A Safety Match/Chapter 5

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A SABBATH-DAY'S JOURNEY.


The Rectory children, washed and combed for Sunday dinner, sat at ease in the old nursery—promoted to schoolroom since Tony went into knickerbockers—and discussed the munificent stranger of the morning.

Their interest in his movements and identity had been heightened by the fact that after service was over he had proceeded to the right instead of the left on leaving the Kirkley Abbey pew, and, turning his broad back upon an undisguisedly interested congregation, had stalked up the chancel and disappeared through the door leading to the vestry.

"I wonder what he went for," said Cilly for the third time.

"Perhaps he was going to give Dad more banknotes," suggested the optimistic Stiffy.

"More likely going to ask for change out of the first one," rejoined Ally, the cynic.

"I expect he was going to complain about you making faces at him through the curtain, Nicky," coldly observed Cilly, who had not yet forgiven her small sister's innuendoes on the subject of Mr Robert Gill.

"Rats!" demurred Nicky uneasily. "I didn't make faces. I expect he's only some tourist who wants to rub brasses, or sniff a vault, or something."

"He must be a friend of Lord Kirkley's," said Ally, "because—"

"I'll show you who he is," shrilled a voice from the depth of a cupboard under the window.

Tony, who had been grubbing among a heap of tattered and dusty literature in the bottom shelf, now rose to his feet and staggered across the room carrying an ancient but valuable copy of 'The Pilgrim's Progress,' embellished with steel engravings.

Having deposited the volume upon the hearthrug he proceeded to hunt through its pages. Presently, with a squeal of delight, he placed a stumpy fore-finger upon a full-page illustration, and announced triumphantly:—

"That's him!"

The picture represented Christian's battle with Apollyon. Christian, hard pressed, had been beaten to his knees, and over him towered the figure of the Prince of Darkness, brandishing a sword and (in the most unsportsmanlike manner) emitting metallic-looking flames from his stomach. The children gathered round.

"You are right, Tony," said Cilly at length, "it is like him."

Certainly Apollyon bore a sort of far-away resemblance to the late occupant of the Kirkley Abbey pew. "Look at his eyebrows," said Nicky, "they go straight up—"

The churchyard gate clicked, and voices were heard in conversation outside. Daphne sped to the window.

"Heavens!" she exclaimed in an agonised whisper, "Dad is bringing him in to lunch! Ally, take your boots off the mantelpiece! Nicky, pull up your stockings! Cilly, knock Dawks off the sofa! I must fly. I wonder if there's enough cream to make a trifle. Anyhow, the beef—"

And she sped away kitchenwards like an agitated butterfly.

A few minutes later the Rector appeared in the schoolroom, smiling joyously, with his hand resting lightly on the shoulder of the recently identified Apollyon. Tony was restoring 'The Pilgrim's Progress' to its shelf with the complacency of a second Bertillon.

"These are my flock, Jack," said Brian Vereker. "I wonder if any of you children can guess who this gentleman is? Would you think that he and I were at school together? Tony, I have often told you of little Jack Carr, who used to light my fire and cook my breakfast. And a shocking mess he used to make of it—eh? Didn't you, Jack? Do you remember the day you fried sausages in marmalade, because the label on the pot said marmalade would be found an excellent substitute for butter? Well, here he is, Tony. We have run together again after twenty-five years. Come and shake hands. These are my two younger girls, Jack, and these are my three boys. Where is Daphne, children?"

The Vereker family, drawn up in a self-conscious row, were understood to intimate that Daphne was downstairs. A move was therefore made in the direction of the dining-room, where Keziah, the little maid, was heatedly laying an extra place. Daphne joined the party a moment later, and welcomed Sir John Carr—such was his full title, it appeared—with prettiness and composure. But Cilly and Nicky noted that she had found time to rearrange her hair in honour of the occasion, and adorn herself with most of her slender stock of jewellery—two bangles and a thin gold chain.

Sunday dinner was something of a function at the Rectory. For one thing there was hot roast beef, which counts for much when you see the like only once in the week. The Rector carved and Stiffy handed round the plates, Keziah, whose Sunday-afternoon-out commenced technically the moment the sirloin was dished, being excused from further attendance. Daphne presided over the vegetable dishes and Ally cut bread at the sideboard. The office of butler was in abeyance, for the Vereker family drank only water from their highly polished christening-mugs. Nicky was responsible for the table-napkins, and Cilly mixed salads in season. All these domestic details Daphne explained, with captivating friendliness and a freedom from self-consciousness that many a more matured hostess might have envied, to the silent man beside her.

