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The Little Nugget (1913) is one of the novels in which Wodehouse found his feet, a light comic thriller set in an English prep school for the children of the nobility and gentry. Into their midst comes eleven-year-old Ogden Ford, the mouthy, overweight, chain-smoking son of an American millionaire. Ogden (whom we meet again in Piccadilly Jim) is the object of a kidnap attempt which forms the basis of the plot. The comedy arises from Wodehouse's favourite topics of Anglo-American misunderstanding and the absurdities of school life.
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THE LITTLE NUGGET
by P.G. Wodehouse
Published 2018 by Blackmore Dennett
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
In which the Little Nugget is introduced to the reader, and plans are made for his future by several interested parties. In which, also, the future Mr Peter Burns is touched upon. The whole concluding with a momentous telephone-call.
If the management of the Hotel Guelph, that London landmark, could have been present at three o'clock one afternoon in early January in the sitting-room of the suite which they had assigned to Mrs Elmer Ford, late of New York, they might well have felt a little aggrieved. Philosophers among them would possibly have meditated on the limitations of human effort; for they had done their best for Mrs Ford. They had housed her well. They had fed her well. They had caused inspired servants to anticipate her every need. Yet here she was, in the midst of all these aids to a contented mind, exhibiting a restlessness and impatience of her surroundings that would have been noticeable in a caged tigress or a prisoner of the Bastille. She paced the room. She sat down, picked up a novel, dropped it, and, rising, resumed her patrol. The clock striking, she compared it with her watch, which she had consulted two minutes before. She opened the locket that hung by a gold chain from her neck, looked at its contents, and sighed. Finally, going quickly into the bedroom, she took from a suit-case a framed oil-painting, and returning with it to the sitting-room, placed it on a chair, and stepped back, gazing at it hungrily. Her large brown eyes, normally hard and imperious, were strangely softened. Her mouth quivered.
'Ogden!' she whispered.
The picture which had inspired this exhibition of feeling would probably not have affected the casual spectator to quite the same degree. He would have seen merely a very faulty and amateurish portrait of a singularly repellent little boy of about eleven, who stared out from the canvas with an expression half stolid, half querulous; a bulgy, overfed little boy; a little boy who looked exactly what he was, the spoiled child of parents who had far more money than was good for them.
As Mrs Ford gazed at the picture, and the picture stared back at her, the telephone bell rang. She ran to it eagerly. It was the office of the hotel, announcing a caller.
'Yes? Yes? Who?' Her voice fell, as if the name was not the one she had expected. 'Oh, yes,' she said. 'Yes, ask Lord Mountry to come to me here, please.'
She returned to the portrait. The look of impatience, which had left her face as the bell sounded, was back now. She suppressed it with an effort as her visitor entered.
Lord Mountry was a blond, pink-faced, fair-moustached young man of about twenty-eight—a thick-set, solemn young man. He winced as he caught sight of the picture, which fixed him with a stony eye immediately on his entry, and quickly looked away.
'I say, it's all right, Mrs Ford.' He was of the type which wastes no time on preliminary greetings. 'I've got him.'
Mrs Ford's voice was startled.
'Stanborough, you know.'
'Oh! I—I was thinking of something else. Won't you sit down?'
Lord Mountry sat down.
'The artist, you know. You remember you said at lunch the other day you wanted your little boy's portrait painted, as you only had one of him, aged eleven—'
'This is Ogden, Lord Mountry. I painted this myself.'
His lordship, who had selected a chair that enabled him to present a shoulder to the painting, and was wearing a slightly dogged look suggestive of one who 'turns no more his head, because he knows a frightful fiend doth close behind him tread', forced himself round, and met his gaze with as much nonchalance as he could summon up.
'Er, yes,' he said.
'Fine manly little fellow—what?' he continued.
'Yes, isn't he?'
His lordship stealthily resumed his former position.
'I recommended this fellow, Stanborough, if you remember. He's a great pal of mine, and I'd like to give him a leg up if I could. They tell me he's a topping artist. Don't know much about it myself. You told me to bring him round here this afternoon, you remember, to talk things over. He's waiting downstairs.'
'Oh yes, yes. Of course, I've not forgotten. Thank you so much,Lord Mountry.'
'Rather a good scheme occurred to me, that is, if you haven't thought over the idea of that trip on my yacht and decided it would bore you to death. You still feel like making one of the party—what?'
Mrs Ford shot a swift glance at the clock.
'I'm looking forward to it,' she said.
'Well, then, why shouldn't we kill two birds with one stone?Combine the voyage and the portrait, don't you know. You couldbring your little boy along—he'd love the trip—and I'd bringStanborough—what?'
