The Intrusion of Jimmy/Chapter 23

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CHAPTER XXIII


FAMILY JARS


HILDEBRAND Spencer Poynt de Burgh John Hannasyde Coombe-Crombie, twelfth Earl of Dreever, was feeling like a toad under the harrow. He read the letter again, but a second perusal made it no better. Very briefly and clearly, Molly had broken off the engagement. She "thought it best." She was "afraid it could make neither of us happy." All very true, thought his lordship miserably. His sentiments to a T. At the proper time, he would have liked nothing better. But why seize for this declaration the precise moment when he was intending, on the strength of the engagement, to separate his uncle from twenty pounds? That was what rankled. That Molly could have no knowledge of his sad condition did not occur to him. He had a sort of feeling that she ought to have known by instinct. Nature, as has been pointed out, had equipped Hildebrand Spencer Poynt de Burgh with one of those cheap-substitute minds. What passed for brain in him was to genuine gray matter as just-as-good imitation coffee is to real Mocha. In moments of emotion and mental stress, consequently, his reasoning, like Spike's, was apt to be in a class of its own.

He read the letter for the third time, and a gentle perspiration began to form on his forehead. This was awful. The presumable jubilation of Katie, the penniless ripper of the Savoy, when he should present himself to her a free man, did not enter into the mental picture that was unfolding before him. She was too remote. Between him and her lay the fearsome figure of Sir Thomas, rampant, filling the entire horizon. Nor is this to be wondered at. There was probably a brief space during which Perseus, concentrating his gaze upon the monster, did not see Andromeda; and a knight of the Middle Ages, jousting in the Gentlemen's Singles for a smile from his lady, rarely allowed the thought of that smile to occupy his whole mind at the moment when his boiler-plated antagonist was descending upon him in the wake of a sharp spear.

So with Spennie Dreever. Bright eyes might shine for him when all was over, but in the meantime what seemed to him more important was that bulging eyes would glare.

If only this had happened later—even a day later! The reckless impulsiveness of the modern girl had undone him. How was he to pay Hargate the money? Hargate must be paid. That was certain. No other course was possible. Lord Dreever's was not one of those natures that fret restlessly under debt. During his early career at college, he had endeared himself to the local tradesmen by the magnitude of the liabilities he had contracted with them. It was not the being in debt that he minded. It was the consequences. Hargate, he felt instinctively, was of a revengeful nature. He had given Hargate twenty pounds' worth of snubbing, and the latter had presented the bills. If it were not paid, things would happen. Hargate and he were members of the same club, and a member of a club who loses money at cards to a fellow member, and fails to settle up, does not make himself popular with the committee.

He must get the money. There was no avoiding that conclusion. But how?

Financially, his lordship was like a fallen country with a glorious history. There had been a time, during his first two years at college, when he had reveled in the luxury of a handsome allowance. This was the golden age, when Sir Thomas Blunt, being, so to speak, new to the job, and feeling that, having reached the best circles, he must live up to them, had scattered largesse lavishly. For two years after his marriage with Lady Julia, he had maintained this admirable standard, crushing his natural parsimony. He had regarded the money so spent as capital sunk in an investment. By the end of the second year, he had found his feet, and began to look about him for ways of retrenchment. His lordship's allowance was an obvious way. He had not to wait long for an excuse for annihilating it. There is a game called poker, at which a man without much control over his features may exceed the limits of the handsomest allowance. His lordship's face during a game of poker was like the surface of some quiet pond, ruffled by every breeze. The blank despair of his expression when he held bad cards made bluffing expensive. The honest joy that bubbled over in his eyes when his hand was good acted as an efficient danger-signal to his grateful opponents. Two weeks of poker had led to his writing to his uncle a distressed, but confident, request for more funds; and the avuncular foot had come down with a joyous bang. Taking his stand on the evils of gambling, Sir Thomas had changed the conditions of the money-market for his nephew with a thoroughness that effectually prevented the possibility of the youth's being again caught by the fascinations of poker. The allowance vanished absolutely; and in its place there came into being an arrangement. By this, his lordship was to have whatever money he wished, but he must ask for it, and state why it was needed. If the request were reasonable, the cash would be forthcoming; if preposterous, it would not. The flaw in the scheme, from his lordship's point of view, was the difference of opinion that can exist in the minds of two men as to what the words reasonable and preposterous may be taken to mean.

