A Safety Match/Chapter 11

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DIES IRAE.


I

At Belton, Daphne, like her Scriptural counterpart, came to herself. Attired in what she called "rags," she ran wild about the woods and plantations, accompanied by the faithful Mr Dawks, who found a green countryside (even when marred at intervals by a grimy pithead) infinitely preferable to Piccadilly, where the pavement is hot and steerageway precarious.

They were to stay at Belton till Christmas, after which the house in Berkeley Square would be ready for her. Hitherto she had been well content with the little establishment in Grosvenor Street; but her ideas in certain directions, as her husband had observed to Mrs Carfrae, were developing in a very gratifying manner.

One hot morning Daphne arrived at breakfast half an hour late. To do her justice, this was an unusual fault; for in the country she would never have dreamed of indulging in such an urban luxury as breakfast in bed. Her unpunctuality was not due to sloth. She had already superintended the morning toilet of Master Brian Vereker Carr, and had even taken a constitutional with Mr Dawks along the road which ran over the shoulder of a green hill towards Belton Pit, two miles away. She knew that her husband had gone out at seven o'clock to interview the manager at the pithead, and she had reckoned on being picked up by the returning motor and brought home in time for nine o'clock breakfast. Unfortunately Juggernaut had changed his plans and gone to another pit in the opposite direction, with the result that Daphne, besides being compelled to walk twice as far as she intended, found an uncomfortable combination of cold food and chilly husband waiting for her when she reached home.

Juggernaut never called Daphne to book for her shortcomings now. It had become his custom of late, if he found anything amiss in the management of the establishment, to send a message to the housekeeper direct. He should have known better. Daphne, regarding such a proceeding as an imputation of incompetence on her part, boiled inwardly at the slight, though her innate sense of justice told her that it was not altogether undeserved. Being a great success is apt to be a slightly demoralising business, and Daphne herself was beginning dimly to realise the fact. There was no doubt, for instance, that she was not the housekeeper she had been. But what was the good? There had been some credit in feeding the boys and Dad on half nothing, and in conjuring that second weekly joint out of a housekeeping surplus that was a little financial triumph in itself. But now, who cared if a leg of mutton were saved or not? What did it matter if the cook sold the leavings and the butler opened more wine than he decanted? Her husband could afford it. And so on.

A discussion had arisen upon this subject the evening before; and the silent enigmatical man whom she had married, whom she understood so little, and who, from the fact that he treated her as something between an incompetent servant and a spoiled child, appeared to understand her even less, had spoken out more freely than usual, with not altogether happy results. Daphne above all loved openness and candour, and she could not endure to feel that her husband was exercising forbearance towards her, or making allowances, or talking down to her level. Consequently the laborious little lecture she had received, with its studied moderation of tone and its obvious desire to let her down gently, had had an unfortunate but not altogether unnatural result. Juggernaut would have done better to employ his big guns, such as he reserved for refractory public meetings. As it was, Daphne lost her temper.

"Jack," she blazed out suddenly, "I know I'm a failure, so why rub it in? I know you married me to keep house for you, so you have a perfect right to complain if I do it badly. Well, you have told me; now I know. Shall we drop the subject? I will endeavour to be more competent, honest, and obliging in future."

Juggernaut rose suddenly from the table—they were sitting over their dessert at the time—and walked to the mantelpiece, where he stood leaning his head upon his arms, in an apparent endeavour to mesmerise the fender. Daphne, cooling rapidly, wondered what he was thinking about. Was he angry, or bored, or indifferent?

Presently he turned round.

"I'm afraid I don't handle you as successfully as I handle some other problems, Daphne," he said reflectively. "Good-night!"

That was all. He left the room, and Daphne had not seen him since. Her anger was gone. By bedtime she was thoroughly ashamed of herself, and, being Daphne, no other course lay open to her than that of saying so. Hence her early rising next morning, and her effort to intercept the motor.

The failure of the latter enterprise made matters more difficult; for courage once screwed to the sticking-point and timed for a certain moment cannot as a rule outlast postponement.

Still, she walked into the breakfast-room bravely.

"Jack," she began, a little breathlessly, "I'm sorry I was cross last night."

Her husband was sitting with his back to the door. Possibly if he had seen her face—flushed and appealing under its soft hat of grey suède—he might have acted a little more helpfully than he did. He merely laid down his newspaper and remarked cheerfully:—

"That is all right, dear. Let us say no more about it. Sit down to your breakfast before it gets colder. You must have been for a long walk.—Fried sole or a sausage?"

