambart quickly.
"Not the slightest," said Sir Maurice; and he drew her closer, if that were possible, to him and kissed her.
To this point had their cooperation in the search for the princess and their discussion of everything and certain other things ripened their earlier friendship. They, or rather Sir Maurice, had even been discussing the matter of being married at an early date.
"I don't think I shall let you go back to the Grange at all. They don't treat you decently, you know—not even for royalties," he went on.
"Oh, it wouldn't do not to go back—at any rate for to-night—though, of course, there's no point in my staying longer, since the princess isn't there," said Miss Lambart.
"You don't know: perhaps Zerbst has caught her by now and is hauling her to her circular sire," said Sir Maurice. "The Twins can not be successful all the time."
"We ought to go and search those caves thoroughly," said Miss Lambart.
"That wouldn't be the slightest use," said Sir Maurice in a tone of complete certainty. "If the princess is in the caves, she is not in an accessible one. But as a matter of fact she is quite as likely, or even likelier, to be at the Grange. The Twins are quite intelligent enough to hide princesses in the last place you would be likely to look for them. It's no use our worrying ourselves about her; besides, we're very comfortable here. Why not stay just as we are?"
They stayed there.
But the archduke's impatience was slowly rising to a fury as the minutes that separated him from the one-fifteen slipped away. At ten minutes to one he was seized by a sudden fresh fear lest the searchers should be so long returning as to make him late for lunch; and at once he despatched the chauffeur to find them and bring them without delay.
The chauffeur made no haste about it. He had heard of the caves on Deeping Knoll and had always been curious to see them. Besides, he made it a point of honor not to smoke on duty; he had not had a pipe in his mouth since eleven o'clock; and he felt now off duty. He explored half a dozen caves thoroughly before he came upon Miss Lambart and Sir Maurice and gave them the archduke's message. They joined him in his search for Count Zerbst, going through the caves and calling to him loudly.
The one-fifteen had gone; and the hour of lunch was perilously near. The face of the archduke was dark with the dread that he would be late for it. There was a terrifying but sympathetic throbbing not far from his solar plexus.
Every two or three minutes he rose to his full height in the car and bellowed: "Zerbst! Zerbst! Zerbst!"
Still no answer came to the call; no one came from the path to the knoll.
Then at the very moment at which on more fortunate days he was wont to sink heavily, with his mouth watering, into a large chair before a gloriously spread German table, he heard the sound of voices; and the chauffeur, Miss Lambart and Sir Maurice came out of the path to the knoll.
They told the duke that they had neither seen nor heard anything of the princess, her hosts, or Count Zerbst. The archduke cursed his equerry wheezily but in the German tongue, and bade the chauffeur get into the car and drive to the Grange as fast as petrol could take him.
Sir Maurice bade Miss Lambart good-by, saluted the archduke, and the car went bumping down the turfed aisle. Once in the road the chauffeur, anxious to make trial at an early moment of the archducal hospitality, let her rip. But half a mile down the road, they came upon a slow-going, limping wayfarer. It was Count Zerbst. After a long discussion with Mrs. Dangerfield he had decided that since Erebus had slipped away back to the knoll, it would be impossible for him to find his way to it unguided; and he had set out for Muttle Deeping Grange. In the course of his chase of Erebus and his walk back his patent leather boots had found him out with great severity; and he was indeed footsore. He stepped into the grateful car with a deep sigh of relief.
A depressed party gathered round the luncheon table; Miss Lambart alone was cheerful. The archduke had been much shaken by his terrors and disappointments of the morning. Count Zerbst had acquired a deep respect for the intelligence of the young friends of the princess; and he had learned from Mrs. Dangerfield, who had discussed the matter with Sir Maurice, that since her stay at the knoll was doing the princess good, and was certainly better for her than life with the crimson baroness at the Grange, she was not going to annoy and discourage her charitable offspring by interfering in their good work for trivial social reasons. The baroness was bitterly angry at their failure to recover her lost charge.
They discussed the further measures to be taken, the archduke and the baroness with asperity, Count Zerbst gloomily. He made no secret of the fact that he believed that, if he dressed for the chase and took to the woods, he would in the end find and capture the princess, but it might take a week or ten days. The archduke cried shame upon a strategist of his ability that he should be baffled by children for a week or ten days. Count Zerbst said sulkily that it was not the children who would baffle him, but the caves and the woods they were using. At last they began to discuss the measure of summoning to their aid the local police; and for some time debated whether it was worth the risk of the ridicule it might bring upon them.
Miss Lambart had listened to them with distrait ears since she had something more pleasant to give her mind to. But at last she said with some impatience: "Why can't the princess stay where she is? That open-air life, day and night, is doing her a world of good. She is eating lots of good food and taking ten times as much exercise as ever she took in her life before."
"Eembossible! Shall I live in a cave?" cried the baroness.
"It doesn't matter at all where you live. It is the princess we are considering," said Miss Lambart unkindly, for she had come quite to the end of her patience with the baroness.
