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Transcribed from the 1914 John Lane, The Bodley Head edition by David Price, email firstname.lastname@example.org
By H. H. MUNRO (“SAKI”)
LONDON: JOHN LANE THE BODLEY HEADNEW YORK: JOHN LANE COMPANYTORONTO: BELL & COCKBURN MCMXIV
“The Open Window,” “The Schartz-Metterklume Method,” and “Clovis on Parental Responsibilities,” originally appeared in the Westminster Gazette, “The Elk” in the Bystander, and the remaining stories in the Morning Post. To the Editors of these papers I am indebted for their courtesy in allowing me to reprint them.
H. H. M.
Leonard Bilsiter was one of those people who have failed to find this world attractive or interesting, and who have sought compensation in an “unseen world” of their own experience or imagination—or invention. Children do that sort of thing successfully, but children are content to convince themselves, and do not vulgarise their beliefs by trying to convince other people. Leonard Bilsiter’s beliefs were for “the few,” that is to say, anyone who would listen to him.
His dabblings in the unseen might not have carried him beyond the customary platitudes of the drawing-room visionary if accident had not reinforced his stock-in-trade of mystical lore. In company with a friend, who was interested in a Ural mining concern, he had made a trip across Eastern Europe at a moment when the great Russian railway strike was developing from a threat to a reality; its outbreak caught him on the return journey, somewhere on the further side of Perm, and it was while waiting for a couple of days at a wayside station in a state of suspended locomotion that he made the acquaintance of a dealer in harness and metalware, who profitably whiled away the tedium of the long halt by initiating his English travelling companion in a fragmentary system of folk-lore that he had picked up from Trans-Baikal traders and natives. Leonard returned to his home circle garrulous about his Russian strike experiences, but oppressively reticent about certain dark mysteries, which he alluded to under the resounding title of Siberian Magic. The reticence wore off in a week or two under the influence of an entire lack of general curiosity, and Leonard began to make more detailed allusions to the enormous powers which this new esoteric force, to use his own description of it, conferred on the initiated few who knew how to wield it. His aunt, Cecilia Hoops, who loved sensation perhaps rather better than she loved the truth, gave him as clamorous an advertisement as anyone could wish for by retailing an account of how he had turned a vegetable marrow into a wood pigeon before her very eyes. As a manifestation of the possession of supernatural powers, the story was discounted in some quarters by the respect accorded to Mrs. Hoops’ powers of imagination.
However divided opinion might be on the question of Leonard’s status as a wonderworker or a charlatan, he certainly arrived at Mary Hampton’s house-party with a reputation for pre-eminence in one or other of those professions, and he was not disposed to shun such publicity as might fall to his share. Esoteric forces and unusual powers figured largely in whatever conversation he or his aunt had a share in, and his own performances, past and potential, were the subject of mysterious hints and dark avowals.
“I wish you would turn me into a wolf, Mr. Bilsiter,” said his hostess at luncheon the day after his arrival.
“My dear Mary,” said Colonel Hampton, “I never knew you had a craving in that direction.”
“A she-wolf, of course,” continued Mrs. Hampton; “it would be too confusing to change one’s sex as well as one’s species at a moment’s notice.”
“I don’t think one should jest on these subjects,” said Leonard.
“I’m not jesting, I’m quite serious, I assure you. Only don’t do it to-day; we have only eight available bridge players, and it would break up one of our tables. To-morrow we shall be a larger party. To-morrow night, after dinner—”
“In our present imperfect understanding of these hidden forces I think one should approach them with humbleness rather than mockery,” observed Leonard, with such severity that the subject was forthwith dropped.
Clovis Sangrail had sat unusually silent during the discussion on the possibilities of Siberian Magic; after lunch he side-tracked Lord Pabham into the comparative seclusion of the billiard-room and delivered himself of a searching question.
“Have you such a thing as a she-wolf in your collection of wild animals? A she-wolf of moderately good temper?”
Lord Pabham considered. “There is Louisa,” he said, “a rather fine specimen of the timber-wolf. I got her two years ago in exchange for some Arctic foxes. Most of my animals get to be fairly tame before they’ve been with me very long; I think I can say Louisa has an angelic temper, as she-wolves go. Why do you ask?”