He rose and helped her to food from the sideboard, as promptly and carefully as if she had been a newly arrived and important guest. It was something; but compared with what he might have done it was nothing. In effect, Daphne had asked for a kiss and had been given a sausage.

It was rather a miserable breakfast. Daphne had vowed to herself not to be angry again: consequently she could only mope. Juggernaut continued to read the newspaper. The political world was in a ferment at the moment. There was a promise for him in all this of work—trouble—the facing of difficulties—the overcoming of strenuous opposition—the joy of battle, in fact. Manlike, he overlooked the trouble that was brewing at his own fireside.

Presently he put down his newspaper and strolled to the open window.

"What a gorgeous day, Daphne. And I have to spend it in a committee-room at Kilchester!"

"Anything important?" asked Daphne, determined to be interested.

"Important? I should just think it was, only people refuse to realise the fact. It's a meeting of the County Territorial Association. What humbug the whole business is! They started the old Volunteers, coddled them, asked nothing of them but a few drills and an annual picnic in camp, and then laughed them out of existence for Saturday-afternoon soldiers. Now they start the Territorials and go to the other extreme. They require of a man that he shall attain, free gratis and for nothing, at the sacrifice of the few scanty weeks which he gets by way of holiday, to practically the same standard of efficiency as a regular soldier, who is paid for it and gets the whole year to do it in. And then they blame us, the County Associations, because we can't find recruits for them! Luckily, we shall have compulsory service soon, and that will end the farce once and for all."

Daphne liked to be talked to like this. In the first place, it removed the uncomfortable and humiliating sensation that she was a child in her husband's eyes; and in the second, it adjusted her sense of proportion as regards the male sex. Obviously, with all these dull but weighty matters to occupy him, a man could not be expected to set such store by conjugal unity as his wife, who had little else to think of.

"Perhaps I have been a little fool," she philosophised. "After all, a man doesn't in the least realise how a woman—"

"What are you going to do to-day?" asked her husband.

"This afternoon I am going over to Croxley Dene to play tennis."

"Anything this morning?"

"I am going to order the motor for twelve o'clock—rather reluctantly. "I suppose Vick will be back from Kilchester."

"Oh, yes. Are you going out to lunch somewhere?"

"N-no."

"Just a drive?"

"Yes. The fact is," said poor Daphne, hating herself for feeling like a child detected in a fault, "I am going to try my hand at driving the motor myself."

There was a pause, and Juggernaut continued to gaze out of the window, while Daphne pleated the table-cloth.

Presently the hateful expected words came.

"I would rather you didn't."

Daphne rose suddenly to her feet. Her face was aflame, and all her good resolutions had vanished. She had always longed to drive the big car, her appetite having been whetted by occasional experiments upon the property—usually small, easily-handled vehicles—of long-suffering friends. She had broached the subject more than once, but had found her husband curiously vague as regards permission. Usually it was "Yes" or "No" with him. This morning, tired of the humiliation of constantly asking for leave, she had decided to give orders on her own account. And but for Juggernaut's unlucky question she would have achieved her purpose and settled accounts afterwards—a very different thing from asking leave first, as every child knows.

"And why?" she asked, with suspicious calmness.

"Well, for one thing, I don't think a lady should be seen driving a great covered-in limousine car. You wouldn't go out on the box seat of a brougham, would you? As a matter of fact, if you will have patience for a week or two—"

"Yes, I know!" broke in Daphne passionately. "If I have patience for a week or two, and am a good little girl, and order the meals punctually in the meanwhile, you will perhaps take me for a run one afternoon, and let me hold the wheel while you sit beside me with the second speed in. Thank you! Good-morning!"

She pushed back her chair, whirled round with a vehement swirl of her tweed skirt, and left the room.

Juggernaut continued to finger a typewritten letter which he had just taken from his pocket. It bore the address of a firm of motor-makers, and said:—


Sir,—We beg to inform you that one of our Handy Runabout 10-12 h-p cars, for which we recently received your esteemed order, is now to hand from the varnishers', and will be delivered at Belton Hall on Tuesday next. As requested, we have given the clutch-pedal and brake a particularly easy spring, with a view to the car being driven by a lady.

"Thanking you for past favours, we are, sir,

yours faithfully,

The Diablement-Odorant Motor Co., Ltd.


Juggernaut put the letter back into his pocket.


II

In due course the Belton motor conveyed its owner to Kilchester and left him there.

"Shall I come back for you, sir?" inquired Mr Vick, the chauffeur. He was a kindly man, despite his exalted station.

"No, thanks—I'll take the train. But I believe Lady Carr wants you to take her over to Croxley Dene this afternoon."

