A Safety Match/Chapter 8

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"MORITURA TE SALUTAT"


On a bright spring afternoon three weeks later the Rectory children sat huddled together like a cluster of disconsolate starlings upon the five-barred gate leading into Farmer Preston's big pasture meadow.

It was the eve of Daphne's wedding-day.

To those readers of this narrative who feel inclined to dilate upon the impropriety of marrying in haste, it may be pointed out that the bride possessed no money and the bridegroom no relatives. Consequently there would be no presents, no trousseau. The principal incentives to what Miss Veronica Vereker pithily described as a "circus wedding" being thus eliminated, the pair were to be married quietly next day in the little church where Daphne had been christened and confirmed, and under the shadow of which she had lived all her short life.

The bride had no trousseau, for her father could not afford one, and she flatly declined to take a penny from her fiancé until he became her husband. The little village dressmaker had turned out a wedding-dress over which Cilly hourly gloated, divided between ecstasy and envy; and this, together with an old lace veil in which her mother had been married, would serve Daphne's needs.

In truth, she had little time to think of herself. She was relinquishing a throne which she had occupied since she was eleven years old, and the instruction and admonition of her successor had occupied her attention ever since the date of her wedding had been fixed. Keys had to be handed over, recipes confided, and the mysteries of feminine book-keeping unfolded. There were good-byes to be said to bedridden old women and tearful cottage children. The bridegroom too, she felt, had a certain claim upon her attention. He had departed the morning after Daphne had accepted him, and was now very busy preparing his house in London for the reception of the future Lady Carr. But he had spent a good deal of time at the Rectory for all that, coming down for week-ends and the like; and Daphne, mindful of the duties of a fiancée, devoted herself conscientiously to his entertainment whenever he appeared.

But now the end of all things was imminent. To-morrow the management of the Rectory would pass into the hands of the dubious and inexperienced Cilly.

Meanwhile the Rectory children continued to sit disconsolately upon the gate. They were waiting for Daphne, who had promised to spend her last afternoon with them. Sir John, who was now staying at Kirkley Abbey,—to the mingled apprehension and exhilaration of the chief bridesmaid Lord Kirkley had offered to act as best man,—was to come over that afternoon, but only to see the Rector on matters connected with settlements and other unromantic adjuncts to the married state.

The gate proving unsuitable for prolonged session, the family abandoned their gregarious attitude and disposed of themselves in more comfortable fashion. Ally, home on two days' special leave from school, lay basking in the sun. Cilly sprawled on the grass with her back against a tree trunk, her brow puckered with the gradual realisation of coming responsibility. Stiffy, simple soul, with his knees clasped beneath his chin, sorrowfully contemplated to-morrow's bereavement. Master Anthony Cuthbert, perched on a log with a switch in his hand, was conducting an unseen orchestra. Nicky, soulless and flippant as ever, speculated at large upon her sister's future.

"It'll be pretty hot for Daph living down there at first," she mused. A joke lasted Nicky a long time: the humorous fiction that the bride-elect would to-morrow be carried off to reside permanently in the infernal regions was still as a savoury bakemeat to her palate. "Of course, Polly"—this was her abbreviation for Apollyon, adopted as soon as that gentleman had ascended from the grade of familiar friend to that of prospective relative—"will be glad to get back to his own fireside, but Daph will feel it a bit, I should think. Perhaps he will let her use a screen to begin with! . . . I wonder what housekeeping will be like. I suppose the cook will have horns and a tail, and all the food will be devilled. I should like to see Daph ordering dinner. 'Good morning, Diabolo!' 'Good morning, miss! What would you like for dinner to-night?' 'Well, Diabolo, what have you got?' 'There's a nice tender sinner came in this morning, miss. You might have a few of his ribs; or would you prefer him served up grilled, with brimstone sauce? And I suppose you would like devils-on-horseback for a savoury.' 'That will do very nicely, Diabolo. Oh, I forgot! It's possible that the Lucifers will drop in. Perhaps we'd better have yesterday's moneylender cold on the side-board in case there isn't enough to go round. And we must have something special to'—Ally, what do people drink in Hell?"

"Dunno," said Ally drowsily; "molten lead, I should think."

"Only the lower classes, dear," said Nicky witheringly. "I am talking about the best people."

"Sulphuric acid?" suggested Ally, who was beginning to study chemistry at school.

"That will do," said Nicky, and returned to her dialogue. "'Diabolo, will you tell the butler to put a barrel—no, a vat—of sulphuric acid on ice. You know what the Lucifers are, when'—Hallo, here's Daph at last!"

The bride-elect approached, swinging her garden-hat in her hand, and followed by Mr Dawks.

"Well, family," she said, "I'm yours for the rest of the day. What shall we do?"

"Where is John?" inquired Ally. (John, it may be explained, was the name by which the family, with the exception of Nicky, had decided to address their future brother-in-law.)

"In the study with Dad."

"Has he arranged about having the five o'clock train stopped to-morrow afternoon?" inquired the careful Stiffy.

"No. We are going in a motor all the way to London," said Daphne. "Jack was keeping it as a surprise for me. It's a new one, a——"

"All the way to where?" inquired that economical humourist, Miss Veronica Vereker.

"London."

"H'm! Yes, I have heard it called that, now I come to think of it," conceded Nicky; "but it seems a waste of a good car, especially if it's a new one. Unless it's made of some special— Stiffy, what's the name of that stuff that won't burn?"

"Asbestos?"