“I was wondering whether you would lend her to me for to-morrow night,” said Clovis, with the careless solicitude of one who borrows a collar stud or a tennis racquet.
“Yes, wolves are nocturnal animals, so the late hours won’t hurt her,” said Clovis, with the air of one who has taken everything into consideration; “one of your men could bring her over from Pabham Park after dusk, and with a little help he ought to be able to smuggle her into the conservatory at the same moment that Mary Hampton makes an unobtrusive exit.”
Lord Pabham stared at Clovis for a moment in pardonable bewilderment; then his face broke into a wrinkled network of laughter.
“Oh, that’s your game, is it? You are going to do a little Siberian Magic on your own account. And is Mrs. Hampton willing to be a fellow-conspirator?”
“Mary is pledged to see me through with it, if you will guarantee Louisa’s temper.”
“I’ll answer for Louisa,” said Lord Pabham.
By the following day the house-party had swollen to larger proportions, and Bilsiter’s instinct for self-advertisement expanded duly under the stimulant of an increased audience. At dinner that evening he held forth at length on the subject of unseen forces and untested powers, and his flow of impressive eloquence continued unabated while coffee was being served in the drawing-room preparatory to a general migration to the card-room.
His aunt ensured a respectful hearing for his utterances, but her sensation-loving soul hankered after something more dramatic than mere vocal demonstration.
“Won’t you do something to convince them of your powers, Leonard?” she pleaded; “change something into another shape. He can, you know, if he only chooses to,” she informed the company.
“Oh, do,” said Mavis Pellington earnestly, and her request was echoed by nearly everyone present. Even those who were not open to conviction were perfectly willing to be entertained by an exhibition of amateur conjuring.
Leonard felt that something tangible was expected of him.
“Has anyone present,” he asked, “got a three-penny bit or some small object of no particular value—?”
“You’re surely not going to make coins disappear, or something primitive of that sort?” said Clovis contemptuously.
“I think it very unkind of you not to carry out my suggestion of turning me into a wolf,” said Mary Hampton, as she crossed over to the conservatory to give her macaws their usual tribute from the dessert dishes.
“I have already warned you of the danger of treating these powers in a mocking spirit,” said Leonard solemnly.
“I don’t believe you can do it,” laughed Mary provocatively from the conservatory; “I dare you to do it if you can. I defy you to turn me into a wolf.”
As she said this she was lost to view behind a clump of azaleas.
“Mrs. Hampton—” began Leonard with increased solemnity, but he got no further. A breath of chill air seemed to rush across the room, and at the same time the macaws broke forth into ear-splitting screams.
“What on earth is the matter with those confounded birds, Mary?” exclaimed Colonel Hampton; at the same moment an even more piercing scream from Mavis Pellington stampeded the entire company from their seats. In various attitudes of helpless horror or instinctive defence they confronted the evil-looking grey beast that was peering at them from amid a setting of fern and azalea.
Mrs. Hoops was the first to recover from the general chaos of fright and bewilderment.
“Leonard!” she screamed shrilly to her nephew, “turn it back into Mrs. Hampton at once! It may fly at us at any moment. Turn it back!”
“I—I don’t know how to,” faltered Leonard, who looked more scared and horrified than anyone.
“What!” shouted Colonel Hampton, “you’ve taken the abominable liberty of turning my wife into a wolf, and now you stand there calmly and say you can’t turn her back again!”
To do strict justice to Leonard, calmness was not a distinguishing feature of his attitude at the moment.
“I assure you I didn’t turn Mrs. Hampton into a wolf; nothing was farther from my intentions,” he protested.
“Then where is she, and how came that animal into the conservatory?” demanded the Colonel.
“Of course we must accept your assurance that you didn’t turn Mrs. Hampton into a wolf,” said Clovis politely, “but you will agree that appearances are against you.”
“Are we to have all these recriminations with that beast standing there ready to tear us to pieces?” wailed Mavis indignantly.
“Lord Pabham, you know a good deal about wild beasts—” suggested Colonel Hampton.
