A Safety Match/Chapter 6

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Juggernaut's stay at the Rectory had been prolonged for more than three weeks, the business upon which he was engaged being as easily directed, so he said, from Brian Vereker's study as from his own London offices. An unprejudiced observer might have been forgiven for remarking that to all appearances it could have been directed with equal facility from the Two-penny Tube or the North Pole; for if we except a prolonged interview with Lord Kirkley's land agent on the second day after his arrival, Juggernaut's activities had been limited to meditative contemplation of the Rector's spring flowers and some rather silent country walks in company with the lady to whom the Rector was wont to refer to in his playful moments as "my elderly ugly daughter."

Whether Daphne's impulsive protest against the desecration of her beloved Tinkler's Den carried weight, or whether that sylvan spot was found wanting in combustible properties, will never be known; but it may be noted here that Lord Kirkley was advised that there was no money in his scheme, and Snayling remains an agricultural centre to this day.

However, if it be a fact that no fresh experience can be altogether valueless, Juggernaut's time was certainly not wasted. He was absorbed into the primitive civilisation of Snayling Rectory. He was initiated into tribal custom and usage, and became versed in a tribal language consisting chiefly of abbreviations and portmanteau words. He was instructed in the principles which underlie such things as precedence in the use of the bath and helpings at dinner. He also studied with interest the fundamental laws governing the inheritance of outgrown garments. Having been born without brothers and sisters, he found himself confronted for the first time with some of those stern realities and unavoidable hardships which prevail when domestic supply falls short of domestic demand. The mystic phrase "F. H. B.!" for instance, with which Daphne had laid inviolable taboo upon the trifle on the day of his arrival, he soon learned stood for "Family, hold back!"

Again, if Master Stephen Blasius Vereker suggested to Miss Veronica Elizabeth Vereker that a B. O. at the T. S. would be an L. B. of A. R.; to which the lady replied gently but insistently, "Is it E. P.?" Juggernaut was soon able to understand that in response to an intimation on the part of her brother that a Blow Out at the Tuck Shop would be a Little Bit of All Right, the cautious and mercenary damsel was inquiring whether her Expenses would be Paid at the forthcoming orgy. If Stiffy continued, "Up to 2 D.," and Nicky replied, "If you can't make it a tanner, Stiffy, darling, je pense ne!" the visitor gathered without much difficulty that in the opinion of Miss Veronica no gentleman worthy of the name should presume to undertake the entertainment of a lady under a minimum outlay of sixpence.

Juggernaut soon settled down to the ways of the establishment. He said little, but it was obvious, even to the boys, that he was taking a good deal in. He seldom asked questions, but he possessed an uncanny knack of interpreting for himself the most secret signs and cryptic expressions of the community. This established for him a claim to the family's respect, and in acknowledgment of the good impression he had created he was informally raised from the status of honoured guest to that of familiar friend. What the Associated Body of Colliery Owners would have thought if they could have seen their chairman meekly taking his seat at the breakfast-table, what time the family, accompanying themselves with teaspoons against teacups, chanted a brief but pointed ditty consisting entirely of the phrase "pom-pom!" repeated con amore and sforzando until breathlessness intervened—an ordeal known at the Rectory as "pom-pomming," and inflicted daily upon the last to appear at breakfast—is hard to say. Mr Montague for one would have enjoyed it.

Only once did this silent and saturnine man exhibit any flash of feeling. One morning before breakfast Daphne, busy in the knife-and-boot shed at the back of the house, heard a step on the gravel outside, and Juggernaut stood before her.

"Good-morning!" she said cheerfully. "Excuse my get-up. I expect I look rather a ticket."

Juggernaut surveyed her. She wore a large green baize apron. Her skirt was short and business-like, and her sleeves were rolled up above the elbow. Her hair was twisted into a knot at the back of her head. Plainly her toilet had only reached the stage of the petit lever. She was engaged in the healthful but unfashionable occupation of blacking boots; per contra, what Juggernaut chiefly noted was the whiteness of her arms. Finally his eye wandered to the boot in which her left hand was engulfed.

"Whose boot is that?" he asked.

"Yours, I should say. Dad's are square in the toes." Next moment a large and sinewy hand gripped her by the wrist, and the boot was taken from her.

"Understand," said Apollyon, looking very like Apollyon indeed, "this must never occur again. I am angry with you."

He spoke quite quietly, but there was a vibrant note in his voice which Daphne had never heard before. Mr Tom Winch and Mr Montague would have recognised it. She looked up at him fearlessly, rather interested than otherwise in this new side of his character.

"I can't quite grasp why you should be angry," she said, "though I can see you are. Not being millionaires, we all clean our own boots—excepting Dad, of course. I always do his. You being a visitor, I threw yours in as a make-weight. It's all in the day's work."

But Juggernaut's fit had passed.

"I beg your pardon," he said. "I have no right to be angry with any one but myself. I am ashamed. I should have thought about this sooner, but I accepted your assurance that my visit would throw no extra burden upon the household rather too readily. Now, for the rest of the time I am here I propose, with your permission, to black my own boots. And as a sort of compensation for the trouble I have caused, I am going to black my hostess's as well."

"Do you know how to?" inquired the hostess, rather apprehensively.

For answer Juggernaut picked up a laced shoe from off the bench and set to work upon it.

"I once blacked my own boots every day for two years," he said, breathing heavily upon the shoe. "Now, if you want to go in and superintend the preparation of breakfast, you may leave me here, and I will undertake to produce the requisite standard of brilliancy." His face lit up with one of his rare and illuminating smiles, and he set grimly to work again.

