Any man under thirty years of age who tells you he is not afraid of an English butler lies. He may not show his fear. Outwardly he may be brave--aggressive even, perhaps to the extent of calling the great man 'Here!' or 'Hi!' But, in his heart, when he meets that, cold, blue, introspective eye, he quakes.
The effect that Keggs, the butler at the Keiths', had on Martin Rossiter was to make him feel as if he had been caught laughing in a cathedral. He fought against the feeling. He asked himself who Keggs was, anyway; and replied defiantly that Keggs was a Menial--and an overfed Menial. But all the while he knew that logic was useless.
When the Keiths had invited him to their country home he had been delighted. They were among his oldest friends. He liked Mr Keith. He liked Mrs Keith. He loved Elsa Keith, and had done so from boyhood.
But things had gone wrong. As he leaned out of his bedroom window at the end of the first week, preparatory to dressing for dinner, he was more than half inclined to make some excuse and get right out of the place next day. The bland dignity of Keggs had taken all the heart out of him.
Nor was it Keggs alone who had driven his thoughts towards flight. Keggs was merely a passive evil, like toothache or a rainy day. What had begun actively to make the place impossible was a perfectly pestilential young man of the name of Barstowe.
The house-party at the Keiths had originally been, from Martin's view-point, almost ideal. The rest of the men were of the speechless, moustache-tugging breed. They had come to shoot, and they shot. When they were not shooting they congregated in the billiard-room and devoted their powerful intellects exclusively to snooker-pool, leaving Martin free to talk undisturbed to Elsa. He had been doing this for five days with great contentment when Aubrey Barstowe arrived. Mrs Keith had developed of late leanings towards culture. In her town house a charge of small-shot, fired in any direction on a Thursday afternoon, could not have failed to bring down a poet, a novelist, or a painter. Aubrey Barstowe, author of The Soul's Eclipse and other poems, was a constant member of the crowd. A youth of insinuating manners, he had appealed to Mrs Keith from the start; and unfortunately the virus had extended to Elsa. Many a pleasant, sunshiny Thursday afternoon had been poisoned for Martin by the sight of Aubrey and Elsa together on a distant settee, matching temperaments. The rest is too painful. It was a rout. The poet did not shoot, so that when Martin returned of an evening his rival was about five hours of soul-to-soul talk up and only two to play. And those two, the after-dinner hours, which had once been the hours for which Martin had lived, were pure torture.
So engrossed was he with his thoughts that the first intimation he had that he was not alone in the room was a genteel cough. Behind him, holding a small can, was Keggs.
'Your 'ot water, sir,' said the butler, austerely but not unkindly.
Keggs was a man--one must use that word, though it seems grossly inadequate--of medium height, pigeon-toed at the base, bulgy half-way up, and bald at the apex. His manner was restrained and dignified, his voice soft and grave.
But it was his eye that quelled Martin. That cold, blue, dukes-have-treated-me-as-an-elder-brother eye.
He fixed it upon him now, as he added, placing the can on the floor. 'It is Frederick's duty, but tonight I hundertook it.'
Martin had no answer. He was dazed. Keggs had spoken with the proud humility of an emperor compelled by misfortune to shine shoes.
'Might I have a word with you, sir?'
'Ye-e-ss, yes,' stammered Martin. 'Won't you take a--I mean, yes, certainly.'
'It is perhaps a liberty,' began Keggs. He paused, and raked Martin with the eye that had rested on dining dukes.
'Not at all,' said Martin, hurriedly.
'I should like,' went on Keggs, bowing, 'to speak to you on a somewhat intimate subject--Miss Elsa.'
Martin's eyes and mouth opened slowly.
'You are going the wrong way to work, if you will allow me to say so, sir.'
Martin's jaw dropped another inch.
'Women, sir,' proceeded Keggs, 'young ladies--are peculiar. I have had, if I may say so, certain hopportunities of observing their ways. Miss Elsa reminds me in some respects of Lady Angelica Fendall, whom I had the honour of knowing when I was butler to her father, Lord Stockleigh. Her ladyship was hinclined to be romantic. She was fond of poetry, like Miss Elsa. She would sit by the hour, sir, listening to young Mr Knox reading Tennyson, which was no part of his duties, he being employed by his lordship to teach Lord Bertie Latin and Greek and what not. You may have noticed, sir, that young ladies is often took by Tennyson, hespecially in the summertime. Mr Barstowe was reading Tennyson to Miss Elsa in the 'all when I passed through just now. The Princess, if I am not mistaken.'