“The wild beasts that I have been accustomed to,” said Lord Pabham, “have come with proper credentials from well-known dealers, or have been bred in my own menagerie. I’ve never before been confronted with an animal that walks unconcernedly out of an azalea bush, leaving a charming and popular hostess unaccounted for. As far as one can judge from outward characteristics,” he continued, “it has the appearance of a well-grown female of the North American timber-wolf, a variety of the common species canis lupus.”
“Oh, never mind its Latin name,” screamed Mavis, as the beast came a step or two further into the room; “can’t you entice it away with food, and shut it up where it can’t do any harm?”
“If it is really Mrs. Hampton, who has just had a very good dinner, I don’t suppose food will appeal to it very strongly,” said Clovis.
“Leonard,” beseeched Mrs. Hoops tearfully, “even if this is none of your doing can’t you use your great powers to turn this dreadful beast into something harmless before it bites us all—a rabbit or something?”
“I don’t suppose Colonel Hampton would care to have his wife turned into a succession of fancy animals as though we were playing a round game with her,” interposed Clovis.
“I absolutely forbid it,” thundered the Colonel.
“Most wolves that I’ve had anything to do with have been inordinately fond of sugar,” said Lord Pabham; “if you like I’ll try the effect on this one.”
He took a piece of sugar from the saucer of his coffee cup and flung it to the expectant Louisa, who snapped it in mid-air. There was a sigh of relief from the company; a wolf that ate sugar when it might at the least have been employed in tearing macaws to pieces had already shed some of its terrors. The sigh deepened to a gasp of thanks-giving when Lord Pabham decoyed the animal out of the room by a pretended largesse of further sugar. There was an instant rush to the vacated conservatory. There was no trace of Mrs. Hampton except the plate containing the macaws’ supper.
“The door is locked on the inside!” exclaimed Clovis, who had deftly turned the key as he affected to test it.
Everyone turned towards Bilsiter.
“If you haven’t turned my wife into a wolf,” said Colonel Hampton, “will you kindly explain where she has disappeared to, since she obviously could not have gone through a locked door? I will not press you for an explanation of how a North American timber-wolf suddenly appeared in the conservatory, but I think I have some right to inquire what has become of Mrs. Hampton.”
Bilsiter’s reiterated disclaimer was met with a general murmur of impatient disbelief.
“I refuse to stay another hour under this roof,” declared Mavis Pellington.
“If our hostess has really vanished out of human form,” said Mrs. Hoops, “none of the ladies of the party can very well remain. I absolutely decline to be chaperoned by a wolf!”
“It’s a she-wolf,” said Clovis soothingly.
The correct etiquette to be observed under the unusual circumstances received no further elucidation. The sudden entry of Mary Hampton deprived the discussion of its immediate interest.
“Some one has mesmerised me,” she exclaimed crossly; “I found myself in the game larder, of all places, being fed with sugar by Lord Pabham. I hate being mesmerised, and the doctor has forbidden me to touch sugar.”
The situation was explained to her, as far as it permitted of anything that could be called explanation.
“Then you really did turn me into a wolf, Mr. Bilsiter?” she exclaimed excitedly.
But Leonard had burned the boat in which he might now have embarked on a sea of glory. He could only shake his head feebly.
“It was I who took that liberty,” said Clovis; “you see, I happen to have lived for a couple of years in North-Eastern Russia, and I have more than a tourist’s acquaintance with the magic craft of that region. One does not care to speak about these strange powers, but once in a way, when one hears a lot of nonsense being talked about them, one is tempted to show what Siberian magic can accomplish in the hands of someone who really understands it. I yielded to that temptation. May I have some brandy? the effort has left me rather faint.”
If Leonard Bilsiter could at that moment have transformed Clovis into a cockroach and then have stepped on him he would gladly have performed both operations.
“You are not really dying, are you?” asked Amanda.
“I have the doctor’s permission to live till Tuesday,” said Laura.
“But to-day is Saturday; this is serious!” gasped Amanda.
“I don’t know about it being serious; it is certainly Saturday,” said Laura.
“Death is always serious,” said Amanda.
“I never said I was going to die. I am presumably going to leave off being Laura, but I shall go on being something. An animal of some kind, I suppose. You see, when one hasn’t been very good in the life one has just lived, one reincarnates in some lower organism. And I haven’t been very good, when one comes to think of it. I’ve been petty and mean and vindictive and all that sort of thing when circumstances have seemed to warrant it.”