"Sorry to have all the family pouring things over you," she said, as Stiffy with a plate of beef, Ally with a lump of bread impaled upon a fork, and Cilly with a bowl of lettuce, egg, and beetroot cunningly intermingled, converged simultaneously upon the guest; "but we have only one servant, and—"

Stephen Blasius Vereker, poised upon his toes and holding his breath, was leaning heavily over the guest's right shoulder, proffering a platter upon the edge of which a billow of gravy, piling itself up into a tidal wave, strove to overcome the restraining influence of surface tension. Apollyon, his features unrelaxed, gravely took the plate, and restoring it to a horizontal position, turned deferentially to resume his conversation with his young hostess.

"——And I like poor Keziah to have as long a Sunday out as possible," continued Daphne, entirely unruffled.

"Her young man waits for her at the stile down by Preston's farm," supplemented Nicky. "They go for a walk down Tinkler's Den, and never speak a word to each other."

"So we wait on ourselves at this meal," concluded Daphne. "What will you drink, Sir John? Father is a teetotaller, and so are all of us; but if you are not, I've got some brandy upstairs in the nursery medicine cupboard."

"Thank you, I will drink water," said Sir John solemnly.

By this time the Vereker family had settled down to their own portions, and were babbling as cheerfully and unrestrainedly as usual. Shyness in the presence of strangers was not one of their weaknesses, and presently, taking advantage of Daphne's departure to the kitchen in quest of the second course, they engaged their guest in conversation, inviting his opinions on such widely different subjects as the quality of the salad (Cilly), the merits of the automatic vacuum railway brake as compared with those of the Westinghouse (Stiffy), and the prospects of Cambridge in the coming Boat Race (Ally). All of which queries were answered in a fashion which, while lacking in geniality and erring a little on the side of terseness, showed that the respondent knew what he was talking about.

The Rector, at the head of the table, smiled benignantly. To him this reticent man of over forty, with the deep-set eyes and square jaw, was the sturdy chubby boy who had cooked his breakfast and worshipped him from afar in the dim but joyous days when Brian Vereker was a giant of nineteen, with side whiskers, and Jacky Carr a humble fag of twelve. It was almost a shock to hear him offered spirits to drink.

Presently Daphne returned, and another general post ensued, at the end of which the beef and vegetables had disappeared, and a suet pudding (the standing Sabbath sweet at the Rectory), flanked by a dish of trifle of diminutive proportions, lay before the hostess. The Rector was confronted by a melon.

Taking advantage of a covering conversation between the guest and her eldest brother, Miss Vereker made a mysterious pass over the surface of the trifle with a spoon, while she murmured to such of the family as were within earshot the mystic formula, "F. H. B.!" Then she inquired aloud—

"Cilly, dear, which pudding will you have?"

"Baby Maud, please," replied Miss Cecilia promptly, indicating the stiff, pallid, and corpse-like cylinder of suet.

She was helped, and Nicky's choice was ascertained.

"I don't think," that damsel replied sedately, "that I'll have anything, thank you, Daphne. I'm not very hungry to-day."

Daphne, with a slight twitch at the corners of her mouth—she appreciated Nicky's crooked little ways, despite herself—turned to the guest.

"Will you have pudding or trifle, Sir John? Let me recommend the trifle."

"Thank you, I never eat sweets," was the reply.

An audible sigh of relief rose from the Messrs Vereker.

"Daph, dear," said Nicky before any one else could speak, "I think I'll change my mind and have some trifle."

And thus, by prompt generalship, Miss Veronica Vereker, while obeying to the letter the laws of hospitality and precedence, stole a march upon her slow-moving brethren and sisters and received the lion's share of the trifle, the balance going to Tony by virtue of juniority.

As Daphne handed her triumphant little sister her portion, she distinctly heard a muffled sound on her right.

"I like this man!" she said to herself.

"If you don't take sweets, Jack," observed the Rector from the other end of the table, "allow me to introduce you to this melon—a present from the Squire. Take the melon round to Sir John, Stiffy, and he shall cut in where he pleases; though, strictly speaking," he added, with simple enjoyment of his own joke, "it is hardly etiquette to cut anything you have been introduced to!"

There was a momentary stoppage in the general mastication of "Baby Maud," and the right hand of each Vereker present performed the same evolution. Next moment the repast was resumed, but the guest observed, not without surprise, that every christening-mug—even Daphne's—had a knife lying across its top.

"That is one of our customs," explained Cilly politely. "We do it whenever any one makes a stale joke."

"Alice through the Looking-Glass," corroborated Nicky, scooping up trifle with an air of severe reproof—"page two hundred and seven."

"You see my servile and dependent position in this house, Jack!" said the Rector, not altogether dejectedly.