'I don't know what the thing was,' groaned Martin. 'She seemed to be enjoying it.'
'Lady Angelica was greatly addicted to The Princess. Young Mr Knox was reading portions of that poem to her when his lordship come upon them. Most rashly his lordship made a public hexpose and packed Mr Knox off next day. It was not my place to volunteer advice, but I could have told him what would happen. Two days later her ladyship slips away to London early in the morning, and they're married at a registry-office. That is why I say that you are going the wrong way to work with Miss Elsa, sir. With certain types of 'igh spirited young lady hopposition is useless. Now, when Mr Barstowe was reading to Miss Elsa on the occasion to which I 'ave alluded, you were sitting by, trying to engage her attention. It's not the way, sir. You should leave them alone together. Let her see so much of him, and nobody else but him, that she will grow tired of him. Fondness for poetry, sir, is very much like the whisky 'abit. You can't cure a man what has got that by hopposition. Now, if you will permit me to offer a word of advice, sir, I say, let Miss Elsa 'ave all the poetry she wants.'
Martin was conscious of one coherent feeling at the conclusion of this address, and that was one of amazed gratitude. A lesser man who had entered his room and begun to discuss his private affairs would have had reason to retire with some speed; but that Keggs should descend from his pedestal and interest himself in such lowly matters was a different thing altogether.
'I'm very much obliged--' he was stammering, when the butler raised a deprecatory hand.
'My interest in the matter,' he said, smoothly, 'is not entirely haltruistic. For some years back, in fact, since Miss Elsa came out, we have had a matrimonial sweepstake in the servants' hall at each house-party. The names of the gentlemen in the party are placed in a hat and drawn in due course. Should Miss Elsa become engaged to any member of the party, the pool goes to the drawer of his name. Should no engagement occur, the money remains in my charge until the following year, when it is added to the new pool. Hitherto I have 'ad the misfortune to draw nothing but married gentlemen, but on this occasion I have secured you, sir. And I may tell you, sir,' he added, with stately courtesy, 'that, in the opinion of the servants' hall, your chances are 'ighly fancied,--very 'ighly. The pool has now reached considerable proportions, and, 'aving had certain losses on the Turf very recent, I am extremely anxious to win it. So I thought, if I might take the liberty, sir, I would place my knowledge of the sex at your disposal. You will find it sound in every respect. That is all. Thank you, sir.'
Martin's feelings had undergone a complete revulsion. In the last few minutes the butler had shed his wings and grown horns, cloven feet, and a forked tail. His rage deprived him of words. He could only gurgle.
'Don't thank me, sir,' said the butler, indulgently. 'I ask no thanks. We are working together for a common hobject, and any little 'elp I can provide is given freely.'
'You old scoundrel!' shouted Martin, his wrath prevailing even against that blue eye. 'You have the insolence to come to me and--'
He stopped. The thought of these hounds, these demons, coolly gossiping and speculating below stairs about Elsa, making her the subject of little sporting flutters to relieve the monotony of country life, choked him.
'I shall tell Mr Keith,' he said.
The butler shook his bald head gravely.
'I shouldn't, sir. It is a 'ighly fantastic story, and I don't think he would believe it.'
'Then I'll--Oh, get out!'
Keggs bowed deferentially.
'If you wish it, sir,' he said, 'I will withdraw. If I may make the suggestion, sir, I think you should commence to dress. Dinner will be served in a few minutes. Thank you, sir.'
He passed softly out of the room.
* * * * *
It was more as a demonstration of defiance against Keggs than because he really hoped that anything would come of it that Martin approached Elsa next morning after breakfast. Elsa was strolling on the terrace in front of the house with the bard, but Martin broke in on the conference with the dogged determination of a steam-drill.
'Coming out with the guns today, Elsa?' he said.
She raised her eyes. There was an absent look in them.
'The guns?' she said. 'Oh, no; I hate watching men shoot.'
'You used to like it.'
'I used to like dolls,' she said, impatiently.
Mr Barstowe gave tongue. He was a slim, tall, sickeningly beautiful young man, with large, dark eyes, full of expression.