“Circumstances never warrant that sort of thing,” said Amanda hastily.
“If you don’t mind my saying so,” observed Laura, “Egbert is a circumstance that would warrant any amount of that sort of thing. You’re married to him—that’s different; you’ve sworn to love, honour, and endure him: I haven’t.”
“I don’t see what’s wrong with Egbert,” protested Amanda.
“Oh, I daresay the wrongness has been on my part,” admitted Laura dispassionately; “he has merely been the extenuating circumstance. He made a thin, peevish kind of fuss, for instance, when I took the collie puppies from the farm out for a run the other day.”
“They chased his young broods of speckled Sussex and drove two sitting hens off their nests, besides running all over the flower beds. You know how devoted he is to his poultry and garden.”
“Anyhow, he needn’t have gone on about it for the entire evening and then have said, ‘Let’s say no more about it’ just when I was beginning to enjoy the discussion. That’s where one of my petty vindictive revenges came in,” added Laura with an unrepentant chuckle; “I turned the entire family of speckled Sussex into his seedling shed the day after the puppy episode.”
“How could you?” exclaimed Amanda.
“It came quite easy,” said Laura; “two of the hens pretended to be laying at the time, but I was firm.”
“And we thought it was an accident!”
“You see,” resumed Laura, “I really have some grounds for supposing that my next incarnation will be in a lower organism. I shall be an animal of some kind. On the other hand, I haven’t been a bad sort in my way, so I think I may count on being a nice animal, something elegant and lively, with a love of fun. An otter, perhaps.”
“I can’t imagine you as an otter,” said Amanda.
“Well, I don’t suppose you can imagine me as an angel, if it comes to that,” said Laura.
Amanda was silent. She couldn’t.
“Personally I think an otter life would be rather enjoyable,” continued Laura; “salmon to eat all the year round, and the satisfaction of being able to fetch the trout in their own homes without having to wait for hours till they condescend to rise to the fly you’ve been dangling before them; and an elegant svelte figure—”
“Think of the otter hounds,” interposed Amanda; “how dreadful to be hunted and harried and finally worried to death!”
“Rather fun with half the neighbourhood looking on, and anyhow not worse than this Saturday-to-Tuesday business of dying by inches; and then I should go on into something else. If I had been a moderately good otter I suppose I should get back into human shape of some sort; probably something rather primitive—a little brown, unclothed Nubian boy, I should think.”
“I wish you would be serious,” sighed Amanda; “you really ought to be if you’re only going to live till Tuesday.”
As a matter of fact Laura died on Monday.
“So dreadfully upsetting,” Amanda complained to her uncle-in-law, Sir Lulworth Quayne. “I’ve asked quite a lot of people down for golf and fishing, and the rhododendrons are just looking their best.”
“Laura always was inconsiderate,” said Sir Lulworth; “she was born during Goodwood week, with an Ambassador staying in the house who hated babies.”
“She had the maddest kind of ideas,” said Amanda; “do you know if there was any insanity in her family?”
“Insanity? No, I never heard of any. Her father lives in West Kensington, but I believe he’s sane on all other subjects.”
“She had an idea that she was going to be reincarnated as an otter,” said Amanda.
“One meets with those ideas of reincarnation so frequently, even in the West,” said Sir Lulworth, “that one can hardly set them down as being mad. And Laura was such an unaccountable person in this life that I should not like to lay down definite rules as to what she might be doing in an after state.”
“You think she really might have passed into some animal form?” asked Amanda. She was one of those who shape their opinions rather readily from the standpoint of those around them.
Just then Egbert entered the breakfast-room, wearing an air of bereavement that Laura’s demise would have been insufficient, in itself, to account for.
“Four of my speckled Sussex have been killed,” he exclaimed; “the very four that were to go to the show on Friday. One of them was dragged away and eaten right in the middle of that new carnation bed that I’ve been to such trouble and expense over. My best flower bed and my best fowls singled out for destruction; it almost seems as if the brute that did the deed had special knowledge how to be as devastating as possible in a short space of time.”