This offer was not the outcome of a sudden spasm of warm-heartedness on his lordship's part. He had pondered the matter deeply, and had come to the conclusion that, though it had flaws, it was the best plan. He was alive to the fact that a small boy was not an absolute essential to the success of a yachting trip, and, since seeing Ogden's portrait, he had realized still more clearly that the scheme had draw-backs. But he badly wanted Stanborough to make one of the party. Whatever Ogden might be, there was no doubt that Billy Stanborough, that fellow of infinite jest, was the ideal companion for a voyage. It would make just all the difference having him. The trouble was that Stanborough flatly refused to take an indefinite holiday, on the plea that he could not afford the time. Upon which his lordship, seldom blessed with great ideas, had surprised himself by producing the scheme he had just sketched out to Mrs Ford.
He looked at her expectantly, as he finished speaking, and was surprised to see a swift cloud of distress pass over her face. He rapidly reviewed his last speech. No, nothing to upset anyone in that. He was puzzled.
She looked past him at the portrait. There was pain in her eyes.
'I'm afraid you don't quite understand the position of affairs,' she said. Her voice was harsh and strained.
'You see—I have not—' She stopped. 'My little boy is not—Ogden is not living with me just now.'
'At school, eh?'
'No, not at school. Let me tell you the whole position. Mr Ford and I did not get on very well together, and a year ago we were divorced in Washington, on the ground of incompatibility, and—and—'
She choked. His lordship, a young man with a shrinking horror of the deeper emotions, whether exhibited in woman or man, writhed silently. That was the worst of these Americans! Always getting divorced and causing unpleasantness. How was a fellow to know? Why hadn't whoever it was who first introduced them—he couldn't remember who the dickens it was—told him about this? He had supposed she was just the ordinary American woman doing Europe with an affectionate dollar-dispensing husband in the background somewhere.
'Er—' he said. It was all he could find to say.
'And—and the court,' said Mrs Ford, between her teeth, 'gave him the custody of Ogden.'
Lord Mountry, pink with embarrassment, gurgled sympathetically.
'Since then I have not seen Ogden. That was why I was interested when you mentioned your friend Mr Stanborough. It struck me that Mr Ford could hardly object to my having a portrait of my son painted at my own expense. Nor do I suppose that he will, when—if the matter is put to him. But, well, you see it would be premature to make any arrangements at present for having the picture painted on our yacht trip.'
'I'm afraid it knocks that scheme on the head,' said Lord Mountry mournfully.
'I don't want to make plans yet, but—it is possible that Ogden may be with us after all. Something may be—arranged.'
'You think you may be able to bring him along on the yacht after all?'
'I am hoping so.'
Lord Mountry, however willing to emit sympathetic gurgles, was too plain and straightforward a young man to approve of wilful blindness to obvious facts.
'I don't see how you are going to override the decision of the court. It holds good in England, I suppose?'
'I am hoping something may be—arranged.'
'Oh, same here, same here. Certainly.' Having done his duty by not allowing plain facts to be ignored, his lordship was ready to become sympathetic again. 'By the way, where is Ogden?'
'He is down at Mr Ford's house in the country. But—'
She was interrupted by the ringing of the telephone bell. She was out of her seat and across the room at the receiver with what appeared to Lord Mountry's startled gaze one bound. As she put the instrument to her ear a wave of joy swept over her face. She gave a little cry of delight and excitement.
'Send them right up at once,' she said, and turned to Lord Mountry transformed.
'Lord Mountry,' she said quickly, 'please don't think me impossibly rude if I turn you out. Some—some people are coming to see me. I must—'
His lordship rose hurriedly.
'Of course. Of course. Certainly. Where did I put my—ah, here.' He seized his hat, and by way of economizing effort, knocked his stick on to the floor with the same movement. Mrs Ford watched his bendings and gropings with growing impatience, till finally he rose, a little flushed but with a full hand—stick, gloves, and hat, all present and correct.
'Good-bye, then, Mrs Ford, for the present. You'll let me know if your little boy will be able to make one of our party on the yacht?'
'Yes, yes. Thank you ever so much. Good-bye.'
He reached the door and opened it.
'By Jove,' he said, springing round—'Stanborough! What aboutStanborough? Shall I tell him to wait? He's down below, you know!'
'Yes, yes. Tell Mr Stanborough I'm dreadfully sorry to have to keep him waiting, and ask him if he won't stay for a few minutes in the Palm Room.'
Inspiration came to Lord Mountry.
'I'll give him a drink,' he said.
'Yes, yes, anything. Lord Mountry, you really must go. I know I'm rude. I don't know what I'm saying. But—my boy is returning to me.'