"That's it—asbestos. I didn't expect to see you drive off down the road, somehow," continued Nicky in a somewhat injured voice, "just like an ordinary couple. I thought Polly would stamp his foot on the lawn, and a chasm would yawn at your feet, and in you'd both pop, and you would be gone for ever, like— Ally, who were those two people in the Latin book you had for a holiday task?"

"Don’t know. Strikes me you're balmy," responded Mr Aloysuis Vereker, "Unless you mean Pluto and Proserpine?"

"That's it—Proserpine. Well, Proserpine, what are you going to do to entertain your little brothers and sisters this afternoon?"

"Anything you like," said Proserpine, endeavouring to balance herself on the top bar of the gate. "How about making toffee down in the Den?"

There was a chorus of approval. Nursery customs die hard. Even the magnificent Ally found it difficult to shake off the glamour of this youthful dissipation.

"I'll tell you what," continued Daphne, warming up to the occasion, "we'll have a regular farewell feast. We'll send down to the shop and get some buns and chocolates and gingerbeer, and—and——"

"Bananas," suggested Tony.

"Nuts," added Cilly.

"Cigarettes," said Ally.

"Who has got any money?" inquired Nicky.

The family fumbled in its pockets.

"Here's threepence—all I have," said Cilly at length.

"Twopence," said Ally, laying the sum on Cilly's threepenny bit.

"Awfully sorry," said Stiffy, "but I'm afraid I've only got a stamp. It's still quite gummy at the back, though," he added hopefully. "They'll take it."

Tony produced a halfpenny.

"You can search me, friends!" was Nick's despairing contribution.

"I have fourpence," said the bride—"not a penny more. I handed over all the spare housekeeping money to Dad this morning. That only makes tenpence-halfpenny, counting Stiffy's stamp." She sighed wistfully. "And I did so want to give you all a treat before I went! Well, we must do without the nuts and chocolates, and——"

Nicky rose to her feet, swelling with sudden inspiration.

"Daph, what's the matter with running along to this millionaire young man of yours and touching him for a trifle?" she inquired triumphantly.

Daphne hesitated. True, to-morrow she would be a rich man's wife, able to afford unlimited ginger-beer. But the idea of asking a man for money did not appeal to her. Pride of poverty and maidenly reserve make an obstinate mixture. Yet the flushed and eager faces of Nicky and Tony, the polite deprecations of the selfless Stiffy, and the studied indifference of Cilly and Ally, were hard to resist.

"I wonder if he would mind," she said doubtfully.

"Mind? Oh, no. Why should he?" urged the chorus respectfully.

"Have a dart for it, anyhow," said Nicky.

Daphne descended from the gate.

"Righto!" she said. "After all, it's our last afternoon together, and I should like to do you all proud. I'll chance it. The rest of you can start down to the Den and collect sticks, while I run along to the house and ask him. Nicky, you had better come with me to carry down saucepans and things. Come on—I'll race you!"

Three minutes later, Sir John Carr, smoking a meditative cigar upon the lawn, was aware of a sudden scurry and patter in the lane outside. Directly after this, with a triumphant shriek, the small figure of his future sister-in-law shot through the garden-gate, closely followed by that of his future wife. Mr Dawks, faint yet pursuing, brought up the rear.

The competitors flung themselves down on the grass at his feet, panting.

"We have been having a race," explained Daphne rather gratuitously.

"I won!" gasped Nicky. "Daph has the longest legs," she continued, "but I have the shortest skirts. Now, my children, I must leave you. Wire in!" she concluded, in a hoarse and penetrating whisper to Daphne.

Her short skirts flickered round the corner of the house, and she was gone. Daphne was left facing her fiancé.

"I say," she began rather constrainedly—"don't get up; I'm not going to stay—do you think you could lend me a little money? I—I'll pay you back in a day or two," she added with a disarming smile. "The fact is, we are going to make toffee down in the Den, and I wanted to get a few extra things, just to give them all a real treat to finish up with, you know. Will you—Jack?"

Juggernaut looked up at her with his slow scrutinising smile.

"What sort of extra things?" he inquired.

"Oh!"—Daphne closed her eyes and began to count on her fingers—"buns, and chocolates, and nuts, and gingerbeer. And I wanted to give Ally a packet of cigarettes. (After all, he's eighteen, and he does love them so, and they are only ten for threepence.) And if you could run to it, I should like to get a few bananas as well," she concluded with a rush, laying all her cards on the table at once.

Juggernaut leaned back in his chair and looked extremely judicial.

"What will all this cost?" he inquired.

"One and eleven," said Daphne. "Jack, you dear! We shall have a time!"

Juggernaut had taken a handful of change out of his pocket.

"One and eleven," he said; "I wonder, Daphne, if you will be able to purchase an afternoon of perfect happiness for that sum in a year's time."

He handed over the money.

"May I have a receipt?" he asked gravely.

Daphne took his meaning, and kissed him lightly. She lingered for a moment, anxious not to appear in a hurry to run away.

"Is there anything else?" inquired Sir John at length.

Daphne ran an inward eye over the possibilities of dissipation.

"No, I don't think so," she said. "Thanks ever so much! We shall be back about six. So long, old man. Don't go to sleep in this hot sun."

She flitted away across the lawn, jingling the money in her hand. At the gate she turned and waved her hand. Juggernaut's eyes were fixed upon her, but he did not appear to observe her salutation. Probably he was in a brown study about something.

Daphne was half-way down to the Den before it occurred to her that it would have been a graceful act—not to say the barest civility—to invite the donor of the feast to come and be present thereat. But she did not go back.

"It would bore him so, poor dear!" she said to herself; "and—and us, too!"

Next day they were married.