“Was it a fox, do you think?” asked Amanda.
“Sounds more like a polecat,” said Sir Lulworth.
“No,” said Egbert, “there were marks of webbed feet all over the place, and we followed the tracks down to the stream at the bottom of the garden; evidently an otter.”
Amanda looked quickly and furtively across at Sir Lulworth.
Egbert was too agitated to eat any breakfast, and went out to superintend the strengthening of the poultry yard defences.
“I think she might at least have waited till the funeral was over,” said Amanda in a scandalised voice.
“It’s her own funeral, you know,” said Sir Lulworth; “it’s a nice point in etiquette how far one ought to show respect to one’s own mortal remains.”
Disregard for mortuary convention was carried to further lengths next day; during the absence of the family at the funeral ceremony the remaining survivors of the speckled Sussex were massacred. The marauder’s line of retreat seemed to have embraced most of the flower beds on the lawn, but the strawberry beds in the lower garden had also suffered.
“I shall get the otter hounds to come here at the earliest possible moment,” said Egbert savagely.
“On no account! You can’t dream of such a thing!” exclaimed Amanda. “I mean, it wouldn’t do, so soon after a funeral in the house.”
“It’s a case of necessity,” said Egbert; “once an otter takes to that sort of thing it won’t stop.”
“Perhaps it will go elsewhere now there are no more fowls left,” suggested Amanda.
“One would think you wanted to shield the beast,” said Egbert.
“There’s been so little water in the stream lately,” objected Amanda; “it seems hardly sporting to hunt an animal when it has so little chance of taking refuge anywhere.”
“Good gracious!” fumed Egbert, “I’m not thinking about sport. I want to have the animal killed as soon as possible.”
Even Amanda’s opposition weakened when, during church time on the following Sunday, the otter made its way into the house, raided half a salmon from the larder and worried it into scaly fragments on the Persian rug in Egbert’s studio.
“We shall have it hiding under our beds and biting pieces out of our feet before long,” said Egbert, and from what Amanda knew of this particular otter she felt that the possibility was not a remote one.
On the evening preceding the day fixed for the hunt Amanda spent a solitary hour walking by the banks of the stream, making what she imagined to be hound noises. It was charitably supposed by those who overheard her performance, that she was practising for farmyard imitations at the forth-coming village entertainment.
It was her friend and neighbour, Aurora Burret, who brought her news of the day’s sport.
“Pity you weren’t out; we had quite a good day. We found at once, in the pool just below your garden.”
“Did you—kill?” asked Amanda.
“Rather. A fine she-otter. Your husband got rather badly bitten in trying to ‘tail it.’ Poor beast, I felt quite sorry for it, it had such a human look in its eyes when it was killed. You’ll call me silly, but do you know who the look reminded me of? My dear woman, what is the matter?”
When Amanda had recovered to a certain extent from her attack of nervous prostration Egbert took her to the Nile Valley to recuperate. Change of scene speedily brought about the desired recovery of health and mental balance. The escapades of an adventurous otter in search of a variation of diet were viewed in their proper light. Amanda’s normally placid temperament reasserted itself. Even a hurricane of shouted curses, coming from her husband’s dressing-room, in her husband’s voice, but hardly in his usual vocabulary, failed to disturb her serenity as she made a leisurely toilet one evening in a Cairo hotel.
“What is the matter? What has happened?” she asked in amused curiosity.
“The little beast has thrown all my clean shirts into the bath! Wait till I catch you, you little—”
“What little beast?” asked Amanda, suppressing a desire to laugh; Egbert’s language was so hopelessly inadequate to express his outraged feelings.
“A little beast of a naked brown Nubian boy,” spluttered Egbert.
And now Amanda is seriously ill.
“There is a back way on to the lawn,” said Mrs. Philidore Stossen to her daughter, “through a small grass paddock and then through a walled fruit garden full of gooseberry bushes. I went all over the place last year when the family were away. There is a door that opens from the fruit garden into a shrubbery, and once we emerge from there we can mingle with the guests as if we had come in by the ordinary way. It’s much safer than going in by the front entrance and running the risk of coming bang up against the hostess; that would be so awkward when she doesn’t happen to have invited us.”