"Drue!" said the archduke quickly.
"Shall eet zen be zat ze princess live ze life of a beast in a gave?" cried the baroness.
"She isn't," said Miss Lambart shortly. "In fact she's leading a far better and healthier and more intelligent life than she does here. The doctor's orders were never properly carried out."
"Ees zat zo?" said the archduke, frowning at the baroness.
"Eengleesh doctors! What zey know? Modern!" cried the baroness scornfully.
In loud and angry German the archduke fell furiously upon the baroness, upbraiding her for her disobedience of his orders. The baroness defended herself loudly, alleging that the princess would by now be dying of a galloping consumption had she had all the air and water the doctors had ordered her. But the archduke stormed on. At last he had some one on whom he could vent his anger with an excellent show of reason; and he vented it.
Presently, for the sake of Miss Lambart's counsel in the matter, they returned to the English tongue and discussed seriously the matter of the princess remaining at the knoll. They found many objections to it, and the chief of them was that it was not safe for three children to be encamped by themselves in the heart of a wood.
Miss Lambart grew tired of assuring them that the Twins were more efficient persons than nine Germans out of ten; and at last she said:
"Well, Highness, to set your fears quite at rest, I will go and stay at the knoll myself. Then you can go back to Cassel-Nassau with your mind at ease; and I will undertake that the princess comes to you in better health than if she had stayed on here."
"Bud 'ow would she be zafer wiz a young woman, ignorant and—" cried the baroness, furious at this attempt to usurp her authority.
"Goot!" cried the archduke cutting her short; and his face beamed at the thought of escaping forthwith to his home. "Eet shall be zo! And ze baroness shall go alzo to Cassel-Nassau zo zoon az I zend a lady who do as ze doctors zay."
So it was settled; and Miss Lambart was busy for an hour collecting provisions, arranging that fresh provisions should be brought to the path to the knoll every morning and preparing and packing the fewest possible number of garments she would need during her stay.
Then she bade the relieved archduke good-by; and set out in the Rowington car to the knoll. Not far from the park gates she met Sir Maurice strolling toward the Grange, and took him with her. At the entrance of the path to the knoll they took the baskets of provisions and Miss Lambart's trunk from the car, and dismissed it. Then they went to the knoll.
It was silent; there were no signs of the presence of man about it. But after Sir Maurice had shouted three times that they came in peace-bearing terms, Erebus and Wiggins came out of one of the caves above them and heard the news. She made haste to bear it to the Terror and the princess who received it with joy. They had already been cooped up long enough in the secret caves and were eager to plunge once more into the strenuous life. They welcomed Miss Lambart warmly; and the princess was indeed pleased to have her fears removed and her position at the knoll secure.
They made Miss Lambart one of themselves and admitted her to a full share of the strenuous life. She played her part in it manfully. Even Erebus, who was inclined to carp at female attainments, was forced to admit that as a brigand, an outlaw, or a pirate she often shone.
But Sir Maurice, who was naturally a frequent visitor, never caught her engaged in the strenuous life. Indeed, on his arrival she disappeared; and always spent some minutes after his arrival removing traces of the speed at which she had been living it, and on cooling down to life on the lower place. Both of them found the knoll a delightful place for lovers.
AND THE MUTTLE DEEPING FISHING
Since the strenuous life was found to be so strengthening to the princess, the Twins stayed in camp a week longer than had been in the beginning arranged. Thrown into such intimate relations with Miss Lambart, it was only natural that they should grow very friendly with her. It was therefore a bitter blow to Erebus to find that she was not only engaged to their Uncle Maurice but also about to be married to him in the course of the next few weeks. She grumbled about it to the Terror and did not hesitate to assert that his bad example in the matter of the princess had put the idea of love-making into these older heads. Then, in a heart to heart talk, she strove earnestly with Miss Lambart, making every effort to convince her that love and marriage were very silly things, quite unworthy of those who led the strenuous life. She failed. Then she tried to persuade Sir Maurice of that plain fact, and failed again. He declared that it was his first duty, as an uncle, to be married before his nephew, and that if he were not quick about it the Terror would certainly anticipate him. Erebus carried his defense to the Terror with an air of bitter triumph; and there was a touch of disgusted misanthropy in her manner for several days. The princess on the other hand found the engagement the most natural and satisfactory thing in the world. Her only complaint was that she and the Terror were not old enough to be married on the same day as Miss Lambart.
Probably Miss Lambart and Sir Maurice enjoyed the life at the knoll even more than the children, for the felicity of lovers is the highest felicity, and the knoll is the ideal place for them. Sir Maurice arrived at it not so very much later, considering his urban habit, than sunrise; and he did not leave it till long after sunset. But the pleasantest days will come to an end; and the camp was broken up, since the archduke's tenancy of the Grange expired, and the princess must return to Germany. She was bitterly grieved at parting with the Terror, and assured him that she would certainly come to England the next summer, or even earlier, perhaps at Christmas, to see him again. It seemed not unlikely that after her short but impressive association with the Twins she would have her way about it. Nevertheless, in spite of her exhaustive experience of the strenuous life, and of the firm ideals of those who led it, at their parting she cried in the most unaffected fashion.