The accumulated chivalry of generations of chivalrous ancestors acted like a spur on his lordship. He understood but dimly, yet enough to enable him to realize that a scene was about to take place in which he was most emphatically not 'on'. A mother's meeting with her long-lost child, this is a sacred thing. This was quite clear to him, so, turning like a flash, he bounded through the doorway, and, as somebody happened to be coming in at the same time, there was a collision, which left him breathing apologies in his familiar attitude of stooping to pick up his hat.
The new-comers were a tall, strikingly handsome girl, with a rather hard and cynical cast of countenance. She was leading by the hand a small, fat boy of about fourteen years of age, whose likeness to the portrait on the chair proclaimed his identity. He had escaped the collision, but seemed offended by it; for, eyeing the bending peer with cold distaste, he summed up his opinion of him in the one word 'Chump!'
Lord Mountry rose.
'I beg your pardon,' he said for perhaps the seventh time. He was thoroughly unstrung. Always excessively shy, he was embarrassed now by quite a variety of causes. The world was full of eyes—Mrs Ford's saying 'Go!' Ogden's saying 'Fool!' the portrait saying 'Idiot!' and, finally, the eyes of this wonderfully handsome girl, large, grey, cool, amused, and contemptuous saying—so it seemed to him in that feverish moment—'Who is this curious pink person who cumbers the ground before me?'
'I—I beg your pardon.' he repeated.
'Ought to look where you're going,' said Ogden severely.
'Not at all,' said the girl. 'Won't you introduce me, Nesta?'
'Lord Mountry—Miss Drassilis,' said Mrs Ford.
'I'm afraid we're driving Lord Mountry away,' said the girl. Her eyes seemed to his lordship larger, greyer, cooler, more amused, and more contemptuous than ever. He floundered in them like an unskilful swimmer in deep waters.
'No, no,' he stammered. 'Give you my word. Just going. Good-bye.You won't forget to let me know about the yacht, Mrs Ford—what?It'll be an awfully jolly party. Good-bye, good-bye, MissDrassilis.'
He looked at Ogden for an instant, as if undecided whether to take the liberty of addressing him too, and then, his heart apparently failing him, turned and bolted. From down the corridor came the clatter of a dropped stick.
Cynthia Drassilis closed the door and smiled.
'A nervous young person!' she said. 'What was he saying about a yacht, Nesta?'
Mrs Ford roused herself from her fascinated contemplation ofOgden.
'Oh, nothing. Some of us are going to the south of France in his yacht next week.'
'What a delightful idea!'
There was a certain pensive note in Cynthia's voice.
'A splendid idea!' she murmured.
Mrs Ford swooped. She descended on Ogden in a swirl and rustle of expensive millinery, and clasped him to her.
It is not given to everybody to glide neatly into a scene of tense emotion. Ogden failed to do so. He wriggled roughly from the embrace.
'Got a cigarette?' he said.
He was an extraordinarily unpleasant little boy. Physically the portrait standing on the chair did him more than justice. Painted by a mother's loving hand, it flattered him. It was bulgy. He was more bulgy. It was sullen. He scowled. And, art having its limitations, particularly amateur art, the portrait gave no hint of his very repellent manner. He was an intensely sophisticated child. He had the air of one who has seen all life has to offer, and is now permanently bored. His speech and bearing were those of a young man, and a distinctly unlovable young man.
Even Mrs Ford was momentarily chilled. She laughed shakily.
'How very matter-of-fact you are, darling!' she said.
Cynthia was regarding the heir to the Ford millions with her usual steady, half-contemptuous gaze.
'He has been that all day,' she said. 'You have no notion what a help it was to me.'
Mrs Ford turned to her effusively.
'Oh, Cynthia, dear, I haven't thanked you.'
'No,' interpolated the girl dryly.
'You're a wonder, darling. You really are. I've been repeating that ever since I got your telegram from Eastnor.' She broke off. 'Ogden, come near me, my little son.'
He lurched towards her sullenly.
'Don't muss a fellow now,' he stipulated, before allowing himself to be enfolded in the outstretched arms.
'Tell me, Cynthia,' resumed Mrs Ford, 'how did you do it? I was telling Lord Mountry that I hoped I might see my Ogden again soon, but I never really hoped. It seemed too impossible that you should succeed.'
'This Lord Mountry of yours,' said Cynthia. 'How did you get to know him? Why have I not seen him before?'
'I met him in Paris in the fall. He has been out of London for a long time, looking after his father, who was ill.'
'He has been most kind, making arrangements about getting Ogden's portrait painted. But, bother Lord Mountry. How did we get sidetracked on to him? Tell me how you got Ogden away.'
'It was extraordinarily easy, as it turned out, you see.'
'Ogden, darling,' observed Mrs Ford, 'don't go away. I want you near me.'
'Oh, all right.'
'Then stay by me, angel-face.'
'Oh, slush!' muttered angel-face beneath his breath. 'Say, I'm darned hungry,' he added.