“Isn’t it a lot of trouble to take for getting admittance to a garden party?”
“To a garden party, yes; to the garden party of the season, certainly not. Every one of any consequence in the county, with the exception of ourselves, has been asked to meet the Princess, and it would be far more troublesome to invent explanations as to why we weren’t there than to get in by a roundabout way. I stopped Mrs. Cuvering in the road yesterday and talked very pointedly about the Princess. If she didn’t choose to take the hint and send me an invitation it’s not my fault, is it? Here we are: we just cut across the grass and through that little gate into the garden.”
Mrs. Stossen and her daughter, suitably arrayed for a county garden party function with an infusion of Almanack de Gotha, sailed through the narrow grass paddock and the ensuing gooseberry garden with the air of state barges making an unofficial progress along a rural trout stream. There was a certain amount of furtive haste mingled with the stateliness of their advance, as though hostile search-lights might be turned on them at any moment; and, as a matter of fact, they were not unobserved. Matilda Cuvering, with the alert eyes of thirteen years old and the added advantage of an exalted position in the branches of a medlar tree, had enjoyed a good view of the Stossen flanking movement and had foreseen exactly where it would break down in execution.
“They’ll find the door locked, and they’ll jolly well have to go back the way they came,” she remarked to herself. “Serves them right for not coming in by the proper entrance. What a pity Tarquin Superbus isn’t loose in the paddock. After all, as every one else is enjoying themselves, I don’t see why Tarquin shouldn’t have an afternoon out.”
Matilda was of an age when thought is action; she slid down from the branches of the medlar tree, and when she clambered back again Tarquin, the huge white Yorkshire boar-pig, had exchanged the narrow limits of his stye for the wider range of the grass paddock. The discomfited Stossen expedition, returning in recriminatory but otherwise orderly retreat from the unyielding obstacle of the locked door, came to a sudden halt at the gate dividing the paddock from the gooseberry garden.
“What a villainous-looking animal,” exclaimed Mrs. Stossen; “it wasn’t there when we came in.”
“It’s there now, anyhow,” said her daughter. “What on earth are we to do? I wish we had never come.”
The boar-pig had drawn nearer to the gate for a closer inspection of the human intruders, and stood champing his jaws and blinking his small red eyes in a manner that was doubtless intended to be disconcerting, and, as far as the Stossens were concerned, thoroughly achieved that result.
“Shoo! Hish! Hish! Shoo!” cried the ladies in chorus.
“If they think they’re going to drive him away by reciting lists of the kings of Israel and Judah they’re laying themselves out for disappointment,” observed Matilda from her seat in the medlar tree. As she made the observation aloud Mrs. Stossen became for the first time aware of her presence. A moment or two earlier she would have been anything but pleased at the discovery that the garden was not as deserted as it looked, but now she hailed the fact of the child’s presence on the scene with absolute relief.
“Little girl, can you find some one to drive away—” she began hopefully.
“Comment? Comprends pas,” was the response.
“Oh, are you French? Êtes vous française?”
“Pas de tous. ’Suis anglaise.”
“Then why not talk English? I want to know if—”
“Permettez-moi expliquer. You see, I’m rather under a cloud,” said Matilda. “I’m staying with my aunt, and I was told I must behave particularly well to-day, as lots of people were coming for a garden party, and I was told to imitate Claude, that’s my young cousin, who never does anything wrong except by accident, and then is always apologetic about it. It seems they thought I ate too much raspberry trifle at lunch, and they said Claude never eats too much raspberry trifle. Well, Claude always goes to sleep for half an hour after lunch, because he’s told to, and I waited till he was asleep, and tied his hands and started forcible feeding with a whole bucketful of raspberry trifle that they were keeping for the garden-party. Lots of it went on to his sailor-suit and some of it on to the bed, but a good deal went down Claude’s throat, and they can’t say again that he has never been known to eat too much raspberry trifle. That is why I am not allowed to go to the party, and as an additional punishment I must speak French all the afternoon. I’ve had to tell you all this in English, as there were words like ‘forcible feeding’ that I didn’t know the French for; of course I could have invented them, but if I had said nourriture obligatoire you wouldn’t have had the least idea what I was talking about. Mais maintenant, nous parlons français.”
