The Terror's face had brightened; but he said: "But how should we account for the fish we took home?"
"You can reckon them presents from me. They would be—practically—if I'm going to pay the fines," said Sir James.
The eyes of both the Twins danced: this was a fashion of dealing tenderly with exactitude which appealed to them. The Terror himself could not have been more tender with it.
"That's a ripping idea!" said Erebus in a tone of the warmest approval.
The peace was thus concluded.
Having thus abated their hostility, Sir James spared no pains to win their good will. He gave the Terror a rook-rifle and Erebus boxes of chocolate. If he chanced on them when motoring in the afternoon he would carry them off, bicycles and all, in his car and regale them with sumptuous teas at the Grange; and at Colet House he entertained them with stories of the African forest which thrilled Mrs. Dangerfield even more than they thrilled them. But he won their hearts most by his sympathy with them in the matter of their mother's appetite, and by joining them in little plots to obtain delicacies for her.
Having discovered how grateful it was to her, he lost no opportunity of taking the short cut to her heart by praising them. He laid himself out to be useful to her, to entertain and amuse her, trying to make for himself as large as possible a place in her life. She was not long discovering that he was in love with her; and the discovery came as a very pleasant shock. None of the neighbors, much less Captain Baster, who, during her stay at Colet House, had asked her to marry them, had attracted her so strongly as did Sir James. Even as her delicacy made the strongest appeal to his vigorous robustness, so his vigorous robustness made the strongest appeal to her delicacy.
But Little Deeping is a censorious place; and its gossips are the keener for having so few chances of plying their active tongues. When no less than four ladies had on four several occasions met Sir James and Mrs. Dangerfield walking together along the lanes, those tongues began to wag.
Then old Mrs. Blenkinsop, the childless widow of a Common Councilman of London, one morning met the Twins in the village. They greeted her politely and made to escape. But she was in the mood, her most constant mood, to babble. She stopped them, and with a knowing air, and even more offensive smile, said:
"So, young people, we're going to hear the sound of wedding bells very soon in Little Deeping, are we?"
Erebus merely scowled at her, for more than once she had talked about them; but the Terror, in a tone of somewhat perfunctory politeness, said:
"I should have thought you would have known all about it," she said with a cackling little giggle. "Mind you tell me as soon as you're told: I want to be one of the first to congratulate your dear mother."
"What do you mean?" snapped the Terror with a disconcerting suddenness; and his eyes shone very bright and threatening in a steady glare into her own.
"Oh, nothing—nothing!" cried Mrs. Blenkinsop, flustered by his sternness. "Only seeing Sir James so much with your mother—But there—there's probably nothing in it—the Morgans always were rovers—one foot at sea and one on shore—I dare say he'll be in the middle of Africa before the week is out. Good morning—good morning."
With that she sprang, more lightly than she had sprung for years, into the grocer's shop.
The Twins looked after her with uneasy eyes, frowning. Then Erebus said: "Silly old idiot!"
The Terror said nothing; he walked on frowning. At last he broke out: "This won't do! We can't have these old idiots gossiping about Mum. And it's a beastly nuisance: Sir James was making things so much more cheerful for her."
"But you don't think there's anything in what the old cat said? It would be perfectly horrid to have a stepfather!" cried Erebus in a panic.
The Terror walked on, frowning in deep thought.
"Do you think there's anything in it?" cried Erebus.
"I dare say there is. Sir James is always about with Mum; and he's always very civil to us—people aren't generally," said the Terror.
"Oh, but we must stop it! We must stop it at once!" cried Erebus.
"Why must we?"
"It would be perfectly beastly having a step-father, I tell you!" cried Erebus fiercely.
"It isn't altogether what we like—there's Mum," said the Terror. "She does have a rotten time of it—always being hard up and never going anywhere. And, after all, we shouldn't mind Sir James when we got used to him."
"But we should! And look how we stopped the Cruncher!"
"Sir James isn't like the Cruncher—at all," said the Terror.
"All stepfathers are alike; and they're beastly!" cried Erebus.
"Now, it's no good your getting yourself obstinate about it," said the Terror firmly. "That won't be of any use at all, if they've made up their minds. But what's bothering me is what that old cat meant by saying that the Morgans were rovers."
Erebus' frown deepened as she knitted her brow over the cryptic utterance of Mrs. Blenkinsop. Then she said in a tone of considerable relief:
"She must have meant that he wasn't really in earnest about marrying Mum."
"Yes, that's what she did mean," growled the Terror. "And she'll go about telling everybody that he's only fooling."
"But I don't think he is. I don't think he would," said Erebus quickly.
"No more do I," said the Terror.
They walked nearly fifty yards in silence. Then the Terror's face cleared and brightened; and he said cheerfully:
"I know the thing to do! I'll go and ask him his intentions. That's what people said old Hawley ought to have done when the Cut—you know: that fellow from Rowington—was fooling about with Miss Hawley."