It was if an electric shock had been applied to Mrs Ford. She sprang to her feet.
'My poor child! Of course you must have some lunch. Ring the bell,Cynthia. I'll have them send up some here.'
'I'll have mine here,' said Cynthia.
'Oh, you've had no lunch either! I was forgetting that.'
'I thought you were.'
'You must both lunch here.'
'Really,' said Cynthia, 'I think it would be better if Ogden had his downstairs in the restaurant.'
'Want to talk scandal, eh?'
'Ogden, dearest!' said Mrs Ford. 'Very well, Cynthia. Go,Ogden. You will order yourself something substantial, marvel-child?'
'Bet your life,' said the son and heir tersely.
There was a brief silence as the door closed. Cynthia gazed at her friend with a peculiar expression.
'Well, I did it, dear,' she said.
'Yes. It's splendid. You're a wonder, darling.'
'Yes,' said Cynthia.
There was another silence.
'By the way,' said Mrs Ford, 'didn't you say there was a little thing, a small bill, that was worrying you?'
'Did I mention it? Yes, there is. It's rather pressing. In fact, it's taking up most of the horizon at present. Here it is.'
'Is it a large sum?' Mrs Ford took the slip of paper and gave a slight gasp. Then, coming to the bureau, she took out her cheque-book.
'It's very kind of you, Nesta,' said Cynthia. 'They were beginning to show quite a vindictive spirit about it.'
She folded the cheque calmly and put it in her purse.
'And now tell me how you did it,' said Mrs Ford.
She dropped into a chair and leaned back, her hands behind her head. For the first time, she seemed to enjoy perfect peace of mind. Her eyes half closed, as if she had been making ready to listen to some favourite music.
'Tell me from the very beginning,' she said softly.
Cynthia checked a yawn.
'Very well, dear,' she said. 'I caught the 10.20 to Eastnor, which isn't a bad train, if you ever want to go down there. I arrived at a quarter past twelve, and went straight up to the house—you've never seen the house, of course? It's quite charming—and told the butler that I wanted to see Mr Ford on business. I had taken the precaution to find out that he was not there. He is at Droitwich.'
'Rheumatism,' murmured Mrs Ford. 'He has it sometimes.'
'The man told me he was away, and then he seemed to think that I ought to go. I stuck like a limpet. I sent him to fetch Ogden's tutor. His name is Broster—Reggie Broster. He is a very nice young man. Big, broad shoulders, and such a kind face.'
'Yes, dear, yes?'
'I told him I was doing a series of drawings for a magazine of the interiors of well-known country houses.'
'He believed you?'
'He believed everything. He's that kind of man. He believed me when I told him that my editor particularly wanted me to sketch the staircase. They had told me about the staircase at the inn. I forget what it is exactly, but it's something rather special in staircases.'
'So you got in?'
'So I got in.'
'And saw Ogden?'
'Only for a moment—then Reggie—'
'Mr Broster. I always think of him as Reggie. He's one of Nature'sReggies. Such a kind, honest face. Well, as I was saying,Reggie discovered that it was time for lessons, and sent Ogdenupstairs.'
'By himself! Reggie and I chatted for a while.'
Mrs Ford's eyes opened, brown and bright and hard.
'Mr Broster is not a proper tutor for my boy,' she said coldly.
'I suppose it was wrong of Reggie,' said Cynthia. 'But—I was wearing this hat.'
'Well, after a time, I said I must be starting my work. He wanted me to start with the room we were in. I said no, I was going out into the grounds to sketch the house from the EAST. I chose the EAST because it happens to be nearest the railway station. I added that I supposed he sometimes took Ogden for a little walk in the grounds. He said yes, he did, and it was just about due. He said possibly he might come round my way. He said Ogden would be interested in my sketch. He seemed to think a lot of Ogden's fondness for art.'
'Mr Broster is not a proper tutor for my boy.'
'Well, he isn't your boy's tutor now, is he, dear?'
'What happened then?'
'I strolled off with my sketching things. After a while Reggie and Ogden came up. I said I hadn't been able to work because I had been frightened by a bull.'
'Did he believe that?'
'Certainly he believed it. He was most kind and sympathetic. We had a nice chat. He told me all about himself. He used to be very good at football. He doesn't play now, but he often thinks of the past.'
'But he must have seen that you couldn't sketch. Then what became of your magazine commission story?'
'Well, somehow the sketch seemed to get shelved. I didn't even have to start it. We were having our chat, you see. Reggie was telling me how good he had been at football when he was at Oxford, and he wanted me to see a newspaper clipping of a Varsity match he had played in. I said I'd love to see it. He said it was in his suit-case in the house. So I promised to look after Ogden while he fetched it. I sent him off to get it just in time for us to catch the train. Off he went, and here we are. And now, won't you order that lunch you mentioned? I'm starving.'