“Oh, very well, trés bien,” said Mrs. Stossen reluctantly; in moments of flurry such French as she knew was not under very good control. “Là, à l’autre côté de la porte, est un cochon—”
“Un cochon? Ah, le petit charmant!” exclaimed Matilda with enthusiasm.
“Mais non, pas du tout petit, et pas du tout charmant; un bête féroce—”
“Une bête,” corrected Matilda; “a pig is masculine as long as you call it a pig, but if you lose your temper with it and call it a ferocious beast it becomes one of us at once. French is a dreadfully unsexing language.”
“For goodness’ sake let us talk English then,” said Mrs. Stossen. “Is there any way out of this garden except through the paddock where the pig is?”
“I always go over the wall, by way of the plum tree,” said Matilda.
“Dressed as we are we could hardly do that,” said Mrs. Stossen; it was difficult to imagine her doing it in any costume.
“Do you think you could go and get some one who would drive the pig away?” asked Miss Stossen.
“I promised my aunt I would stay here till five o’clock; it’s not four yet.”
“I am sure, under the circumstances, your aunt would permit—”
“My conscience would not permit,” said Matilda with cold dignity.
“We can’t stay here till five o’clock,” exclaimed Mrs. Stossen with growing exasperation.
“Shall I recite to you to make the time pass quicker?” asked Matilda obligingly. “‘Belinda, the little Breadwinner,’ is considered my best piece, or, perhaps, it ought to be something in French. Henri Quatre’s address to his soldiers is the only thing I really know in that language.”
“If you will go and fetch some one to drive that animal away I will give you something to buy yourself a nice present,” said Mrs. Stossen.
Matilda came several inches lower down the medlar tree.
“That is the most practical suggestion you have made yet for getting out of the garden,” she remarked cheerfully; “Claude and I are collecting money for the Children’s Fresh Air Fund, and we are seeing which of us can collect the biggest sum.”
“I shall be very glad to contribute half a crown, very glad indeed,” said Mrs. Stossen, digging that coin out of the depths of a receptacle which formed a detached outwork of her toilet.
“Claude is a long way ahead of me at present,” continued Matilda, taking no notice of the suggested offering; “you see, he’s only eleven, and has golden hair, and those are enormous advantages when you’re on the collecting job. Only the other day a Russian lady gave him ten shillings. Russians understand the art of giving far better than we do. I expect Claude will net quite twenty-five shillings this afternoon; he’ll have the field to himself, and he’ll be able to do the pale, fragile, not-long-for-this-world business to perfection after his raspberry trifle experience. Yes, he’ll be quite two pounds ahead of me by now.”
With much probing and plucking and many regretful murmurs the beleaguered ladies managed to produce seven-and-sixpence between them.
“I am afraid this is all we’ve got,” said Mrs. Stossen.
Matilda showed no sign of coming down either to the earth or to their figure.
“I could not do violence to my conscience for anything less than ten shillings,” she announced stiffly.
Mother and daughter muttered certain remarks under their breath, in which the word “beast” was prominent, and probably had no reference to Tarquin.
“I find I have got another half-crown,” said Mrs. Stossen in a shaking voice; “here you are. Now please fetch some one quickly.”
Matilda slipped down from the tree, took possession of the donation, and proceeded to pick up a handful of over-ripe medlars from the grass at her feet. Then she climbed over the gate and addressed herself affectionately to the boar-pig.
“Come, Tarquin, dear old boy; you know you can’t resist medlars when they’re rotten and squashy.”
Tarquin couldn’t. By dint of throwing the fruit in front of him at judicious intervals Matilda decoyed him back to his stye, while the delivered captives hurried across the paddock.
“Well, I never! The little minx!” exclaimed Mrs. Stossen when she was safely on the high road. “The animal wasn’t savage at all, and as for the ten shillings, I don’t believe the Fresh Air Fund will see a penny of it!”
There she was unwarrantably harsh in her judgment. If you examine the books of the fund you will find the acknowledgment: “Collected by Miss Matilda Cuvering, 2s. 6d.”