'We develop,' he said. 'The years go by, and we develop. Our souls expand--timidly at first, like little, half-fledged birds stealing out from the--'
'I don't know that I'm so set on shooting today, myself,' said Martin. 'Will you come round the links?'
'I am going out in the motor with Mr Barstowe,' said Elsa.
'The motor!' cried Mr Barstowe. 'Ah, Rossiter, that is the very poetry of motion. I never ride in a motor-car without those words of Shakespeare's ringing in my mind: "I'll put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes."'
'I shouldn't give way to that sort of thing if I were you,' said Martin. 'The police are pretty down on road-hogging in these parts.'
'Mr Barstowe was speaking figuratively,' said Elsa, with disdain.
'Was he?' grunted Martin, whose sorrows were tending to make him every day more like a sulky schoolboy. 'I'm afraid I haven't got a poetic soul.'
'I'm afraid you haven't,' said Elsa.
There was a brief silence. A bird made itself heard in a neighbouring tree.
'"The moan of doves in immemorial elms,"' quoted Mr Barstowe, softly.
'Only it happens to be a crow in a beech,' said Martin, as the bird flew out.
Elsa's chin tilted itself in scorn. Martin turned on his heel and walked away.
'It's the wrong way, sir; it's the wrong way,' said a voice. 'I was hobserving you from a window, sir. It's Lady Angelica over again. Hopposition is useless, believe me, sir.'
Martin faced round, flushed and wrathful. The butler went on unmoved: 'Miss Elsa is going for a ride in the car today, sir.'
'I know that.'
'Uncommonly tricky things, these motor-cars. I was saying so to Roberts, the chauffeur, just as soon as I 'eard Miss Elsa was going out with Mr Barstowe. I said, "Roberts, these cars is tricky; break down when you're twenty miles from hanywhere as soon as look at you. Roberts," I said, slipping him a sovereign, "'ow awful it would be if the car should break down twenty miles from hanywhere today!"'
'You bribed Roberts to--'
'Sir! I gave Roberts the sovereign because I am sorry for him. He is a poor man, and has a wife and family to support.'
'Very well,' said Martin, sternly; 'I shall go and warn Miss Keith.'
'Warn her, sir!'
'I shall tell her that you have bribed Roberts to make the car break down so that--'
Keggs shook his head.
'I fear she would hardly credit the statement, sir. She might even think that you was trying to keep her from going for your own pussonal ends.'
'I believe you are the devil,' said Martin.
'I 'ope you will come to look on me, sir,' said Keggs, unctuously, 'as your good hangel.'
Martin shot abominably that day, and, coming home in the evening gloomy and savage, went straight to his room, and did not reappear till dinner-time. Elsa had been taken in by one of the moustache-tuggers. Martin found himself seated on her other side. It was so pleasant to be near her, and to feel that the bard was away at the other end of the table, that for the moment his spirits revived.
'Well, how did you like the ride?' he asked, with a smile. 'Did you put that girdle round the world?'
She looked at him--once. The next moment he had an uninterrupted view of her shoulder, and heard the sound of her voice as she prattled gaily to the man on her other side.
His heart gave a sudden bound. He understood now. The demon butler had had his wicked way. Good heavens! She had thought he was taunting her! He must explain at once. He--
'Hock or sherry, sir?'
He looked up into Kegg's expressionless eyes. The butler was wearing his on-duty mask. There was no sign of triumph in his face.
'Oh, sherry. I mean hock. No, sherry. Neither.'
This was awful. He must put this right.
'Elsa,' he said.
She was engrossed in her conversation with her neighbour.
From down the table in a sudden lull in the talk came the voice of Mr Barstowe. He seemed to be in the middle of a narrative.
'Fortunately,' he was saying, 'I had with me a volume of Shelley, and one of my own little efforts. I had read Miss Keith the whole of the latter and much of the former before the chauffeur announced that it was once more possible--'
'Elsa,' said the wretched man, 'I had no idea--you don't think--'
She turned to him.
'I beg your pardon?' she said, very sweetly.
'I swear I didn't know--I mean, I'd forgotten--I mean--'
She wrinkled her forehead.
'I'm really afraid I don't understand.'
'I mean, about the car breaking down.'