Soon after her departure from the Grange the Twins learned that Sir James Morgan, its owner, had returned from Africa, where he had for years been hunting big game, and proposed to live at Muttle Deeping, at any rate for a while. It had always been their keen desire to fish the Grange water, for it had been carefully preserved and little fished all the years Sir James had been wandering about the world. But Mr. Hilton, the steward of the Grange estate, had always refused their request. He believed that their presence would be good neither for the stream, the fish, nor the estate.
But now that they were no longer dealing with an underling whom they felt to be prejudiced, but with the owner himself, they thought that they might be able to compass their desire. Also they felt that the sooner they made the attempt to do so the better: Sir James might hear unfavorable accounts of them, if they gave him time to consort freely with his neighbors. Therefore, with the help of their literary mainstay, Wiggins, they composed a honeyed letter to him, asking leave to fish the Grange water. Sir James consulted Mr. Hilton about the letter, received an account of the Twins from him which made him loath indeed to give them leave; and since he had used a pen so little for so many years that it had become distasteful to him to use it at all, he left their honeyed missive unanswered.
The Twins waited patiently for an answer for several days. Then it was slowly borne in upon them that Sir James did not mean to answer their letter at all; and they grew very angry indeed. Their anger was in close proportion to the pains they had spent on the letter. The name of Sir James was added to the list of proscribed persons they carried in their retentive minds.
It did not seem likely that they would get any chance of punishing him for the affront he had put on them. Scorching, in his feverish, Central African way, along the road to Rowington in a very powerful motor-car, he looked well beyond their reach. But Fortune favors the industrious who watch their chances; and one evening Erebus came bicycling swiftly up to the cats' home, and cried:
"As I came over Long Ridge I saw Sir James Morgan poaching old Glazebrook's water!"
The Terror did not cease from carefully considering the kitten in his hands, for he was making a selection to send to Rowington market.
"Are you sure?" he said calmly. "It's a long way from the ridge to the stream."
"Not for my eyes!" said Erebus with some measure of impatience in her tone. "I'm quite sure that it was Sir James; and I'm quite sure that it was old Glazebrook's meadow. Lend me your handkerchief."
The handkerchief that the Terror lent her might have easily been of a less pronounced gray; but Erebus mopped her beaded brow with it in a perfect content. She had ridden home as fast as she could ride with her interesting news.
"I wish I'd seen him too," said the Terror thoughtfully.
"It's quite enough for me to have seen him!" said Erebus with some heat.
"It would be better if we'd both seen him," said the Terror firmly.
"It's such beastly cheek his poaching himself after taking no notice of our letter!" said Erebus indignantly.
"Yes, it is," said the Terror.
She went on to set forth the enormity of the conduct of their neighbor at considerable length. The Terror said nothing; he did not look to be listening to her. In truth he was considering what advantage might be drawn from Sir James' transgression.
At last he said: "The first thing to do is for both of us to catch him poaching."
Erebus protested; but the Terror carried his point, with the result that two evenings later they were in the wood above the trout-stream, stretched at full length in the bracken, peering through the hedge of the wood at Sir James Morgan so patiently and vainly fishing the stream below.
"He'll soon be at the boundary fence," said the Terror in a hushed voice of quiet satisfaction.
"If only he goes on catching nothing on this side of it!" said Erebus who kept wriggling in a nervous impatience.
"It's on the other side of it they're rising," said the Terror in a calmly hopeful tone.
Sir James, unconscious of those eagerly gazing eyes, made vain cast after vain cast. He was a big game hunter; he had given but little time and pains to this milder sport; and he came to the fence at which his water ceased and that of Mr. Glazebrook began, with his basket still empty of trout. He looked longingly at his neighbor's water; as the Terror had said, the trout in it were rising freely. Then the watchers saw him shrug his shoulders and turn back.
"He's not going to poach, after all!" cried Erebus in a tone of acute disappointment.
"Look here: are you really quite sure you saw him poaching at all? Long Ridge is a good way off," said the Terror looking across to it.
"I did. I tell you he was half-way down old Glazebrook's meadow," said Erebus firmly.
"It's very disappointing," said the Terror, frowning at the disobliging fisherman; then he added with philosophic calm: "Well, it can't be helped; we've got to go on watching him every evening till he does. If he's poached once, he'll poach again."
"Look!" said Erebus, gripping his arm.
Sir James had stopped fishing and was walking back to the boundary fence. He stood for a while beside the gap in it, hesitating, scanning the little valley down which the stream ran, with his keen hunter's eyes. It is to be feared that he had been too long used to the high-handed methods that prevail in the ends of the earth where big game dwell, to have a proper sense of the sanctity of his neighbor's fish. Moreover, Mr. Glazebrook was guilty of the practise of netting his water and sending the trout, alive in cans, to a London restaurant. Sir James felt strongly that it was his duty as a sportsman to give them the chance of making a sportsmanlike end.