"I perceive that I have dropped into a Republic," said Sir John Carr.

"Republic? A more absolute despotism never existed. Wait until you have transgressed one of the Laws of the Medes and Persians and been brought up for judgment before my eldest daughter? We know, don't we—eh, Nicky?"

Brian Vereker projected the furtive smile of a fellow-conspirator upon his youngest daughter, and then turned to gaze with unconcealed fondness and pride upon his eldest.

"I trust that when I transgress," said Sir John, "I shall get off under the First Offender's Act."

"You have broken that already," said Daphne readily; "but it's Dad's fault. It is twenty minutes to three, and you two ought to have been smoking in the study ten minutes ago instead of talking here. I want to get this room cleared for the children to learn their Catechism in."

*********

At half-past three Brian Vereker summoned his eldest daughter to the study, and announced with frank delight that Sir John Carr had agreed to vacate the Kirkley Arms and accept the hospitality of the Rectory.

"I am going to walk down to the inn now," said Apollyon to Daphne, "to see about my luggage. Perhaps you will keep me company?"

"All right," said Daphne. "I'll bring Mr Dawks too. He wants a walk, I know."

Sir John made no comment, but gave no active support to the inclusion of Mr Dawks in the party. It may be noted, however, that when Daphne had at length achieved that feat which encroaches so heavily upon a woman's share of eternity—the putting on of her hat—and joined her guest in the garden accompanied by Mr Dawks in person, Apollyon greeted the owner of the name with far more cordiality than he had greeted the name itself. It is sometimes misleading to bestow Christian titles upon dumb animals.

Once away from the rest of the family, Daphne's maternal solemnity fell from her like a schoolmaster's cap and gown in holiday time. She chattered like a magpie, pointing out such objects of local interest as—

(1) Farmer Preston's prize bull;
(2) The residence of a reputed witch;
(3) A spinney, where a dog-fox had once gone to ground at one end of an earth and a laughing hyena (subsequently ascertained to be the lost property of that peripatetic nobleman Lord George Sanger) had emerged from the other, to the entire and instantaneous disintegration of a non-abstaining local Hunt.

"I say, where do you live?" she inquired suddenly, breaking off in the middle of a detailed history of Kirkley Abbey, whose façade could be discerned through the trees on their right—"London?"

"Yes."

"All the year round?"

"No. I spend a good deal of my time in the North."

"Oh. What do you do there? What are you, by the way?"

Daphne looked up at her companion with bird-like inquisitiveness. She moved in a society familiar with the age, ancestry, profession, wardrobe, ailments, love affairs, and income of every one within a radius of five miles. Consequently she considered a new acquaintanceship incomplete in the last degree until she had acquired sufficient information on the subject in hand to supply, say, a tolerably intimate obituary notice.

"I suppose you are something," she continued. "I hope so, anyhow. An idle man is always so mopy."

"What would you put me down as?" asked Apollyon.

Daphne scrutinised him without fear or embarrassment.

"I'm not much of a judge," she said. "You see, we don't come across many men here, and we are so poor that we don't get away much."

"Don't you go up to London occasionally, to buy a new frock?" said Sir John, covertly regarding the trim figure by his side.

"Me—London? Not much. Dad has a lot of grand relations there, but I don't think he bothered much about them, or they about him, after he married. He was too much wrapped up in mother. So we never hear anything of them now. No, I have hardly ever been away from Snayling, and I'm a great deal too busy here to worry about London or any other such place. So I don't know much about men," she concluded simply—"except my own, of course."

"Your own?"

"Yes—Dad and the boys. And then I know all about the sort of man one meets round here. I can tell a ditcher from a ploughman; and if I meet a man in a dog-cart with cases at the back I know he's a commercial traveller, and if he has a red face I know he's a farmer, and if he hasn't I know he's a doctor; but I haven't had much other experience."

"Still, what am I?" reiterated Apollyon.

"Well—I suppose you are not a soldier, or you would have a moustache."

"No."

"You might be a lawyer, being clean-shaven. Are you?"

"No."

"Oh! That's rather disappointing. You would make a ripping judge, with a big wig on. Well, perhaps you write things. I know—you are an author or an editor?"

"No."

"Foiled again!" said Daphne cheerfully. "Let me see, what other professions are there? Are you a Don, by any chance? A Fellow, or lecturer, or anything? We had a Fellow of All Souls down here once. He was a dear."

"No."

"You are a 'Varsity man, I suppose."

"Yes."

"Oxford or Cambridge?"

"Cambridge."