Twenty pounds, for instance, would, in the lexicon of Sir Thomas Blunt, be perfectly reasonable for the current expenses of a man engaged to Molly McEachern, but preposterous for one to whom she had declined to remain engaged. It is these subtle shades of meaning that make the English language so full of pitfalls for the foreigner.

So engrossed was his lordship in his meditations that a voice spoke at his elbow ere he became aware of Sir Thomas himself, standing by his side.

"Well, Spennie, my boy," said the knight. "Time to dress for dinner, I think. Eh? Eh?"

He was plainly in high good humor. The thought of the distinguished company he was to entertain that night had changed him temporarily, as with some wave of a fairy wand, into a thing of joviality and benevolence. One could almost hear the milk of human kindness gurgling and splashing within him. The irony of fate! To-night, such was his mood, a dutiful nephew could have come and felt in his pockets and helped himself—if circumstances had been different. Oh, woman, woman, how you bar us from paradise!

His lordship gurgled a wordless reply, thrusting the fateful letter hastily into his pocket. He would break the news anon. Soon—not yet—later on—in fact, anon!

"Up in your part, my boy?" continued Sir Thomas. "You mustn't spoil the play by forgetting your lines. That wouldn't do!"

His eye was caught by the envelope that Spennie had dropped. A momentary lapse from the jovial and benevolent was the result. His fussy little soul abhorred small untidinesses.

"Dear me," he said, stooping, "I wish people would not drop paper about the house. I cannot endure a litter." He spoke as if somebody had been playing hare-and-hounds, and scattering the scent on the stairs. This sort of thing sometimes made him regret the old days. In Brunt's Stores, Rule Sixty-seven imposed a fine of half-a-crown on employees convicted of paper-dropping.

"I—" began his lordship.

"Why "—Sir Thomas straightened himself—"it's addressed to you."

"I was just going to pick it up. It's—er—there was a note in it."

Sir Thomas gazed at the envelope again. Joviality and benevolence resumed their thrones.

"And in a feminine handwriting," he chuckled. He eyed the limp peer almost roguishly. "I see, I see," he said. "Very charming, quite delightful! Girls must have their little romance! I suppose you two young people are exchanging love-letters all day. Delightful, quite delightful! Don't look as if you were ashamed of it, my boy! I like it. I think it's charming."

Undoubtedly, this was the opening. Beyond a question, his lordship should have said at this point:

"Uncle, I cannot tell a lie. I cannot even allow myself to see you laboring under a delusion which a word from me can remove. The contents of this note are not what you suppose. They run as follows—"

What he did say was:

"Uncle, can you let me have twenty pounds?"

Those were his amazing words. They slipped out. He could not stop them.

Sir Thomas was taken aback for an instant, but not seriously. He started, as might a man who, stroking a cat, receives a sudden, but trifling scratch.

"Twenty pounds, eh?" he said, reflectively. Then, the milk of human kindness swept over displeasure like a tidal wave. This was a night for rich gifts to the deserving.

"Why, certainly, my boy, certainly. Do you want it at once?"

His lordship replied that he did, please; and he had seldom said anything more fervently.

"Well, well. We'll see what we can do. Come with me."

He led the way to his dressing-room. Like nearly all the rooms at the castle, it was large. One wall was completely hidden by the curtain behind which Spike had taken refuge that afternoon.

Sir Thomas went to the dressing-table, and unlocked a small drawer.

"Twenty, you said? Five, ten, fifteen—here you are, my boy."

Lord Dreever muttered his thanks. Sir Thomas accepted the guttural acknowledgment with a friendly pat on the shoulder.

"I like a little touch like that," he said.

His lordship looked startled.

"I wouldn't have touched you," he began, "if it hadn't been—"

"A little touch like that letter-writing," Sir Thomas went on. "It shows a warm heart. She is a warm-hearted girl, Spennie. A charming, warm-hearted girl! You're uncommonly lucky, my boy."

His lordship, crackling the four bank-notes, silently agreed with him.

"But, come, I must be dressing. Dear me, it is very late. We shall have to hurry. By the way, my boy, I shall take the opportunity of making a public announcement of the engagement to-night. It will be a capital occasion for it. I think, perhaps, at the conclusion of the theatricals, a little speech—something quite impromptu and informal, just asking them to wish you happiness, and so on. I like the idea. There is an old-world air about it that appeals to me. Yes."