But Mr. Glazebrook was an uncommonly disagreeable man; and since Glazebrook farm marched with the western meadows of the Morgans, the Morgans and the Glazebrooks had been at loggerheads for at least fifty years. Assuredly the farmer would prosecute Sir James, if he caught him poaching.
Yet the valley and the meadows down the stream were empty of human beings; and as for the wood, there would be no one but his own keeper in the wood. Doubtless that keeper would, from the abstract point of view, regard poaching with abhorrence. But he would perceive that his master was doing a real kindness to the Glazebrook trout by giving them that chance of making a sportsman-like end. At any rate the keeper would hold his tongue.
Sir James climbed through the gap.
The Twins breathed a simultaneous sigh of relief; and Erebus said in a tone of triumph: "Well, he's gone and done it now."
"Yes, we've got him all right," said the Terror in a tone of calm thankfulness.
Fortune favored the unscrupulous; and in the next forty minutes Sir James caught three good fish.
He had just landed the third when the keen eyes of Erebus espied a figure coming up the bank of the stream two meadows away.
"Look! There's old Glazebrook! He'll catch him! Won't it be fun?" she cried, wriggling in her joy.
The Terror gazed thoughtfully at the approaching figure; then he said: "Yes: it would be fun. There'd be no end of a row. But it wouldn't be any use to us. I'm going to warn him."
With that he sent a clear cry of "Cave!" ringing down the stream.
In ten seconds Sir James was back on his own land.
The Twins crawled through the bracken to a narrow path, went swiftly and noiselessly down it, and through a little gate on to the high road.
As he set foot on it the Terror said with cold vindictiveness: "We'll teach him not to answer our letters."
He climbed over a gate into a meadow on the other side of the road, took their bicycles one after the other from behind the hedge, and lifted them over the gate. They reached home in time for dinner.
During the meal Mrs. Dangerfield asked how they had been spending the time since tea; and the Terror said, quite truthfully, that they had been for a bicycle ride. She did not press him to be more particular in his account of their doings, though from Erebus' air of subdued excitement and expectancy she was aware that some important enterprise was in hand; she had no desire to put any strain on the Terror's uncommon power of polite evasion.
She was not at all surprised when, at nine o'clock, she went out into the garden and called to them that it was bedtime, to find that they were not within hearing. She told herself that she would be lucky if she got them to bed by ten. But she would have been surprised, indeed, had she seen them, half an hour earlier, slip out of the back door, in a condition of exemplary tidiness, dressed in their Sunday best.
They wheeled their bicycles out of the cats' home quietly, mounted, rode quickly down the road till they were out of hearing of the house, and then slackened their pace in order to reach their destination cool and tidy. They timed their arrival with such nicety that as they dismounted before the door of Deeping Hall, Sir James Morgan, in the content inspired by an excellent dinner, was settling himself comfortably in an easy chair in his smoking-room.
They mounted the steps of the Court without a tremor: they were not only assured of the justice of their cause, they were assured that it would prevail. A landed proprietor who preserves his pheasants and his fish with the usual strictness, can not allow himself to be prosecuted for poaching.
The Terror rang the bell firmly; and Mawley, the butler, surprised at the coming of visitors at so late an hour, opened the door himself.
"Good evening, Mr. Mawley, we want to see Sir James on important business," said the Terror with a truly businesslike air.
Mawley had come to the Grange in the train of the Princess Elizabeth; and since he found the Deeping air uncommonly bracing, he had permitted Sir James to keep him on at the Grange after her return to Cassel-Nassau. He had made the acquaintance of the Twins during the last days of her stay, after the camp had been broken up, and had formed a high opinion of their ability and their manners. Moreover, of a very susceptible nature, he had a warm admiration of Mrs. Dangerfield whom he saw every Sunday at Little Deeping church.
None the less he looked at them doubtfully, and said in a reproachful tone: "It's very late, Master Terror. You can't expect Sir James to see people at this hour."
"I know it's late; but the business is important—very important," said the Terror firmly.
Mawley hesitated. His admiration of Mrs. Dangerfield made him desirous of obliging her children. Then he said:
"If you'll sit down a minute, I'll tell Sir James that you're here."
"Thank you," said the Terror; and he and Erebus came into the great hall, sat down on a couch covered by a large bearskin, and gazed round them at the arms and armor with appreciative eyes.
Mawley found Sir James lighting a big cigar; and told him that Master and Miss Dangerfield wished to see him on business.
"Oh? They're the two children who wrote and asked me for leave to fish. But Hilton told me that they were the most mischievous little devils in the county, so I took no notice of their letter," said Sir James.