Mrs Ford rose. Half-way to the telephone she stopped suddenly.
'My dear child! It has only just struck me! We must leave here at once. He will have followed you. He will guess that Ogden has been kidnapped.'
'Believe me, it takes Reggie quite a long time to guess anything.Besides, there are no trains for hours. We are quite safe.'
'Are you sure?'
'Absolutely. I made certain of that before I left.'
Mrs Ford kissed her impulsively.
'Oh, Cynthia, you really are wonderful!'
She started back with a cry as the bell rang sharply.
'For goodness' sake, Nesta,' said Cynthia, with irritation, 'do keep control of yourself. There's nothing to be frightened about. I tell you Mr Broster can't possibly have got here in the time, even if he knew where to go to, which I don't see how he could. It's probably Ogden.'
The colour came back into Mrs Ford's cheeks.
'Why, of course.'
Cynthia opened the door.
'Come in, darling,' said Mrs Ford fondly. And a wiry little man with grey hair and spectacles entered.
'Good afternoon, Mrs Ford,' he said. 'I have come to take Ogden back.'
There are some situations in life so unexpected, so trying, that, as far as concerns our opinion of those subjected to them, we agree, as it were, not to count them; we refuse to allow the victim's behaviour in circumstances so exacting to weigh with us in our estimate of his or her character. We permit the great general, confronted suddenly with a mad bull, to turn and run, without forfeiting his reputation for courage. The bishop who, stepping on a concealed slide in winter, entertains passers-by with momentary rag-time steps, loses none of his dignity once the performance is concluded.
In the same way we must condone the behaviour of Cynthia Drassilis on opening the door of Mrs Ford's sitting-room and admitting, not Ogden, but this total stranger, who accompanied his entry with the remarkable speech recorded at the close of the last section.
She was a girl who prided herself on her carefully blase' and supercilious attitude towards life; but this changeling was too much for her. She released the handle, tottered back, and, having uttered a discordant squeak of amazement, stood staring, eyes and mouth wide open.
On Mrs Ford the apparition had a different effect. The rather foolish smile of welcome vanished from her face as if wiped away with a sponge. Her eyes, fixed and frightened like those of a trapped animal, glared at the intruder. She took a step forward, choking.
'What—what do you mean by daring to enter my room?' she cried.
The man held his ground, unmoved. His bearing was a curious blend of diffidence and aggressiveness. He was determined, but apologetic. A hired assassin of the Middle Ages, resolved to do his job loyally, yet conscious of causing inconvenience to his victim, might have looked the same.
'I am sorry,' he said, 'but I must ask you to let me have the boy,Mrs Ford.'
Cynthia was herself again now. She raked the intruder with the cool stare which had so disconcerted Lord Mountry.
'Who is this gentleman?' she asked languidly.
The intruder was made of tougher stuff than his lordship. He met her eye with quiet firmness.
'My name is Mennick,' he said. 'I am Mr Elmer Ford's private secretary.'
'What do you want?' said Mrs Ford.
'I have already explained what I want, Mrs Ford. I want Ogden.'
Cynthia raised her eyebrows.
'What does he mean, Nesta? Ogden is not here.'
Mr Mennick produced from his breast-pocket a telegraph form, and in his quiet, business-like way proceeded to straighten it out.
'I have here,' he said, 'a telegram from Mr Broster, Ogden's tutor. It was one of the conditions of his engagement that if ever he was not certain of Ogden's whereabouts he should let me know at once. He tells me that early this afternoon he left Ogden in the company of a strange young lady'—Mr Mennick's spectacles flashed for a moment at Cynthia—'and that, when he returned, both of them had disappeared. He made inquiries and discovered that this young lady caught the 1.15 express to London, Ogden with her. On receipt of this information I at once wired to Mr Ford for instructions. I have his reply'—he fished for and produced a second telegram—'here.'
'I still fail to see what brings you here,' said Mrs Ford. 'Owing to the gross carelessness of his father's employees, my son appears to have been kidnapped. That is no reason—'
'I will read Mr Ford's telegram,' proceeded Mr Mennick unmoved. 'It is rather long. I think Mr Ford is somewhat annoyed. "The boy has obviously been stolen by some hireling of his mother's." I am reading Mr Ford's actual words,' he said, addressing Cynthia with that touch of diffidence which had marked his manner since his entrance.
'Don't apologize,' said Cynthia, with a short laugh. 'You're not responsible for Mr Ford's rudeness.'
Mr Mennick bowed.
'He continued: "Remove him from her illegal restraint. If necessary call in police and employ force."'
'Charming!' said Mrs Ford.