'The car? Oh, yes. Yes, it broke down. We were delayed quite a little while. Mr Barstowe read me some of his poems. It was perfectly lovely. I was quite sorry when Roberts told us we could go on again. But do you really mean to tell me, Mr Lambert, that you--'
And once more the world became all shoulder.
When the men trailed into the presence of the ladies for that brief seance on which etiquette insisted before permitting the stampede to the billiard-room, Elsa was not to be seen.
'Elsa?' said Mrs Keith in answer to Martin's question. 'She has gone to bed. The poor child has a headache. I am afraid she had a tiring day.'
There was an early start for the guns next morning, and as Elsa did not appear at breakfast Martin had to leave without seeing her. His shooting was even worse than it had been on the previous day.
It was not until late in the evening that the party returned to the house. Martin, on the way to his room, met Mrs Keith on the stairs. She appeared somewhat agitated.
'Oh, Martin,' she said. 'I'm so glad you're back. Have you seen anything of Elsa?'
'Wasn't she with the guns?'
'With the guns' said Martin, puzzled. 'No.'
'I have seen nothing of her all day. I'm getting worried. I can't think what can have happened to her. Are you sure she wasn't with the guns?'
'Absolutely certain. Didn't she come in to lunch?'
'No. Tom,' she said, as Mr Keith came up, 'I'm so worried about Elsa. I haven't seen her all day. I thought she must be out with the guns.'
Mr Keith was a man who had built up a large fortune mainly by consistently refusing to allow anything to agitate him. He carried this policy into private life.
'Wasn't she in at lunch?' he asked, placidly.
'I tell you I haven't seen her all day. She breakfasted in her room--'
'Yes. She was tired, poor girl.'
'If she breakfasted late,' said Mr Keith, 'she wouldn't need any lunch. She's gone for a stroll somewhere.'
'Would you put back dinner, do you think?' inquired Mrs Keith, anxiously.
'I am not good at riddles,' said Mr Keith, comfortably, 'but I can answer that one. I would not put back dinner. I would not put back dinner for the King.'
Elsa did not come back for dinner. Nor was hers the only vacant place. Mr Barstowe had also vanished. Even Mr Keith's calm was momentarily ruffled by this discovery. The poet was not a favourite of his--it was only reluctantly that he had consented to his being invited at all; and the presumption being that when two members of a house-party disappear simultaneously they are likely to be spending the time in each other's society, he was annoyed. Elsa was not the girl to make a fool of herself, of course, but--He was unwontedly silent at dinner.
Mrs Keith's anxiety displayed itself differently. She was frankly worried, and mentioned it. By the time the fish had been reached conversation at the table had fixed itself definitely on the one topic.
'It isn't the car this time, at any rate,' said Mr Keith. 'It hasn't been out today.'
'I can't understand it,' said Mrs Keith for the twentieth time. And that was the farthest point reached in the investigation of the mystery.
By the time dinner was over a spirit of unrest was abroad. The company sat about in uneasy groups. Snooker-pool was, if not forgotten, at any rate shelved. Somebody suggested search-parties, and one or two of the moustache-tuggers wandered rather aimlessly out into the darkness.
Martin was standing in the porch with Mr Keith when Keggs approached. As his eyes lit on him, Martin was conscious of a sudden solidifying of the vague suspicion which had been forming in his mind. And yet that suspicion seemed so wild. How could Keggs, with the worst intentions, have had anything to do with this? He could not forcibly have abducted the missing pair and kept them under lock and key. He could not have stunned them and left them in a ditch. Nevertheless, looking at him standing there in his attitude of deferential dignity, with the light from the open door shining on his bald head, Martin felt perfectly certain that he had in some mysterious fashion engineered the whole thing.
'Might I have a word, sir, if you are at leisure?'
'Miss Elsa, sir.'
Kegg's voice took on a sympathetic softness.
'It was not my place, sir, to make any remark while in the dining-room, but I could not 'elp but hoverhear the conversation. I gathered from remarks that was passed that you was somewhat hat a loss to account for Miss Elsa's non-appearance, sir.'
Mr Keith laughed shortly.
'You gathered that, eh?'
'I think, sir, that possibly I may be hable to throw light on the matter.'
'What!' cried Mr Keith. 'Great Scott, man! then why didn't you say so at the time? Where is she?'