"Well, being your steward, Sir James, Mr. Hilton would be bound to tell you so. But it's my belief that, having the name for it, a lot of mischief is put down to them which they never do. And after all they're Dangerfields, Sir James; and you couldn't expect them to behave like ordinary children," said Mawley in the tone and manner of a persuasive diplomat.
"Well, I don't see myself giving them leave to fish," said Sir James. "There are none too many fish in the stream as it is; and a couple of noisy children won't make those easier to catch. But I may as well tell them so myself; so you may bring them here."
Mawley fetched the Twins and ushered them into the smoking-room. They entered it with the self-possessed air of persons quite sure of themselves, and greeted Sir James politely.
He was somewhat taken aback by their appearance and air, for his steward had somehow given him the impression that they were thick, red-faced and robustious. He felt that these pleasant-looking young gentlefolk could never have really earned their unfortunate reputation. There must be a mistake somewhere.
The Twins were, on their part also, far more favorably impressed by him than they had looked to be; his lean tanned face, with the rather large arched nose, the thin-lipped melancholy mouth, not at all hidden by the small clipped mustache, and his keen eyes, almost as blue as those of the Terror, pleased them. He looked an uncommonly dependable baronet.
"Well, and what is this important matter you wished to see me about?" he said in a more indulgent tone than he had expected to use.
"We saw you in Glazebrook's meadow this afternoon—poaching," said the Terror in a gentle, almost deprecatory tone.
Sir James sat rather more upright in his chair, with a sudden sense of discomfort. He had not connected this visit with his transgression.
"And you caught three fish," said Erebus in a sterner voice.
"Oh? Then it was one of you who called 'Cave!' from the wood?" said Sir James.
"Yes; we didn't want old Glazebrook to catch you," said the Terror.
"Oh—er—thanks," said Sir James in a tone of discomfort.
"That wouldn't have been any use to us," said the Terror.
"Of use to you?" said Sir James.
"Yes; if he'd caught you, there wouldn't be any reason why we should fish your water," said the Terror.
Sir James looked puzzled:
"But is there any reason now?" he said.
"Yes. You see, you were poaching," said the Terror in a very gentle explanatory voice.
"And you caught three fish," said Erebus in something of the manner of a chorus in an Athenian tragedy.
Sir James sat bolt upright with a sudden air of astonished enlightenment:
"Well, I'm—hanged if it isn't blackmail!" he cried.
"Blackmail?" said the Terror in a tone of pleasant animation. "Why, that's what the Scotch reavers used to do! I never knew exactly what it was."
"And we're doing it. That is nice," said Erebus, almost preening herself.
"But this is disgraceful! If you'd been village children—but gentlefolk!" cried Sir James with considerable heat.
"Well, the Douglases were gentlefolk; and they blackmailed," said the Terror in a tone of sweet reason.
"Poaching's a misdemeanor; blackmailing's a kind of stealing," said Erebus virtuously, forgetting for the moment her mother's fur stole.
"Poaching's a misdemeanor; blackmailing's a felony," said Sir James loftily.
The distinction was lost on the Twins; and Erebus said with conviction: "Poaching's worse."
Sir James hated to be beaten; and he looked from one to the other with very angry eyes. The Twins wore a cold imperturbable air. Their appearance no longer pleased him.
"It's your own fault entirely," said the Terror coldly. "If you'd been civil and answered our letter, even refusing, we shouldn't have bothered about you. But you didn't take any notice of it—"
"And it was beastly cheek," said Erebus.
"You couldn't expect us to stand that kind of thing. So we kept an eye on you and caught you poaching," said the Terror.
"Without any excuse for it. You've plenty of fishing of your own," said Erebus severely.
"And if I don't give you leave to fish my water, you're going to sneak to the police, are you?" said Sir James in a tone of angry disgust.
The Terror flushed and with a very cold dignity said: "We aren't going to do anything of the kind; and we don't want any leave to fish your water at all. We're just going to fish it; and if you go sneaking to the police and prosecuting us, then after you've started it you'll get prosecuted yourself by old Glazebrook. That's what we came to say."
"And that'll teach you to be polite and answer people next time they write to you," said Erebus in a tone of cold triumph.
On her words they rose; and while Sir James was struggling furiously to find words suitable to their tender years, they bade him a polite good night, and left the room.
Their departure was a relief; Sir James rose hastily to his feet and expressed his feelings without difficulty. Then he began to laugh. It was rather on the wrong side of his face; and the knowledge that he had been worsted in his own smoking-room, and that by two children, rankled. He was not used to being worsted, even in the heart of Africa, by much more ferocious creatures. But after sleeping on the matter, he perceived yet more clearly that they had him, as he phrased it, in a cleft stick; and he told his head-keeper that the Dangerfield children were allowed to fish his water.
AND AN APOLOGY
The vindication of their dignity filled the Twins with a cold undated triumph; but they enjoyed the liveliest satisfaction in being able to fish in well-stocked water, because the trout tempted their mother's faint appetite.