He turned to the dressing-table, and removed his collar.

"Well, run along, my boy," he said. "You must not be late." His lordship tottered from the room.

He did quite an unprecedented amount of thinking as he hurried into his evening clothes; but the thought occurring most frequently was that, whatever happened, all was well in one way, at any rate. He had the twenty pounds. There would be something colossal in the shape of disturbances when his uncle learned the truth. It would be the biggest thing since the San Francisco earthquake. But what of it? He had the money.

He slipped it into his waistcoat-pocket. He would take it down with him, and pay Hargate directly after dinner.

He left the room. The flutter of a skirt caught his eye as he reached the landing. A girl was coming down the corridor on the other side. He waited at the head of the stairs to let her go down before him. As she came on to the landing, he saw that it was Molly.

For a moment, there was an awkward pause.

"Er—I got your note," said his lordship.

She looked at him, and then burst out laughing.

"You know, you don't mind the least little bit," she said; "not a scrap. Now, do you?"

"Well, you see—"

"Don't make excuses! Do you?"

"Well, it's like this, you see, I—"

He caught her eye. Next moment, they were laughing together.

"No, but look here, you know," said his lordship. "What I mean is, it isn't that I don't—I mean, look here, there's no reason why we shouldn't be the best of pals."

"Why, of course, there isn't."

"No, really, I say? That's ripping. Shake hands on it."

They clasped hands; and it was in this affecting attitude that Sir Thomas Blunt, bustling downstairs, discovered them.

"Aha!" he cried, archly. "Well, well, well! But don't mind me, don't mind me!"

Molly flushed uncomfortably; partly, because she disliked Sir Thomas even when he was not arch, and hated him when he was; partly, because she felt foolish; and, principally, because she was bewildered. She had not looked forward to meeting Sir Thomas that night. It was always unpleasant to meet him, but it would be more unpleasant than usual after she had upset the scheme for which he had worked so earnestly. She had wondered whether he would be cold and distant, or voluble and heated. In her pessimistic moments, she had anticipated a long and painful scene. That he should be behaving like this was not very much short of a miracle. She could not understand it.

A glance at Lord Dreever enlightened her. That miserable creature was wearing the air of a timid child about to pull a large cracker. He seemed to be bracing himself up for an explosion.

She pitied him sincerely. So, he had not told his uncle the news, yet! Of course, he had scarcely had time. Saunders must have given him the note as he was going up to dress.

There was, however, no use in prolonging the agony. Sir Thomas must be told, sooner or later. She was glad of the chance to tell him herself. She would be able to explain that it was all her doing.

"I'm afraid there's a mistake," she said.

"Eh?" said Sir Thomas.

"I've been thinking it over, and I came to the conclusion that we weren't—well, I broke off the engagement!"

Sir Thomas' always prominent eyes protruded still further. The color of his florid face deepened. Suddenly, he chuckled.

Molly looked at him, amazed. Sir Thomas was indeed behaving unexpectedly to-night.

"I see it," he wheezed. "You're having a joke with me! So, this is what you were hatching as I came downstairs! Don't tell me! If you had really thrown him over, you wouldn't have been laughing together like that. It's no good, my dear. I might have been taken in, if I had not seen you, but I did."

"No, no," cried Molly. "You're wrong. You're quite wrong. When you saw us, we were just agreeing that we should be very good friends. That was all. I broke off the engagement before that. I—"

She was aware that his lordship had emitted a hollow croak, but she took it as his method of endorsing her statement, not as a warning.

"I wrote Lord Dreever a note this evening," she went on, "telling him that I couldn't possibly—"

She broke off in alarm. With the beginning of her last speech, Sir Thomas had begun to swell, until now he looked as if he were in imminent danger of bursting. His face was purple. To Molly's lively imagination, his eyes appeared to move slowly out of his head, like a snail's. From the back of his throat came strange noises.

"S-s-so—" he stammered.

He gulped, and tried again.

"So this," he said, "so this—! So that was what was in that letter, eh?"

Lord Dreever, a limp bundle against the banisters, smiled weakly.

"Eh?" yelled Sir Thomas.