'Practical,' said Mr Mennick. 'There is more. "Before doing anything else sack that fool of a tutor, then go to Agency and have them recommend good private school for boy. On no account engage another tutor. They make me tired. Fix all this today. Send Ogden back to Eastnor with Mrs Sheridan. She will stay there with him till further notice." That is Mr Ford's message.'
Mr Mennick folded both documents carefully and replaced them in his pocket.
Mrs Ford looked at the clock.
'And now, would you mind going, Mr Mennick?'
'I am sorry to appear discourteous, Mrs Ford, but I cannot go without Ogden.'
'I shall telephone to the office to send up a porter to remove you.'
'I shall take advantage of his presence to ask him to fetch a policeman.'
In the excitement of combat the veneer of apologetic diffidence was beginning to wear off Mr Mennick. He spoke irritably. Cynthia appealed to his reason with the air of a bored princess descending to argument with a groom.
'Can't you see for yourself that he's not here?' she said. 'Do you think we are hiding him?'
'Perhaps you would like to search my bedroom?' said Mrs Ford, flinging the door open.
Mr Mennick remained uncrushed.
'Quite unnecessary, Mrs Ford. I take it, from the fact that he does not appear to be in this suite, that he is downstairs making a late luncheon in the restaurant.'
'I shall telephone—'
'And tell them to send him up. Believe me, Mrs Ford, it is the only thing to do. You have my deepest sympathy, but I am employed by Mr Ford and must act solely in his interests. The law is on my side. I am here to fetch Ogden away, and I am going to have him.'
'I may add that, when I came up here, I left Mrs Sheridan—she is a fellow-secretary of mine. You may remember Mr Ford mentioning her in his telegram—I left her to search the restaurant and grill-room, with instructions to bring Ogden, if found, to me in this room.'
The door-bell rang. He went to the door and opened it.
'Come in, Mrs Sheridan. Ah!'
A girl in a plain, neat blue dress entered the room. She was a small, graceful girl of about twenty-five, pretty and brisk, with the air of one accustomed to look after herself in a difficult world. Her eyes were clear and steady, her mouth sensitive but firm, her chin the chin of one who has met trouble and faced it bravely. A little soldier.
She was shepherding Ogden before her, a gorged but still sullenOgden. He sighted Mr Mennick and stopped.
'Hello!' he said. 'What have you blown in for?'
'He was just in the middle of his lunch,' said the girl. 'I thought you wouldn't mind if I let him finish.'
'Say, what's it all about, anyway?' demanded Ogden crossly. 'Can't a fellow have a bit of grub in peace? You give me a pain.'
Mr Mennick explained.
'Your father wishes you to return to Eastnor, Ogden.'
'Oh, all right. I guess I'd better go, then. Good-bye, ma.'
Mrs Ford choked.
'Kiss me, Ogden.'
Ogden submitted to the embrace in sulky silence. The others comported themselves each after his or her own fashion. Mr Mennick fingered his chin uncomfortably. Cynthia turned to the table and picked up an illustrated paper. Mrs Sheridan's eyes filled with tears. She took a half-step towards Mrs Ford, as if about to speak, then drew back.
'Come, Ogden,' said Mr Mennick gruffly. Necessary, this Hired Assassin work, but painful—devilish painful. He breathed a sigh of relief as he passed into the corridor with his prize.
At the door Mrs Sheridan hesitated, stopped, and turned.
'I'm sorry,' she said impulsively.
Mrs Ford turned away without speaking, and went into the bedroom.
Cynthia laid down her paper.
'One moment, Mrs Sheridan.'
The girl had turned to go. She stopped.
'Can you give me a minute? Come in and shut the door. Won't you sit down? Very well. You seemed sorry for Mrs Ford just now.'
'I am very sorry for Mrs Ford. Very sorry. I hate to see her suffering. I wish Mr Mennick had not brought me into this.'
'Nesta's mad about that boy,' said Cynthia. 'Heaven knows why. I never saw such a repulsive child in my life. However, there it is. I am sorry for you. I gathered from what Mr Mennick said that you were to have a good deal of Ogden's society for some time to come. How do you feel about it?'
Mrs Sheridan moved towards the door.
'I must be going,' she said. 'Mr Mennick will be waiting for me.'
'One moment. Tell me, don't you think, after what you saw just now, that Mrs Ford is the proper person to have charge of Ogden? You see how devoted she is to him?'
'May I be quite frank with you?'
'Well, then, I think that Mrs Ford's influence is the worst possible for Ogden. I am sorry for her, but that does not alter my opinion. It is entirely owing to Mrs Ford that Ogden is what he is. She spoiled him, indulged him in every way, never checked him—till he has become—well, what you yourself called him, repulsive.'
'Oh well,' she said, 'I only talked that mother's love stuff because you looked the sort of girl who would like it. We can drop all that now, and come down to business.'