She had grown stronger during the summer. She was not, indeed, definitely ill; she was not even definitely weak. But, a woman of spirit and intelligence, she was suffering from the wearisome emptiness of her life in the country. It was sapping her strength and energy; in it she would grow old long before her time. The Twins had been used to find her livelier and more spirited, keenly interested in their doings; and the change troubled them. Doctor Arbuthnot prescribed a tonic for her; and now and again, as in the matter of the peaches and now of the trout, they set themselves to procure some delicacy for her. But she made no real improvement; and the empty country life was poisoning the springs of her being.
Sir James had expected to be annoyed frequently by the sight and sound of the Twins on the bank of the stream. To his pleased surprise he neither saw nor heard them. For the most part they fished in the early morning and brought their catch home to tempt their mother's appetite at breakfast. But if they did fish in the evening, one or the other acted as scout, watching Sir James' movements; and they kept out of his sight. They had gained their end; and their natural delicacy assured them that the sight of them could not be pleasant to Sir James. As the Terror phrased it:
"He must be pretty sick at getting a lesson; and there's no point in rubbing it in."
Then one evening (by no fault of theirs) he came upon them. Erebus was playing a big trout; and she had no thought of abandoning it to spare Sir James' feelings. Besides, if she had had such a thought, it was impracticable, since Mrs. Dangerfield had come with them.
He watched Erebus play her fish for two or three minutes; then it snapped the gut and was gone.
"Evidently you're no so good at fishing as blackmailing," said Sir James in a nasty carping tone, for the fact that they had worsted him still rankled in his heart.
"I catch more fish than you do, anyhow!" said Erebus with some heat; and she cast an uneasy glance over his shoulder.
Sir James turned to see what she had glanced at and found himself looking into the deep brown eyes of a very pretty woman.
He had not seen her when he had come out of the bushes on to the scene of the struggle; he had been too deeply interested in it to remove his eyes from it; and she had watched it from behind him.
"This is Sir James Morgan, mother," said the Terror quickly.
Sir James raised his cap; Mrs. Dangerfield bowed, and said gratefully: "It was very good of you to give my children leave to fish."
"Oh—ah—yes—n-n-not at all," stammered Sir James, blushing faintly.
He was unused to women and found her presence confusing.
"Oh, but it was," said Mrs. Dangerfield. "And I'm seeing that they don't take an unfair advantage of your kindness, for they told me that, thanks to Mr. Glazebrook's netting his part of it, there are none too many fish in the stream."
"It's very good of you. B-b-but I don't mind how many they catch," said Sir James.
He shuffled his feet and gazed rather wildly round him, for he wished to remove himself swiftly from her disturbing presence. Yet he did not wish to; he found her voice as charming as her eyes.
Mrs. Dangerfield laughed gently, and said: "You would, if I let them catch as many as they'd like to."
"Are they as good fishermen as that?" said Sir James.
"Well, they've been fishing ever since they could handle a rod. They are supposed to empty the free water by Little Deeping Village every spring. So I limit them to three fish a day," said Mrs. Dangerfield; and there was a ring of motherly pride in her voice which pleased him.
"It's very good of you," said Sir James. He hesitated, shuffled his feet again, took a step to go; then looking rather earnestly at Mrs. Dangerfield, he added in a rather uncertain voice: "I should like to stay and see how they do it. I might pick up a wrinkle or two."
"Of course. Why, it's your stream," she said.
He stayed, but he paid far more attention to Mrs. Dangerfield than to the fishing. Besides her charming eyes and delightful voice, her air of fragility made a strong appeal to his vigorous robustness. His first discomfort sternly vanquished, its place was taken by the keenest desire to remain in her presence. He not only stayed with them till the Twins had caught their three fish, but he walked nearly to Colet House with them, and at last bade them good-by with an air of the deepest reluctance. It can hardly be doubted that he had been smitten by an emotional lightning-stroke, as the French put it, or, as we more gently phrase it, that he had fallen in love at first sight.
As he walked back to the Grange he was regretting that he had not received the social advances of his neighbors with greater warmth. If, instead of staying firmly at home, he had been moving about among them, he would have met Mrs. Dangerfield earlier and by now be in a fortunate condition of meeting her often. It did not for a moment enter his mind that if he had met her stiffly in a drawing-room he might easily have failed to fall in love with her at all. He cudgeled his brains to find some way of meeting her again and meeting her often. He was to meet her quite soon without any effort on his part.
It is possible that Mrs. Dangerfield had observed that Sir James had been smitten by that emotional coup de foudre, for she was walking with a much brisker step and there was a warmer color in her cheeks.
After he had bidden them good-by and had turned back to the Grange, she said in a really cheerful tone:
"I expect Sir James finds it rather dull at the Grange after the exciting life he had in Africa."
"Rather!", said the Twins with one quickly assenting voice.
She had not missed Sir James' sentence about the superiority of Erebus' blackmailing to her fishing. But she knew the Twins far too well to ask them for an explanation of it before him. None the less it clung to her mind.
At supper therefore she said: "What did Sir James mean by calling you a blackmailer, Erebus?"