His lordship started convulsively.

"Er, yes," he said, "yes, yes! That was it, don't you know!"

Sir Thomas eyed his nephew with a baleful stare. Molly looked from one to the other in bewilderment.

There was a pause, during which Sir Thomas seemed partially to recover command of himself. Doubts as to the propriety of a family row in midstairs appeared to occur to him. He moved forward.

"Come with me," he said, with awful curtness.

His lordship followed, bonelessly. Molly watched them go, and wondered more than ever. There was something behind this. It was not merely the breaking-off of the engagement that had roused Sir Thomas. He was not a just man, but he was just enough to be able to see that the blame was not Lord Dreever's. There had been something more. She was puzzled.

In the hall, Saunders was standing, weapon in hand, about to beat the gong.

"Not yet," snapped Sir Thomas. "Wait!"

Dinner had been ordered especially early that night because of the theatricals. The necessity for strict punctuality had been straitly enjoined upon Saunders. At some inconvenience, he had ensured strict punctuality. And now— But we all have our cross to bear in this world. Saunders bowed with dignified resignation.

Sir Thomas led the way into his study.

"Be so good as to close the door," he said.

His lordship was so good.

Sir Thomas backed to the mantelpiece, and stood there in the attitude which for generations has been sacred to the elderly Briton, feet well apart, hands clasped beneath his coat-tails. His stare raked Lord Dreever like a searchlight.

"Now, sir!" he said.

His lordship wilted before the gaze.

"The fact is, uncle—"

"Never mind the facts. I know them! What I require is an explanation."

He spread his feet further apart. The years had rolled back, and he was plain Thomas Blunt again, of Blunt's Stores, dealing with an erring employee.

"You know what I mean," he went on. "I am not referring to the breaking-off of the engagement. What I insist upon learning is your reason for failing to inform me earlier of the contents of that letter."

His lordship said that somehow, don't you know, there didn't seem to be a chance, you know. He had several times been on the point—but—well, somehow—well, that's how it was.

"No chance?" cried Sir Thomas. "Indeed! Why did you require that money I gave you?"

"Oh, er—I wanted it for something."

"Very possibly. For what?"

"I—the fact is, I owed it to a fellow."

"Ha! How did you come to owe it?"

His lordship shuffled.

"You have been gambling," boomed Sir Thomas. "Am I right?"

"No, no. I say, no, no. It wasn't gambling. It was a game of skill. We were playing picquet."

"Kindly refrain from quibbling. You lost this money at cards, then, as I supposed. Just so."

He widened the space between his feet. He intensified his glare. He might have been posing to an illustrator of "Pilgrim's Progress" for a picture of "Apollyon straddling right across the way."

"So," he said, "you deliberately concealed from me the contents of that letter in order that you might extract money from me under false pretenses? Don't speak!" His lordship had gurgled. "You did! Your behavior was that of a—of a—"

There was a very fair selection of evil-doers in all branches of business from which to choose. He gave the preference to the race-track.

"—of a common welsher," he concluded. "But I won't put up with it. No, not for an instant! I insist upon your returning that money to me here and now. If you have not got it with you, go and fetch it."

His lordship's face betrayed the deepest consternation. He had been prepared for much, but not for this. That he would have to undergo what in his school-days he would have called "a jaw" was inevitable, and he had been ready to go through with it. It might hurt his feelings, possibly, but it would leave his purse intact. A ghastly development of this kind he had not foreseen.

"But, I say, uncle!" he bleated.

Sir Thomas silenced him with a grand gesture.

Ruefully, his lordship produced his little all. Sir Thomas took it with a snort, and went to the door.

Saunders was still brooding statuesquely over the gong.

"Sound it!" said Sir Thomas. Saunders obeyed him, with the air of an unleashed hound.

"And now," said Sir Thomas, "go to my dressing-room, and place these notes in the small drawer of the table."

The butler's calm, expressionless, yet withal observant eye took in at a glance the signs of trouble. Neither the inflated air of Sir Thomas nor the punctured-balloon bearing of Lord Dreever escaped him.

"Something h'up," he said to his immortal soul, as he moved upstairs. "Been a fair old, rare old row, seems to me!"

He reserved his more polished periods for use in public. In conversation with his immortal soul, he was wont to unbend somewhat.