'I don't understand you.'
'You will. I don't know if you think that I kidnapped Ogden from sheer affection for Mrs Ford. I like Nesta, but not as much as that. No. I'm one of the Get-Rich-Quick-Wallingfords, and I'm looking out for myself all the time. There's no one else to do it for me. I've a beastly home. My father's dead. My mother's a cat. So—'
'Please stop,' said Mrs Sheridan. I don't know why you are telling me all this.'
'Yes, you do. I don't know what salary Mr Ford pays you, but I don't suppose it's anything princely. Why don't you come over to us? Mrs Ford would give you the earth if you smuggled Ogden back to her.'
'You seem to be trying to bribe me,' said Mrs Sheridan.
'In this case,' said Cynthia, 'appearances aren't deceptive. I am.'
'Don't be a little fool.'
The door slammed.
'Come back!' cried Cynthia. She took a step as if to follow, but gave up the idea with a laugh. She sat down and began to read her illustrated paper again. Presently the bedroom door opened. Mrs Ford came in. She touched her eyes with a handkerchief as she entered. Cynthia looked up.
'I'm very sorry, Nesta,' she said.
Mrs Ford went to the window and looked out.
'I'm not going to break down, if that's what you mean,' she said.'I don't care. And, anyhow, it shows that it can be done.'
Cynthia turned a page of her paper.
'I've just been trying my hand at bribery and corruption.'
'What do you mean?'
'Oh, I promised and vowed many things in your name to that secretary person, the female one—not Mennick—if she would help us. Nothing doing. I told her to let us have Ogden as soon as possible, C.O.D., and she withered me with a glance and went.'
Mrs Ford shrugged her shoulders impatiently.
'Oh, let her go. I'm sick of amateurs.'
'Thank you, dear,' said Cynthia.
'Oh, I know you did your best. For an amateur you did wonderfully well. But amateurs never really succeed. There were a dozen little easy precautions which we neglected to take. What we want is a professional; a man whose business is kidnapping; the sort of man who kidnaps as a matter of course; someone like Smooth Sam Fisher.'
'My dear Nesta! Who? I don't think I know the gentleman.'
'He tried to kidnap Ogden in 1906, when we were in New York. At least, the police put it down to him, though they could prove nothing. Then there was a horrible man, the police said he was called Buck MacGinnis. He tried in 1907. That was in Chicago.'
'Good gracious! Kidnapping Ogden seems to be as popular as football. And I thought I was a pioneer!'
Something approaching pride came into Mrs Ford's voice.
'I don't suppose there's a child in America,' she said, 'who has had to be so carefully guarded. Why, the kidnappers had a special name for him—they called him "The Little Nugget". For years we never allowed him out of our sight without a detective to watch him.'
'Well, Mr Ford seems to have changed all that now. I saw no detectives. I suppose he thinks they aren't necessary in England. Or perhaps he relied on Mr Broster. Poor Reggie!'
'It was criminally careless of him. This will be a lesson to him. He will be more careful in future how he leaves Ogden at the mercy of anybody who cares to come along and snap him up.'
'Which, incidentally, does not make your chance of getting him away any lighter.'
'Oh, I've given up hope now,' said Mrs Ford resignedly.
'I haven't,' said Cynthia.
There was something in her voice which made her companion turn sharply and look at her. Mrs Ford might affect to be resigned, but she was a woman of determination, and if the recent reverse had left her bruised, it had by no means crushed her.
'Cynthia! What do you mean? What are you hinting?'
'You despise amateurs, Nesta, but, for all that, it seems that your professionals who kidnap as a matter of course and all the rest of it have not been a bit more successful. It was not my want of experience that made me fail. It was my sex. This is man's work. If I had been a man, I should at least have had brute force to fall back upon when Mr Mennick arrived.'
Mrs Ford nodded.
'And,' continued Cynthia, 'as all these Smooth Sam Fishers of yours have failed too, it is obvious that the only way to kidnap Ogden is from within. We must have some man working for us in the enemy's camp.'
'Which is impossible,' said Mrs Ford dejectedly.
'Not at all.'
'You know a man?'
'I know the man.'
'Cynthia! What do you mean? Who is he?'
'His name is Peter Burns.'
Mrs Ford shook her head.
'I don't know him.'
'I'll introduce you. You'll like him.'
'But, Cynthia, how do you know he would be willing to help us?'
'He would do it for me,' Cynthia paused. 'You see,' she went on, 'we are engaged to be married.'
'My dear Cynthia! Why did you not tell me? When did it happen?'
'Last night at the Fletchers' dance.'
Mrs Ford's eyes opened.
'Last night! Were you at a dance last night? And two railway journeys today! You must be tired to death.'