The Terror knew from her tone that she was resolved to have the explanation; and he said suavely:
"Oh, it was about the fishing."
"How—about the fishing?" said Mrs. Dangerfield quickly.
"Well, he didn't want to give us leave. In fact he never answered our letter asking for it," said the Terror.
"And of course we couldn't stand that; and we had to make him," said Erebus sternly.
"Make him? How did you make him?" said Mrs. Dangerfield.
The Terror told her.
Mrs. Dangerfield looked surprised and annoyed, but much less surprised and annoyed than the ordinary mother would have looked on learning that her offspring had blackmailed a complete stranger. She felt chiefly annoyed by the fact that the complete stranger they had chosen to blackmail should be Sir James.
"Then you did blackmail him," she said in a tone of dismay.
"He seemed to think that we were—like the Douglases used to," said the Terror in an amiable tone.
"But surely you knew that blackmailing is very wrong—very wrong, indeed," said Mrs. Dangerfield.
"Well, he did seem to think so," said the Terror. "But we thought he was prejudiced; and we didn't take much notice of him."
"And we couldn't possibly let him take no notice of our letter, Mum—it was such a polite letter—and not take it out of him," said Erebus.
"And it hasn't done any harm, you know. We wanted those trout ever so much more than he did," said the Terror.
Mrs. Dangerfield said nothing for a while; and her frown deepened as she pondered how to deal with the affair. She was still chiefly annoyed that Sir James should have been the victim. The Twins gazed at her with a sympathetic gravity which by no means meant that they were burdened by a sense of wrong-doing. They were merely sorry that she was annoyed.
"Well, there's nothing for it: you'll have to apologize to Sir James—both of you," she said at last.
"Apologize to him! But he never answered our letter!" cried Erebus.
The Terror hesitated a moment, opened his mouth to speak, shut it, opened it again and said in a soothing tone: "All right, Mum; we'll apologize."
"I'll take you to the Grange to-morrow afternoon to do it," said Mrs. Dangerfield, for she thought that unless she were present the Twins would surely contrive to repeat the offense in the apology and compel Sir James to invite them to continue to fish.
There had been some such intention in the Terror's mind, for his face fell: an apology in the presence of his mother would have to be a real apology. But he said amiably: "All right; just as you like, Mum."
Erebus scowled very darkly, and muttered fierce things under her breath. After supper, without moving him at all, she reproached the Terror bitterly for not refusing firmly.
The next afternoon therefore the three of them walked, by a foot-path across the fields, to the Grange. Surprise and extreme pleasure were mingled with the respect with which Mawley ushered them into the drawing-room; and he almost ran to apprise Sir James of their coming.
Sir James was at the moment wondering very anxiously whether he would find Mrs. Dangerfield on the bank of the stream that evening watching her children fish. His night's rest had trebled his interest in her and his desire to see more, a great deal more, of her. The appeal to him of her frail and delicate beauty was stronger than ever.
At dinner the night before he had questioned Mawley, with a careless enough air, about her, and had learned that Mr. Dangerfield had been dead seven years, that she had a very small income, and was hard put to it to make both ends meet. His compassion had been deeply stirred; she was so plainly a creature who deserved the smoothest path in life. He wished that he could now, at once, see his way to help her to that smoothest path; and he was resolved to find that way as soon as he possibly could.
When Mawley told him that she was in his drawing-room, he could scarcely believe his joyful ears. He had to put a constraint on himself to walk to its door in a decorous fashion fit for Mawley's eyes, and not dash to it at full speed. He entered the room with his eyes shining very brightly.
Mrs. Dangerfield greeted him coldly, even a little haughtily. She was looking grave and ill at ease.
"I've come about a rather unpleasant matter, Sir James," she said as they shook hands. "I find that these children have been blackmailing you; and I've brought them to apologize. I—I'm exceedingly distressed about it."
"Oh, there's no need to be—no need at all. It was rather a joke," Sir James protested quickly.
"But blackmailing isn't a joke—though of course they didn't realize what a serious thing it is—"
"It was the Douglases doing it," broke in the Terror in an explanatory tone.
"I don't think you ought to have given way to them, Sir James," said Mrs. Dangerfield severely.
"But I hadn't any choice, I assure you. They had me in a cleft stick," protested Sir James.
"Well then you ought to have come straight to me," said Mrs. Dangerfield.
"Oh, but really—a little fishing—what is a little fishing? I couldn't come bothering you about a thing like that," protested Sir James.
"But it isn't a little thing if you get it like that," said Mrs. Dangerfield. "Anyhow, it's going to stop; and they're going to apologize."
She turned to them; and as if at a signal the Twins said with one voice:
"I apologize for blackmailing you, Sir James."
The Terror spoke with an amiable nonchalance; the words came very stiffly from the lips of Erebus, and she wore a lowering air.