"All right, we'll go and ask him," said Erebus with equal cheerfulness.
"No, no, you can't go. I must go alone," said the Terror quickly. "It's the kind of thing the men of the family always do—people said so about Miss Hawley—and I'm the only man of the family about. If Uncle Maurice were in London and not in Vienna, we might send for him to do it."
Erebus burst into bitter complaint. She alleged that the restrictions which were applied to the ordinary girl should by no means be applied to her, since she was not ordinary; that since they cooperated in everything else they ought to cooperate in this; that he was much more successful in those exploits in which they did cooperate, than in those which he performed alone.
"It's no good talking like that: it isn't the thing to do," said the Terror with very cold severity. "You know what Mrs. Morton said about Miss Hawley and the Cut—that the men of the family did it."
"You're only a boy; and I'm as old as you!" snapped Erebus.
"Well, when there isn't a man to do a thing, a boy does it. So it's no use you're making a fuss," said the Terror in a tone of finality.
Erebus protested that the upshot of his going alone would be that Sir James would presently be their detested stepfather; but he went alone, early in the afternoon.
He was now on such familiar terms at the Grange that Mawley took him straight to the smoking-room, where his master was smoking a cigar over his after-lunch coffee. Sir James welcomed him warmly, for he was beginning to learn that the Terror was quite good company, in the country, and poured him out a cup of coffee.
The Terror put sugar and cream into it and forthwith, since a simple matter of this kind did not seem to him to call for the exercise of his usual diplomacy, said with firm directness: "I've come to ask your intentions, sir."
"My intentions?" said Sir James, not taking him.
"Yes. You see some of the old cats who live about here are saying that you're only fooling," said the Terror.
"The deuce they are!" cried Sir James sharply with a sudden and angry comprehension.
"Yes. So of course the thing to do was to ask your intentions," said the Terror firmly.
"Of course—of course," said Sir James.
He looked at the Terror; and in spite of his anger his eyes twinkled. Then he added gravely: "My intentions are not only extremely serious but they're extremely immediate. I'd marry your mother to-morrow if she'd let me."
"That's all right," said the Terror with a faint sigh of relief. "Of course I knew you were all right. Only, it was the thing to do, with these silly old idiots talking."
"Quite so—quite so," said Sir James.
There was a pause; and Sir James looked again at the Terror tranquilly drinking his coffee, in a somewhat appealing fashion, for he had been suffering badly from all the doubts and fears of the lover; and the Terror's serenity was soothing.
Then with a sudden craving for comfort and reassurance, he said: "Do you think your mother would marry me?"
"I haven't the slightest idea; women are so funny," said the Terror with a sage air.
Sir James pulled at his mustache. Then the compulsion to have some one's opinion of his chances, even if it was only a small boy's, came on him strongly; and he said:
"I wish I knew what to do. As it is we're very good friends; and if I asked her to marry me, I might spoil that."
The Terror considered the point for a minute or two; then he said: "I don't think you would. Mum's very sensible, though she is so pretty."
Sir James frowned deeply in his utter perplexity; then he said: "I'll risk it!"
He rang the bell and ordered his car. He talked to the Terror jerkily and somewhat incoherently till it came; and the Terror observed his perturbation with considerable interest. It seemed to him very curious in a hard-bitten hunter of big game. They started and in the two level miles to Little Deeping Sir James changed his car's speeds nine times.
As they came very slowly up to Colet House, the Terror said with an air of detachment: "I should think, you know, Mum could be rushed."
He had definitely made up his mind that it would be a good thing for her.
"If I only could!" said Sir James in a tone of feverish doubt.
Mrs. Dangerfield was mending a rent in a frock of Erebus when he entered the drawing-room; and at the first glance she knew, with a thrill half of pleasure, half of apprehension, why he had come.
At the sight of her Sir James felt his tremulous courage oozing out of him; but with what was left of it he blurted out desperately:
"Look here, Anne, dear, I want you to marry me!"
"Oh!" said Mrs. Dangerfield, rising quickly.
"Yes, I want it more than ever I wanted anything in my life!"
Mrs. Dangerfield's face was one flush; and she cried: "B-b-but it's out of the question. I—I'm old enough to be your mother!"
"Now how?—I'm three years and seven months older than you," said Sir James, taken aback.
"I shall be an old woman while you're still quite young!" she protested.
"You won't ever be old! You're not the kind!" cried Sir James with some heat; and then with sudden understanding: "If that's your only reason, why, that settles it!"
With that he picked her up and kissed her four times.
When he set her down and held her at arm's length, gazing at her with devouring eyes, she gasped somewhat faintly: "Oh, James, you are—ever so much more—impetuous—than I thought. You gave me—no time."
"Thank goodness, I took the Terror's tip!" said Sir James.