The hunting season had come to an end, and the Mullets had not succeeded in selling the Brogue. There had been a kind of tradition in the family for the past three or four years, a sort of fatalistic hope, that the Brogue would find a purchaser before the hunting was over; but seasons came and went without anything happening to justify such ill-founded optimism. The animal had been named Berserker in the earlier stages of its career; it had been rechristened the Brogue later on, in recognition of the fact that, once acquired, it was extremely difficult to get rid of. The unkinder wits of the neighbourhood had been known to suggest that the first letter of its name was superfluous. The Brogue had been variously described in sale catalogues as a light-weight hunter, a lady’s hack, and, more simply, but still with a touch of imagination, as a useful brown gelding, standing 15.1. Toby Mullet had ridden him for four seasons with the West Wessex; you can ride almost any sort of horse with the West Wessex as long as it is an animal that knows the country. The Brogue knew the country intimately, having personally created most of the gaps that were to be met with in banks and hedges for many miles round. His manners and characteristics were not ideal in the hunting field, but he was probably rather safer to ride to hounds than he was as a hack on country roads. According to the Mullet family, he was not really road-shy, but there were one or two objects of dislike that brought on sudden attacks of what Toby called the swerving sickness. Motors and cycles he treated with tolerant disregard, but pigs, wheelbarrows, piles of stones by the roadside, perambulators in a village street, gates painted too aggressively white, and sometimes, but not always, the newer kind of beehives, turned him aside from his tracks in vivid imitation of the zigzag course of forked lightning. If a pheasant rose noisily from the other side of a hedgerow the Brogue would spring into the air at the same moment, but this may have been due to a desire to be companionable. The Mullet family contradicted the widely prevalent report that the horse was a confirmed crib-biter.
It was about the third week in May that Mrs. Mullet, relict of the late Sylvester Mullet, and mother of Toby and a bunch of daughters, assailed Clovis Sangrail on the outskirts of the village with a breathless catalogue of local happenings.
“You know our new neighbour, Mr. Penricarde?” she vociferated; “awfully rich, owns tin mines in Cornwall, middle-aged and rather quiet. He’s taken the Red House on a long lease and spent a lot of money on alterations and improvements. Well, Toby’s sold him the Brogue!”
Clovis spent a moment or two in assimilating the astonishing news; then he broke out into unstinted congratulation. If he had belonged to a more emotional race he would probably have kissed Mrs. Mullet.
“How wonderfully lucky to have pulled it off at last! Now you can buy a decent animal. I’ve always said that Toby was clever. Ever so many congratulations.”
“Don’t congratulate me. It’s the most unfortunate thing that could have happened!” said Mrs. Mullet dramatically.
Clovis stared at her in amazement.
“Mr. Penricarde,” said Mrs. Mullet, sinking her voice to what she imagined to be an impressive whisper, though it rather resembled a hoarse, excited squeak, “Mr. Penricarde has just begun to pay attentions to Jessie. Slight at first, but now unmistakable. I was a fool not to have seen it sooner. Yesterday, at the Rectory garden party, he asked her what her favourite flowers were, and she told him carnations, and to-day a whole stack of carnations has arrived, clove and malmaison and lovely dark red ones, regular exhibition blooms, and a box of chocolates that he must have got on purpose from London. And he’s asked her to go round the links with him to-morrow. And now, just at this critical moment, Toby has sold him that animal. It’s a calamity!”
“But you’ve been trying to get the horse off your hands for years,” said Clovis.
“I’ve got a houseful of daughters,” said Mrs. Mullet, “and I’ve been trying—well, not to get them off my hands, of course, but a husband or two wouldn’t be amiss among the lot of them; there are six of them, you know.”
“I don’t know,” said Clovis, “I’ve never counted, but I expect you’re right as to the number; mothers generally know these things.”
“And now,” continued Mrs. Mullet, in her tragic whisper, “when there’s a rich husband-in-prospect imminent on the horizon Toby goes and sells him that miserable animal. It will probably kill him if he tries to ride it; anyway it will kill any affection he might have felt towards any member of our family. What is to be done? We can’t very well ask to have the horse back; you see, we praised it up like anything when we thought there was a chance of his buying it, and said it was just the animal to suit him.”