'Oh, I'm all right, thanks. I suppose I shall be a wreck and not fit to be seen tomorrow, but just at present I feel as if nothing could tire me. It's the effect of being engaged, perhaps.'
'Tell me about him.'
'Well, he's rich, and good-looking, and amiable'—Cynthia ticked off these qualities on her fingers—'and I think he's brave, and he's certainly not so stupid as Mr Broster.'
'And you're very much in love with him?'
'I like him. There's no harm in Peter.'
'You certainly aren't wildly enthusiastic!'
'Oh, we shall hit it off quite well together. I needn't pose to you, Nesta, thank goodness! That's one reason why I'm fond of you. You know how I am situated. I've got to marry some one rich, and Peter's quite the nicest rich man I've ever met. He's really wonderfully unselfish. I can't understand it. With his money, you would expect him to be a perfect horror.'
A thought seemed to strike Mrs Ford.
'But, if he's so rich—' she began. 'I forget what I was going to say,' she broke off.
'Dear Nesta, I know what you were going to say. If he's so rich, why should he be marrying me, when he could take his pick of half London? Well, I'll tell you. He's marrying me for one reason, because he's sorry for me: for another, because I had the sense to make him. He didn't think he was going to marry anyone. A few years ago he had a disappointment. A girl jilted him. She must have been a fool. He thought he was going to live the rest of his life alone with his broken heart. I didn't mean to allow that. It's taken a long time—over two years, from start to finish—but I've done it. He's a sentimentalist. I worked on his sympathy, and last night I made him propose to me at the Fletchers' dance.'
Mrs Ford had not listened to these confidences unmoved. Several times she had tried to interrupt, but had been brushed aside. Now she spoke sharply.
'You know I was not going to say anything of the kind. And I don't think you should speak in this horrible, cynical way of—of—'
She stopped, flushing. There were moments when she hated Cynthia. These occurred for the most part when the latter, as now, stirred her to an exhibition of honest feeling which she looked on as rather unbecoming. Mrs Ford had spent twenty years trying to forget that her husband had married her from behind the counter of a general store in an Illinois village, and these lapses into the uncultivated genuineness of her girlhood made her uncomfortable.
'I wasn't going to say anything of the kind,' she repeated.
Cynthia was all smiling good-humour.
'I know. I was only teasing you. "Stringing", they call it in your country, don't they?'
Mrs Ford was mollified.
'I'm sorry, Cynthia. I didn't mean to snap at you. All the same …' She hesitated. What she wanted to ask smacked so dreadfully of Mechanicsville, Illinois. Yet she put the question bravely, for she was somehow feeling quite troubled about this unknown Mr Burns. 'Aren't you really fond of him at all, Cynthia?'
'Of course I am! He's a dear. Nothing would make me give him up. I'm devoted to old Peter. I only told you all that about him because it shows you how kind-hearted he is. He'll do anything for me. Well, shall I sound him about Ogden?'
The magic word took Mrs Ford's mind off the matrimonial future of Mr Burns, and brought him into prominence in his capacity of knight-errant. She laughed happily. The contemplation of Mr Burns as knight-errant healed the sting of defeat. The affair of Mr Mennick began to appear in the light of a mere skirmish.
'You take my breath away!' she said. 'How do you propose that MrBurns shall help us?'
'It's perfectly simple. You heard Mr Mennick read that telegram. Ogden is to be sent to a private school. Peter shall go there too.'
'But how? I don't understand. We don't know which school MrMennick will choose.'
'We can very soon find out.'
'But how can Mr Burns go there?'
'Nothing easier. He will be a young man who has been left a little money and wants to start a school of his own. He goes to Ogden's man and suggests that he pay a small premium to come to him for a term as an extra-assistant-master, to learn the business. Mr Man will jump at him. He will be getting the bargain of his life. Peter didn't get much of a degree at Oxford, but I believe he was wonderful at games. From a private-school point of view he's a treasure.'
'But—would he do it?'
'I think I can persuade him.'
Mrs Ford kissed her with an enthusiasm which hitherto she had reserved for Ogden.
'My darling girl,' she cried, 'if you knew how happy you have made me!'
'I do,' said Cynthia definitely. 'And now you can do the same for me.'
'Anything, anything! You must have some more hats.'
'I don't want any more hats. I want to go with you on LordMountry's yacht to the Riviera.'
'Of course,' said Mrs Ford after a slight pause, 'it isn't my party, you know, dear.'
'No. But you can work me in, darling.'
'It's quite a small party. Very quiet.'
'Crowds bore me. I enjoy quiet.'
Mrs Ford capitulated.
'I fancy you are doing me a very good turn,' she said. 'You must certainly come on the yacht.'
'I'll tell Peter to come straight round here now,' said Cynthia simply. She went to the telephone.
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