"Her ladyship shall be took," said Mr Vick, with an indulgent smile—Lady Carr was a favourite of his—and forthwith returned to Belton.

On running the car into the yard he found the coachman, Mr Windebank, a sadly diminished luminary in these days, putting a polish upon an unappreciative quadruped.

"You and your machine, Mr Vick," announced Mr Windebank, "is wanted round at twelve sharp."

It was then eleven-fifteen.

"Ho!" replied the ruffled Mr Vick, feeling much as the Emperor Nero might have felt on being requested by the most recently immured early Christian to see that the arena lions were kept a bit quieter to-morrow night; "ho, indeed!"

"Them's your orders, Mr Vick," said Mr Windebank, resuming the peculiar dental obligato which seems to be the inseparable accompaniment of the toilet of a horse, temporarily suspended on this occasion to enable the performer to discharge his little broadside.

Mr Vick turned off various taps and switches on his dash-board, and the humming of the engine ceased.

"I take my orders," he proclaimed in majestic tones, "from the master and missus direct, and from nobody else."

Mr Windebank, after spending some moments in groping for a crushing rejoinder, replied:—

"Well, you'd better go inside and get 'em. And you'd better 'ang a nosebag on your sparking-plug in the meanwhile," he added, with sudden and savage irrelevance.

Mr Vick adopted the former of these two suggestions, with the result that at the hour of noon the car slid submissively round to the front of the Hall. Presently Daphne appeared, and disregarding the door which Mr Vick was holding open for her, stepped up into the driver's seat—the throne itself—and took the wheel in her vigorous little hands.

"I am going to drive, Vick," she observed cheerfully.

Mr Vick preserved his self-control and smiled faintly.

"I suppose you have a licence, my lady?" he inquired.

"Gracious, no! I am only just beginning," replied Daphne, who regarded a driver's licence as a sort of reward of merit. "I want you to teach me. Which of these things is the clutch-pedal?"

"The left, my lady. I am afraid," added Mr Vick, with the air of one who intends to stop this nonsense once and for all, "that you will find it very stiff."

"Thanks," said Daphne blandly. "And I suppose the other one is the brake."

"Yes, my lady; but—"

"Then we can start. How do I put in the first speed?"

Mr Vick, in what can only be described as a moriturus-te-saluto! voice, gave the required information; and the car, after a dislocating jerk, moved off at a stately four miles per hour. Presently, with much slipping of the clutch and buzzing of the gear-wheels, the second, and finally the third speed went in, and the car proceeded with all the exuberance of its forty-five horse-power down the long straight drive. Fortunately the lodge gates stood open, and the road outside was clear.

Certainly Mr Vick behaved very well. Although every wrench and jar to which his beloved engines were submitted appeared to react directly upon his own internal mechanism, he never winced. Occasionally a muffled groan or a muttered exclamation of "My tyres!" or "My differential!" burst from his overwrought lips; but for the most part he sat like a graven image, merely hoping that when the crash came it would be a good one—something about which it would be really grateful and comforting to say "I told you so!" He also cherished a strong hope that his name would appear in the newspaper account of the disaster.

But Daphne drove well. She had a good head and quick hands; and steering a middle course between the extreme caution of the beginner and the omniscient recklessness of the half-educated, she gave Mr Vick very little excuse for anything in the shape of a genuine shudder. She experienced a little difficulty in getting the clutch right out of action in changing gear; and once she stopped her engine through going round a corner with the brakes on—but that was all. Mr Vick began to feel distinctly aggrieved.

There was a spice of abandon in Daphne's present attitude. She had burned her boats; she had flown in the face of authority; and she intended to brazen it out. The breeze whistled in her ears; her eyes blazed; her cheeks glowed. She felt in good fighting trim.

Presently, fetching a compass, the car began to head towards Belton again, and having been directed in masterly fashion through the narrow gates by the back lodge, sped along the final stretch which led to home and luncheon, at a comfortable thirty miles an hour.

At the end of the dappled vista formed by the overarching trees of the avenue appeared a black object, which presently resolved itself into Mr Dawks, lolling comfortably in a patch of sunlight pending his mistress's return.

"Mind the dog, my lady!" cried Mr Vick suddenly.