"I am glad. Dark blue is so dull, isn't it? Besides, Dad is a Cambridge man. He is an old Running Blue. He won—but of course you know all about that. It seems queer to think you knew him before I did! Well, I give you up. What do you do?"

Apollyon reflected.

"I sell coals," he replied at last, rather unexpectedly.

This announcement, and the manner in which it was made, momentarily deprived Miss Vereker of speech—a somewhat rare occurrence.

"I see," she said presently. "We get ours from the station-master," she added politely.

"I was not proposing to apply for your custom," said Apollyon meekly.

At this point they reached the Kirkley Arms, and in the effort involved in rousing that somnolent hostelry from its Sabbath coma and making arrangements for the sending up of Sir John Carr's luggage to the Rectory, the question of why he sold coals, and whether he hawked the same round in a barrow or delivered his wares through the medium of the Parcels Post, was lost sight of.

On the homeward walk conversation was maintained on much the same terms. Daphne held forth unwearyingly, and Apollyon contented himself for the most part with answering her point-blank questions and putting a few—a very few—of his own. Certainly the man was a born listener, and amazingly magnetic. Tacitus himself could not have said less, and the greatest cross-examiner in the legal profession could not have extracted more. As they strolled side by side through the Kirkley woods, where the last of the daffodils were reluctantly making way for the first of the primroses, Daphne found herself reciting, as to a discreet and dependable father-confessor, a confidential but whole-hearted summary of the present state of domestic politics.

Ally's failure to secure a scholarship at the University was mentioned.

It was disgusting of him to miss the Greek Prose paper, Daphne considered. "He didn't oversleep at all, of course. I soon found that out. The real reason was that he had gone to some man's rooms the night before, and the silly brat must go and drink a whisky-and-soda and smoke a cigar. That did it! It was no use telling Dad, because he simply wouldn't believe such a story; and if he did, it would make him unhappy for weeks. Besides, who can blame the poor dear? You can't be surprised if a schoolboy kicks over the traces a bit the first time he finds himself out on his own—can you?"

"I thought," replied Sir John, finding that some answer was expected of him, "that you said you knew nothing of men?"

"I said I didn't know many men," corrected Daphne. "But those I do know I know pretty thoroughly. They're very easy to understand, dear things! You always know where you are with them. Now, girls are different. Did you notice that boy whom we passed just now, who went pink and took off his hat. That's Bobby Gill—a flame of Cilly's. I'm going to have a lot of trouble with Cilly's love-affairs, I can see. She falls down and worships every second man she meets. I believe she would start mooning round the place after you if you weren't so old," she added. "Cilly's a darling, but what she wants——"

She plunged, with puckered brow and tireless tongue, into a further tale of hopes and fears. Stiffy's schooling, Nicky's boots, the curate who had to come—all were laid upon the table. Even the Emergency Bag and Wednesday's joint crept in somehow.

They were almost home when she concluded.

Suddenly Apollyon inquired:—

"Do you know the name of that little hollow on our right? Is it Tinkler's Den?"

"Yes; we often have picnics there. How did you know?" "It is part of Lord Kirkley's estate, as you are probably aware; and his lordship, finding like most of us that he has not sufficient money for his needs, has asked me to come and have a look at the ground round Tinkler's Den on the off-chance of our finding coal there."

Daphne turned upon him, wide-eyed and horror-struck.

"You mean to say," she gasped, "that you are going to dig for coals in Tinkler's Den?"

"I can't tell you, until——"

Apollyon paused. A small hand was resting on his sleeve, and a very small voice said beseechingly—

"Don't—please!"

"Very well, then: I won't," he said, in a matter-of-fact fashion; and they resumed their walk.

*********

"I hope you haven't been bored," said Daphne, the hostess in her rising to the surface as the shadow of the Rectory fell upon her once more. "Your ears must be simply aching, but it's such a treat to talk to any one who knows about things. I never get the chance to ask advice. I usually have to give it. Dad and the boys are so helpless, bless them!"

They were passing through the wicket-gate. Daphne suddenly paused, and looked up at her guest with more mischief in her eyes than her brothers and sisters would have given her credit for.

"It's queer," she mused, "that you should sell coals. We thought you shovelled them!"

"Explain, please!" said Sir John.

Daphne did so. "We had to call you something," she concluded apologetically. "Do you mind?"

"Not at all. I have been called a good many names in my time," said Sir John grimly.

"What do your friends call you?" asked Daphne—"your intimate friends."

"I am not sure that I have any."

Daphne surveyed him shrewdly, with her head a little on one side.

"No—I should think you were that sort," she said gravely. "Well, what do your—do other people call you?"

"Most of them, I believe," said Sir John, "call me 'Juggernaut Carr.'"