'It was not my place, sir, to henter into the conversation of the dinner-table,' said the butler, with a touch of reproof. 'If I might speak now, sir?'
Mr Keith clutched at his forehead.
'Heavens above! Do you want a signed permit to tell me where my daughter is? Get on, man, get on!'
'I think it 'ighly possible, sir, that Miss Elsa and Mr Barstowe may be on the hisland in the lake, sir.' About half a mile from the house was a picturesque strip of water, some fifteen hundred yards in width and a little less in length, in the centre of which stood a small and densely wooded island. It was a favourite haunt of visitors at the house when there was nothing else to engage their attention, but during the past week, with shooting to fill up the days, it had been neglected.
'On the island?' said Mr Keith. 'What put that idea into your head?'
'I 'appened to be rowing on the lake this morning, sir. I frequently row of a morning, sir, when there are no duties to detain me in the 'ouse. I find the hexercise hadmirable for the 'ealth. I walk briskly to the boat-'ouse, and--'
'Yes, yes. I don't want a schedule of your daily exercises. Cut out the athletic reminiscences and come to the point.'
'As I was rowing on the lake this morning, sir, I 'appened to see a boat 'itched up to a tree on the hisland. I think that possibly Miss Elsa and Mr Barstowe might 'ave taken a row out there. Mr Barstowe would wish to see the hisland, sir, bein' romantic.'
'But you say you saw the boat there this morning?'
'Well, it doesn't take all day to explore a small island. What's kept them all this while?'
'It is possible, sir, that the rope might not have 'eld. Mr Barstowe, if I might say so, sir, is one of those himpetuous literary pussons, and possibly he homitted to see that the knot was hadequately tied. Or'--his eye, grave and inscrutable, rested for a moment on Martin's--'some party might 'ave come along and huntied it a-puppus.'
'Untied it on purpose?' said Mr Keith. 'What on earth for?'
Keggs shook his head deprecatingly, as one who, realizing his limitations, declines to attempt to probe the hidden sources of human actions.
'I thought it right, sir, to let you know,' he said.
'Right? I should say so. If Elsa has been kept starving all day on that island by that long-haired--Here, come along, Martin.'
He dashed off excitedly into the night. Martin remained for a moment gazing fixedly at the butler.
'I 'ope, sir,' said Keggs, cordially, 'that my hinformation will prove of genuine hassistance.'
'Do you know what I should like to do to you?' said Martin slowly.
'I think I 'ear Mr Keith calling you, sir.'
'I should like to take you by the scruff of your neck and--'
'There, sir! Didn't you 'ear 'im then? Quite distinct it was.'
Martin gave up the struggle with a sense of blank futility. What could you do with a man like this? It was like quarrelling with Westminster Abbey.
'I should 'urry, sir,' suggested Keggs, respectfully. 'I think Mr Keith must have met with some haccident.'
His surmise proved correct. When Martin came up he found his host seated on the ground in evident pain.
'Twisted my ankle in a hole,' he explained, briefly. 'Give me an arm back to the house, there's a good fellow, and then run on down to the lake and see if what Keggs said is true.'
Martin did as he was requested--so far, that is to say, as the first half of the commission was concerned. As regarded the second, he took it upon himself to make certain changes. Having seen Mr Keith to his room, he put the fitting-out of the relief ship into the good hands of a group of his fellow guests whom he discovered in the porch. Elsa's feelings towards her rescuer might be one of unmixed gratitude; but it might, on the other hand, be one of resentment. He did not wish her to connect him in her mind with the episode in any way whatsoever. Martin had once released a dog from a trap, and the dog had bitten him. He had been on an errand of mercy, but the dog had connected him with his sufferings and acted accordingly. It occurred to Martin that Elsa's frame of mind would be uncommonly like that dog's.
The rescue-party set off. Martin lit a cigarette, and waited in the porch.
It seemed a very long time before anything happened, but at last, as he was lighting his fifth cigarette, there came from the darkness the sound of voices. They drew nearer. Someone shouted:
'It's all right. We've found them.'
Martin threw away his cigarette and went indoors.
* * * * *
Elsa Keith sat up as her mother came into the room. Two nights and a day had passed since she had taken to her bed.
'How are you feeling today, dear?'