Daphne had every intention of minding the dog; but desire and performance do not always coincide. Suddenly realizing that Mr Dawks, who was now sitting up expectantly in the middle distance, wagging his tail and extending a welcome as misplaced as that of Jephtha's daughter under somewhat similar circumstances, had no conception of the necessity for vacating his present position, Daphne put down both feet hard and endeavored to bring the car to a standstill. But thirty miles an hour is forty-four feet a second, and the momentum of a car weighing two tons is not lightly to be arrested by a brake constructed only to obey the pressure of a masculine boot. Next moment there was a pathetic little yelp. Daphne had a brief vision of an incredulous and reproachful doggy countenance; the car gave a slight lurch, and then came to full stop, as Mr Vick, having already snapped off the ignition switch on the dashboard, reached across behind Daphne's back and jammed on the side brake.


III

It was Mr Dawks who really showed to the greatest advantage during the next half-hour. He assured his mistress by every means in his power that the whole thing was entirely his fault; and, like the courteous gentleman that he was, he begged her with faintly wagging tail and affectionate eyes not to distress herself unduly on his account. The thing was done; let there be no more talk about it. It was nothing! By way of showing that the cordiality of their relations was still unimpaired he endeavored to shake hands, first with one paw and then the other; but finding that both were broken he reluctantly desisted from his efforts.

They carried him—what was left of him—into the house, where Daphne, white-faced and tearless, hung in an agony of self-reproach over the friend of her youth—the last link with her girlhood. Dawks lay very still. Once, opening his eyes and evidently feeling that something was expected of him, he licked her hand. The tears came fast after that.

Presently Windebank arrived. He loved all dumb beasts, and was skilled in ministering to their ailments—wherein he transcended that highly educated automaton Mr Vick, to whom the acme of life was represented by a set of perfectly timed sparking-plugs—and he made poor mangled Dawks as comfortable as possible.

"Is he badly hurt, Windebank?" whispered Daphne.

"Yes, miss," said Windebank, touching his forelock. He was a man of few words in the presence of his superiors.

"Will he die?"

Windebank gazed down in an embarrassed fashion at the close coils of fair hair, bowed over the dog's rough coat. Then he stiffened himself defiantly.

"He'll get well right enough, miss," he said with great assurance. "Just wants taking care of, that's all."

It was a lie, and he knew it. But it was a kind lie. To such much is forgiven.

Daphne sat with her patient until three o'clock, and then, overcome with the restlessness of impotent anxiety, and stimulated by an urgent telephonic reminder, ordered out the horse.

"Good-bye, old man," she said to Dawks, caressing the dog's long ears and unbecoming nose. "I'll be back in an hour or two. Lie quiet, and you'll soon be all right. Windebank says so."

Mr Dawks whined gently and flapped his tail upon the floor, further intimating by a faint tremor of his ungainly body that if circumstances had permitted he would certainly have made a point of rising and accompanying his mistress to the door and seeing her off the premises. As things were, he must beg to be excused.

Daphne drove to Croxley Dene, where for an hour or so she exchanged banalities with the rest of the county and played a set of tennis.

She drove home in the cool of the evening, more composed in mind. The fresh air and exercise had done her good. Windebank had said that the dog would live: that was everything. Less satisfactory to contemplate was the approaching interview with her husband in the matter of the car. Until now she had not thought of it.

On reaching home she hurried to the library, where she had left the invalid lying on a rug before the fire. Mr Dawks was not there.

"I wonder if Windebank has taken him to the stable," she said to herself. "I'll go and—"

She turned, and found herself face to face with her husband.

"Jack," she asked nervously, "do you know where Dawks is? I suppose you have heard—"

"Yes, I have heard."

Daphne shrank back at the sound of his voice. His face was like flint.

"Then—where is he?" she faltered. "Windebank said—"

"I had him shot."

Daphne stared at him incredulously.

"You had him shot!" she said slowly. "My Dawks?"

"Yes. It was rank cruelty on your part keeping the poor brute alive, after—after reducing him to that state."

The last half of the sentence may have been natural and justifiable, but no one could call it generous. It is not easy to be merciful when one is at white heat.

Daphne stood up, very slim and straight, gazing stonily into her husband's face.

"Have you buried him?"

"I told one of the gardeners to do so."

"Where?"

"I did not say, but we can—"

"I suppose you know," said Daphne with great deliberation, "that he was the only living creature in all this great house that loved me—really loved me?"

Verily, here was war. There was a tense silence for a moment, and an almost imperceptible flicker of some emotion passed over Juggernaut's face. Then he said, with equal deliberation:—

"Without any exception?"

"Yes, without any exception!" cried poor Daphne, stabbing passionately in the dark. "And since he is dead," she added—"since you have killed him—I am going home to Dad and the boys! They love me!"

She stood before her husband with her head thrown back defiantly, white and trembling with passion.

"Very good. Perhaps that would be best," said Juggernaut quietly.