Daphne hesitated for a moment, and surveyed her guest doubtfully. He was burnishing her shoe in a manner only to be expected of an intensely active man who has been utterly idle for a fortnight. His face was set in the lines which usually appeared when he was driving business through a refractory meeting. Daphne turned and left the boot-house, unpinning her apron and whistling softly.

Juggernaut finished off her shoes with meticulous care, and putting them back upon the bench turned his attention to his own boots. But his energy was plainly flagging. Several times his hand was stayed, and his eye wandered in the direction of his hostess's shoes. They were a remarkably neat pair. Daphne was proud of her feet—they were her only real vanity—and she spent more upon her boots and shoes than the extremely limited sum voted for the purpose by her conscience. More than once Juggernaut laid aside his own property and returned to the highly unnecessary task of painting the lily—if such a phrase can be applied to the efficient blacking of a shoe. Finally he picked up his boots and departed, to endure a pom-pomming of the most whole-hearted description on his appearance at the breakfast table.

But henceforth he found his way to the boot-house every morning at seven-thirty, where, despite his hostess's protests, he grimly carried out his expressed intention.

This was the only occasion, however, on which he asserted his will with Daphne. In all else she found him perfectly amenable. He permitted her without protest to overhaul his wardrobe, and submitted meekly to a scathing lecture upon the negligence apparent in the perforated condition of some of his garments and the extravagance evinced by the multiplicity of others. In short, Daphne adopted Juggernaut, as only a young and heart-whole girl can whose experience of men so far has been purely domestic. She felt like his mother. To her he was a child of the largest possible growth, who, not having enjoyed such advantages as she had all her life bestowed upon the rest of the flock, must needs be treated with twofold energy and special consideration. He was her Benjamin, she felt.

Juggernaut was to depart to-morrow. His socks were darned. Items of his wardrobe, hitherto anonymous, were neatly marked with his initials. His very pocket-handkerchiefs were numbered.

"You are sending me back to work thoroughly overhauled and refitted," he said to Daphne, as she displayed, not without pride, his renovated garments laid out upon the spare bed. "I feel like a cruiser coming out of dry dock."

"Well, don't get your things in that state again," said Daphne severely—"that's all! Who looks after them?"

"My man."

"He ought to be ashamed of himself, then. By the way, there is a dress waistcoat of yours with two buttons off. Can I trust you, now, to get them put on again, or had I better keep the waistcoat until I can get buttons to match?"

"You are very good," said Juggernaut, bowing before the storm.

"That's settled, then. Where shall I send it to?" Juggernaut thought, and finally gave the address of a club in Pall Mall.

"Club—do you live in a club?" inquired Daphne, with a woman's instinctive dislike for such a monastic and impregnable type of domicile.

"Sometimes. It saves trouble, you see," said Juggernaut apologetically. "My house in town is shut at present. I spend a good deal of time in the North."

"Where do you live when you are in the North?" inquired Daphne, with the healthy curiosity of her age and sex.

"I have another house there," admitted Juggernaut reluctantly. "It is called—"

"How many houses have you got altogether?" asked Daphne, in the persuasive tones of a schoolmaster urging a reticent culprit to make a clean breast of it and get it over like a man.

"I have a little place in the Highlands," said Juggernaut humbly—

Daphne rolled her brown eyes up to the ceiling.

"—But it is the merest shooting-box," he added, as if pleading for a light sentence.

"Is that all?"

"Yes—on my honour!"

"And—you live in a club!"

Then came the verdict—the inevitable verdict.

"What you want," said Daphne, regarding the impassive features of the prisoner at the bar, "is a wife. It's not too late, really," she added, smiling kindly upon him. "Of course, you think now at your age that you could never get used to it, but you could."

"Do you think any girl would marry a man practically in his dotage?" inquired Juggernaut respectfully.

"Not a girl, perhaps," admitted Daphne, "but somebody sensible and good. I'll tell you what—don't you know any nice widows? A widow would suit you top-hole. She would be used to men already, which would help her a lot, poor thing! Then, she would probably let you down more easily than an old maid. She would know, for instance, that it's perfectly hopeless to get a man to keep his room tidy, or to stop leaving his slippers about on the dining-room hearthrug, or dropping matches and ash on the floor. Do marry a widow, Sir John! Don't you know of any?"

Sir John smiled grimly.

"I will consult my visiting-list," he said; "but I won't promise anything. In spite of the apparent docility of my character, there are just one or two things which I prefer to do in my own way."

"Still, I don't despair of you," said Daphne. "Old Martin down in the village married only the other day, and he was seventy-two. Nearly bedridden, in fact," she added encouragingly.

That evening after supper the Rectory children sat round the table engaged in card games of a heating and complicated nature, Miss Vereker as usual doubling the parts of croupier and referee. The guest and the Rector were smoking in the study.

Suddenly the door of the dining-room opened, and Brian Vereker appeared.

"Daphne, my daughter," he said, "can you leave these desperadoes for a while and join us in the study?"

"All right, Dad. Ally, you had better be dealer. Nicky, if you cheat while I am away you know the penalty! Come with me, Dawks. So long, everybody. Back directly!"

But she was wrong. Game succeeded game: the time slipped by unheeded by all except Nicky and Tony, who, because it was past their hour for going to bed, noted its flight with special and personal relish; and it was not until the almost tearful Cilly had been rendered an old maid for the fourth consecutive time that the family realised that it was nearly half-past ten and Daphne had not returned.

"Of course," said Nicky, wagging her head triumphantly, "we all know what that means!"

And for once in her small, scheming, prying life, she was right.