'Has he gone, mother?'
'Yes, dear. He left this morning. He said he had business with his publisher in London.'
'Then I can get up,' said Elsa, thankfully.
'I think you're a little hard on poor Mr Barstowe, Elsa. It was just an accident, you know. It was not his fault that the boat slipped away.'
'It was, it was, it was!' cried Elsa, thumping the pillow malignantly. 'I believe he did it on purpose, so that he could read me his horrid poetry without my having a chance to escape. I believe that's the only way he can get people to listen to it.'
'But you used to like it, darling. You said he had such a musical voice.'
'Musical voice!' The pillow became a shapeless heap. 'Mother, it was like a nightmare! If I had seen him again I should have had hysterics. It was awful! If he had been even the least bit upset himself I think I could have borne up. But he enjoyed it! He revelled in it! He said it was like Omar Khayyam in the Wilderness and Shelley's Epipsychidion, whatever that is; and he prattled on and on and read and read till my head began to split. Mother'--her voice sank to a whisper--'I hit him!'
'I did!' she went on, defiantly. 'I hit him as hard as I could, and he--he'--she broke off into a little gurgle of laughter--'he tripped over a bush and fell right down; and I wasn't a bit ashamed. I didn't think it unladylike or anything. I was just as proud as I could be. And it stopped him talking.'
'But, Elsa, dear! Why?'
'The sun had just gone down; and it was a lovely sunset, and the sky looked like a great, beautiful slice of underdone beef; and I said so to him, and he said, sniffily, that he was afraid he didn't see the resemblance. And I asked him if he wasn't starving. And he said no, because as a rule all that he needed was a little ripe fruit. And that was when I hit him.'
'Oh, I know it was awfully wrong, but I just had to. And now I'll get up. It looks lovely out.'
Martin had not gone out with the guns that day. Mrs Keith had assured him that there was nothing wrong with Elsa, that she was only tired, but he was anxious, and had remained at home, where bulletins could reach him. As he was returning from a stroll in the grounds he heard his name called, and saw Elsa lying in the hammock under the trees near the terrace.
'Why, Martin, why aren't you out with the guns?' she said.
'I wanted to be on the spot so that I could hear how you were.'
'How nice of you! Why don't you sit down?'
Elsa fluttered the pages of her magazine.
'You know, you're a very restful person, Martin. You're so big and outdoory. How would you like to read to me for a while? I feel so lazy.'
Martin took the magazine.
'What shall I read? Here's a poem by--'
'Oh, please, no,' she cried. 'I couldn't bear it. I'll tell you what I should love--the advertisements. There's one about sardines. I started it, and it seemed splendid. It's at the back somewhere.'
'Is this it--Langley and Fielding's sardines?'
Martin began to read.
'"Langley and Fielding's sardines. When you want the daintiest, most delicious sardines, go to your grocer and say, 'Langley and Fielding's, please!' You will then be sure of having the finest Norwegian smoked sardines, packed in the purest olive oil."'
Elsa was sitting with her eyes closed and a soft smile of pleasure curving her mouth.
'Go on,' she said, dreamily.
'"Nothing nicer."' resumed Martin, with an added touch of eloquence as the theme began to develop, '"for breakfast, lunch, or supper. Probably your grocer stocks them. Ask him. If he does not, write to us. Price fivepence per tin. The best sardines and the best oil!"'
'Isn't it lovely?' she murmured.
Her hand, as it swung, touched his. He held it. She opened her eyes.
'Don't stop reading,' she said. 'I never heard anything so soothing.'
He bent towards her. She smiled at him. Her eyes were dancing.
'Mr Keith,' said a quiet voice, 'desired me to say--'
Martin started away. He glared up furiously. Gazing down upon them stood Keggs. The butler's face was shining with a gentle benevolence.
'Mr Keith desired me to say that he would be glad if Miss Elsa would come and sit with him for a while.'
'I'll come at once,' said Elsa, stepping from the hammock.
The butler bowed respectfully and turned away. They stood watching him as he moved across the terrace.
'What a saintly old man Keggs looks,' said Elsa. 'Don't you think so? He looks as if he had never even thought of doing anything he shouldn't. I wonder if he ever has?'
'I wonder!' said Martin.
'He looks like a stout angel. What were you saying, Martin, when he came up?'