"Oh, not at all—not at all—don't mention it. Besides, I owe you an apology for not answering your letter," said Sir James in all the discomfort of a man receiving something that is not his due. Then he heaved a sigh of relief and added: "Well, that's all right. And now I hope you'll do all the fishing you want to."
"Certainly not; I can't allow them to fish your water any more," said Mrs. Dangerfield sternly.
"Oh, but really," said Sir James with a harried air.
"No," said Mrs. Dangerfield; and she held out her hand.
"But you'll have some tea—after that hot walk!" cried Sir James.
"No, thank you, I must be getting home," said Mrs. Dangerfield firmly.
Sir James did not press her to stay; he saw that her mind was made up.
He opened the door of the drawing-room, and they filed out. As Erebus passed out, she turned and made a hideous grimace at him. She was desirous that he should not overrate her apology.
AND THE SOUND OF WEDDING BELLS
Sir James came through the hall with them, carelessly taking his cap from the horn of an antelope on the wall as he passed it. He came down the steps, along the gardens to the side gate, and through it into the park, talking to Mrs. Dangerfield of the changes he had found in the gardens of the Grange after his last five years of big game shooting about the world.
Mrs. Dangerfield had not liked her errand; and she was in no mood for companionship. But she could not drive him from her side on his own land. They walked slowly; the Twins forged ahead. When Sir James and Mrs. Dangerfield came out of the park, the Twins were out of sight. Mere politeness demanded that he should walk the rest of the way with her.
When the Twins were out of the hearing of their mother and Sir James, the Terror said:
"Well, he was quite decent about it. It made him much more uncomfortable than we were. I suppose it was because we're more used to Mum."
"What did the silly idiot want to give us away at all for?" said the unappeased Erebus.
"Oh, well; he didn't mean to. It was an accident, you know," said the Terror.
His provident mind foresaw advantages to be attained from a closer intimacy with Sir James.
"Accident! People shouldn't have accidents like that!" said Erebus in a tone of bitter scorn.
When he and Mrs. Dangerfield came out of the park, Sir James diplomatically fell to lauding the Twins to the skies, their beauty, their grace and their intelligence. The diplomacy was not natural (he was no diplomat) but accidental: the Twins were the only subject he could at the moment think of. He could not have found a quicker way to Mrs. Dangerfield's approval. She had been disposed to dislike him for having been blackmailed by them; his praise of them softened her heart. Discussing them, they came right to the gate of Colet House; and it was only natural that she should invite him to tea. He accepted with alacrity. At tea he changed the subject: they talked about her.
He came home yet more interested in her, resolved yet more firmly to see more of her. With a natural simplicity he used his skill in woodcraft to compass his end, and availed himself of the covert afforded by the common to watch Colet House. Thanks to this simple device he was able to meet or overtake Mrs. Dangerfield, somewhere in the first half-mile of her afternoon walk.
They grew intimate quickly, thanks chiefly to his simple directness; and he found that his first impression that he wanted her more than he had ever wanted anything in his life, more even than he had wanted, in his enthusiastic youth, to shoot a black rhinoceros, was right. He had been making arrangements for another shooting expedition; but he perceived now very clearly, indeed, that it was his immediate duty to settle down in life, provide the Hall with a mistress, and do his duty by his estate and his neighbors.
He had had no experience of women; but his hunting had developed his instinct and he perceived that he must proceed very warily indeed, that to bring Mrs. Dangerfield over the boundary-line of friendship into the land of romance was the most difficult enterprise he had ever dreamed of. But he had a stout heart, the hunter's pertinacity, and a burning resolve to succeed.
He wanted all the help he could get; and he saw that the Twins would be useful friends in the matter. But did they chance on him walking with their mother, or at tea with her, they held politely but gloomily aloof. He must abate their hostility.
He contrived, therefore, to meet them on the common as they were starting one afternoon on an expedition, greeted them cheerfully, stopped and said: "I'm awfully sorry I gave you away the other day. But I never saw your mother till I'd done it."
"Don't mention it," said the Terror with cold graciousness.
"So you ought to be," said Erebus.
"It's a pity you should lose your fishing. If I'd known how good you both were at it, I should have given you leave when I got your letter," said Sir James hypocritically. "But I was misinformed about you."
"It's worse that mother should lose the trout. She does hate butcher's meat so, and it is so difficult to get her to eat properly," said Erebus in a somewhat mollified tone.
"It's like that, is it?" said Sir James quickly; and an expression of deep concern filled his face.
"Yes, and she did eat those trout," said Erebus plaintively.
Sir James knitted his brow in frowning thought; and the Twins watched him with little hope in their faces. Of a sudden his brow grew smooth; and he said:
"Look here: you mayn't fish my water; but there's no reason why you shouldn't fish Glazebrook's. I think that a man who nets his water loses all rights."
"Yes, he does," said the Terror firmly.
"Well, with one watching while the other fishes, it ought to be safe enough; and I'll stand the racket if you get prosecuted and fined. I want to take it out of that fellow Glazebrook—he's not a sportsman."